Scottish singer-songwriter Amy Macdonald entered the US music scene five years ago with This Is the Life, but we haven’t seen (or heard) much of her since. It’s been a long wait for US-based fans — her second album, A Curious Thing (2010), is not readily available on this side of the Atlantic — but the recently released Life in a Beautiful Light makes for the perfect summer soundtrack.
We might not want to admit it, but there is certainly a gender bias when it comes to music tastes. It is quite rare to hear someone label music as “too manly”, but it is not so uncommon to hear it called “too girly” in one way or another. For example, the singer might be too showy, the video’s choreography might be too bombastic, the song might be too cheesy, or it might just have “too much pop” to handle.
Expectations and comebacks are inseparable companions. When a star as famous as Justin Timberlake takes a temporary break from making music, coming back to the scene is never a piece of cake — the media wants to know the reason behind the hiatus and the fans expect fresh and promising music.
Judging by the album cover, you might be thinking that another Britney Spears-inspired diva has emerged to conquer the world’s pop scene, but if you are a fan of the Swedish brother-sister duo The Knife, you know that this is far from the truth. The mellow-looking cover art is just a deceiving layer of their new album, Shaking the Habitual, which is everything but mellow.
If this is the first time you hear the oddly concatenated name iamamiwhoami, then you have missed the fascinating beginnings of an enigmatic viral internet sensation that took over Youtube in 2009. Founded by the Swedish folk singer-songwriter Jonna Lee, her producer Claes Björklund and the film director Robin Kempe-Bergman, iamamiwhoami is an audiovisual musical project with many charming peculiarities that your regular wannabe-weirdo artists never manage to deliver.
It might be due to my biased pop-oriented ear, but it seems that it’s hard to find a rock band nowadays that maintains the essence of rock music while being original and progressive at the same time. Put some repetitive guitar and percussion sounds together with unrefined lyrics and forced hoarse voices and you’ve got yourself a group of fully-operating contemporary rock band copycats. Nevertheless, there are still a few of them that manage to captivate my attention with their rock-based roots and striking, ever-growing uniqueness. Yeah Yeah Yeahs is one of them.
In the last ten years, the UK music scene has been producing new female singer-songwriters like an exponential growth function let loose. After the great success of Ireland-native Róisín Murphy’s trip hop and dance-pop solo career in the UK, followed by Amy Winehouse’s planetary breakout and her revival of contemporary soul and jazz music, there have been few major waves of incoming sound — and look-alike female musicians. Adele and Duffy were the first ones to take and pass on Winehouse’s torch, by writing and producing similarly soulful and bluesy songs. By the end of the 2000s, a new wave of more-pop-oriented female artists brought VV Brown, Jessie J, Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine), and Marina Diamandis (of Marina and the Diamonds). In the meantime, Róisín Murphy-inspired artists, such as Elly Jackson (of La Roux) and Ellie Goulding, diversified the music scene by popularizing electro-pop music.
This year ought to be a milestone for Robin Hannibal. Just earlier this year, he and Mike Milosh released a spectacularly sensual album Woman under the artistic moniker Rhye, which swept the critics and the fans off of their feet. Now, only a few months later, he reunites with Coco O, the second half of his well-established musical project Quadron, to release their sophomore album Avalanche and set the ground for this summer’s music scene.
I never understood the Kanye West mania — not because I’m some music snob who does not appreciate rap and hip hop, but because I have enough guts to follow my instincts and speak up when over-hyped contemporary music is worthless. I am not a connoisseur of rap music, and I may not be able to recognize all the nuances of hip hop, but when I do listen to these genres, I am certain that I listen to praiseworthy artists. For example, I love OutKast and I think that every bit of their acclaimed success was well deserved. During the summer before my senior year of high school, I spent most of my afternoons listening to The Roots’ How I Got Over on repeat. If you play Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” I will (mostly unsuccessfully) rap along. And, while I am not their greatest fan, I love listening to Q-Tip, Nas, Mos Def and Talib Kweli when I get a craving for some good beats.
Jay Z once boasted in a particularly memorable line on Kanye West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” Clever wordplay aside, he’s right. Besides being the rapper Jay Z (he recently dropped the hyphen), Shawn Carter is the definitive hip-hop mogul, brandishing a resume teeming with his various ventures and positions: head of record label Roc Nation, co-owner of sports bar chain the 40/40 club, co-creator of the Rocawear clothing line, and spokesperson of D’Usse, Bacardi’s new brandy product, just to name a few. This year, he even founded Roc Nation sports, because apparently that’s what you do when you’re the only rapper with a net worth of over $500 million. The man can sell anything — but even with all these other products, he hasn’t forgotten how to sell music. In a historic pre-album deal, Carter sold a million copies of his new modestly-named album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail, to Samsung for sale through an exclusive app. By doing so, Carter prompted the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to rewrite their rules regarding digital sales, and became the first artist ever to have an album go platinum before it even hits the shelves, making what sounds like an unbacked piece of rap braggadocio into a reality. With such pre-release hype, listeners were expecting a truly great album, one that could sit near the top of Jay Z’s massive discography. However, while Carter did deliver a highly enjoyable hip hop album, Magna Carta struggles to live up to the larger-than-life persona Carter takes on.
Making sentient albums and coloring them with distinct personalities that incite a vast range of emotions upon every listen is, if done successfully, a tricky, but rewarding artistic attempt. Some of these albums, like Planningtorock’s overlooked debut album Have It All, are extroverts — they reach out to you with their lovable eccentricities embodied in their lyrics and music, while giving their essence to you. Other ones, like Björk’s album Vespertine, are introverts — these absorb and isolate you with their slowly-unraveling and unreachable sounds, while luring your essence and then trapping it within their realm. And then there are those free-roaming spirits, like Anna Von Hausswolff’s newest album Ceremony, that simply take you on an unpredictable journey, enriched with both mysterious and tangible emotions, while offering you a taste of vicarious memories.
“Also, I wanna say The Droid Control can kiss the rust of the left and the right cheek of my black metal ass,” says the voice of a female caller during a radio call in Monáe’s interlude “Good Morning Midnight.” The radio station WDRD, led by DJ Crash Crash, receives comments and thoughts from various callers, who discuss their opinions on Monáe’s heroine alter-ego, android Cindi Mayweather.
For the Los Angeles-based experimental musician Julia Holter, having creative blocks and receiving only sporadic artistic epiphanies does not seem to be an option. Her debut album Tragedy was released in 2011, immediately accompanied by the sophomore follow-up Ekstasis in 2012 and the third full-length album Loud City Song released this year. Keeping in mind that many critically acclaimed contemporary musicians take more than a few years between releasing their albums, it might be tempting to assume that Holter prefers quantity over quality. Yet, at only twenty-eight years of age, Holter — a musically-trained CalArts alumna — delivers stronger and richer material with each subsequent album.
Lauren Mayberry, Ian Cook and Martin Doherty, otherwise known as the Glasgow-based synth-pop band CHVRCHES, have entered the music scene with quite a fanfare. After the relatively unrecognized premiere release of their singles “Lies” and “The Mother We Share” in 2012, the band suddenly took over headlines in early 2013. BBC ranked them fifth in their poll “Sound of 2013,” after which the band released their EP Recover to positive critic reviews, and within a few months CHVRCHES were already touring around the world.
I was unsure of what to expect when my headphones began streaming the first notes of One Direction’s third studio album, Midnight Memories. Although I haven’t been keeping up with the band since their days on the UK televised performing competition known as the X Factor, I’ve been listening to their music for a long enough time to be able to distinguish each member by voice, and I went to their Take Me Home Tour concert in Seattle this summer.
Karen Marie Ørsted, also known simply as Mø, might not be the most familiar name in the music industry yet, but the 25-year old Dane is far from operating in the corners of obscure and alternative scenes. Just within one year, she has released several singles, contributed her vocals to Avicii’s song “Dear Boy” and delivered her debut EP Bikini Daze. Like many of her contemporary Scandinavian singer-songwriters, she seems to be faithfully following their long-lasting tradition by doing what Scandinavia is famous for — making fantastic pop music.
Second languages are hard. Even having a strong grasp of a second language is sometimes insufficient to artfully express oneself. Unfortunately, this is true for Wanting, a Vancouver-based, China-born singer/songwriter. Her songs in Mandarin Chinese are outstanding, but the same cannot be said of her songs written in English.
Southern Air, the last album from pop-punkers Yellowcard, featured the prominent lyric “I’ve been here a while/ staring at the screen wondering what I’ll write.” It’s a sentiment I can empathise with. The ninth studio album from the Jacksonville quartet, made famous by their unique guitar-meets-violin rock sound, is the product of many factors, and to address any one without context of the others seems unjust. Music does not exist in a vacuum (technically because there’s no air to propagate sound waves, but allow me the metaphor), and this album has a great deal going on behind the scenes.
I recall a conversation I had with a friend about the future directions of Kendrick Lamar’s music career about six months after his first studio album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was released. The album was a cohesive, thoughtful exploration of teenage life in Compton, and fans and critics alike received it as a defining album for hip-hop. Where could Kendrick possibly go from here to avoid being cast as a one-trick pony? It was clear Kendrick had the potential for rap greatness, but it was unclear whether this would be the sort of iconic status enjoyed by Jay Z or the niche appeal and recognition enjoyed by Nas.
It’s been 13 years since Desaparecidos released its first album Read Music/Speak Spanish, but fans can rest assured, Payola picks up where it left off. The lyrics are politically-charged, anti-capitalist calls to action, delivered with a sting that is to be expected from the band’s frontman, Conor Oberst (best known as the lead singer of Bright Eyes). Oberst simply isn’t having this generation’s apathetic attitude — he criticizes complacency and slacktivism (“Donate a dollar with my coffee and save someone / Calling all friends I loosely know / We’re a tight knit clique in the virtual”). The group released Read Music/Speak Spanish when the United States was just beginning to recover from 9/11, the economy was crashing, and the Iraq War was just beginning. It’s fitting that Payola was released just as candidates begin to announce their intentions to run in the 2016 presidential primaries.
When her longtime romantic relationship and music collaboration with Mark Brydon — the other half of the now-defunct electronic music duo Moloko — ended, Róisín Murphy swiftly launched her solo career with the 2005 album Ruby Blue. A peculiar and refreshing record, filled with unusual combinations of brass instruments, dance rhythms, and sounds taken from everyday life, Ruby Blue garnered very positive reviews from the critics and showed that the Irish singer and producer was not going to be overshadowed by her history with Moloko.
In a musical era where few people can name current artists and bands other than The Black Keys and Jack White that classify as “rock bands,” the popularity of guitar-driven music, whether in the form of blues-rock, punk, or psychedelic, appears to be waning. The exploding popularity of electronic dance music (EDM) and the continued mainstream success of hip-hop has left little room for attention to the prototypical 5-piece rock band. Australian band Tame Impala has been a rare success in the broad yet shrinking genre of rock music — they’ve won Grammys, had songs featured in television shows and commercials, and have been lauded by critics for bringing much-needed innovation to a dying genre. Stepping out of their musical niche, Tame Impala has taken a bold risk with their new album Currents, which differs greatly from their previous rock-oriented music.
I used to listen to Never Shout Never all the time in high school. I first discovered the band when I saw them live at a local music festival back home; they were just an opening act for some band that I can’t remember the name of. Ukulele and light acoustic guitar made up the base of their instrumentals, and that’s what really caught my attention — I was just learning guitar at the time, and their music was simple enough for me to play. I was excited when I learned that they were releasing a new album, Black Cat, this August.
I saw New Politics when they performed in Boston last fall, and of course I had already heard their viral hits “Harlem” and “Yeah Yeah Yeah,” but I wasn’t too familiar with any of their other work. However, the show really blew me away and inspired me to check out their other songs (many of which were just as catchy and still find their way onto my playlists). Near the end of the show, they promised that a new album would be released during summer 2015. New Politics released their first single for the album, “Everywhere I Go (Kings and Queens),” back in 2014, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Vikings since.
I go through music phases in bursts, and I make monthly playlists that reveal my brief obsessions. This past July, I went through a particularly angsty music stage — I was full of political discontent (I had just reviewed the anti-capitalist band Desaparecidos, so they were on this playlist too), I was working two jobs, and life was just, in general, monotonous. Needless to say, I identified with a lot of punk rock sentiments: desire to fight the man, weariness of the nine-to-five, eagerness to party (though my packed schedule and never-ending to-do list didn’t allow for it, so I had to live vicariously), and the simple need to do something just for fun.
I jump late onto most bandwagons — many of my favorite artists are inactive, and for a year or two, Metric belonged to that unfortunate club. Their unique blend of electronic and traditional rock instruments, as well as their profound and relatable lyrics, captivated me. Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003) was one of the first albums I listened to in its entirety, and I was surprised to find that I loved every single track. Since the group seemed to have disappeared, I was stuck cycling between the same few albums. My musical limbo ended Sept. 18, 2015, with the release of Pagans in Vegas.
Kanye West is a visionary, a jackass, a gifted musician, and an awful fashion designer. And after an admission of being $53 million in debt, irrational Twitter behavior, a leaked SNL backstage rant, and multiple tracklist and title changes, he has finally released a working version of his seventh studio album titled The Life of Pablo.
Shifting her work, which was previously rather pastoral and orchestral, to pop-inspired electronic music, Anohni focuses on politics this time in an attempt to make a protest album.
While chatting with my friend about Regina Spektor’s new album, Remember Us to Life, I commented that I found it neither extraordinary nor particularly memorable. I did not really care for it at first, but after the third or fourth listen, I thought that it might be starting to grow on me, to which her response was, “Huh, kind of like a fungus.”