Reviews

Worst Album of 2016

This is What the Truth Feels Like – Gwen Stefani

I was never a huge No Doubt fan growing, but I’ve come to like them more over time along with Gwen Stefani. There was a point when she was the epitome of cool in alt rock. Her solo music is vastly different from what she did with No Doubt, but it’s still catchy, enjoyable, and fun. When she dropped two singles in 2015, I was pretty excited to hear what her next album was going to sound like. I actually dug Love.Angel.Music.Baby, but didn’t care for The Sweet Escape. Turns out, I hated  even more.

It feels kind of harsh calling this the worst of the year, but out of everything I sought out and listened to, this is the album I hated the most. I’ll admit, most of the songs are unoffending. Some are even pretty good, like the hypnotic “You’re My Favorite,” but once I got to songs like “Naughty” and “Red Flag” I couldn’t take anymore. I thought she was joking. The horrible rap segments, the sad attempt at trying to keep up with the trends, and the ridiculous lyrics made the rest of the record laughable. She tries to hang with Fetty Wop on “Asking 4 It” and comes off awkward while her other attempts at rapping are just sad.

What’s most annoying is her pretending she’s still this rebellious, bad ass we came to love in the 90s. It’s fine if Stefani has grown up and is more comfortable following the herd now. But it feels like she’s pretending she’s still alternative like she was back in the day. With tracks like “Asking 4 It” and “Rare” it seems like she’s trying to hold on to her edgy title, when that’s not who she is anymore. And that’s fine.

When the album isn’t delving into horrible rap, it’s just bland and dull making you think “meh” as you listen to it. Very few of the songs are interesting. The rest follow the same pop music trends as everyone else. There’s even a few songs you’d think were outtakes from Madonna’s Rebel Heart. This is What the Truth Feels Like was hardly worth the 10 year wait. Hopefully, her next effort will be interesting and bring back some weirdness to pop music. But considering her last few releases, it doesn’t look too promising.

Love Gloom – Night Riots

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8/10

Night Riots stole my heart when I saw them live with Blaqk Audio earlier this year. Their fusion of synth pop, rock, and electronic made their music irresistible. I picked up their 2015 EP Howl right away and impatiently waited for their debut album, Love Gloom. I was a bit surprised when I finally got my hands on it; it has a different vibe, mood, and feel than their previous release. It’s not drastically different, but there are some changes.

For one thing, Howl is upbeat, fun, and danceable the whole way through. But Love Gloom allows the band to explore other sounds and avenues. There are still insanely catchy jams like the popular “Contagious” and “Work It.” The latter isn’t Travis Hawley’s best singing effort, he sounds a bit too stained, but the song is still bouncy and fun. “Nothing Personal” is another catchy track blistering with lust and desire. Hawley has a vampiric presence and this comes out best on this song when he sings lines like “Numb yourself and think of me” or “I’ll be the king, you’ll be the filth/I’ll wash away.” It sounds like he’s trying to hypnotize us. It’s one of the most gripping and catchy songs on the album.

Aside from this, the rest of the album is kind of slow and melancholic. Previously, the band described their music as “pop gloom” and that’s exactly what it is. “Fangs” is pretty upbeat, but steeped in darkness and the macabre. The hook pleads “So stick your fangs, fangs, fangs/into me” bringing up images of vampires, albeit sexy ones. Similar to their other songs, this one also drips with lust and desire – it’s something Night Riots effortlessly convey in a good chunk of their songs. It’s a sort of dark romanticism they explore on this track.

The excellent “Don’t Kill the Messenger” might as well be their love letter to Depeche Mode. The shuddering bass, booming drums, and somber guitars makes it sound like it was written for the iconic band. It also has a brooding nature that plays into their melancholic side. The track stands out for its more aggressive tone and heavy hitting nature. Everything gets more intense as the track continues. It has a big sound making it one of the most satisfying songs on the record. Plus, it’s pretty catchy. After one listen, the song will burrow itself in your head.

Breaking Free” is where we start to hear the band’s softer side on the album. It’s another stellar track filled with lush tones and atmospheric music that makes it feel like you’re under water. The rolling drums that occasionally pop up give it some extra flair. It’s another brooding track talking about breaking out of a relationship. Something about it is warm and relaxing even though the lyrics aren’t exactly the most uplifting: It’s beautiful, yet haunting quality makes it one of the highlights of the album.

As previous songs have shown, Night Riots take great inspiration from 80s music. It was all over their EP and it’s all over this album, but they use the New Wave influences in a subtle way. The ballad “All for You” has this big, 80s anthem vibe to it. The dreamy guitars, far away sound, and relaxing melody makes you think of Tears for Fears, who they’ve covered in concert. To keep the song from getting too dull, the bridge comes alive, bursting with guitar and drums. It’s a soft, sweet song about being there for one another. “Tear Me Apart” starts with a weird, stuttering synth that instantly grabs your attention. This song feels directly tied to the title: the mood is somber and gloomy as Hawley laments the end of a relationship. Some of it is cliché, like the lyric “Where does it start/where does it end/I’m losing my best friend/tear me apart,” but it’s pretty forgivable. The track also has this ghostly vibe to it with ethereal singing, other world music, and a cold vibe infiltrating the entire song.

This slow, doom-laden mood continues on tracks “Pull Me Down,” which has a Gothic quality to the lyrics and “Everything Will be Alright,” which is haunting and a little eerie as Hawley sings “lately I feel undone.” Though the songs are slower, the 80s synth elements aren’t abandoned. Rather they play smaller roles in the music popping in the background or playing softly to make the song come alive. Instead of being the focal point, they’re used to add to the song’s flavor and sound. Listeners get a break from the constant wave of gloom with the upbeat “End of the World,” which starts with more attention-grabbing synth that’ll get stuck in your head.

The closing track, “As You Are,” has elements that are likable along with some questionable bits. The opening is too slow and sappy for my tastes. Lines like “Don’t change for me/you got nothing to fix/you’re not broken” end up sounding a bit corny. But what saves the song is the beautiful, symphonic quality to it. As Hawley sings, strings swell up around him making the song pretty and heartbreaking. This paired with the way he croons “Meet me as you are” is enough to give you chills. It’s a somber song; Hawley sounds like he’s at the end of his rope, which makes the final line “I let you down/ betrayed you” hit even harder. It’s not the best track on the album, but it’s a fitting close.

Love Gloom wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. There weren’t as many upbeat, catchy, danceable songs as on their previous release. Yet, it remains a strong, thoughtful debut. The upbeat songs are still there, showing Night Riots know how to make you dance. But the slower tracks laden with darkness and of course, gloom, show another side of the band. The album is a melancholic affair; something you put on when the sky is grey and leaves start to fall. Some of it is brooding, some of it is fun, but the whole thing is honest. That’s part of what makes it so appealing. Many of the songs may not grip you right away, but if you give it a chance, you’ll find a great debut that’s not afraid of the darkness, which we all need to embrace from time to time.

Paradise – Con Brio

 

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8.5/10

I learned about this funky band when I went to Lollapalooza this year and caught their set. I’ve been singing their praises ever since. Based out of California, Con Brio, which means “with spirit” in Spanish, is a funk/R&B/soul band that are all about loving life and having a good time. They channel this feeling into their funky debut album Paradise. From start to finish the album keeps you going and leaves you with a big smile on your face. After hearing the record, you’ll be convinced Con Brio is the next great band in music.

The album is a funky jam from start to finish. Each song is filled with brassy horns, groovy bass, and hot guitar licks. “Paradise” kicks things off on a slow note. The guitar riff rips into the track inviting listeners on this musical journey. The horns come in one by one to beef up the sound completing the bluesy vibe. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any hotter, Ziek McCarter’s passionate vocals hit you. After one verse you’re ready to fly with him to what he calls paradise. From there, everything is a party. “Liftoff” is the epitome of funky. As soon as the opening note plays, it gets you grooving. It’s so upbeat and energetic, you’re ready to party like it’s a Friday night. And you can’t help but smile as McCarter here sings “Because nothing here can hold our spirits down.”

Even though most of the songs are funky, “You Think This is a Game?” is a bit different. It still has that funky groove and bluesy mood, but McCarter has a spoken word style. The way he raps over the music makes it seem like he’s at a slam poetry contest. It’s a bit jarring, especially when all the music clashes at the end, but it’s an interesting sonic experiment. Aside from getting down and grooving to the beat, Con Brio’s music is uplifting. Many of their songs spout positive messages about loving yourself and loving each other, something that’s easy to forget during these times.

Free & Brave” offers a comment on society and the Black Lives Matter movement. The opening verse references the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Martin Luther King, making you think it’s going to be a negative outlook on the world. Instead, Con Brio uses the song to say people have to keep going despite these tragic events. The message of the entire song is though the world gets shitty, we’re still free and in control of our destiny. We still have to believe that things will get better. The band gets harder and heavier on “Hard Times.” This fusion of rock and funk has a message of sticking together and reaching out to one another to get through hard times. It’s a great reminder that we still need each other even when everything looks bleak. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to go through this alone.

Another song with an optimistic message and my personal favorite is “Money.” Not only is it upbeat, funky, and made for dancing, it’s about not letting money rule you. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in work and focusing on making money to live. With this song McCarter reminds us it’s not all about work; we need play time too. He also sings “When you’re stretched out, all stressed out/Knowin somethin ain’t right, and you’re left out/Can’t let that 9-5, put a seatbelt on my mind.” It’s a great message to those who aren’t satisfied with working any old job and want to follow their dreams for the career they really want. Money is necessary, but we don’t have to let it take us over as Con Brio reminds us.

When they’re not grooving or spouting good life messages, Con Brio are romancing listeners with their sexy slow jams. “My Love” is a soulful gem made for romantic nights. Though it’s a little too slow for my tastes, it’s a good song and doesn’t hold back on the funky music. The same goes for the mid-tempo “No Limits,” which is slinky and slick. Both songs do a great job showing off McCarter’s vocals. There’s no doubt he’ll bring up comparisons to Michael Jackson, but his voice is still powerful enough to give you chills. And when he busts out the falsetto, it’s enough to make you swoon. He has one of those voices where when he’s feeling a song, he goes all the way making you screaming “Sing it, baby!” “Honey” is another soft, mid-tempo jam where McCarter spreads the love. The acoustic guitar and McCarter’s gentles vocals make the song relaxing and soothing. Some lyrics like “You can be such a busy bee, but save a little honey for me/I can be such a busy bee, but I’ll save my honey for thee/We can both be the busy bee and save a lil honey while we,” are kind of cheesy, but they’re forgivable. It’s still a sweet, sentimental track.

If you need an album to kick up your feet and unwind to, then this is it. Every one of Con Brio’s songs are filled with positive messages about loving life, yourself, and not letting the small stuff get you down. The entire album is full of optimistic messages, which we all need every now and then. The music is fun, upbeat, and will keep you dancing. Something about their music is so infectious even if you’re not the biggest fan of funk and soul. With their passionate playing and Ziek McCarter’s seductive, soaring vocals the band stand out as one of a kind. Put on Paradise when you need a pick me up or just want to dance. Let the music wash over you and let Con Brio’s songs take you to your own version of paradise.

The Dream is Over – PUP

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 10/10

In 2014, PUP were a bunch of punks from Toronto who shook up the rock world with their well-received self-titled debut. Something about their destructive vibe, old school punk rock ethos, and raw nature made them memorable. They were on the path to a successful career until vocalist Stefan Babcock discovered a hemorrhaging cyst on his vocal chords. His doctor told him “the dream is over.” Now, the band are back with their second album, aptly named The Dream is Over. With so much praised heaped on their previous effort, it would be easy for them to cave under pressure and expectations. What did PUP do? They stood up to it and spat in its face.

The thing that makes PUP so good is their raw emotion and humorous lyrics. This is best demonstrated in the opening track “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will.” When a song starts with “If this tour doesn’t kill you/then I will/I hate your guts and/it makes me ill” you know you’re in for a good time. Though the song is about raging at someone you spend a lot of time with, it’s kind of playful with the upbeat, yet intense music and the funny lyrics. This one is raw punk all the way with the blazing guitars and hard energy as Stefan Babcock sings “makes me wanna gouge my eyes out with a power drill.” From there it speeds right into the next track “DVP.” Similar to their hit “Reservoir,” this one is non-stop chaos. The song races on almost leaving listeners in the dust. It’s another track that fits with their punk nature, especially since it references getting fucked up on three beers.

This chaotic vibe continues for the most of the album and each song is fucking killer. “Doubts” is a non-stop ride of aggressive, heavy music that sounds more at place in heavy metal. It’s another one of those songs that speeds past you in a blur, but you want more as soon as you hear it. “Old Wounds” follows the same suit where everything is so chaotic and crazy you don’t know what’s happening, but you love every second of it. It also has this great snotty vibe to it as Babcock sings “You wanna know if I’m still a prick?/Well I am!” Aside from aggression, there’s also a lot of self-deprecation happening in songs like “My Life is Over,” “Can’t Win,” and “Family Patterns.” These tracks could be the next slacker anthems as they talk about wasting your life away, never catching a break, and fucking up a relationship. Songs like these are so damn satisfying because PUP holds nothing back. They don’t want to take a breather and calm down. They’re mad as hell and you’re gonna hear all about it.

Though most of the album is in-your-face, abrasive punk rock, there are some slower, heartbreaking moments. “The Coast” is an eerie tale about people drowning in a lake as if seeking vengeance (kind of like that Supernatural episode). The music starts out with a more mellow pace and Babcock’s vocals are shaky as if wounded. Everything gets more intense later as he starts screaming and the guitars get heavier. It’s a bleak track, something the band returns to on “Sleep in the Heat.” The music here is a bit more upbeat and playful. It starts out kind of funny with light lyrics about getting high (“All I wanna do is get stoned”), but the song takes a turn for the worst after the second verse. Babcock talks about being fed up of blacking out along at home, so he brings someone home. It then becomes clear they’re sick and no matter what he does, he can’t save them in the end. It’s one of those moments you sit back and think holy shit. It’s possible he’s talking about a dog, since there’s a reference to going to the vet. It’s still nerve shaking either way.

But the song that sends shivers down your spin is the closing track “Pine Point.” Everything about this track is grim as hell. Right from the opening with the somber music, you picture the grey ominous opening to Twin Peaks. Babcock sounds broken as he sings about an older brother that got killed by a drunk driver. Whether or not this actually happened, it’s a tragic event to think about. The mood is similar to Nirvana’s cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” It’s haunting and sounds like there’s no hope left for those in the desolate Pine Point. This is a highlight on an already stellar album. It shows a different side to PUP. They’re not just a bunch of raucous punks that only know how to play fast and loud. They know how to craft thought provoking songs that expands genres.

This is an album that deserves to be played loud and all the way through. Not only do they keep the crazy, wild punk rock that made their debut so fierce, somehow this effort is tighter and fine-tuned, yet doesn’t lose any of its rawness. There’s not a single low point on the entire album and during an age where digital singles are king, that’s pretty impressive. The record is also varied with slow, somber songs to shake things up ensuring listeners don’t get burnt out on the intense punk rock ride. With the improved music and songwriting, PUP have grown as a band. They still seem like those guys who aren’t afraid of being honest no matter how much it may hurt, but they’ve managed to top their stellar debut. It will probably be one of the best albums of 2016 with its raw honesty, intense drive, and brutal nature. Bravo, PUP.

Best Album of 2015

Pleasure to Meet You – Dead Sara

Picking Album of the Year came as a challenge this year. I heard a lot of good stuff, but a lot of it didn’t strike me as the best thing I heard during 2015. I finally narrowed it down between this one and Refused’s Freedom, which is a stellar album. But I had to give it Dead Sara’s second LP.

The band cranked everything up for their second outing making it harder, faster, and better than before. Not only did they keep their garage rock roots in check, they also tossed in some pop, soul, and blues to shake things up. Revisiting the album left me floored by how amazing all the songs are. It also reminded what an insanely good singer Emily Armstrong is. I fell in love with it when I first saw the band live in 2013, but her vocals are even stronger now. Something about her raspy voice have such a power behind them. She can go soft and downright heartbreaking on tracks like “For You I Am” and fucking rough and howling on songs “Lovesick” and “Blue Was Beautiful You.”

The songs themselves range from kick ass to leaving you in tears. So many of them are upbeat and energetic they’ll get you jumping up and down even if no one else is around. I honestly forgot how many of the tracks I loved that just punched you straight in the gut. And the closing track is a powerhouse as I mentioned before. It sounds like Armstrong is taking you to church; she sounds near tears by the end and it’ll leave you stunned when the final note rings out.

Most bands struggle with their sophomore releases due to expectations. Do they stay the same or change and risk losing their audience? Dead Sara found a comfortable balance between the two. This is everything a good second album should be. It takes all the things that made the first album great and makes them better. It also doesn’t abandon their hard rock sound, but rather expand upon it ensuring the songs never sound too familiar. Not only does this make it the most exciting, hard rocking, kick ass album I heard this year, it’s also underrated. It got pretty good reviews, but not enough people paid attention to this album.

I heard a lot of good new music this year, but nothing else shook me, excited me, and struck a chord with me like this album. They stayed true to their sound, yet tweaked just enough to make sure the album never grew dull or familiar. It’s better than their debut in every way and makes me excited to hear what they do next.