Ellie Goulding
Showing posts with label Ellie Goulding. Show all posts

Friday, July 17, 2020

Review: Brightest Blue • Ellie Goulding

Not long ago, a single release was meant to be a fair representation of its artist: Folks enamored with a popular radio single expected the song to reside in a corresponding album with meaningful context. As we shorten our attention span app by app, how people interact with music has fallen more frivolous than ever: Short-form video app TikTok now plucks songs at random from relative obscurity and pumps artists with false confidence as their tracks become one-off meme soundtracks. Labels fudge song titles on streaming platforms to align with viral snippets and commission remixes to bolster popularity, but often, it seems the popularity spike doesn’t translate to a full body of work or a sustainable career. That’s perhaps what makes Ellie Goulding’s business model so perplexing.

A popular name in both Europe and North America, Ellie Goulding has three strong albums and a decent number of hits to her name. As a consistently above-average commercial performer, she doesn’t seem like someone who should need to chase a hit to green light an album. But by the time it was announced earlier this year, her fourth studio effort, Brightest Blue, was already a few years old. While it sat dormant on her Google Drive, Goulding was preoccupied with other matters: Her name headlined a string of sloppy singles with Generation Z rappers, supposedly in the name of artistic liberation – and much more importantly, she got married last year. It could be assumed that Ellie Goulding’s perspective today differs from the one from which she wrote most of Brightest Blue, which could make the it seem more like a time capsule than a current statement.

With the record, not much of an attempt is made to reconcile everything Goulding has done post-Halcyon, her sophomore release. She recently wrote off overblown pop moment Delirium as a risk with poor return on investment – “I wrote it off before I even went out on tour with it. I knew in my bones it wasn’t right,” she told The Guardian recently. The past year’s worth of American streaming-pandering collaborations are lumped onto a second disc, carrying the appeal of a party favor grab bag filled with circus peanuts. The main album, however, knocks Ellie Goulding back into a proper timeline: Familiar names Joe Kearns, Jim Eliot, and Starsmith return to co-write and co-produce smoldering cuts that scale back any commercial pop inclinations and allow her versatile soprano to drift to the forefront.

As it largely recounts betrayal and revival, Brightest Blue bleeds between swollen ponds of choirs and gentrified strings. The most electricity is generated early in its run with "Power," a crowning jewel of her discography that contrasts dark bass with a bursting chorus, and "How Deep is Too Deep," a moody cut that edges alternative rhythm and blues. At the opposite end, the title track closes the album with skyrocketing surges of strings. Between its bookends, however, the record is often a much more understated reflection on unresolved feelings: While it bows just slightly in its midsection with the noticeably fuzzy "Tides," it regains its momentum in most other areas with a reliance on impressive vocal dynamics. Her vocals are the plush pillow-top of the trendy mid-tempo "Bleach," but the sturdy backbone on both piano ballads ("Flux," "Woman") and bluesy "New Heights."

In some ways, Brightest Blue follows the Ellie Goulding blueprint set into motion with her debut release after it was reconfigured to accommodate her first sleeper hit: The sufficient crowd-pleasers patched into – or in this case, pinned to the coattails of – a record filled with noticeably greater songs. But especially compared to its predecessor, Brightest Blue couldn't be less of an Ellie Goulding record: It is understated and under-produced, mostly to its own advantage. Whereas Halcyon stacked vocal chops and runs to create incredible textures, Brightest Blue accentuates Goulding's stamina as a vocalist – not as a production asset. And after having spent years tied to a career moving faster and more erratically than expected – even during the clunky promotion of this very album – Ellie Goulding manages to become the centerpiece of her own music once again.

Brightest Blue is available now under Interscope Records.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

50 Favorite Songs of 2016 (Part Four)

20. "Life Itself" by Glass Animals

Glass Animals brought driving junglebeat back strong with "Life Itself." A commentary from the standpoint of a loner on the fringes of society, the track chronicles a struggle to adapt to the standards of the civil world and the desire to overcome it; the apathy of its verses and the urgency of its choruses reveal a harsh contrast, suggesting an inner dissonance between continuing life uninspired or breaking free of self-imposed barriers to a better life.

19. "Fever" by Carly Rae Jepsen

After delivering the holy grail that is E•MO•TION to us common men last year, the immortal pop legend CRJ decided to keep the party going this year with E•MO•TION: Side B, a collection of tracks that didn't make the original album's cut. From it, we were blessed with eight great tracks, including the neon-lit "Fever." The Jespenator really delivered here, folks. She progresses from heartbroken fragility in the track's verses to rise-above acceptance in the killer refrain. (I will note, though, that "The One" put up quite the fight to take this spot from "Fever." I blame humanity's only hope Carly Rae Jepsen for that dilemma. After all, she is in the business of crafting too many perfect tracks.)

18. "Still Falling for You" by Ellie Goulding

All hail the soundtrack queen. After she told fans she was going on a brief hiatus upon the conclusion of her Delirium World Tour, Ellie Goulding proved once again that she an unstoppable music-producing machine. Crafted by the same team as her "Love Me Like You Do," Goulding's contribution to the Bridget Jones's Baby soundtrack isn't as outwardly explosive or frankly romantic as the worldwide smash; it chronicles the much lighter and brighter side of love, especially a long-term love that has been rekindled or strengthened.

17. "Wish That You Were Here" by Florence + the Machine

Like Ellie Goulding, Florence + the Machine is a gift that never stops giving. This year, Welch gave to us her full long-form music video, The Odyssey, three tracks for the soundtrack of Final Fantasy XV, and "Wish That You Were Here" for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. While the lush masterpiece that is "Too Much is Never Enough" put up a good fight to take this spot on my list, this track snatched it. The chorus jumps off the minimalist, somber verses and into light but driving production with an upfront plea: "I never minded being on my own, then something broke in me, and I wanted to go home, to be where you are."

16. "Not Above Love" by AlunaGeorge

AlunaGeorge's I Remember makes some striking steps forward for the duo. Once the quirky cousins of mainstream pop, Aluna Francis and George Reed debuted in the nosebleeds of the electronic dance arena. This year, they proved themselves to be a versatile pairing as they broadened their own horizons. On "Not Above Love," Francis widens the appeal of her voice from her typical high-pitched bounce to a smoother, soulful radiance, and with the help of Rock Mafia, Reed stretches his abilities past pure electronica.

15. "BoRdErZ" by Zayn

Allow me to be blunt: this track is the musical personification of making love. It begs for more than physical intimacy; through it, Zayn pleads for the destruction of all barriers, physical and emotional, in pursuit of becoming as close as possible to his partner as possible while getting hot and bothered – an intimate sentiment that is hard to come by in today's mainstream pop landscape. Oh, and those vocal runs are as smooth as a flowing stream and that sneering bass can rattle teeth out of your mouth at the right volume.

14. "Move Me" by Wet

A lot of the material from Wet's Don't You – namely standouts like "Deadwater" and "Weak" – could have made a surprise appearance on this list, but technically, a lot of its tracks were released last year or the year prior. "Move Me," however, is a fresh cut from the album that is quintessential Wet. Kelly Zutrau pleads in her ever-so-fragile voice over a simple guitar loop until a swaying bass kicks in and sweeps listeners away – and by the time the track closes on subdued synth sparkles, listeners are left hypnotized. (It's important to make mention that there was another close competition for this spot: The trio's newest single, "The Middle," was neck-and-neck with "Move Me.")

13. "Go Off" by M.I.A.

Let's be real here: M.I.A.'s AIM was not as controversial or as upfront as last year's "Borders" suggested it was going to be. That doesn't mean, though, that she didn't deliver. "Go Off" is swan song of sorts – masked as a Skrillex and Blaqstarr-cosigned banger. Between the supercharged drops, she questions her legacy and the impact of her decade of broadcasting politically charged, controversial ideals via rap music.

12. "Work from Home" by Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign

Many are quick to discredit successful Top 40 tracks on year-end 'best of' lists, but this one most definitely deserves its spot here. Part Rugrats theme song and part sexy club bop, "Work From Home" sparks a desire in me to become a hypersexual construction worker with killer dance moves... you know, if I had the body for it. While it does jump on the abuse of the word "work," it's too hot not to sing along to every single time.

11. "The Greatest" by Sia

Right on the heels of the success of "Cheap Thrills," Sia delivered another prepackaged party – one that's even better than her sole number one hit. A makeshift tribute to the LGBT+ community in the wake of the Orlando gay nightclub shooting, "The Greatest" is a pounding tropical house track that buries its grief with optimism and a superb melody line. And yes, yes, I get it: tropical house is allegedly on its way out. But I don't want to hear about how dated this thing is going to sound, because it's a bona fide banger no matter how you split it.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Delirium World Tour | Ellie Goulding with Years & Years and Bebe Rexha

Just prior to the release of her latest album, Ellie Goulding was all but promised that the world would soon bow at her feet as it does for Rihanna or Katy Perry. "Love Me Like You Do" sucker-punched the globe, and Delirium lead single "On My Mind" was a considerable success; word lingered of a longstanding crossover, from Britain's favorite little secret (and America's well-loved but inconspicuous electronic dance featured artist) to worldwide superstardom of unbelievable rank. Ultimately, where she stalled is at a strange corner that allows her to boast moderate mainstream success while continuing to headline music festivals around the world -- at Coachella's Friday night festivities this year, she was second-row billing.

Her music, in turn, was tickled by the thought of it all. Delirium found our Ellie, once just a girl with her acoustic guitar and a helping hand in production from Starsmith, clad in the shiniest Max Martin armor, geared up and ready to dominate. With all of this in mind, it was only natural for Goulding to dream big for this tour -- her first headlining arena tour in the States. She has thrown out most of the old material in favor of the new, sprinkled in some choreography and costume changes, and plastered her backdrop with wall-to-wall LCD screens, utilized for flashy video interludes of Ellie looking more badass than ever before. It's a show fit for a true queen.

And in the middle of it all stands our musical shero, Ellie Goulding. She's a changed woman from her earliest shows. In live renditions of her older material that has been cut from this tour's set (probably in part from performer's fatigue, after she had been touring her first two albums' material for what seemed like an eternity), she seemed restrained -- a bit timid, if you will -- but never unhappy or ungrateful. She played theaters and festivals in one outfit, without dancers or any pop show production pizzazz. She was just Ellie, playing some tunes and having a good time doing so.

In translation, not much has changed. In natural arena show form, it ran on a strict blueprint and left little time for personable chit-chat, minus some small talk about the temperature when the good ol' Lake Erie breeze started to blow through the venue. But she's still Ellie, still playing some tunes and still having a good time doing so, this time in a bit of a varied format; the show weaved between choreographed dance explosions, video interludes, and stripped-back acoustic bits. While her ultra-muscular back-up dancers bore the brunt of the choreographed workload, I'm glad to report that random spurs of energy (the bounces, the leaps, the twirls, the jumps -- everything we're used to from her) are still in her wheelhouse; they were the physical promises that she's still having a good time on stage, despite performing high-energy, upbeat songs inspired by Dougie Poynter, now her ex-boyfriend.

Some critics from big-name papers have slammed Goulding with not having the overbearing presence to command such an elaborate show. Maybe they have a point, but I'd argue it's because nothing about the Ellie we all have come to know and love has changed; she has yet to comprehend the magnitude of her success. Though she never formally addressed it, she was clearly taken back by an entire crowd that knew every word to deep album cuts like "Codes" and "Aftertaste" in addition to the radio hits (including "Lights," of course, which has been transferred to an acoustic ballad style for this concert run. "You guys here in the States know a song -- you know it quite well, actually -- that... if I played it back home, nobody would know it. That's what makes you guys awesome," she said before rolling into the song.)

So with all of this success talk, was this a sold-out tour run? Not quite. In fact, for my date of the tour in Cleveland, the show was quietly downgraded from Cleveland State University's Wolstein Center to the open-air Jacobs Pavilion amphitheater a few months before the show. But having such a large show compacted for a more intimate crowd was no problem; the stage lost only its large Ellie-laden curtains and all but one LCD screen. But I think I quite preferred it that way. In a bigger crowd, we fans would have been stuck in a crowd of people who only know the songs they've played on the radio and refer to her as "E-lee Gewlding." As the great Cher Horowitz once said, "as if!"

Even on the smaller stage, though, Goulding treated the show as if she were in an arena. She galloped from end to end to address every angle of that theater, cued some blasts of smoke at climaxes of her heaviest electronic collaborations, and disappeared at the close of the show in clouds of confetti. It was an affair meant to outdo, not merely match, the heights of Delirium as an album. All the while, her voice was not once compromised (after all, it was those angelic pipes that we really came to hear), proving that she really is the full package. For if a recording artist isn't built on a solid foundation -- the lyrics, the voice, the good intentions -- every other element of her artistry is dull, meaningless. But Ellie Goulding has a foundation -- a sturdy one, at that -- so the additional bombastic of this show did nothing but sparkle.

The Delirium World Tour runs through October 12. Tour stops will be made at Radio 1's Big Weekend, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, and other music festivals.

Side note: Along for the ride was Bebe Rexha, who came prepared for the crowd she was given; she broke out a few old tracks (you know, prior to the recent Rita Ora 2.0 physical and sonic makeover), but won the crowd over twerking to a set packed with the hits she has written or been featured on. Additional supporting act Years & Years, well aware that they haven't broken through here like they have back home ("You guys probably don't know any of these songs, but you've been such a great crowd," Olly Alexander said towards the end of their set.), still pulled out all of the stops; Alexander had the pipes and the stage appeal to carry the act to success. Even those around me who initially referred to Rexha as "queen" and Years & Years as "who?" were, at the very least, toe-tapping by the end of the trio's upbeat set.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Obligatory Informal Chat About Some 2016 Singles

I know, I've been unintentionally mute over the handful of singles to have come out this year. My mess of a personal life used and abused me since the turn of the year. Now it's May and I have some free time, so I have no other excuses to delay this little kiki. Let's catch up on some pop music without the formalities of a full album review, shall we?

"I'm in Control" by AlunaGeorge: Body Music was pretty good in its own little way, but this single proves that AlunaGeorge's next album is going to be next level. ("I Remember" and "My Blood" are fire, too, so check those out.)

"Team" by Iggy Azalea: Don't turn on me two songs into this list, but I'm an Iggy Azalea apologist through and through. This song is a jam, especially that little ditty of a bridge that comes out of nowhere. I regret nothing.

"The Big Big Beat" by Azealia Banks: Azealia's Slay-Z mixtape is okay, but we all know she can do much better, don't we? Even my girl Iggy's single is better than this, and we all know who the superior female rapper is supposed to be in the eyes of critics.

"Reminds Me" by Noonie Bao: Now, this woman knows how to make a pop song, yet nobody seems to have taken notice. It's time to notice, people.

"Formation" by Beyoncé: Um, it's Beyoncé and it's politically-charged. So it slays. It slays hard. Just like she does. NOW LET'S GET IN FORMATION.

"Work from Home" by Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign: Part Rugrats theme song, part bondafide bop.

"Here's To Us" by Ellie Goulding: Ellie is the gift that just keeps giving. Even after releasing a 400 track album, she still has another track to contribute to a soundtrack. And it's pretty great.

"Dangerous Woman" by Ariana Grande: This is a new direction for Ariana Grande in so many ways: the sultry guitar solo, the sexy midtempo rate, the lack of ponytail. Oh, and for the second time ever, there isn't a featured artist or unaccredited shouting black man on an Ariana Grande single. It's quite a treat. (And go get your life from "Be Alright," too. It's possibly one of the best things that Ariana has gifted us with.)

"This is What You Came For" by Calvin Harris feat. Rihanna: Capital Y-A-S. This is the Rihanna we all expected on Anti but definitely did not get. So yes, this is exactly what I came for.

"Boy Problems" by Carly Rae Jepsen: She's flawless and we just have to accept it. Also, go read my open letter to global sax-repopularizing singer of song Carly Rae Jepsen and buy "Run Away with Me" on iTunes. Thanks in advance.

"Close" by Nick Jonas feat. Tove Lo: Holy mother of YES. I smell some record label pressure to get Tove on this track to spark a new interest in both artists with just one music video budget, so it's a good thing she meshes perfectly with our Nick Jonas here. (P.S. - "Champagne Problems" is also catchy as hell.)

"Gold" by Kiiara: Her full EP is kind of disappointing, but this song goes hard. She's effortlessly badass and this track reeks of swagger. I love it.

"Be the One" by Dua Lipa: Possibly the best single to come from this year thus far. (I know it didn't technically come out this year, but it has found its livelihood in the past few months. Just shush and let me flaunt third-tier queen of pop Dua Lipa for all she's worth.)

"Last Dance" by Dua Lipa: Okay, also super amazing. (I know there's a Dua Lipa single right above this. I did it on purpose. Don't sleep on this girl, y'all.)

"Rewear It" by M.I.A.: Leave it to M.I.A. to make a track for an clothing advert and end up conjuring straight fire.

"Just Like Fire" by P!nk: I feel like every time P!nk comes back with a new single, it's like discovering her for the first time all over again. She's so low profile in between album cycles that it's hard to remember she exists. This song's alright but forgettable -- which is not in P!nk's usual nature. It's a soundtrack song, though, so I guess it's a forgivable offense.

"I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Seeb Remix)" by Mike Posner: I'm not really sure how Mike Posner, creator of forgettable late 2000s Top 40 anthem "Cooler Than Me," regained relevance or when he became an acoustic singer-songwriter, but he has. Normally, only uneducated trash prefer radio mixes over original versions of songs. But I suppose this one can be an exception, because it's really damn good. I apologize for being uneducated trash.

"No Broken Hearts" by Bebe Rexha feat. Nicki Minaj: What happened to Bebe Rexha and who replaced her with a carbon copy of Rita Ora? In comparison to last year's I Don't Wanna Grow Up extended play, this track from Bebe Ora is just dreadful.

"Work" by Rihanna feat. Drake: It took me six weeks to nail down what Rihanna is uttering in the chorus. After that, the song and I have had a much more positive relationship than when I could only mumble the melody. After all, what good is a Rihanna song if you can't sing along? ("Kiss It Better" makes me want to do naughty things, by the way. Don't ignore that one, either.)

"Rock Bottom" by Hailee Steinfeld feat. DNCE: Look at that, faceless little songbird Hailee Steinfeld got herself another moderate hit. This was the second-best cut from her debut extended play, so God bless her record label for pushing this one.

"Boyfriend" by Tegan and Sara: Tegan and Sara are very much pop now, but they haven't lost the passive-aggressiveness that allowed them to thrive in that Avril Lavigne-y pop-punk space that they dwelled in for so long. That's what makes this such a great tune.

"No" by Meghan Trainor: Okay, this bad boy channels the early '00s pop scene, like, really well? She's saying "no," but I'm giving the track a solid "YAS."

"True Colors" by Zedd feat. Kesha: This track is incredibly important because WE GOT OUR KESHA BACK (kind of). Oh, and it's remarkably better than the version included on Zedd's album of the same name last year.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

10 Favorite Albums of 2015

2015 was an overload for new music. An inordinate amount of emerging artists entered the scene, and even more artists made their returns with new albums. In Twitter stan terms, I was slain by the pop music scene this year. Albums that made this list gained their positions by initial impressions, overall quality, and endurance to multiple replays. Some albums unexpectedly grew on me, while others were killed by their lack of longevity. 

Revival is definitely more than just an album title for Selena Gomez. This album cycle has marked a critical rebound, a sonic transformation, and a massive confidence boost for Gomez. While the set doesn't brings anything particularly new to the table, its longevity and replay value have been shockingly solid -- and quite frankly, it has also gotten better with age, surpassing my original rating for it. Its R&B-infused synthpop backdrops are much more subtle than anything showcased on Stars Dance or the three albums from Selena Gomez & The Scene, allowing her fragile, breathy vocals to shine through. Perhaps this was the setting she was always meant for, in place of the overwhelming, synth-heavy whirlwinds that forced her to push her vocals out at a shout. This Revival did her well.

Songs of choice: "Revival," "Hands to Myself," "Good for You," "Me & the Rhythm," "Survivors"

Melanie Martinez's persona may not seem believable at first, but after one listen to Cry Baby, it's clear that she is quite immersed in the demented childhood nightmare she has created. She doesn't break character even once through the 13 tracks, translating adult themes (sex. heartbreak, insanity, rape) to playground stories without missing a beat (even the tracks I initially didn't like have grown on me). She crafted this album precisely, all the way down to lyric patterns (check out the verses of "Alphabet Boy") and an accompanying storybook to tie the album's songs together, and it paid off.

Songs of choice: "Sippy Cup," "Carousel," "Pity Party," "Mrs. Potato Head," "Mad Hatter"

As problematic or annoying as people may find her as a person, Halsey sure can craft a pleasing sonic atmosphere. If the music industry is a city, her debut concept album Badlands is a neon-lit, dingy alleyway. A product of a viral, Tumblr-using generation, she rasps her way through flowery lyrics over dense synth soundscapes that follow the path paved by Lana Del Rey's Born to Die. She cross-breeds a number of twenty-first century influences without forgetting the power of a well-crafted hook or losing sight of her imaginary dystopia. Kind of melodramatic? Yeah. Kind of typical? Yeah. Still really good? Yeah.

Songs of choice: "Roman Holiday," "Ghost," "Colors," "Gasoline," "Drive"

For someone who is churning records out like Rihanna circa 2005-2012, Lana Del Rey still isn't lacking when it comes to quality. Honeymoon displays what she has learned from all three of her major label releases, mixing those sets' influences into a moody, bluesy melting pot. And despite her overt abuse of the word "blue" and her walking the line of self-parody, her lyrics are still as still charming as ever. She's a far stretch from who we were introduced to as Lana Del Rey in 2012; while still an enigmatic character, her affinity for all things Hollywood seems to have been tainted in the past few years and the "gangster Nancy Sinatra" curtain has dropped. But most importantly, she's more confident and unabashed than she's ever been... and to think that this is only the Honeymoon of her brighter future with concert-goers and critics alike.

Songs of choice: "Music to Watch Boys to," "Terrence Loves You," "High by the Beach," "Salvatore"

While he brings nothing new to the table sonically on his debut album, Troye Sivan works alt-pop like a pro and teaches our generation a thing or two about sincerity and uninhibited expression along the way. Blue Neighbourhood is an intimate affair, revealing feelings of regret, hopelessness, nostalgia, and love through roomy soundscapes and Sivan's smooth croons. He manages to transport us to his own world without hiding behind the mirage of a concept album -- and it's a mesmerizing trip.

Songs of choice: "Fools," "Youth," "Heaven," "Talk Me Down," "Lost Boy," "Suburbia"

This year, Grimes took it upon herself to add a lick of mainstream pop sensibility to her material that meets halfway between the oddity of Visions and the flamboyance of her 2013 single "Go." Unlike her previous albums, Art Angels seems like a polished piece of work -- not just an album of enjoyable demos. Her delivery has improved (especially that enunciation) and she taught herself how to play violin, guitar, and piano to layer an organic energy with her synthpop bases. With this album, she has concreted her status as a spectacular, ever-evolving, all-in-one package of a vocalist, songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer -- spare the two featured guest vocalists, all of this is still a one-woman show.

Songs of choice: "Flesh without Blood," "Kill V. Maim," "REALiTi," "Venus Fly," "Butterfly"

Ryn Weaver has a knack for telling (err... singing) stories. The Fool, produced in full by Benny Blanco and Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos, carries itself with a campy style that blurs the borders of pop, acoustic singer-songwriter, and folk and is tied together by Weaver's vibrato-rich, commanding vocals and sense of adventure. Perhaps the most important element of the album, though, is the co-dependence between the music and the story arc that it follows; when digested as a whole, the album follows clear tales of a nomadic Weaver and comes full circle upon the booming climax of its grand finale, "New Constellations." Albums as consistent and focused as this one are hard to come by, which makes it even more special.

Songs of choice: "OctaHate," "Pierre," "The Fool," "Traveling Song," "New Constellations"

When Ellie Goulding told us that her third LP, Delirium, would be "big," she wasn't kidding. This album takes her to new heights; the monstrous 16-track set blurs into an hour-long burst of euphoria. She set out to make a pop album that is quality, spirited, and fulfilling, and that is exactly what she did: the album embodies the idea that fun, straightforward, love-oriented pop songs do not have to be chintzy. Since 2012's Halcyon, she has become more confident in her vocal abilities, which allows these tracks to gleam; even when it is embedded in booming productions courtesy of Max Martin and Greg Kurstin, Goulding's untouchable voice isn't compromised and is a vital element to this album's success. The album may not be her most personal, but it's definitely her most fun and ear-catching to date.

Songs of choice: "Aftertaste," "On My Mind," "Holding on for Life," "Love Me Like You Do," "Army," "Devotion," "Scream It Out"

Carly Rae Jepsen is easily the underdog of the year, if not the decade. After slams of being a run-of-the-mill one-hit wonder, she came back swinging with punches that are stronger than we could have ever imagined on E•MO•TION. Sure, this album potentially benefits from a Henry IV effect of sorts; with Kiss clearly being an admittedly average, rush-released effort to capitalize on "Call Me Maybe," it wouldn't have taken much for Jepsen's third LP to seem impressive by comparison. That didn't stop Jepsen, however, from taking her time and curating an album that tackles '80s-inspired synthpop with the rigor that her contemporaries lack. Whereas her past album cycle was all about radio airplay, E•MO•TION puts Jepsen in a category of her own; an artist who makes industrial strength pop that the radio won't grant you access to, but is well worth a listen... or 80 listens.

Songs of choice: "Run Away with Me," "Making the Most of the Night," "Your Type," "When I Needed You," "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance"

On 2011's Ceremonials, Florence Welch's motto was "bigger is better." Four years removed, Welch's production has been reeled in a bit in favor of letting her powerhouse vocals reign supreme on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. In an alternative rock fashion, the space underneath Welch's pipes is colored with guitars, keys, and -- Welch's new favorite instrumental weaponry, trumping the strings of her first two albums -- brass. With her wall of fictional story-telling broken, Welch now drips with dramatic introspection of a few turbulent years. And she has learned to place her voice on a leash and to allow it to work its magic only on her cue, rather than letting it roll like a freight train without breaks. It's a glorious record from start to finish, plain and simple.

Songs of choice: "What Kind of Man," "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful," "Queen of Peace," "Long & Lost," "Make Up Your Mind," "Which Witch (demo)," "Pure Feeling"

Friday, December 18, 2015

50 Favorite Pop Songs of 2015 (Part Five)

10. "Player" by Tinashe feat. Chris Brown

For her upcoming second album, Tinashe has seemingly pulled out all of the stops. "Player" is her strongest number to date, aiming straight for the club jugular as a lovechild of PBR&B and synthpop. The song waits nearly 90 seconds to finally kick into overdrive, and when it does... wow. It slams listeners with a wall of electronic sound, with extraneous sythesizer hits coming in at all the right times. And fortunately, Tinashe's malleable soprano voice isn't compromised when embedded in this sea of sound, and it blends nicely with Chris Brown's as they tag-team the final chorus.

9. "Borders" by M.I.A.

Political unrest, racial inequality, and hot social issues have always been the cornerstones of M.I.A.'s art form, so it's about time she spit her thoughts on this year's state of affairs over a banging club beat. The song (and video, which is exclusive to Apple Music) zeros in on her youth, when she was a Sri Lakan refugee, and parallels it to the Syrian refugee crisis. Also in the mix is commentary on society's obsession with pop culture as opposed to sociopolicital concerns; each issue is then met with a snarky "what's up with that?" banter. The song has been slammed as "pro-terrorist" and "blatant propaganda" by Internet trolls and radical Republicans, but I'd like to argue that it's simply pro-human; in a nutshell, the only request made here is that we co-exist.

8. "Style" by Taylor Swift

I was in the large "STYLE FOR THE NEXT SINGLE" camp since the release of 1989 (or perhaps even before that when I had heard just the small snippet of the song in Swift's Target commercial) and was elated when our demands were met towards the beginning of this year. Everything about the song, from the sultry guitar-led verses to the blossoming choruses, puts it towards the top of the list of Swift's best pieces to date. But on a final note: of the five singles released from the album, "Style" was one of the two not to reach the summit of the Billboard Hot 100. I don't know how we let this happen, America. We dropped the ball on this one.

7. "Good for You" by Selena Gomez

Goodness gracious, what an unexpected, yet very welcomed, change of pace for Selena Gomez. Following the sonic footprint of "The Heart Wants What It Wants," the lead single to her second solo album Revival impresses with sultry R&B production. Both through her vocals and the video, she gleams with confidence as she croons through the song with an accented wisp and poses in a shower. It embodies all that is seductive and sultry, with its climaxes coming from subtle bass booms and the utmost focus being placed on Gomez's voice alone.

6. "Here" by Alessia Cara

Never have I heard a song that suits my attitude more appropriately than Alessia Cara's "Here." Far too often do we hear the typical drugs, sex, and party anthems, but not enough do we get songs for those of us who prefer late night drives with a few friends or solo Netflix binges on Saturday nights. She slides into this moody R&B track with the strongest insinuated eye-roll ever: "Since my friends are here, I just came to kick it / But really I would rather be at home all by myself / Not in this room with people who don't even care about my well-being / I don't dance, don't ask, I don't need a boyfriend / So you can, go back, please enjoy your party / I'll be here." Her smooth vocals take precedence over the sampled beat, proving the raw talent behind the buzz.

5. "REALiTi" by Grimes

Unbeknownst to us at the time, "REALiTi" was our first glimpse at Grimes' fourth studio album, Art Angels. While it was originally a demo from the full album she scrapped, it was remastered and thrown onto the new album by popular demand -- and I couldn't be happier for that. The atmospheric video demo and the peppier final version differ in a sound and definitely each have their own perks, but in any form, this song is just undeniably amazing. The airy, reverberated vocals, the dreamy soundscape... really everything about this song embodies who Grimes is as an artist.

4. "Love Me Like You Do" by Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding wasn't going to stamp her name another soundtrack song, but I bet she's glad that she did. Goulding and The Weeknd were two of the main acts that surged in popularity once again via the buzz that surrounded the raunchy Fifty Shades of Grey saga this year; Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do," a passionate, Tove Lo-penned anthem, was pushed as one of the singles to the soundtrack that has outlived the legacy of the movie itself. The timeless song caused one of Goulding's strongest grips on American radio, second only to breakthrough single "Lights," and it displays some of Goulding's purest vocals over her first Max Martin production.

3. "Run Away With Me" by Carly Rae Jepsen

"Run Away With Me" is simply pop music done right.  There are so many reasons why this song deserved to match the success of "Call Me Maybe," and then some. Carly Rae Jepsen crafted this song, as well as the rest of E•MO•TION, to channel the '80s with the precision that most of her contemporaries lack. On this track in particular, a blaring saxophone run and a sea of bouncy drums and synths accumulate into ground-shaking choruses that can be outmatched by only a few pop songs out there today; rumor has it that if you blare the song loud enough as Jepsen shouts, "Baby, take me to the feeling / I'll be your sinner in secret when the lights go out," it will literally shatter the Earth. I know it has nearly shattered my car windows multiple times.

2. "OctaHate" by Ryn Weaver

Okay, so I had to cheat a bit for this one to count. "OctaHate" was released last year on SoundCloud and found its first wave of popularity on the streaming site, but it received its push towards mainstream audiences this year and stalled somewhere in the top 40 range of Billboard's US Pop Songs chart. While The Fool, her debut full-length album, may be a solid piece of work overall, "OctaHate" is easily her magnum opus. Her rich, vibrato-accented vocals are highlighted in the childish, twinkling verses before they are immersed in one of the few choruses that can one-up Carly Rae's "Run Away With Me." (In fact, those vocals come out on top even against those relentless drum machine hits in that glorious temper tantrum of a chorus.)

1. "What Kind of Man" by Florence + the Machine

Florence + the Machine delivered one of the best albums of the year with How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, so it's no wonder the lead single to the album gleamed with power. After a fragile opening minute, the song commands attention with pounding drums and Welch's aggressive vocals. In tradition Florence + the Machine style, Welch's voice is a vital source of commanding energy, further concreting the fact that only she could get away with the music she makes. Accompanying the track, like the rest of the singles from the album, is a cinematic music video that brings the last possible bit of life to the song. It's a beautifully unpredictable and irregularly-formatted song that stands towards the top of Welch's catalog, although it is hard to choose just a handful of her best works with three extraordinary albums under her belt.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

50 Favorite Pop Songs of 2015 (Part Four)

20. "Me & The Rhythm" by Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez was a surprisingly strong candidate this year. After a rocky past with critics, her second solo LP Revival clocked critics and music buyers alike and has had great replay value. "Me & The Rhythm" is a killer pop tune from the LP with a melody line that is nearly unbelievable from someone like Gomez. 

19. "Magnets" by Disclosure feat. Lorde

The EDM premiere of Lorde was inevitable. Even the least likely candidates (i.e. Haim, Florence Welch, Lana Del Rey) ponder in the genre, whether it was an intentional collaboration or an unappreciated remix that spontaneously took off. Lorde's stab in the genre, though, is disguised as more of a powerful pop bit than a proper EDM banger -- and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

18. "Music to Watch Boys to" by Lana Del Rey

This song succeeds simply by being quintessential Lana Del Rey. It conforms to that cover-all, murky style of alt-pop that she created with Emile Haynie, Jeff Bhasker, and Rick Nowels (the latter of which takes production credit for this track) back in 2012 with her debut album without feeling repetitive. She gives a low-key nod towards voyeurism, alternating thin high notes with half-spoken low ones as she sings through the chorus, but she doesn't forget all of those idiosyncratic lyrical additions that serve the sole purpose of aesthetic (pink flamingos, lemonade... anything that represents the warm, glistening feel of a midsummer day).

17. "Your Type" by Carly Rae Jepsen

Need proof that Carly Rae Jepsen can channel '80s influences better than any of her contemporaries? Here it is. "Your Type" pops into its climaxes with a powerful shout of "I'm not the type of girl for you" and tickles of era-authentic guitars and synths. Even better? It's the perfect anthem for when you've been friendzoned.

16. "Terrence Loves You" by Lana Del Rey

"Terrence Loves You" is easily the most important track from Lana Del Rey's Honeymoon. The horns and keys brood and harmonies fall into dissonance in all the right places, allowing Del Rey's fragile vocals to gleam at the front and center of attention. With tracks like this one, it's no wonder that critics finally came around this era to see the raw talent behind the lush backdrops of her debut album.

15. "Talk Me Down" by Troye Sivan

Arguably the most intimate moment from Troye Sivan's Blue Neighbourhood is "Talk Me Down," a track that strips away the forests of electronics for a more subtle, roomy backdrop. The feels get real -- especially when the music video is taken into consideration, as well.

14. "Army" by Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding's third LP Delirium rarely leaves the pace of a moderate sugar rush. While that's not a problem, it does help "Army," a blossoming acoustic ballad dedicated to her best friend, stick out of the crowd in the best possible way. She's free to display both her mid-range and that beautiful upper register, which can convey itself through either an airy rasp or an angelic howl, depending on technique.

13. "Flesh Without Blood" by Grimes

2015 marked the long-awaited return of Grimes. In the early part of the year, she released a collaboration with Bleachers and a demo of "REALiTi" before hitting the road on Lana Del Rey's North American tour and releasing her fourth studio album, Art Angels. This track ushered in the era on a gleaming note. Upon its release, "Flesh Without Blood" was her solo first track to have this much power; while most of the tracks on Visions sound like advanced demo tracks, this track licks her synthpop style with an electric guitar to seal the deal.

12. "American Oxygen" by Rihanna

The best songs always go unnoticed; just ask Rihanna about "American Oxygen." Co-produced by Alex da Kid and Kanye West, stamped with the chase of the American Dream, and plugged with a visually-stunning video, it should have been destined for domination. Instead, it died in the bottom half of the Billboard Hot 100: a very strange thing for a pre-album release Rihanna single to do. That, however, certainly doesn't discount its position as the strongest track in Rihanna's discography. Most notably, the gritty, chaotic production adds a new flavor to Rihanna's discography. The video, with a strong focus on racism and tragedy in America, was released midst the riots in Ferguson, too - a gutsy move, but a strong statement.

11. "Queen of Peace" by Florence + the Machine

Every song from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful deserves a spot on this list somewhere, but unfortunately, that would make it unfair for most of the other artists here. While it's hard to choose clear stand-out tracks, "Queen of Peace" is one of the many shining jewels from the album. It's a brass-powered bullet, cutting through the airwaves with a rattling chorus melody line. Florence Welch really cuts loose vocally on this one, wailing, "Suddenly I'm overcome / Dissolving like the setting sun / Like a boat into oblivion / 'Cause you're driving me away." 

Monday, December 14, 2015

50 Favorite Pop Songs of 2015 (Part Three)

30. "Wildest Dreams" by Taylor Swift

Lana Del Rey might have been shut out at the Grammys, but at least she bask in the satisfaction of having influenced some great acts. Musical pop-country chameleon Taylor Swift took some notes for "Wildest Dreams," a clearly Del Rey-inspired tune with a sense of Top 40 urgency and the right Swiftian (Taylor Swifian, that is) touches.

29. "Blue" by Marina and the Diamonds

As a whole, Marina and the Diamonds' third LP Froot wasn't as enticing as intended. Luckily, "Blue" is one of the few gleaming highlights in the otherwise bland offering. Diamandis finally puts a pep in her step with this one, after she spent most of an album with mid-tempo pop-rock. Her vocal delivery and lyrics give subtle nods to the days of The Family Jewels, with Electra Heart-esque quirkiness on the "gimme love, gimme dreams, gimme a good self-esteem" spiel.

28. "Traveling Song" by Ryn Weaver

Holy waterworks. "Traveling Song" is the most intimate and subtle moment of Ryn Weaver's debut album, written as a token of her love for her grandfather, Max, who passed away on the first day of this year. This song really succeeds by allowing time and space for that quirky vibrato and emotion to resonate. And as if the song wasn't enough to get the emotions rolling, Grandpa Max's home videos have been compiled into the video accompaniment to his musical tribute. Once again, holy waterworks.

27. "Alive" by Sia

Adele ought to be shaking her head for passing up this one. After she declined it, Sia kept it for her own concept album that is composed of tracks originally written by Sia for other artists. Coming off the success of "Chandelier" (which topped my 'best of' list of last year) and "Elastic Heart," we expected no less than was delivered from "Alive." The vocals alone -- the smoky lows, the soaring highs -- are enough to capture the attention of anyone within earshot.

26. "Lean On" by Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat. MØ

"Lean On" marks one of the first times Indian and Middle Eastern influences have found their way back onto American contemporary hit radio since Selena Gomez's "Come & Get It" -- and it's great. The breakdown's central feature is made out of contorted vocals -- the same tactic Diplo used in the Jack Ü collaboration with Justin Bieber that offers a level of exclusive uniqueness that cannot be replicated by any synthesizer out there.

25. "The Hills" by the Weeknd

Those who listened to the Weeknd prior to this year have been up in arms about his change towards a more digestible PBR&B, but "The Hills" is nothing but classic Weeknd material: Raunchy, sexy, and straight-up badass.

24. "Roman Holiday" by Halsey

As discussed many times before, Halsey knows how to craft some mad aesthetic. A very clear highlight from Badlands, this song's layers of smoky vocals and heavy synthesizers emit the radiance of a warm summer day.

23. "Mrs. Potato Head" by Melanie Martinez

Not sure why it took this long for someone to finally make a parallel between a toy based on rearranging facial parts and plastic surgery, but let's be really glad that Melanie Martinez was the one who finally did it. A clear highlight of her debut album, the track meets all of the requirements for a Martinez original -- childish xylophones, heavy beats, insanely wise lyrics, and one hell of a chorus.

22. "On My Mind" by Ellie Goulding

Banger alert: "On My Mind" was our first taste of "big pop" Ellie Goulding. Lyrically, it's not the strongest from Delirium, but it perfectly returns fire at Ed Sheeran's "Don't." (Although she claims otherwise, the song's lyrics perfectly rebukes the claims made in Sheeran's song, which was rumored to be penned about Goulding.) It's infectious, ground-shaking, and dance floor commanding.

21. "Amazing" by Foxes

Poor Foxes has been sorely mistreated by her record label (Sony UK), but thank goodness that she's still delivering quality material. "Amazing" is one of her best songs to date, mixing power pop and touch of soul for a great outcome. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Delirium | Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding has made a mistake: she revealed her intentions for a full-fledged pop invasion and her passion for pop and electronic music. 

In a world where the standard for quality music is often forcefully determined by old fogies and hipsters in front cameras with thick-rimmed glasses and distinguished aural palates who think anything sort of moaning indie static is unsatisfactory, an affiliation with Top 40 radio is often looked upon with an eye roll or a look of disgust – even more so when an artist is particularly passionate about being part of the mega-pop gang. So when Ellie Goulding announced her third full-length album, Delirium, to be an experimental attempt at crafting a "big pop album," a large digital moan was nearly audible from one half of the Internet – the half that is still grumbling about wanting "old Ellie" back, that is. 

By "old Ellie," they're talking about the timid, doe-eyed girl who splashed onto the scene in 2010, winning that year's BBC Sound of... poll and coveted Brit Critics' Choice award. In other words, the original archetype of Ellie that has been all but a memory for a while now. Acoustic guitars and tinny electronics coexisted to form the Internet-generated, fictional genre of folktronica on her debut, Lights, but they were swiftly abandoned in favor of the layers of tangled vocal samples, drum machines, and synthesizers courtesy of Jim Eliot on her sophomore attempt, the glimmering, sentimental Halcyon.

For her third full-length outing, she's done equivocating her position as a chart-dominating hopeful. The acoustic guitars of her early days are revived for a few tracks, usually digitally contorted and encased in a shell of larger-than-life production from the best of the best in the pop industry: Max Martin (the chameleonic wizard of pop music with over two decades of experience) and Greg Kurstin (the right hand man to Sia, Kelly Clarkson, Tegan and Sara, and Lily Allen, among others), who collectively produced 11 of the standard pressing's 16 tracks. (And yes, you read that correctly: the album brings a new definition to the term 'long play' with its 16 standard tracks. Some variants of its deluxe edition span 25 tracks.)

Vocally, this is arguably the most "Ellie" album of them all. The vocal differences between the live performances and studio tracks from this album, unlike most Lights era tracks, are unnoticeable. While her voice is often reverberated and layered over the intensive beats, its quality isn't tampered with or compromised. She boasts her voice this time around, both through song (check "Intro (Delirium)" in particular, in which she throws her voice into full-on operatic operation) and through interviews ("I think my voice is something untouchable, but I think me as a person is not. No one else will ever have my voice."), giving her a stronger tone and live stamina than ever before. However, her voice may be the only element of these tracks that is not foolproof; instead of continuing to adapt that sort of smoky, sort of airy, sort of ethereal voice of hers into a more palatable format for all, Goulding and her producers have accepted the polarizing effect of her voice. Some love it, some hate it; you can't win 'em all.

As promised, this is also her most intensive pop album to date. The production of lead single "On My Mind" is par for the Delirium course: effective utilization of repetition and drum-heavy, synthesized backdrops that pulsate with enough energy to wake the dead. From "Aftertaste," a tropical-fringed embrace of a break-up, to "Codes," another Max Martin-assisted gem, the album consistently bounces in a state of ecstasy. The club-ready "Something in the Way You Move" may be the most energized track, but "Around U" is a close second, with its peppy double-time beat and a twinkling, Kimbra-esque chorus. Sultrier, yet still uptempo, offerings "Don't Need Nobody" and "Keep on Dancin'" both chase club trends in their own ways – the former with its PBR&B automated drums and thick, DJ Snake-inspired chorus, and the latter with a whistle chorus over stabbing synth hits – but still don't lose touch with the rest of the album.

Every song either starts and finishes in overdrive, or gradually builds itself up to that point; even the slowest tracks conclude in explosive ways. So although it's easily the album's slowest-burning moment, Fifty Shades of Grey track "Love Me Like You Do" sits somewhat comfortably in the track listing. Even the album's most personal touches are topped off with sparkly electronic finishes and drum-kicks that gives them the vitality of a minor sugar rush: "Lost & Found" sits atop an acoustic base with the sound and fluffy lyrics of the Lights era, a strong ballad is cloaked under a clean-cut club format on the poetically-tongued "Devotion," and "Scream It Out" closes the album with a certain vulnerability that echoes that of Halcyon.

So what has this album taught us? Being seriously passionate about pop music is nothing to be ashamed of, especially when you're pretty damn good at making it. Goulding set out to make a pop album that is quality, spirited, and fulfilling, and that is exactly what she did: the album embodies the idea that fun, straightforward, love-oriented pop songs do not have to be chintzy. The few truly personal moments ("Army," "Aftertaste," "Scream It Out") are trumped by distinctive vocal acrobatics, feel-good melodies, and enveloping soundscapes ("Something in the Way You Move," "Codes," "We Can't Move to This"), but that isn't necessarily a problem. We already know that she can write songs that tug at the heartstrings, so there's no foul in letting her revel in her most carefree setting to date. It may not be her most intimate affair, but it's definitely her most ear-catching by a long shot. The album grabs listeners just 30 seconds in, takes them on an hour-long, sugar-coated trip, and releases them from its grip with blurry, yet warm, recollections of the euphoric state they were just encapsulated in – but who wouldn't want to be a victim to this state of Delirium?

Delirium available now under Interscope Records and Cherrytree Records. An exclusive deluxe pressing can be found at Target department stores.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Singles Summary: October 2015

Adele // "Hello"
25, XL Recordings

Justin Bieber // "Sorry"
Purpose, Def Jam

Alessia Cara // "Wild Things"
Know-It-All, Def Jam

Ellie Goulding // "Something in the Way You Move," "Lost & Found," & "Army"
Delirium, Interscope
SITWYM: ★★★★☆ // L&F: ★★★★★ // Army: ★★★★★

Ariana Grande // "Focus"
Moonlight, Republic

Grimes // "Flesh Without Blood"
Art Angels, 4AD

 // "Kamikaze"

One Direction // "Perfect"
Made in the AM, Syco / Sony

TĀLĀ feat. Banks // "Wolfpack"
Malika, Sony UK

Tinashe feat. Chris Brown // "Player"
Joyride, RCA

Troye Sivan // "Talk Me Down"
Blue Neighbourhood, Capitol

Gwen Stefani // "Used To Love You"
TBA, Interscope

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Singles Summary: September 2015

Disclosure feat. Lorde // "Magnets"
Caracal, Island

Lana Del Rey // "Music to Watch Boys To"
Honeymoon, Interscope

Foxes // "Better Love"
All I Need, Sony UK / Sign of the Times

Selena Gomez // "Same Old Love"
Revival, Interscope

Ellie Goulding // "On My Mind"
Delirium, Interscope

Lady Gaga // "Til It Happens to You"
from 'The Hunting Ground' documentary, Interscope

Sia // "Alive"
This is Acting, RCA

Tinashe // "Party Favors"
Joyride, RCA

Bleona // "Take You Over"
*This was a Twitter request addition
© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall