Tag Archives: album review

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+

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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-

Album review: One Direction, ‘Midnight Memories’

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

The best thing about “Midnight Memories” is, in fact, that it doesn’t entirely sound like a fully-realized album. It sounds like a transitional stage with evidence of boys becoming men splashed over every track. On the album’s title track, Niall Horan sings, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m finding my way,” and that is exactly what comes across. The album is good, but what makes it interesting is the potential for greatness as One Direction continues to develop as a band.

The most notable difference between “Midnight Memories” and One Direction’s previous two albums is that each of the five members contributed to the songwriting, and only three tracks were written without the band’s collaboration. One of these is the album’s excellent lead single, “Best Song Ever,” which is catchy, straightforward pop that would easily fit in on last year’s “Take Me Home.”

The rest of the album, however, is quite a bit different: largely guitar-driven pop-rock showcasing the personal growth, complex ideas and unique personalities of each member.

Louis Tomlinson leads the group in songwriting, having helped pen 12 of the 18 tracks. Arguably One Direction’s weakest singer, Tomlinson demonstrates on “Midnight Memories” the impressive writing and production talent he has long since been cultivating. Alongside Liam Payne (who co-wrote nine “Midnight Memories” songs with Tomlinson), he has pursued a (yet rather inactive) role as director for One Mode Productions Limited, and is also largely responsible for plucking Australian pop-rock group 5 Seconds of Summer from obscurity and bringing them along as the opening act on One Direction’s Take Me Home Tour.

Tomlinson’s talent truly shines on the superb “Strong.” The song features mature, understated verses contrasted against a sweeping, fast-paced chorus. The musical accompaniment is rhythmic and interesting, solidifying “Strong” as one of the album’s best tracks.

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Photo courtesy of Columbia Records, Syco Music and Sony Music.

Other standouts include “Happily,” “Little Black Dress,” “Don’t Forget Where You Belong” and “Something Great.” From its tender ballads to harder dance tunes, “Midnight Memories” has a lot to offer as it teases a more adult side to One Direction. There is some implied profanity (“People talk shh– but we don’t listen.”) and suggested sexuality (“You say you’re a good girl, / But I know you would, girl.”).  Scandalous!

One of Payne’s most interesting contributions to the album is “Better Than Words,” the verses of which are comprised only of other song titles. It name-drops everything from Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” representative of the idea that one’s own words are not enough to capture the essence of love. It’s a really intriguing concept, and the resulting song is equally captivating.

The album’s title track is massive — a throwback to solid ‘70s and ‘80s arena rock with a headbang-able chorus to the tune of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” It was designed to translate effortlessly on One Direction’s forthcoming world stadium tour, and it will.

But the album has its weak points.

There is a disappointing lack of Zayn Malik’s presence on “Midnight Memories.” He has the fewest songwriting credits of all band members, contributing only to the group effort, “Story of My Life.” And, although he is one of the band’s strongest and most consistent singers, he is given few opportunities to demonstrate his vocal talent on this release. Instead, One Direction risks entrusting its weaker singers with carrying the meatier parts of songs like “You & I,” on which Horan unfortunately falls flat, leaving the song floundering.

A good chunk of “Midnight Memories” is clearly influenced by modern indie folk musicians along the lines of the Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, and Mumford & Sons. This works out amazingly well on the consummate and deeply emotional “Story of My Life” and on Harry Styles’ rebellious ode to young love, “Happily,” but less so on others such as “Through the Dark.”

The four bonus tracks are all good — similar in the traditionally over-the-top style of One Direction’s previous albums. “Alive” is particularly entertaining: it seems to be about seeking medical treatment for sex addiction (“My mother told me I should go and get some therapy. / I asked the doctor, ‘Can you find out what is wrong with me? / I don’t know why I wanna be with every girl I meet.’”), then thinking better of it (“Went to a party just after the doctor talked to me. / I met a girl, I took her in up to the balcony. / I whispered something in her ear that I just can’t repeat.”). The moral of the story being that there is really a fine line between nymphomania and youthful exuberance. Or something like that.

On the other end of the spectrum is “Half a Heart,” which also uses some ridiculous lyrics to convey, this time, a more romantic message. The chorus laments, “I’m walking around with just one shoe. / I’m half a heart without you.” The band might not ever top a lyric like “I can make your tears fall down like the showers that are British” from “Over Again,” but it’s certainly not for lack of trying.

Altogether, “Midnight Memories” is a nice third album from One Direction and a tantalizing taste of what the future holds for these five artists. They obviously have what it takes to make a Beatleslike leap from “Please Please Me” to “Abbey Road.” “Midnight Memories” isn’t quite there yet, but the outlook is good.

One Direction

Midnight Memories

Release Date: Nov. 25

Genre: Pop, Rock

Grade: B+