Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2017

Happy holidays everyone!

Oh wait, we’re like a year into the whole “Donald Trump is president” thing. My bad.

In one of the most hilariously ridiculous speeches of his presidency thus far – bold statement, I know – Donald Trump made a promise that as a nation, we’re all gonna go back to saying “Merry Christmas” like we did before things got all politically correct. “Times have changed, but we’re changing them back,” he insisted. It reminded me of that infamous Jason Kidd speech where he said “we’re gonna turn this team around 360 degrees”.

Not surprisingly, Donald Trump talking all bigly about his yuuuuge plans for this great nation didn’t at all sway my December rhetoric. I did what I do every year – I wished an awkward mix of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”, depending on what kind of mood I was in, who was around, and how Christian-y the vibe was.

Joking aside, whatever Winter holiday you and your family celebrate – whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or one of those Pagan things – I hope you find joy, laughter, relaxation, and, of course, good food in the company of your loved ones, and I hope you head into 2018 with the wide-eyed optimism of a six-year-old boy.

Anyway, for my first of FIVE 2017 year-end lists – you’re gonna head over to my YouTube channel to see the rest of them in the next week and a half – we’re gonna talk Hip-Hop. And boy is there a lot of ground to cover.

2017 was another banner year for Rap music, sure. Any monkey with a Twitter account and @ComplexMusic and @XXL in his feed could piece that one together. But even better, it was a year defined by the unexpected. Both positive AND negative, I may add. Here are some things that happened in Hip-Hop this year that I couldn’t have possibly foreseen:

  • The Migos made a Trap album that is literally listenable (and enjoyable) from beginning to end
  • Eminem dropped a turd that makes 2004’s Encore look like a masterpiece
  • CyHi the Prynce’s long-awaited debut somehow lived up to over seven years of album-less hype
  • Jay-Z snapped out of his whole “I only rap to sponsor my art collection” mindset and made his best music since 2003
  • EDM superstar Calvin Harris put Snoop Dogg, Travis Scott, Migos, ScHoolboy Q, Lil’ Yachty, Future, Big Sean, Nicki Minaj, and Frank Ocean on one project. And it worked.
  • Macklemore and a mumble rapper made a song together and it ended up being ten times worse than my limited imagination could’ve even conjured up

So as you can see, it’s been an exciting 12 months. And I’m glad to be done making this list, ‘cause I spent DAYS stressing out about it (especially those #5 – #7 slots!). I really hope my thoughts are informative or, at the very least, mildly entertaining. Honorable Mentions are at the bottom. See you all in 2018!

10. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY – VIC MENSA

 On his debut album for Roc Nation, after a few years of increasing buzz and the immense pressure and anticipation that comes with being a Kanye West protégé, Vic Mensa leapfrogs over the already-lofty expectations set for him with, well, one of the best Hip-Hop albums of the entire year. The Autobiography proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mensa’s got all of the makings of a bonafide Rap superstar. He can make rousing bangers with the best of them, as shown on the Kid-Cudi-meets- Travis-Scott party tune “Rollin’ Like a Stoner” as well as the Chief Keef-assisted hood anthem “Down for Some Ignorance”; he can tell stories (“Homewrecker”), he can be deeply introspective (“Wings”), and he can even make the ladies swoon when he steps out from under his self-loathing (“Gorgeous”).

Not to mention, the guy can collaborate too – the aforementioned tracks round up the likes of Chief Keef, Syd, Pharrell Williams, and even Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, making for a colorful but cohesive tracklist. Mensa’s one of the most promising young Hip-Hop artists in the game right now.

 Top 3 Tracks: “Homewrecker”, “Gorgeous”, “Wings”

9. PRETTY GIRLS LIKE TRAP MUSIC – 2 CHAINZ

 Perhaps the most unexpected entry on this list, 2 Chainz flushed over a decade of ratchet mediocrity down the toilet and knocked the clumsily-titled Pretty Girls Like Trap Music into the stratosphere. As a rapper, beat-picker, hook-crafter, and overall larger-than-life personality, 2 Chainz has never sounded sharper. While the over-the-top ridiculousness of his bars remains a key part of his charm – in particular, the line “I got a bank account, got anotha bank account, got anotha bank account” is my single favorite line of 2017 (which, by the way, given that the FDIC only insurances up to $250,000 per account, this is probably a financially savvy move on his part) – this time around, he has the endless flow and compelling rhymes to back it up.

And his ability to use the occasional guest to light a fire under his ass – Travis Scott Nicki Minaj, Swae Lee, Migos, and Drake all ANNIHILATE the tracks they show up on – helps propel Pretty Girls Like Trap Music into every worthwhile “Best Hip-Hop of 2017” conversation.

Top 3 Tracks: “Blue Cheese”, “Realize”, “Good Drank”

8. FLOWER BOY – TYLER, THE CREATOR

What beautiful irony that an artist like Tyler, The Creator – who rose to prominence by being infinitely rebellious and anti-everything – made his best material to date by softening his edges and buddying up with an industry juggernaut (Columbia Records) for its release.

Production-wise, Flower Boy is perhaps my favorite on this list, bringing together sounds that range from cinematic to insular to manic to just plain weird. Yet the true excellence of the LP lies in Tyler’s undeniable maturation.

By getting unapologetically sappy (“See You Again”), wistfully nostalgic (“November”) and heartbreakingly vulnerable (“911/Mr. Lonely”) alongside his usual aggression and quirks (“Who Dat Boy”, “I Ain’t Got Time!”), Tyler has successfully transitioned from odd-but-compelling enigma to fully formed, three-dimensional artist.

Top 3 Tracks: “November”, “911/Mr. Lonely”, “See You Again”

7. CAPTAIN CALIFORNIA – MURS

That my list will likely be the ONLY year-end Hip-Hop List to give Murs his due is nothing short of a tragedy. On his sixth LP and second for Tech N9ne’s Strange Music label, the California MC shows an elastic emotional range that is extremely hard to come by in Hip-Hop. On the opening track “Lemon Juice”, he and guest Curtiss King will have you cackling uncontrollably as they try to compete for a girl’s attention. Cuts like “God Bless Kanye West” and “G is for Gentrify” will have you mulling over today’s socioeconomic climate. On touching love songs like “1000 Suns” and “Another Round”, Murs will have you reflecting on your best romantic relationships or dreaming of ones like his. On “One Uh Those Days”, he’ll have you carefully following along with his detailed storytelling right up until the hilarious twist ending. It’s time people get their shit together and start paying attention to this talented motherfucker.

Top 3 Tracks: “Lemon Juice”, “1000 Suns”, “Colossus”

6. 4EVA IS A MIGHTY LONG TIME – BIG K.R.I.T.

 While it would’ve been virtually impossible to top 2014’s Cadillactica – an adventurous space-themed concept album that remains one of the finest moments of the genre this decade – Justin Scott continues to build his case as one of the great Southern rappers, filling the shoes of giants like UGK, Outkast and T.I. with ease. This sprawling double-album is split into a more bravado-driven “Big K.R.I.T. half” and a more introspective “Justin Scott half”, with both discs pulling their weight equally, from the most trunk-knocking moments (“ Subenstein”, “Big Bank”) to the most naked and confessional (“Price of Fame”, Mixed Messages”). As I continue to preach the gospel of Big K.R.I.T., I have yet another holy text to read from to convert people to the cause. And thanks to people like ANTHONY FANTANO, they really are doing so.

Top 3 Tracks: “Get Away”, “Mixed Messages”, “Miss Georgia Fornia”

5. NO DOPE ON SUNDAYS – CYHI THE PRYNCE

 I can’t think of a single Hip-Hop album that has been delayed as long as this one and actually LIVED UP to the impossible hype. But that’s exactly what Kanye’s finest protégé managed to do. Besides creating the most lyrically monstrous album on this whole list, on No Dope on Sundays Cyhi the Prynce still manages to stay focused on well-crafted songs, thought-provoking content, and carefully-placed features (in particular, Travis Scott, BJ the Chicago Kid, and ScHoolboy Q kill it here). And to top it all off, CyHi ties everything together with a powerful theme that contrasts spirituality and street life.

Plus, the amount of times I’ve used the expression “get your money and get out the game” in REAL LIFE since hearing this album….that alone earns it a spot in the Top five.

Top 3 Tracks: “I’m Fine”, “No Dope on Sundays”, “Movin’ Around”

4. LAST CALL – RITTZ

 On his final album for Strange Music, this double time-spittin’ white boy once again comes through with a body of work that feels like it’s been made specifically for me. Seriously, this motherfucker checks every box.

  • Emotionally, it covers the entire spectrum, from the tear-jerking “Fuck Cancer” to the ferocious “Into the Sky” (which, by the way, are back-to-back in the tracklist).
  • When appropriate, it’s as introspective as Hip-Hop can get, as showcased on the childhood woes of “Press Rewind” and the modern-day neuroses of “I’m Only Human”
  • From a technical rapping standpoint, Rittz once again has few equals – just check the standout single “Down for Mine” or the stirring opener “Middle of Nowhere” for proof
  • And yet again, Rittz’s ability to sing his own hooks makes him a complete, self-sufficient artist. No big features or name-dropping needed here; this one guy can keep you engaged for over an hour.

Top 3 Tracks: “Crash and Burn”, “Into the Sky”, Down for Mine”

3. DAMN. – KENDRICK LAMAR

 While 2015’s expansive, ambitious To Pimp a Butterfly endeared him to critics and solidified his place in Hip-Hop history, this time around it’s Kendrick Lamar’s fundamentals that make him stand out. At the end of the day, Kung Fu Kenny is just a dope fucking rapper. I never get tired of hearing him rap – his unending supply of creative flows, intricate rhyme structures, and nuanced perspectives ensure that Lamar can sound good on any beat.

But beyond Kendrick’s ability as an MC, my favorite thing about DAMN. is how emotionally raw it is. K-Dot’s music has always carried with it an underlying depression, anxiety and vicious inner conflict– which has been occasionally brought to the forefront on tracks like TPAB’s “u” – but DAMN. takes this to a whole new level. This is a 14-track therapy session, with intense feelings flying every which way like bullets during D-Day. And as a listener who prefers this type of psychological mayhem, I find it to be some of the most gripping work of Kendrick Lamar’s already-historic career.

Top 3 Tracks: “ELEMENT.”, “FEAR.”, “PRIDE.”

2. TRIAL BY FIRE – YELAWOLF

 Against all odds – and when I say ALL ODDS, I mean over seven years of artistic decline since his initial burst of hype and at least one race-related controversy – Rap’s most divisive white trash Hick-Hopper pulled through with, simply put, one of the most unique “Hip-Hop” records I’ve ever heard.

On Trial By Fire, the Alabama native weaves together various shades of Country, Folk, Rock, Blues – and yes, in the midst of all that, a guest appearance from Juicy motherfuckin’ J – into his well-studied rhyming abilities to make the kind of album that no one else could make. Sure, COUNTRY AND RAP MUSIC have had their history together (LINK), but not in a way that hasn’t compromised or caricaturized either side of the spectrum. That is, until exhilarating mish-mashes on this LP like “Punk”, which contains the aforementioned Juicy J feature.

Yelawolf also bares his soul on these 14 tracks, and has a novelists’ eye for storytelling (seriously, check the haunting “Sabrina” or the sentimentally autobiographical “Keeps Me Alive” for some hardcore evidence), bringing these Southern soundscapes to life with each and every verse. On “Ride or Die”, a heartfelt tribute to a day one friend, I can actually picture Yela sitting on a front porch somewhere in Alabama strumming his guitar and staring out into miles of farmland.

 And for me, there’s a personal angle to this as well. Trial by Fire represents the ultimate escapism. It’s an album that whisks me away from my Yuppie tri-state surroundings to long, winding dirt roads, musky dive bars with Harleys parked out front, and remote stretches of land with nothing but grass and the gentle breeze that nudges it from side to side. So I suppose my increasing infatuation with the rural South has fed my love of Trial by Fire. But still, whether you end up smitten like I am or deeply unimpressed, this is music you need to hear.

Top 3 Tracks: “Ride or Die”, “Punk”, “Son of a Gun”

 1. ALL THE BEAUTY IN THIS WHOLE LIFE – BROTHER ALI

As I gushed at the middle of the year, Brother Ali made the kind of special album that makes me happy to be alive. With top-notch production from Ant of Atmosphere ensuring that it’s sonically rapturous, Ali is free to tackle weighty subject matter; sensitive topics that he handles gracefully, I might add. Beauty covers everything from race (“Dear Black Son”, “Before They Called You White”) to pornography (“The Bitten Apple”) to suicide (“Out of Here”) to Ali’s own childhood struggles (“Pray For Me”) sending your emotions every which way in the process. When you combine Ali’s raw talent on the mic with food-for-thought content, gorgeous instrumentals, and hooks like the infectious single “Own Light”, it’s impossible to lose.

Top 3 Tracks: “Own Light (What Hearts Are For)”, “Out of Here”, “All the Beauty in This Whole Life”

Some Honorable Mentions:

Laila’s Wisdom – Rapsody

Big Fish Theory – Vince Staples

Culture – Migos

Radio Silence – Talib Kweli

All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ – Joey Bada$$

At What Cost – Goldlink

4:44 – Jay-Z

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream – Open Mike Eagle

Rather You Than Me – Rick Ross

Terror’s “The Walls Will Fall” EP

Calling all you mosh-thirsty punks! West Coast Hardcore stalwarts Terror are back with a brand new EP, The Walls Will Fall; their first new music in nearly two years. It’s five songs, it’s nine minutes, and – as expected – it rips.

This band has been cranking out punishing, sub-30 minute Hardcore releases for the better part of 15 years. They’re remarkably reliable, delivering a healthy mix of New York Hardcore, a bit of Crossover Thrash, and a bit of Metalcore with every biennial LP (2013’s Live by the Code might be my favorite at the moment). And The Walls Will Fall should once again satisfy the Hardcore purists – who from my experience, are even more fickle than those dreaded Metal purists – that flock to this band.

What’s most notable about The Walls Will Fall is its deliberate, even pacing. Opener “Balance the Odds” allows its slow-building intro to segue into urgent Crossover riffing before settling back into a mid-tempo mosh (that final breakdown is so sick – “the freedom of my life – I’ll take it back!!”). The title cut has a similarly smooth sequence, with grinding Thrash rhythms consuming its first half and a simplistic half-time pulse sending off its second half.

My favorite track by far is the closer, “Step to You”, which begins in blistering fashion but morphs into a four-chord, gang vocal-riddled Punk tune that is catchy as hell and could squeeze onto a ‘90s Madball release like you wouldn’t believe (the track “Pride” from Demonstrating My Style springs to mind for me).

Guitarists Martin Stewart and Jordan Posner once again bring an appropriately chunky, mean guitar tone (though I still think the best rhythm tone they’ve achieved was on Live By the Code – it had more of a raw “dryness” to it), and Scott Vogel continues to be a quintessential Hardcore frontman. These five tracks went straight on my gym playlist, and they deserve a spot on yours. Props to Terror for not tampering with a winning formula, and I look forward to the next full-length!

November 2016 Album Round Up!

Hey everyone! Nine days into December, I hope all the obnoxious repeats of Mariah Carey, Wham!, and God knows what else by your “spirited” friends and family haven’t broken you yet. I love how these fucking people try to make me feel like the Grinch just ‘cause I don’t want to hear the same five songs every day for a month. I actually love a lot of Christmas tunes, but as someone who will listen to Grindcore on Wednesday, Disco on Thursday, and Shoegaze on Friday, it’s the lack of variety that kills me.

Anyway, ya boy’s in full-on Year End List mode!!! “List Season”, as I deem it, is my favorite time of year every year! I have tons of fun holing myself up for hours on end listening, re-listening, and deliberating for hours on end about lists that 95% of people don’t give two fucks about. But I do give two fucks, and I’ve got a lot to say this year. I’ve already published one list on YouTube, and several more are on their way! Stay tuned! In the meantime, here are eight records I checked out last month. Keep it gangsta.

Battles – In Flames

Sometimes I seriously wonder who the In Flames fanbase consists of at this point. They’ve now spent over a decade making syrupy Metalcore-ish music that seems to have an inverse time-quality relationship (translation: it keeps getting shittier). This newest one, while not as terrible as 2014’s Siren Charms, takes some vocal cues from Bring Me the Horizon (the “melodic gang vocals” that show up in “The End”, “The Truth”, and the final chorus in “Here Until Forever”), puts some late-‘90s In Flames in the microwave, and then overproduces the shit out of it. I actually didn’t mind it that much, but I’ll be sticking with The Jester Race. Here is a full review. NOT RECOMMENDED

We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest

The Queens legends’ swansong and first record in almost 18 years, We Got It From Here picks up RIGHT where classic Tribe albums like Midnight Marauders left off. I’m astonished at how effortlessly these three veterans manage to make music with the same charisma and gusto that they had a quarter of a century ago. This LP is loaded with all kinds of exciting features (Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes, and even Elton John), but ironically, it’s just icing on the cake – the core of the record is three of Hip-Hop’s (dare I say) elder statesmen taking the kids to school. I’m blown away. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

24k Magic – Bruno Mars

I can’t believe Bruno Mars took almost four years to follow up Unorthodox Jukebox! It doesn’t feel that long ago at all, right? Well, he’s back with a third record that expands on the unapologetic throwback sound of “Uptown Funk”, his collaborative smash with producer Mark Ronson. 24K Magic is almost entirely rooted in nostalgia for the Pop and R & B of the ‘80s and ‘90s – much of the production is synth driven, with bombastic clapping snares and funky basslines.  Many of these songs have a brazen sexuality, a dose of braggadocio, and are fairly lighthearted, making for a simple, quick, and easy listen. For me, some of it connects and some of it doesn’t. “Chunky”, “That’s What I Like”, and “24K Magic” are three of my favorite Pop songs of 2016, while I could do without the obnoxious “Perm” and the dull closing ballad “Too Good to Say Goodbye”. Currently, the addictive title track is this LP’s only single, but I imagine that’ll change soon. Future single predictions: “Chunky” and “Versace on the Floor”. RECOMMENDED

Hardwired…To Self-Destruct – Metallica

God, my life was so fucking different the last time Metallica put out a record. Death Magnetic came out EIGHT FUCKING YEARS AGO! Wow. Well, the Thrash legends are finally back with another underwhelming but solid LP. My main issue with much of Metallica’s music remains intact: the meandering song structures. These songs are essentially just piles of riffs stacked on top of each other with little regard for concision or quality control. So there ends up being lots of wasted space. The upside, of course, is James Hetfield delivers a ton of riff gems amongst the wasted space. Fans should be (and seem) happy. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Black America Again – Common

Common’s soulful 11th album is – as its title may suggest – loaded with impassioned social commentary, particularly as it pertains to race relations in America. The powerful title track addresses the Flint water crisis, refers to mass incarceration as “the new plantation”, and comments on racism in sports (“Maria Sharapova making more than Serena”). It all feels like a call-to-action for the black community. While profound and sobering, these weighty themes do start to take their toll on the listener, which is why light-hearted breathers like “Love Star”, “Unfamiliar”, and “Red Wine” are helpful. But for me, the best thing about Black America Again is Common’s bars! Look no further than the song “Pyramids” or the amazing first verse on “A Bigger Picture Called Free” for lyrical gymnastics that we haven’t heard from the Chicago OG in forever. He does some of the best rapping of his career on here. And content-wise, he has a lot to say. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Starboy – The Weeknd

 Cut out the filler, kids. The Weeknd’s third studio Starboy would’ve been one of the best albums of the year if he had done just that. There is so much FIRE on here, particularly on the first half of the record, but as a listener, I feel like he wastes a good 20 minutes of my time within these 18 tracks. “Attention, “Rockin”, Nothing Without You”, “All I Know”…these all could’ve gotten the axe. STILL, I have been bumping this LP non-stop since it came out – I really do love its tortured-partier themes, its butter smooth production, The Weeknd’s unique croon, and the night-time atmosphere the songs suck me into. The title track is one of 2016’s greatest moments, and there are a good eight or nine other bangers on here that I’m gonna continue to vibe with. RECOMMENDED

Atoma – Dark Tranquillity 

One of my favorite Metal bands of all time and I didn’t review this, even though I wrote about the singles and everything. Why? Well, I didn’t have much to say about it. If I reviewed it, I would’ve given it a strong 7/light 8 and said something to the effect of “this is another great DT album”. But at this point, there are already ten of those! So even though the music is solid on Atoma, it’s starting to feel like I’ve heard everything I’m gonna hear from them. So I cherry-picked my favorite tracks (“Atoma”, “Forward Momentum”, “Our Proof of Life”, “Clearing Skies”) and moved on. I’m hoping for a bit more surprises next go ‘round! RECOMMENDED

Built to Last – Hammerfall

Power Metal mainstays Hammerfall are on their tenth album now. And if you didn’t already expect a rehashing of the band’s other nine LPs, the third track “Sacred Vow” uses multiple previous song titles as lyrics. Look, if you’re into this type of Power Metal – Priest/Maiden throwback sound combined with corny lyrics about warriors, I can definitely recommend Hammerfall’s Steel Meets Steel compilation from 2007 (particularly the second disc). But this record here? You don’t need to hear it. It’s the exact same shit. I’m not gonna say Built to Last is a bad album, ‘cause it’s not a blatantly “bad” album. I just don’t particularly care that it exists. NOT RECOMMENDED

 

 

 

My Summer ’16 Soundtrack: The Top 20 Songs

Well guys, the first day of Fall – or the “autumnal equinox” if you’re pretentious – is upon us, as is our official goodbye to Summer Sixteen. What we’re left with, aside from a month-long hangover and a couple genital warts, is a bunch of memories. More specifically, we’re left with the memories and the songs that accompany them. Seriously, the sheer power of the music-memory connection is mindblowing. (Example: two years ago, I had a severe panic attack in the middle of the Taconic Parkway in upstate New York while Wiz Khalifa’s “Bout Y’all” was playing, and to this day, I still can’t hear that track without losing my shit. It’s a shame, ‘cause it’s a banger.) This potent connection is bested only by the smell-memory link (Olfaction to Hippocampus), which any Neuroscientist will get a sizable boner explaining to you.

So whenever a meaningful chapter in my life closes, it always gets me thinking: what was my soundtrack? What are the songs that, until my liver finally calls it quits or an ex-girlfriend stabs me in my sleep, are gonna be intertwined with the good, the bad, and the ugly of this time period in my life? With Summer Sixteen coming to an end, I reached into the depths of my neurotic mind and these are the songs I yanked out. Below are brief thoughts on each one, and I’ve even compiled a Spotify playlist at the bottom for your listening pleasure.

This is what my Summer sounded like, and consequently, it’s what soul crushing nostalgia is gonna sound like for me in 2040. What did yours sound like? Let me know in the comments. I hope you’ve already given day one of Autumn a swift kick in the ass! Peace out Summer Sixteen!

(Girl We Got A) Good Thing – Weezer

If you ever wondered what summer “sounds like”, here’s your answer.

Sometimes – Ariana Grande

My favorite Pop song of the entire year. Max Martin’s impossibly smooth production reminds me of his work on Backstreet Boys’ Millenium.

KISA – Rittz

On Rittz’s brilliant, hard-hitting Top of the Line, the sappy love song also happens to be my favorite. Bite me.

Roses – Carly Rae Jepsen

Every single track on last month’s Emotion: Side B EP is a contender, but “Roses” takes the cake for me. It’s moody by Carly Rae standards, and perhaps that’s why I have a slightly deeper connection with it than peppy songs like “First Time”.

Everything– Atmosphere

Slug’s hyper self-aware rhymes and Ant’s knocking production make this a quintessential Atmosphere track.

Do You Mind – DJ Khaled

I love this sensual banger from DJ Khaled’s absurdly hyped Major Key LP. The production is a bit of a call back to Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle”, and Future’s guest verse is low key one of the best moments of his career.

Collapse – Vektor

Vektor’s Progressive Thrash opus Terminal Redux is still my number one Metal album of 2016 thus far. And yes, it’s fucking blistering, but it’s actually the LP’s pseudo-ballad that I’ve found myself coming back to the most.

Shelter –Porter Robinson & Madeon

 My two favorite EDM artists broke the Internet with this collaborative single, and it sounds exactly how I had hoped – like Madeon’s Adventure and Porter’s Worlds enjoyed some good ol’ passionate shtupping.

John Muir – ScHoolboy Q

Q’s menacing delivery and Sounwave’s throbbing boom bap – complemented by a touch of Jazz in the hook – are a lethal combination.

Whatever, Wherever – Band of Horses

Another stare-up-at-the-stars-and-think-about-life song from Band of Horses. Gorgeous, calming…everything I’ve come to adore about “Factory”, “Infinite Arms”, “The Funeral”, and the softer moments in the band’s catalogue. I often wonder if other listeners extract the same mood from these songs that I do – if not, chalk another thing up to my weirdness.

Hologram – Crown the Empire

 Histrionic metalcore angst at its most shameless. Normally it doesn’t fly with me, but “Hologram” is so fucking catchy.

Night Drive Loneliness – Garbage

Over two decades after their self-titled masterpiece, Garbage are still killing it. This standout from their new record Strange Little Birds – which came out in June – is the perfect sonic execution of its titular concept.

Stranded – Gojira

In stripping down their pulverizing sound for something a bit hookier, Gojira took a huge risk with Magma, the band’s sixth album. But it’s the most commercial song on it that ended up being my favorite!

 Cleaving Giants of Ice – Revocation

The mammoth closing track from Great Is Our Sin proves that Death Metal and clean vocals DO mix when done right! Prominent Enslaved influence here.

Stole the Show – Kygo

Overall, I was pretty turned off by the excessively commercial sound of Kygo’s debut, but “Stole the Show” was, ironically, my most beat-to-death party song of the summer ‘16.

Dive In – Pierce the Veil

I’ll give Pierce the Veil the gold medal for biggest surprise of 2016 thus far. I usually avoid verb-the-noun bands like the plague, but their new record Misadventures and its explosive opening track are undeniable.

The Fighter – Keith Urban

As with Kygo, I hated the album, but fell in love with a select track. “The Fighter” is a powerful duet with Carrie Underwood.

Something’s Off – Hatebreed

One of the very best songs of Hatebreed’s two-decade career. What a monstrous main groove! And in the bridge section, Jamey Jasta’s foray into clean singing is an absolute triumph.

Ideology is Theft – Saosin

For some reason, the bridge in this song yanks a tremendous amount of emotion out of me every single time I hear it. That addicting lead guitar riff in the chorus doesn’t hurt either.

Love Drought – Beyonce

 This is the song Drizzy Drake wishes he could pull off

 

Volbeat’s “Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie”: Three Singles Deep

Is Volbeat going to be Rock’s next arena act? It’s a conversation that needs to be had. If Five Finger Death Punch can do it, I don’t see why Volbeat couldn’t. In addition to having toured with the likes of Avenged Sevenfold Anthrax, and FFDP themselves, they’re coming off two straight highly acclaimed, exciting Hard Rock records. Both 2010’s Beyond Hell/Above Heaven and 2013’s Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies struck an impeccable balance between credibility and commercially viability.

Over 3 years since it came out, I still can’t get enough of Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies. It’s got infinite energy and endless hooks, and isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be a Rock or Metal record, which affords it considerable breathing room. Active Rock radio listeners eat it up, metalheads (particularly old-school ones) can vibe with it, and the occasional mainstream listener gets pulled in as well. I may be reaching a bit, but it all feels Foo Fighters-esque. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to the peak of Volbeat’s upward trajectory.

Of course, whether this momentum continues is dependent on Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie, the band’s sixth album set to drop this Friday, June 3rd. Currently, all we have to go on is three pre-release singles. So how is Volbeat’s highly anticipated new LP looking thus far?

The Devil’s Bleeding Crown: I already discussed this one when it dropped in early April. It’s the first single and opening track on Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie, and it keeps things basic: basic hooks, basic riffs, and predictable structure. It’s solid Rock and Roll through and through, just safe. Michael Poulsen’s voice is as powerful as ever, and this single’s Active Rock radio success is imminent, but I’m getting nothing new out of it. And I could definitely do without that horribly cheesy clapping section.

The Bliss: Self-replication in music is an interesting phenomenon. Is “ripping yourself off” against the rules? Considering the careers of AC/DC, Motorhead, and Slayer, I suppose not. So it shouldn’t matter that certain parts of “The Bliss” earn the song its “Lola Montez 2.0” moniker. The blatant similarities to “Lola Montez” did irk me at first, but the more I’ve listened, the less bothersome it becomes. “The Bliss” is distinct enough from its predecessor, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a love song of sorts, bursting with positivity and sugar-sweet vocal harmonies. The thumping banjo-centric bridge is an adventurous yet appropriate breather. All in all, the track works. Not to say Volbeat hasn’t “done this before”, but at least it’s less bland than “The Devil’s Bleeding Crown”. Oh, and an alternate version titled “For Evigt” is also available. Check that one out too.

Seal the Deal: My favorite of these 3 singles. Its lead riff is fairly standard sleaze-rock, emitting copious party vibes. The energy never lets up, even as the bridge section slows the tempo momentarily. The chorus is fittingly hook-y, including a well-calculated key change for the song’s final moments. Rob Caggiano serves up a ripping solo as well. Again, not reinventing the wheel, but “Seal the Deal” executes so damn well.

If all thirteen tracks on the LP resemble what we’ve heard thus far, then redundancy is going to be a weighty issue on Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie. This 3-track sampling suggests we’ll be in for something enjoyable, but nothing special. While we’d all prefer special, enjoyable is not the end of the world. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

 

 

Hatebreed’s “A.D.” and Volbeat’s “The Devil’s Bleeding Crown” Singles

Happy April 8th, 2016 everyone! Time to grab your copies of Deftones’ Gore and Zakk Wylde’s Book of Shadows II to celebrate! In addition, I’ve written up a pair of new singles from Hatebreed and Volbeat below:

 A.D. – Hatebreed

Connecticut’s own Hatebreed will unleash their seventh album The Concrete Confessional on May 13th – a Friday the 13th already jam-packed with high-profile releases (Devildriver, Gorguts, Pierce the Veil, and the very brutal Meaghan Trainor, just to name a few). The LP’s opening track “A.D.” is our first complete taste of what’s to come, and it finds the veterans placing their Hardcore influences on the backburner for a majority of the song in favor of mid-80s Thrash, even tossing in a shred-laced guitar solo for good measure.

Even vocalist/motivational coach Jamey Jasta knows that not every Hatebreed song needs to be uplifting, positive, or hopeful – if the state of the union (or the world) is chewing at him for whatever reason, there’s no better platform. And Jasta takes advantage – A.D. is jam-packed with venomous quotables that address the crumbling of the American dream.

The latter portion of the track deals with the inaction and subsequent profiting of media and government outfits from violent shootings, acts of terrorism, and the like. Here’s a choice quote that prompted a tweet of mine (and a subsequent retweet from Hatebreed themselves): “thoughts and prayers again, is that what it’ll take? Which industries profit while lives are at stake?” HARD.

The Devil’s Bleeding Crown – Volbeat

Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie….that’s what Volbeat chose to title their new album? Hey, no complaints here – it made me chuckle, and quite frankly, anything that’s not a fucking self-titled record is fine in my book. Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie will follow two Metal-tinged Rock LPs that are absurdly well-constructed – 2010’s Beyond Hell/Above Heaven and 2013’s Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies. A band still very much in the midst of their ascent – let’s be honest, we have virtually no idea how big this could get – they could put out a by-the-book replication of their last two efforts and still receive resounding acclaim. They have become one of Rock’s most beloved and likable acts.

“The Devil’s Bleeding Crown” retains Volbeat’s familiar mammoth sound. As expected it’s completely old school, the main riff calling to mind a chunkier Wolfmother. And I suppose the ghost of Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave” will continue to hover over the genre for all of eternity, so no need for any painfully obvious insights in that regard.

The bottom line: fans of Volbeat anthems like “A Warrior’s Call” will be fully satiated by this single. But here’s to hoping there are a few twists and turns on the full record, out June 3rd.

A Day To Remember’s “Paranoia” Single

Nearly two and a half years after Common Courtesy, and an impossibly ugly cage match with Victory Records over contract discrepancies, the world finally has new music from A Day To Remember – yeah, a whopping 3 minutes and 22 seconds, but still. It’s a single called “Paranoia”, which, while it has been made clear it doesn’t necessarily mark the beginning of an album cycle ramp-up, is exciting enough on its own.

2013’s Common Courtesy was, in this narcissist’s opinion, far away ADTR’s best record to date. Their fifth LP found the Ocala, FL quintet simultaneously mastering Pop-Punk and Metalcore – the Pop-Punk moments were livelier and the Metalcore moments were devastating (particularly on “Violence”…my God). So I guess after publicly squaring off with Victory over Common Courtesy, ADTR Records is still a thing. And the band has my wholehearted support. The way the industry is structured in 2016, with only a few independent labels for aggressive music still standing that haven’t been conglomerated, the more DIY shit you can pull off successfully, the better. But on to this new single “Paranoia”.

The tune kicks off with a bit of a volley between a dissonant guitar lick and markedly punk-y explosions of rhythm. It terms of power, adrenaline, and attitude, it wastes no time. Nor does it waste time arriving at the ultra-catchy chorus, which stitches together the frantic verses that surround it.

And like every ADTR studio effort from For Those Who Have Heart onward, “Paranoia” is a meticulously produced tidal wave of sound. The Thrash-informed breakdown is the particular highlight, with the chunky guitars, drums, and bass working in tandem in the mix rather than stepping on each other’s toes. While calling this tune “groundbreaking” in the ADTR world might get you laughed out of the room, it’s a powerful “we’re back” statement – nay, exclamation – that has me drooling at the thought of Common Courtesy’s follow-up.

Wolfmother – Victorious Review

The official edited version of this review is available here.

If imitation is truly a form of flattery, each new Wolfmother record marks another occasion for 70s Rock icons like Jimmy Page, Roger Daltrey, and Tony Iommi to sit back with pride and soak up their own legacies. For over a decade, the Australian trio’s calling card has been an uncompromisingly retro delivery of Hard Rock in the vein of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and several more of the genre’s key pioneers. Critically speaking, Wolfmother’s blatantly derivative nature has been a double-edged sword, although when the quality is as unmistakable as their eponymous 2006 debut – a high-water mark the band has unfortunately yet to match – it becomes difficult to take aim at Wolfmother simply because “it’s been done before”.

Album number four for the Aussies, the Brendan O’Brien-produced Victorious, is anything but a stylistic departure. Very little of its lean 36 minutes of 70s-tinged Hard Rock will contain any surprises. What is truly puzzling, however, is the LP’s incredibly odd chronological duality – its first half stands toe-to-toe with the best moments in the band’s catalogue, and its second half is astronomically bland and uninspired.

“The Love That You Give” and the title cut are perhaps the most effective opening one-two punch on a Wolfmother album to date. The former is explosive yet concise as Andrew Stockdale effortlessly channels an early-70s Ozzy Osbourne. The latter is simply larger than life, with an irresistible guitar riff and an appropriately triumphant chorus. The keyboard-laced “Baroness” is another gem, calling to mind the less spacey moments in Blue Oyster Cult’s catalogue.

The band’s crunchy Rock assault is dialed back for the folky ballad “Pretty Peggy”, a tune that’s as anthemic as it is hopelessly romantic. Its slight resemblance to Alternative contemporaries like Mumford & Sons may turn a few heads, but it’s still firmly rooted in the “Going to California” tradition more than anything else. Closing out the first half of Victorious is “City Lights”, a smooth yet upbeat showcase of exuberant Rock and Roll. Stockdale’s vocal harmonies in the chorus are particularly airtight, and producer Brendan O’Brien’s bright, vibrant mix allows the tasteful bass lines to coexist harmoniously with the razor-sharp guitars.

Then, remarkably, as if this superb handful of songs exhausted all of Stockdale’s songwriting chops, Victorious takes a nose dive into its dreadful second half. In terms of memorability, inventiveness, charisma, or any semblance of a dynamic moment, these five tracks offer close to nothing. Promises were made on the album’s outstanding first half that simply couldn’t be kept. The shift is immediately noticeable on “The Simple Life”, which is a satisfying but forgettable affair, redeemed only by a colorful harmonized guitar solo that breaks up the monotony. After the catchy but similarly underwhelming “Best of a Bad Situation”, the LP’s diminished momentum plummets with the utterly lazy “Gypsy Caravan”, which contains the most unimaginative, transparently recycled guitar riff that’s likely to appear on a Rock album in 2016. “Happy Face”, another sludgy Black Sabbath attempt, drones on directionless for its first two and a half torturous minutes, and by the time it picks up its pace – both in terms of tempo and attitude – it’s too little, too late. “Eye of the Beholder” closes the record out with an energetic stomp but another drab, throwaway chorus; at this point, the boisterous swagger of “The Love That You Give” and the title track are barely visible in the rearview mirror.

Perhaps Wolfmother’s revolving door of musicians is its Achilles heel – frontman Andrew Stockdale is essentially a one-man band in the studio, writing and performing everything on Victorious save the drums and occasional keyboards. When it comes to crafting an entire album’s worth of standout Rock music, Stockdale has a hugely demanding task in front of him with each new batch of songs. All things considered, .500 is a commendable batting average, although the record’s two sharply juxtaposed halves are certainly strange. That the track list was knowingly arranged in this fashion is doubtful, but the yin and yang on Victorious is fascinating nevertheless – how even a shining display of excellence like the front half of this record can have a looming shadow not too far behind.

Score: 3/5

Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood Review

The official edited version of this review is available here.

A Billboard Chart powerhouse, yet the most traditional in its adherence to industry standards of old, Country music has been waiting to be Beyoncé-d. Perhaps the holdout for a Country adaptation of Queen B’s increasingly ubiquitous surprise release tactic was simply a holdout for an artist with enough clout and appropriate timing. Enter Eric Church and Mr. Misunderstood. Without warning, the North Carolina native’s fifth full-length LP arrived in the mailboxes of premium fan club members on the eve of its unannounced November 4th release, which coincided with the 48th annual CMA awards. The follow-up to two consecutive platinum albums in 2011’s Chief and 2014’s The Outsiders, Mr. Misunderstood arrives with a commercial and artistic momentum that transcends any of its promotional methodology, novel for the genre as it may be.

The self-proclaimed “parking lot down-and-outer” has often treated Country, Rock, Blues, and Pop as a stylistic Four Corners monument, with his limbs stretched across their boundaries, defying categorization if it weren’t for his conspicuous twang. Mr. Misunderstood continues in a similar vein, but provides a bit of mediation between Chief and The Outsiders. Just as its ten-song track list eschews any “Drink In My Hand”-type celebration of the boozing everyman, there’s also no eight-minute epic like “Devil, Devil” or straightforward Rock showcase like “That’s Damn Rock & Roll”. Rather, Mr. Misunderstood is a hybrid of its two predecessors.

Musically, the album’s ambitious cuts are the first pair. “Mr. Misunderstood” is slick and effortless in its numerous tempo changes, never allowing rhythmic shifts to distract from the potency of its central message. “Mistress Named Music”, meanwhile, is a complex affair behind its straightforward vocal – layers upon layers of guitars and keyboards make stealthy entrances and exits as the song marches toward an eventual climax, courtesy of a blazing 70’s-inspired guitar solo and some vocal assistance from a belting choir.

After a bit of early experimentation, the LP settles into a logical sampling of Church’s various sonic avenues. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings”, a duet with blues singer Susan Tedeschi, abandons Country almost entirely and thrives in its direct Pop sensibilities. Ever since 2011’s nostalgia-laced “Springsteen” helped him become a worldwide sensation, Church has become synonymous with The Boss, whose influence continues to reveal itself in not-so-subtle ways on the stadium-ready “Knives of New Orleans”, one of Mr. Misunderstood’s energetic peaks. Elsewhere, “Chattanooga Lucy” welcomes funky guitars into the fold, while “Holdin’ My Own” and “Round Here Buzz” both favor a minimalist approach.

Despite its crafty blend of styles, Mr. Misunderstood places a bulk of its weight on lyrical content, a department in which it particularly excels. Church forgoes the topical clichés that have plagued much of mainstream Country in the past half-decade. Absent are accounts of partying, various modes of transportation, or any combination of the two – no buying of boats, drinking on planes, or cruising of any kind. As a wordsmith, Church has become reliable for penning narratives that are as vivid and focused as they are clever. The brilliant title cut pulls double duty as both an inspirational autobiography and an anthem of solidarity for Church’s more alienated listeners. “Kill a Word” executes its motif with careful precision – a crusade against unwelcome members of the English language and the negativity they represent. Meanwhile, album closer “Three Year Old” delivers potentially the most vulnerable moment of Church’s career as it speaks on the joys of fatherhood with a warm affection, bringing the superstar full circle as a narrator. He also continues to sprinkle in the occasional homage to his musical influences, name checking everyone from Stevie Wonder to Elvis Costello to James Brown in both the title cut and the witty double entendre “Record Year”.

At a concise thirty-nine minutes, Mr. Misunderstood engages its full potential without a wasted note. No corner of Church’s musical realm is left untouched, yet the album’s merit as a complete, cohesive statement is never in question. Mr. Misunderstood provides further justification for Church’s stardom – the ability to harness Country, Rock, Blues, and Pop into a singular body of work that is equal parts maturity and digestible fun is an ability unique to Eric Church.

Show Review: Panic! At the Disco @ City Hall Plaza – Boston, MA 9/17/15

For Boston radio station 92.9 – as well as a couple thousand excited Bostonians – this past Thursday was something to celebrate, with the station hosting and co-sponsoring a free concert in City Hall Plaza featuring alternative rock titans Panic! At the Disco. Surrounded by downtown Boston, the open Plaza area was bookended by a medium-sized outdoor stage in the front and sponsor tents and a crucial row of porta-potties in the back.

With a 5 PM temperature sitting somewhere in the upper-60s, accompanied by a light Boston breeze, the buzzing City Hall Plaza atmosphere felt like an extension of Summer. The Budweiser and Radio 92.9 tents set up in the back greeted me as I made my way across the plaza’s brick floor to the paved area closer to the stage, where a crowd of several hundred people had already formed in advance of opening act DJ Petro. In an interview with Radio 92.9 before the show, Panic! frontman Brendon Urie expressed his excitement: “I’m so stoked we get to play free shows. You get a massive, broader range of people, and it just makes the show insane.” And he was not wrong. For about three hours, City Hall Plaza became a melting pot of music fandom, with everybody from college students, to the Warped Tour crowd, to high school kids with cheap liquor in their Gatorade bottles, to out-of-place, mostly sober adults, all coming together to enjoy some free dinner time Panic! At the Disco, in weather that can only be described as a promoter’s wet dream.

Preceding Panic! was an opening set from the aforementioned DJ Petro, who spun mostly mash-ups for an anxious, rapidly-growing crowd. Throwback combinations of “Man in the Mirror” and “When I Come Around”, as well as “Turn Down for What” and Sum 41’s “Fat Lip” went over particularly well, while I chose to tune out the more painful reminders of my preteen years, like “Hollaback Girl”.

Panic! At the Disco made their entrance at 6:30 PM sharp with the bouncy “Vegas Lights”, easing into the show with one of the few deeper cuts that would divide the crowd. After several shifts, the band’s touring lineup currently consists of frontman Brendon Urie on vocals, guitar and piano, Kenneth Harris on lead guitar, Dallon Weekes on Bass, and Dan Pawlovich on drums. Accompanied by a modest light show that became increasingly central as dusk approached, the tight and energetic four-piece tore through a well-constructed eighteen-song set list for an audience that leaned more towards devoted followers than casual listeners. Less obvious choices like “Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met)” and “Nicotine” did nothing to slow the band’s momentum, all the while satisfying dedicated fans.

Just shy of ten years removed from their classic debut album A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, the early Panic! material has not lost an ounce of appeal. The crowd, the majority of whom were likely in elementary school when Fever came out, responded feverishly (yep, I went there) to the energetic “Time to Dance”, “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”, and obligatory closer “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”.

As the band weaved in and out of material from Fever as well as their other three studio albums – also tossing in well-received new single “Hallelujah” – frontman Brendon Urie’s vocal performance was nothing short of captivating. He embellished the songs with effortless falsetto shrieks and an abundance of charisma. The band also performed a spot-on rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, as well as a medley of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Along”, all of which Urie sang to near perfection.

By the time Panic! began to play Ms. Jackson, the twelfth song in their set, nightfall had arrived and the show’s magical, carefree energy received a noticeable bump. The stage lights were now projecting onto the surrounding buildings, the fully packed crowd was mirroring every word, and the last 30 minutes felt altogether more intimate. It was a night I truly felt lucky to be apart of. As I walked out of the crowd during the last chorus of “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, I felt some of my cynicism for popular music waft away. Sometimes a truly great band does get the spotlight, and when they do, be sure you’re there to witness it.