“Title Track” is a really appropriate opening for Death Cab for Cutie’s second record. It starts with the same raw, kind of muddy sounds and sad, lonely feeling found throughout the band’s debut record Something About Airplanes. But once the second verse hits, the band introduces a clear drum kit, a crisp set of electric guitar riffs and layers of production that show there is going to be a lot more depth on We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes than was offered before.
That happens throughout the record, which isn’t too different thematically as Something About Airplanes. This album still exists in a sad and wintery aesthetic with a cold mix of instrumentation and isolating vocals, but the band brings in new sounds that expand Death Cab’s musical and emotional range.
There’s slow, soft guitar work that isn’t just repeated acoustic chords, but is instead arpeggiated melodic lines that move. There’s distant organ chords on “The Employment Page” that add a thin layer of wallpaper as an accent along the edge of the track. There is a timing change and electronic textures on “For What Reason,” and some of the chime and harmonics scattered here and there on the back half of the record, mixed with layered guitar work and the more confident vocals. It all makes it a much more memorable project.
There still isn’t too much warmth to be found here, but it’s a lot less obviously doom and gloom than Something About Airplanes, and brings the band much closer to the style they’ll settle in on in the future. The more accessible drums, guitar mixes and Ben Gibbard’s confident vocals on “For What Reason,” “Lowell, MA,” and “405” are akin to Indie Pop singles of the late 90s and early 2000s, even if some of the overall darkness or sparseness still remains. The quicker, louder “Company Calls” brings a more alternative rock style that the band hadn’t explored before. The Epilogue and “No Joy In Mudville” are a return to overarching isolation but have more overall depth than tracks on the earlier album.
It all comes together as a more well-rounded project with a pretty clear vision that still isn’t fully accessible as a pop record but is much more interesting and captivating as an emo-influenced indie rock record. It lays the groundwork for what Death Cab will master a few years down the road, although the highlights aren’t quite as memorable, moving or heartfelt as they’ll become.
Death Cab for Cutie’s 1998 debut is far from the more accessible, sometimes cutesy and often relatable indie-pop music the band will become known for in the mid to late 2000s.
It’s a gritty, raw, gray and muted experience with limited hooks. The more DIY production quality kind of removes any chance of obvious warmth to shine through even when Ben Gibbard is bringing a bit more personality or quirkiness, and while tracks build in energy, there’s a consistent mid tempo, plodding feeling that kind of drains the life out of you.
It’s a far cry from peppy, upbeat future singles like “Soul Meets Body” or “Cath” or “You’re A Tourist.” And the really sad tracks on here – like the stellar “Your Bruise” — are less accessible and somewhat bleaker sounding than their future sad, personal but artistically captivating intimate tracks like “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” and “Lack of Color.”
I don’t actually mean any of this to sound like an insult. The album’s vision is clear, and in the often-times muddy, cold mix and production, the band can still hit on emotional marks and create an overall consistent feeling. They rely more on the complete package to make an impact, instead of individual well-written lyrical lines making the difference or having interesting guitar riffs get stuck in your head.
The album is pretty one dimensional start to finish, something that the band will rectify quickly moving forward, and a bit simple compared to some of the more intricate compositions they’ll release, but overall is an interesting look back at the start of Gibbard and Co. It shows they’ve been authentic from the beginning, while also contrasting with the maturity they show later on musically and lyrically.
What would happen if you took “Passionfruit,” removed the fun character of it and threw it on top of a watered down tropical house beat?
What would “One Dance” be like if you removed the memorable upbeat vocals and gave it a pre-set Fruity Loops Studio dance track?
These are questions nobody has ever asked themselves. But for some reason Drake felt the need to answer. And not just once, but 13 times across 52 minutes.
Drake has had some success with dance tracks in the past, but on his seventh studio album, Honestly, Nevermind, he deserts almost all elements of hip-hop and trap music to fully embrace dance beats.
The problem, beyond Drake segmenting some of his fanbase, is that the beats selected and the lines delivered are so watered down, so lazy and so unoriginal that there is nothing whatsoever that draws you in. Especially compared to his previous club, tropical house and dancehall-influenced songs — which aren’t always great, but can be a lot of fun and well timed to break up an album — each song on Honestly, Nevermind is a very clear cut below, if not multiple levels worse.
There’s not one song here that stands out, not one chorus that’s catchy enough to grab your attention, not one beat fun enough to get you up and on your feet. Everything is just the exact same level of bland and unimaginative.
Well, except for the final, 14th track on the record, which is a fine, traditional hip-hop song featuring 21 Savage (the only guest on the entire record). The track is fine, and of the expected quality of a normal cut on a normal Drake record. Here, it feels totally misplaced and unnecessary, although, if I do return to one song on this album, that would likely be the one.
Maybe a song from Honestly, Nevermind gets picked up for radio and becomes a hit thanks to a meme or TikTok (it tends to always happen with Drake), and maybe in the perfect situation a song from here will pop on and catch me at the right time for it to work, but I think that chances are pretty slim that I’ll change my mind on this one.
What this record does do is help highlight how long it’s really been since Drake released an album that was legitimately good.
I like Drake, but it’s been at least seven years since he produced a strong, concise project that worked all the way through. I’d argue that If You’re Reading This… is his last good record, and we’ve come a long way in hip-hop since 2015.
Drake will always produce mega hits, he’ll (almost) always have a few really solid songs on every record, and he’s still great at hopping on the right person’s track for a well-placed feature. And he has some timeless tracks and tracks that are perfect for certain situations. But at this point, until Drake proves otherwise, I think we can stop anticipating his albums as momentous releases that could one day be seen as a classic, and just wait to enjoy the few songs that end up popping.
For this reason, Honestly, Nevermind is aptly named.
Person One “Oh wow, Drake dropped a surprise album? I’m going to have to check that out!”
Person Two: “Yeah, it’s listed under dance music, not hip-hop, and has no features.”
Shame’s 2018 debut Songs of Praise was my second favorite punk album of the 2010s, behindIdles’ Joy as an Act of Resistance. Praise was fun, high-energy alternative rock that was easy to listen to and straightforward in a good way for post-punk music.
When Drunk Tank Pink came out three years later, I was not at all expecting the massive jump in creativity and musicianship that the band made. They matured from a band of kids sounding like they were having a good time, into a band that had painstakingly pieced together every section of every song.
Musically, they went into an extremely technical rock mindset, focusing heavily on syncopations, time signature shifts, melodic rounds and guitar layering. The songs still feel conventional because, at its simplest form, all the tracks are guitar, bass, drums and vocals, but they don’t particularly follow conventional structures either. There are abrupt tempo changes that kind of knock you on your ass at times, with songs building in intensity and speeding up before you get a double time release and climax of noise.
Punk music can sometimes be overlooked for its musical creativity or mischaracterized as repetitive, because even some simple sounding phrases can be deceivingly complex. But there’s nothing deceptive here, this is impressive work.
I enjoy every track on the record, but there are few things that really get me excited every time I listen from track 3-6. “Born in Luton” is a masterpiece, and the guitar just bursts in right onto the scene with commanding intensity before the rhythm guitar begins Talking Heads-style dance-punk clicks and strumming. That alone would be great, but the track’s slowed, almost shoegaze-styled chorus takes it up to the next level. The next track, “March Day” then ups the ante with some unconventional time signatures, throwing in an extra two beats that leave you off kilter and a groovy bassline that connects it all together as the song builds in intensity and chaos. “Water In The Well” is more of a traditional post-punk track, but still messes around with timing. “Snow Day” is darker and softer, with a big climactic outro right after the bridge where the time shifts, creating one of the strongest moments on the album.
DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. is a pioneering album that set the standard for sample-driven instrumentals in electronic and hip-hop music, and solidified the sound that would come out of most trip-hop artists for the rest of the decade.
Sample-heavy music absolutely existed prior to 1996. However, having an album created almost entirely from obscure record samples, one that also carried emotional weight and creative energy in the same way a song with original vocals would, was something pretty unique.
Similarly, trip-hop existed before Endtroducing..…, with Portishead, Tricky, Massive Attack, Bjork and others crafting the genre from the ground up in the early 1990s. DJ Shadow himself had influential songs that defined the genre early, years before his debut record was released in 1996. But, while the trippy and laid-back part of the genre was there already, what Endtroducing.… introduced was a new depth in the layering and sound engineering process, and demonstrated how intricate a producer could get in stitching various elements together in instrumental mixes.
Creating an anatomospherice album that feels raw and urban, cold and bleak at times, and that doesn’t have many unsampled vocals to add warmth or life to the songs should not be something that demands your attention as much as this album does. But, even when the repetitive songs stretch past seven minutes, it’s impossible not to feel fully ingrained in your surroundings.
The samples are blended together in a way that feels seamless, but that also feels like freeform jazz; you never know what will come next but it’s still precisely crafted. The sounds pile up like snow on a winter day, but smoothly glide like ice across the top of a puddle.
The funky basslines. The hypnotizing drum loops and dizzying turntables scratches. The trippy vaporwave string and electronic samples. The eerie pianos, harps and vocals. They all work hand in hand. Most of the time, you can’t tell that it’s all been patched together from different sources.
The entire album works as a whole, but most tracks also stand on their own and bring something interesting or clever to the mix.
“Number Song” has a relentless drum kit loop, a funky beat switch halfway through for the bridge before returning back, and various samples that count in the beat. “Changeling” is a classic, extended trip-hop track, taking you on a journey that’s sounds evolve and change as you get deeper into the adventure. The earliest “What Does Your Soul Look Like – Pt. 4” has jazzy drums and a memorable, soulful bass, while “Pt. 1” (which appears later on the record as the penultimate track) has laidback DJ scratches, and a reflective, pensive vibe that’s appropriate for the end of a record.
One of the standouts is “Stem/Long Stem.” Its snowy bells and haunting harp and strings set the mood before mechanical, machine-gun drumming gets more and more intense until abruptly being interrupted and starting up again, the final reprise building through trumpets and synths instead of percussion.
The album is a bit long and at an hour and three minutes is draining. There is some fat that you could trim — “Transmission 2” is just a preview of a song later on the album, the interludes are harmless but don’t really add too much, and some of the white space in song intros and outros could be tightened up without losing anything — to get a pared down 50 or 55 minutes that’s a little easier to sit through every moment of each time.
It’s also repetitive by design, because the point of the genre is to sit and settle in over time and to groove with the music as it morphs in a familiar and a hypnotic kind of way. But the lack of melody to grasp onto at times does lend itself to the “background music” criticism from folks not totally into the genre itself. If it’s background music, it’s damn good background music.
Harry Styles has gotten really good at making pop records that still feel like indie music, even though there isn’t anything indie about a former member of a boyband who puts out a few smash Top-40 hits every two years.
The lyrics and concepts sometimes lack substance on Harry’s House, and are obviously catered directly to his audience and his fan’s demographics (calling a song “Music For a Sushi Restaurant” is something clearly for the obsessive playlist creators of the Instagram/TikTok generation). But it’s a charming performance, and the music and production is fun throughout.
Upbeat moments like the opener, “Late Night Talks,” and “Daydreaming” use horns over dancy basslines and funky synths or guitar, inspired by the likes of Prince, Earth, Wind and Fire, and others. “As It Was” is a quick indie-inspired track with clapping percussion; soft, modulating indietronica keys; and some friendly, harmless electronic hints.
“Daylight” is more laidback, with daydream-styled versus and some Tame Impala-influenced bursts of energy. “Matilda” is your typical acoustic, personal sad-guy guitar ballad, but it works.
Some of his classic softer tracks like “Grapejuice,” and “Boyfriend” fall flat for me here, or are a bit too directly corny for my taste, like “Cinema” and “Little Freak.” But the music is still pleasant enough, and they do give the album some variety. It’s the acoustic guitar and sometimes funky strumming on these tracks that allow Harry to keep that indie-pop vibe, even if the music is probably a lot closer to The Weeknd’s brand of pop than a lot of fans might be willing to admit.
The concept of a comeback record wasn’t really a thing in hip-hop back in 2005. One reason, and a big one, is that the genre was still relatively new at the time. With only 20 years or so of history — and closer to about 13 years as a genre producing hits at a relatively consistent basis — there weren’t too many opportunities for artists to fade away and come back.
But additionally, “the comeback” just didn’t mesh with the trajectory of most hip hop artists. Some stars from the early days were still in their primes, and never left the spotlight. For a typical rapper though, they would have a big breakout hit or record, they’d enjoy their moment in the sun for a few years, and then the shine would slowly dim and be replaced by someone else’s. Maybe they’d have a nostalgic single come out here or there, or a guest feature that reminded people they were still around, but that was kind of it.
Common looked like he was going to fit that second description. He was an underground hip-hop favorite through the 1990s, debuting with 1992’s Can I Borrow a Dollar? and gaining critical acclaim and a name for himself following Resurrection’s releasein 1994. Commercially, he didn’t really getting too much play until the late 90s and early 2000s, when he started collaborating on projects with like minded artists J Dilla, Questlove, Bilal, Erykah Badu and old friends like Q-Tip, Mos Def and rappers Talib Kweli.
He was a fine feature on songs, had a friendly delivery and was able to throw down a smart line or two here and there, but, outside of Resurrection, was hardly a big star and never really put everything together on his own record again. After 2002’s Electric Circus failed to really move the needle, it seemed like Common would be joining the ranks of countless other 90s rappers who were more or less out of the game.
Be in 2004 was a comeback record in the truest sense. It revived Common’s career, as he returned to form while also displaying the maturity and wisdom he had gained since his early years. And teaming up with Kanye West to produce the project made it all click. His charm, his conscious rap style, his confidence, his distinct voice and convincing flow all came together and met the perfect music at the perfect time.
What makes Be so great is the nearly flawless selection of samples used to create soulful, gentle, moving and smart-sounding music that’s equal parts serious, fun and welcoming. And not one track over the breezy 42 minute runtime feels one bit out of place. It’s also as tight an album as you can find. Everything melds together perfectly to create a cohesive work. Each song individually is almost just as effective as the album as a whole.
When discussing Be musically, you have to start from the beginning. You’d be hard pressed to find an opening track on any album that showcases exactly what the rest of the record will be like as perfectly as the intro on Be. The slow string bass riff artistically and calmly welcomes you to the program, and as it speeds up, pianos and a synth are layered in before the soulful violin sample takes over and introduces Common’s poetic opening verse about free spirits, death and resurrection, and embracing and appreciating new beginnings while acknowledging the troubles that surround us.
Throughout the record, samples and backing voices — which on most albums would be used as small, filtered flourishes or to add a little color — are crystal clear and used here as dominant vocals and hooks more often than not. “Faithful,” and “Testify” are prime examples, where John Legend’s vocals on “They Say” have the same effect. Kanye’s sometimes uncredited vocals on hooks for songs like “The Corner,” “GO!” and “The Food” are also effective in varying the different voices you hear throughout the record, and giving you some time to rest and digest between Common verses.
The album has a few tracks that are a little more aggressive or tough sounding, like “The Corner” and “Chi-City,” that serve as pretty good changes of pace. However, while they might feel a little more raw or underground compared to the other tracks, the mix is so clean you lose a lot of that more authentic grime you’d want in a song like that.
Another slight criticism in a similar vein is that Common clearly sees himself as part of the conscious rap movement, and somewhat acts the part, but in a way that is far more digestible to a commercial audience than contemporaries like Mos Def, Talib Kweli or Lupe Fiasco after him. It’s smart, but feels like it’s a little basic or watered down thematically and lyrically even if it sounds good and works ultimately.
Overall, Be is Common at his best, and Kanye West — who is in peak form as a producer — curates the album to really capture Common’s abilities and feelings, and also sound so perfectly made for its era, when production was getting more and more rich. That’s not to take away from the great beats legends like No I.D. and J Dilla (who has two songs here as well) were able to put together for him earlier in his career, but what Kanye added was some commercial accessibility without it feeling like Common was selling out. It took Common to a different level, one where his critical acclaim in the hip-hop world was finally being met in the rest of the music world.
Finding Forever is the victim of being in the shadow of the classic Common album that came out just a few years prior.The albumis a clear step down from Be, both for Common as an emcee and for Kanye West as a producer. It’s not nearly as cohesive, and switching slightly from the warm, friendly soul samples on Be to something a little more mystical, spacey and less obviously upbeat at times isn’t the same vibe.
But, with some distance and without comparing it to the album that came before it, I think Finding Forever is actually quite good, and is an underrated record that can stand up for itself.
While not strictly soul-influenced, this is still close to peak Kanye West on a production and concept level. Almost every track fits together, and Common’s performance slides right in again so naturally.
“Start the Show” — with its grand, building chorus and cluttered but fun verses — and “The People” — a classic, catchy Common delivery with a smooth and intricate Kanye beat and soothing Dwele hook — are a fabulous one-two punch to open the record, and flow right into “Makin Me Wild.”
“Southside” has a bit more of a playful hook, while Kanye and Common trade lines back and forth in a fun way. “The Game” and “Break My Heart” also have all the calling cards of a Kanye song — muted horn samples, scratchy drum kicks and vocals that are pitched and chopped up.
“I Want You” and “Misunderstood,” — which are two of the three tracks not produced by Kanye — still sonically fit into the record, but both seem like a step below the rest. Will.i.am’s feature and slightly more pop-influenced sounds on “I Want You,” in particular, don’t really add anything to the record.
However, “So Far To Go” — the other track by an outside producer — is probably my favorite on the entire album. Rapping over a classic J Dilla flip of an Isley Brothers sample, and with the elusive D’Angelo singing backing vocals, the track draws me right in. Musically it’s beautiful in a chill, relaxing kind of way. Even though it was already included on Dilla’s posthumously 2006 album, this slightly altered version fits in really well here and feels like a fitting tribute, and a moment of zen and reflection in the middle of the record.
There was a lot to be excited about in late 2008, when Common was about to release new music. Common was coming off of his two most successful albums, and was about to make the third of his deal with GOOD Music. Kanye West was back to executive produce, and was also coming off his biggest year to that point. The Neptunes, who produce the majority of the record, were making a bit of a comeback of their own.
But sometimes, too much of a good thing can ruin something you were looking forward to. In the case of Universal Mind Control, I think the three parties involved were feeling themselves a little too much.
Pivoting entirely away from the mature, subtle and laid-back vibes of his previous two records, Common fully goes for a radio-friendly, upbeat album filled with supposed club tracks. The title track — which served as the lead single and opener for the record — does a good enough job to set the party’s mood and to make it feel like the album could actually work. There are upbeat, trance-like drums, booming synths and bass, and fun, electronic riffs.
After that, though, things go downhill, and fast. Compared to Be and Finding Forever, the beats are simplistic and dull, with trademark Neptunes and Kanye techniques being overexaggerated in an almost comical way at times. There are Pharrell four-counts to start almost every track, some egregious to an almost comical level. Drum tracks are mechanical and lack bounce or creativity. Vocal samples chops are in-your-face, and the mix is so crisp that everything sounds one level.
Common’s performance itself is also lackluster. His lyrics are sterighforward, overtly sexual at times and lack any of the more mature themes or sentimentality of his past records. Sure, there are a few moments here and there that end up being fun, but most of the time it feels overdone, even cringy.
Common seems like a nice guy, and I could see myself going to a museum or a dinner party with him. But he never would have been my first pick to go clubbing with. Universal Mind Control I think cements those feelings.
I remember the night To Pimp A Butterfly came out. The album’s two lead singles helped build up hype in Kendrick Lamar’s fanbase — which had slowly but steadily grew in size since 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was released three years earlier — and for music critics, who hailed the rapper as one of the genre’s most creative minds after just one studio album.
Released a little before midnight and with work in the morning, I threw the album on, but didn’t know if I would have it in me to fight through my tiredness. Should I stay up, or just go to bed and listen first thing in the morning?
Within the first minute and a half of “Wesley’s Theory,” my mind had been made up. For the next hour and 18 minutes I knew I was in for something special.
I don’t know what exactly I expected To Pimp A Butterfly to sound like, but whatever it is that “Wesley’s Theory” is — a funky, psychedelic, jazz experiment produced by Flying Lotus, with multiple layers of soul vocals, old school, screeching West Coast synths and Thundercat’s distinctive bass slapping — was something I had never heard before on a hip-hop record. That feeling is carried throughout the record, both musically and lyrically.
Similar to what Kanye West did for hip-hop in the mid 2000s — expanding the understanding of what hip-hop as a genre could do, with more lush, colorful production, and bringing a huge roster of collaborators together to vary the sounds, voices and personalities found song to song — Kendrick here redefines how deep, how personal, how political and how innovative a hip-hop record can truly be.
The beats and music are sometimes through-composed, constantly shifting and morphing to match his vocals. The lyrics are smart, powerful, memorable, sometimes catchy and sometimes unexpected, and Kendrick’s various voices and inflections perfectly match his themes and the characters he forms through his stories. Elements like saxophone and clarinet solos, background conversations, brief interludes and harmonies, are continuously added to the album to keep the listener on their toes.
He achieves all of this while staying true to himself and being grounded in his roots — West Coast production flairs, snippets from hometown heroes like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and themes that revisit his old songs and Compton life.
Compare almost any song on To Pimp A Butterfly with a typical hip-hop hit from 2013-14, and the chasm between the two makes Kendrick’s tracks almost feel like a different genre. But looking at some of the things artists have put out since, it’s impossible not to credit Kendrick for removing any preconceived constraints of the genre and inspiring the intricacies in storytelling and album building seen from the likes of Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples, Danny Brown, JID and others.
That point, to me — the vast pallet Kendrick formed and made accessible to a wider audience, not only for himself, but for others — is just as impressive as any of the poignant and timely statements about racial empowerment, social justice and police brutality Kendrick makes throughout the album.
While every track on To Pimp A Butterfly is good, I do prefer listening to good kid, m.A.A.d city. Some of the weightier themes and slower moments on Butterfly drag at times, making the album feel long. And the best tracks on good kid are more fun and better to listen to on repeat, because To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t supposed to be an easy, laid back experience.
Still, To Pimp A Butterfly is almost undoubtedly Kendrick Lamar’s most important album — the most important socially, the most important for the genre, and the most important for his own career — making it one of the five or six greatest hip-hop records of all time.