Tag Archives: Music Reviews

A Brief Look at 2020 in Music (or a Quarantine in Music)

Like every facet of life, 2020 also made music a little strange. Primarily, this came at the expense of observing live music. Virtually every concert or tour that had been planned was cancelled, so many active musicians were suddenly faced with inactivity (like the rest of us). Though, isolation can also conjure a variety of new emotions and ideas. With a little extra time on their hands, it was also the perfect time for artists to create something that was a little different from their norms; something that was bold and adventurous or even something just for fun. So in this piece, I’d like to point out a handful of releases that were a result of the quarantine lifestyle, to praise their work ethic and creativity in an unusually hard year. Some of these will be available to check out through our system, though like many operations around the world, our catalog of 2020 music is yet to be complete, so I’ll also include a couple blurbs about some interesting music that hasn’t yet hit our shelves.

Free Love by Sylvan Esso

Sylvan Esso has been on the scene since 2013 and this marks their 3rd full length album. I’ve always admired this band for their harmonious chemistry, effortlessly producing their best art. This is a duo, consisting of Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath. They’ve made successful music elsewhere, but what is exciting about their ventures together is that they come from very different musical backgrounds. Nick Sanborn has been making music for a long time, namely in Indie Rock bands like Decibully, Headlights, and Collection of Colonies of Bees. Nick also has made Dance/Electronic/IDM music under Made of Oak, which has his most bold efforts as a solo musician. Amelia Meath, on the other hand, is recognizable in a group called Mountain Man, which specializes in Appalachian Folk tunes! Much of their style is very traditional, focusing on vocal harmonies and old standards found in Country and Bluegrass.

So what happens when these two forces collide? Well, this isn’t noodly Indie Rock… this isn’t the purist Electronic… and this definitely is not Appalachian Folk. Instead, these are very dancy, yet minimal Indie Pop tunes with Sanborn bringing a wide variety of production and Meath bringing honest and heartfelt expression through unabashed vocal delivery and story telling; likely a skill that is learned in the Folk and Country traditions. Very colorful, fashionable, and striking electro that will produce robotic dance movements and a couple tears. I find a lot of this comparable to something like Tune-Yards, St. Vincent, Phantogram, Glass Animals, MGMT, etc… but their chemistry provides something that is unique to the genre, something that puts emotion on the forefront instead of just fancy production tricks. That chemistry is surely the reason they married half way through their career, but this is one married couple that knows how to channel their love into their music as well as their relationship.

This newest album is reminiscent of and cohesive with their image, but I kept getting glimpses of plinkerpop listening to this new one. That isn’t an incredibly blossoming term, but it describes electronic and plunderphonic music that sounds tiny! A lot of efforts have exhibited this sound: The Notwist, Lali Puna, Pram, Múm, I Am Robot and Proud, etc. Sylvan Esso has yet to make a bad record, and this new one is on par with the others! Check out the track Ring for a particularly lovely attempt from this album.

The extra time lent this band to revisit an idea that they had from 2019. They assembled a tour that year that translated their sound to a full orchestra setting, bringing along multiple musicians to create these digital ideas in acoustic ways. That album was also released in 2020 called WITH, but they did another orchestral rendition of Free Love at the very end of 2020 called WITH LOVE. Both are pretty amazing.

Folklore by Taylor Swift

Oh …. really? More Taylor Swift commentary? Doesn’t Noah talk about anything else?

Listen, I know most of my publications have included commentary about Taylor Swift, but this one fits the bill! Taylor Swift completely blindsided the world with this release and perfectly encapsulates the time that quarantine gave us. Taylor made her debut in Pop Country, dropped the Country eventually and became a Pop icon, but this one marks a third era. This album does not have any club bangers, any bubblegum bass, or any fierce attitude. This album is thoughtful, slow, sad at times, and really… not even Pop at all. This is… Folk… Orchestral… Singer-Songwriter… It’s romantic, airy, melancholic. But, somehow, it’s all still Taylor. Even with such a substantial change in sound, the song writing and vocal delivery still sounds like her. It doesn’t sound like she is emulating much conventions either. This Indie Folk trend is prevalent in a lot artists over the past ten years, but Taylor makes it her own!

Like her previous efforts, she does surround herself with other well known musicians to help write, produce, and generally direct the moods of the music. This time she adds Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Glimpses of The National and Bon Iver are present here, with the dark, majestic, and morose sounds they are both known for. But it is so surprising that Taylor was able to use their help to make a drastically different sound from what Taylor is known for but… somehow… it created one of Taylor’s best records. The Last Great American Dynasty was my favorite track.

You know what’s even crazier? This album was released in July of 2020, but she releases ANOTHER album in December, Evermore. Another Folky interpretation of Taylor’s identity. There is a part of me that wants to scoff at incredibly popular musicians continuing to gentrify the Folk stratosphere but… darn it… She’s pretty good at it.

[Editor’s note: Folklore won a Grammy last night and also broke a new record. For more info, click here.]

How I’m Feeling Now by Charli XCX

Charli XCX has had a whirlwind of a career. For years, I saw Charli only in the recesses of whatever Pop convention was trendy for that season. She seemed like an artist who, to be frank, was lucky enough to become visible but really didn’t have an image or identity to capitalize on. For instance, most people that had an eye on commercial music around 2012/2013 probably recall Icona Pop’s I Love It, because it was everywhere. Retail commercials, video games, blockbuster movies, and likely over the intercom of Speedway while pumping your gas. Well, Charli helped write it. But songs like that are so fleeting and estranged from the identity of the artist, that they usually go down as “that one song” instead of an addition to a discography. That was Charli’s identity for years, from my perspective. She pops up in the credits of Iggy Azalea songs, Selena Gomez songs, and a handful of others. Generally, I skipped over these.

She had put out a couple of underwhelming Pop albums in the early 2010’s, but eventually ran into the PC Music crowd and found a relationship that would become a home. PC Music is a label; a collective; an ever morphing ideology. A large handful of young English electronic producers spearheaded a new wave in production that focuses on experimentation and sound palettes that come across as a rare alien language. In recent years, the term hyperpop has been coined and that is arguably entirely credited to the music that PC Music had pumped out in the mid 2010’s. 100 Gecs and Dorian Electra are on that front as well, and it seems that all of these musicians are friendly and inspirational with each other. Anymore, many of the PC Music musicians have found their own homes to grow their identity, but “PC Music” and “hyperpop” has remained the nomenclature for this brand new sound in electronica. Sophie is one of the leaders in that sound, and she is the one that produced Charli’s 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, a record that shifts Charli’s sound for the better. Charli cultivates these new relationships over the next few years and releases one of 2019’s best electronic album’s Charli, an ambitious effort that is polished and complex.

Then quarantine came. And Charli decided to make a more DIY effort while in isolation, mainly using tools that were accessible in her home. A.G. Cook, another PC Music veteran, was there for much of the production, bringing in the hyperpop flavor. The end result is magical. It’s raw, it’s fun, it’s lo-fi, and really expresses the idle, listless, and confused quarantine emotions. A lot of the lyrical content focuses around living with her partner and the roller-coaster that the relationship had to offer while in isolation. Thus, the emotions here are palpable and cathartic. Yet, it’s so anthemic! Every part of this album is catchy, the slow and sad parts as well as the hyped up dance tracks. It has the same satisfaction as a “breakup” album or ballad’s reminiscent of the 80’s, but the production is throttling. One moment it sounds like music to shop to, and the next moment sounds like the blistering chaos of Aphex Twin. But it’s the honesty that really sells this album. This is a an unfiltered look at the mind of Charli, and her genius is really showing. Claws is my most listened song of 2020, and this is my favorite album from 2020

I have to take a moment to remember Sophie, who tragically passed away a few weeks ago in an accident. Her presence as a leader in new electronic music was monumental, and it seemed as if her career had only begun. Here is a link to her 2018 album, a tour de force. R.I.P <3

Honorable Mentions from The Internet

As I mentioned, our catalog is always growing, but there were a few favorites I found from 2020 that we don’t yet offer. So I’ll blitz through some, bullet point style!

  • Atlas Vending by METZ – Canadian 3 piece making Noisy, Hardcore, Post-Punk. Exhilarating stuff, good for punching holes in walls and driving fast. There is a band making similar sounds that has gotten a lot of exposure recently, Idles. Honestly, I like the METZ interpretation a little more.
  • Spirituality and Distortion by Igorrr – While there are moments in Igorrr’s catalog that I adore, there are other moments that come across as if he bit off more than he could chew, but with such an ambitious sound, I usually give it a pass and just observe the absolute insanity and creativity that he has to offer. Blending an affection for lightning speed Breakcore, avant-garde and extreme Metal, and Classical Music/Opera (yes, Opera), this is music you can’t find anywhere else. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but a quick peek will certainly intrigue.
  • Beneath by Infant Island – There were a handful of Punk and Hardcore releases, but Infant Island came through as some of my favorite. Their blend of Screamo and Black-Metal is really spot on, especially when those combinations were kind of overplayed after Deafheaven released Sunbather in 2013. This newer band is bringing some vitality in these genres.
  • Forever In Your Heart by Black Dresses – This was released just a few weeks ago, but written and produced through 2020, and I love it so much that I have to bend the rules to include it. Devi and Ada come back after a brief yet tumultuous break-up to make one of their most effective albums yet. Industrial influenced Heavy Metal that can still be called Pop and Electronica. This thing is FIERCE, SEXY, NOISY and absolutely amazing. They make music individually too, check those projects out. For fans of 100 Gecs, Poppy, Grimes, and OTEP.

— Reviewed by Noah, Bon Air

Lover by Taylor Swift

Ladies and gentlemen…Taylor Swift. At 29 years old, Ms. Swift has just dropped her seventh full length album.

Taylor has been in the game a long time. She was signed with a subsidiary of RCA Records at the age of 14, and then switched record labels when she met Scott Borchetta, who was more confident in her marketability, starting the long relationship between Taylor Swift and Big Machine Records. Taylor hits the ground running with her first record in 2006, and over the course of six albums, becomes one of the most recognized and successful household names in all of American Pop and Country music. In 2019, Forbes recognizes Taylor Swift as the #1 highest paid celebrity, beating Kanye West, Cristiano Ronaldo, The Eagles, and Dr. Phil.

I’ve generally always been a fan of Swift, and it wasn’t until her 2017 album Reputation that made me question the legitimacy in her efforts. The singles — End Game, Look What You Made Me Do, and …Ready For It? — were uninspired and boring. The sounds seemed disingenuous, borrowing from any other radio hit from 2016-2017. The lyrics were obnoxious, shooing away haters or romancing over some handsome fellow – an approach she was known for, sure, but this time with an artificial and glaring chip on her shoulder. Taylor pushed a narrative that she is misunderstood and a force to be reckoned with, fabricating a dangerous or dark side of her image with a flat and unoriginal sound.

Coming from one of the most successful musicians in our time, this comes off as annoying and lazy. I hate to judge a book by its cover, but the album artwork is very telling. I’m sorry, but that haircut and outfit just isn’t working, and the newspaper font is cheap and cheesy.

I had hopped off the T Swift train, only to reminisce over hits like Picture To Burn, Mean, and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. I was only mildly interested in the new album until news broke that she had left Big Machine Records for Republic Records. Apparently, some guy named Scooter Braun purchased Big Machine Records, transferring the rights of ALL of Taylor’s music overnight. Taylor accuses Scooter of bullying her in the past and thinks that Scooter purchased her catalog to continue to bully her. Taylor made a blog post about this but still no longer has ownership of her old music while Scooter holds it hostage. At Republic Records, she entered a new contract that grants her full ownership of her new music, so I was excited to see how this unfortunate and complex event would influence her new album.

The album art and title are already an improvement from her 2017 efforts. With a well-suited hairstyle, playful makeup, and dreamy backdrop, she invites us in for a very colorful experience. With a title like Lover, her heart seems to be in the right place… at least a little less preoccupied with the haters. She dropped four singles leading up to the release on August 23, 2019: Me!, You Need To Calm Down, The Archer, and Lover. Taylor brings a bold attitude to some of these tracks while leaving much to be desired on others. She continues this trend for the entirety of the album, creating an inconsistent product.

At 18 tracks and nearly 62 minutes of run time, the amount of fluff makes for a long-winded event. If the album was the best 10 tracks of the list, I’d call her a comeback queen. With both production and writing credits, nearly every inch of this record is with the help of Jack Antonoff, a member of fun. and Bleachers. If those names don’t ring a bell, I’m sure the song We Are Young will, a chart-topper from 2011-2012 (one that seemed to mark a critical shift in Pop songwriting). With that immense success, Jack has gone on to help the likes of Lorde, Lana Del Ray, Carly Rae Jepsen, and more.

The record starts off very strong with I Forgot That You Existed, with an expressive vocal performance and an effectively minimal, funky, and blissful production. The next track, Cruel Summer, features Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, as a co-writer, and Annie’s innovative mind adds a lot to Taylor’s intuition. These cuts along with Paper Rings, I Think He Knows, Death by a Thousand Cuts, Soon You’ll Get Better, Lover, and Me! have quite a bit to offer.

Some are playful and tightly constructed, while others exhibit an honest and emotional Taylor. Me! tows the line between self-empowerment and self-obsession, but the confidence is refreshing and crystal-clear. She even brings in The Dixie Chicks for Soon You’ll Get Better for a real tear-jerker, letting more Country roots and honesty come through on Lover.

Cuts like The Man, Cornelia Street, False God, and Afterglow are lacking life. Much like her previous album, there is an abundance of unfounded drama and imitation in these tracks, reproducing conventions found in her contemporaries or trendy 80’s synth. You Need To Calm Down is still obsessed with the haters, and The Archer is out of place, forgettable, and lacks compelling lyrics.

Combined with predictable structures, these songs cannot escape their fate of sounding like a Target commercial or the playlist you might hear shopping at Forever 21. This album was released with FOUR DIFFERENT DELUXE EDITIONS, each with their own set of diary entries and photographs, and they were EVEN SPONSORED THROUGH TARGET. With that in mind, this album can sound like a Target commercial at times because…well…it is a Target commercial.

All in all, I’m happy that Taylor is back in the game. With this new record deal with optimistic implications, I’m excited to see what the future will bring. Perhaps this record is a stepping stone to an even brighter magnum opus in another couple of years. It takes time to come off a stressful event like the one spearheaded by Mr. Scooter, and this is an honorable next step as a more independent artist. Taylor Swift puts a little more shine in her swagger as the most successful artist this year with a well deserved seventh album.

Here is a link LFPL’s copy of the new CD, if you wish to put a reserve on it and have a listen for yourself.

Paramore: A Music Career in Review

“What motivates me is seeing people in the crowd and wondering what they’re going home to and what they’re dealing with, and knowing that for the time being we’re their escape.” – Hayley Williams, lead singer

Where I first heard Paramore is where most fans probably heard about them. In the summer of 2007, they released their single “Misery Business,” and in a moment where Rock and Pop Punk were still viable means of making a true radio hit, it ended up taking the charts by storm, seeing significant exposure across North America and Europe.

“Misery Business,” from their second studio album, Riot!, provided an exciting flavor that was unique in the Pop Punk crowd, and though I was OBSESSED with this song, I wasn’t yet engulfed in the full range of Pop Punk aesthetic and didn’t seek out much of the genre. It wasn’t until early 2018 when I saw a copy of Riot! at a local used music shop for 1 dollar, where I couldn’t resist but to give Paramore a worthwhile try. As much as I was waiting to hear “Misery Business” in it’s full context, the rest of the album blew me away, showcasing even more ambition and talent than their single lead me to believe.

I became fascinated and immediately yearned for their remaining 4 studio albums, spanning between 2005 and 2017. In their 12 years of production, they put out an impressive amount of talent in their diverse discography, and the chemistry and attitude this band creates has sky-rocketed them into a top 5 slot for my personal “best bands EVER”.

I should add here, that due to the band maturing since 2007, they have recently announced that they would like to stop performing “Misery Business”, as it contains anti-feminist sentiments, and Hayley & Co. would like to distance themselves from their fickle, teenage attitudes. I applaud these folks for realigning their ethics after becoming developed adults, and in the grand scheme of their career, “Misery Business” only rocks half as hard as much of their music. All of their albums can be found through LFPL and I encourage everyone to listen.

All We Know Is Falling

Released in 2005 on Fueled By Ramen records, a label known for a lot of Emo and Pop Punk production.

Before we even start, let it be known that Hayley Williams was 16 years old at the time of this release. 16 YEARS OLD?! What were you doing at 16 years old? I had started my first Rock band, but in no way were we putting out records on a label that already supported kingpins of Pop Punk, such as Jimmy Eat World, Yellowcard, and Less Than Jake.

I love the simplistic approach on this album, with instrumentals that allow Hayley to showcase her adolescent story through an impressive vocal performance. This original Emo sound with its humble, vulnerable, and sharp songwriting created what some call a “scene classic”, providing a beautiful and thoughtful texture to the 2005 “scene” culture that was somewhere between the heavier likes of Hawthorne Heights and the exuberant approach brought by Motion City Soundtrack. Some call these songs tame but there is a soft spot in my heart for these teenaged, angsty lyrics and its moody production.

If you don’t know what the heck “scene” culture is, check out this Wikipedia article. Also, here is a music video from this album: Emergency. (please take note of the excessive eyeliner and swooped bangs).

Riot!

Their most popular album! Released in 2007 on Fueled By Ramen records

The opening track, “For a Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic,” will have you bouncing off the walls with their energetic and progressive songwriting, and a chorus that will have you screaming. Tracks like “When It Rains” will casually melt your heart with its sense of longing and reverbed guitar tones. This may seem unfounded but I think their hometown of Franklin, Tennessee, plays into this track, giving off similar vibes to the softer moments on a Dixie Chicks or early Taylor Swift record. That seems silly in this context but these musicians are versatile, owning every approach they take. Nestle this soothing sound against some powerful, electrifying, and confident Punk Rock, and you have a beautifully constructed album that is iconic for its era.

This album deserves the fame and acclaim, not just for the killer tracks, but for the confidence in their image and talent. Just look at these guys. They had the look and the chops to back it up, having a lot of fun along the way. Check out this music video from the album that exhibits some complex rhythms, swapping between 3/4, 6/4, and standard time, while adding a sweet spin to a sound that is reminiscent of 90’s Screamo/Post-Hardcore: That’s What You Get.

Brand New Eyes

My personal favorite. A pristine magnum opus. Released in 2009 on Fueled By Ramen Records

With two albums under their belt, Paramore carefully built stamina, honed their craft and created a record that is full of home-runs. They still bring their youthful energy to the table, but with tighter performances, crystal-clear and punchy production, and a mature sense of self that was cultivated through their success up until this point.

While their first album was somber in its loneliness and their second album was fierce with questioning and rebellion, the narratives here are more complex, exploring themes of independence, encouraging the listener to put their self-worth above any social or personal road-blocks. Hayley Williams’ sense of pride on Brand New Eyes creates a triumphant role-model, instilling inspiration and fearlessness in the listener. Considering this was released in 2009, this record helped pave a way for feminism in both mainstream and indie music of this nature. Cultural significance aside, this is my favorite to listen to, over and over again. If you have 15 minutes to spare, tracks 7 – 9 are a perfect triad. It brings me so much joy.

At this same time, Paramore was commissioned to write a song for the first Twilight movie, ushering in a Grammy nomination and more mainstream exposure. They were on top of the world. This album has many music videos, but here is one of my favorites: Playing God.

Paramore

Released in 2013 on Fueled By Ramen Records.

After the release of Brand New Eyes, there were creative differences in the band, leading to the departure of both guitarist Josh Farro and drummer Zac Farro. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Williams stated that a couple of those years were “emotionally exhausting” and she felt a need to reaffirm themselves in a new chapter, hence the self-titled approach.

They recruited the drummer from Nine Inch Nails and Angels & Airwaves to perform, but despite his veteran talent I find this album to be the most under-baked in their catalog. They introduce some new influences, with more Pop, Dance, and Electronic sensibilities, that adds fun and anthemic sounds to the record, but it seems that their direction was unsure. Their influences seem to be emulated instead of adopted, misplacing their sense of identity. At times, I feel like I’m listening to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Le Tigre, or Blondie instead of Paramore.

This album is still fun to listen to, as Williams rocks the house with some ambitious vocal performances. In context of the mainstream rock of this time, I’d still listen to this over Imagine Dragons, Muse, and Cage The Elephant. The single “Ain’t It Fun” won a Grammy that year, and that song rules, but I might try their other records first. Here is the playful video: Ain’t It Fun.

After Laughter

Back at it again, with a new sense of style. Released 2017 on Fueled By Ramen records.

As you could probably tell from the cover art, Paramore went through some soul searching in preparation for this record. Zac Farro had made up with the band and is back on drums and Hayley Williams battled a divorce in the midst of this songwriting. These reality checks combined with a new appreciation for stylized, refined, and mature songwriting lit a fire in these musicians, eager to prove themselves.

They turn a stark 180° for this release, being influenced by 80’s Electro-Pop, Art Rock, and Dance, reminiscent of Talking Heads, Paul Simon, and Janet Jackson. This sounds strange for a band who started their career in Emo, but these efforts are so genuinely indicative of Paramore’s heart and soul, that every ounce of their talent shines through in these stunning performances. After a bumpy road filled with personal journeys, Paramore reclaims its identity with emotional songs about redefining self-worth and love, with a zen acceptance that the world doesn’t always turn the way you thought it would. With textured and tasteful soundscapes, Paramore sports a gorgeous smile on their face with this delicious breath of fresh air.

As this is their most recent album, their official website is still advertising it if you want some cool merchandise. Here is a video to Rose-Colored Boy with a heart-warming skit and a sense of humor.

Finally, here is a link to LFPL’s catalog for all things related to Paramore. Feel free to put any of these items on hold so we can ship them to the most convenient branch for you.

— Reviewed by Noah, Bon Air