Don't Compare Me To Nobody: When Comparisons Get Under A Musician's Skin

Friday, July 31, 2015

Maybe the heat is getting to everybody, but July has been an especially irritable month in popular music, with several long stewing rivalries finally boiling over. First, Miguel answered a question about fellow R&B innovator Frank Ocean by saying, “I genuinely believe that I make better music.” Then Action Bronson, when asked about frequent comparisons between himself and Ghostface Killah, said “He’s not rapping like this no more” on national television, inspiring a 6-minute scorched earth response video from Ghost. And last week, Meek Mill fired off a Twitter tirade that began with “Stop comparing Drake to me,” before accusing the Toronto rapper of relying on ghostwriters.

Those three stories involve very different sets of artists, who have very different relationships with one another. But the common thread is that in each situation, two men had been linked together in the public mind for years, and one or both of them finally got sick of it and snapped.  Miguel and Frank Ocean are two very different artists who’ve individually made enough of an impact on R&B that they don’t need to be asked about each other in interviews. But since Miguel took the bait, you’ll never read another review of his albums that doesn’t mention Ocean for a long time. Frank Ocean hasn’t responded yet, but I think he will – let’s remember, his other big feud, with Chris Brown, started out when Chris tweeted that Frank “reminds me of a young James Fauntleroy or Kevin Cossum” and Frank found the comparisons to be “underhanded.”

Action Bronson spent the last four years diplomatically deflecting questions about his vocal similarity to Ghostface, and it appears he finally felt he’d reached a level of success that he didn’t need to play humble anymore. Within days, he offered a public apology to the furious rap legend.  Meek Mill’s tweet came more out of leftfield – he isn’t really compared to Drake any more than all rappers of his generation are. And others, like Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole, are far more frequently seen as direct competition for Drake; Meek Mill was an ally, someone with a very different image and musical approach who nonetheless featured Drake on his biggest radio hit, captioned Instagram pictures with Drake lyrics, and released his own remixes of the Drake songs “Started From The Bottom” and “Energy.” Perhaps Meek Mill was tired of being one of the rappers living in Drake’s shadow, but the abrupt and seemingly unprompted nature of his complaint led many to think that he was upset about some other issue entirely.

In all of these cases, the less successful or established artist broke the polite silence on the issue, in a way that seemed to let on more than a little professional jealousy. This is a pop music story as old as time: every artist wants to be a unique snowflake whose work is taken on its own terms. But fans and writers can’t help but notice similarities and parallels with which to group artists together in scenes, rivalries, and critical narratives. Sometimes this is simply lazy thinking, and sometimes two artists simply coexist in the public eye in a way that people can’t help but notice an influence or shared traits. The easiest way to praise (or trash) an artist is to contrast them with a different artist.  There’s a reason that an endless series of greater-than signs (“>>>>>>>>>>>>”) is a daily staple of Twitter discussions about music.  

Often, two artists finding major success within the same genre at the same time provide an elemental binary for listeners to wrestle with, from the Beatles vs. the Stones to Michael vs. Prince. Which side you take in these debates helps define your taste, and the artists inevitably have to reckon with the comparisons, sometimes by feeding into the rivalry, and sometimes by defusing tensions with friendship or collaboration. Usually, if both acts are worthy and unique, the public will realize that eventually, and the comparisons will fade from the conversation. And if they’re not, the public will declare a victor through record sales – remember when The Wanted was considered competition for One Direction? Sometimes the goalposts move quickly, putting the same act in different roles – one year Pearl Jam was the industry fabrication to Nirvana’s credible punks, the next year Pearl Jam was the real deal to Stone Temple Pilots’ cheap imitation.  

The highly crowded and competitive field of hip hop has escalated the frequency of these kinds of rivalries. Some of them are simply beefs between artists who dislike each other personally, but sometimes there’s a more acute basis of comparison at work: perhaps rappers from the same city who sound alike or occupy a similar lane. DMX and Ja Rule were friends early on, when both made similar music with similarly gravelly voices – it was only after Ja started singing love songs and becoming a major star in his own right that X started calling him out as a biter. D4L and Dem Franchize Boyz were the breakout acts of Atlanta’s 2005 explosion of “snap music,” and the groups beefed with each other about who stole whose sound and dance movies.

Rappers with similar voices or aesthetics are frequently found within the same crew or label roster, and embrace the . When Rich Homie Quan scored his first national hit in 2013, he was dogged by comparisons to a more established Atlanta rapper, Future, and one point things appeared ready to escalate to a beef. But over the past two years, the two have continued to thrive while putting the comparisons behind them. Now you can turn on the radio and hear songs by both of them, but it’s hard to imagine Quan making “Fuck Up Some Commas” or Future making “Flex.” That doesn’t guarantee that they’ll never feud, but it certainly seems like they’ve sidestepped the beef and changed the narrative for the time being.   

One of the stranger music rivalries of 2015 came about when a newer artist actively encouraged comparisons to a legend. Young Thug had always been openly influenced by Lil Wayne, and collaborated with his idol last year. But things took a turn when Thug announced that his new albumwould be named Carter 6, and released it with the blessing of Wayne’s mentor Bryan “Birdman” Williams, before Weezy’s own Tha Carter 5. The ensuing feud has left a lot of unanswered questions, but foremost among them is why a rising star like Young Thug would encourage comparisons to Wayne right when he’d started to establish himself as a major artist in his own right.

No musician can ever reinvent the wheel or make something so unique and original that it silences all comparisons. But perhaps it also behooves fans and critics to respect the individuality of that makes worthwhile artists who they are, instead of shoving everyone into false binaries that ignore the differences between musicians and encourage feuds and defensive interviews.

Another musician who raised eyebrows in July was Paul McCartney, in an interview with the U.K. edition of Esquire magazine, speaking on the legacy of John Lennon. The interviewer asked “Does it frustrate you, the constant comparisons between you two?” And in reply, McCartney spoke more bluntly than ever about the “revisionism” that “martyred” his fellow Beatle after his death, and diminished the importance latter half of the Lennon/McCartney partnership. If Paul McCartney, one of the most revered musicians in pop history, can get touchy about being compared to somebody else, then what hope does anyone else have of taking it in stride? 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015
This week's Short List.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

In a couple weeks, a new band I've been playing with, Golden Beat (featuring members of Monument, The Move On Threads and Private Eleanor), will make its live debut in Baltimore. We're opening for the long-running D.C. band The Caribbean, along with The Ward, for a happy hour show at Zissimos Bar on August 10th. Our 3 song demo is up on Bandcamp and I'm excited to finally play those songs and the other ones we've been practicing for the past 6 months in front of an audience.

Monthly Report: July Singles

Friday, July 24, 2015

1. Kendrick Lamar - "Alright"
Back in April, after Baltimore was unjustly locked down with a 10pm citywide curfew and National Guard occupation for 5 nights, the curfew was lifted on a Sunday, and I went out to a few clubs to celebrate and see how the moment was being observed. And my favorite moment of the night was when DJ K-Meta dropped "Alright" into his set at the Windup Space. To Pump A Butterfly had been out for a month at that point and we all already knew that it was a standout song on an amazing album, but hearing it out in the wild, in that charged moment, was incredible. Kendrick making a video for the song that fits so perfectly into the context of how I heard it that night is a bonus. Here's the Spotify playlist of favorite 2015 singles that I update every month.

2. BØRNS - "Electric Love"
BØRNS is a guy whose voice really sounded like a woman at first, and he's from Michigan but the name really made me expect someone from Sweden or something. But none of that matters, this is just one of those perfect explosive little indie pop jams that is far too enjoyable for me to care that I heard it in an ad before I heard it on the radio. 

3. Rae Sremmurd - "This Could Be Us"
A few years ago I wrote a Village Voice column about the rarity of rap albums that notch 4 or more radio hits. And if anything it's even more rare now for that to happen, which makes it all the more remarkable that SremmLife is one of the few rap albums in the last couple years with 4 rap radio hits (along with the less surprising The Pink Print and Nothing Was The Same), since most album campaigns kinda tap out and move on after 2 or 3 hits. And I'm glad this got the nod for the 4th single, was always such a standout to me with that bouncy piano riff, even piggybacking off of a Twitter meme in that kind of desperate way a lot of rap songs do these days doesn't diminish its appeal. Also it's fun to hear a pretty good Project Pat impression from a kid who was like 6 years old when "Chickenhead" came out. 

4. The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"

I never thought much of The Weeknd's hip mixtapes that made him such a big deal, so I'm surprised that I enjoy this and Ariana Grande's "Love Me Harder" as much as I do. Usually it's weird and uncomfortable when someone who came up with some idiosyncratic underground records decides to get in the studio with someone like Max Martin and streamline their sound, but in this case I totally approve of The Weeknd selling out for that crossover money. He's gotta do a remix with Wayne and Juelz though.

5. Mumford & Sons - "The Wolf"
Mumford & Sons are another act I never thought would make a song I enjoy this much. Who knew that all they had to do was plug in and make a generic alt-rock churner?
Who knew that all Mumford & Sons had to do to make an enjoyable song was plug in the electric guitars and do a generic alt-rock churner?

6. Wolf Alice - "Moaning Lisa Smile"
It took 10 years, but the word "wolf" is now showing up multiple times on the mainstream alt-rock radio charts like it used to on indie rock mixtapes. This is so Veruca Salt that I don't feel like I even need to listen to the actual new Veruca Salt album.

7. Monica f/ Lil Wayne - "Just Right For Me"
Hearing someone sing the word "baby," over and over, toying with the word and all its expressive possibilities and stretching and twisting it into different shapes, is one of the simple joys of popular music that I never get tired of, and this song delivers it in Monica's still fantastic voice. Back in 2006, 2007, 2008, an R&B jam with a Polow Da Don beat and a Lil Wayne verse would've been pretty much guaranteed to be great, and this actually reminds me of the kind of shit those guys were doing in that peak period.

8. Young Dro - "We In Da City"
A lot of Atlanta rappers just refuse to stop grinding after their brief moment in the national spotlight, which is how we end up with the resilience of guys like Gucci Mane and 2 Chainz. And Young Dro was just too brilliant an MC to be discarded as quickly as he was after "Shoulder Lean," so it's been heartening to see him stage a moderate comeback on the radio, first with "F.D.B." a couple years ago and now this. This song is just incredibly goofy, and I love hollering along with the chorus and the first verse, but then Dro just comes out of nowhere with a much more intricate second verse that reminds you how talented he is.

9. Fifth Harmony f/ Kid Ink - "Worth It"
Kid Ink is still one of the dullest Manchurian Candidates the music industry has ever forced onto the radio with the help of more talented people, and I resent Dej Loaf and Fifth Harmony for influencing me to not change the station when I hear multiple Kid Ink songs on the radio now.

10. David Guetta f/ Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha and Afrojack - "Hey Mama"
Bebe Rexha's voice is a strange, charming instrument that I've been enamored of ever since Cash Cash's "Take Me Home," and she's clear star of "Hey Mama" for me, even over the Nicki verses and the oddly effective Alan Lomax sample dropped over a big obnoxious EDM banger. So it was really annoying that she didn't get a guest credit on the song when it was first released a few months ago, even when Afrojack got one. But a couple months ago it looks like the label smartened up and added Rexha's name to the single artwork and the iTunes credits and Billboard entry and whatnot. Annoying that she's not in the video at all, though.

Worst Single of the Month: Halsey - "New Americana"
The other day I turned on the radio and heard this horrifying song with the chorus "We are the new Americana/ High on legal marijuana/ Raised on Biggie and Nirvana" and was reminded of hearing Lorde's "Royals" for the first time and knowing instantly that that moronic song would soon be everywhere. I don't know if my premonition of this song's popularity will come true, but I hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015
This week's Short List.

Monday, July 20, 2015

I've been a guest on my brother Zac's podcast No Topic Required a few times, and my Western Blot track "Button Masher" has long been the intro music for the show. And I joined in one last time recently for the farewell 100th episode.

Movie Diary

Sunday, July 19, 2015

a) Minions
Some of the best laughs I've ever heard from my older son were while watching the Despicable Me movies, and I'd never taken him to a movie theater before, so this seemed like a good occasion to take him to the movies. It's odd to see this as a parent, as someone who's always enjoyed these movies and thinks the minions are funny, at a time when adults everywhere are constantly announcing a weird performative distaste for minions and willful confusion about how these cartoon characters have an illogical backstory. That said, this movie really does lean into the silliness and embraces the fact that the stars are the movie are the barely verbal sidekicks from another movie. And there are some odd subversive moments that make the movie even more fucked up than it was to begin with -- jokes that imply the moon landing was staged and that the Pope is allied with villains, and a gag where a minion wears pants up to its eyeballs and unzips the zipper to reveal their mouth in the place where a vagina would be.

b) Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser
2001 was a dark time for America -- Joe Dirt was released in theaters, and my brother and I actually saw it, because Josie And The Pussycats was sold out that night (I'm not even sure how this was possible, since Joe Dirt grossed twice as much as Josie, but go figure). This time, my excuse is that Joe Dirt 2 was released on the streaming video Crackle, and I have the ability to watch Crackle on my TV, and I'm often up all night with a baby watching movies to pass the time (I don't know what the hell Crackle is but they have "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee" so I've watched that on it). This is pretty much like the first Joe Dirt, i.e. terrible, but there's Mark McGrath instead of Kid Rock, and also poor Patrick Warburton (did I mention this movie is sponsored by Arby's? A movie with the actor who played David Puddy on "Seinfeld" has commercial interruptions from Arby's!). David Spade is still weirdly lazy about even giving Joe Dirt any kind of particular persona beyond a mullet wig, which makes it kind of less of an insulting white trash stereotype by default. There's a time travel subplot and some extremely dated jokes that are not excused by the time travel, and Joe Dirt eats a jellyfish and says "tastes like jellyfish."

c) What Happened, Miss Simone?
I always want to be more up on Nina Simone's music than I am, I just know an album here, a song there, and she was kind of already consigned to the history books by the time I was a kid. So this documentary really does a good job of just bringing her to life, lots of great concert footage and interviews where you get a full dose of her personality and her beliefs. I wish more documentaries just let the footage and the occasional talking head steer the thing and not get in the way too much.

d) That Gal...Who Was In That Thing: That Guy 2
That Guy...Who Was In That Thing was a documentary that profiled a handful of characters and examined the ups and downs of life as a jobbing actor. So this, of course, is the sequel about actresses, and it's really wonderful and illuminating, getting really talented people like Roma Maffia and Jayne Atkinson to speak frankly about their careers and the double standards of the industry. I love Paget Brewster in everything she does and she comes across really smart and grounded in this, which made me happy.

e) Beyond The Lights
Given the way pop stars capture the public's attention now with  tabloid soap opera storylines, there's a certain sense in making a drama that explores one of those situations on an interior level that we usually only get to imagine. But it could easily go either way, and it's pretty impressive how this movie avoids the camp, or uncanny valley resemblance to real pop music, in that usual entertaining but flawed "Empire" way, and ends up with a movie that feels kind of true and intimate. It helps that they do a pretty good job of constructing Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a plausible pop star and building out that world, and that she and Nate Parker have a powerful emotional push-and-pull dynamic that drives the movie. The way it ends kind of makes the whole thing feel like a rockist fairytale for people who wish this or that pop star would settle down with a nice boy and wear their hair natural and stop singing about sex. So as a music critic who tires of other critics clamoring for that kind of narrative, I disliked it, but as a movie viewer, I thought the whole thing was pretty strong.

f) Rosewater
As the movie that Jon Stewart took a break from "The Daily Show" to direct, and a test run for any movie he does after permanently leaving the show this year, Rosewater feels like it has a lot to prove. And though though there are some inventive visual elements, overall the whole movie feels kind of slack, like it has a story that it shouldn't have to work hard to make compelling but it ends up kinda dull anyway.

g) Whiplash
There aren't many Oscar-winning movies about playing drums, so I approached this with some trepidation, not sure if I would reflexively love it or reflexively nitpick anything that rang false. But I have to say, I was really impressed -- the director is a drummer who based the film on personal experiences, and his first film was a musical, so what the film captures really well is the physicality of drumming, the noise and the force and the speed and the sweat, comes across in all these close-ups of hands and wobbling cymbals and flying sticks. Whiplash was a short film before they adapted it into a feature, and it kinda feels like they didn't add much meat to the plot or the dialogue, the whole story could've still fit in a short. So they just fill the running time with these intense scenes of drumming and J.K. Simmons going on these epic angry tirades that he's done so well throughout his career and definitely deserved some kind of major award for. It was paced well, especially the way you get this really arresting drumming scene right at the beginning before there's any dialogue. After a while, the Simmons scenes wore a little thin, but overall I enjoyed Whiplash as this really potent tone poem that immerses you in the sights and sounds of a craft more than as a story.

h) The Judge
I'm not sure why this big actorly actor awards bait movie with Downey and Duvall got handed to a director like David Dobkin, whose movies are usually stuff like like Shanghai Knights and Fred Claus, whose biggest hit was Wedding Crashers. He does manage to pull off The Judge as a serious movie, but man, I've never seen a movie do less to justify a 140-minute running time, it just went on and on and after most of the plot had already taken place.

i) This Is Where I Leave You
Like The Judge, this is a grownup movie directed by somebody whose past work is fairly juvenile, Shawn Levy (Big Fat Liar, Night At The Museum, Cheaper By The Dozen, etc.). It's one of those bland ensemble dramedies where a bunch of actors you could never buy as related to each other plays a family in turmoil and there's a lot of cheating and slapping and punching and revealing of secrets and dramatic speeches. I liked it better when it was called The Family Stone. It's interesting to see Adam Driver outside of "Girls" and confirm that his character on that show was just all of his weird personal physical tics and mannerisms and that he'll probably always be a one trick pony playing that kind of guy.

j) Magic In The Moonlight
I have this habit of watching every late period Woody Allen just to be appalled at how far he's fallen from even competent filmmaking, on the basic levels of barely functional dialogue and performances by any given actor that pale in comparison to them in almost any other movie. I'm of the unpopular opinion that The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion was maybe the best of the last umpteen movies he made, if still only competent and mildly charming. And Magic In The Moonlight reminds me of that, easily the best of the recent bunch if only because he got a pleasant cast and didn't get in their way or hand them a totally ludicrous script.

k) A Million Ways To Die In The West
I get why this movie flopped, people only want to hear Seth MacFarlane's voice coming out of cartoon characters or a CGI bear or some shit like that, not his own disturbing face. But I actually really liked this, probably more than anything he's done since those early seasons of "Family Guy" before it got so stale. It'd be blasphemous to compare it to Blazing Saddles, one of my favorite comedies ever, but it is a fair reference point for how flatly A Million Ways takes all the romance out of the wild west and satirizes its meanest, bleakest realities. Would've been better with someone that it's not uncomfortable to watch in MacFarlane's role, but it was good.

l) 12 Years A Slave
Very intense movie, a lot of pieces fit into place really well, but I thought Michael Fassbender was kind of over the top, like he was in a different movie from everyone else, twirling his mustache. Chiwetel Ejiofor is great as always, though, surprised he wasn't one of the people who got an Oscar for this movie.

m) Chastity Bites
A very odd, clever feminist horror comedy about an abstinence counselor who bathes in the blood of virgins to prolong her life. I watched it mainly for my beloved Allison Scagliotti from "Warehouse 13" and "Stitchers," and was very entertained by the premise, although the movie itself seemed to run out of steam pretty quickly.

n) Compliance
Ann Dowd gave one of the more compelling TV performances of last year, almost without saying a word, on "The Leftovers," and I was curious to see this film she'd won an award for. And man, it is really something, highly, highly recommended. It's basically a straight-ahead fact-based depiction of what happened, several dozens of times, where a guy called fast food joints posing as a police officer, and manipulated people into doing all sorts of terrible things in the name of a crime investigation. It just goes to such a dark place and it's all done so artfully and believably, really the whole cast hits the right notes and it kinda captures some little details of the food service industry, at least as far as my experience in it, that I haven't seen in any other movie. Also, it was directed by one of the co-creators of "Homestar Runner," that was surprisingly.

o) Southland Tales
For almost 10 years this has been one of those "legendary" "weird" flops where a director people were excited about got a bunch of big stars and then the movie lost a ton of money. I hadn't been in a rush to see it because I find the whole cult of Donnie Darko off-putting, but it's pretty wild. Way too long, and with only a handful of truly memorable scenes spread out across the bloated running time, but I still liked a lot of the out-there ideas in the script and then the general audacity of a lot of the choices they made.

p) Hard Candy
Another cult movie that I took like a decade to get around to finally watching. Pretty dark, compelling stuff, really held together by Ellen Page's performance that teeters back and forth between so many different extremes. I feel bad that she gave a performance this strong at such a young age and then she got famous for Juno and has done a processional of unmemorable stuff since then.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

I did my latest Remix Report Card for Noisey.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 42: Dwight Yoakam

Friday, July 17, 2015

I did a couple country installments very early in this series (George Jones and Brad Paisley), but have neglected the genre since then. So this seemed overdue, and Dwight Yoakam felt like an obvious choice to me. A cheap cassette of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. that I fished out of a cutout bin as a teenager was maybe the first country album I ever owned, and is still one of my favorites. And his last couple albums, including Second Hand Heart, released in April, have been really wonderful records, brimming with as much melody and humor and energy as anything these days from an artist who's been making records for three decades. And since there was a lot I hadn't heard from the middle of that long career, this was a good opportunity to dive in.

Dwight Yoakam Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist): 

1. South Of Cincinnati
2. I'll Be Gone
3. Bury Me (featuring Maria McKee)
4. Johnson's Love
5. This Drinkin' Will Kill Me
6. One More Name
7. Send Me The Pillow (featuring Maria McKee)
8. Sad, Sad Music
9. Dangerous Man
10. This Time
11. Two Doors Down
12. Wild Ride
13. Never Hold You
14. Listen
15. A Promise You Can't Keep
16. If Teardrops Were Diamonds (featuring Willie Nelson)
17. Just Passin' Time
18. Waterfall
19. Dim Lights, Thick Smoke
20. Believe
21. Liar

Tracks 1, 2 and 3 from Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)
Tracks 4 and 5 from Hillbilly Deluxe (1987)
Tracks 6 and 7 from Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room (1988)
Tracks 8 and 9 from If There Was A Way (1990)
Tracks 10, 11 and 12 from This Time (1993)
Track 13 from Gone (1995)
Track 14 from A Long Way Home (1998)
Track 15 from Tomorrow's Sounds Today (2000)
Track 16 from Population Me (2003)
Track 17 from Blame The Vain (2005)
Tracks 18 and 19 from 3 Pears (2012)
Tracks 20 and 21 from Second Hand Heart (2015)

I like Yoakam's singles, but since I didn't really grow up with much country radio, and his hits were mainly a little before my time, I don't really know him for those songs and just treat him as an album artist. But some of the deep cuts really are so strong that it's crazy to me that they were never released as singles, especially "Dangerous Man." One of my favorites on Guitars, Cadillacs has always been "Bury Me," the duet with Maria McKee, who was in Lone Justice at the time but I think of mainly for her '90s albums and her great song on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. So it was fun to check out Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room and realize she sings harmony on a track there.

With these playlists, I usually either survey the artist's whole career, or, if it's a really particularly large catalog, I kinda stick to a particular end of the chronology, particularly if they only had hits part of the time. And it would've been easy to focus on the early part of Dwight Yoakam's career. He had a steady stream of major country hits through all of his first 5 albums. But after his peak, 1993's triple platinum This Time, he experienced a sharp commercial decline, to the point that he was getting negligible radio play by the end of the '90s.

So I could've cut things off there, but again, I like the later albums a lot, and wanted to highlight how he's never really fallen off. But it was interesting to listen through all the albums and try to hear whether there was any dip in quality. And I guess 1995's Gone is not as good as This Time, but it's not "sell less than a quarter of its predecessor" bad, I guess the times were just changing. And that's a little silly to say, since Yoakam was always such a traditionalist, steeped in honky tonk and the Bakersfield sound and other styles that few other commercial acts were reviving in the '80s and '90s. But man, the guy is just so fucking good at what he does, and brings so much of his voice, and the unique sound of the bands he leads, to the table that it's sad he had such a relatively short stint as a mainstream star.

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
Vol. 31: Ne-Yo
Vol. 32: Blink-182
Vol. 33: One Direction
Vol. 34: Kelly Clarkson
Vol. 35: The B-52's
Vol. 36: Ludacris
Vol. 37: They Might Be Giants
Vol. 38: T-Pain
Vol. 39: Snoop Dogg
Vol. 40: Ciara
Vol. 41: Creedence Clearwater Revival

Tuesday, July 14, 2015
This week's Short List.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

My latest piece for Complex: Rap/R&B Collaborations Suck Now, And Rappers Are To Blame. I had fun writing this one.

Friday, July 10, 2015
This week's Short List.

TV Diary

Thursday, July 09, 2015

a) "Stitchers"
My favorite new show of the summer so far, "UnREAL," is surprisingly on Lifetime, and it's equally surprising that one of my other favorite new shows, "Stitchers," is on ABC Family. The premise is this weird sci-fi crime procedural hybrid -- there's a government agency comprised of people who lay in a pool, Minority Report-style, and access the memories of the deceased to solve crimes (which is also a little like another recent favorite, "iZombie"). But what I really like about the show is that the dialogue is sharp and they came right out of the gate with strong personalities for the leads played by Emma Ishta and Allison Scagliotti (who I loved on "Warehouse 13" and am really glad to see end up in such a promising new show).

b) "Why? With Hannibal Buress"
Everybody loves Hannibal Buress, I love him, he's by far the coolest famous person who for some reason follows me on Twitter. And it feels really overdue for him to have his own show, it's just a question of whether it's the right vehicle for him. He's great in a supporting role on "Broad City" but you get the sense he doesn't really wanna act a whole lot in his own show, and it makes sense that this is more of a current event standup thing with the occasional pre-taped segment. The first episode didn't blow me away but I could see this becoming really awesome once he gets in a groove.

c) "Zoo"
Different species of animals all suddenly becoming murderous towards humans is a good premise and all. But this show just doesn't have the budget to make it look cool, the first season just had some lame lion CGI.

d) "Humans"
There is, obviously, a lot of potential in a sci-fi show about a world with realistically human-looking service robots that may be developing sentience. And the way this one is going about it, with things very gradually getting ominous instead of going full on Terminator, is interesting. The first episode was a little slow, but the second one ramped things up nicely. Also it kind of feels like some kind of dark, unfortunate joke about stereotypes that one of the only shows on TV starring an Asian actress literally has her playing a robot.

e) "Scream"
By the time the last Scream sequel staggered into theaters four years ago, it seemed like the world had decided that the franchise's smug '90s meta had not aged well and that horror audiences had moved on. So it's a little strange that MTV still thinks it can get some blood out of this stone as a series. It even steps up the meta a little bit ("You can't do a slasher movie as a TV series," someone says in the first episode, and goes on to name ways this show shouldn't work). It's not terrible, but I feel like every semi-interesting character or storyline they sneak in is just kind of wasted on the staggering corpse of the Scream franchise.

f) "Ballers"
Dwayne "Isn't The Rock Anymore, Or At Least Don't Put It On The Poster, Thanks" Johnson is on such a roll right now as a movie star that it seems kind of gratuitous and almost deflating to make him the Adrian Grenier of HBO's latest bland bro dramedy. But the really damning thing about this show is that his charisma doesn't even carry the show like it often carries his movies, he's just given so little to do. There were a couple scenes in the pilot that made it seem like his character might get some pathos that you can actually feel, but it hasn't quite happened yet. And Lil Wayne and Drake's "Right Above It" might be the worst TV theme song choice in recent memory, that song has not aged well.

g) "The Brink"
I feel like this show is doing some kind of light, deadpan take on geopolitical warfare that worked well enough in stuff like Wag The Dog and Charlie Wilson's War but is maybe kind of outdated now and doesn't play as well. There are broader satirical elements, too, but I dunno, it's hard to say exactly where this show is headed or if it really has a point, or if it's just blithely playing around with this heavy subject matter. All the wacky Jack Black and Tim Robbins stuff kinda makes me wish they made Aasif Mandvi's straight man a little more of the show's central POV to ground it a little.

h) "Another Period"
A "Real Housewives"-type show about aristocrats from a century ago would be a slam dunk premise for a sketch, but stretching it out into an actual series is riskier. So far, though, they've gotten a lot of mileage out of the idea in the first couple episodes, and the cast is great.

i) "The Astronaut Wives Club"
As a period drama this is pretty light and frothy -- doesn't feel like they're trying too hard with the sets and costumes. and the presence of modern music in the soundtrack is sometimes really distracting. But, like "Mad Men" or "Masters Of Sex" or other recent shows about that era, it doesn't shy away from all the ways the world was much worse for women back then, and sometimes it makes those points through solid storytelling rather than heavyhanded irony.

j) "Boom!"
I feel like every time someone tries to parody how ridiculous game shows are now, they make another real one that's too insane to parody. This is just a usual quiz show with easy multiple choice questions, but if a contestant gets one wrong, a big goofy plastic bomb full of some manner of food substance will explode all over them. The audience wears raincoats like it's a Gallagher concert.

k) "Poldark"
This show is based on some old-timey novels about a British soldier returning home from the Revolutionary War after his fiancee thought he was dead and decided to marry his cousin instead. It's a pretty well made show but pretty slow moving and sometimes feels like a cheesy romance novel.

l) A Deadly Adoption
This is the Lifetime Original Movie that starred Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, and I have to admire their commitment to actually just taking what was probably just a preexisting straightforward script for a Lifetime movie and playing it straight. It speaks the weird effortless, maybe Pavlovian way you can just put two comic actors of their caliber in something like this and it just makes something that would've already been a little campy feel straight up comedic. It's kind of the same principle behind the movie The Informant! now that I think of it. Will Ferrell's beard alone was funnier than a couple of his last few movies.

m) "Killjoys"
I guess it's really easy to do a sci-fi show in Canada because it always seems like SyFy is picking up Canadian shows or shooting their shows there. This one has already done three seasons in Canada but just premiered here. I was kind of preemptively bored with the outer space bounty hunter premise, but it's gotten more interesting with each episode, and Hannah John-Kamen is a totally badass heroine.

n) "Complications"
This show is pretty weird, on one hand it has kind of a "Breaking Bad" vibe where a noble educated white man makes a choice and falls into this crazy violent life, and on the other there's just all this ridiculous stuff going on that never really makes sense as a TV show. It might work better with a different lead actor, but Ireland's Jason O'Mara is one of those actors who fakes an American accent really well but it seems to take so much of his concentration that he can only give an annoying one-note bug-eyed performance as an actor.

o) "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell"
I know this was a popular book, but I never read it and have found the show pretty hard to follow or care about. I'm curious if readers find it to be a good adaptation.

p) "Deutschland 83"
This show is pretty interesting, it's an '80s period piece espionage thriller like "The Americans," except it takes place in Germany. But, and I'm going to sound like such a moronic philistine, but the whole thing is actually in German and I find it wearying to watch a whole series with subtitles. I can deal with subtitles in movies now and again, but I dunno, it's not my favorite way of watching anything.

q) "Proof" 
This is kind of an interesting show because basically a dying billionaire hires a doctor to try and find scientific answers to questions about life after death and what happens to people in near-death experiences. And the show seems pretty committed to actually exploring that question in as many ways as it can, if in the framework of a weekly procedural. It's not terribly compelling TV but it feels like it could get pretty weird if it keeps going for a while.

r) "Wayward Pines"
I mocked this show as a totally doomed unwatched failure when it premiered a few weeks ago. But the joke's on me: it's steadily climbed in ratings and FOX is actually pursuing the possibility of bringing the 'event series' back for a second season in some form. I guess this means people liked the big twist that was revealed a few episodes in, but the whole thing felt like such a predictable M. Night Shyamalan move that really just handwaved all the wacky bullshit that had happened in the show up to that point instead of explaining it in any narratively satisfying way.

s) "The Comedians"
This show maintained such an odd balance of wanting to have its cake and eat it too. They wanted to do a behind-the-scenes show about clusterfucks in making a sketch comedy show, but unlike "30 Rock," they put work into making the sketches reasonably funny and showing you enough of them that they tend to be some of the best parts of the show. They make a point of having the two stars play unflattering versions of themselves, but neither of them really goes for anything gutsy and dark, they just have misunderstandings or make bad jokes mostly. But I generally liked the show, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad have pretty good chemistry when pretending to not have chemistry.

t) "True Detective"
There's been such a salty arms-folded attitude from a lot of people about "True Detective," basically from whatever point in the first season when it didn't turn into the exact show they wanted or expected to be, up through the casting news for the second season. But I enjoyed all of the first season and wanted to give this one the benefit of the doubt, and I'm gonna see where this goes. I have to admit, though, the first three episodes have been rough going. I always thought Vince Vaughn was naturally suited for comedy and that the years between Swingers and Old School that he did mostly dramas were a big waste, but I kinda wanted to see him step up and be the McConaughey of this season. Instead the dialogue just never sounds right coming out of his mouth, like he doesn't know what syllable to emphasize and they just kept the lousy first take. Rachel McAdams might still be the MVP of this season, if just by virtue of the guys mostly being sweaty awkward hams.

u) "Tyrant" 
I barely made it to the end of the first season of this hoping something compelling would happen, and I'm not sure why I've even bothered with this season. The most interesting thing in this season is that the bearded brother is now clean shaven and the clean shaven brother has grown a beard. That's it.

v) "The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail"
I appreciate that Comedy Central keeps trying to breathe new life into the standup comedy showcase with these offbeat variations on the format. But this show just feel like it's a lot more fun to be in the room than to watch the filmed footage of it, a lot of it is kind of insular half-assed schtick. There's been some good standup, though, it was my first time seeing Carmen Esposito and I thought she was hilarious.

w) "Silicon Valley"
I sometimes feel like I'm watching a completely different show from the one people are so excited about. But this season was good, they found a groove. Zach Woods and T.J. Miller are so funny than I kinda wonder sometimes why I have to wait through so much Thomas Middleditch to see them.

x) "Suits"
At this point "Suits" is clearly one of those shows that USA is going to milk for like 8 seasons, so now that we're into the 5th season we're kind of over the hump. And I have to say, they've kept the show pretty lively this long, it's not as good as it was the first couple years, but it's strong. Constantly finding new ways to make Louis Litt a loathesome but somehow sympathetic foil/villain/frenemy is maybe not the most creative thing in the world for the show to focus on, but he's a great character, I like how they've maintained that balance.

y) "Unsung"
I'm fond of joking that this show has covered so many hugely successful acts now that they should just call it "Sung," and the narration and production values sometimes make me miss the slightly more polished "Behind The Music." But I'm still so glad a show like this exists, and there've been some good episodes this season, particularly the ones about DJ Quik and Chuck Brown. Getting to watch an hour of television about the Godfather of Go-Go, and then seeing Trouble Funk perform to a full arena a week later, was really marvelous feeling.

z) "Last Call With Carson Daly"
I'm amazed this show has hung on, through all the changes in late night. It's like NBC is committed to staying on the air until 2am every night, but they can't think of anything better to do than what they've done for the past 13 years. I can remember a time when they seemed to enjoy being this low budget no pressure show and be kind of freeform, but whenever I see the show now it's kind of hilarious how half-assed it all is. Usually half the show is interviews where some producer sits off-camera and fires questions at an actor, Carson isn't even there, and then put a camera in a club where a band is playing, and show them doing a couple songs. It doesn't even remotely seem like anybody cares what goes on the air, it's completely on autopilot.

Monthly Report: June 2015 Albums

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

1. Vince Staples - Summertime '06
The Hell Can Wait EP was one of my favorite releases last year, because it was such a powerful, compact 24-minute introduction to this impressive rapper I hadn't really paid attention to before. This album is a hour long but divided into a 'double album' with two 30-minute halves that work well apart or together, each even stronger than Hell Can Wait, and it's just a lot to take in. It's not even especially strange or offbeat record, it's almost entirely beats and rhymes, but the beats have these squalls of bass and funky frequencies that kind of keep you on edge, and Vince raps in that kind of pinched nasal register that half of all Cali rappers seemed to use in the '90s and not as much since then. The sense of humor he has on Twitter and in interviews only comes across in his lyrics as a dry wit, but there's a lot of provocative, thoughtful stuff here, stuff you wanna debate or chew on or just sit back impressed at how well he phrased it. That opening run of "Lift Me Up" and "Norf Norf" and "Birds & Bees" is incredible. These are all in my 2015 albums Spotify playlist by the way.

2. Heartless Bastards - Restless Ones
I've enjoyed Heartless Bastards' previous albums, but this one is just hitting me a lot harder than the others have. Dave Colvin gives one of the best drumming performances over the course of the album that I've heard in a while, this loosely swinging, powerful way of moving the songs forward with some really brilliant fills. I don't know why I didn't notice what a brilliant drummer he is before, might be the clarity and fullness of the production on this one. The guitars sound gorgeous, too. "Into The Light" is the standout track for me so far.

3. Meek Mill - Dreams Worth More Than Money
I'm happy with the Noisey review I filed of this album less than 12 hours after it was released, but obviously after you write something that quickly based on a couple of listens, you wanna keep listening to let it sink in. I noticed this the other day and it kinda sits well with me, Meek's albums and Dreamchasers mixtapes all have different strengths and weaknesses but are all pretty close in overall quality.

4. Miguel - Wildheart
Miguel been one of the most exciting R&B artists of the last 5 years, in part because he's managed to fuse his retro sensibilities and his artsy ambitions with an ear for radio hits. And this album, good as it is, makes me a little sad because that balance is lost as his commercial sensibilities falter. My friend Maura Johnston's interview showed that he was aware of the challenge of following up his last record but not daunted by it ("I'll never make another Kaleidoscope Dream. I'll never write 'Adorn' again") and already the first week sales, which were barely more than half of what Kaleidoscope Dream did, bore that out. I don't even know what the 2nd single could possibly be. I like a lot of the album, though -- "What's Normal Anyway" is a beautiful mission statement, "Leaves" and "...goingtohell" are some of his best uses of guitar to date, "NWA" was one of my favorites from last year's EP and serves a very welcome purpose as a sonic outlier here. The sequence just falls a little flat, the first 3 tracks are pretty much the weakest on the album, I've already taken to playing it on shuffle mode.

5. Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
Yet another follow-up to an album that was a really big deal to me -- Same Trailer Different Park was one of the best albums in the hardest year of my life, and songs like "Blowin' Smoke" and "Back On The Map" helped me get through it. So I dunno if this album will ever mean as much to me, but it's a strong record, one that doesn't really deserve the sophomore slump backlash or 'savior of country' hyperbole it's getting from different corners of the music critic world. I like the light touch of the arrangements, some great pedal steel and string arrangements sitting on top of these sturdy, simple acoustic riffs. I do think it's funny that she sings "I don't wanna be a part of your good ol' boys club," and then less than 10 minutes later she's singing with Willie Nelson.

6. King Los - God, Money, War
It's been almost 10 years since Los came over to my old apartment in Baltimore for an interview and it's been weird and surreal watching him continue to slowly work his way into the music industry and become if not a major star than a serious contender. After he left Bad Boy, he signed with RCA Records, and this was his first retail release with them -- basically his major label debut, but it was minimally promoted as some kind of precursor to the 'real' album next year. And it still charted pretty well, and has, like, fucking R. Kelly on it. The song with him is really good, too! King Los is an incredibly talented rapper, and he plays with words and flows as intricately as any Kendrick Lamar or Lupe Fiasco (to name two guys who've given him props), but Los never had a really strong viewpoint or social conscience in his lyrics, he was just kinda rappin' about whatever. This album feels like a little bit of a corrective to that, a few of the songs really get heavy, this article broke down one of them pretty well. The beat selection is hit and miss but overall it's a pretty promising direction for him to go in.

7. Tori Kelly - Unbreakable Smile
I really enjoyed Tori Kelly's single "Nobody Love" a few months ago, and in April, I was asked to write an article about summer jams that predicted the 2015 song of the summer. This week the article was finally published, long after "Nobody Love" dropped out of the Hot 100 without getting very far, and I kinda feel silly about my prediction. But her album came out and did pretty well, sold more than Kacey Musgraves, and the whole thing has a similar sunny Max Martin sheen with the occasional acoustic track and really impressive vocals.

8. Jason Derulo - Everything Is 4
Derulo is so scattershot just as a singles artist that I never would've expected an album of his to be worth a damn, but this is pretty great. "Want To Want Me" is one of the best pop songs of the year and "X2CU" and "Try Me" are up to the same standard. The K. Michelle duet is the most credible he's sounded as an R&B singer, and "Get Ugly" and the song with Stevie Wonder and Keith Urban are even more ridiculous than "Talk Dirty," so the whole album kind of feels like a satisfying combination of craft and novelty.

9. Tamia - Love Life
Tamia has always been on this mild adult contempo end of R&B and has made some singles I've really loved, but I'm impressed at how well she's settled into her own unique aesthetic and mastered it. It's that upscale '80s R&B sound that a lot of people fetishize now but few can really do well. Pop & Oak and Chuck Harmony and Polow Da Don have some heat on here.

10. Bilal - In Another Life
I dug Bilal's last album A Love Surreal, and this one makes the interesting choice of ramping up the idiosyncratic sonics while making the songs shorter and more concise -- almost every song is about 3 minutes long, only one goes over 4 minutes. The live drumming throughout most of the album is kind of a drag, just because the drummer is terrible, can't get a groove going at all, but all the wiggy instrumental textures suit Bilal's odd slithering voice pretty well.

Worst Album of the Month: Tyga - The Gold Album: 18th Dynasty
I almost feel bad even mentioning this album, it kinda goes without saying that Tyga is garbage and nobody liked this shit. But it still impresses me that Kanye's exec producer credit means absolutely nothing, there's not even much of the offbrand Yeezus vibe that a couple of the pre-album singles had. The actual production comes mostly from Mike Dean, who surely deserves to be given more important things to do than a Tyga album and playing in Travi$ Scott's touring band. It seems like No I.D. was wise to leave the Kanye camp and get his Def Jam gig and do great shit like the Vince Staples album.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

A couple new pieces for Complex: Remember These Songs Of The Summer? and 16 Life Lessons We Learned From Rakim's Lyrics.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Foo Fighters celebrated their 20th anniversary on Saturday with a big all-day concert at RFK stadium with Trouble Funk, Buddy Guy, LL Cool J, Heart and more, and I had the opportunity to cover the show for Rolling Stone.

(photo by Joy Asico)

Friday, July 03, 2015
This week's Short List.