Mar 21 2022

Random Song Reviews – 3/15-3/21/2022

Bob Moses – Love Brand New

Canadian duo Bob Moses have garnered a large (but probably not devoted) fanbase with their safe, staid blend of alt-radio-ready, festival-friendly, electronic-based pleasantries. Their sound is designed for late night studying or other activities that don’t require someone to actively listen, but rather take in the whole… you know, vibe. They fit in nicely with an approach that has worked well in recent years: music that is designed to comfort and fill a room, rather than captivate and feed a soul.

Their latest single “Love Brand New” is more of the same, tired, moody atmospherics. The beat and synths wash over the listener with little effect, similar to an uninteresting style Jungle mastered a few years back. The chorus is somewhat catchy, though not enough to render any active repeats. But that’s not the point, is it? This isn’t music anyone seeks out on their own; it comes to them via mood-fitting Spotify playlists and radio stations that have Imagine Dragons in heavy rotation. It fits somewhere almost too well… and then it disappears just as quickly as it came.

Score: 3/10

Machine Gun Kelly & Lil Wayne – Ay!

MGK took a calculated, market-tested risk when he pivoted from rapper to pop-punker, and after that success he’s now able to remake himself once again into a trap pop star akin to blackbear or another second-rate Post Malone. He does just that on his newest single from Mainstream Sellout; it’s a pleasant enough track with a memorable sampled vocal hook and an unsurprising work-for-hire verse from Weezy. This version of Kelly honestly feels more authentic than his Hot Topic posturing, which has had bright moments but overall just feels more like a rebranding adventure than an actual creative shift. He’s already making clear with “Ay!” that he’s not committing to anything other than chasing trends and streams, so why should we?

Score: 6/10

Dominic Fike & Zendaya – Elliot’s Song

As of this writing, I have yet to watch a single minute of Euphoria, though I intend to correct that error soon. At this point, I’ll just say that the show is probably the closest example we’ll get in 2022 that there is some form of monoculture still alive and thriving. It seems like Euphoria has dominated the conversation (or at least my Twitter feed) for months, even weeks after its latest season has concluded. This likely has a lot to do with the pervasive effect the show has had on music streaming services and the Billboard charts; the dream of The O.C. music supervisors is alive and well twenty years later. But this isn’t just limited to increased streams of older songs, but even tracks made specifically for the show. Case in point is this viral track from cast members Dominic Fike and Zendaya, sung in character.

Maybe the song is effective in the context of the plot, but as a standalone track it’s incredibly tepid. Zendaya’s background vocals add a bit of flair, but “Elliot’s Song” can’t be lifted from its acoustic-based plod. Fike’s vocals are mumbled and unconfident; rather than set a particular tone, they absorb into a formless blob of indistinct dead air. The song is painfully boring and likely unrepresentative of the scandalous show I’ve heard so much about.

Score: 3/10

TLC – Creep

The story of TLC is a tragic one, filled with label betrayal, arson, and eventually the death of one of its members. But you wouldn’t really know that listening to their hit singles, most of which were playful, devious, horny, or all of the above. TLC were ridiculously forward-thinking, and now they sound timeless. Their first chart-topper “Creep” is a great example of the confidence the trio evoked.

Of course we all know what “Creep” is about; it’s certainly not great advice for any relationship. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes refused to participate on the song due to its message of revenge infidelity and references to toxic power dynamics. (The group’s next #1 “Waterfalls” would contain more of a pragmatic, positive message, probably more to Left Eye’s liking.) But never has a song about cheating sounded so damn convincing, so reasonable, and so… well, fun. Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins glides over the beat with a husky, slightly raspy delivery, almost as if she’s relaxing after a romp in the sheets with her side piece. Line after line, she justifies her unforgivable actions, and you don’t want to take her side, but you can’t help yourself.

Dallas Austin’s production sounds just as effortless and cool; a trumpet loop mixes perfectly with a satisfyingly hard-hitting Slick Rick drum sample as T-Boz and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas ooze nothing but swagger. Austin made the beat and then got out of the way, and it shows: TLC’s charisma is all over this thing, and it carries “Creep” to classic status.

Score: 10/10

Madonna – Take a Bow

And so we enter Madonna’s successful “good girl” phase, as she herself called it, and thank god it didn’t last long. After scandalizing the world with Erotica and the infamous Sex book, the star received a slight backlash… and a slight downturn in unit shifting and chart placement. The course correction came via the album Bedtime Stories, a very of-its-time R&B-influenced album that is not one of Madonna’s best efforts. She worked with a lot of big-name producers of the day, but maybe none were as well-known as Babyface, who co-wrote “Take a Bow,” her #1 smash from this period. Typically we think of Madonna as an artist who always had her finger on the pulse before the rest of the world did; many times in her impressive career, she was setting the trends rather than chasing hits. With this era, and “Take a Bow” we see a brief exception to that narrative.

Any pop fan in 1995 would have grown excited for a Babyface/Madonna collaboration, but the end result sounds fairly phoned in by both artists’ standards. The melody doesn’t fade from memory as quickly as the tepid “This Used To Be My Playground,” but Madonna’s play-it-straight delivery is a bit alarming, given her usual commanding presence. Compared to the grand statements we usually get from her best-known ballads, her delivery here sounds like she needs a nap. Meanwhile, Babyface borrows from the same template that was garnering big R&B hits for him and others; the only difference, really, is a tasteful string arrangement, a first for the producer.

“Take a Bow” finds Madonna trying to fit in with the trends of the time, rather than calling the shots; she holds her own on a track designed for more melismatic runs from peers like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, but that doesn’t make the song memorable.

Score: 4/10

Montell Jordan – This Is How We Do It

The influence of Slick Rick is all over “This Is How We Do It,” but then, at the time it seemed like he was everywhere. He was sampled in TLC’s “Creep” (which you just read about) and previously I’ve written about “Here Comes the Hotstepper” from Ini Kamoze, another #1 hit from this era that sampled Rick. In the mid-90s there was a ton of goodwill around the legendary rapper, who was serving time for a shooting. Montell Jordan even imitates Slick Rick in his rap verse on “This Is How We Do It” and it’s pretty impressive, no joke.

Actually, all of “This Is How We Do It” is impressive. The “Children’s Story” beat and piano melody it lifts is one of those timeless hip-hop creations that seems ageless. But while Slick Rick’s track dealt with a cautionary narrative, Jordan’s song is all about partying. Legend has it he invited over two dozen people in the studio for the recording, which likely explains all the background talking and party atmosphere on the track. Jordan is a charismatic presence, paying tribute to his hometown of South Central LA in memorable fashion. Everyone in my generation knows every word to this song; Jordan’s one-liners are seemingly endless and iconic.

This is technically an R&B single, but it feels more like a hip-hop track, due to the sample and Jordan’s rap-adjacent cadence (and aforementioned rap verse). This was the direction R&B was moving, as rap started to dominate the conversation thanks to people like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. This trend would continue, as we started seeing more hip-hop inspired tracks from artists like Mariah Carey, and eventually, rappers that sing more than actually rap. It didn’t start with “This Is How We Do It” (probably we should give credit to R&B royalty Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love”), but Montell Jordan was the one who took the style all the way to #1 for the first time. And with placement on current TV shows Yellowjackets and Euphoria (soundtracking party scenes in both instances), the song and its “Children’s Story” sample have aged unbelievably well.

Score: 10/10


Mar 14 2022

Random Song Reviews – 3/8-3/14/2022

Boyz II Men – I’ll Make Love To You

The early 90s were something of a golden era for R&B. We had the likes of R. Kelly, Jodeci, Silk and others scoring big hits, and a lot of those songs were freaky deaky shit. For a (scorching) hot second there, it looked like the clean cut quartet in Boyz II Men were playing catch up to a genre that had suddenly gotten a LOT hornier in just a couple years. The burgeoning success of gangsta rap and the raunchy lyrics of artists like The Notorious B.I.G. and Snoop Dogg forced R&B to dive deep into the sexy slow jam template. Boyz II Men had to follow suit, but they were going to do it on their own terms.

The end result was “I’ll Make Love To You,” a boilerplate slow jam with pristine 90s production that followed the formula of their blockbuster song “End of the Road” a little too well. The song was written and produced by hitmaker Babyface, a guy who knew exactly what he was doing in order to make a monster hit. Throughout “I’ll Make Love To You,” he layered keyboards, steady percussion, and canned strings to the desired effect, while Boyz II Men gave a melismatic vocal run around ridiculous, soft-focus lyrics about candles, a fireplace, and (duh) sweet, sweet lovemaking, baby.

The whole ordeal is laid on a little too thick, to the point where, if there’s any humor to be found in the sterilized lyrics and overwrought arrangement, the joke wears out its welcome pretty quickly. At least Boyz II Men’s peers sang about sex with a fiendish, ribald hunger, like they were wild animals. But that just wasn’t this quartet’s brand; they couldn’t sex you up or sing about knockin’ boots or how they were going to be freaks in the sheets. They had to class it up. They were going to “make love,” a phrase so sanitized and old-fashioned it must have sounded odd even in 1994. In the hands of Boyz II Men, sex isn’t a fun activity, but an act to express intense devotion. The Billboard charts don’t lie; a lot of people liked that message. But I prefer a little more heat in my slow jams, and “I’ll Make Love To You” strikes me as ice cold.

Score: 4/10

Ini Kamoze – Here Comes The Hotstepper

By 1994, Ini Kamoze was an elder statesman of Jamaican reggae and dancehall, but in America he was basically unknown. That all changed with the unlikely rise of “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” a great song that’s only made better by its unusual history. You can read that history here, courtesy of Tom Breihan’s excellent Number Ones column on Stereogum, which I recommend adding to your regular online reading digest.

Breihan’s entry also runs down all the samples used in “Hotstepper,” and there are quite a few. This was the standard practice in the early 90s, and it made for a glorious, adventurous era in hip-hop that sadly faded once the clearance process became more structured. Producer Salaam Remi added a mix of old and new sounds and references to craft a hip-hop song with dancehall cred; US audiences were already primed for this sound thanks to artists like Snow. Meanwhile Kamoze’s work on the track is confident and clever. He glides over the track with absurdly fun one-liners and endless hooks, and his patois, unlike the aforementioned Snow, is coherent and accessible to American ears.

“Here Comes the Hotstepper” is a JAM. It’s a 90s hip-hop song with dancehall flavor, and it works in every moment. Every sample is immaculately utilized, every one-liner perfectly timed, every hook strategically placed and repeated for maximum effect. It boggles my mind that it took so long to climb the Hot 100, but this was the era of Boyz II Men dominance, so in that context it makes sense. Regardless, the track is so damn fun it renders itself somewhat timeless, especially since Jamaican-influenced sounds would continue to make their way into pop music. “Here Comes The Hotstepper” hits just as hard as it first did on the dance floors of 1994.

Score: 9/10


Mar 7 2022

Random Song Reviews – 3/1-3/7/2022

OLD MUSIC

R. Kelly – Bump N’ Grind

Let’s attempt to set aside the elephant in the room and solely focus on this awful song…. oh, who am I kidding? This is R. Kelly we’re talking about here, convicted sex offender and all-around terrible person. He’s certainly not the first atrocious human being to score a #1 hit… but he’s perhaps the first to blatantly tell us who he was in his music, so much so that listening to his output will make the listener feel complicit. That he was able to make sex romps for so long while news of his criminal activity persisted through the decades is a fact we all will have to live with.

Looking back at his first chart topper, 1994’s “Bump N’ Grind,” it’s impossible to separate the art from the artist. His desperately horny persona was a perfect fit for the pervasive style of R&B that was trendy at the time. The music was extreme, emotional, passionate, but, I would argue, not always completely genuine. I’ve written about this recently when reviewing hits from Silk and Boyz II Men. Some acts were aware that the music was ridiculous and funny, and that was part of the appeal. And for a while, that’s what R. Kelly was doing, too. This is a guy who made “Trapped In the Closet,” for god’s sake. He knew what was going on. From the acapella intro that everyone remembers to that incessantly repetitive refrain, “Bump N’ Grind” dives head first into that experience, and it introduced the entire world to R. Kelly. But the song is one-note, overwrought, and not nearly as engrossing as other similar hits of the time. And, as Kelly’s actions came to light, the humorous aspect of “Bump N’ Grind” completely vanished.

Score: 2/10

All-4-One – I Swear

Can we all just take a moment to chuckle at the fact that All-4-One was basically an R&B vehicle for John Michael Montgomery songs that were too twangy for 90s pop radio? Not only did they take “I Swear” all the way to #1 on the Hot 100, but their only other Top Ten song was ANOTHER Montgomery country hit, the superior “I Can Love You Like That.”

Due to my age in 1994, and probably because I was raised in the Texas Panhandle, I heard the original country version of “I Swear” first; it likely happened while riding with my mom in the car. I didn’t even know about All-4-One, or their then-ubiquitous cover of the song, for several years. The country version maintains a special place in my heart, probably for nostalgic reasons, and also because it’s way, way better than All-4-One’s version. “I Swear” in Montgomery’s hands is a typical country ballad. It’s filled with earnest lyrics about devotion and soaked in pedal steel. But it also feels genuine, and that all comes down to Montgomery’s world-weary delivery. He truly sounds like he’s ready to settle down and, for better or worse, til death do they part, love his girl with every beat of his heart.

In comparison, All-4-One’s cover sounds like a sappy cash grab, swallowed by the pop ballad production tropes of its era. Those are courtesy of David Foster, the same guy who built an arrangement for another pop hit with origins on the country charts, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” With that one, Foster’s staid choices are saved by Houston’s otherworldly vocal performance. Sadly, All-4-One, a then-newcomer vocal group, cannot rescue Foster this time around.

It’s not really fair to compare All-4-One (or anyone, really) to Whitney Houston. Instead we should compare them to other vocal groups that were all the rage in 1994. But after sex-soaked #1 singles from Silk and R. Kelly, All-4-One were relatively safe and radio-friendly. They were more like Boyz II Men, but with less vocal talent, to be frank. With “I Swear” the quartet plays it fairly straight, delivering the song without much flair or vamping. All the guys were pretty young, and their delivery gives that away; they hit all the notes and have a knack for four-part harmony, but they sound timid and unremarkable. Meanwhile, Foster lays on the sentimental gloop via snaps, cymbals, keyboard plink-plonking, and a syrupy soft-focus sax solo.

After All-4-One flirted with the Hot 100, via two songs from the same Nashville star, they faded into obscurity, and eventually the 90s nostalgia touring circuit. If there’s a country version of that tour, I think I’d rather see John Michael Montgomery, or at least hear his version. I swear.

Score: 3/10

Lisa Loeb – Stay (I Missed You)

Lisa Loeb’s only chart topper perfectly represents a moment in time. In the early 90s alt-rock had infiltrated the cultural zeitgeist almost completely, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the Hot 100. There’s a number of reasons for that, some of which have to do with Billboard’s rules for the chart at the time. But probably the biggest reason is a lot of that music wasn’t really designed for a mainstream audience. Bands like Nirvana and Alice In Chains were loud and confrontational, and artists like Celine Dion and Boyz II Men made songs that were more accessible. With her biggest hit, Loeb seemed to bridge the gap, if only in a very nebulous sense.

“Stay” is the most enduring song from the Reality Bites soundtrack; the film is also a product of its time, but we won’t get into that. The track’s core melody is undeniably catchy and pretty, yet the song structure is a bit unorganized, at least for a pop hit. Loeb sings conflictingly about a confusing point in a romantic relationship. The song successfully found a home on several radio formats at the time; it worked as a pleasant adult-contempo track, a pop song, and, yes, an alternative radio track. But instead of being loud and abrasive, “Stay” was a bit of a precursor to the staid Lilith Fair trend that happened later in the decade. Lisa Loeb was the first of a wave of female singer-songwriter types that ran adjacent to what was happening in alternative rock, sometimes sounding more plaintive and honest than aloof and angsty. “Stay” is the closest representation of the alt-rock boom on Billboard’s biggest chart, and it sounds nothing like the music from the biggest bands of that period.

I like the song, but somewhat indifferently. In 1994, this style of acoustic pop was probably pretty unique; Lisa Loeb (and her thick-rimmed glasses) was a new kind of musician that echoed the Laurel Canyon sounds from the 1970s more than the emotive balladeers of her own time. Without the success of “Stay” we probably wouldn’t have signature 90s hits from Natalie Imbruglia, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole and the like. But the song itself, while pleasant to listen to, doesn’t really move me. I suppose I enjoy pop’s more histrionic moments than I would like to admit; for me, the track plays it a little too straight, and it comes and goes with little resonance. “Stay” is perfectly fine and an important cultural touchstone, but as a standalone song, I could take it or leave it.

Score: 6/10

NEW MUSIC

Portugal. The Man – What, Me Worry?

Who actively chooses to listen to this? I blame Beck for this stale amalgamation of disco-tinged, orchestra-sampling boredom destined for supermarket PA systems. It sounds like something in the lineage of Midnite Vultures, but far less interesting. Maybe actually I should blame Pharrell Williams and his deathless hit “Happy”, because “What, Me Worry?”, as the title implies, is a derivative, formless pastiche of feel-good mashed potatoes, as forgettable as a bad issue of Mad Magazine. Perhaps I shouldn’t be pointing fingers, because the song actually could be from a number of influences, all of which combine into something designed for the current, risk-averse era of alternative radio we’re living in. It’s a song so unbelievably boring and unmemorable that the artificial joy the song attempts to evoke actually makes me quite sad.

Score: 2/10


Feb 28 2022

Random Song Reviews – 2/22/-2/28/2022

OLD MUSIC

Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart & Sting – All For Love

What a giant, corporate nothing of a song. Bryan Adams, riding on a comeback wave in the early 90s, recruited fellow raspy, middle-of-the-road white dude legacy pop stars Sting and Rod Stewart for this promotional vehicle for The Three Musketeers movie. What they came up with (alongside Mutt Lange) is a dreadful, plodding 5-minute ballad with a phoned in guitar solo and an unmemorable chorus. The whole thing feels and sounds like a car commercial, a product that doesn’t even bother to pretend otherwise. The song, much like the film it’s from, evaporates like an odorous fart: it’s there, it stinks, and you’ve forgotten about it immediately after it’s over. The only remaining memory, if there is one, is that it was unpleasant.

Score: 1/10

Céline Dion – The Power of Love

Céline Dion was a different type of singer. She still is, actually. She doesn’t have the melismatic acrobatics of Mariah Carey. She doesn’t have the gospel training of Whitney Houston. What Dion brought to the table in the 90s was more theatrical, more vulnerable. She crashed through her songs with sheer force, making her presence known. And it was her first #1 hit, “The Power of Love,” that made Dion a global sensation.

The most interesting thing about “The Power of Love” (which is a Jennifer Rush cover, not a Huey Lewis cover, btw) is the production. Sure, Dion delivers a powerhouse performance, but compared to what we would hear from her later in the decade, this one actually sounds more subdued. To my ears, this track is buoyed by what must have seemed like pretty dated decisions in 1994: the booming gated reverb on the drums, the sustained guitars, the tasteful synths. Compared to previous chart-topping ballads like “All For Love” and Carey’s “Hero,” both of which contain syrupy, standard early 90s arrangements, Dion’s “The Power of Love” has a pleasantly retro approach.

The Phil Collins-like drum hits work better for Dion’s vocals than a weak piano line and keyboard chimes; the song’s emotion meets her halfway. She was just getting started in the States, as we all likely know, but “The Power of Love” was a powerful introduction.

Score: 6/10

Ace of Base – The Sign

Swedish pop music is truly its own thing. Once a novel, occasional occurrence, it is now a mainstay of the American pop charts, mostly thanks to super producer Max Martin. Before a wave of Swedish monster hits, the States had flings with ABBA and Roxette, two groups that took what was hot at the time and made it sound bigger and glossier. They also had their way with the English language, putting aside writing sensible lyrics in service of a greater cause: the hook. Ace of Base, however briefly, continued that tradition, and scored a handful of huge hits in the early 90s with their club-ready blend of pop reggae beats and sticky melodies.

The biggest of these hits in the US was “The Sign,” a song about an epiphany in a romantic relationship. The track coasts like an ocean liner, effortless, weightless, luxurious. The opening flute synth line is somewhat foreboding before giving way to floating female vocals from sisters Linn and Jenny Berggren. “The Sign” is loaded with percussion, featuring kick drum sounds, hand claps, 808 hits and rhythmic keyboard plunks. Much like their other signature tune “All That She Wants” (which I would also rate a 9/10, btw), the song glides along thanks to a swaying reggae cadence and steady keyboard chords, not unlike what chart toppers UB40 and Snow were doing at the time.

I suppose I rate “The Sign” so highly for a number of reasons. I’ve heard the song incessantly since my childhood, and the hook is immortal and undeniable. It’s one of those hits that an entire generation will attest to enjoying immensely. It’s a song that stops conversations at parties and karaoke bars, a track that everyone will dance and sing along to as soon as that synth line drops and that vocal ad lib is uttered. Culturally, its influence cannot be ignored. It’s a sampling of what was to be the future of pop. With the success of “The Sign” the Swedish hit factory was open for business; Ace of Base, in a brief window, ushered in an entire generation of stars and music masterminds from their homeland, forever changing the landscape of popular music.

Score: 9/10

NEW MUSIC

Foo Fighters – Love Dies Young

While other modern rock mainstays from the 90s (Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers) have hampered their longevity with a few creative missteps, Dave Grohl and Co. have simply been making the same song over and over for the past two decades to diminishing effect. They are nothing if not consistent – you could place any Foo Fighters single on anyone of their albums since There Is Nothing Left To Lose and it wouldn’t sound a bit out of place. This newest radio hit from their most recent album Medicine At Midnight is more of the same. So really, the listener’s opinion of the song will be based solely on how they feel about the Foo Fighters – their sound, their style, their approach. Because nothing has changed. Personally, I’ve grown pretty tired of it.

Score: 4/10

The Rare Occasions – Notion

Rhode Island indie rockers The Rare Occasions have finally scored a hit after years of workmanlike songwriting. The track in question, “Notion,” is a catchy, bouncy one, jangling along like a post-punk track from aughts darlings the Kaiser Chiefs. The drum fills here are energetic and satisfying, while the lyrics give a matter-of-fact, atheistic view of the afterlife. After a decade-plus of samey electronic-focused acts in the mainstream alternative arena (Glass Animals, Joywave, Twenty One Pilots), the song is a refreshing, oddly retro bit of fun, even if there’s nothing remotely innovative about it.

Score: 6/10

Destroyer – Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread

A fun post-disco beat is hampered by another round of inane lyrics from the eternally pompous-sounding Dan Bejar.

Score: 4/10

LSDXOXO – SMD

A solid standalone single, but it’s not nearly as earworm-y or cleverly gratuitous as any of the highlights from last year’s Dedicated 2 Disrespect.

Score: 6/10

Dehd – Bad Love

An exultant lead single from the Chicago band’s forthcoming album Blue Skies, featuring a shimmy-worthy chorus.

Score: 8/10

THICK – Love You Forever

The all-female Brooklyn band is back with a wayward rocker, an excellent follow-up to the sly “Mansplain” from 2020.

Score: 7/10

Tinashe – Naturally

Tinashe continues to make ridiculously enjoyable bangers; this one follows last year’s 333 with a loping beat and the vocalist’s usual swagger.

Score: 8/10

Vince Staples – MAGIC (feat. Mustard)

Last year’s criminally overlooked self-titled effort saw Staples getting more personal over increasingly minimal production, so this laid-back collab with the less-is-more Mustard makes sense.

Score: 7/10

Silk Sonic – Love’s Train

It seems like an eternity since the debut album (it’s only been a few months) so this surprise Valentine’s gift from Bruno and Anderson, a Con Funk Shun cover, is a welcome return, even if it’s just more of the same sexy 70s pastiche.

Score: 7/10

Death Cab For Cutie – Waiting For the Sunrise

Taken from the forthcoming Yoko Ono tribute album, “Waiting For the Sunrise” finds Death Cab melding soaring harmonies with quirky rhythms.

Score: 7/10

vein.fm – Wavery

“Wavery” is a dread-inducing sample from the band’s upcoming album, akin to a pristine Deftones deep cut.

Score: 7/10

Kurt Vile – Like Exploding Stones

The indie folk journeyman returns with 7 minutes of more of the same lackadaisical, half-sung psych. We’ve heard this before, and so the mind will drift away from the song after a while. Vile himself sounds bored, and that’s saying something.

Score: 6/10

Pink Mountaintops – Lights Of the City

Stephen McBean’s evolving project returns after 8 years with a new forthcoming album and this lead single, a glam-psych hybrid with a guitar line predestined for action movie montage greatness.

Score: 7/10

Doss – Jumpin’

A throbbing, relentless return single from Doss, who wowed me last year with “Look” and “Strawberry.” This one’s designed for peak euphoria in the nightclub.

Score: 7/10

Guerilla Toss – Famously Alive

The Boston dance punks continue their album rollout with a short but sweet, Auto-Tune soaked headbanger.

Score: 7/10

Flock of Dimes – Pure Love

With this new track Flock of Dimes have finally hit all the right spots in their unique approach to indie pop.

Score: 7/10

Troye Sivan & Jay Som – Trouble

With help from the underrated Jay Som, Sivan returns to his melodic glory days, delivering a song as good as anything on the compelling Bloom.

Score: 7/10

4s4ki, gu^2 – Punish

Japanese hyperpop artist 4s4ki reveals multiple layers of their approach on this song, featuring a drum’n’bass breakdown that follows a sweet, crooning verse.

Score: 6/10

Tame Impala – The Boat I Row

A new one-off track from the recently dropped The Slow Rush B-sides compilation, a by-the-numbers Tame Impala arrangement that Kevin Parker could write in his sleep.

Score: 5/10

Kid Cudi – Want It Bad (feat. Nigo)

Cudi’s latest drop is pretty mid, not gonna lie; an incessant beat guides the rapper along toward a typical play at the Top 40 with an unmemorable chorus.

Score: 5/10

Jack Harlow – Nail Tech

Harlow’s cocky flow has always been appealing, but the hook here just isn’t as strong as previous singles.

Score: 6/10

SEBii – stfu… ur done

A playful hyperpop kiss-off with a fun mix of gibberish and pulsating, fist-pumping percussion.

Score: 6/10

Shenseea w/ 21 Savage – R U That

Fresh off her collab with Megan Thee Stallion, Shenseea drops another bop. Bonus points for throwing the best ad-libber doing it right now, 21 Savage, on the track. This shit goes hard.

Score: 8/10

Nilufer Yanya – anotherlife

Another enticing sample from the art pop artist’s new album Painless, “anotherlife” shimmers with an oscillating beat and ethereal production.

Score: 7/10

Fontaines D.C. – I Love You

“I Love You” is an overlong, moody endeavor from the Irish post-punk rockers that isn’t nearly as interesting as the band clearly thinks it is. If this serves as the centerpiece for their new album, that spells trouble.

Score: 5/10

93FEETOFSMOKE – FUCKED OVER (feat. phem & Tosh the Drummer)

This was a standout when I was perusing the latest wave of pop-punk revival tracks a few days ago, but over time the sweet-as-candy hook and trap beat drops started giving me a toothache.

Score: 5/10

gabby start – rock music

The first track from Chicago artist gabby start’s new EP luca is an accessible, emotive, glitchy journey into where an Extremely Online subgenre like hyperpop could be headed for increased exposure.

Score: 7/10

Caroline Polacheck & Oneohtrix Point Never – Long Road Home

Polachek and Daniel Lopatin join forces for this gorgeous left-field arrangement that undulates in all the right moments.

Score: 8/10

Bad Boy Chiller Crew – Stick Around

A highlight from Disrespectful finds the Crew dropping the 90s club and hip house aesthetics for piano-heavy, trap pop, and it works ridiculously well.

Score: 8/10

Top Ten This Week


Feb 21 2022

Random Song Reviews 2/15 – 2/21/2022

OLD MUSIC

Meat Loaf – I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)

Before we begin, I must stress something important: if you’re only listening to the five-minute single version of this song, you are, yes, saving seven minutes of your life for other tasks, but doing yourself a disservice ultimately. The music of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, as any pop historian (or just general fan of auditory histrionics) will tell you, is meant to be heard in all its overproduced, overdone, ridiculously theatrical, self-indulgent glory.

When I say glory, I mean it. Glorious is the perfect word for the two brilliant albums from this duo, Bat Out of Hell and its sequel (the latter of which houses the song we are discussing). But “I Would Do…” is a special moment, even for these two. Throughout, Steinman’s unchained combination of background choral arrangements, banging piano, Richter Scale-challenging drums and screeching guitars collide with Marvin Lee Aday’s emotional, pleading voice, the aural equivalent of witnessing a volcano explode.

By the time the song retreats for a back-and-forth from Aday and Patti Russo, we get an answer to what “that” is that Meat Loaf won’t do. You see, he would do anything for love, but he won’t consider it all a fling or a brief interlude or eventually start screwing around. No, he won’t do that.

Lyrically, it’s simple and poignant, and could all be explained in under five minutes. But then, it wouldn’t be Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman. And whatever you would’ve done for those remaining seven minutes wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting.

Score: 8/10

Janet Jackson – Again

I recently wrote about the sexy vibe that was #1 janet. single “That’s The Way Love Goes,” a song that ushered in a more sensual, mature era for Janet Jackson. The other side of that coin is expressed on “Again,” a sappy ballad that was written for her film debut Poetic Justice and sung in character. “Again” is a longing love song for Tupac Shakur’s character in the movie Lucky, sung by Jackson’s character Justice, and it bores me to tears.

I’ve never seen Poetic Justice, the John Singleton-directed follow up to Boyz In The Hood. Hell, I’ve never seen Boyz In The Hood. These are bucket list movies for me, as we all are wont to play catch up to consume the content that was made before we were old enough to take it all in as it was happening. But even though I’ve never watched Jackson’s lead acting role, I’ve heard good things. The song she delivered for the movie, however, is pretty standard movie soundtrack fare, nothing like what we had come to expect and enjoy about the boundary-pushing pop of her other music. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled on Control and Rhythm Nation, but I don’t think a Janet Jackson song should sound like “A Whole New World.” It just feels very broad to me, and Janet has always had too much of a singular identity for that.

Score: 4/10

Mariah Carey – Hero

“Hero” was the second single from Mariah Carey’s smash, ballad-heavy album Music Box. This was deep in her Tommy Mottola era, when her husband / manager was calling the shots. The song was originally written (by Carey and Walter Afanasieff) for a soundtrack to a forgotten Dustin Hoffman film, and Gloria Estefan was supposed to sing it. Mottola, upon hearing the song, demanded Mariah sing it instead for her new album.

Despite Carey’s athletic vocal takes, “Hero” is a schmaltzy, weepy nothing of a song, and that’s mostly the fault of Afanasieff, whose generic piano and thunder-drum arrangement is as predictable and safe as a C-grade Hollywood film. Carey, for her part, gives just the right amount of emotional oomph to lyrics that signify pretty much anything you want them to, whether it be a tribute to fallen heroes, or a retiring professional athlete, or a charity event for a poverty-stricken community. The song works as a go-to for anything, really, because the lyrics are so vague, almost to the point of being comical. “Hero” is one of Carey’s best-known songs, and it’s a live staple, and there’s no doubt it’s brought comfort and inspiration to millions. And of course that was the whole point. It was designed for universal application. But the song’s fill-in-the-blank approach also renders it banal and boilerplate.

Score: 4/10

NEW MUSIC

Barrie – Jenny

Another pleasant advance single from the dream pop group, whose new album Barbara drops in March.

Score: 7/10

Sharon Van Etten – Porta

Sharon Van Etten’s yearning voice soars over a cascading wave of synths and rolling drums, drawing comparisons to The War On Drugs’ more thunderous work.

Score: 7/10

Helena Deland – Swimmer

Helena Deland delivers a tender ode to a vital memory over plaintive guitar strums. It’s pretty, but hardly as captivating as recent accolades would suggest.

Score: 6/10

Real Lies w/ Zoee – An Oral History Of My First Kiss

Wistful synth tones and steady electronic claps envelop a spoken-word monologue of memories and cooing female vocals. The song builds to something greater than the sum of its parts.

Score: 7/10

Excide – The Portrait, Now Perceived

American post-hardcore crew Excide have returned with a driving new single that takes a breath only for a shoegaze-like chorus before returning sharply to pummeling rhythms.

Score: 7/10

Fawn – Graffiti In the Hall

A random indie-pop artist with exactly one song on Spotify, but it’s a very pretty one, featuring a steady kick drum alongside guitar strums and a very catchy throbbing synth line.

Score: 7/10

Caroline Polachek – Billions

Polachek lets her voice take the lead on this new single, a bit more understated than the previous “Bunny Is A Rider” or her recent uptempo work with Charli XCX.

Score: 8/10

Pusha T – Diet Coke

Kanye produced this new jam from Pusha, proving even in 2022 (and amidst continuous drama on social media for the former) both of these veterans can still bring the goods.

Score: 8/10

fred again…. w/ India Jordan – Admit It (U Don’t Want 2)

Two of my favorite producers of the past few years collab on this new, nocturnal, pulsating track, perfect for the ride home after the sensory overload of the nightclub.

Score: 8/10

Willie Nelson – I’ll Love You Til the Day I Die

Preparing once again for a new album, the legendary octogenarian never stops working. He returns with a tender, if a bit bland, love song, incorporating his famous warbling croon.

Score: 6/10

Drug Church – Premium Offer

Drug Church hearken back to Bob Mould’s style of loud 90s post-punk on this recent leak, albeit with a Pixies-influenced haze blanketing everything.

Score: 6/10

Ibeyi – Sister 2 Sister

The French twin sisters score big points with this new track, a sort of mission statement for the duo and their music.

Score: 8/10

Rema – Calm Down

The Nigerian dancehall artist returns with another hook-filled leak from their upcoming Rave & Roses album.

Score: 8/10

Nicki Minaj & Lil Baby – Bussin

While a slight improvement from the clumsy “Do We Have a Problem?”, this new collab from Barbie and Baby is still missing the ingredients that make each of them so captivating separately.

Score: 5/10

Orville Peck – Cmon Baby Cry

The finest of a batch of new songs from the forthcoming Bronco, “Cmon Baby Cry” has the boot-shufflin’, singing-to-the-heavens bliss we’ve come to expect from the queer country troubadour. This one will get people two-steppin’ better than anything Nashville is cooking up these days.

Score: 8/10

Real Friends – Tell Me You’re Sorry

The Illinois-based emo heroes return with a by-the-numbers pop-punk track that will satisfy longtime fans but gain no new recruits.

Score: 5/10

Slayyyter – Troubled Paradise/Inferno Euphoria (Not a Friend Remix)

This high-energy remix combines the title track from Slayyyter’s previous LP with a new song, destined for floor filler euphoria on your next Friday night.

Score: 7/10

Mary J. Blige w/ Anderson Paak – Here With Me

Blige sounds a bit out of her element on this generic funk-based beat, while Paak sounds right at home. Results are mixed overall.

Score: 6/10

kmoe – it gets lonely

When the beat drops on this skittering, shimmery hyperpop nugget, it’s like biting into your favorite flavor of Skittle. Let the dopamine hit.

Score: 9/10

patchnotes – Baby

On the other side of the hyperpop spectrum, patchnotes conjures a chillwave vibe that also evokes lo-fi beats you can study to, equal parts theatrical and pensive.

Score: 7/10

flowerovlove – I Love This Song

Speaking of vibes, this one’s got some – a steady, swaying pop song that never reaches for the rafters, but rather remains content in its lane. Hard to explain, but you’ll know when you listen.

Score: 7/10

Kim Petras – XXX

The best track on an otherwise disappointing sex-themed EP that sacrifices gratuitous content for good dance pop songs. “XXX” is an example, but the beat here is stronger than what’s on the rest of the project.

Score: 6/10

Top Ten This Week


Feb 14 2022

Random Song Reviews – 2/8-2/14/2022

OLD MUSIC

SWV – Weak

When we talk about 90s female R&B groups, the go-to is TLC, but I seem to remember SWV were also a pretty big deal. And so I looked it up, and I remembered correctly – they are one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, with over 25 million records sold. And nothing sold better than their #1 smash “Weak.”

Really SWV were just riding a wave – the early 90s were all about R&B, thanks to a subtle update in style from none other than Mariah Carey. The soulful balladry of Whitney Houston was out – the smoothed-out Philly soul and tinge of hip-hop and New Jack Swing was in. And so groups like Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Silk, En Vogue, and, yes, SWV were taking over MTV and your mom’s favorite radio station. The music was in fashion, but unlike its cousin hip-hop, it was relatively safe.

When SWV’s sound became more beat-focused (“You’re The One,” “I’m So Into You,” and the Michael Jackson-sampling “Right Here”), the results were superior, but at this particular moment, they were in the right place with a song like “Weak.” The single is typical of R&B of 1993, with a keyboard chime opener, finger-snapping, solid harmonies from all three members, and just a touch of necessary vamping at the end. The chorus is sticky, particularly the final pause and stanza (“I can’t explain why your love, it makes me weeeeeak”).

SWV had their moment, and they capitalized. The weakest (pardon the pun) of their most memorable singles is the one that got them to the top, but it’s still a decent jam.

Score: 7/10

UB40 – (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You

I’m not a big Elvis fan, overall. I appreciate the legacy, but more often than not I’ve found Presley’s voice to be more hiccuping and humorous than beautiful. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is an exception. When I hear Presley’s version, I see my gorgeous wife walking down the aisle a little too quickly in her beautiful white dress. I was in tears. It’s a moment I will treasure forever.

UB40’s version is a different story. My wife is a giant Elvis fan, but I’ve never asked her what she thinks of the pop-reggae cover that is just as popular as the rendition the King released. She likely doesn’t like it as much. Not for the reasons I don’t; she probably just thinks Elvis does a better job and sings better. She would be correct.

Ok, UPDATE: I just texted my wife and her response is that it sounds like a “Sandals Resort commercial… it’s kitschy and just ew…” and the audio equivalent of a watered-down pina colada. I love this girl, I think she just wrote my review for me.

So never mind, I guess she abhors it for the same reasons I do, after all. UB40’s cover sounds commercial and cynical. It’s an opportunistic stab at an oldie for continued chart relevance; the canned drum machine and overdone horn stabs add to the stale presentation. It’s a reggae pastiche from a reggae cover band whose breakthrough hit was a stroke of pure luck, an unremarkable version of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” that gained traction after a rogue DJ started playing it on a whim. From that point, UB40’s whole schtick was breezy reggae covers of soul and oldies classics. Their second #1 hit is actually worse; it only gets points from me because it’s actually, in its purest form, a transcendent, romantic, almost dreamy song.

It’s admittedly hard to do an A+ Elvis song justice. But apparently it’s not hard to completely butcher the thing either. Ask my wifey, she knows what’s up.

Score: 3/10

Mariah Carey – Dreamlover

“Dreamlover” has all the makings of a touchstone Mariah Carey song. The hip-hop swagger, the superhuman falsettos (those show up about five seconds in), a sticky-like-glue “do-do-do” refrain, and a dreamy (pun intended) vocal delivery that confidently soars to the heavens. This was the beginning of the Carey we know and adore; while her first two albums conjured big hits, they were all either ballads or a light flirt into trendy house music. Carey’s legacy is that, with her superstar voice, she guided R&B into a hip-hop adjacent period of stratospheric success. “Dreamlover,” arguably, was the beginning of that.

It’s a shame that Music Box, the album that “Dreamlover” came from, doesn’t have more examples of this sound. Tommy Mottola and the record label machine that was controlling Carey’s career wanted her to stay in the lane of balladry, and the majority of her songs in this period go in that direction. Not that Carey couldn’t sing ballads; obviously she could, and can. But she absolutely shines in “Dreamlover,” and the simple fact that the song is a banger doesn’t hurt.

The sampled percussion hits hard on the track, and a Hammond organ adds a nice flavor to the celestial atmosphere; it’s a nice pairing to Carey’s carefree croon. The lyrics speak of a yearning for someone to take her away; it doesn’t really go into details about the person, but rather the focus is the feeling they can provide. The backup multi-tracked vocals on the chorus move the train along, allowing Carey to vamp all over the song in the foreground, which is what we all came for, anyway. The song isn’t the most obvious showcase for Carey’s voice, but she manages to get a few key moments in, regardless.

“Dreamlover” was a huge hit, which wasn’t a surprise. The most exciting thing about it is what it gradually revealed about Mariah Carey’s sound, and the sound of 90s R&B in general. As the decade progressed, this rap-flavored aesthetic would become the norm, and all those ballads would become side dishes, rather than the main course.

Score: 8/10

NEW MUSIC

Hater – Something

A gorgeous, jangly, almost trip-hop track from this Swedish indie rock group I’ve never heard of before this week.

Score: 8/10

Petter Eldh + Koma Saxo – Koma Kaprifol

RateYourMusic describes both of these artists as avant-jazz, but this new track is guided by a very satisfying hip-hop cadence.

Score: 7/10

The Range – Bicameral

A rewarding, beatific new single from the Rhode Island-based producer, who we haven’t heard from in a long time.

Score: 8/10

Twen – Bore U

Twen return with a swaying, bouncy track featuring Jane Fitzsimmons’ drawling vocal delivery.

Score: 7/10

My Idea – Cry Mfer

This just feels like a spring day, windows rolled down, arms outstretched, fingers blowing through the wind. That last sentence is a bit broad and also a tinge dramatic, but just listen to the song, you’ll see what I mean.

Score: 8/10

Arlo Parks – Softly

After the acclaimed Collapsed In Sunbeams, the London artist returns with a blissful slice of indie pop.

Score: 8/10

Kamasi Washington – The Garden Path

The jazz fusion artist sends us to new planets with this brass-heavy, percussion-crazy new song.

Score: 7/10

Lucy Dacus – Kissing Lessons

Dacus’ storytelling is as vivid as ever on this new upbeat song.

Score: 7/10

illuminati hotties – Sandwich Sharer

The slow verses build gradually, repeatedly, to a bouncy, clever refrain typical of past releases from the group.

Score: 7/10

Flume w/ MAY-A – Say Nothing

A Latin rhythm provides the backbone to this nondescript track that contains none of the interesting flourishes from Flume’s older work.

Score: 6/10

Mallrat – Your Love

The Australian pop singer continues to get better and better. This song does so much with such a standard hook. The hip-hop outro on this seems like it would be out of place, but it only adds to the excellent vibe.

Score: 9/10

SASAMI – Call Me Home

A decidedly more low-key, pensive track from the upcoming album from SASAMI, whose previous singles have had a more foreboding, almost industrial sheen.

Score: 6/10

Koffee – Pull Up

What a stupid fun song from the dancehall artist, whose forthcoming project Gifted just jumped to the top of my most-anticipated albums for the year.

Score: 9/10

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Black Summer

Forever preserved in stale amber, the Chili Peppers may have their old guitarist back, but it does nothing to progress their sound, other than Anthony Kiedis’ unfortunate new Scottish-pirate inflection.

Score: 3/10

$NOT w/ A$AP Rocky – Doja

This song gets me hype, even though I know it’s not really that good. Chalk it up to the “fuck that! fuck you!” chants.

Score: 6/10

Megan Thee Stallion – Flamin’ Hottie

This product placement cash-in for the Super Bowl is as stale as old Cheetos. Would rather have had the real thing (i.e. Salt N Pepa).

Score: 3/10

King Von w/ 21 Savage – Don’t Play That

Production is mid, hook is too repetitive. Bars are unmemorable. 21’s verse saves the song from being merely mediocre.

Score: 6/10

Metz – Demolition Row

Slightly less noisy and propulsive, but just as eerie as their older stuff. This one has more a creep than an immediate bang.

Score: 6/10

Machine Gun Kelly w/ WILLOW – Emo Girl

A star-studded collab, but after the hype dies down, there really isn’t much to the song, unless you just want a Blink 182 outtake. The chorus is so bad it’s kind of funny, frankly.

Score: 5/10

Kavinsky – Zenith

An underwhelming new song from the French producer that contains none of the mystique of their best work, including the immortal “Night Call.”

Score: 5/10

Rosalia – SAOKO

Rosalia continues to re-invent her style, as on this new monster of a dance track.

Score: 9/10

Nicki Minaj w/ Lil Baby – Do We Have A Problem?

Nicki does her best to bring the usual tough aesthetics, and Baby’s verse is adequate, but over this beat, it all underwhelms.

Score: 4/10

Liam Gallagher – Everything’s Electric

Liam goes hard here, back on his late-era Oasis bullshit. I’m digging it.

Score: 7/10

Luna Li w/ beabadoobee – Silver Into Rain

A spacey new pop track that bears slight resemblance to something Melody’s Echo Chamber would conjure up with ease.

Score: 7/10

Tai’Aysha w/ Saweetie – One Night Ting

A catchy, casual sendup to hookups featuring a super-fun verse from Saweetie.

Score: 7/10

Yung Gravy w/ Dillon Francis & T-Pain – Hot Tub

This song is dumb as shit, as was predicted. But it’s also a lot of fun, which was also expected. And T-Pain makes everything better. You can actually drown in a hot tub, though. Be safe out there, kids.

Score: 6/10

Juice WRLD – Cigarettes

A posthumous track worthy of release, which is more than can be said for a lot of Juice’s peers’ output after dying young (XXXTentacion comes to mind).

Score: 6/10

Goth Babe – Running Around

Pure vibes. There isn’t anything special about this one, but it just puts me in a frame of mind I like to be in. Something about this hazy-synth, indie dance shit, I don’t get enough of it.

Score: 7/10

Arizona Zervas – BAND$

Admittedly I was intrigued by the band name puns idea (including a Green Day reference) but the gimmick wears thin pretty quick (and some of the shoutouts are pretty clumsy), and the hook isn’t strong enough to prop it up.

Score: 4/10

Kyle Dion w/ Tkay Maidza – HAZY

Maidza’s vocals sit pleasantly alongside acoustic guitar and a sturdy chorus. Dion, for his part, sounds great too, if a little grating with the over-enunciation.

Score: 7/10

4s4ki – Oh GOD!!

A nice, effervescent piece of J-hyperpop with a surprising key change near the end.

Score: 6/10

Musa – hey i’m in texas, do u wanna hang/talk?

I love it when people online are like, “hey I’m in texas too, we should hang!” when it’s like, dude, this state is 12 hours wide. If you’re in Houston and I’m in El Paso, we’re never gonna hang out. Anyway, this is a pretty standard hyperpop track, replicating the style of more accessible glaive tracks without a strong enough hook.

Score: 6/10

monty.pk – prism

This hyperpop track, however, is way more interesting, featuring impeccably layered elements around clipped, glitchy vocals and an instrumental break that brings out the most cathartic characteristics of the subgenre.

Score: 8/10

Charlotte Adigery – ceci n’est pas un cliche

A strutting bass line and finger snaps lead the track along to a simply satisfying dance break and Chic-esque “Cold as ice!” exclamation.

Score: 8/10

Andy Morin & backxwash – Dig Yourself a Grave

The industrial trap producer and the experimental rapper combine for a pairing that sounds better on paper, I guess, because this should have been a lot better.

Score: 6/10

Yung Kayo – who you gon call

As of this writing, I haven’t heard all of DFTK yet, but this melodic trap banger (and acclaim the album has received elsewhere) gives me high expectations.

Score: 8/10

yeule – Bites On My Neck

The best song on Glitch Princess is a celestial blend of noise and art with a hook that stands out more than anything on the otherwise banal album.

Score: 8/10

Saba – One Way Or Every N**** With a Budget

The opener to the great new album Few Good Things sets the tone with a smooth, memorable melody giving support to Saba’s contemplation on Black success.

Score: 8/10

Hikaru Utada – Somewhere Near Marseilles

Utada’s collab with Floating Points is 12 minutes of club-ready rapturous bliss.

Score: 8/10

Top Ten This Week


Feb 7 2022

Random Song Reviews: 2/1/-2/7/2022

OLD MUSIC

Snow – Informer

Anyone remember when Adrien Brody hosted Saturday Night Live? Perhaps you do if you’re a fan of SNL lore, because Brody was promptly banned from ever hosting again. That’s because Brody decided, when introducing musical guest Sean Paul (an actual Jamaican), to dress and speak in character as a Jamaican, fake dreadlocks and all. (The producers and Lorne Michaels reportedly didn’t know anything about before it happened.) You can find the bit online, I won’t link to it here; it’s an uncomfortable train wreck of a decision that lasts way too long. But the act of white dudes pretending to be Jamaican was not a new thing in 2003. In fact, ten years earlier, the #1 song in the country for seven weeks was basically that. And when Snow’s dancehall reggae hit “Informer” was taking over, Americans didn’t bat an eye.

Perhaps I’m being a little hard on Snow. He wasn’t exactly Iggy Azalea. Even though he was an Irish Canadian, he grew up in an ethnically diverse suburb of Toronto and fell in love with reggae music, freestyling patois to the amusement of his friends. He respected the culture; even years after his fifteen minutes, he was making albums in Jamaica with reggae artists. If not authentic, Snow was at least genuine. He wanted the world to hear this music. He was also a criminal who got into a lot of trouble, which is actually what “Informer” is about. It’s basically a threat to the person who snitched on Snow and sent him to jail.

Of course, no one in America knew that. They couldn’t understand a word Snow was saying, which was part of the novelty, along with how goofy he looked in the music video. Nowadays, dancehall is everywhere in the USA, and it’s not a joke. But patois was not something that was prominent on the Hot 100 in 1993; is it fair to say that this whiteboy one-hit wonder, like Vanilla Ice before him, paved the way for more authentic artists to bring chart dominance to their genre? Would Sean Paul be successful in the US if not for Snow? I don’t actually believe that, because dancehall reggae would have eventually made big moves all over the world with or without the kickstart from Snow’s single hit. The style is upbeat, club-ready, and infectious. And Snow didn’t impact the fact that it’s a predominately Black genre. But the actual effect of “Informer,” particularly on American audiences, is fun to think about.

But, ok. Let’s actually talk about the track. The oft-used “Amen Break” sample does a lot of heavy lifting here – rhythmically speaking, “Informer” is a 90s rap song with dancehall flourishes. But the hook is sticky as shit, and for his part Snow’s rapid-fire patois is impressive. The lyrics, as we’ve mentioned, deal with darker topics than the general upbeat vibe of the song would lead you to believe. The MC Shan verse is… fine. His presence at least gives the song some hip-hop credibility, which it probably needed to break through. As a whole, certain elements of the song have aged well. The general idea probably hasn’t.

So yeah, “Informer” is a prime example of cultural appropriation, something that, even presented as novelty, wouldn’t go over well nowadays. But in the early 90s, the song seemed a bit silly, and that was the appeal. A decade later, dancehall reggae would be a primary sound in American pop music, and it would come from more credible sources. And one source would get big enough to play his biggest hits on a legacy variety show in New York City, with a white host introducing the artist by dressing in an offensive costume and attempting a caricature. Misguided? Sure. Deeply uncomfortable to watch? Definitely. Silly and novel? Not anymore. Genuine enthusiasm? You’d have to ask Adrien Brody. Say what you will about Snow, at least he knew better than to show up in fake dreadlocks.

Score: 6/10

Silk – Freak Me

The short-lived popularity of Silk is actually quite simple – they were contenders for title of the “bad boy” version of Boyz II Men, which is to say, they were less subtle about their sexual intentions. Boyz II Men were the romantic types – “I’ll Make Love To You” is a great example. Silk were the same, but they were dirty talkers. They were more explicit, they wanted to give the play-by-play. They wanna lick you up and down, play with your body, they love the taste of whipped cream. In short, they wanna get freaky with you.

I’m basing this on one song, because I don’t know any other Silk songs. Perhaps this will change one day; maybe I’ll get the itch to dive deep into their discography, but for now, their #1 hit “Freak Me” is the beginning and end of my knowledge of their body of work. They’re probably just a Boyz II Men knock-off with one hit single that was way sexier than the rest of their catalog. That’s very possible, because “Freak Me” is incredibly memorable and it really sticks out. Honestly, “Motownphilly” aside, I might like it more than any Boyz II Men single. And I think that has to do with self-awareness. The modern Boyz II Men have self-awareness about their songs. I’m not sure they did in the 90s, though, and it showed. At least, they didn’t have as much self-awareness as Silk. Because you can’t sing a song like “Freak Me” without it. (It should be noted Keith Sweat co-wrote the song, who was basically the king of 90s slow-tempo sex romps. See “Nobody” for reference.)

I recently wrote about Boyz II Men and how their vocal theatrics and Philly soul chops landed them in the pantheon of top tier R&B groups, but I also wrote about how that sound has devolved into parody. Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake’s SNL sketches immediately come to mind. The Lonely Island made bank from making fun of this style of 90s R&B. The songs were sexually explicit in a way that is hilarious and ridiculous. But we already knew this was happening. Everyone was already in on the joke. Even Teddy Pendergrass delivered his most dramatic come-ons with a wink. I’d like to think Silk were a little in on the joke, too. “Freak Me” is a jam that sets the mood, and I’m sure it was very effective baby-making music in the early 90s. But on paper, the lyrics are just really funny. Because talking about sex is funny. And I think Silk can have it both ways. They can make an earnest, sexy song that is also cunningly walking the line of self-parody, taking the whole style to its ridiculous extremes.

I’m willing to accept that this is just my projection, as a thirtysomething white guy who analyzes popular music and the culture and conversation around it as a lifelong hobby. A guy who has lived through the rise and fall of Boyz II Men, Silk, Jodeci, H-Town, LSG, and countless other 90s R&B vocal groups. I also witnessed this sound evolve into boy band ballads, and then into a punchline by groups like The Lonely Island. In my mind, Silk already knew this was the logical journey. I listen to “Freak Me” and I hear a group of singers who are in the moment, giving it their very best vocal performance, but who also are taking cues from Pendergrass and Barry White, and recognizing that this is a little silly. That for every couple playing “Freak Me” to warm up in the bedroom, there will be some drunk college student playfully picking the song for karaoke night.

That random person will pick the song because it reminds them of listening to “Freak Me” in the car on the way to school with their mom and feeling very, very uncomfortable. Ok, yeah, this is 100% my projection. But the other reason we remember and love this song, regardless of horniness, or ridiculousness, is because it’s a fucking JAM. “Freak Me” opens with a rhythmic chant that transitions to an instantly unforgettable hook-filled chorus. Even if you don’t remember Silk, you remember “Freak Me,” and I’d argue the lyrics are only partially the reason. The whispered, spoken-word verses are the right combination of sultry and inessential. At one point, you can’t even hear them over the vamping from other members of the group. When the final chorus kicks in, the backing keyboard synths and chimes drop out, leaving only the beat – this is when Silk mean business. In case you didn’t hear it the first time, in case you didn’t get the message. It’s time to get freaked, girl.

Whether they’re in on the joke, whether there was an intended joke to begin with, who cares? Silk were doing god’s work; their hit song made plenty of babies in 1993, and it also made some of us laugh. And when Mom wasn’t in the car, we’d turn the volume up, because that chorus is just too damn good. “Freak Me” may sound like it was made for only one thing, but it has many functions in many settings, and that makes it a freaking great song.

Score: 8/10

Janet Jackson – That’s The Way Love Goes

I have a confession to make – there’s a gap in my Janet Jackson knowledge. I’m very familiar with her iconic, metallic, dance-heavy Control and Rhythm Nation era, and, because I grew up immersed in it, her equally upbeat All For You era. But I was not as familiar with the more erotic janet. era until today, when I heard, for the first time in my life, the lead single from that album. Apparently, it was pretty surprising to hear and see Ms. Jackson, after the abrasive sound of her late-80s work, in a more sexual role, appearing topless on her new album cover and re-introducing herself with an understated, hypnotic, hip-hop based track that contained traces of Sade sensuality and bearing resemblance to Madonna’s erotic hit “Justify My Love.”

The hit song, which stayed at #1 for eight weeks, was an introduction to an edgier, more sultry maturation for the artist and a sharp left turn from her previous work. As a song, it’s a pure mood, but a bit nondescript in terms of memorable melody, and it certainly lacks the punch of the more iconic songs in her catalog. “That’s The Way Love Goes” is a good vibe, but a minor moment compared to the other creations Jackson conjured up with the hitmaking duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Score: 6/10

NEW MUSIC

Kid Rock – We the People

I don’t know where to begin. At first I thought I would write about Kid Rock’s latest dick-swinging abomination without discussing the politics behind it… you know, just focusing on the song. The musicianship, the instrumentation, the craft, know what I’m sayin? But this “song,” if you wanna call it that, is all about the message. And that message is…. well, actually, I’m not 100% sure. Part of the message seems to be single-minded tropes that we’ve been hearing from the far right ever since Trump lost in 2020. All the dumb shit you expect from your drunk uncle is here: Fuck Fauci, wearing masks is stupid, All Lives Matter, CNN sucks… there’s even a sound byte of “let’s go Brandon” chants at the end. All the fun things people say that make perfect sense if you don’t think about them, even for a second. So about 90% of “We The People” is “us vs. them,” that much is clear. It’s about as subtle as a frying pan to a Biden voter’s face.

But then the song takes a turn; Mr. Rock makes a call to action for “unity” because we “all bleed red.” We need to set sail on a “love boat” and “rock that bitch up and down the coast.” This is all mixed in with the song’s central hook, a chorus of people chanting “let’s go Brandon,” an asinine phrase adopted to signify anything but unity among fellow Americans. Bob Ritchie wants to have his cake and eat it too, probably because he has seen just how far his idiotic message can go (all the way to the Capitol, as we all witnessed on our TVs last January).

Ritchie literally screams his convoluted manifesto alongside an equally dumb combination of heartland rap-rock, a trademark sound for Kid Rock since his “American Bad Ass” days. Think Skynyrd with Bocephus and just a pinch of Beastie Boys cadence (but certainly not ideology) sprinkled on top. The song is busy, with guitar shredding buried behind loud, angry chanting and tirades about how Donald Trump gets called racist too much. This is some tired shit that we’ve heard before, so tired you almost think people would be able to see through it. But as long as there are drunk uncles eating up this dogshit, Kid Rock will be serving it to them in oversized spoonfuls.

Score: 1/10

YUNGBLUD – Fleabag

Give credit where it’s due. YUNGBLUD knows when to switch it up. His bad boy, anti-authoritarian, “sod off” schtick was wearing pretty thin just as the pop-punk revival was revving up. And even though Dominic Harrison (that’s his real name) is known for his camera mugging, Hot Topic fashion, and insane onstage antics, he has only been loosely influenced by the guitar-charged sounds of the 90s and 00s. That changes somewhat on his latest hit single “Fleabag” which directly borrows from apathy-ridden successes like Machine Gun Kelly’s “papercuts” (which for its part directly borrows from Nirvana). More precisely, YUNGBLUD’s newest track sounds identical to something Three Days Grace would have conjured up in their heyday, the type of post-grunge formula that saw big numbers in the first decade of the 21st century.

We may have all heard this before, but it’s likely YUNGBLUD’s (very) young audience hasn’t, and it’s a new approach for the English rocker, who specialized in big bright pop hooks and trap beats before this. It’s clear YUNGBLUD was made for this moment, even if he broke out just a couple years before the sound really took over, and he has wisely chosen to capitalize on it. And for what it is, his contribution is a pretty solid mainstream rock song, with big hooks, pounding drums, and just the right amount of angst.

Score: 6/10

Denzel Curry – Walkin

Curry’s new track gets me all kinds of pumped for 2022. His latest bars show continuing songwriting maturity, alongside a boom-bap beat that transforms halfway through to a slower tempo that hits even harder.

Score: 9/10

Artsick – Ghost of Myself

An effervescent, jangly, and promising indie pop track from this new band out of Oakland.

Score: 7/10

Julmud – Falnukmel

I know little about this artist, or where they’re from, but I’m loving the raps alongside industrial-influenced metallic scraping, akin to something more accessible from Arca.

Score: 7/10

MJ Lenderman – Hangover Game

The opening track from the forthcoming Boat Songs finds Lenderman delivering well-crafted indie pop not unlike the heyday of Matthew Sweet.

Score: 7/10

vein.fm – Fear In Non Fiction

Another monster from vein.fm, this one featuring Geoff Rickly from emo band Thursday, of all people. And it rips.

Score: 8/10

Ex-Void – Churchyard

Former Joanna Gruesome members return with a sound very similar to their previous work, but you won’t find me complaining.

Score: 7/10

Franz Ferdinand – Curious

Nice in theory to have these guys and their back in my queue, though this new single only has faint traces of their peak material, which was unbelievably almost 20 years ago. Still, “Curious” will get your toe tapping, if nothing else.

Score: 6/10

Tove Lo – How Long

Tove Lo’s latest, for the Euphoria soundtrack, is a longing, sharp pop song with just the right amount of foreboding. I haven’t seen the show, or its portrayal of teenage self-destructive excess, but I can imagine this fits well with the vibe.

Score: 7/10

Toro y Moi – Postman

Can’t pretend I’m not a little underwhelmed by this minimal track following the funky fun that was Outer Peace in 2019. Perhaps it will grow on me.

Score: 6/10

Warpaint – Champion

Warpaint return with their minor-key, ominous, neo-psych approach to indie rock. “Champion” is more of the same, which in my opinion is… fine. Doesn’t leave much of an impression.

Score: 5/10

Hyd – Into My Arms

The former PC Music collaborator (aka QT) continues her solo rollout of subversive avant-pop, though the results go down a lot easier than anything AG Cook cooked up. This new one is more in line with the mellow mood of previous track “The Look On Your Face.”

Score: 5/10

Grimes – Shinigami Eyes

This single follows in the footsteps of the club-ready style of Miss Anthropocene, which is fine, but it seems like Grimes is running out of ideas.

Score: 5/10

NOBRO – Bye Bye Baby

A fun shout-along banger from these Canadian punks. Look at the title, you already know the chorus.

Score: 7/10

Two Shell – Home

London’s Two Shell have built a Fucking Great Song, a UK bass banger with pitched-up vocal samples and pure pop accessibility.

Score: 9/10

Widowspeak – While You Wait

I’ve been loving the advance singles from The Jacket – this new swaying bedroom pop number from the Brooklyn-based quartet makes me feel some type of way.

Score: 8/10

Uffie – Dominoes

A bouncy new dance-pop tune from the “Pop the Glock” artist, which sounds like it’d be a fitting addition to your commute playlist.

Score: 7/10

The Smile – The Smoke

The Smile sounds a LOT like Radiohead, which is, of course, a good thing. But it kind of makes me wonder what the rest of the band is doing, and what their current status is?

Score: 7/10

Ducks Ltd. – Sheets of Grey

After a great album last year (Modern Fiction), Ducks LTD. haven’t taken long to jangle their way back into our hearts with this suitable follow-up loosie.

Score: 7/10

Charli XCX w/ Rina Sawayama – Beg For You

After a wave of oddball hyperpop brilliance, it sounds like Charli is going a more straightforward route with her new album Crash. My ears are open, though I don’t find this single as strong as previous ones, particularly “New Shapes.” Also, Rina seems under-utilized here.

Score: 7/10

Saba w/ G Herbo – Survivor’s Guilt

Saba is on fire right now. The Chicago rapper follows up the stellar “Come My Way” with a Kendrick-esque flow, a solid G Herbo feature, and a militant hook on this new one.

Score: 8/10

Alice Glass – Love Is Violence

The obstacles Alice Glass has overcome cannot be understated; I only wish her recent musical output was anything as strong as what came out of those first few Crystal Castles albums.

Score: 5/10

Bloc Party – The Girls Are Fighting

To live in the shadow of an album like Silent Alarm must be exhausting, but after a decent single in “Traps,” this follow-up unfortunately isn’t maintaining the standard, or my weathered expectations.

Score: 4/10

Raveena w/ Vince Staples – Secret

The first of two strong Staples features this week. Raveena delivers another excellent single after the Bollywood-influenced “Rush.” This new track is a little more R&B, but just as flirty.

Score: 7/10

Disclosure & Zedd – You’ve Got To Let Go If You Want To Be Free

Almost a decade after Settle, Disclosure (and Zedd) are on autopilot. This new one is more of the same, which is adequate, though it’s not going to turn any heads, or move many bodies.

Score: 6/10

Viagra Boys – Girls & Boys (Patrik Berger Remix)

This new remix from the deluxe version of Welfare Jazz adds an enticing, creepy element to the band’s unusual, occasionally delightfully obnoxious style.

Score: 7/10

The Cool Kids – It’s Yours Part 2

Don’t call it a comeback. Chuck and Mike have been here for years. And this advance track shows promise for their upcoming project Before Shit Got Weird.

Score: 7/10

ericdoa – sad4whattt

Another one from Euphoria and it’s an outright banger, a further nod in the direction of hyperpop’s biggest names inching toward taking over the zeitgeist. I’m all for it.

Score: 9/10

Kilo Kish & Vince Staples – New Tricks: Art, Aesthetics, And Money

This glitchy track finds Kilo delivering casual bars with Vince providing the hypeman ad-libs. Very effective. Love this one.

Score: 9/10

The Maine – Loved You a Little (w/ Taking Back Sunday & Charlotte Sands)

Two emo mainstays team up with newcomer Charlotte Sands for a pop-punk jam that’s primarily a new Maine song, though Sands, who recently broke out thanks to TikTok, holds her own.

Score: 6/10

The Chainsmokers – High

This is giving me serious Post Malone vibes. Not really in a good way.

Score: 4/10

XXXTENTACION – vice city

Dropped just in time to promote a new documentary at SXSW, this new posthumous track certainly sounds more like a complete statement than anything released after the rapper’s death. But as is the case for most of X’s material, the overall product is unfocused. It’s also hard to imagine the rapper’s contrarian nature approving of this standard boom-bap beat and female vocal melody.

Score: 4/10

Coi Leray – Anxiety

Apparently Leray has faced backlash and bullying on social media based on things other than her music (I think her relationship with Trippie Redd ended poorly, I don’t know the details, fill in the blanks zoomers), but I barely care. “Twininem” was a bop, and this relatable, melodic trap pop single continues her upward momentum.

Score: 7/10

Sueco – Loser

Sueco (fka Sueco the Child, I guess) has hopped on the trend wagon pretty quick, trading in producer tags and trap beats for straight-up trying to sound like Simple Plan. It’s probably great if you were born after 2006. I’m pretty old though, and so is this sound.

Score: 5/10

Amber Mark – One

I was a bit underwhelmed with the overlong, derivative Three Dimensions Deep, but this album opener is a standout, in line with her standout singles from the previous years, like “Competition” and “Trees On Fire.”

Score: 7/10

Top Ten This Week

Top Twenty of January 2022


Feb 4 2022

Album Review: The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (#MWE)

Bizarre Ride kicks off with a jazz interlude, which segues, via record scratching, into the rowdy opener “Oh Shit.” All at once we are introduced to The Pharcyde – a playful, satirical, humorous, rap collective from South Central LA. In the age of gangsta rap, these guys were lowbrow clowns by comparison. But time has treated their debut well – Bizarre Ride and its maximalist melodic layers, lush samples from producer J-Swift, and straight-up funny rhymes sound as fresh as the day the album dropped in the fall of 1992.

Punchlines ensue throughout the album, but let’s be clear: The Pharcyde had something to say. The skit “It’s Jiggaboo Time” is a satirical comment on black caricature, delivered in a fashion only the rambunctious, clever group could bring. “4 Better Or 4 Worse” features big beats and echoing piano lines that remind me of East Coasters A Tribe Called Quest. But the colorful, self-deprecating, and over-the-top lyrics reveal these guys weren’t just copycats from LA. The lyrical dexterity was there, but the Pharcyde went into character in lieu of standing on a soapbox. It was more cartoon than conscious, more Shock G than Q-Tip.

The banter and casual back-and-forth of The Pharcyde is immediately recognizable to younger listeners. Because of my age, they immediately remind me of Jurassic 5, a crew that emerged a few years later (so much so that Jurassic 5 seem shamelessly derivative by comparison). “I’m That Type of Nigga” is a party anthem with carefree charm akin to Slick Rick and Beastie Boys. Fatlip, Slimkid3, Bootie Brown, and Imani trade bars like the Wu Tang without delving into the New York collective’s penchant for street raps. The Pharcyde still have a thesis to convey, but the presentation was more lighthearted than their peers, which was probably why Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde was only a modest success.

Throughout the album, a sly balancing act between socially conscious rhymes and humorous wordplay is consistent. “Soul Flower” is infectious, from the horn line to a deftly-placed repetitive sample of a woman humming. “On the DL” features incessant record scratching, pleasant piano lines, and background vocals that are reminiscent of vocal R&B groups of the time, like Shai. “Officer” deals with racial profiling by police, and interpolates the style of Public Enemy, from Flava Flav’s hypeman intro to the screeching sound effects. The end result, however, is 100% Pharcyde. Lead single “Ya Mama,” meanwhile is pure comedy, a whole gimmicky song based on, you guessed it, “yo mama” one-liners.

Better, and more successful, is the follow-up single “Passin’ Me By” an immediately recognizable track for even the most casual hip-hop listener. The song deals with each MC commiserating about schoolboy heartbreak. My millennial mind just kept hearing Joe’s “Stutter” the whole time, which heavily interpolated the song years later. Near the end of the album, the full goofy side of The Pharcyde come out in the “Quinton’s On His Way” interlude and the spaced-out weed anthem “Pack the Pipe.” Alternative rap has a tendency to reflect on the past (much like other rigid “alternatives” like alt-country) and the Pharcyde lean toward this on the closer “Return of the B-Boy,” paying homage to the origins of hip-hop and giving notice to “sucker MCs.”

Gangsta rap, at its peak, was about telling sobering tales, evoking masculinity and keeping it real. The Pharcyde, by contrast, were about telling far-fetched stories and keeping it interesting. They didn’t take themselves too seriously, which was not common of rappers in their era. They were a refreshing alternative to the onslaught of mostly humorless G-Funk lyricists.

The Pharcyde never reached the dexterous heights they conjured in their debut. Critical and commercial interest waned with each subsequent release, and slowly the group became a revolving door for members and producers. But when they had their moment, it was a pretty significant one. In the age of The Chronic and Illmatic, The Pharcyde probably sounded pretty… bizarre. But for those who were growing tired of the mean-mugging in rap music, they were likely a breath of fresh air. After the dust had settled, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde stands out as one of the best in its lane.

Score: 9/10


Jan 31 2022

Housekeeping Item: Music Writer Exercise on Twitter

Starting tomorrow (February 1st), I will be participating in the Music Writer Exercise on Twitter.

In addition to writing a tweet about the album I “review” every day, I will be writing 100 words or more here on the site. Or at least, I’ll try to. Life comes at you fast, and I’m hoping to make it thru the month. I already have a large list of albums I’ve always wanted to listen to that grows by the week, so I’ll be picking and choosing from those. Thanks for reading! You can follow me on Twitter here.


Jan 31 2022

Random Song Reviews – 1/25-1/31/2022

OLD MUSIC

The Heights – How Do You Talk To An Angel?

I had no idea. I mean, I knew about Aaron Spelling, the dude is a TV legend. And I certainly knew about the teen soap phenomenons that were Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. I was pretty young, sure, but of course I had a faint idea of those shows and what they were about, and that I was not allowed to watch them, and if I did watch them (which eventually happened one night in my room when my parents were asleep) I wouldn’t like them anyway.

But until today, I had never heard of The Heights. I was not aware of this early-90s show on Fox about a fictional rock band, that had one single go all the way to #1 (IRL) and then was promptly canceled. I had no idea about Jamie Walters and his (seemingly) big break and unceremonious fall from stardom. (I guess Spelling felt bad and gave Walters another shot at playing a musician on 90210 a couple years later. Talk about being typecast.)

The Heights is the kind of show that should be lost to time, like a thousand other shows from the 90s that didn’t last past their first season. Probably the only reason it’s remembered at all is because of the name behind it and the hit song from it. But folks, I gotta tell ya: the song should be left in the past too. I’m not sure how you talk to an angel, but my first word of advice would be, don’t play them this song. They’ll hate it.

As far as 90s hits, the song is pretty generic. Those are the worst kinds of songs to write about. It’s three-and-a-half minutes of nothing. But I will attempt to assess what it is about this song that induces the strongest kind of boredom inside me. Now, I’ve never seen the show The Heights, so I’m not going into this having done my due diligence. I don’t know what kind of band The Heights were supposed to me. My hunch, based on the photos of demin-clad cast mates, and the fact that this was the summer of 1992, is that they’re supposed to represent some loose Hollywood interpretation of the “alternative” or “grunge” sound that was taking over the zeitgeist at the time. But “How Do You Talk To An Angel” makes me think I might have that wrong. Maybe they should have gone that route instead. The show would have lasted until 1997 at least.

Alas, based on the saxophone wails and Walters’ Bryan Adams-y rasp, it sounds like The Heights were supposed to be a band your adult-contemporary-loving Mom would hear on her commute. One listen to the album made to promote the show (currently available to stream on Spotify, which is wild) confirms that assumption. This music just washes over me like a wet fart – it’s there, it stinks, and then it’s gone and forgotten. Sorry for the visual.

Initially, the saxophone made me think of other TV show themes that are more fondly remembered, like Full House or something (RIP Bob Saget). But you can place that song. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge and uncles Joey and Jessie and the Olsen twins. “How Do You Talk To An Angel” can’t be placed anywhere. The plaintive strumming guitar, Walters’ brooding delivery, the sax fills, the guitar solo – when I hear it all, I close my eyes and see a guy without a face, long hair, in a long coat, walking down the sidewalk under street lights contemplatively. Maybe it’s just rained and there’s puddles he’s walking through. You see it, right? It belongs nowhere. It’s a scene we’ve seen a million times, soundtracked by a song like this. Stock footage with stock music.

There have been a few songs from TV shows to reach the top of the Hot 100. They are usually well-remembered, as are the shows they’re from (Miami Vice, Welcome Back Kotter). “How Do You Talk To An Angel,” from the band and show The Heights, is not. And upon further research, I can hear why.

Score: 2/10

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – The Impression That I Get

In honor of the recent announcement that The Mighty Mighty Bosstones have decided to call it quits via an unceremonious press release, I have decided to review their biggest hit. When “The Impression That I Get” skanked its way onto the charts in 1997, I was an impressionable 11-year-old who didn’t realize I was getting my first ever taste of ska music (along with Goldfinger’s “Superman,” which was on the X-Games soundtrack).

The mid-to-late 90s were a fun wilderness period for alternative rock, and even Top 40 radio. Grunge was dead, and the boy bands, nu metal mooks, and Carson Daly weren’t quite shutting down sidewalks in Times Square just yet, so MTV and radio programmers were throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall. Pop-punk was a big thing. The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers were supposed to usher in the “electronica” wave. And America was flirting around with third wave ska (and its little brother ska punk), giving bands like No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and The Toasters their fifteen minutes (Gwen Stefani, of course, strategically pivoted away from the trend and became a full-on pop star).

Riding the wave of exposure from being the house band on Clueless, MMB stood out from the pack with punchy hooks, loud guitars, a well-timed horn section, and that one guy up in front who just danced all the time. They made a minor splash with “Where’d You Go” and “Rascal King” but they got the most exposure from “Impression,” which hit #1 on modern rock airplay and crossed over to pop radio, which is where I first heard it.

The song is a bouncy one, with guitar strums that maintain the tempo while the horns deliver an earworm-y melody, until the distortion pedals kick on for a very satisfying chorus about being lucky in life and general apprehension about taking risks. Vocalist Dicky Barrett’s rasp is the signature element that made MMB stand out from the pack of ska-punk rockers in this short era.

I’m not sure that I’m necessarily mourning the breakup of the Bosstones, as my interest in ska waned once Limp Bizkit and Blink 182 started moving units. The genre, at least in its third wave, quickly earned a reputation for being kind of cheesy, and my teenage brain soon derisively associated it with “Disney Channel music.” But the Bosstones went beyond the generic sounds of 90s ska; their songs were more distinct, and their style was more refined. And “The Impression That I Get” is not only the band’s signature track, but one of the crown jewels of the genre’s short time in the spotlight.

Score: 9/10

Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You

Longtime friends and readers will know that I’m not a big ballads guy. I’ve spoken privately and publicly of my annoyance when sappy, melismatic classics come on the radio. I respect the craft, but these songs bore me to tears. The whole American Idol experience just induced eye-rolls from me more often than it blew me away. Adele’s record-breaking popularity confounds me. Celine Dion’s only enjoyable when I put my Ironic Hat on. So yeah, I’m a monster with an ice cold heart. But Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is my kryptonite.

I’d probably venture to say that Dolly Parton’s soft-spoken, intimate original, which she penned for duet partner Porter Wagoner, is more in my lane. That’s just a matter of personal taste, however, and it’s not really fair, because Whitney’s version is something completely different. It’s not even in the same category. Whitney Houston is a gigantic pop star with a ferocious voice, and the biggest hit from her film debut The Bodyguard is a fireworks display of power and emotion. By the third chorus, when that thundering drum hits and Houston gives it to us one more time, it’s the auditory equivalent of being hit by a train, and I mean that in the best way possible.

So yeah, even my cold, icy heart can’t resist what was the biggest song in the history of the planet at the time, from the biggest movie soundtrack of all time (a record The Bodyguard still holds). Sung by almost anyone, the song is beautiful, but Whitney’s cover is a force all its own. Her voice will stop you dead in your tracks. That final chorus, the part everyone remembers, still sends chills down my spine. It’s the eighth wonder of the world. It’s immortal.

The music behind Houston is really the only thing unremarkable about the song. David Foster’s arrangement is all early 90s adult-contemporary gloop, and the sax solo is pretty corny. But honestly, who cares? In any other artist’s hands, all I would be able to talk about would be how lightweight the song feels. But because it’s Whitney Houston, and she’s moving mountains with her voice, the music isn’t even secondary. It’s not even a factor at all. Nobody remembers that sax solo. Until recently, I forgot it was even in there. It’s all about Whitney Houston, and how she will always love you. She belts it to the heavens, and we are taken to another planet.

So yeah, I don’t really like ballads. But there are exceptions. This is one of them. And it’s a big one.

Score: 9/10

Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle – A Whole New World

I watched Aladdin probably more than any other animated Disney movie. When it was released in 1992 I was just the right age, and I thought Robin Williams was one of the funniest people on the planet. (I was right, and he always will be.) My favorite songs were from his blue Genie character, particularly “Friend Like Me.” My mom even got me the soundtrack, which consisted of songs from the film, the entire score from the film when the characters weren’t singing, and, at the very end, the studio version of “A Whole New World,” by two professional R&B singers whose names I didn’t know.

Of course, the version of “A Whole New World” in the actual film (sung in character by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga) is on the soundtrack too; it’s a duet from Aladdin and his love interest Princess Jasmine as they take a magic carpet ride. It’s a pretty important, and romantic (at least for a kid’s movie, anyway) moment in the film. The studio version from Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle plays during the end credits, and since I watched the movie from start to finish probably a thousand times, I knew this version pretty well too.

“A Whole New World” is the centerpiece of the film Aladdin, but as I’ve already mentioned, I was six years old, so I was more interested in what characters like the antagonist parrot Iago and Genie were up to. The song was wallpaper for me, the transition from Act 1 to Act 2. It was the song my mom liked, not me. But as an adult, I can safely say, it holds up, particularly the studio version in question.

Nowadays, as with modern Disney successes like Frozen and, most recently, Encanto, the charting versions of these songs are the ones sung by the cast and heard in the movies. They are more theatrical show tunes, not produced and designed to follow the pop trends of the moment. As I’m writing this, Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is the #2 song in the country, and it’s the version from the actual film, not some glossy remake from a professional singer. In Disney’s Renaissance era, that just wasn’t the practice, for better or worse.

The version of “A Whole New World” in the movie is more youthful and idealistic, precisely because the two singers of that version are young. It works well in the context of the film; Aladdin and Jasmine are two teens trapped by poverty and societal expectations, respectively, and they both yearn for a change of scenery and a new adventure. Grand orchestral sweeps accompany their journey on a magic carpet.

For their part in the studio version, Bryson and Belle, both by this time established R&B stars, hold nothing back on their vocal takes, and by the end, when they’re trading impassioned lines back and forth, the song takes a true cinematic turn. Lyrically, the song works as a song for young lovers, but the more mature studio version is effective in its own way if taken out of the context of the film. Bryson and Belle do exactly that, giving the song a different tone and perspective, while retaining the passion of the film version.

The production is a bit dated; strings are replaced with plinky piano and keyboard chimes, and that canned guitar solo in the middle is clearly inserted to appeal to adult contemporary radio programmers of the early 90s. But the melody is what gives the song its staying power, regardless of what version you’re hearing. When I was six years old, I wasn’t interested in any of it, but as an adult I can appreciate both interpretations separately, even if one was purely designed for commercial interests. The song works as an expression of yearning, young love, and it works for a couple recommitting to each other after seeing so many worlds together, ready for what comes next.

Score: 7/10

NEW MUSIC

Jessica Darrow – Surface Pressure

The smash Disney animated feature Encanto continues its dominance with another song from the film landing in the Top Ten. “Surface Pressure” is a pretty important statement song for Jessica Darrow’s character in the film Luisa, an older sister who takes on many burdens for her family with her gift of superhuman strength and never complains. Internally, however, she harbors extreme anxiety about failing. Lyrically the song works as a character study for Luisa, and by extension it becomes incredibly relatable to those of us who others are dependent on. Songwriter Lin Manuel-Miranda’s humor shines through in moments (“Was Hercules ever like ‘Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus’?”), and Darrow’s effective delivery convincingly evokes anxious tension, even if it goes a bit overboard with the (admittedly necessary) Disney Song histrionics. As for the beat, it’s a pleasant reggaetón and Latin pop hybrid that would fit nicely on a late-career Daddy Yankee album.

Score: 6/10

Partner – Time Is a Car

Canadian indie duo Partner find the right balance between driving verses and effective, loping choruses on this new one. Great for a road trip.

Score: 7/10

Sofia Kourtesis & Manu Chao – Estacion Esperanza

With Fresia Magdalena, Sofia Kourtesis had one of the best albums of 2021, and she returns with five minutes of euphoria on this club-ready track, featuring chanting crowds and a very satisfying buildup.

Score: 8/10

Jenny Hval – Year of Love

The latest track from the forthcoming Classic Objects finds Hval coming to terms with her music inspiring others to take part in the “normcore institution” that is marriage. An understated, folksy number from the talented Norwegian singer.

Score: 6/10

PUP – Robot Writes a Love Song

Canadian punks PUP are probably the loudest band in their lane, at least in terms of live performance. But this new one draws the band away from pummeling guitars and into something more midtempo; the trademark energy and shout-along vocals, however, are still intact.

Score: 7/10

Ibibio Sound Machine – All That You Want

The Sound Machine return with a synth-heavy, soulful jam designed for handclaps and singalongs. If only the chorus were just a bit stronger…

Score: 6/10

Raveena – Rush

A Bollywood-tinged slice of pop bliss from this New York singer, who previously dabbled in more R&B-flavored styles. The pivot is welcome if it delivers more of this.

Score: 8/10

Yot Club – Alive

Contemplative guitar lines blend with slightly canned vocals and a meandering “lalala” hook that doesn’t leave much of an impression. The song is pleasant enough bedroom pop, but unmemorable.

Score: 6/10

Girlpool – Lie Love Lullaby

Less shoegazey, more… trip-hop I guess? Girlpool’s newest is an ominous, sensual electro-indie track, and the vibe is consistently enjoyable.

Score: 7/10

Animal Collective – Strung With Everything

Their last few advance tracks have leaned into the swaying Beach Boys-esque pop of Panda Bear, but on this new one Animal Collective go the other way with a 7-minute soundscape that gets everybody in the band actively involved and hearkens ever so slightly to their weirder freak-folk days.

Score: 6/10

Big Thief – Simulation Swarm

Big Thief continue the album rollout with Adrianne Lenker’s typically ornate lyrics that speak of nature, love, and birth. The song is a bit of plod compared to previous singles, with overuse of the primary melodic line from Lenker; the instrumental breaks give the song a much-needed reprieve.

Score: 6/10

Hatchie – Quicksand

Harriette Pilbeam’s vocals float above a Cure-esque guitar line and hazy synths until a CHVRCHES-like chorus lifts the song up to cathartic satisfaction.

Score: 7/10

Nilufer Yanya – midnight sun

Yanya’s brand of brilliant sophisti-pop continues to evolve incrementally with positive results. This new track builds the suspense with each repeated guitar line to an explosive chorus.

Score: 8/10

GAYLE – ur just horny

A marked improvement from the viral “abcdefu” – the strong pop hook here proves GAYLE has staying power as a songwriter once she gets past the gimmicky teen-targeted kiss-off lyrics.

Score: 6/10

Band of Horses – Lights

Band of Horses have grown into a respectable, if somewhat banal, country-tinged indie group. “Lights” has a sturdy, jangly melodic line that reminds me of a more consistent peer group from Florida: Surfer Blood.

Score: 6/10

Beach House – Only You Know

A highlight from the new batch of tracks from the staggered Once Twice Melody release. This one has a steady backbeat and an echo-y “oh oh ohs” anchoring the wave of guitars and dreamy synths. Another winner.

Score: 7/10

Pussy Riot – PUNISH

With one of their members recently labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government, the iconic, political band celebrate with a Tove Lo co-write that gives the middle finger to shitty dudes.

Score: 7/10

Fred again… – Lights Out

With help from Romy and HAAi, Fred Gibson follows up two introspective, acclaimed 2021 albums with something more club-friendly and upbeat, though not without Gibson’s precise attention to detail. Not as rewarding as the best tracks he conjured up last year, but still a good one.

Score: 7/10

Melody’s Echo Chamber – Looking Backward

A refreshing wave of psych pop from the reliable Melody Prochet. Nothing new to hear on this one, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, that won’t be a problem at all.

Score: 7/10

PLOSIVS – Broken Eyes

Fans of Against Me!, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Water Music, and especially Pinback will be excited for this newly-formed punk-adjacent supergroup with Rob Crow on lead vocals. Warms my hipster heart, even if the hook here isn’t exactly “Penelope.”

Score: 8/10

Shenseea w/ Megan Thee Stallion – Lick

Dancehall artist Shenseea hooks up with Houston’s finest for some Real Hot Girl Shit, with Murda On the Beat (so it’s not nice), and the results are predictably excellent.

Score: 8/10

BlocBoy JB – Home Alone

Few new rappers are as consistent as BlocBoy. From the ad-libs to the steady flow, if you’ve been wanting to hear “Look Alive” in slightly different variations since it dropped, JB is your boy.

Score: 6/10

aldn – tellmewhatuwant

Hyperpop slowly but surely continues to find its footing in a more accessible form. This new track from aldn is a great example of that, which substitutes glitch for keyboard and woozy synth lines.

Score: 8/10

Lane 8 – Survive

With Channy Leaneagh on vocals, deep house producer Lane 8 builds to attempted euphoria on “Survive,” the opener from their new album Reviver, and it’s mostly successful, though it doesn’t transport me as much as I want it to.

Score: 6/10

umru w/ Petal Supply & Rebecca Black – heart2

Rebecca Black continues to transform her association from meme to hyperpop standout, with another impressive vocal take alongside a suitable (but samey) umru production.

Score: 6/10

Papa Roach – Stand Up

We’re starting to come full circle, as all these nu-metal bands that survived by pivoting to post-grunge have eased back into rapping. Jacoby Shaddix is not immune, as is evidenced on this bland new track (featuring an “echo echo echo” hook that directly steals from cringey peers Trapt). For more fun results, see their previous single “Swerve” with newcomers FEVER 333 and Sueco.

Score: 4/10

Ecco2k w/ Bladee – Amygdala

Glitchy masters Ecco2k and Bladee could have come up with something a bit more inventive, I think. Instead, this collab just washes over me alongside the same digi-heavy sounds that are already overused in this subgenre. Bladee, in particular, continues to disappoint, overall; I’m not sure why he gets so much attention.

Score: 5/10

rouri404 w/ vaeo – driving with my eyes closed

This one is much better – big hip-hop beats and a AutoTune flow give way to a woozy break that makes the returning beat drop even more satisfying. I’ve heard stronger hyperpop hooks with this style, but it’s still effective regardless.

Score: 7/10

Brendan Kush w/ Edacity & AViT – urgent

I was low-key wanting this to be a hyperpop Foreigner cover, but this original will suffice. The “sorry” in the chorus here is especially great, as it’s a great example of a vocal approach from most hyperpop artists that tow the line between casual, give-no-fucks delivery and straight-up anxiety. Pretty fitting for the times we live in. Not as strong as “twitterloser” from AViT but still a great track.

Score: 7/10

Bad Boy Chiller Crew – BMW

The West Yorkshire crew continue their mixture of drum-n-bass aided raps, though sadly no female refrain guiding us through the bedlam this time, as on “Don’t You Worry About Me.” A lesser leak from the upcoming Disrespectful.

Score: 6/10

death’s dynamic shroud – Judgment Bolt

The Philly-based glitch pop trio will rattle your eardrums with this one. Pitched and warped vocal runs accompany a Zhu-like bass crunch and in-the-red whooshes that sound like a spaceship crashing.

Score: 8/10

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