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Album Review: Red Velvet's 'Perfect Velvet' Is The Best K-Pop Album of 2017
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The Definitive Track-by-Track Ranking of Taylor Swift's 'reputation' Nobody Asked For
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Niall Horan Shows Us A Different Side Of Him In 'Flicker'
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2017 has been a draining slow burn of a year. There was virtually no moment when looking at the news didn't make for a depressing experience.

At the same time, it solidified the role of music as a refuge more than ever.

We've browsed through the pool of releases in pop, R&B, rock and hip-hop, to put together a list of the best albums of the year. Here's some music for some rough times.

 

10. Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory

Branded as 'Afro-futurism' by the 24-year-old rapper, Big Fish Theory's vision extends past the trends of the today, into the sounds of tomorrow- glacial, metallic beats seemingly fed through a wormhole from a dystopian future. Lethargy pervades his lyrics and delivery, occasionally sinking him beneath the cacophony of it all, as the bass grinds on like the machinery of circumstance. However, when his simmering anger finally emerges, he wields the relentless sonics like a weapon on tracks such as BagBak- delivering results that are raw and cutting.

 

9. Alex Cameron - Forced Witness

Glistening synthpop coupled with lyrics detailing douchebaggery of the lowest kind makes for an unsettling listening experience- while you find yourself grooving to the hook-laden music, it feels strange to do so over such misogynistic ramblings of a disempowered but delusional man (not going to quote the lyrics here, for the sake of decency, but feel free to look them up). Alex Cameron effectively highlights the ugly ridiculousness of his alter-ego’s worldview through contrastingly bright production and self-aware jabs, serving one of the more interesting releases of 2017. Also, Studmuffin96 for song title of the year.

 

8. Red Velvet - Perfect Velvet

Stylized with sticky hooks and harmonies more exquisite than anything on Western radio, while recalling a kaleidoscopic sea of influences ranging from warped future bass to throwback disco, Perfect Velvet showcases refined pop songcraft that is captivating and experimental. It’s releases like this that continue to position Red Velvet on the forefront of one of the more rewardingly daring pop music scenes out there. Our full review here.   

 

7. Paramore - After Laughter

Sadness feels truer when it is situated in the backdrop of taxing attempts to appear happy. Paramore, recalling their tumultuous history, present an evolved 80s-inspired sound that embodies this very feeling- arpeggiated guitar lines, animated synths, and their cleverest lyrics to date conjure color and mania in passionate bursts. Hayley Williams further evokes a sense of volatility through her performance- sharp inflections, spoken outbursts and varied vocal rhythms. Devastating and infectious, in equal parts. Our full review here.

 

6. The Shins - Heartworms

As our writer Donwei notes- “The Shins are always a good fall-back whenever you're in need of a dose of indie music. Having consistently put out solid albums throughout their career, Heartworms is no exception. With gems scattered across the album, the band (thankfully) retains their signature sound and heart-wrenching lyrics under the disguise of feel-good vibes.” An introspective and organic record, it is something you can always come home to.

 

5. The xx - I See You

The xx are known for recreating intimacy that emits warmth and ambiguity, akin to the substance of a shadow. They continue to advance their art form on their third album, with smarter sampling, less meekness and more curious production choices. Dangerous, the album opener, announces their renewed ambition with a brassy, garage-influenced production that is unlike anything they have put out previously. We finally see light spilling through the cracks of the monochromatic universe they've built since debut, onto new grounds. 

 

4. Phoenix - Ti Amo

Writer Teejay wrote, “If you’re looking for some fresh yet timeless synth-pop, Phoenix will never disappoint. It’s the paradox you never knew you needed. For a band that’s been part of the music scene for almost 20 years, Phoenix never lost their ability to keep up with the times while still incorporating their signature head-bob inducing songs.” Sleek, romantic, summer-kissed music that provides a respite from the chaos.

 

3. Kelela - Take Me Apart

A synthesis of the corporeal and surreal, Kelela delves in the physical- the throbbing ache of love and desire- amidst the hazy atmospherics courtesy of experimental electronic producers like Jam City and Arca. On her previous effort Cut 4 Me, she came off as more of a decorative edge to the main body of her producers’ works, but on this album, she takes over the spacey, off-kilter beats, imbuing her vulnerability into their alien quality. Emotional yet forward-thinking, Take Me Apart is the best R&B release of 2017.

 

2. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.

Kendrick continues to show the world why he is the among, if not the top of the rap royalty of this generation. Top tier flow, delivery, punchlines, storytelling and beats. Through arrestingly personal narratives, he seeks optimism and humanity in the bleakness of the world, delivering a masterpiece of a rap album.

 

1. Lorde- Melodrama

I was slightly hesitant about ranking this as number one, albeit it seemed like a predictable pick- but upon another spin of the record, I can't imagine another album in its place. It's no wonder why Melodrama resonates deeply with so many- as writer Solihin pertinently puts it, "Rather than wallow in the depths of pubescent grief, the New Zealander wrestles with it, comes out on top and wears its skin as her own for all to see. Expanding her minimalist sound to accommodate the emotionally chaotic narrative, Lorde's sophomore outing vividly and poetically captures the maddening ebbs and flows of late teenage-hood, lending listeners glimpses into her synesthesia-hued world."

Red Velvet have cemented themselves as one of K-pop’s more conceptually unique groups in recent memory, exploring soundscapes that range from colorful, schizophrenic pop (known as their ‘Red’ side) to sultry, moody R&B (their ‘Velvet’ side). Their debut album in 2015, The Red, is one of the genre’s greatest, with its amalgamation of adventurous musical ideas that meddled with pop conventions.

Admittedly, I had a lukewarm reception to Red Velvet’s first 2 singles this year, Rookie and Red Flavor - while those songs have seen tremendous chart success, they felt musically safe compared to their predecessors. Thankfully, just when it seemed like the group was losing their edge, their newest single off their sophomore album Perfect Velvet dispelled all doubts once again. Peek-A-Boo is delightfully spooky, riding on tension derived from the modal interchange in its chord progression and a chorus that evolves into a ritualistic chant. The song superbly marries the contrasting sides of the group- its relatively subdued nature is a nod to their ‘Velvet’ concept, but those playful harmonies and production flourishes are clearly ‘Red’ in essence.

The rest of Perfect Velvet similarly heads in a more mature direction while retaining the group's signature sonic vibrancy. Nu-disco jam Look radiates with its lush synths and lively basswork; My Second Date appears to settle into a finger-snapping R&B groove- until it takes a wild but rewarding turn into EDM territory. Album highlight I Just is an intriguing future bass track, corroded into brain-melting synths and off-kilter vocal rhythms, with a chorus that’s both massive and desolate- its loneliness palpable in the spaces between each syllable. It’s brilliant for how it twists the trappings of an increasingly derivative genre, into fresh sounds that astutely captures the feeling of emotional exhaustion.

One of the group’s greatest strengths is their gorgeous harmonization, which take center stage in the alt-R&B Kingdom Come- the best track of the record. The vocal arrangement is intricate like embroidery, as various timbres and rhythms are layered and melded together seamlessly. Harmonically complex, the details in its contrapuntal texture require multiple re-listens to uncover. The palpitating old school hip-hop beat also adds another dimension to the song, imbuing a restless fervor into the warm atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine another group pulling off this song half as well.

Perfect Velvet’s second half is not as strong as its first half, with Attaboy being the weakest track overall. Its experimentation backfires on itself- it merges sing-song raps, dissonant harmonies and (shoddy) hip-hop beats, but the maximalist approach fails to juxtapose its elements meaningfully and ultimately feels directionless. The album picks itself back up with Perfect 10, another harmonically rich R&B song that drips with sensuality. The final trio of songs may not reach the album’s previous highs, but they are neverthelessly well-written and executed. Swing ballad Moonlight Melody is a bittersweet closer, as the elegant arrangement adorns the record’s final moments beautifully like the ending credits to a classic romance film.  

Red Velvet’s sophomore effort is a refreshingly well-curated collection of diverse sounds that stands out among the sea of filler-heavy releases in K-pop. It presents a more refined image of the group while showcasing their versatility and experimental capabilities- even its lesser tracks still contain ideas worthy of appreciation. Is it better than their debut album? Not sure, but it definitely comes close. Perfect Velvet is the best K-pop album of 2017 and a must-listen, even especially for those who shun the genre. 

 

 

 

Track Gems: Look, I Just, Kingdom Come

Photo Credit: SM Entertainment

Remember Aly & AJ? The sister duo released their album Insomniac in 2007, a collection of catchy pop anthems that were as good as teen pop could get- it was proof that they were hands down the only good best Disney music act around.

They've been in the dark ever since the release, independently releasing a few songs under the name 78violet that saw little success. Aly explained the past decision to ELLE.com, "We wanted to do projects that didn't involve the two of us. Over time we realized making records without any sort of label support [or label funding] is really difficult. It ended up taking more time than we originally thought, but we also didn't think it was going to be as hard as it was. That sort of crushed us, and we had to go back to square one."

Now the sisters are back under their original name and they've announced the release of their new EP Ten Years on their instagram page, which is scheduled to drop on17th November. The audio preview pinpoints towards an 80s synthpop style, a continuation of their latest single Take Me released back in September. 

Stay tuned for the EP!

 

11.17

A post shared by Aly & AJ (@alyandaj) on

Photo Credit: Stephen Ringer

Simon Cowell's latest boyband project, PRETTYMUCH, has positioned themselves to be the most exciting new boyband as of late.

In their new jack swing debut Would You Mind, they busted out some killer dance moves that set them apart from other boybands vying for One Direction's vacated spot at the top. For their new song Open Arms, their remarkable vocals are the main focus, as the group delivers smooth, layered harmonies in a mostly acapella ballad.

Admittedly, the release is a little unconventional, as the beat is largely absent and only makes its first appearance one third into the song. Nevertheless, it is a solid display of what PRETTYMUCH has to offer and we're definitely keeping an eye out for this group. Their undeniable talents in both singing and dancing, combined with Simon Cowell's connections and resources, reveal a lot of potential as contenders for America's next big boyband. Watch out, One Direction.

Listen to the song here:

Photo Credit: Billboard

Selena Gomez has returned with a new track Wolves, a collaboration with EDM producer Marshmello.

The song is nothing striking, but it's a semi-decent effort that blends both artists' styles together - Selena's breathy voice glides with ease over an acoustic-tinged production and gets distorted during the drop without losing its warmth over a rumbling bass. We could do without the generic Avicii-style faux chorus, though.

In an interview with Zane Lowe, the singer commented on the track, “This was a song that I heard in Japan for the first time, and I was talking to Andrew Watt who is one of the writers I worked with for years, and he actually just played me a rough version and I thought it was really beautiful, and he sent it to Marshmello and created a really cool tone and a story with it, and the song is very beautiful and personal and the lyrics just have a whole story of its own. Weirdly, at the same time I was working on it in Japan, I was going through stuff, too, so it’s mirrored everything.”

Check out the video accompanying the song below:

 

Photo Credit: Vogue

The penultimate month of the year is around the corner, which makes it the perfect time to indulge in some nostalgia and wax lyrical about how time flies.

We've compiled a list of 5 renowned albums that came out 10 years ago in November for this purpose - see if you can read through this without feeling that physical nag of age in your soul.

 

1. Jay-Z - American Gangster

Inspired by the film of the same name directed by Ridley Scott, Jay-Z’s critically acclaimed 10th studio album was regarded as a return to form for the rapper. Its soulful jazz-rap single Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)... was named the best song of 2007 by music publication Rolling Stone.

 

2. Leona Lewis - Spirit

The X Factor champion’s debut album was a massive hit, racking up over 8 million sales and scoring Grammy nominations for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Record of the Year. You’re most likely familiar with the lead single Bleeding Love- yes, the song came out a decade ago. Crazy, huh?

 

3, Alicia Keys - As I Am

The R&B songstress’ chart-smashing album earned numerous accolades, including 3 Grammy Awards. Her most famous song from the album, No One, clinched the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 5 weeks straight. It may have been released 10 years ago, but it’s still a very much beloved ballad in the hearts of many.

 

4. Girls Aloud - Tangled Up

One of the most successful girl groups to have come out of the UK, Girls Aloud were known for releasing a constant stream of catchy but innovative pop songs. Tangled Up is widely regarded as their best album, and its single Call The Shots has been praised by critics for being one of the best pop singles of 2007.

 

5. OneRepublic - Dreaming Out Loud

This was the album that spawned Apologize, the hit single that spent 25 consecutive weeks in the top 10 of Billboard Hot 100. The Timbaland rework of the song needs no introduction either- it’s just one of those songs that everyone knows the lyrics and melody to. It’s been 10 years since and the nostalgia is definitely creeping in. Along with the realization that we are getting old. Oh well. 

Photo Credit: Sony Music Entertainment UK

After the faux-villainess theatrics of Look What You Made Me Do and roguish mania of …Ready For It?, Taylor Swift returns to her signature lovestruck girl-next-door character with Gorgeous.

Her dedication to her persona is palpable, as the pop number paints a picture of drunk infatuation with effervescent video game synths and a ditzy bubblegum chorus. However, the execution of it all feels anodyne, sounding like a leftover cut from her last album 1989.

The lyricism is clearly the worst culprit- her rhymes are clumsy (I can't say anything to your face/ 'Cause look at your face) and her descriptions are middle schooler diary entry material (You should think about the consequence/ Of your magnetic field being a little too strong). It is a letdown considering how Taylor Swift has always displayed an eye for the devil in the details, marrying specificity with universality. The Max Martin production is nothing to write home about either, the little tweaks and flourishes lend some flair, but not enough to lift the song out of generic filler territory.

“You missed the joke!” Her defenders might scoff. “The childishness is all intentional!” But mediocrity does not magically vanish upon a calculated wink at the audience. Taylor’s desperation to convey her self-awareness results in heavy-handed songwriting choices that ignore her personal strengths, her attempts to imbue ironic comedy into her romanticism come across more vapid than charming. She managed to accomplish the latter with Blank Space but there's only so many times you can put out this kind of song without the trick getting stale - Taylor has been playing the self-referential card for way too many songs at this point.

So far, our ranking of her previews from Reputation would be: ...Ready For It? > Gorgeous > Look What You Made Me Do. While Gorgeous is far less interesting than ...Ready For It?, its melodicity elevates it above Look What You Made Me Do.

But frankly speaking... none of those 3 songs make a very convincing case for the hype factor behind Reputation

 

Photo Credit: Getty Images

On 18th October, a few days after he posted about his bicycle accident, Ed Sheeran had some unfortunate news to share regarding his Asia tour, which was supposed to commence this weekend in Taipei:

AEG Presents Asia also posted the news on Facebook, with details of the posptponed concerts:

While Singapore's shows on 11th and 12th November are still in place, the dates are only a week after the postponed shows in Hong Kong, which looks a little concerning to us. Given the serious nature of Ed's injuries, one extra week isn't a lot of time for rest and recovery. His injuries (fractures in right wrist and left elbow) are truly unfortunate considering how he plays the guitar live during his concerts. 

Fingers crossed for a swift recovery before his show in Singapore!

Photo Credit: Getty Images

It has been 4 years since the release of Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP 2, but a new era might be dawning upon us soon.

According to HITS Daily Double, Eminem's 8th major label studio album will be out on Nov. 17. While the information is still filed under rumor category, HITS Daily Double's past track record for revealing album release dates is not something to be ignored. In addition to the report, Eminem also has an anticipated collaboration with P!nk, slated for release when her album Beautiful Trauma drops on 13th October 2017.

On The Marshall Mathers LP 2, the album was viewed as an artistic let-down by many for its clumsy attempts to marry current pop trends (Trap, EDM) with the rapper's craft. Given his repertoire, people will naturally have high standards for his forthcoming album and we're curious to see how Eminem attempts to keep his material fresh sounding in the current pop landscape of 2017. 

Let's just pray that the source isn't messing around with us!

BTS’ latest EP Love Yourself 承 'Her' marks the beginning of their Love Yourself album series that’s based on Kishōtenketsu (起承転結)- the four-act structure of classic East Asian narratives. ‘Her’ signifies the ‘development’ (shō) of the story, a prelude to the eventual 'twist' (ten). The EP's urban pop numbers center around young adults falling in love, but there’s a visible storm brewing in the distance if you squint in between the lines.

Although BTS displays excellent commitment to their thematic ideas, the EP doesn’t stand out as a very strong release- sonically, their style has changed, but it hasn't evolved. BTS has always capitalized on global chart trends, but they approached those well-known sounds from fresh angles and dimensions. The songs in Love Yourself 承 'Her' dive further into radio-friendliness without retaining the edges that made BTS exciting to begin with: The Chainsmokers collab Best of Me falters with its uninspired chord progression and lukewarm drop; Dimple captures the giddy rush of infatuation but lacks a personality; Go Go’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics are marred by a beat that sounds like a generic Shape of You hip hop remix.   

Nevertheless, the EP isn’t without its share of noteworthy tracks. Here are our top 3 picks: 

 

1. Pied Piper

Referencing The Pied Piper of Hamelin, BTS sings about obsessive love in fan culture. The production here glistens as the disco chords, funky Nile Rodgers-esque guitar strokes and soulful vocoded harmonies evoke a (deceptively) breezy atmosphere. Like a schoolteacher, rapper Rap Monster chides his fans for neglecting their own lives. It’s the only hit of reality we receive before it gets swept away into a twinkling mirage of synths and a sweet falsetto chorus. BTS play the villainous seducers for the rest of the song alongside the central metaphor- a mesmeric synth ostinato that flits in and out of focus but never departs. In the lush swoon of a bridge, Jimin and Jungkook’s breathy voices drip with honeyed poison, the lines “If perhaps I/ Am destroying you/ Will you forgive me?” are delivered with such doe-eyed sincerity that it makes you forget the rhetorical nature of the question. The interplay between the song’s buoyant groove and its darker subject matter is what takes it all to another level: like the root of an obsession, you don’t realize how innocuously it lodges under your skin.

 

 

2. MIC Drop

This gritty punkish trap banger is your classic screw-the-haters anthem- an art form that BTS has become well adept at. The opening metal guitar distortion is an instant back-straightener, but nothing prepares us for that straight up dirty bassline. Its menace is amplified through the rappers’ deliveries: J-Hope’s staccato flow jabs each note and syllable with the muted precision of an assault sniper, Suga coolly surfs the beat with sardonic apologies and a smirk in his voice, Rap Monster dials up the intensity with his stentorian spitting and trap vocal inflections. The Autotuned taunts over piercing synth wails stir up a commotion that might be a little too in-your-face for some, except that it’s exactly what a song like this aims to do, and BTS makes all the ruckus sound like a party. Their live performance of the song says it all, better than we ever can.

 

 

3. Outro: Her

The melancholic old school hip hop beat recalls 90s East Coast boom bap and feels like a change of pace after the high of love songs and hype tracks- we can’t help but feel the nostalgia rise in our throats. Over jazzy Rhodes piano chords that exhale warmth and longing, BTS’ rappers lay out pensive passages on their need to compromise their identities for their loved ones. By engaging with the complex side of love, the outro peeks beneath the luster of the EP and alludes to the next chapter ahead. It’s a track that’s both light and heavy, calm and restless- a soundtrack for broody bus rides home as the day draws to a close.

 

******

What are your top 3 songs from this EP? 

Photo Credit: Big Hit Entertainment

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