LxL’s Surprise Album Power Rankings

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This spring has been full of musical surprises like no other year. Five major artists announced and released albums as a surprise on short notice, and instead of breaking each of them down in separate reviews, we thought it best to rank and mini-review each album. So here are our spring 2016 surprise album power rankings.

5. Drake – Views

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Surprise Level:

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Since Drake’s 2015 mixtape If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late and his phone jam “Hotline Bling”, people have been anticipating the tentatively-titled Views from the 6 for almost two years. Then on April 4th, Drake finally announced the album with a slightly shortened title, Views. The album finally dropped at midnight on April 28th exclusively in Apple Music.

Best Moments: “One Dance”, “Child’s Play”, “Hotline Bling”

After two years of anticipation of a big Drake magnum opus, Views is certainly ambitious at 20 songs but falls flat. Drake seems stuck in neutral for his past few releases, unable to move forward emotionally or musically.

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The album suffers from being about 8 songs too long and some poor sequencing as well. The album only picks up speed about 10 songs in, when its biggest highlights hit. “Child’s Play” has Drake singing playfully about America’s favorite restaurant, “One Dance” is Drake picking up the dancehall vibe and running with it, and “Hotline Bling” which was tacked on the end of the album to just boost some sales. Mostly Views is severely disappointing.

Verdict: Leave Drake alone on his perch.

4. James Blake – The Colour In Anything

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Surprise Level:

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In November 2014, the neo-soul electronic musician James Blake said he was mostly done with his third album and it would be released in spring 2015. This, of course, didn’t happen. In February 2015, some rumors surfaced that the album would finally be coming out soon but without a date. On April 28th, Blake released some photos on his social media revealing the album title, and then a few days later on May 6th, Blake released the album at midnight.

Best Moments: “I Need a Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver)”, “I Hope My Life”, “Timeless”, “Choose Me”

James Blake is someone I have been lukewarm on for two albums, but his latest, The Colour In Anything, showcases why he’s one of the most sonically interesting musicians around. Beyond having a smooth and soulful voice, Blake undercuts and contrasts his voice with an incredible range of sonic distortion, electronic dissonance, and range in audio dynamics, going from extremely soft and sweet to an all-out alarming mix of noise.

Blake also knows how to build a hypnotic and arresting album like few others. “Love Me In Whatever Way” is a great example of how James repeats a phrase as the sonic waves build higher and higher before consuming him. “Timeless” showcases his ability to pick a variety of seemingly dissonant sounds that whirl together in wonderful and interesting ways. “I Hope My Life” takes the cold synth-pop of 80’s greats like the Eurythmics and the Pet Shop Boys to great new heights.

Verdict: Give James a(nother) shot

3. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

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Surprise Level: 

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Experimental rock greats Radiohead are a band that certainly needs no introduction, and a band that is known for experimenting with surprise releases ever since 2007’s In Rainbows when the band allowed fans to “pay what you want” for the album.

The latest release cycle started on May 1st when the band deleted their internet presence entirely, deleting all posts from their social media and taking their site Dead Air Space down. Then the band released teaser videos on May 3rd before finally releasing the first single and video “Burn the Witch.” A couple days later (May 6th), they released a second single and another video, this time the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) video for “Daydreaming.” The same day the band announced the albums release on May 8th, where the album A Moon Shaped Pool, was released on all streaming and download services including Apple Music, Google, and Spotify, which Radiohead and previously criticized and kept their music off of.

Best Moments: “Burn the Witch”, “Daydreaming”, “Identikit”, “True Love Waits”

The best comparison for Radiohead’s latest is 2007’s In Rainbows, where Radiohead created a truly beautiful record. In the same way, A Moon Shaped Pool has plenty of experimentation (primarily from the dissonant strings and orchestration of guitarist Jonny Greenwood) but at its core, it’s pretty Radiohead: Thom Yorke singing tenderly over lush piano and orchestration singing with tenderness and urgency.

Lead track and single “Burn the Witch” was a song made for our times. Over menacing strings, the song drives an arrow through our irrational, witch-hunting, outrage culture which has led to this insane political climate and social media mess we live in. Like much of Radiohead’s music, the album drips with the danger of an impending apocalypse, the darkness lurking right around the corner.

A Moon Shaped Pool is one of their most listenable albums, but also subtly brilliant in its detail. These little touches and flourishes on each song take these songs from good to great. “Identikit”, which was produced in Jack White’s Third Man studios, showcases the sophistication of drummer Phil Selway and each player adds layers of complement and turmoil. “Decks Dark” has almost an operatic tension as the haunting choir is a cloud hovering over Thom Yorke’s voice and piano.

“True Love Waits” is an incredible example of Radiohead’s timing and brilliance. The song was written in in 1995 and has been played occasionally live, but has never found an album home. Now, 21 years later, “True Love Waits” is the perfect, poignant close to Radiohead’s prettiest album.

Verdict: The rock champs are back

Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

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Surprise Level: 

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Chicago rapper and pride of the South Side Chance the Rapper released his third mixtape Coloring Book at 11PM on May 12th. The mixtape was initially announced to release soon on April 4th, with Chance announcing the official release date on his live TV debut of “Blessings”, his second single off the mixtape (“Angels” was released and performed on ate night month’s earlier). The album released exclusively on Apple Music for two weeks, giving Apple another leg up towards catching Spotify in the streaming races.

Best Moments: “No Problem”, “Summer Friends”, “How Great”, “Blessings”

Taking some notes from his musical hero and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, Coloring Book is an ambitious step forward for Chance and similarly straddles the secular and spiritual like much of Kanye’s work. Chance, though, leans heavily on the side of spiritual, since Coloring Book is more gospel as the main course with a side of hip hop and R&B. Chance’s mix of the best in hip hop and R&B production into gospel breathes new and fresh life into a genre of music that played an incredibly important role in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll and soul.

Chance takes his child-like faith and boundless joy and puts it on record for all to hear, also showcasing the best of his home community. Turning on the nightly news, you tend to hear nothing but sad stories from the South Side of Chicago, but Chance paints a different story: a talented community filled with hope in the face of adversity, and faith that can move mountains. “No Problem” just jumps out of your earbuds with joy, “Summer Friends” snaps and crackles with incredible production with an assist from Francis and the Lights, and “How Great” somehow takes CCM anthem “How Great Is Our God”, auto-tunes it, adds a bunch of clever bible rhymes (“The type of worship make Jesus come back a day early”) and actually makes it sound cool and not corny. I’ve heard from a handful of people who were Chance skeptics who have said Coloring Book has made them believers.

Verdict: Glory Glory! Hail the new king of Chicago rap

1. Beyoncé – Lemonade

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Surprise Level: 

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Beyoncé released lead single “Formation” right before her Superbowl performance in Feburary, making millions come to the shocking revelation that Beyoncé is black. Beyoncé then announced a mysterious video project on HBO called “Lemonade”, and turns out it was the debut of her new visual album Lemonade. The brilliance of Lemonade  as a visual experience and piece of musical expression instantly made the internet go crazy, as did the witch hunt from Beyoncé’s fan base to find the woman that Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé with. President Obama could cheat on Michelle and it would be less of a thing.

Best Moments: “Hold Up”, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, “Sorry”, “Freedom”, “Formation”

Beyoncé’s last album was a self-titled surprise release during the holiday season in 2014, another visual album with a different video for each song. Lemonade, is a truly cohesive musical film, as Beyoncé wrestles with her husband’s infidelity in 11 different emotional phases (Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, and Hope and Redemption). Beyond looking as good as Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, Lemonade explores more musical flavors than any album before. “Hold Up” has Beyoncé on the verge of losing it with a reggae-tinged reworking of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” by saying “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you.” “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is Beyoncé finally letting her anger free with a thrashing rock track with the help of Jack White. “Daddy Lessons” is a southern-gospel flavored country tune with singing about her childhood. “Freedom” is an empowering anthem for anyone with obstacles to overcome, and specifically with the help of “Kendrick Lamar”, stands as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s incredibly rare for someone to reach their artistic peak nearly 20 years into their career, but Beyoncé is finally reaching her creative peak, and it’s awesome to hear.

Verdict: Beyoncé accomplished what Kanye couldn’t: making people buy Tidal and not be angry about it.

 

 

LxL’s Surprise Album Power Rankings

LxListening: Rocking and Rolling

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Rock music has really fallen far in the last two decades, being replaced by hip hop, pop, and then electronic music as the primary musical language of the day. While it once ruled the musical landscape for about 40 years (about 1955-1995), rock music is quickly becoming like jazz, a genre for a sub culture, rather than popular culture. So in some ways, liking rock music makes me (and maybe you) a bit of an old fogy. Whether it’s the predominant music of the day or just part of a subculture, either way, there will always be vibrant, exciting rock music just as there is always vibrant, exciting jazz music.

Early 2016 is no exception. Several of my favorite rock bands going released albums or singles as well as a few new bands I’m excited about. Here are six songs from bands that keep rocking and rolling even into 2016.

 

“Mother of the Sun” – Black Mountain

Quite simply, this is a mountain of a song. If you are a fan of 70’s hard rock and heavy metal like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, there really probably is no better modern band for you to listen to. Trippy, heavy riffs that just serve as body blows. The perfect male/female rock vocal duo in Amber Webber and Stephen McBean as if they were transported straight out of 1970. Yet they have enough experimentation and songwriting craft to not just be a carbon copy of those 70’s rock bands.

 

“Dust” – Parquet Courts

“Dust” is the perfect anthem for cleaning your house. What a strange, funny, and surprisingly existential song it is from the fine Texas band, Parquet Courts. They have some of my favorite guitar/bass interplay since the Strokes. Now you have no excuse not to clean.

 

“Black Lipstick” – Chicano Batman

Receiving the blessing of Jack White, L.A. band Chicano Batman isn’t just one of the best named bands around – they are also one of the most interesting bands around. Combining psychedelic soul, Brazilian tropicalia, Latin blues, and soul into one amusing musical melting pot, I can’t wait to see these guys live.

 

“The Wheel” – PJ Harvey

In a year of political division, alt-rock great PJ Harvey is making political anthems for the people. Her new album releasing this week, The Hope Six Demolition Project, is filled with catchy yet piercing rebel anthems standing up for the people of England and those around the world, continuing her political bent started on her last album, 2011’s Let England Shake.

 

“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” – Car Seat Headrest

Young guitar and singer/songwriting prodigies appear to be popping up left and right. Courtney Barnett was our obsession the last two years, and I think its safe to say, Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest might be ours this year. In addition to writing my favorite rock song so far this year, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is a stunning two-sided song starting tender and coyly before finishing with triumphant and biting guitar.

 

“The Answer” – Savages

Measured in pure riffage and intensity, it’s really hard to beat Savages. Jehnny Beth looks pretty much possessed on stage, and the rest of the band plays with the precision of Joy Division and the force of the Stooges. They are truly a sight to see.

LxListening: Rocking and Rolling

LxListening: Sweet 2016

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It’s been a modest yet somewhat surprising first few months of music in 2016. We had a crazy sloppy album release from the former best rapper on the planet (Kanye West with Life of Pablo), and a quiet surprise release from the current best rapper on the planet (Kendrick Lamar with Untitled Unmastered). We’ve had a lot of old favorites come out with some solid releases (M. Ward, Mavis Staples, Santigold), and a few breakout artists catch me by surprise (Anna Meredith, TEEN, Anderson .Paak). Here are five of my favorite songs so far to come out in 2016.

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LxListening: Sweet 2016

LxL’s Top 10 Movies of 2015

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The 88th Academy Awards will take place this Sunday, and although we at LxL loathe such one-sided, money driven, political award machines, we also love our movies. So here are our thoughts on 2015’s crop of fun films. Not all of us have everything we would have liked to have seen from last year, so as always feel free to call us out on what we missed. Also, sadly you will not see Star Wars on the list, but know that it does hold dearly a special place in all of our hearts. Onto the list:

10. Love & Mercy
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If we are all being honest, biopics run a dime a dozen theses days and most of them are only about half as interesting/true as we want them to be. However, we are a music blog and have a soft spot for the post-fake surf and pre-bed ridden Brian Wilson years. Love & Mercy does a good job breaking the mold on the standard biopic, and really shows an interesting perspective of a mad musical genius ahead of his time, taken advantage of by friends and drugs… but not exactly in the party crazed rock n roll way you might be thinking.
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LxL’s Top 10 Movies of 2015

Kanye West Review: The Life of Pablo

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Life of Pablo

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“Name one genius that ain’t crazy.” So says rap’s Donald Drumpf, Kanye West on his new album and self-proclaimed “greatest ever album” The Life of Pablo. Kanye’s last month of public behavior have certainly put into serious question his current mental health, Kanye is at least self-conscious enough to realize he isn’t the first artist to have some mental instability. Pablo Picasso has been an often made comparison in terms of creativity and behavior, and while on the surface it seems completely crazy to compare Picasso and Kanye, to his credit, Kanye has influenced the last ten years in popular music more than any other artist and has tried his hand in several styles.
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Kanye West Review: The Life of Pablo

3 Things the Grammys Got Right

Kendrick Lamar performs at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
Kendrick Lamar performs at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

Let’s be honest: of the four major award shows – the Emmy’s (TV), Grammys (Music), Oscars (Movies), and Tony’s (Theatre) – the Grammys is probably the worst and least representative of what is truly the best in its field. We’ve covered that plenty over the last five years but if anyone knows me, I like to focus on the positive. I’m a glass half-full type. That proved especially difficult with maddening snubs for Best Song, New Artist, and Album of the Year and just an overall boring broadcast. But I’ll do my best. So here are the three things the 2016 Grammy’s got right.

Hamilton gets its moment in the spotlight

Hamilton has been the biggest musical smash since Book of Mormon, and it rightfully crossed over from the Tony’s into the Grammy’s for a live performance and incredible rapped acceptance speech from creator and star Lin Manuel Miranda. It was a big wakeup from the first 1.5 hours of the awards show that was nothing but snoozy adult-contemporary singing.

Genre awards were largely correct

Whether it was Alabama Shakes winning Best Alternative album, Kendrick winning Best Rap Album, Chris Stapleton winning Best Country Album, or D’Angelo winning best R&B album, several great songs and albums actually won awards. In terms of sub-categories, this is probably the highest hit-rate a Grammy night has had in the last 10 years.

Kendrick getting awards two years after getting snubbed out for Macklemore

Two years after getting snubbed  for all the rap awards to white-rapper Macklemore, the Grammys do what the Grammys do best: make up for a previous wrong. Not completely, but at least in part. This has been done time and time again, and it usually happens with rock bands 30-40 years after their heyday, but fortunately, the Grammys actually got it right with Kendrick Lamar sweeping the rap categories. They certainly screwed up Album of the Year going with Taylor Swift over Kendrick, but that’s not a huge surprise (Speakerboxx/The Love Below by Outkast was the only time a rapper has won Best Album of the Year, and half of that album isn’t really hip hop at all).

Kendrick also delivered easily the best performance of the night, starting by pointing to the injustice towards Blacks in our prison system with “Blacker the Berry”, than going crazy with a huge bonfire and tribal dancers with the Grammy-award winning song “Alright”, and finally debuting a new song where Kendrick raps better and faster than anyone else. It was one of the few thrilling performances in a largely drowsy night.

3 Things the Grammys Got Right

LxL’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2015

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Award season is upon us, with the Golden Globes just in the rearview mirror and the Oscars upcoming. It’s the one time of year we allow ourselves to move away from music and dip our toes into movies and TV. We are still very much in the golden age of television, and these 10 shows are just the tip of the iceberg of all the great TV out there.
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LxL’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2015