“Take my hand, stay Joanne, Heaven’s not ready for you …”

Joining her peers, including Kesha, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Timberlake, who also went for a “stripped-down” or more authentic sound and image with their latest releases, Lady Gaga’s Joanne represents the artist’s attempt to trade in her high-fashion-inspired eccentricities for a pink cowboy hat and her own natural blonde hair. The record has been criticized as relying on gimmicks (usually found in traditional country music) or just boring by critics, and while the work certainly does represent a strange step in the ever-evolving discography of Gaga, it was a necessary and heartfelt motion that represents her response to the immense fame she has gained since releasing “Just Dance,” her debut Billboard Hot 100 number one hit, ten years ago.

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The album’s title comes from the singer’s late aunt, Joanne Stefani Germanotta, who died at age 19; her own middle name is also Joanne in reference. Lady Gaga said that she realized how much her aunt’s death changed her family and the album deals with that in some ways while also addressing herself (as Joanne rather than her stage name) and reflecting on her past. After Artpop, Gaga’s prior album, which was received with very mixed reviews from critics and the public at large alongside being a very difficult time for the singer as she struggled with body image issues and drug addiction, it was unsure if she would ever even want to release music again. In a lot of ways, Joanne represents the music that Gaga had to release as a response to overcoming the evils she had been faced with and returning to her roots.

Mark Ronson, of “Uptown Funk” fame, BloodPop, and Gaga herself serve as the producers on Joanne. The production of the record certainly strays far more towards acoustic and soft rock sounds than the artist’s previous work, but still doesn’t fail to serve a collection of danceable, upbeat tracks more akin to her past. Lady Gaga was a writer on every song on the album; most every track seems to tell a story from the singer’s past or deals with a current issue of hers resulting in a very personal assortment of tracks.

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The record opens with “Diamond Heart” and “A-YO,” two fiery, uptempo songs that instantly grasp the listener and reassure them that this Gaga is nothing like what they’ve heard from her before. The former speaks to the singer’s past when she worked as a gogo dancer out of necessity and the flaws she has, but the unstoppable drive she had to become a star that propelled her out of that situation and into stardom.

Soon after, on “Joanne,” the title track, Gaga sings about her sadness for losing Joanne, both her aunt and a part of herself. She shows off her impressive, emotional vocals while pondering to herself about the fragility of life and the acceptance of a death as a part of a journey for someone at times. This track is highly personal and might serve as Gaga sending off not only her aunt’s spirit, but also the person that she used to be before all the fame and glamor of being a pop star.

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On songs like “Million Reasons” and “Sinner’s Prayer,” Gaga channels classic Americana sounds that really serve to tie the album up to this point together sonically. However, after these songs, the album shifts and Gaga goes for more pop ballad and big band sounds as she finishes the album out with anthems that preach for more love in the world.

Come to Mama” is a song of acceptance and unconditional love for everyone in the world, classic for a Gaga who has delivered songs like “Born This Way” repeatedly and advocated for equality. In an album full of personal struggles and strife, Gaga then presents her own thoughts on the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin in “Angel Down.” The song is mostly comprised of the singer questioning the situation of the troubled times our country is facing. In relatable disbelief, she simply advocates for what’s right and fails to understand the lack of direction rather than going to attack anyone in response to the problems.

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In the time since Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta burst onto the scene a decade ago, she has certainly faced her share of personal struggle and growth. Joanne represents that ability to evolve and adapt in the face of adversity in a very unlikely way. It would be easy to dismiss the work as a cliche attempt at being a “real” artist, but this record really does find Lady Gaga diving into herself in a way that is personal, unparalleled in any of her previous music.

Listen to Joanne on Spotify below:

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“A little bit dangerous, but baby that’s how I want it …”

Amidst rumors of an imminent upcoming lead single to Ariana Grande’s fourth album (which has now all but been confirmed to be entitled “No More Tears Left to Cry” and drop on April 27th), this week we will take a look at the singer’s most recent work, Dangerous Woman, which has proved to be her most successful and mature release to date.

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The album was produced primarily by Max Martin and Savan Kotecha and went for a far more pure pop with R&B elements presenting themselves on some songs. Dangerous Woman features collaborations with Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Macy Gray, and Future.

The album opens with “Moonlight,” the most stripped down and sentimental song of the album, where Ariana Grande sings about comparing her lover to moonlight. The song sounds more similar to her previous work on My Everything but with sensual, more mature lyrics that set the tone for the rest of the album. Fittingly, the LP then transitions into “Dangerous Woman,” the title track, where she fully embraces this new darker persona. Grande describes how her lover makes her want to explore her dark side and makes her feel like she is dangerous over arena rock style instrumentation, distorted vocals, and even a guitar solo on the bridge.

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In true Ariana Grande fashion, songs like “Greedy,” “Bad Decisions,” and “Touch It” show off the singer’s killer vocals with huge bombastic choruses, creative key changes, or unreal high notes that showcase her killer vocal range.

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In support of the album, Ariana Grande embarked on the Dangerous Woman Tour in February 2017. The tour was highly successful, earning over $71 million, but was tragically devastated in May when a terrorist bombing killed 22 fans after her show in Manchester Arena. The bombing shocked and struggled the entire world, but rather than ending the tour and turning away in fear, the singer pushed on and continued the tour in June, after organizing the One Love Manchester benefit concert for the victims of the bombing alongside many other artists including Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry.

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Dangerous Woman was Grande’s most cohesive work sonically and conceptually so far. She subtly moved into a space that represents who she truly is as a woman embracing her sexuality and emotions. The tragic Manchester concert bombing proved the artist’s ability to bring together her fans and the general public alike in a time of need. With the impending release of new material, the first taste from Grande’s latest project, one can only expect an even more sophisticated and adult sound from the singer with a message that will finally show triumph in the face of the adversity she was faced with.

Listen to Dangerous Woman on Spotify below:

“You’re my golden hour, the color of my sky …”

Kacey Musgraves has been an artist who has provided her own spin on consistently country music since her debut. Her last two records, Same Trailer Different Park and Pageant Material, both undeniably paint pictures of idyllic Midwestern life, but Musgraves always challenges the notions of typical country music by including themes that stray from the norm (“Follow Your Arrow” from her first album celebrates independence, sexuality, and even recreational marijuana use, for example). However, on Golden Hour, Musgraves’ latest effort released at the end of March, she combines this country authenticity while now drawing inspiration from pop, indie, and even disco music to deliver a lyrical and sonic success that is drawing raving reviews from critics and fans alike.

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According to Musgraves herself, the album deals with the notion that, “There are different masks we all wear that represent different sides of ourselves. None of them are solely us and yet they all are.” She insists that the golden hour, a photography term for right before sunrise or just after sunrise when the light is warmer and less direct, is when all of her masks come together and you can finally see the real her. Golden Hour the album itself then is a combination of all these personas channeled into a single work, at the perfect time in Musgraves’ life.

Lyrically, Golden Hour delivers in a way that elevates even the classic storytelling elements that one would come to expect from an artist so inspired by classic country music. Songs like “Slow Burn” and “Space Cowboy” specifically stand out in their ability to convey a detailed narrative that consumes the listener’s mind as they hear Musgraves pour her heart out over guitar strumming.

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While one might assume that a blending of disco and country sounds might sound out of place, especially on an artist like Kacey Musgraves’ album, “High Horse” puts those sentiments to shame. The song calls out people who think they are better than other people or always feel a need to put other people down while weaving together classic country conventions, referencing John Wayne and suggesting that this person should “giddy up and ride straight out of this town,” and disco-inspired production. The song really stands as a reminder that Musgraves sought to push musical boundaries on Golden Hour and provide her fans with fun music that isn’t necessarily what they would immediately expect from her.

On “Rainbow,” the album’s closing number, Musgraves shares an uplifting message in that no matter what overwhelming circumstances it might seem like surround you, there will always be a rainbow after the metaphorical storm of whatever difficulty surrounds someone’s life. The song features just delicate piano playing as far as instrumentation, and the singer’s voice is innocent and uplifting; Musgraves seems gracefully pierce through life’s hardships with her vocal technique here.

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Though the album is far from pure pop, the lyricism that it employs is compelling and certainly sounds like the direction pop music has been moving in. Golden Hour surely lives up to its name: the unification of the genres Musgraves is inspired by with her country roots along with her narrative songwriting on Golden Hour makes for a whole project that finds Musgraves in the most interesting and important time in her life, and the music reflects that feeling completely.

Listen to Golden Hour on Spotify below:

“In your fantasy, dream about me, and all that we could do with this emotion …”

Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION is considered by many to be a modern pop masterpiece. In honor of recent teases of new music and the cult classic status of the songstress’ latest album in the world of pop music, it seemed appropriate to share this album on the blog, although it was released almost two and half years ago in August 2015. In Emotion, Jepsen channels indie pop production into a synth-y love letter to the music of the 80s. Lyrically, the album speaks to a lot of unrequited love and relationships that Jepsen just can’t ever seem to get right.

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Following Carly Rae Jepsen’s initial commercial success with “Call Me Maybe,” which held the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks straight and is certified Diamond (10 million+ sales), her label expedited the release of Kiss, her first worldwide released album featuring the single. While Kiss certainly wasn’t a bad album, but it was entirely created in the span of two months and Jepsen was denied creative control at certain points in the production of the work. After a scrapped indie-folk album and inspiration from the classic pop music of the 1980s, Jepsen took her time creating an album that perfectly resonates with the kind of idyllic, chorus-driven music of that era.

One of the absolute, soaring highlights of this album immediately presents itself in the opening track. “Run Away With Me” begins with an energetic saxophone solo before launching into Jepsen confesses her love to her partner and asks him to do the same as more and more production is added until the track reaches an explosive chorus. Over huge synths and a more subtle saxophone now, Jepsen delivers a euphoric desire for freedom to just be with whoever she is in love with. The track does a great job of capturing what pop music should be all about: you could turn this song on no matter the context and instantly feel a surge of joy and optimism; the song is a timeless reminder of youthful love and liberation.

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While on certain tracks like “I Really Like You” or “LA Hallucinations,” which add an appropriate variety to the LP, Jepsen strays more towards the bubblegum, hyperpop of Kiss, she forges entirely new territory for herself on alternative songs, such as “Your Type.” The song speaks of wanting to be with someone, but realizing that she will never be more than a friend to them. Lyrically, the song shines in the pre-chorus where she talks through what easily sounds like an awkward encounter with this person where she can’t help but reveal her emotions: “But I still love you, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I love you, I didn’t mean to say what I said. I miss you, I mean it, I tried not to feel it, but I can’t get you out of my head.”

Emotion finds a unique strength in its ability to challenge the conventional image of a pop star. Carly Rae Jepsen swaps a hyper-sexualized image for an innocent, youthful grace and trades brash boasting songs of grandeur for relatable tales of imperfect romance. Triumphantly, Jepsen avoids cliches and ensures her independence as an artist making pop music who doesn’t need to fit into the mold of those in her genre.

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Carly Rae Jepsen might not have succeeded commercially with her latest album, but she certainly secured herself a strong fanbase of music fans than appreciate her re-imagined version of 80s synthpop that elaborates rather than relying only on some kind of overpowering nostalgia. For her next project, Jepsen has stated she doesn’t want to tie herself to a single concept, but she is inspired by disco music at the moment. Although Jepsen should certainly take whatever amount of time it will take in order to deliver a masterpiece akin to Emotion, fans and music critics alike are perched for her followup to the timeless record.

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Listen to E•MO•TION on Spotify below:

 

“I can’t escape all the voices, and so, I turn it up …”

While most people probably know Charli XCX from her number 1 hit collaboration with Iggy Azalea on “Fancy” (which held the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for 7 weeks straight) or her song “Boom Clap,” which peaked at number 8 and was a part of the soundtrack for The Fault In Our Stars, they probably haven’t kept up with her since 2014 when those songs charted. Rather than repeating her more successful forays into the simplistic pop she has been known for, Charli XCX has been moving in the direction of avant-garde pop music and with Pop 2, her latest mixtape released in December of 2017, she has displayed her ability to create music that is equal parts overtly eccentric and sonically progressive.

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Pop 2 features collaborations with a wide group of artists, from bubblegum popstar Kim Petras to the electropop diva Tove Lo and even an appearance by the brash rapper Cupcakke. One of the things that elevates this mixtape is the way that each guest artist exhibits their own signature persona during their features throughout the mixtape. Charli worked primarily with A.G. Cook from PC Music, his own collective known for its extreme and futuristic but decidedly pop music style, on almost every track on the mixtape. This is very apparent upon listening; the eccentric and at times bizarre production featured push the boundaries of what pop music is.

While only 10 tracks long, Pop 2 is an ambitious work as far as exploring different ways that Charli can play with this futuristic soundscape along with her collaborators. For example, “Out Of My Head,” which features Tove Lo and ALMA, sounds like a pretty tame bubblegum pop song, but the quirky vocal samples and drum beats separate it from what you might’ve heard on the radio in 2008. On “Tears” Charli and Caroline Polachek sing about falling out of love with someone but staying with them anyways. In an unconventional but very meaningful move, Charli can be heard just screaming out in agony, like something you might hear in a horror film. While this song could already be really impactful to the listener, the screaming adds another layer to the pain Charli is singing about and while it is definitely eccentric for pop music production, it totally makes sense here.

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I Got It,” featuring Brooke Candy, CupcakKe, and Pabllo Vittar, is certainly another track where this mixtape chooses to deviate from the norm and feels like a dark trip full of menacing sounding beats and distorted vocals. The song begins with a boastful verse from Brooke Candy before launching into the chorus where Charli XCX repeats “I got it” over and over (and over) with the bratty British accent she is well known for. Each artist’s verse on the song exudes confidence and power as they each brag about what they have over increasingly unruly, dirty production.

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On Pop 2, Charli XCX cements herself as an artist who has swapped mainstream success for the pursuit of the future of pop music. She’s clearly heavily invested in the genre on this mixtape, and her choice to work with producers like A.G. Cook truly push this work to something that sounds like a trippy, fantastic version of futuristic pop music.

Listen to Pop 2 on Spotify below:

“I’ll sit and watch your car burn, with the fire that you started in me …”

Last summer, when Billie Eilish was just 15 years old, she released her debut EP dont smile at meafter her track “ocean eyes” went viral on SoundCloud in 2016. The 8-track extended play focuses on a lot of different themes such as unrequited love, issues with societal standards, breakups, and “fake” people, all with the angst and sonic edge that you would expect from an EP titled dont smile at me. While the excess of edginess might take away from the project in some parts, Eilish also manages to deliver heartfelt and sincere messages at the same time, providing some balance to the work.dont smile at me

Billie Eilish worked with her brother Finneas O’Connell on the writing and production of the entire EP. She is currently on her “Where’s My Mind” tour in support of the release.

A dark and psychotic sounding ballad, “COPYCAT” serves as the opening track that immediately pushes Eilish’s angst onto the listener. Lyrics that call out people who she suspects of “trying to cop [her] manner” showcase her anger over shrieks and screams. The song might come off as a bit immature if taken too seriously but at the same time has an infectious bad-ass nature to it that envelops the listener in just what Eilish was feeling when she recorded this.

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In a seemingly total 180, the EP transitions into “idontwannabeyouanymore,” a reflective and haunting ballad about a lack of self-acceptance that has seemingly engrossed so much of the world today as a result of the labels society puts on people. Though its far from a new concept, Eilish delivers an updated and signaturely brash version that is definitely worth a listen, if only for the absolute contrast that it employs from the rest of the tracks.

watch” is another highlight, where Eilish painstakingly details her inability to decide just why she and a boy can’t just get things right. She sings, “If we were meant to be, we would have been by now; See what you wanna see, but all I see is him right now.” Lyrically, this is one of my favorite songs featured on the EP. Her feelings of unrequited love really are universal and the production is witty, with the sound of a match being lit opening the song, for example.

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On “bellyache,” Billie Eilish sings from the perspective of a psychopath who is just now experiencing regret after choosing to murder her friends and lover. The song is entirely an imaginative work of fiction, but the significance of the track might be in the theme of regret. Sometimes people do things out of character, probably nothing as awful as murder, but don’t really feel guilt until the deed has been done. The song features very catchy production; it combines simple guitar strumming with futuristic synths.

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dont smile at me is certainly a unique piece of debut material, even in this era of moody, atmospheric pop that is currently dominating the charts: it goes even darker and employs more angst. I’m excited to hear what will come from Eilish in the space of a full length album, but its with the hopes that she further develops her soft, heartfelt side with more lyrical ballads.

Listen to dont smile at me on Spotify below:

 

 

“Half of my heart is in Havana …”

Just over a year after parting ways with Fifth Harmony, the X-Factor born girl group where Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello first got her start in the music industry, the singer now has scored herself a number one song on the Billboard Hot 100, a Billboard number one album that also topped the charts in over 100 countries upon release, and a world tour that sold out in just a day. Her debut album, Camilais a latin-inspired pop album that speaks to the soaring highs and the tragic lows of love with upbeat, modern production that references her roots in Cuba and Mexico.

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Though Camila Cabello originally intended to title the project The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving., after the success of her smash hit single “Havana” she pushed back the release date and went back into the studio to rework the album to be far more referential to Latin music and true to her heritage as a Cuban-American. Cabello was the lead writer on all of the songs on the album, which is especially poignant after she left her Fifth Harmony after feeling a lack of creative control and depth to her work.

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Camila Cabello, middle, featured with her former groupmates from Fifth Harmony.

Never Be the Same,” which serves as Cabello’s current single, is a heartfelt ballad where the singer speaks of a relationship that she knows isn’t good for her, but she can’t get away from it. The song uses drugs as a metaphor for her addiction to this kind of love: “just like nicotine, heroine, morphine, suddenly I’m a fiend and you’re all I need” and “just one hit of you, I knew I’ll never be the same.” Cabello’s shows off her vocal range on the track, utilizing her falsetto in the pre-chorus accompanied by waves of mesmerizing synthesizer sounds.

The album soon picks by the third track, “She Loves Control,” where Cabello tells the story of a woman, presumably herself, that seeks to be in control of her relationships. Cabello’s focus on an authentic Latin sound truly reveals itself here, as the track features a hard-hitting, danceable beat and Spanish guitar plucking that sounds like something that would be played all over Latin America.

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Fittingly, Cabello transitions  into “Havana” afterwards, serving up more sounds authentic to the artist’s upbringing. This song was Cabello’s breakout solo hit; the song is certified 3x Platinum in the US with over 3 millions sales. Lyrically, she talks about falling in love with a guy from Havana, where she was born. The song features a rap verse from Young Thug, the only feature on the album. The absolute success of this song really shows the burgeoning interest in America and global music markets for Latin music, alongside the success of songs like “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee.

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On “Consequences” and “Something’s Gotta Give,” Cabello sings forlornly about heartbreak, showcasing her songwriting talent more so than anywhere else on the album. “Consequences” is a heartfelt tale of a relationship that fell apart. Cabello at first sings fondly about the past, revealing that “loving you was sunshine, safe and sound,
a steady place to let down my defenses” but in the final chorus is entirely change to reflect her final thoughts on the past in retrospect:

Loving you was dumb, dark and cheap
Loving you still takes shots at me
Found loving you was sunshine, but then it poured
And I lost so much more than my senses
‘Cause loving you had consequences

On “Something’s Gotta Give,” the musician paints the picture of a relationship in the process of falling apart. Cabello knows something has to change, but she seems fully aware that nothing of the sort will happen. She laments that “No reason to stay is a good reason to go,” after realizing all the cracks widening between herself and her lover. Camila Cabello proves that she can truly write a killer ballad on this track, opting for a painfully emotional and raw delivery over the soaring vocals of the more uptempo tracks elsewhere on the album.

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Camila Cabello has quickly and assuredly established herself as one of the main voices in the pop music world, and Camila helps lay the foundation for even more success in the albums afterwards. This first solo release of hers might find its only fault in the conceptual singularity, though romance is clearly something very important to the singer. Regardless, Cabello shines here as a talented lyricist and an entity entirely independent of her past ties who is proud of her rich cultural upbringing and is ready to share it with the world.

Listen to Camila on Spotify below: