Category Archives: music review

Live: WAPOP [Collaboration of K-Drama and K-Pop]

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Dance performance team Blue Whale Brothers performs in the WAPOP concert at Children’s Grand Park. SCREAMfmLondon

When a friend offered me free tickets to a “k-drama k-pop concert thing” called WAPOP, I, of course, just had to go see the live combination of these forms of entertainment.

WAPOP is an ongoing event that takes place at 8 p.m. every single Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The name comes from some strange combination of “Wow Pop” and “World & Asia,” and the event is clearly marketed toward tourists specifically from China. The website is offered in Chinese, Korean and Japanese, but a lot of the pre-show content deals with the relationship between South Korea and China, and a lot of the dialogue is in Mandarin.

The performers change from night to night, but the current players frequently include 24K (my favorite rookie group from last year’s Dream Concert!), A.Cian (my favorite rookie group from this year’s Dream Concert!), Bloomy and Minx.

In addition to the k-pop concert, WAPOP also offers live k-drama performances, b-boy dancing, and wild laser light tricks. The whole thing is virtually hosted by actor Lee Byung-hun, who escorts the audience on a train ride through space and time via incredibly deluxe 260-degree panorama video projection.

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The duo Meivley performs a song from the original soundtrack of the popular drama “Descendants of the Sun.” SCREAMfmLondon

When I imagined “live k-drama,” I basically just figured they’d show an episode of “Boys Over Flowers” on the big screen and be done with it. However, the k-drama bits are, in fact, very cool. The big screen is used to show key scenes from popular shows like “My Love From Another Star” and “Descendants of the Sun” while live musicians and dancers perform dramatic scenes on the stage.

When Lee Byung-hun first drops us off in the Joseon Dynasty for some Korean culture, the historical drama is augmented with hip-hop dancing to the tune of a traditional Korean stringed instrument, the gayaguem. The k-drama scenes make great use of the stage and the theater’s technology.

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Minx performs T-ara’s “Roly Poly” onstage at the WAPOP concert. SCREAMfmLondon

In between each k-drama performance, a different rookie idol group takes the stage to perform a few songs — usually two original songs and one cover.

On the night I attended, girl group Bloomy performed first, introducing original songs “흥칫뿡” and “Because of You,” which are both surprisingly excellent. The group is really new (they debuted in February), but the performance was legit. The second girl group, Minx, was less impressive, but they performed a fun cover of T-ara’s hit song “Roly Poly,” so that was something.

A.Cian, the only boy group that night, closed the event. I remember loving their catchy single “Touch” the last time I saw them live, and they delivered again at the WAPOP concert. Their dancing is over-the-top cute, their outfits are over-the-top stupid, and they are overflowing with fanservice. The perfect combination. They, naturally, closed the show with a cover of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” because that’s what you do when you’re targeting an audience of tourists.

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A.Cian performs their single “Touch” at the WAPOP concert. SCREAMfmLondon

I actually really enjoyed the whole show, and I ended up downloading both A.Cian’s and Bloomy’s albums when I got home. Loved it and would totally do it again.

That being said, I have no idea who the hell would pay $70 for this experience. There are a million opportunities to see huge k-pop stars perform for free. So why would anyone pay this price to see some random rookie acts perform two songs alongside a video projection of Lee Byung-hun? If they sell any tickets at all, that blows my mind.

But WAPOP is a cool experience, really. I would pay, like… five bucks to see it again.

WAPOP
238 Neungdong-ro Gwangjin-gu
8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday
Tickets range from 50,000 to 70,000 KRW
For more information, visit www.wapophall.com.

Live: Big Bang ‘MADE’ World Tour Final in Seoul

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G-Dragon performs onstage at Big Bang’s MADE World Tour final concert in Seoul on March 6. SCREAMfmLondon

Last year, I saw the first two concerts of Big Bang’s MADE World Tour, where the group introduced the first singles from the “MADE” album series. Over the past few months, Big Bang’s “MADE” songs have dominated the charts and racked up awards while the band has performed a record-breaking tour around the world (the biggest k-pop show held in Canada, the largest k-pop arena tour in the US, the largest crowd a foreign artist has drawn in Japan).

On Sunday, March 6, Big Bang officially performed the final MADE concert back home at Olympic Gymnastics Arena in Seoul. The final show (the last of three Seoul concerts this weekend) was livestreamed worldwide and reached more than 3 million viewers. For those of us in town, the sold-out shows inspired fans to queue for hours in the pouring rain hoping for last-minute tickets (yes, including me, hello).

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Taeyang performs at Olympic Gymnastics Arena in Seoul on March 6. SCREAMfmLondon

The show opened and closed with a bang — three, to be precise. “Bang Bang Bang” was the unofficial song of 2015, sweeping year-end awards and blowing everyone’s minds with its powerful chorus, extraordinary lyrics, and ultra-catchy dance beats. The song’s best lines set the tone for the night’s atmosphere: “Today, this place is lawless. / I’ll set this place on fire to burn up your heart. / I wanna make you go crazy.” Let’s go!

Throughout the night, Big Bang powered through the majority of their “MADE” hits including “Sober” (during which the band members donned fabulous glittery jackets of varying styles), the heart-breaking ballad “If You,” and “Zutter,” the amazing hip-hop duet featuring G-Dragon and T.O.P. Last April, Big Bang introduced “Bae Bae” and “Loser,” the tracks from the first “MADE” EP, at the Seoul concerts. This time around, the group performed “Bae Bae” twice, and fans throughout the arena held up signs proclaiming “Big Bang is my everything.”

The band members treated Korean fans to their usual solo stages as well as some additional silliness. Seungri performed a dance to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” and self-proclaimed dance god/ghost T.O.P also really cut a rug in the strangest manner possible. GD sprawled out on the stage in front of me, cuddled with a stuffed panda, and then descended into the audience to cause some pandemonium — to our utter delight. The Big Bang members are ceaselessly charming and brimming with talent. There is a reason hundreds of us huddled under our umbrellas all day for the chance to see them live.

As the show wound to a close, we were all sad to see the end approaching. In addition to concluding the MADE World Tour, these shows also marked the 10th anniversary of the band’s debut in 2006. Before leaving the stage, Big Bang announced plans to hold a 10th anniversary festival this summer, earning shrieks of joy from fans who have been worried about the band’s future as the time for the members to enlist for their mandatory military service draws closer.

Finally, the band showed off their ten years of experience and expertise with an encore of “Bang Bang Bang” as well as the seminal 2012 hit “Fantastic Baby.” As always, Big Bang is a sight to behold. I fully intend to be there for the day-long anniversary festival this summer, and wherever the road takes them after that. After all, Big Bang is my everything.

Live: Epik High and JYP (separately, of course)

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Epik High appears onstage at Olympic Hall in Seoul on Dec. 12. SCREAMfmLondon

My favorite hip-hop trio Epik High played two high-profile shows at Olympic Hall in Seoul on Dec. 11 and 12 as the final stops of the “Legends 3” concert series. The concert teasers featured Epik High’s Tablo, Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz hilariously parodying old-school k-pop groups, as well as the heads of SM, YG and JYP Entertainment. And they kept the joke going throughout the concert — Tukutz even bravely came out onstage wearing JYP’s infamous plastic pants. It was one hell of an entertaining show.

The two concerts featured a wide array of guest artists. On the night I attended, performers included JYJ’s Junsu, Nell’s Kim Jong-wan, and Younha, among others. Junsu performed three songs: “OeO,” “Flower,” and a really boring one from the musical “Dracula” that he stars in. The band members’ families were also in attendance, including Tablo’s daughter Haru who appears alongside him on the reality show “The Return of Superman” and has become a celebrity in her own right. At one point, Tablo suddenly appeared beside me in the crowd, rapping his lines as he made his way over to Haru to have her scream into the microphone for him. But the best moments were, obviously, Epik High’s excellent live performances of songs like “Don’t Hate Me,” “New Beautiful,” “Born Hater” and “Burj Khalifa.” My high is epik. So good.

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The first stop on JYP’s Naughty Party “STRIP” was Incheon’s Samsan World Gymnasium on Dec. 5. SCREAMfmLondon

JYP’s Naughty Party “STRIP” show certainly lived up to its name. I don’t know what I was expecting. I definitely was not expecting it to be 44-year-old Park Jin-young himself who was stripping, but hey. I had never before seen anyone take off all their clothes in the middle of a passionate piano solo — only you, JYP.

The concert featured songs spanning the musician/producer/CEO/lecher’s 23-year-long music career, including his most recent hits, “Who’s Your Mama?” and “I’m So Sexy,” as well as a cover of Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.” JYP danced impressively and was reasonably entertaining. In between songs, he presented several scenes inspired by “Fifty Shades of Grey,” including one in which he simulates sex with a woman in an elevator and another in which he’s handcuffed inside a metal cell with a dominatrix. At one point, he called a couple from the audience to join him onstage, tied them to two separate beds and grinded all up on the woman while her boyfriend was seduced by backup dancers. I was pretty scandalized, and I don’t think I’ll ever get that image of topless JYP out of my mind. Thanks a lot.

Theater: Blue Square presents ‘In the Heights’

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Seoul’s production of “In the Heights” in the Samsung Card Hall at Blue Square. SCREAMfmLondon

“In the Heights” is a much-acclaimed musical centered on a Dominican-American neighborhood in Washington Heights in New York City. So you might’ve guessed why it’s slightly weird to see this musical put on in Seoul in the Samsung Card Hall at Blue Square.

Seoul’s “In the Heights” production is highly entertaining, of course. The cast even impressively weaves Spanish and English (as well as hip-hop and salsa dancing) into the all-Korean script. The show is executed flawlessly: the singing is superb, the acting is charming and the dancing is lively. All it is lacking is the emotional connection, because so much of the story is deeply connected to the characters’ ethnic backgrounds.

The original Broadway production of “In the Heights” was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who won several Tony Awards for his music, lyrics and acting and is currently performing on Broadway as Alexander Hamilton in the hip-hop musical “Hamilton” for which he also wrote the music and lyrics.

“In the Heights” centers on Usnavi, a character born in the Dominican Republic and named after a US Navy ship (one of the first things his parents saw in America). With his comic relief sidekick, Sonny, Usnavi runs a bodega that is frequented by the neighborhood residents.

These include: Benny, the aspiring businessman who works as a dispatcher at the cab company and is the play’s only non-Latino character; Nina, who has returned home for the summer to reveal to her parents that she dropped out of Stanford University; and Vanessa, a hairstylist who dreams of getting an apartment of her own and moving away from the Barrio.

The Seoul production features a rotating group of k-pop stars and actors in the lead roles. The performance I attended saw Infinite’s Jang Dong-woo and Kim Sung-kyu as Usnavi and Benny, Oh So-yeon as Vanessa and Kim Bo-kyung as Nina.

The cast’s talent and passion is unquestionable. The best moments are the musical’s large, ensemble numbers that fully utilize the backup dancers — “Carnaval del Barrio,” “Blackout” and “96,000,” during which the entire neighborhood comes out to fantasize about winning $96,000 in the lottery.

The main cast was, overall, very impressive. So-yeon and Bo-kyung both demonstrated powerful vocals (although Vanessa is an infinitely more interesting character than Nina, who is kind of a drag).

Dongwoo and Sungkyu were incredibly charming in their roles. Dongwoo had great comedic timing and command of the stage, and Sungkyu developed excellent chemistry with his co-stars and was very likeable throughout. It was a pleasure to watch them explore the personalities of their characters. However, this was the first time in my life I’ve ever seen fans rush the stage at the end of a musical theater production, like we were about to open up the mosh pit. I was all but clutching my pearls.

It was worth it, though. “In the Heights” is a good show, and although it makes less sense overseas than it would in the US, the Seoul cast and crew have done nice work with the material. I hope we’ll get to see “Hamilton” next!

‘In the Heights’
294 Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu
Weekdays at 8 p.m., weekends at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday through November 22
Tickets range from 70,000 – 130,000 KRW
For more information, visit www.interpark.com.

Live: Big Bang at Olympic Gymnastics Arena

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Fans arrive at Seoul’s Olympic Gymnastics Arena to see Big Bang’s first concert of the 2015 MADE World Tour on April 25. SCREAMfmLondon

Approaching Olympic Park in Seoul this weekend was like arriving in Emerald City at the end of the yellow brick road. The expansive sidewalks were lined with banners billowing in the wind — each one depicting a member of the five-piece K-pop group Big Bang sporting a ridiculous hairstyle. Above them floated giant, luminescent balloons displaying phrases like “빅뱅 IS BACK.” It was magical.

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Big Bang’s official light sticks are so cool until you’re trying to see around them in the crowd. SCREAMfmLondon

The moment had finally arrived for Big Bang’s much-anticipated comeback after about three years of the members focusing on solo work and not releasing any new group material. The momentous occasion was marked with two consecutive concerts at Seoul’s Olympic Gymnastics Arena on April 25 and 26 — and I attended them both.

The MADE 2015 World Tour dates in Seoul served to usher in a new era for the band. Here’s the plan: Big Bang will release an EP on the first day of each month from May to September of this year (“M,” “A,” “D” and “E”). Each EP will feature two new singles — until September, when the full-length studio album “Made” will finally be released. It’s kind of complicated. I love it.

The first two songs — due to be released May 1 — were introduced at this weekend’s concerts. And they are both killer tracks.

The group presented “Loser” first by screening the official music video, which was filmed just a few weeks ago in downtown Los Angeles. One scene shows G-Dragon sprawling out despondently across Spring Street as the ol’ Metro Rapid lumbers past. Truly a merging of my favorite worlds.

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T.O.P rocking that hairstyle like only he can. SCREAMfmLondon

The video is exactly the kind of music video I love — a classic strung-out, rock ‘n roll aesthetic to match the song’s maudlin theme. Taeyang spray paints messages about sin at a trailer park, Seungri smashes some furniture, Daesung gets his ass kicked out front of a convenience store, T.O.P wears his pajamas outside. It’s perfect, and it perfectly matches the song’s gorgeous lyrics. In the first verse, G-Dragon admits, “Honestly, I’ve never fit in… / Love was already forgotten to me, who was alone. / I’ve had enough of hopeful love songs.”

After screening the video, the band reappeared onstage in a revolving platform of windows and mirrors to perform the song live for the first time. In fact, they performed each of the new songs about three or four times each (if you count some of the a capella bits) both nights, which sounds like it would be annoying but was actually wonderful and super effective in harnessing the excitement for the first EP release. Now I don’t want to listen to anything else. ‘Cause I’m just a loser, loner, a coward who pretends to be strong~

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Seungri in the foreground with T.O.P on the big screen. SCREAMfmLondon

During the live performance, Seungri really sold “Loser,” carrying the chorus and adding emotional flourishes to his act. Seungri’s overall performances really stood out at both of the Seoul concerts. In between “How Gee” and “Feeling,” he appeared onstage with a set of turntables to try his hand at DJing, which was a cool way to introduce yet another style of music to Big Bang’s already eclectic repertoire. Seungri was terribly affable and charming during all of his spoken interludes too, but the real highlight was the unexpectedly sexy dance he delivered during “Strong Baby.” Also, his is the only 2015 Big Bang makeover that doesn’t look kinda stupid.

At the midpoint of the band’s three-hour long concerts, each member took the stage solo to show off their individual strengths.

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G-Dragon, Seungri and Daesung perform in Seoul on April 26. SCREAMfmLondon

T.O.P made an impression with his intense rendition of “Doom Dada” in a Piet Mondrian-print suit. Definitely in the running for best wardrobe change, but slightly edged out by G-Dragon in calf-length fur, combat boots and gold, glittery jackets for his “Good Boy” duet with Taeyang and solo performance of “Crooked.” G-Dragon is an incredible artist, and it’s pretty awe-inspiring to be in his presence while he’s doing his thing. What a joy it is to be in the same universe, the same country, the same room as Kwon Ji-yong.

Following G-Dragon’s solo, the band premiered its second new song, “Bae Bae,” with a lyric video followed again by a live performance. “Bae Bae” is another brilliant track — so different in tone from “Loser” but nonetheless cohesive. It’s a more seductive, R&B-style track with a mellow, guitar-driven chorus. G-Dragon and T.O.P both deliver killer verses (GD’s intonation on each repetition of “bae bae” is so perfect — I don’t know how he does it). My favorite line is GD’s “Is she a person or an angel? / Oh, Jesus, bae bae!”

There was never a low point at either of Big Bang’s two Seoul concerts this weekend. Both shows were exceptional from beginning to end.

For two days, I had the pleasure of spending three uninterrupted hours watching pop music at its absolute best. It’s truly a sight to behold. I feel like I have seen a lot of things, but I have never seen anything like Big Bang. Onstage, they bare it all: the dedication and work ethic, the unique talents of each member, the genuine enjoyment of the craft, the fun-loving energy, the limitless creativity, the catchiest hooks of “Fantastic Baby” and “Stupid Liar,” the powerful range of “Blue” and “Bad Boy,” the outfits, the dancing, the special effects, the thought put into every moment.

You may have seen a lot of things, but you have never seen anything like Big Bang.

The ten best One Direction songs (according to me)

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Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik. Photo courtesy of Columbia Records, Syco Music and Sony Music.

The passing of another November means that it has officially been one year since my inaugural One Direction post, and the time for another is upon us. Rather than inflict another 1,000-word review of “Four” on the world (we all know I’d do it), I have decided to use my expertise and wisdom to compile a list of the all-time best One Direction songs. I have effectively ranked every single one of them (what did you do with your day?), but here I will share only my top ten:

  1. “Fireproof”

Released as a free download this September in anticipation of “Four,” “Fireproof” is a chill guitar-driven love song that gave me high hopes for the rest of the record. Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the best song on the record. Louis Tomlinson’s usually reedy voice lends itself extremely well to this song, and his verse is the best part: “I think I’m gonna win this time, / I roll and I roll ‘till I change my luck.” “Fireproof” is mature and romantic — a strong collaboration between Louis, Liam Payne and longtime songwriting partners Jamie Scott, John Ryan and Julian Bunetta.

  1. “Strong”

One of the most musically unconventional and experimental One Direction songs. The lyrics are simple, passionate and vulnerable with solid songwriting contributions (again) from Louis. Love the soft, understated rhythm of the verses — particularly the first two, which utilize Zayn Malik and Liam’s vocal talents well. Is that so wrong? Is it so wrong that you make me strong?

  1. “Teenage Dirtbag”

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    I can’t take a picture to save my life. If you squint: Niall at the Rose Bowl in September. SCREAMfmLondon

This is a cover, and One Direction never actually recorded a studio version, so it probably doesn’t belong on the list. But it’s just so damn superb. It’s worth it to sift through the numerous live versions of this Wheatus cover to find one you can hear over the screaming crowds. There are so many things to love: Liam’s falsetto, Zayn’s immense high notes, Harry Styles’ attitude and Niall Horan’s playfully roguish verse and guitar work. One Direction takes this pop-punk jam to the next level of mischievous teenage rebelliousness, and it’s awesome.

  1. “Heart Attack”

Just a generally fun, upbeat track from 2012’s “Take Me Home.” Nothing too complex about this one: the highlights are Niall’s punctuating “OW!”s that kick off every chorus. “Heart Attack” is a well-executed pop track that’ll get you pumped up and on the dance floor despite your broken heart.

  1. “Best Song Ever”

It is a good one. It’s at least the best nonsensical pop song on “Midnight Memories.” The best part is Harry’s verse: “Said her name was Georgia Rose, / And her daddy was a dentist. / Said I had a dirty mouth, / But she kissed me like she meant it.” And the accompanying music video is a work of art with Zayn in drag and the closest One Direction has ever come to a choreographed dance routine.

  1. “Tell Me a Lie”

No one was expecting “Tell Me a Lie” to crack the top five, right? I might be alone in my zealous love for this song, but it’s really great. The track was wise beyond its years when One Direction recorded it for their debut album, “Up All Night.” It comes across as emotional, earnest and experienced, which is unusual for a One Direction song. Kelly Clarkson is actually one of the songwriters, and that resoundingly sad-yet-upbeat chorus really gets to you: “If he’s the reason that you’re leaving me tonight, / Spare me what you think, and / Tell me a lie.”

  1. “What Makes You Beautiful”

Iconic. Where would we be without “What Makes You Beautiful”? It’s One Direction’s 2011 breakout hit, and it still holds up today. I hate the message, but this song sucks you in. What a jam. If you have a room full of people younger than 30, “What Makes You Beautiful” will never fail to get the party started.

  1. “She’s Not Afraid”

    Louis, Zayn and Liam at the Rose Bowl in September. SCREAMfmLondon

    Louis, Zayn and Liam at the Rose Bowl in September. SCREAMfmLondon

An underrated bonus track from the deluxe edition of “Take Me Home.” “She’s Not Afraid” is a slick pop track with an edgier twist, describing the girl who “sneaks out in the middle of the night, / tight dress with the top cut low. / She’s addicted to the feeling of letting go,” but she won’t commit to a relationship (or even being seen in public with you). It’s one of One Direction’s sexiest songs, and it’s very good.

  1. “Kiss You”

This is One Direction at the pinnacle of their boybandom: it is cutesy modern pop perfected. Flawless sound production, immensely catchy verses and an incredibly endearing music video. It’s just irresistibly charming. This is what they were chosen to do, and they do it impeccably on “Kiss You.”

  1. “Happily”

Such an impressive song. “Happily” so amazingly captures the passion and desperation of young love. It makes me wish I was 16, running away from home to be with the boy from the wrong side of the tracks against all odds. With a raw, folksy rhythm to back up an emotional chorus (“I don’t care what people say when we’re together!”), “Happily” is hands-down one of One Direction’s strongest songs.

Album review: Taylor Swift, ‘1989’

Photo courtesy of Big Machine Records.

In a schadenfreude kind of way, I like that “1989” represents Taylor Swift’s further descent from hopeless romantic toward bitter cynicism. Thanks for joining us, Taylor.

She’s always been great at capturing a uniquely Millennial kind of loneliness characterized by a desperation for love but an inability to figure out how to really connect with anyone. This is especially evident in “Out of the Woods,” a haunting song about struggling to hold onto a new relationship with the chorus repeatedly chanting, “Are we out of the woods yet? Are we in the clear yet?”

Another excellent melancholy song about ill-fated love is “I Know Places.” Again, Taylor depicts clinging to a doomed relationship, singing, “See the vultures circling, dark clouds. / Love’s a fragile little thing, it could burn out. / It could burn out. / ‘Cause they got the cages, they got the boxes, / And guns. / They are the hunters, we are the foxes, / And we run.” The dark tone of the song is enhanced with a few edgier vocal embellishments and an overall lower, more somber pitch to the music.

Probably the best straightforward pop song on the album is “All You Had to Do Was Stay.” It features a strong chorus and deals with an all-too-relatable subject matter, which is Taylor’s specialty. The ultra high-pitched punctuation of “stay” throughout the song is an amazing touch.

I do wish that we, as a society, knew less gossip about Taylor’s personal life, because I found it essentially impossible to separate what I “know” about her from the music itself. Maybe I would have liked “Bad Blood” more if I could have heard it as a song about being betrayed by a friend rather than a song about that time Katy Perry snatched all of the dancers from Taylor’s tour to use for her own, but we’ll never know because Taylor’s music can’t really stand on its own anymore. (Although I would venture a guess that the song would still suck either way.)

In addition to “Bad Blood,” there are some real weak points on the album.

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Photo courtesy of Big Machine Records.

The first single, “Shake It Off,” is quite bad, but it still gets stuck in my head all the time. It’s an obnoxiously catchy pop song that sounds like Avril Lavigne circa 2007, which is also coincidentally the last time it was clever to use the phrase “Haters gonna hate.” The worst part is the horrifyingly embarrassing spoken word bit in the middle: “Hey, hey, hey! Just think: while you’ve been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world, you could’ve been getting down to this sick beat.” Let’s not and say we did.

“Wildest Dreams” is such an overtly obvious attempt at a Lana Del Rey track it’s a little painful. It’s not a bad melody, though. I also enjoyed it when it was “Without You” on Lana’s 2012 album, “Born to Die.”

Overall, I think Taylor is a good storyteller, a strong songwriter and a great businesswoman. She’s phenomenal at marketing herself and interacting with her fans. The deluxe edition of the album includes three “voice memos” that detail Taylor’s writing process for a few choice songs, which is a cool insight and makes me kind of want to hang out and write music with her.

However, I don’t think she has a commanding presence or any star power, which is weird because she’s become a huge star. She doesn’t have much vocal range, and she was wildly disappointing when I saw her perform live a couple of weeks ago on Hollywood Boulevard.

Altogether, I can’t really say that “1989” is any better or worse than any of Taylor Swift’s previous albums. It has about the exact same handful of good songs as ever, alongside the same number of boring ballads and boring dance-pop tracks. The tl;dr of it is that she attempted to go in a different direction but achieved basically the same result.

Taylor Swift
1989
Release Date: Oct. 27
Genre: Pop
Grade: C+

Album review: Epik High, ‘Shoebox’

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Photo courtesy of YG Entertainment.

“Shoebox” is Epik High’s eighth studio album since its inception in 2003. The trio, comprised of Tablo, Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz, returned from serving their mandatory years in the military to release “99” (a nod to the 99 percent) in 2012. Which isn’t that great of an album. “Shoebox,” on the other hand, is a real return to form for the killer alternative rap group.

So, let’s talk about “Born Hater.”

“Born Hater” is a masterpiece. (“Dali, Van, Picasso, / I’m Velazquez, Millet, El fuckin’ Greco,” as Tablo puts it.) The song features powerful rappers from three different generations of Korean rap: the well-established Verbal Jint, the second generation Beenzino, and the up-and-coming B.I., Mino and Bobby. Mino, a rapper from the boyband WINNER, has a standout verse about the criticism he’s drawn for being signed to the YG Entertainment label.

The song’s accompanying vertical music video uses the Seven Deadly Sins as a theme, and it’s all brilliant. “Born Hater” is a much-hyped song, but it’s totally worthy of all the praise. It’s a sick, stripped-down rap jam in its rawest form.

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Epik High’s “Shoebox.” Photo courtesy of YG Entertainment.

The whole album gives off a vibe reminiscent of the authenticity and awareness of early ‘90s hip-hop with a modern, cutting-edge twist. The songs are substantial, touching on issues such as religion in “Amor Fati,” which opens with Tablo declaring “God doesn’t love me,” and contains the refrain “I believe in myself, / I believe in the sweat on my hands, / I believe in my heart, / I believe in love, / But they call me a non-believer.”

A few simpler, straight-up party jams include “Burj Khalifa” and “Life is Good.” The former features Yankie of TBNY and Gaeko of Dynamic Duo; it has a strong beat and name-drops a lot of drugs. What more do you need in a party anthem? Layered over this, a robotic female voice echoes, “My high is epic.”

As for the slower tracks, “Spoiler” is a gorgeous, broken-hearted ballad, and the cover of Taeyang’s “Eyes, Nose, Lips” is a fabulous spin on the original. Tablo really elevates the song: the Epik High version is significantly less drippy than Taeyang’s without losing the emotional impact and is, thereby, much better. The climax of the song comes toward the end, when Taeyang harmonizes with Tablo’s lower-pitched vocals, and it really brings the track together.

Taeyang (of Big Bang fame) is also featured on “Rich” and provides some uncredited background vocals for “Amor Fati.” “Rich” is another great track — a play on Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal “C.R.E.A.M.” In the song’s hook, Taeyang sings, “I wish, I wish, I wish I was rich. / My drive rules everything around me.”

There is so much variation on “Shoebox” and so many different featured artists, but it’s still such a cohesive album that reinforces Epik High’s place in hip-hop. Excellent release.

Epik High
Shoebox
Release Date: Oct. 21
Genre: Hip-hop, Rap
Grade: A-

Album review: Gerard Way, ‘Hesitant Alien’

“Do you miss me? ‘Cause I miss you.”
— Gerard Way, ‘Action Cat’

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Records/Reprise Records.

It’s been ten years since I spent my nights listening to “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” on a loop using my dial-up Internet connection. My Chemical Romance was a big thing for me. To say the least. In fact, when the band officially announced its separation in March 2013 coinciding with this year’s release of a greatest hits album, “May Death Never Stop You,” I received a number of consolation messages.

I’m okay now. (Trust me.)

But I still found myself waiting in line for five hours outside of the Hot Topic where former My Chem frontman Gerard Way was signing copies of his solo debut, “Hesitant Alien.” There, I made fast friends with my linemates, who ranged from a sophomore at Beverly Hills High School who came with his parents (but made them stand a distance away from us because embarrassing!) to a woman who has a five-year-old child of her own. Most of us are now in our 20s, wearing more color than we used to but still able to get a good harmony going as we sang “Welcome to the Black Parade” a cappella out back of the Hollywood & Highland Center. The MCRmy has grown up.

And the comic book nerd-cum-rockstar who helped us get through high school in one piece is now asserting himself as a solo artist: “Hesitant Alien” showcases what life is like for the now-37-year-old Gerard Way, who is more self-assured and stable but nonetheless a weird outsider.

If we’re being honest, My Chemical Romance was also more or less Gerard Way’s solo project all along. He just happened to be able to assemble a group of musicians who, bless their hearts, let him dress them up in silly outfits and played along with his grandiose visions of serial killers with Catholic guilt and Technicolor dystopias and personifications of death.

One of Gerard’s greatest strengths as an artist has always been his holistic thinking: each release arrives fully-formed, complete with a consistent and strong sense of setting, backstory and personality.

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My prized possessions. SCREAMfmLondon

“Hesitant Alien” is another well-rounded creation. The overall vibe is sort of that of a ‘70s glam rock group trying to predict what music would sound like in 2014. It’s all retro-futuristic with fuzzy modulation, music videos reminiscent of MTV’s 1980s debut era, and an obvious Britpop influence in lyrics that could have been penned by Blur or Pulp.

“No Shows” is by far the best track on the album. It is vibrant noise-pop perfected with slick, reverberating lyrics like, “Weak knees from the level, I’m sick from the treble, I’m your type of metal.” The instrumental breakdown near the end of the song is an excellent touch, and the song as a whole is a great representation of the direction taken on “Hesitant Alien.”

“Brother,” a slower track, offers some insight into the final days of My Chemical Romance. Backed by a rhythmic beat, echoing vocals and his own minimalistic piano accompaniment, Gerard sings, “Does anyone have the guts to shut me up? / ‘Cause I believe that every night / There’s a chance we can walk away.”

Other standout tracks include “Maya the Psychic,” “Action Cat” and “Juarez” (“I can’t swim, don’t rub it in,” Gerard reminds us on the latter in a weirdly catchy hook). On “Millions,” Gerard’s younger brother and former My Chemical Romance bassist Mikey features as a backup vocalist.

Altogether, “Hesitant Alien” is a solid album and a sign that Gerard made the right move in going solo. There are a few skippable tracks (“The Bureau,” “How It’s Going to Be,” etc.), but they all work together well regardless.

Had My Chemical Romance not released 2010’s “Danger Days” and had instead released the “Conventional Weapons” EP as a formal album (as they should have), “Hesitant Alien” would seem like a completely separate musical style from Gerard’s work with the band. However, as it is, it seems like a natural continuation of the music he’s created in the past and is an easy transition to accept.

Onwards and upwards, Gerard. Unleash the fucking bats. Again.

Gerard Way
Hesitant Alien
Release Date: Sept. 30
Genre: Alternative Rock
Grade: B

Drag roundup: Adore Delano, ‘Till Death Do Us Party’

Photo courtesy of Sidecar Records and Producer Entertainment Group.

Photo courtesy of Sidecar Records and Producer Entertainment Group.

Adore Delano is absolutely (absolutelyyyyy) the best singer who has appeared on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and “Till Death Do Us Party” is the most solid album released by any of the show’s alumni. Not that there’s much competition in that category. But, still.

It’s also become the most commercially successful album of any “Drag Race” alumni, for good reason.

And I’ve been slowly cobbling together this review over the course of the last month, so without further ado, here is my rundown of “Till Death Do Us Party”:

“Speak My Sex”

This honestly isn’t the best opening track. There’s not much to say about it — it’s kind of a nonsensical electronic dance song about sex or something. I’m not sure what it’s about. Skip this one. I usually do.

“DTF”

“DTF” is the album’s lead single, and, while it’s not the strongest song on the album, it’s a pretty good one. The languid, sensual beat complements Adore’s laid-back vocal style perfectly and reflects the unromantic casual sex celebrated in the song. “Paper bag bitch, busted in the face. / Got that bomb dick, not a total waste,” she declares. “DTF” has been called the Grindr anthem, and I can get down with that.

“Party”

The adorable music video for “Party” was released on July 1, featuring Adore and friends causing a ruckus at a neon pink birthday party. The visuals are so cute, I ended up enjoying the track a lot more than I initially did. It’s still a little bit of a disappointment, though, and seems like it was rushed through the songwriting process rather than giving it the consideration it deserves — particularly since “Party!” has become such a marketable catchphrase for Adore.

“I Adore U”

The album’s lead ballad “I Adore U” is simply extraordinary. I only wish the rest of the album incorporated Adore’s hip-hop influences as flawlessly as this song does. The melancholy love song allows Adore to show off her incredibly strong vocal talent on slower verses and a soulful bridge, as well as her trademark rough-around-the-edges persona with a rap chorus that is catchy, effective and modern. “I Adore U” is really beautiful and powerful; it deserves mainstream radio play.

“Calling All Goddesses,” “Jump the Gun,” “Give Me Tonight” and “The Creeps”

“Till Death Do Us Party” excels with its more personal songs — the rest is, unfortunately, pretty forgettable (if not fun and danceable) filler. “Calling All Goddesses,” “Jump the Gun” and, later, “The Creeps” are some of the more unremarkable tracks. “Give Me Tonight” is a cover of the 1984 Shannon single that’s, well, better than the original, at least.

“I Look Fuckin Cool (feat. Alaska Thunderfuck)”

This duet with fellow “Drag Race” alum Alaska Thunderfuck is one of the album’s best upbeat songs. It is highly weird, which is enhanced by Alaska’s exaggerated vocals, and it’s a great track to blast while getting ready to go out on the town. There are so many genius, quotable one-liners: “My nails are broke and busted, / But I’m still fucking dusted,” “Dirt poor but spirit wealthy, / Dead battery from selfies,” “So I’m like a coloring book, even a child could read me.” The list goes on. “I Look Fuckin Cool” is fuckin’ inspirational.

“Hello, I Love You”

“Hello, I Love You” is probably the best straightforward pop song on the album. On this track, Adore channels the same manic, ditzy persona that appears in “Party,” but the structure of “Hello, I Love You” is superior and the chorus is undeniably catchy. This is another song that could easily fit in with mainstream pop music.

“My Address is Hollywood”

“My Address is Hollywood” is one more standout track — a slower, harder dance song about show business. Adore’s heartfelt bridge is great, as she sings, “I’m a city angel, / but it doesn’t pay well. / Baby, that’s okay. / Heaven wouldn’t have me / ‘cause I’m all about me. / Hell, I’m on my way.” This is a very strong closing track for an, overall, quite legit album. I hope to see Adore do great things in the future. She’s got it.

Adore Delano
Till Death Do Us Party
Release Date: June 3
Genre: Pop, Dance
Grade: B-