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The Blender: March Mixtape Madness

Similarly on-trend via the increasingly prominent underground R&B movement, the Weeknd takes the genre to even rawer places.

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The Blender: March Mixtape Madness

Duke tanked in the Sweet 16 this year, which meant that my persistence through the schizophrenic weather of North Carolina in the month of March could not be justified vicariously by the accomplishments of younger and more interesting people on the basketball court. Fortunately, younger and more interesting people in the music industry picked up the slack, making last month one of the best I can recall for the mixtape game. So much so that our nation’s attention-hungry rappers couldn’t even keep the spotlight all to themselves: In a crazy twist of fate, I counted not one but two R&B mixtapes among my favorites. And Butler’s in the finals tonight? What planet do I even live on?

Kicking off March Mixtape Madness with a powerful collection of alt-R&B jams, Odd Future associate and newly minted Drake-for-folks-who-are-too-indie-to-admit-they-like-Drake Frank Ocean dropped nostalgia, ultra via his Tumblr. The mixtape went viral following a March 1st Twitter blast, in which Ocean tore into Def Jam, saying he was tired of getting jerked around and was ready to share his music with his fans. Not only do I empathize with the general crappiness of Def Jam when it comes to honoring commitments to their new talent (are we ever gonna get that J. Cole album?), but I think the quality of the material completely vindicates Ocean’s hunch that he can succeed without the machine behind him. My favorite track is “There Will Be Tears,” a mournful and generously Auto-Tuned dirge that abruptly turns upbeat and cathartic when Ocean declares: “My granddaddy was a player, pretty boy in a pair of gators.” The song is a tribute to the deadbeat dad that Ocean never got to know, both moving and infectious. And it earns its place as the mixtape’s standout against some stiff competition: the powerful single “Swim Good” and the blogosphere favorite “Songs for Women,” wherein Ocean gets all despondent over the fact that his girlfriend would rather blast Drake and Trey Songz than listen to his stuff.

Similarly on-trend via the increasingly prominent underground R&B movement, the Weeknd, a secretive Canadian performer named Abel Tesfaye, takes the genre to even rawer places. His House of Balloons, which blew up at the end of the month thanks to a Drake co-sign, is as sexy as it is unnerving, an audio documentary of the nightlifers who use sex and drugs to dull their gnawing loneliness. But unlike other indie R&B acts like James Blake or How to Dress Well, the Weeknd never lets his existential concerns stand between his listeners and a good jam. “Wicked Games,” for example, sounds like prime Michael Jackson singing over a Portishead track. Generally, the vocals on House of Balloons are immaculate, while the tracks are the moody sort of minimal R&B that Drake would give his Sprite endorsement for a chance to rhyme over. Highly recommended.

But the month’s mixtape offerings weren’t all dour and experimental. On the funkier side of the spectrum was DJ Quik’s Audio Biography of David, a career retrospective-cum-dance-floor-ready-mix that only the legendary Compton producer could have crafted. Exemplary cut: “Way 2 Fonky” serves up West Coast P-funk worship that Dre wishes he could still pull off accompanied by Quik’s master-class lecture in beatcraft. That crazy rhythm line, he assures, is played by an ordinary bass guitar, not anything more or less exotic. In fact, working that track eventually led Quik to investigate Bollywood music—and as he reminds us, he was the producer who blazed that particular trail, one which more commercially successful producers (ever heard of this Timbaland guy?) would follow. If you like to learn a little history while nodding your head, this is a must-have mixtape, one which bodes well for Quik’s forthcoming Book of David.

Having given props to the West Coast, we turn our attention to the East. I don’t know about you, but I dig Wale. His flow is so nimble, like if Blackthought had a sense of humor, and if you add to that the breadth of his cultural references and his affinity for multisyllabic SAT words, he just sounds like a fucking ninja. What got me through my 50th listen of “No Hands” last winter was the fact that Wale just got up there, sandwiched between two of the worst rappers to land that kind of hit in years, and sounded like a champ going at maybe 60%. Unsurprisingly, the best parts of No Days Off are where you hear Wale spit over familiar tracks: “Unthinkable,” “Bedrock,” “Aston Martin Music.” The original tracks sound pretty half-assed compared to the freestyles, so I say No Days Off lands solidly in the fans-only bin. If you want to know what D.C.’s proudest son’s been up to since signing to Rick Ross’s Maybach Music crew, cop this one; otherwise, pass.

Speaking of the Teflon Don, he shows up all over March’s mixtapes, doing verses with not just Wale, but Trina and Pusha T as well. We’ll talk Trina in a minute, but Rick Ross really impressed me on “I Still Wanna,” from Pusha T’s Fear of God. It’s a dark slice of drug-rap, as good an exercise in the genre as you’re likely to hear from anyone who isn’t named Raekwon. Though Ross on his best day can’t touch the wily Clipse MC, whose refrain, “Still searching for a fishscale like I’m try’na find Nemo,” would have earned my nod for best line on a March mixtape if not for the great lines that Pusha T throws off elsewhere. On “Can I Live Freestyle”: “Now when the feds watch me, private paparazzi/Still chasing me for war crimes like a Nazi/Against all odds see the judge tried to ’Pac me/Lucky dice roll got my lawyers screaming ’Yahtzee.’” If Pusha T’s show-stealing verses on Kanye’s last album left any doubt in your mind as to his ability to operate without his brother and co-MC, Malice, rest assured: The solo stuff is going to slay. In the meantime, Fear of God is entertaining, if not always inspired, and its frequently dope production gives a sense of what to expect from ’Ye’s G.O.O.D. music label.

All right, let’s dish on Trina. I can’t resist contextualizing her latest by reference to Lil’ Kim’s disastrous Black Friday, which our own Huw Jones rightfully blasted as inane, self-absorbed, and redundant. If not for the release of Soulja Boy’s bizarre, video game-themed 1Up, Kim’s hateful grab at the spotlight would stand unchallenged as the worst mixtape of the month. As every track of Black Friday attests, Kim’s hysterical act of sonic hara-kiri was motivated by the MC’s implacable resentment for Nicki Minaj. As an MC, Nicki could body Kim on any track; in terms of their relative likability and charisma, there’s even less competition. But the obvious fact is—or should be—that Nicki is pretty widely adored right now, making any full-on offensive from her rivals a non-starter.

Trina’s tack is more can’t-beat-’em-join-’em. Like Nicki, she pours a generous helping of frothy girls-night-out jams over a few well-placed tracks of filthy, hard-hitting rap. She talks a little shit to her competition on “Waist So Skinny,” but she’s obviously less interested in settling scores than in trying to down as much champagne as possible between verses. “Put Them Bottles Up” and “Rich Bitch” are two of the perfectly respectable pop-rap highlights on Diamonds Are Forever, rap’s Baddest Bitch sounding so carefree and in control that nobody could cramp her style. And isn’t that just an infinitely better way to assert oneself in the post-Pink Friday femme-rap landscape than launching a bitter attack that’s as transparently masturbatory as it is childishly retaliatory? Anyway, I’d call Trina’s joint the best March mix to put on at a party…that is, if it weren’t for Mac Miller.

Mac Miller’s Best Day Ever did solid word-of-mouth this month, but I’m not gonna lie: I was a little disappointed. Maybe the Pittsburgh rap contingent just needed something to coalesce around in the wake of Wiz Khalifa’s ho-hum Rolling Papers, but Miller’s flow rarely turned my head while I listened to his tape. The tracks do a lot of work for him, and I’d say that the real highlight of Best Day Ever is its quirky, house party-ready production. The first four tracks serve up giddy, bass-driven jams from relative upstarts Teddy Roxpin and Sap, plus ID Labs (who brought only weak tracks to Khalifa’s album, but shows up in significantly better form here). The one-two punch of Roxpin’s “Get Up!” and Sap’s “Donald Trump” is tailor-made for compulsive replaying, and the former even showcases the best verbal acrobatics Miller’s liable to give. More indicative is Just Blaze’s “All Around the World,” which benefits greatly from its producers’ unfailing ears, but little from Miller’s rhymes. Not yet convinced that this guy deserved his place on XXL’s freshman roster.

By contrast, Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T., who made the same list in February, blew my mind with his ReturnOf4Eva mixtape. Hearing ReturnOf4Eva was like living in a fantasy where Pimp C had never died, or where he had died but had first contributed some of his sizzurp-y DNA to a deranged scientist’s Build a Better MC project, where it would be spliced with André 3000’s melodic drawl and T.I.’s knack for stern-ass sermonizing. Is ReturnOf4Eva the best mixtape of the month? Yeah, but that’s not the half of it. I’d say it’s the rap album to beat in 2011 so far, but that even doesn’t do it justice, it just means I like it more than the Saigon joint, pretty much the only decent rap LP to hit shelves in the past three months. Just download the thing, all right?

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Review: Anderson .Paak’s Expansive Ventura Fuses the New and Old-School

The album serves as a reminder of the magic that can result from looking to the past to inform the future.

4

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Ventura
At the heart of Anderson .Paak’s music has always been an emotional unburdening of exuberant proportions. It’s present in the shades of intensity his voice carries between croon and rasp, the luxurious kinetics of his funk-laden instrumentals, and his starry-eyed joie de vivre. On his fourth album, Ventura, Paak alters this blueprint by mastering the equilibrium between exactitude and ease, between vintage soul and new-school fusion.

The salt and sand of the California beach towns where Paak grew up comprise the lifeblood of his albums. Whereas last year’s insular Oxnard paid tribute to the city of his birth, Ventura is more expansive. Dr. Dre, Paak’s longtime mentor, served as executive producer on Oxnard, lending that album its heavy-hitting funk-rap skylarks, but on Ventura, Dre allows his protégé to take the reins. Paak certainly doesn’t shy away from the challenge, as the album is awash in golden timbres and spacious, full-blooded textures. It’s lush yet artfully edited, unforced yet deliberate—a far cry from the overwrought architecture that got the best of Oxnard.

In many ways, Ventura represents a return to form for Paak, as he channels the neo-soul of 2016’s Malibu, which was sorely absent from Oxnard. But while Paak was comfortable residing in the clearly defined contours of traditional verse-bridge-verse song structures on Malibu, he allows those boundaries to blur and shift here. The cinematic opener “Come Home,” which boasts a particularly nimble and clever verse from André 3000, unfolds like an overture, anchored by a choir of angelic voices and hair-raising drumrolls. Staccato trumpets puncture the disco glitz of “Reachin’ 2 Much” before, in one of the most fabulous transitions of the album, giving way to a chilled-down groove equally fit for a backyard BBQ and a dance floor.

Too many tracks on Oxnard felt as if they were carried by noteworthy features like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Q-Tip, leaving Paak as a supporting character at best. By contrast, Paak is never overshadowed on Ventura, working off a tight and balanced chemistry with his guest artists, and he embraces an endearing transparency when he treats topics as disparate as dealing with a nosy girlfriend (“You stay here too much, baby/You know it’s not your place”), reigniting a dormant love (“When you take somebody for your own/It can’t survive on history alone”), and uplifting community in the face of racism and poverty (“The people that you came with? You’re coming with me”). Throughout it all, Paak maintains an optimism that, though some might deem naïve, is undeniably infectious.

The foundations of Paak’s sound—disco, funk, ‘70s soul, California G-funk—cast an air of nostalgia over his music. But he’s shrewd enough in the design and construction of his music to prevent the amalgamation of these influences from slipping into pastiche or kitsch. Although Ventura is replete with anachronisms—theatrical strings fit for Earth, Wind & Fire (“Reachin’ 2 Much”), nightclub-ready slap bass (“Jet Black”), quiet storm (“Make It Better”)—Paak fuses the old school and new school seamlessly, producing a sonic palette that hasn’t quite been replicated by any of his contemporaries. Ventura serves as a reminder of the magic that can result from looking to the past to inform the future.

Label: Aftermath Release Date: April 12, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Madonna and Maluma Drop Sultry New Single “Medellín,” from Madame X

The lead single from Madonna’s 14th album is driven by a decidedly unhurried tropical rhythm.

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Medellin
Photo: Interscope Records

Last month, Page Six of the New York Post published an article titled “How Madonna is using younger stars to cling to relevancy.” The infamous tabloid swiftly revised its headline to the marginally softer “How Madonna is using younger stars in hopes to stay relevant” after receiving blowback for what some perceived to be a double standard. But as the gulf between the 60-year-old pop queen’s age and that of the average radio star has continued to widen, it’s true that she’s increasingly leaned on collaborations with younger artists like Justin Timberlake and Nicki Minaj.

You’d be forgiven, then, for assuming that “Medellín,” the first single from Madonna’s upcoming 14th album, Madame X, is an attempt to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of reggaton. While the 25-year-old Maluma is a huge star in Latin America, however, he’s yet to cross over beyond the Latin-pop market in the U.S., so the partnership appears to be a mutually beneficial one. And Madonna has lovingly appropriated Latin culture in her work for decades, as far back as 1986’s “La Isla Bonita,” and as recently as her torero-inspired music video for 2015’s “Living for Love.” In fact, one could argue it’s the single most consistent musical theme of her career outside of, say, dance music more broadly.

Co-produced by Mirwais, who was previously at the helm of Madonna’s Music and American Life albums, “Medellín”—named after the city where Maluma was born—is a sultry midtempo track driven by a decidedly unhurried tropical rhythm and Madonna’s catchy refrain of “one-two cha-cha-cha.” The singer’s inexplicably Auto-Tune-drenched verses are nostalgic and wistful, nodding to the breezy escapism of “La Isla Bonita”: “I took a sip and had a dream/And I woke up in Medellín.”

Vocally, Maluma does most of the heavy-lifting on the bilingual track, with inuendo-filled verses that reference both Colombia and Madonna’s hometown of Detroit. But Madonna’s sugary harmonies, particularly during the song’s rousing hook, balance out Maluma’s gigolo routine with a dreamy sweetness.

Listen here:

The music video for “Medellín” will premiere on April 24. Madame X is out June 14 on Interscope Records.

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Review: The Chemical Brothers’s No Geography Resembles Loving Fan Fiction

The album displays elements of all stages of the duo’s career yet retains the same playful inspiration found in their best work.

3.5

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No Geography
Photo: Hamish Brown/Astralwerks

To call the Chemical Brothers’s No Geography a kind of impeccable fan service is to suggest a criticism entirely unintended. If the U.K. duo’s ninth album resembles loving speculative fiction, it’s of an urgent, exciting sort that the electronic pioneers have more than earned over their relatively consistent 25-year career. In fact, save for the wonky sequencing choice of front-loading the two most negligible songs—the boilerplate big-beat intro of “Eve of Destruction” and ”Bango”—No Geography could easily pass for a collection of epic B-sides to some of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’s signature classics.

“MAH” (short for “Mad As Hell”) is a dopamine-surging mash of familiar sounds, its frenzied, vaguely tribal beats and grinding noise reminiscent of “It Began in Afrika” and “Chemical Beats,” respectively. “Gravity Drops” gives the 808s-on-Salvia drum thunder of “Come with Us” a modern production spit-shine, with some additional sprinkling of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” and Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker.” “We’ve Got to Try” similarly resurrects the hip-hop-based car-stereo thump of the Chemical Brothers’ first two albums, and even raises a glass to two of the stronger tracks (“High Roller” and ”Busy Child”) by their early American counterpart the Crystal Method.

Fans of the Chemical Brothers tend to have their own favorites among the many genre styles the pair use to generate their panoramic sonic palette. If you love the group’s bouncing, THC-fried detours into crisp, disco-infused pop, singles like “Got to Keep On” and “Free Yourself” are made to order. For this listener, it’s the moody dance-floor psychedelia, and in this vein, No Geography thrills as well: “The Universe Sent Me” gives “Star Guitar” a darker, more meditative spin with its humming baseline, ethereal Liz Frazier-esque vocals, and fire-damaged guitars, and “Catch Me I’m Falling” winds down the BPMs while turning up the intergalactic lovesickness. These songs, like the album as a whole, display elements of all stages of the duo’s career yet retain the same playful inspiration found in their best work.

Label: Astralwerks Release Date: April 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Watch: Madonna Unveils Teaser Trailer for New Concept Album Madame X

The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks.

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Madonna
Photo: Instagram

Certain discrete corners of the internet lost their collective minds earlier this month when Madonna’s Instagram page, alternately littered with posts featuring the singer’s adopted twin daughters or snapshots of her recent photo and video shoots, was taken over by nine indivudal images comprising a large red “X.” The typically prolific celebrity ‘grammer remained relatively quiet over the next two weeks, intermittently posting images of the letter X in her stories, and slowly revealing the manifesto for Madame X, her first album in four years:

Madame X is a secret agent
Traveling around the world
Changing identities
Fighting for freedom
Bringing light to dark places
She is a cha cha instructor
A professor
A head of state
A housekeeper
An esquestiran
A prisoner
A student
A teacher
A nun
A cabaret singer
A saint
A prostitute

The album’s lead single, which could be out as soon as this week, is rumored to be a duet with Colombian reggaeton singer Maluma, but details are scarce. The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks since at least the turn of the century. The studio recordings for her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, leaked like a sieve, resulting in the arrest of an Israeli hacker.

This time out, the queen of pop has successfully kept things under wraps, but it seems that Madame X—a character perhaps inspired by the 1966 film of the same name starring Lana Turner—is ready for her close-up. Watch the teaser for the new album, directed by Steven Klein, below:

Madonna will reportedly perform new material from Madame X at the Eurovision Song Contest on May 14.

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Review: Craig Finn’s I Need a New War Soars When It Rises Above the Mire

If there’s one thing that squarely separates the album from the Hold Steady singer’s previous work, it’s the consistent mellowness.

3.5

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I Need a New War
Shervin Lainez/Big Hassle

The artistic growth Craig Finn has displayed over the course of his four solo albums is comparable—in terms developing a lyrical and production style—to his progression as a songwriter across the Hold Steady’s first four albums. The difference is that rather than sketching out narrative party epics set to huge power-and-glory guitar riffs, Finn is now mostly writing tightly focused character studies to go with his largely understated indie rock songs—music, in other words, that’s harder to latch onto and easier to overlook.

Despite its title’s connotations, I Need a New War—the third in a retconned trilogy of albums—finds Finn further entrenching himself in the stylistic hallmarks of 2015’s Faith in the Future and 2017’s We All Want the Same Things. The album’s ties to its two predecessors are, however, largely implicit rather than explicit. Counter to past Hold Steady albums, there are few, if any, recurring characters, and unlike Holly, Charlemagne, and the whole crew of divinely inspired party hounds who Finn sings about with that band, his subjects here are mostly just regular folks doing their best to muddle through their day-to-day lives. It takes one hell of a good writer to turn that kind of subject matter into compelling rock n’ roll, and Finn—practically in his own category as a lyricist—is up to the task.

Produced by Josh Kaufman, who also helmed Faith in the Future and We All Want the Same Things, I Need a New War retains many of those albums’ sonic traits: watery guitars, pillowy keyboards, and a stuffed-nose Finn singing in a lower, relaxed register. But it’s also a departure, introducing new wrinkles like silky backing vocals by Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins and a liberally employed brass section that gets downright jazzy on the lounge-y “Her with the Blues.” Several songs, particularly “Magic Marker” and “Indications,” unexpectedly adopt a ‘50s doo-wop sound, continuing Finn’s penchant for introducing new stylistic approaches on each of his solo albums that we haven’t heard from him before.

If there’s one thing that squarely separates I Need a New War from Finn’s previous work, it’s the consistent mellowness. With its dreamy atmosphere and loitering tempos, the album is more reliant than ever on Finn’s wordplay. This is rarely an issue for a lyricist of Finn’s caliber, as his eye for detail can turn seemingly mundane scenarios—a simple favor that becomes hard to repay (“A Bathtub in the Kitchen”), an office drone who daydreams of driving away from a dead-end relationship (“Carmen Isn’t Coming in Today”)—into resonant vignettes.

At the same time, Finn can get too bogged down in minutiae, such as devoting an entire verse of “Holyoke” to binge-watching TV shows. But even then, the aside serves the song’s larger purpose of illustrating the anxiety-ridden narrator’s vain attempts to distract himself from the omnipresence of death: “Massachusetts, man, you’ve got a lot more graveyards than we’re used to/I swear to god they’re every other mile.”

I Need a New War soars when Finn dares to rise above the mire. This includes “Something to Hope For,” whose optimistic title is mirrored in its peppy, infectious hooks. And lead single “Blankets” is Finn’s most rousing solo effort to date, an account of a desperate search for an old flame that’s as sweeping and powerful as the “thunder in the canyon” that the musician sings about on the chorus. The song’s concluding thought—“You live your whole life/Just to travel to the place you’re gonna die”—is as bleak and resigned as anything else on the album. But like almost everything that Finn sings, it’s also invigorating.

Label: Partisan Release Date: April 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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The 25 Best Chemical Brothers Songs

To celebrate the release of the duo’s ninth album, No Geography, we ranked their 25 best songs.

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The Chemical Brothers
Photo: Hamish Brown

This week, the Chemical Brothers will release their ninth studio album, No Geography, a notable feat for a group that was first propelled into the mainstream via electronica’s so-called big bang in the late 1990s. Here’s how consistently rich the duo’s vast catalogue has been throughout their near-25-year career: Given the task of choosing our individual favorite tracks, we came up with over 50 contenders worthy of inclusion. As you read—and better yet, listen—to this list, you’ll discover some unexpected omissions (pour one out for one of their biggest crossover hits, “Blocking Rockin’ Beats,” which didn’t make the cut), but also some equally surprising additions that more casual fans may find unfamiliar. Regardless of your level of immersion, though, what you’ll find here are 25 of the most explosive, head-bobbing, ass-shaking anthems in electronic music history. Blue Sullivan

Editor’s Note: Listen to the entire playlist on Spotify.

25. “Saturate”

The Chemical Brothers’s 2007 album We Are the Night is rightly maligned for containing a few of the duo’s rare missteps (here’s looking at you, “Salmon Dance”), but it also contains one of their most propulsive house bangers. Built on ping-ponging keys and a bassline so deep and dirty it almost qualifies as subliminal, “Saturate” builds to a surge of hammering snares that sound like crashing waves. A frequent late-set addition to the duo’s live show over the last decade, the track is just as deserving of its inclusion here as any of their early classics. Sullivan

24. “Life Is Sweet”

But is it? Structured as a call and response, “Life Is Sweet” first finds the Chemical Brothers radiating in an unambiguously optimistic vibe, to the point you can almost feel UV rays emanating from the speakers. And then, suddenly, everything clouds over and you find yourself dancing in a haze of primal doubt that winds up in a denouement of existentialist angst. Eric Henderson

23. “Loops of Fury”

Best video game soundtrack of all time? WipeOut XL, without a doubt. And the Chemical Brothers’s “Loops of Fury” was but one of the crown jewels of a compilation that also included Underworld’s “Tin There,” the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” Photek’s “The Third Sequence,” and Fluke’s “Atom Bomb.” Even in that company, the relentless “Loops of Fury” comes about as close as any of them to feeling what it would be like to barrel down an anti-gravity race track at more than 200 kilometers per hour. Henderson

22. “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”

There is perhaps no other song on the Chemical Brothers’s 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust, that defined the duo’s developing sound more efficiently than the unrelenting “Three Little Birdies Down Beats.” The track is a torrent of increasingly complex layers: breakbeats, soul samples, and an onslaught of screeching guitars and distorted vocals that would become the group’s signature over the course of the next decade. Sal Cinquemani

21. “My Elastic Eye”

Based around a sample of electronic composer Bernard Estardy’s 1973 piece “Tic Tac Nocturne,” “My Elastic Eye” sounds at once cinematic and classical, fusing prog-rock and jazz influences, and boldly employing the filtered basslines of French techno and electroclash, which was peaking in popularity around the time of the song’s release. The result is a mélange of styles that cohere into a spooky musical score that wouldn’t sound out of a place in an Argento giallo. Cinquemani

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Review: Khalid’s Free Spirit Embraces Self-Inquiry to Hackneyed Effect

The album feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.

3

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Free Spirit
Photo: Grace Pickering

With his butter-smooth two-octave vocal range, megawatt smile, and candid, sincere commitment to portraying millennial love—replete with boozy Uber rides and text-message mind games—Khalid has swiftly become a pop fixture, carving out a seemingly permanent place on the Billboard charts. But there’s a sense of guardedness, an almost antiseptic quality, to the 21-year-old singer’s produced-to-perfection R&B. And on his sophomore effort, Free Spirit, he can’t seem to shake that predilection for playing it safe, despite the album’s calls to lose our inhibitions and be free.

Whereas his 2016 debut, American Teen, played like the soundtrack to teenage romance and misadventure, Free Spirit sees Khalid embracing more mature self-inquiry, albeit to hackneyed effect, as he does on “Self”: “I’ve ran away for miles, it’s gettin’ hard for me to breathe/‘Cause the man that I’ve been runnin’ from is inside of me.” And no less inspired are lyrics like “So if you’re gonna love me/You gotta love all of me” (from “Bad Luck”) and “Life is never easy when you need it to be/Try to knock me down, but I get back on my feet” (from “Hundred”).

Free Spirit brims with potential radio hits, like the broody, laidback “My Bad.” The Disclosure-produced lead single, “Talk,” is bright and electric, with a galaxy of heavily textured synths underpinning the track’s buoyant chorus, in which Khalid shows off his seemingly effortless falsetto. A spacey guitar solo from guest John Mayer elevates the grounded groove of “Outta My Head” into something a little more out of this world. Multiple tracks, however, feature the same reverb-drenched guitar and airy synths, sucked dry of vitality by too-pristine production. For a burgeoning artist still establishing his signature style, Khalid settles into a surprising complacency here, failing to experiment with the template of his debut.

A fleet of 1970s-era vans emblazoned with the Free Spirit logo were deployed to colleges across the U.S. to promote the album’s release, and a band of disillusioned teens taking a weed-stoked road trip are the subject of a short film that accompanies the album. The title track grapples with the tantalizing and distressing prospects of freedom, but Khalid never seems to reconcile the depths of that freedom throughout Free Spirit. Perhaps it’s because, at 21, his journey is just beginning. But with all of the lyrical platitudes that abound on the album, the cover art of which depicts the artist overlooking a desert from the top of a dusty van, Khalid’s coming-of-age odyssey feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.

Label: RCA Release Date: April 5, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Flaming Lips’s King’s Mouth Brings the Hooks but Lacks Heft

The album’s heartwarming melodies set to hit-and-miss lyrics represents at least a partial return to form.

3

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King's Mouth
Photo: George Salisbury/Warner Bros.

Given that Wayne Coyne has spent the last decade mired in increasingly bleak stonerism and aimless neo-psych jamming—not to mention the Instagramming and hawking of absurd novelty merchandise—it’s reasonable to wonder if he’ll ever return to the starry-eyed philosophizing of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that made him an indie-rock icon. Or, for that matter, if Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd will ever go back to writing the sweet pop melodies that made those albums so indelible.

With King’s Mouth, initially being released on vinyl as a Record Store Day exclusive with a full release to follow, Coyne’s voice is freed of the alienating reverb of the band’s recent work, returning to its clear, humanly quavering state in the center of the mix. Unfortunately, the album only contains about an EP’s worth of solid material, with the rest of the running time devoted to a tedious children’s fairytale featuring narration by the Clash’s Mick Jones.

Jones delivers, in intermittent spoken segments, a predictably offbeat yarn about a beloved king whose severed, steel-coated head becomes a totem of inspiration to the children of the kingdom (itself an extension of an art installation by Coyne). Conceptually, this is no less loopy than Yoshimi or any one of dozens of Lips songs that could have originally been conceived in a crayon drawing. But much of the narrative-focused sections of King’s Mouth lack compositional heft: They’re mostly sub-two-minute, largely instrumental toss-offs that Jones’s flat, disinterested narration does little to energize.

Still, as slight as they are, even vignettes like “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot” and “Funeral Parade” contain snatches of melody more distinct than nearly anything else the band has done this decade. This renewed melodic emphasis, though, is more appreciable on the album’s more deliberately composed songs. With their strummed acoustic guitars, pervasive but unfussy electronic embellishments, and Coyne’s existential musings, these songs sound like the basis of a proper follow-up to Yoshimi even more than the zany At War with the Mystics, did.

Of course, 17 years and numerous musical evolutions and public Coyne episodes later, this does feel a bit like backtracking, especially lyrically. The Coyne of “Waitin’ for a Superman,” “Fight Test,” and “Do You Realize??” was pseudo-childlike in disposition but also knowing and world-weary, and it was in that synthesis that he achieved genuine profundity. On King’s Mouth, Coyne too often defaults to just the “childlike” part of that equation, especially on “Giant Baby,” on which silly refrains of “You’re the biggest baby/You’re a giant little boy” render the eventual payoff line—“And it made me understand/That life sometimes is sad”—miles less impactful than, say, “Everyone you know someday will die.” Album closer “How Can a Head” also sounds a bit like a mash-up of things Coyne has said before in less frivolous contexts: “How can a head hold so many things/All our life, all our love/All the songs it sings.”

The heartwarming melodies that Coyne and Drozd set these hit-and-miss lyrics to represent at least a partial return to form for songwriters who, in recent years, seemed to have forgotten that melody is what they do best. Songs like “The Sparrow,” “All for the Life of the City,” and “Mouth of the King” boast sugary yet wistful melodies in the same vein of some of the Lips’s greatest work, and hearing Coyne sing them is like reuniting with an old friend.

Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: April 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Features

The 15 Best Nirvana Songs

Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape.

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Nirvana
Photo: Sub Pop

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s tragic death via a self-inflicted gunshot wound. As if that weren’t a stark enough reminder of our fragile mortality, the band’s debut album, Bleach, will turn 30 this June. Of course, the massive success of Nirvana’s 1991 follow-up, Nevermind, would help change the course of rock history. The band’s songs, the vast majority of which were penned solely by Cobain, fused pop, punk, and heavy metal into raw yet relatively digestible scraps of visceral rock poetry that struck just the right balance of accessible and challenging, introducing “alternative rock” to the masses, influencing an entire generation of musicians and fans, and—for better or worse—christening a new subgenre: grunge. Though Nirvana only lasted for seven years and three studio albums, Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape. Sal Cinquemani

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 5, 2014. Listen to our entire Nirvana playlist on Spotify.

15. “Been a Son”

The first of many collections of scraps tossed out to hungry fans, Insecticide at least revealed a few new sides of the band, ranging from blistering punk assaults to strange slices of jagged power pop. “Been a Son” proves one of the standouts of these early recordings, a zippy, straightforward ditty that retains only a scant undercurrent of sludge, only hinting at the psychic trauma that other songs made much more evident. Jesse Cataldo

14. “Rape Me”

Emblematic of the band’s reaction to accusations that they “sold out” for signing with a major label and softening their early punk sound, the opening guitar lick of “Rape Me” pointedly and playfully evokes “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before the track devolves into a crushingly blunt treatise on sexual assault that conveniently, if unintentionally, doubles as a taunt to the media to take their best shot. Cinquemani

13. “Sliver”

Rock’s inherently primal qualities have always been obvious, but few songs have approached them as directly as this one, a charging anthem that boils down to a melancholy tale of a little boy crying for his mother. Originally released by Sub Pop as a non-album single, it’s another sustained tantrum of a track, a roar disguising a whimper, highlighting the tormented whelp at the center of all that seething rage. Cataldo

12. “In Bloom”

Pitted with a stream of pithy, sardonic koans that go almost unnoticed under all the noise, “In Bloom” imagines a micro-problem (ignorant meddlers of the Seattle scene) that quickly exploded into a macro one, leaving an acidic song retroactively aimed at the huge contingent of fans prizing the band for their muscular qualities, while ignoring the pained sensitivity which produced that intensity. If more people had been listening, maybe we could have avoided the long downward spiral of influence that eventually led to Puddle of Mudd. Cataldo

11. “On a Plain”

Few things are more selfish, or illogical, than addiction, and the messy, self-focused tenor of Nirvana’s songs proves the perfect platform to engage that topic. The exacting honesty of tracks like “On a Plain” ended up as one of the band’s biggest cultural coups, pushing the focus of mainstream rock not only from glam fakery to “genuine” emotion, but from a fixation on surfaces and objects to the intrinsic horrors of being human, the gross weakness of our bodies and the yawning emptiness of discontent. Cataldo

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Music

Listen: Ariana Grande Drops New Single “Monopoly” with Victoria Monét

Yes, human pop song conveyor belt Ariana Grande dropped another new track today.

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Monopoly
Photo: YouTube

Human pop-song conveyor belt Ariana Grande dropped another new track today. Last week the singer hinted via Twitter that a release of “Monopoly,” a duet with frequent collaborator Victoria Monét, was imminent after the pair debuted the song live during a stop on Grande’s Sweetener World Tour. And here we are.

Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, the hip-hop-inflected “Monopoly” doesn’t leave much space for Grande to flex her much-ballyhooed vocal prowess, though she does manage to sneak in a few whistle notes at the end. The track has prompted as-yet-verified rumors that the pop star is bisexual: “I swerve both ways, dichotomy,” Monét says before both women put a fine point on it: “I like men and women.”

The lo-fi video is slightly more successful, with emojis popping up on the screen while Grande and Monét playfully celebrate on a roofop. At one point, Grande swipes left on “haters,” “negativity,” and “Trump.” (Grande recently started an initiative called #ThankUNextGen to register voters for next year’s presidential election.)

Watch below:

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