2016 music

Not the Actual Events EP – Nine Inch Nails

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 7/10

When Trent Reznor announced last year that we would indeed get new Nine Inch Nails music, I was ecstatic. Throughout the year, Reznor shot down any rumors of new NIN material. After months of speculation, he finally gave us new music. It’s not a new album, but it’s a taste of what’s to come. But rather than being a release that displays his best work, it’s more like something to shut up NIN fans and let Reznor work in peace.

Though trying not to make comparisons, the opening track “Branches/Bones” sounds like a leftover from Hesitation Marks. It’s brief, but the upbeat rock oriented music is similar to material from Reznor’s previous album. It kicks off the EP with a rush of energy thanks to the non-stop guitar riff that plows through the song. The music is loud and jarring sounding like it’s being played through blown out speakers. The track is decent at best, but it’s not that notable. At least it’s decent at kicking off the EP.

All the songs are solid, but very few of them stay with you afterward. “She’s Gone Away” and “The Idea of You” are good, but don’t grab you by the throat and pummel you like other NIN tracks. The only song that stands out is the eerie “Dear World.” Whether it’s the synth groove or the creepy opening vocals with Reznor singing “Yes, everyone seems to be asleep” this was the only song I actually remembered from the EP. The song has dark undertones as if something horrible is about to happen. Reznor’s monotone manner and the cold, robotic music makes it seem like something from an 80s dystopian film. There’s also a hypnotic air to it. The way Reznor speaks quietly seems like he’s trying to put you under a spell. It’s one of the coolest and unnerving tracks on the EP.

One thing the EP excels at is creating this dark, claustrophobic feeling. Songs like “She’s Gone Away” and “The Idea of You” have gritty music that puts you on edge. The former has a slow droning drumbeat as if ushering in some unforeseeable doom. And the way Reznor’s wails after the chorus gives it a haunting atmosphere. Everything in the song sounds so foreboding. The latter song has quiet vocals as if Reznor’s on the verge of breaking. Then chaos unleashes during the chorus when everything clashes together for a destructive mood.

The closing track “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)” continues the musical trend of impending doom. With the booming, fuzzy music it sounds like the end of days is coming. Just like with the rest of the EP, the music is the high point of the song. It instantly draws you in. The singing and the lyrics are where things get weird. The chorus of “break through the surface and” is fine on its own, but for the verses, Reznor does this weird spoken word style. Instead of being smooth, it sounds like a random rant. His flow goes against the music making it disjointed and off-putting. Near the end, the music and singing clash together creating a jarring wall of noise. It’s another solid song but doesn’t really hit that sweet spot for NIN fans.

Reznor’s always been a master of electronic music and it’s no different on this release. Each track has gripping music and is a mix of cool grooves with cold, metallic sounding electronic soundscapes. It’s the highlight of the EP. The same can’t be said for the lyrics which are forgettable. In his time, Reznor has crafted some of the most anguished filled, aching, and heartbreaking songs. Little of that is on display here. The lyrics seem meaningless and difficult to pinpoint what he’s trying to get across. Lines like “Still can make out pieces with the opening sewed shut/Yeah, parts of me are slowing down, time is speeding up/Spiders crawling everywhere, infected Japanese” (“Branches/Bones”) come off as forced. As if he’s trying too hard to be poignant and unnerving. They’re not as engaging or thoughtful as they are on past NIN releases. Hell, even the lyrics on Hesitation Marks are better. This makes it seem like Reznor rushed out this release to stop fans from asking about new NIN music.

The EP is solid, but does it really jump out at you? No. The songs don’t punch you in the gut like we expect from NIN. If anything, they’re fairly decent rock songs with some electronic elements. The EP isn’t terrible, but it’s far from Reznor’s best. There are bits and pieces of past NIN releases in the song, like elements of The Fragile, but few of them leave an impression. You’ll find yourself struggling to remember most of the songs after listening to it a few times. Very little about it is notable and there’s little to say about it. The strongest point is the music, but the lyrics fail to be engaging. For fans longing for a NIN release, this isn’t going to satisfy them for long. Still, it does make me excited for what NIN has in store for us. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long for more new music.

Notable Releases of 2016

2016 may not have been music’s finest year, but there were a lot of good albums I played on repeat. While not all of them were notable or amazing, there were plenty that stood out for different reasons. So here are my picks for other notable releases for 2016.

Album that Caught me Off Guard:

Electric Warlock Acid Witch – Rob Zombie

When I heard Rob Zombie was dropping a new album, I reacted with a “meh.” Seeing as I didn’t care for his last few albums, I had low expectations for this one. Educated Horses was a big disappointment, Hellbilly Deluxe 2 is bearable, yet forgettable, and Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor is hardly worth remembering. My disdain for the new album grew when I saw the lengthy album title and tracklist featuring songs like “Everybody’s Fucking in a UFO.” But when listening to it a revelation dawned on me: this is fucking great! This album is Rob Zombie getting back to basics: weird songs, tons of samples, and rocking the fuck out. There are some misses on the record, like the sludgy “WURDALAK,” but it’s a rousing ride from start to finish. Zombie keeps it short and simple as he pumps out bangers like “Get High,” “Get Your Boots On,” and “Teenage Rock God.” Some of the songs are reminiscent of his past stuff, but it still gets your heart racing and head banging. Even the songs that are just okay are still gripping instead of boring filler like on his last records. Listening to it again I couldn’t help throwing devil horns in the air even though I was by myself on the couch. It’s loud, aggressive, weird, freaky, groovy, and kick ass, everything a Rob Zombie album should be. It’s a proper return to his aggressive roots, which he seemed to move away from in later years. And best of all, the album is fun as hell. It reignited my faith that Rob Zombie can still make killer music. Can’t say the same about his movies, though.

Underrated Album of 2016:

Alas Salvation – Yak

Once I heard Yak’s brand of chaotic, psychedelic rock on their 2016 debut, I knew it would be one of my favorite albums of the year. They almost went under my radar, but I barely caught them thanks to an assignment for another music site. What instantly grabbed me was their energetic, destructive vibe. Listening to songs like “Victorious” and “Harbor the Feeling” makes you picture them breaking everything in the room while they’re playing. It felt like I was hearing chaos incarnate when listening to the album. Half the time it’s unbridled noise and audio insanity, but I loved every minute. To keep the album from getting repetitive or dull, Yak plays with different sounds, like the psychedelic tinged “Use Somebody” or the Spaghetti Western isolation of “Smile.” Tracks like these made for an unpredictable, exciting ride. If there was one album that got me the most excited and left the biggest impression on me, this was it. I can’t wait to hear what else the band has in store for us in the future.

Album I Tried to Like But Couldn’t:

I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are so Beautiful yet So Unaware of It – The 1975

Get out the pitchforks right now. Yes, for some reason, I couldn’t get into this album. I was intrigued by The 1975 when I saw them perform “The Sound” on The Tonight Show. Since they’ve received mass praise from practically every outlet, I decided to check them out. While I liked songs like “Love Me” and “A Change of Heart,” the rest did nothing for me. It seems I like the 80’s, danceable side to the band, not the slow, drawn out, ballads that permeated the second half of the record. I listened to it several times, but came away with the same feeling; it’s long and too slow for my tastes. It just didn’t grab me like I hoped it would. This doesn’t mean I think The 1975 are a bad band or that the album sucks. It just wasn’t for me and I still don’t get what all the hype’s about.

Album of the Year Runner Up:

The Dream is Over – PUP

It was really hard picking album of the year and it came down to PUP’s second album and what I ultimately picked. PUP’s self-titled debut kicked ass. It showed off their punk nature and chaotic drive, but also showed the band can do more than just scream and be loud. They pushed that to the breaking point with their sophomore effort. With such praise heaped on their first album, it would’ve been easy for them to cave under pressure and release something that was tolerable. For this album, they somehow managed to top themselves. Everything about felt rawer, fiercer, and even more emotional in some places. I love how songs like “DVP” and “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You (I Will)” are pure destruction and aggression. Yet, songs like “Pine Point” and “Sleep in the Heat” both haunting and gut wrenching. It’s easy for a punk band to be loud and brash, but few of them can get out of their comfort zone and make emotional songs that still kick major ass. So much passion, drive, and heartache comes out of this album, it’s hard to take in all at once. It’s an excellent follow-up proving the band didn’t get lucky the first time around.

Well, 2016 is finally over. Let’s hope more awesome music in 2017. What albums are you looking forward to? Let me know in the comments!

2016 Album that Left Me Conflicted

California – Blink-182

It’s been painful following the Blink-182 debacle. With Tom leaving the band, but not really leaving the band, according to him anyway, it seemed like it was the end. They tried reforming and it clearly didn’t work. Story over, right? Instead, they recruit Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba and drop a new album. And if you thought the Untitled album divided the fanbase, this record destroyed it. Go to any forum or comments section and thoughts range from “This is the best they’ve done in years” to “They’re fucking garbage now!” It feels impossible having a discussion about the album without having the Tom vs Matt argument.

My expectations were pretty low after I heard the first single, but I was still pretty happy to hear new music from them, especially since I didn’t think it was happening. Once I got the album, I could only stomach hearing the entire record about three times. I don’t hate it; there are actually some songs that impressed me. I love the big booming verse of “Los Angeles” and “Cynical” might be the best song on the album. Still, California is nowhere near their best. And don’t get me started about their Grammy nominee. Even though I knew I didn’t really care for the album, I still felt confused about the whole situation.

I’m in the Blink-isn’t-Blink-without-Tom camp. The instant rebuttal for this is how Blink faltered when he was in the band. Personally, I thought Neighborhoods was pretty good and the Dogs Eating Dogs EP made me think even better music was in store. Yes, I do think Tom is a dick for leading on fans when he really didn’t want to be in Blink anymore. But Tom brought a certain sound to Blink that’s missing on California. When I listen to that album, it doesn’t sound like I’m listening to Blink-182. It sounds like I’m listening to some other generic “pop-punk” band. Blink-182 have never been the best pop-punk band around, but they had a style and vibe that was all their own. I hear none of that on their latest album. It might as well be +44’s follow up and even that album is better than California. And it’s funny how many people think Matt is better when half the time it sounds like he’s doing an impression of Tom.

At the same time, I agree with people who say Blink have the right to move on if one member doesn’t want to play anymore. Yes, they certainly do, just like Tom has the right to do other projects. Still, it’s not the same to me. And that’s fine. It still feels weird to see pictures of them or hear their name and see Matt instead of Tom. I’m sure it’s one of those things I’ll get used to, but they might’ve been better off releasing the album under a different name. There are certain expectations that come with the Blink-182 name and for me, California didn’t hit them at all. Maybe things will get better for Blink once Matt’s been in the band for a while and the shock of not seeing Tom washes away. But it will never be the same for me and that’s something I can accept.

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.

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.