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.

 

 

D’Angelo and the Vanguard Review: Black Messiah

D’Angelo and the Vanguard

Black Messiah

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After reading Questlove’s phenomenal memoir Mo Meta Blues, my biggest surprise coming away from the book was the way Questlove talked about his work with R&B vagabond D’Angelo (he produced his first two albums). Questlove sounds like a father talking about his first born son. When we saw D’Angelo’s first live performance in a number of years at the 2012 Bonnaroo Superjam, Questlove went as far as calling his favorite R&B singer. You could tell that even though Questlove has had tons of success with the Roots and a number of other projects, D’Angelo was his true passion project.
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Beyoncé Review: BEYONCÉ

Beyoncé

BEYONCÉ

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Most Best of the Year lists arrive at the beginning of December, almost a whole month before the year is actually over, because most media outlets get advanced copies of most everything and want to be the first to publish their lists. Beyoncé tricked the media cycle by releasing her latest self-titled album, which came out December 13th at midnight with no prior media knowledge of the release; the album is a visual album, with a high-budget video for each song. Not only is the album well-thought out for such a surprisingly  sudden release, but it’s also her most experimental album and her best that I have heard, though I have only admittedly listened to her last 3 albums.
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Top Ten Thursday: Hova’s Finest

Top Ten Jay-Z Songs

Jay-Z, aka H.O.V.A., aka Jigga, aka Sean Carter, aka Mr. Beyonce, is coming off a universally lambasted and a commercial flop in Magna Carta…Holy Grail, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t love Jay. Jay-Z may have lost his King of Hip Hop throne to his Watch the Throne co-star and his former disciple/producer Kanye West (who we also gave top ten treatment recently), but Jay still owns the stage as well as any rapper and has wrangled up a whole slew of hits over his 17 year career. We spoke on Magna Carta…Holy Grail , Monday, now here is our Ten Favorite Songs from Jigga.
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Beyonce’s Halftime Show Review

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Ahhh the Super Bowl. Americas most viewed day of television. The day where without any excuse or regard, it is not only acceptable but encouraged to gorge yourself with incredibly unhealthy food and drink. Generally shared with a group of friends or family, and whether you care about the sport of football or not, it is destined to be a fun day for all. Yes, it comes with down sides. For instance, Baltimore winning last night was quite the let-down. Joe Flacco taking home the MVP trophy was even a bit more of a disappointment. But aside from certain teams winning or losing, peoples expectations of everything that surrounds the game are set very high. The commercials for instance, are even critiqued and ridiculed as if the one purpose they serve is to thoroughly entertain the viewer, not advertise a product to them. And of course, we have the halftime show. The sometimes dreaded (Black Eyed Peas), sometimes scandalous (JT and Janet Jackson), and sometimes decrepit (Rolling Stones/Paul McCartney) halftime show. This year, was not any of these things. In fact, quite the opposite. This year we were blessed with watching one of the most beautiful creatures that walks this Earth do what she does best: Entertain. The one and only Mrs. Carter. Sasha Fierce. The Queen of Single Ladies everywhere. Blue Ivy’s Mom. Beyonce!

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Finally, Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace Album Details

Atoms for Peace album details

After about three years of speculation, Atoms for Peace, Thom Yorke’s other band not named Radiohead, released album details yesterday, and 2/3rds of LxL couldn’t be more excited about it. I say 2/3rds because Austin is luke-warm on Radiohead and Thom Yorke, but Todd and I both saw Atoms for Peace a few years ago alongside Jay-Z and Beyonce (another story for another time) and were blown away. For the uninitiated, Atoms for Peace consists of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, renowned producer Nigel Godrich, Beck drummer Joey Waronker, and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco. Not a bad group of musicians to say the least.
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Nicki Minaj Review: Unique Doesn’t Always Mean Good

Nicki Minaj

Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded

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I think most people would agree that while Pink Friday was a supreme disappointment, bordering on unmitigated disaster.  Featuring a wide array of terrible samples and unnecessary guest spots, Nicki’s debut was bland by her frenetic standards.  Not only was Pink Friday bland, it also revealed her greatest flaw as an artist: self-awareness.  I believe this flaw is why Nicki has shined more on tracks with other established artists than on tracks where she is the focal point (Kanye’s “Monster”, Lil’ Wayne’s “What’s Wrong With Them”, Young Money’s “F*** da Bullsh**”).  And in fact the one track from Pink Friday that spoke to her potential was “Roman’s Revenge”, which had the creative imprint of Eminem all over it. 

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