TV Diary

Friday, January 30, 2015

a) "Empire"
This has quickly become the big new primetime soap opera that everybody livetweets. And while it has a fair amount of entertainment value, I'm still weighing whether I want to keep watching it just to be able to enjoy the Twitter jokes. I've never found Terrence Howard convincing in any role as, well, a human being, especially this one, but Taraji P. Henson is so all in with her performance that it may not even matter if the rest of the cast is terrible (and a lot of it is, unfortunately). The whole uncanny valley portrayal of the hip hop industry is more amusing than annoying, though, like the music is surprisingly decent but the fictional rappers have names like Kid Fo-Fo.

b) "Agent Carter" 
I have a very limited investment in the whole Marvel movie/TV universe. I'll watch most of the movies at least once, but only a couple have repeat viewing potential, and I lost interest in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." pretty quickly. I like this, though, there's just the right little bit of heightened comic book reality mixed with a lot of period piece action and espionage and even some decent dramatic tension. Tom Breihan had a great line about how close this show is to being "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr." but with a girl, which really accurately summed up its appeal for me to.

c) "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore"
Larry Wilmore has always been so great on "The Daily Show" and I was really excited to see him get Colbert's timeslot, so I've been kinda cautiously watching and rooting for him over the first two weeks as he finds his bearings. He got to play it cool and be deadpan on "The Daily Show" more often than not, so it's almost a little weird see him play the host and work the crowd, but I think he's getting the hang of it. I was wary of making so much of the show a panel discussion -- I watched "Politically Incorrect" all the time in the '90s, but I've really tired of that format now. But the decision to base each episode on one topic and have the discussion after the scripted jokes works. Making a big nightly segment out of the "100" emoji seems like a weird idea that's gonna date itself really quickly, though.

d) "Man Seeking Woman"
Well this is just utter garbage! Jay Baruchel has made a career out of simpering lovelorn guys, but it gets less sympathetic and more pathetic over time, and by now it's just insufferable. But the conceit of the show, where you see a guy's life in a fantasy distortion, where a guy goes on a date with a girl he's not attracted to and you literally see a little green troll for the entire episode, just falls incredibly flat (to say nothing of the nastiness of that particular segment). The worst part might be that they only have the effect budget for 2 or 3 things like that per episode, so each premise gets milked for several painful minutes when they wouldn't even be that funny as a one-off gag. People I like keep showing up, like Bill Hader or Mark McKinney, that just makes the show's total failure more painful. Eric Andre has a whole show satirizing bad TV but he has a major role in one of the worst shows I've ever seen.

e) "The Wrong Mans"
I've been really slow to check out shows on streaming services like Netflix/Amazon Prime/etc., which is silly because my brother gave me one of those cool Sony boxes to watch all that stuff on my TV (thanks, Zac!). So I'm trying to do that more, and over the holidays caught up on a couple, including this British show that appears on Hulu. This is the first thing I've seen James Corden in and he's really funny, so that makes me optimistic for when he starts hosting "The Late Late Show" in a few weeks. It's kind of an action comedy that's more about fitting funny stuff into a really involved plot rather than just satirizing action tropes, and it works really well, although at a certain point I kinda gave up on trying to follow the story and lost a little interest by the end.

f) "Transparent"
Another streaming show, on Amazon Prime, that I watched over the holidays, before it ended up winning some Golden Globes. It's an interesting and frustrating show, Jeffrey Tambor's performance is pretty good but the fact that it's him almost feels like they wanted to do "Arrested Development" with the family finds out dad is transgender instead of a criminal. And most of the other characters are just incredibly irritating, especially Jay Duplass. So maybe the show's accomplishment, whether intended or not, is to make you feel more empathy for the transgender character by making everybody else impossible to empathize with.

g) "Togetherness"
More annoying television from the Duplass brothers! It's pretty canny for HBO to pair this show with "Girls." But the contrast between them just kind of highlights the fact that "Girls," for all its faults, occasionally does something you haven't seen on TV before. This just feels like a bunch of meandering sitcom tropes run though a mumblecore filter, with occasionally 'lol air drumming to Rush' scenes of levity. Even last year's somewhat disappointing FX series "Married" did this stuff much better. I might love Natalie Lynskey enough to keep watching, though.

h) "Galavant"
A medieval comedy musical is, I dunno, kind of a weird premise for a TV show, and I'm not surprised that this tanked. What little I watched of it was kind of charming, though.

i) "Selfie"
This was really one of the most underrated and even maybe misunderstood new shows of the fall season, and I'm bummed that it's been canceled. But I'm glad they threw the last handful of episodes they made up on Hulu, the show kept improving and finding its voice right up to the end, and they wrapped it up kinda nicely.

j) "Parenthood" 
As I watched this week's finale of "Parenthood," I found myself reflecting on the fact that I watched over 100 episodes of this show without ever totally figuring out how I felt about it. Did the slow burn ensemble family dramedy ever add up to more than the sum of its parts? Was it the only network drama of the last few years that I watched consistently because it was the only one that didn't seem like a defanged version of a show that would have more violence and swearing if it was on cable? Did I keep watching it out of a sense of loyalty to how good Peter Krause was on "Sports Night," or how much of a crush I have on Erika Christensen? Did we really need to spend so much of the show's running time on the particulars of running a recording studio in an an old cafeteria? Was Ray Romano's guest arc as good as his role on "Men Of A Certain Age"? Is the kid who played Drew going to continue acting or is he just going to be be a Soundcloud producer now? Was Monica Potter's portrayal of the least likable good person on television in itself more applaudable than the cancer storyline where she didn't even have the commitment to shave her head and wore a terrible bald cap? But hey, I actually did tear up during the finale, so maybe I really did care about those crazy Bravermans after all.

k) "The Venture Bros."
The increasingly sporadic new seasons of "The Venture Bros." have been worth the wait, so I'm happy that they've started doing these epic hour-long specials during the breaks, and this one was even better than the Halloween special. It's still just mind-boggling how dense the writing is, in a half hour episode things just fly by but in an hour-long episode they get to kind of stretch out and make more of a grand storyline. This one seems to set up the next season really interestingly, too. And hey, Stephen Colbert came back and did the Professor Impossible voice again after that whole bummer where he didn't do it in the later seasons, respect to him.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In this week's City Paper, I wrote a Rap Sheet column with news about Skarr Akbar and more, and also The Short List.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 31: Ne-Yo

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ne-Yo is releasing his 6th album, Non-Fiction, this week, so I felt like looking back a bit on his career so far. He came out of the gate strong a decade ago, writing a Hot 100 chart-topper for Mario, getting signed as an artist and very quickly scoring his own #1 single and #1 album. Since then he's gradually slid from prominence, although he's done a good job of keeping a foot in pop music even as pop has withdrawn from most R&B stars (and I'm fine with this really -- his voice glides really beautifully over dance beats whereas the EDM hits by Usher or Chris Brown sound strained and forced by comparison).

He's always kind of had an anachronistic vibe to me, though, like he was a Babyface or Lionel Richie who never totally fit in with the post-R. Kelly era, even though he clearly grew up worshiping Michael Jackson just as much as Chris Brown or anyone else. He managed to make his earnest nice guy energy work for him for a while, though -- I was especially fond of "Bust It Baby Pt. 2," the hit that made great use of the contrast between hilarious disgusting Plies and smooth sweet Ne-Yo. But he's written so many dynamite singles, both for himself and others, that sometimes his albums feel like listening to him just write when he's off the clock, in good and bad ways.

Ne-Yo Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist):

1. Get Down Like That
2. Ain't Thinking About You
3. Fade Into The Background
4. Genuine Only
5. Jealous
6. It Just Ain't Right
7. Leaving Tonight featuring Jennifer Hudson
8. So You Can Cry
9. Makin' A Movie
10. Shut Me Down
11. Let Me Get This Right
12. Sex With My Ex
13. Back To What You Know
14. Know Your Name
15. She Is featuring Tim McGraw
16. Sign Me Up
17. Make It Work
18. Nobody
19. What Have I Done?
20. Alone With You (Maddie's Song)

Tracks 1, 6, 11 and 16 from In My Own Words (2006)
Tracks 2, 7, 12 and 17 from Because of You (2007)
Tracks 3, 8, 13 and 18 from Year of the Gentleman (2008)
Tracks 4, 9, 14 and 19 from Libra Scale (2010)
Tracks 5, 10, 15 and 20 from R.E.D. (2012)

I usually use weight each album based on how much I like it on these playlists. But for once, I decided to use an equal number of tracks from each album, and just rotate through the catalog four times, because it's really hard for me to pick favorites in Ne-Yo's discography. Every album is really good but not quite great. I loved In My Own Words when it dropped, but in retrospect "Get Down Like That" is probably the only song up to the quality of the singles. I ignored Because of You at the time because I hated the singles, but it's got some joints. Year of the Gentleman was the album that got the best reviews and an Album of the Year nod at the Grammys, but I never thought it was really any better than his others. Libra Scale surprised me with how decent it was after the advance singles were terrible. And R.E.D. really just proved that he's always gonna deliver quality work whether he's a big star or not.

There's some good gems in here, even if there's not much that I think could've been a "So Sick"-level hit. "It Just Ain't Right" has a cool sample of Switch's "I Call Your Name," just a few months before "Throw Some D's" flipped it very differently. "She Is" is as worthy a genre-blending Tim McGraw collaboration as Nelly's earlier hit "Over and Over." The only deep cut of Ne-Yo's dance pop side that appears on one of his albums is "Shut Me Down," which is pretty dope and backs up my general support of him doing that kind of thing now and again. "Makin' A Movie" and "Make It Work" spin quality songs out of the signature catchphrases of, respectively, DJ Khaled and Tim Gunn.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
Vol. 9: Robin Thicke
Vol. 10: R. Kelly
Vol. 11: Fall Out Boy
Vol. 12: TLC
Vol. 13: Pink
Vol. 14: Queen
Vol. 15: Steely Dan
Vol. 16: Trick Daddy
Vol. 17: Paramore
Vol. 18: Elton John
Vol. 19: Missy Elliott
Vol. 20: Mariah Carey
Vol. 21: The Pretenders
Vol. 22: "Weird Al" Yankovic
Vol. 23: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Vol. 24: Foo Fighters
Vol. 25: Counting Crows
Vol. 26: T.I.
Vol. 27: Jackson Browne
Vol. 28: Usher
Vol. 29: Mary J. Blige
Vol. 30: The Black Crowes

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The latest Mobtown BSides session that I wrote up for the Mobtown Studios site features Jukebox The Ghost.

Monthly Report: January 2015 Singles

Friday, January 23, 2015

1. Sevyn Streeter f/ Chris Brown - "Don't Kill The Fun"
In my year-end list of 2014 R&B singles, I lamented that Sevyn Streeter was part of a wave of new R&B singers who only got to release major label EPs, and fretted that we may never get a full-length album or any significant promotion of her again. So I was pretty overjoyed to turn on the radio a few days into 2015 and hear a new Sevyn Streeter single that sounded fantastic. And then, I went home and tried to find the song online, and it wasn't anywhere, which I didn't think was possible anymore (it got pulled for a few days while they worked out a sample clearance issue or something, supposedly). I'm always a little conflicted when Chris Brown ends up on a song I like, just because fuck that dude, but he's on this even less than he was on "Hold You Down," mostly little ad libs backing vocals, and then singing lead for all of 15 seconds. But really I just love Sevyn's voice, and this house vibe suits it surprisingly well. Here's my new favorite 2015 singles Spotify playlist.

2. Walk The Moon - "Shut Up And Dance"
After one pleasant moderate alt-rock radio hit, "Anna Sun," 3-4 years ago, I pretty much forgot Walk The Moon existed. But they really put their foot in this one and made a hit. Rock songs that reference dancing after rock music ceased being the dominant dance music of the world always feel kind of strained and obnoxious, but this one is at least pretty earnest and ingratiating, just so many killer vocal melodies throughout every section of the song.

3. Beyonce - "7/11"
I am of the rare but correct opinion that the greatest track Beyonce has ever recorded is the 6-minute extended mix of "Get Me Bodied" with all the goofy dance instructions at the end. And I feel like this song was made with an understanding of that, but just chooses to take that concept to its logical extreme. It was pretty funny when this song leaked a day or so before the video was released, because I heard a radio station play it and then ask for feedback, and literally everybody who called in hated it. And at that point I didn't really like the song either. But then the video dropped and kind of gave everyone the key to understanding the song's weird, unhinged energy, and now it works as just a song as well.

4. Mark Ronson f/ Bruno Mars - "Uptown Funk!"
It makes total sense that Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars would work well together, but I think of them in very different terms. To me, Ronson is the rich well-connected British kid who's been making unimaginative pastiches of 20th century black music and would probably just be making mashups if he didn't know so many celebrities. And Mars is the kind of cheesy but undeniably talented performer and songwriter who can actually make an unapologetic retro pastiche like this actually entertaining. It's still fun right now, but as it slowly takes over every movie trailer and becomes this year's "Happy," I don't know how much I'll like it in a few months.

5. Boosie Badazz f/ Rich Homie Quan - "Like A Man"
Life After Deathrow had a few songs that sounded like potential hits but nothing that really popped like this one, really is a perfect way to kinda reintroduce Boosie to radio with someone newer that isn't totally leaning on Quan to make it a hit. The long tradition of rap bangers with steel drum loops continues, with this one sounding like a more angry variation on DG Yola's "Ain't Gon' Let Up."

6. B.o.B f/ Trey Songz - "Not For Long"
Here's an example of a bland tapwater rapper really leaning on someone who can actually can make hits to keep him on the radio. I really wish Bobby wasn't on this song at all, because it's the best thing Trey has done in years, it's like "Hold On, We're Going Home" with someone who can actually sing.

7. David Nail - "Kiss You Tonight"
A really big, hooky country song that I seem to hear on the radio all the time but has been lurking in the low teens of Billboard's Country Airplay chart for the longest time when I could swear it's a top 10 hit.

8. Tink f/ Charlamagne Tha God - "Around The Clock"
I somehow missed the whole Tink thing, suddenly her mixtape and her okay song with Jeremih started turning up on all these year-end lists and she was Timbaland's new artists and I'd never even heard of her. But then I started hearing this song on mix shows and it's just killer, one of Timbo's best beats in a while and she has a really unique, confident flow. I guess I should check out the other stuff but right now I'm just digging this song.

9. ScHoolboy Q - "Hell Of A Night"
Oxymoron may not have been a great album but it really has turned into a nice little pop rap hit factory, almost a year later there's still songs on the charts. This one kind of feels like a weird attempt at festival EDM for his live shows, but I dunno, I really like it, great beat and hook and better rapping than most of Q's hits have had.

10. Bush - "The Only Way Out"
I didn't even like Bush that much when they were kinda good, and "Everything Zen" is the only song I can stomach even half the time when it comes on the radio anymore. But wow, this is pretty nice. I'd rather hear it with someone else besides Gavin Rossdale singing (his voice has really not aged well), but he wrote it so hey credit where it's due.

Worst Single of the Month: Sam Hunt - "Take Your Time"
Bro country seems to hit a new low every few months, but this really might be the ultimate nadir. He's basically doing that Drake-style mid-sentence slide from rapping/talking into singing in every line of the verse and, ugh, wow, it's just incredibly awkward.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
This week's Short List.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 30: The Black Crowes

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A few days ago, The Black Crowes announced their breakup after 25 years as a band, with Rich Robinson announcing that they couldn't carry on with his brother, frontman Chris Robinson, basically demanding to take a bigger cut of the band's money than the other founding members. It's sad to hear about something like that happening between brothers, but at the same time I support Rich in calling that out, because the insanity of lead singers trying to swindle the rest of the band, and reduce other members of the band to salaried employees, seems to be some kind of epidemic among aging bands. No need to tolerate that shit.

Although The Black Crowes are going out in a blaze of tawdry in-fighting, long after their commercial decline, I kinda felt like giving them some props as a better band than their reputation suggests. They debuted in 1990 with a huge, great blockbuster album with several hit singles. And though they managed to maintain their mainstream profile for a while after that, it quickly became apparent how out of step they were with what we remember as '90s rock now -- they're in that weird little bubble where Lenny Kravitz and Sheryl Crow were also allowed to thrive as '60s and '70s rock nostalgists in the '90s. Blues-based rock has been painfully unhip for a long time, but I'll take the Black Crowes over the Black Keys any day of the week. And Chris Robinson always seemed like a pretty genuine student of the music they play -- he even sang on a Little Feat record a few years ago, which will make anyone cooler in my book.

I could really live without the Black Crowes' biggest hit, the cheesed out Otis Redding cover, but pretty much everything else I think has aged pretty well. "Jealous Again," "Twice As Hard," "Remedy," that's good shit that I'm always happy to hear on the radio, and I'm not ashamed to say "She Talks To Angels" has gottn me a little emotional. Even some of the less successful later singles like "Wiser Time," I love that one. So it seemed like a good time to delve into the albums and see what's there.

The Black Crowes Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist): 

1. Thick N' Thin
2. Struttin' Blues
3. Sister Luck
4. Could I've Been So Blind
5. Sometimes Salvation
6. Black Moon Creeping
7. My Morning Song
8. Gone
9. Descending
10. Under A Mountain
11. Girl From A Pawnshop
12. Heavy
13. Miracle To Me
14. Movin' On Down The Line
15. What Is Home
16. Lady of Avenue A

Tracks 1, 2, 3 and 4 from Shake Your Money Maker (1990)
Tracks 5, 6 and 7 from The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)
Tracks 8 and 9 from Amorica (1994)
Tracks 10 and 11 from Three Snakes and One Charm (1996)
Track 12 from By Your Side (1999)
Track 13 from Lions (2001)
Track 14 from Warpaint (2008)
Tracks 15 and 16 from Before the Frost...Until the Freeze (2009)

There are some other good songs in the band's catalog where the titles were just too close to self-parody, like "She Gave Good Sunflower" and "Ozone Mama" and "Wee Who See The Deep." But for the most part their catalog is pretty consistent and light on embarrassment. "What Is Home" is the first (and, I guess, last) song in the Black Crowes catalog fully written and sung by Rich Robinson, who's made a few solo records since the band first went on extended hiatus over a decade ago. It's a quiet little acoustic track and his voice is much softer and gentler than his brother's, but it's an interesting track with a lot of rhythmic turnarounds and a section in 7/8.

The first album, Shake Your Money Maker, is the only one that I regard as essential, but even as the hits dried up, there were some fine moments on the later albums -- the stoned '70s Stones grooves of Amorica, the horns all over By Your Side, the acoustic textures of the new-songs-recorded-live swan song Before The Frost...Until The Freeze. I can't fault anyone for being bored by this band's existence, but they were a solid singles act and, really, more than that if you wanted to dig in beyond the hits.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
Vol. 9: Robin Thicke
Vol. 10: R. Kelly
Vol. 11: Fall Out Boy
Vol. 12: TLC
Vol. 13: Pink
Vol. 14: Queen
Vol. 15: Steely Dan
Vol. 16: Trick Daddy
Vol. 17: Paramore
Vol. 18: Elton John
Vol. 19: Missy Elliott
Vol. 20: Mariah Carey
Vol. 21: The Pretenders
Vol. 22: "Weird Al" Yankovic
Vol. 23: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Vol. 24: Foo Fighters
Vol. 25: Counting Crows
Vol. 26: T.I.
Vol. 27: Jackson Browne
Vol. 28: Usher
Vol. 29: Mary J. Blige

Saturday, January 17, 2015

I contributed about 10 blurbs, about Jay Rock, Miguel, and Rihanna, among others, to Complex's 50 Most Anticipated Albums of 2015.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Village Voice's 2014 Pazz & Jop critic's poll came out this week, and I'm pretty pleased about the winners in both the album poll and the singles poll. The rest of the lists, ehhh, but I'm always a little out of step with other critics.

As usual, Glenn McDonald tabulated Pazz & Jop, and created a whole site of voter stats on furia dot com. Here's my ballot, and my furia page with a bunch of stats about who voted for similar stuff, how 'centrist' I am, etc.

To wrap up the year, here are all the year-end lists I did for 2014:
Top 50 Albums
Top 100 Singles (which was divided up into a bunch of genre lists for R&B, pop, rock, rap, and country)
Top 10 Baltimore Club Music Releases
Top 10 Baltimore Hip Hop Releases
Top 50 TV Shows
The best things I wrote in 2014

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

In this week's City Paper, I wrote a BPM column with a bunch of Baltimore club news about DJ Chris J, DJ AngelBaby, and others, and also wrote The Short List.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I wrapped up the year in remixes with my 4th quarter Remix Report Card for Noisey.

Monday, January 12, 2015

I did a little piece for Complex about the lighter side of Lupe Fiasco's Twitter account, with a little nod to that one time he tweeted at me.

Monthly Report: December 2014 Albums

Sunday, January 11, 2015

1. D'Angelo and the Vanguard - Black Messiah
Since the first few albums on this list already made my top 50 albums of 2014, I will attempt to say something here that I didn't already say there, especially since obviously it's been a couple weeks and my feelings about these records are still forming and changing. But Black Messiah, man, as much as I did not spend the last 14 years waiting around for this guy to come  back, I'm glad he did. It feels in some ways like a more open, warm album than Voodoo, where I'd been kind of worried he'd disappear further into that album's quirks on a follow-up. Just the variety of textures and grooves, the playful way "Betray My Heart" winds down, the chill-inducing strings on the "Really Love" intro, the incredible splashes of piano across "Another Life."

2. K. Michelle - Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart?
I feel like if the entertainment media's ankle-deep engagement with R&B ever got past "how can Beyonce be a feminist if she dances?" thinkpieces and, uh, "D'Angelo plays real instruments" snob shit, K. Michelle would emerge as a rightfully pivotal figure in R&B's sexual politics. Earlier in her career, she struck a lot of people as kind of a caricature of "ratchet" culture, but I feel like the depth of her work and how it engages with sex and gender relations, from "Can't Raise A Man" to her "Loyal" remix to a whole bunch of songs on this album (especially the single "Love 'Em All") display a perspective that's as thoughtful as it is unapologetic and brazen (her 2 albums are perhaps the only major label R&B albums I've ever seen with explicit lyric stickers but no guest rappers). The fact that this album was apparently written about an affair with one of our era's biggest sex symbols, Idris Elba, while he was having a baby by another woman, might lead easily to tabloid tawdriness or more "side chick" jokes, but the songs have a real emotional resonance beyond that stuff. I mean, one of the most poignant songs is called "Drake Would Love Me." It's a little weird to me how "Can I Borrow A Feeling?" the album title is, though.

3. Kevin Gates - Luca Brasi 2
For a while it seemed like dropping 2 albums a year could have both creative and commercial diminishing returns for Kevin Gates, but it feels like this one is a tipping point both in how famous he's becoming and in how perfectly he's honed his whole sound and persona. "I Don't Get Tired" is a pretty good attempt to spin a meme into a hit single (although it remains to be seen if it will become one), but "Perfect Imperfection" is even better as an attempt to put Kevin Gates and his very specific emotional space into a 4-minute nutshell. That stuff is more interesting than the already familiar mafia posturing of "Plug Daughter" and "John Gotti," but Gates does that stuff better than probably anyone else in rap right now.

4. Charli XCX - Sucker
I'm less than enamored of Charli XCX's bratty Veruca Salt vibe on the first few tracks on this album  -- "Break The Rules" was a pretty terrible single choice that seemed to stall all the commercial momentum built up by "Boom Clap," and I half expect her to start singing about she's not going to eat her vegetables or clean her room. But after the opening section of the album, it hits a more straightforward pop vibe and stays there, with the only misstep being the song that was written with Rivers Cuomo and sounds like it. "Doing It" is so insanely good, sounds like an actual pop jam without indie training wheels unlike everything else I've ever heard by Ariel Rechtshaid.

5. E-40 - Sharp On All 4 Corners (Deluxe Edition)
When E-40 started dropped albums 2 at a time (or even 3 at a time) a few years ago, each volume was bursting at the seams with close to 80 minutes of music. Since then, the CDs have gotten shorter, which at first felt like some kind of admission of defeat. But honestly I'm glad that I can sit down with these new albums that are 54 minutes long and get through them in one sitting without getting overwhelmed. And really I think there's more variation in the production here than there's been on his albums in a while. It's like DJ Mustard taking that post-Hyphy sound mainstream gave him space to experiment more instead of trying to play keep up with a sound he helped invent.

6. Nicki Minaj - The Pinkprint
This album has some great tracks but is ultimately frustrating just like Roman Reloaded was with the tracklist divided into demographically focused sections. Here even moreso because it seems like halfway through recording, she went through some shit and started making a breakup album, but instead of a full-on 808s & Heartbreak type record, those songs just bookend the album on tracks 1-3 and 14-16 and give a weird context to everything else. And I wish those songs made me feel something, but there's still something guarded and performative about her 'personal' lyrics that gives those songs a Hallmark card blandness. I hope she finds a way to make that stuff work better by album 4 or 5, like Beyonce did. But "Want Some More," "Big Daddy," "Feeling Myself," that's my shit. Even "The Night Is Still Young," that's one of her best dance pop songs to date.

7. J. Cole - 2014 Forest Hills Drive
On some level, this album is an impressive accomplishment. After outselling Kanye on his last album, J. Cole attempt to kind of pull a Yeezus by dropping an album on short notice with no advance singles and no radio-friendly guests. Except this time it actually worked out, and in just a month 2014 Forest Hills Drive outsold Born Sinner, Nicki's album, and every other rap album released last year. All of that feels important, vindicates Cole in some ways, and there are stretches of the album that rise to the occasion. But the guy has this weird sour persona and total lack of discernment between good and bad punchlines, he's his own worst enemy as far as deflating good songs with totally awful lyrics. And the fact that over 20% of the runtime is taken up by a "Last Call"-style audio liner notes finale just makes it feel like he's still not out of Kanye's shadow creatively.

8. Rome Cee - The GLIMPS(EP)
A few new songs from one of the best rappers in Baltimore, this is up on AudioMack and recommended. "Children of the Night" is the standout for me, but the whole thing is pretty solid.

9. Mike WiLL Made It - Ransom
At this point, I'm a lot more interested in hearing how a producer oversees a single artist project than their own compilation album -- i.e. the Rae Sremmurd album is more exciting than this to me for the same reason that the YG album was more exciting than DJ Mustard's own 10 Summers. This is dope, though, nice rotating cast of mostly not super famous rappers and some really great beats that suggest there's more mileage left in the Mike WiLL sound than I thought there was a few months ago. Gucci Mane's "Stop Start" is great, really ridiculous how much music he still has trickling out of the vault.

10. The Smashing Pumpkins - Monuments To An Elegy
Billy Corgan's existence at this point is mostly just the greatest punchline to the setup that was '90s alt rock boom. But I don't hold any ill will toward the guy, he really is one of the more talented guys to have become a superstar in that era, and the new music has its merits. This one is stronger than Oceania, mainly because Tommy Lee is a pretty great drummer and a much better Jimmy Chamberlain fill-in than the kid who was with the band for the last few years. It's also surprising to hear Corgan finally make a brief, economical record -- I wonder if Tommy was yelling at Billy to get to the hook and wrap it up, because only one song here goes over 4 minutes (and even then, by 9 seconds). Corgan's attempts to smooth out his vocal delivery make me miss the nasal bleat, but the songs have their moments. I like that the most enjoyable song has the title "Being Beige."

Worst Album of the Month: Wu-Tang Clan - A Better Tomorrow
I will say, this album probably isn't as bad as many people have made it out to be, and the okay Ghostface solo album isn't so much better than it than people have made it out to be. But it is interesting to hear an aging group that so many people still love and root for kind of bellyflop into something that pretty much none of the fanbase can bring itself to embrace -- not that different from the Smashing Pumpkins album, really. What's interesting to me, though, is that it's not just the awkward production that's turning people off -- this album tries really hard to be positive and uplifting and it feels like people are just rejecting that en masse. Even to a greater extent than Kendrick Lamar's "i," the overt attempt at a message like that is very polarizing. It makes me want to like the album more, but then again, it just doesn't sound very good and feels like a total internal collapse of what used to make Wu-Tang great.

Movie Diary

Saturday, January 10, 2015

a) Top Five
My wife took me out for my birthday to the new movie theater in town and this was the movie I chose. The seats in the theater were phenomenal, and the movie was pretty good too. I grew up thinking Chris Rock was one of the best things about early '90s SNL and that CB4 was hilarious, so it always kinda surprised me when the narrative became that he's a great standup but middling at everything else. I even like Down To Earth and I Think I Love My Wife. Still, this is probably the best movie he's written and/or directed and is still flawed, but flawed in the endearingly shaggy, indulgent fashion that geniuses often work. There was the unintentional comedy of when Rosario Dawson's NY Times reporter character had an editor's number saved in her phone under "editor," but there was also a lot of intentional comedy that worked really well. And the way Rock's movies always make him seem like such a romantic on the inside is charming -- as a romcom it's easily one of the best in recent memory just for avoiding a lot of the usual beats while still hitting a few nice familiar notes. The Sandler cameo really brought home the sense that this was basically Funny People if it was actually funny.

b) Time Is Illmatic
A pretty decent little music documentary, in some ways it really brings to life the sounds and stories behind Illmatic in a way that dusts off the cobwebs of an album that is surrounded with a lot of stuffy and glib conventional wisdom. Loved all the little details about young Nasir, Jungle has a hell of a memory.

c) Maze Runner
My wife is a voracious reader and she has devoured most of the big non-Twilight young adult series, so I always end up seeing these movies with her and she knows the plot and is comparing it to the book and I'm just taking it at face value. Will Poulter, who was hilarious in We're The Millers, is really good in this, but for the most part the cast was really bland and I dunno, the story didn't really grab me. The wife said the rest of the series is good, though, maybe I'll give a try to the other movies when they make them.

d) Snowpiercer
I feel kind of lame geeking out over a dystopian sci-fi blockbuster like The Matrix superfans I always rolled my eyes at, but holy shit I loved this movie. I knew people liked it and I kinda figured it would be a well done action flick, but I didn't expect there to be this twisted, funny Terry Gilliam vibe that really made it come alive, particularly in the Tilda Swinton and Alison Pill scenes (John Hurt's character's name was Gilliam, maybe a deliberate homage?). And just the whole thing, I loved the little character moments that fleshed out the world and the conceptual bits that kept surprising me. I thought the ending was optimistic, my wife thought they were doomed.

e) Hell Baby
Kind of a Rosemary's Baby/The Exorcist parody directed by a couple guys from "The State" and starring a bunch of "Childrens Hospital" folks, so I thought it'd be pretty funny. And, it was better than Scary Movie at least, but it was still kind of too broad and goofy to totally work, after a while I kinda stopped paying attention.

f) The Wolf of Wall Street
After over a decade where Scorsese made almost nothing but movies that could've been better with someone besides DiCaprio in the lead role, their long working relationship finally pays off with Leo rising to the occasion and delivering a truly memorable performance. I liked how unflinchingly ugly the whole thing was and even when the guy got his comeuppance he didn't really, great hilariously cynical ending.

g) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Anchorman is still probably my favorite Will Ferrell movie (although Step Brothers is catching up), and if they made a sequel less than 5 years after the original I probably would've been pretty hyped for it. This just seems like too little too late, though. There were a few scenes that really captured the right energy and did something unexpected, but a lot of it just felt like trying to xerox what made the first movie unique.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015
This week's Short List.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Today's my 33rd birthday, which is kind of an odd number, but does make think of a nice round number. 20 years ago, on January 6th, 1995, I had enough money from Christmas and birthday cards to buy what I really wanted for my birthday. So that weekend (January 6 was on a Friday that year, so this was either the 7th or the 8th), my mom drove me out from the one small town in Delaware that we lived in, Rehoboth, to another one, Milton, to Fat Larry's Tattoo Shop. Fat Larry was selling his Pearl Export set, and that day I came home with my first drum kit.

I had been playing in school band, and had my own snare drum, since I was 10. But this was different. I could play, like, rock music, now. And I'd get home every day from school and play for an hour or two. Until my poor tolerant mother got home and I'd show mercy and put down the sticks. My brother got a bass guitar I believe the same year. And very soon we had started our first band with a couple of friends. And then our second band. By the end of high school I'd joined my third band (first one to play actual shows). Driving back from Pittsburgh for our only out-of-state show, one of my bandmates crashed our van, and my snare drum, Fat Larry's snare drum, was damaged beyond repair. Over the years, I gradually replaced pretty much every piece of my drum set, except for the bass drum. That's held up pretty well.

There were a good 5 years that I barely played my drums at all, but I held onto them. When I started recording songs for my 6th band, Western Blot, I kept using the drums I'd always had, bass drum included. I've replaced the head of the bass drum several times over the years. The last two times were both while I was playing this song -- once during the recording session, and then later practicing the song with the live band. I'm still playing with that band, and in the last couple months I've been playing with some new people that, if things keep proceeding, will probably be my 7th and 8th bands. I don't know how long I can get away with using one beat up old kick drum. 20 years is a long time to own anything -- I probably have a few CDs and books that are older. But I doubt any of them hold as much meaning for me, or that I'll continue making space for them and trying to hold onto them for the next 20 or 50 years. Thank you, Mom. And thank you, Fat Larry, wherever you are.

Monthly Report: December 2014 Singles

Sunday, January 04, 2015

1. DeJ Loaf - "Try Me"
I already did my top 100 singles of 2014, so this is just kind of spillover from that, with some of the tracks I already mentioned in there and some others that didn't fit. I still have the Spotify playlist up of my favorite singles of 2014 ordered by these monthly top 10s, though, which I think is a fun way to kind of listen through the year. "Try Me" is a little played out now but it's such a great, singular track that hasn't been diluted by all the lame remixes by established rappers. I really wanna see if DeJ Loaf can score more hits, her mixtape was pretty good.

2. Mary J. Blige - "Whole Damn Year"
I already explained in my albums list how I prefer Mary's slept on Think Like A Man Too soundtrack to the overcooked trend-chasing of The London Sessions. But this song is still the best thing to emerge from either album, just stark and bleak in a way that even Mary's saddest songs had never really been before.

3. Kenny Chesney - "Til It's Gone"
A lot of the 'hard rock'-sounding songs on country radio are the worst ones, and Kenny Chesney in particular has never really succeeded at pulling off that vibe (worst offender being "Feel Like A Rock Star," his anticlimactic collaboration with Tim McGraw a couple years ago). But this song really has a great riff, great guitar leads, killer drumming on the chorus, almost has a Yield-era Pearl Jam vibe.

4. Yelawolf - "Till It's Gone"
The other day was the 5th anniversary of Trunk Muzik, the mixtape that briefly made Yelawolf seem like an exciting new voice who could maybe create a path to stardom that didn't resemble one other white rappers had taken before. And then he signed with Eminem and did a terrible single with Kid Rock and got left in the dust commercially by the Macklemore and Mac Millers. And then he turned up with a new song in one of the final episodes of "Sons of Anarchy" that sounded like something you'd hear on "Sons Of Anarchy," and it's been climbing up the alt rock charts lately. It's easy to be cynical about this somewhat Everlast-y latest turn, but it actually feels very naturally Yelawolf to me, makes me slightly more optimistic about his career than I was before.

5. Lorde - "Yellow Flicker Beat"
It's funny how this track feels like a huge step up from the skeletal production of Pure Heroine, and then the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 soundtrack includes a Kanye remix of the song that boringly strips it back down to that production style.

6. James Newton Howard f/ Jennifer Lawrence - "The Hanging Tree"
After so much energy went into having a hip platinum artist like Lorde oversee the whole Mockingjay soundtrack, it's ironic that the one song in the movie that was left off the album is now the biggest hit from the whole Hunger Games franchise (and of course, they re-released the album to include it). Jennifer Lawrence isn't much of a singer and knows it, but I'm glad they didn't just dub in Lorde's voice like she suggested, it works in the context of the movie really well and I like the unlikely spontaneity of it also becoming a radio hit. The dance mix some stations play is awful, though, almost as bad as the one for "Take Me To Church."

7. Taylor Swift - "Blank Space"
I like that T-Swift the club queen basically wrote a spiteful parody of the crazed serial dater she's depicted as in tabloids and made it into a #1 record. I don't think it's as good as "Shake It Off," but it has the same problem that her songs often have, that the bridge is weak and lets the whole thing down a little. I mean, "Don't say I didn't say I didn't warn you" is some lame fake clever nonsense.

8. Hunter Hayes - "Tattoo"
I try not to namedrop too much about my various minor run-ins with celebrities at work, but I will say this: I did a thing recently with a bunch of musical acts, and Hunter Hayes was by far the nicest, easily one of the friendliest famous people I've ever worked with, which reminded me that his last single was pretty good (although "I Want Crazy" is still his career highlight as far as I'm concerned). I feel like he was really getting positioned as 'the male Taylor Swift' and had a big platinum debut, but for some reason the follow-up just didn't have the same kind of success. I wouldn't count him out, though, he's a talented kid.

9. Jay Rock f/ Kendrick Lamar and Chantal - "Pay For It"
Jay Rock has this weird place in the TDE pecking order as the guy who was the first nationally visible artist on the label who's been the least visible member of Black Hippy in the last few years. He hasn't released an album or even a mixtape since 2011, but he's killed so many features and seems to have a lot of potential, but he's just been sitting on the shelf while everyone else gets their shine. This single indicates that he's willing to play the industry game more than Ab-Soul, though, and I could see him making a major label album less half-assed and conflicted than ScHoolboy Q's was. This probably wasn't the best foot forward, just in the sense of it being folded into a Beats ad campaign that only used the Kendrick verse, but it's a good song.

10. Morgan James - "Call My Name"
The whole Postmodern Jukebox thing is kind of corny, but their version of Maroon 5's "Maps" is kind of amazing and made me really dig a song I'd been on the fence about, and made me pay attention to the singer, Morgan James, who released a record of her own recently. The single from it is a cover of Prince's "Call My Name," which was a minor R&B radio hit in 2004 and easily one of my favorite things he's written since the '90s, just a gorgeous song (although I've always been more partial to his quiet storm "Slow Love" mode than a lot of other people). The Morgan James version isn't as good as the original, but she puts a nice twist on it and is just an incredible vocalist.

Worst Single of the Month: Maroon 5 - "Animals"
Although I did come around on "Maps" as a more defensible example of nu-Maroon 5, the follow-up is really pretty dire. I was in the car a while back with my wife, who hadn't heard it, when it came on the radio, and I was like "You gotta hear how terrible this is, Adam Levine howls like a wolf." And then, even though I'd warned her, her expression as she heard the howl was just priceless, she was just totally appalled.

The Best Of Me, 2014

Saturday, January 03, 2015

I already wrote about my favorite singles, albums and TV shows of 2014, as I do every year. But one thing I always think about doing and usually never get around to, is a little back-patting overview of things I've written over the course of the year. So here, in chronological order, is a selection of a couple dozen of my favorite things I wrote in 2014. Some of them I think I did a great job with, sometimes I just got assigned an interesting topic or interview subject and managed not to get in the way. I had a lot of editors at a lot of great places asking me to do a lot of stuff this year, to the point that I ended up not pitching a lot of my own ideas, which is a good kind of problem to have, so thanks to all of them. I threw in examples of all the regular columns I've been doing -- The Short List is not really a very writing-intensive feature, but I wrote 52 of them last year, so I wanted to tip my hat to it. Music writing can be kind of an ephemeral thing where what you write about might become a lot less interesting or urgent in the space of a week, let alone a year, but a lot of these are things I hope people could stumble on now or a few years down the road and get something out of, whether it's a silly one-liner or some kind of larger insight.

Hustlin' Flow: On The Recent Trend of Rappers Jacking Each Other's Delivery (Complex, January 17)
A Defense of Sara Bareilles (Splice Today, January 24)
Monthly Report: January 2014 Singles (Narrowcast, February 2)
Pranksters Behind Chili Peppers Parody 'Abracadabralifornia' Tell All (Rolling Stone, February 5)
An Interview With Semi, The Vine Famous Rapper Behind "Another 6 Sec Rap" (Noisey, February 21)
Future Islands: How A Band Of Outsiders Became Pop Heroes (Wondering Sound, March 24)
The Remix Report Card, First Quarter 2014 (Noisey, April 17)
School Of Hard Knocks: XXL Freshmen Ranked From XXL to S (DDotOmen, May 5)
The Dismemberment Plan: The BSides Session (Mobtown Studios, May 13)
Wye Oak's Silent Shriek (Wondering Sound, May 30)
Musician, Teacher, Activist Derrick "OOH" Jones Dies At 38 (Baltimore City Paper, June 6)
Still Kids After All These Years: The Kids In The Hall Bring The Laughs Live In Washington (Splice Today, June 11)
The First Songs By Legendary Rap Producers (Complex, June 16)
Lil Wayne's 'Tha Carter,' Ten Years Later (Noisey, June 27)
20 Biggest Songs of the Summer: The 1980s (Rolling Stone, July 17)
Review: Young Moose, 'O.T.M. 2' (Baltimore City Paper, July 22)
Fall Out Boy and Paramore @ Merriweather Post Pavilion (Narrowcast, July 26)
Mercy Killing: Indie Rap Duo AK Slaughter Goes Out With A Band (Baltimore City Paper, July 29)
DDm Came Up In Baltimore's Macho Battle-Rap Scene. Then He Came Out. (WAMU Bandwidth, August 1)
The 25 Hardest Rap Beats Of All Time (Complex, August 12)
Review: Kix, 'Rock Your Face Off' (Baltimore City Paper, August 25)
BPM: What's Up With Dance Music (Baltimore City Paper, September 2)
The Imaginary Box Set: Sloan (Narrowcast, September 7)
25 Years of Baltimore Club (Boiler Room, September 12)
Best of Baltimore - Best Radio DJ: Mike Brilhart of WZBA 100.7 The Bay (Baltimore City Paper, September 16)
100 Best Singles of 1984: Pop's Greatest Year (Rolling Stone, September 17)
The Rap Sheet: What's Up With Hip-Hop (Baltimore City Paper, September 23)
Monthly Report: September Albums (Narrowcast, October 7)
13 Hip-Hop Personalities Share Memories of Mos Def's 'Black On Both Sides' (The Boombox, October 13)
Lesson Plan: Damond Blue Grows Up, Chooses Beats Over Bullets (Baltimore City Paper, October 11)
The Short List (Baltimore City Paper, November 4)
Deep Album Cuts Vol. 28: Usher (Narrowcast, November 23)
Vid It On 'Em: Nicki Minaj's 10 Best Clips (Rolling Stone, December 30)

Thursday, January 01, 2015

I wrote a couple of the sidebar pieces about Nicki Minaj that appeared on the Rolling Stone site alongside her cover story: a list of her 10 best music videos, and a rundown of all the 2014 music she released leading up to The Pinkprint.