Beyonce – “Lemonade”

(Photo Credit: honourmymystique.com)Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Freedom,” “Formation”

Beyonce’s previous album, one of the only albums that I’ve felt deserved a self-title, was a masterpiece ode to love, sex, celebrity and family. And it’s release was revolutionary, the kind previously reserved to more predictably innovative acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. So expectations were high coming in to her next album, and although we’ve gotten an entirely different album than what we expected, it’s every bit as good, if not better, than expectations.

“Beyonce” felt like she was opening the doors into the private life of her and Jay-Z, into a world we shouldn’t really be hearing. The album was like we were all the winners of a Golden Ticket, getting a brief look inside the magic world of music’s most powerful couple. Well, this album also feels like something we shouldn’t be hearing, but for the opposite reason. “Lemonade” is full of personal clapbacks aimed at Jay, with the lyrics stopping just short of specifically telling us he’s cheated, and with whom (it was Becky with the good hair, who is supposedly Rita Ora). It is an emotional and personal roller coaster, with as much revenge as regret. Jay-Z might be one of the richest and most powerful men in entertainment, but no one can wrong Bey and get away with it.

There are memorable lines across nearly every song on “Lemonade.” She wastes no time in addressing the issue, on the ballad opener “Pray You Catch Me,” singing “You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath.” On the follow-up “Hold Up,” she laments being in her position, saying “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” before deciding that she’s already been jealous, so she’s choosing crazy. Indeed, the album might feel a little crazy, with nearly every song serving as a very public response to a very private issue. But it also serves as part of the album’s identity, as an ode to black women. Anyone can – and should – listen to “Lemonade,” but it isn’t an album designed for everyone. There’s no proper radio bangers, and it’s intentional. If there were, we wouldn’t all be listening to the message. By developing her own marital problems, she addresses issues of women, occasionally black women, and puts them in a context that’s often pushed against in media. It’s been an interesting trend over the years, as Beyonce has voluntarily become a voice for black pride. This continues here in just about every context – musically, lyrically, historically and visually.

If she sounds frustrated on the first two tracks, then she’s totally over it on the next two. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” has some of the album’s most blatant lines – “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy / You can watch my fat ass twist, boy / As I bounce to the next dick, boy” – that quell any notion that she has been singing from a fictional POV. She wrote a diss track about her own husband. I mean c’mon, that’s incredible. And it drags onwards into “Sorry,” which is not an apology for anything (nor should it be). “Now you wanna say you’re sorry / Now you wanna call me crying” she sings, holding it over Jay’s head. Elsewhere, on “Sandcastles,” she laments, “I know I promised that I couldn’t stay / Every promise don’t work out that way.” The album’s best line goes to “Love Drought”: “Nine times out of ten I’m in my feelings / But ten times out of nine I’m only human.”

Musically, the album is kind of all over the place. It needs to be, it highlights Bey processing a terrible thing and going through a range of emotions. What this album successfully tries to show is that, at the end of the day, she’s as human as the rest of us. She might sound justified, only to come off as too angry or too forgiving, because she’s not perfect.

The collaborators and co-writers are key to understanding the diverse music. She often reflected the styles of her collaborators on her self-titled album, namely Drake and Jay. It was done then because of the album’s secrecy. On “Lemonade,” it is done out of appreciation. The album is about appreciation – of yourself but more so, of others. And if the lyrics are multi-faceted, so are the collaborators. Jack White nails an appearance on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a blues-rock tune. “Freedom” is about black pride and is easily the most intense track, unsurprisingly featuring Kendrick Lamar. James Blake pops up on an interlude that is really just a James Blake song. The Weeknd turns “6 Inch,” a song about identity, into one of the album’s smoothest. She reflects all of their styles out of appreciation for their own work. Animal Collective and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs get songwriting credits for lyrics taken from their songs (on “6 Inch” and “Hold Up,” respectively). And “Hold Up” features co-author credits from EDM superstar Diplo and indie singers Ezra Koenig and Father John Misty. Going even further, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Jerome “Doc” Pomus & Mort Shuman, Burt Bacharach and “Prisoner 22” show up in the sample credits.

The music is as much of a journey as the lyrics, with all of the above artists contributing their own sounds. “6 Inch” is sultry, “Forward” is an electro-ballad, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a blues-rock kicker, and “Hold Up” sounds like what a Beyonce song written by indie singers would sound like. “Daddy Lessons,” one of the only songs about something other than her husband’s infidelity, starts with a New Orleans jazz sound before transitioning into an ode to her father, with a country-esque backdrop (taking in her Houston heritage). It sits right at the album’s midpoint, a standout that shows how divisive the album’s feel can be. And early single but visual-album afterthought “Formation” sounds (and looks) like New Orleans.

This was an album that no one was expecting, about an incident that we had only ever speculated about. But it’s an album we need – an affirmation for women who have been cheated on, and a call to arms for black women around the world. It’s not like black pride and feminism are new topics for Beyonce, far from it. But it’s the personality she’s decided to mold herself into that has allowed her to become such a powerful force in the world socially. The music has helped that, too. We don’t know what’s in store for the Jay/Bey marriage, but given the quality and rapidity of his music lately – or lack thereof – she may have just driven a nail into the coffin of his music career. And she did it with one of the albums of the year.

-By Andrew McNally

Snoop Dogg – “BUSH”

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “Peaches N Cream” “Run Away”

There’s a question I’ve had about ridiculously famous rappers for a while – what path do they follow, when they grow older? Classic rock singers like Rod Stewart and even Bob Dylan have been going the route of covers albums, so I’ve been wondering where a rapper like Snoop might go. Turns out, he doesn’t really know either. “BUSH,” his thirteenth album, meanders around basic funky rhythms with the aura of a man who hasn’t given up, but just doesn’t feel he has anything new to say.

It’s safe to say that the music that Snoop has put out in this millennium hasn’t tried to be revolutionary. “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” even as a potential candidate for one of hip-hop’s greatest songs, doesn’t try to prove anything. His Snoop Lion phase didn’t prove anything we didn’t already know (nor was it taken very seriously). So now that we’re 15 years into this century and Snoop Dogg is ever-increasingly just a family man, his music has taken a natural progression towards the fun and breezy. It often is, but it begs to wonder why it exists in the first place.

After a midtempo intro with Stevie Wonder, the next four songs on “BUSH” are all Snoop solo, and they could all really use the kick of someone else. “This City” serves as the best, centered around a hypnotic vibraphone rhythm, going on only slightly too long. The weakest of the four is “R U A Freak?,” with some groan-worthy punny lyrics and an uncredited appearance from Charlie Wilson so prevalent that I’m honestly not sure Snoop even shows up on the track.

There are brighter points later on the album. At the sixth of ten tracks, “Peaches N Cream” is the first one that really feels inspired. It’s the only song that credits Charlie Wilson, although he shows up on four tracks. “Run Away” features a surprising collaboration with Gwen Stefani, who channels her No Doubt years instead of her solo pop career. She adds a late spark to the album that’s missing elsewhere. And the album’s finale, “I’m Ya Dogg,” has guest verses from Rick Ross and Kendrick “some of ya’ll share bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell” Lamar, who called it himself – although the song is great, and really the album’s only true rap track, Snoop takes a vocal backseat and gets lost in the mix.

The funk revival of 2015 doesn’t seem like something planned, more coincidental. Snoop, Lamar, and Mark Ronson have all released funk-heavy albums, but each with a foundation coming from a different place. It’s going strong nonetheless, and the music is at least funky. Wonder is wasted in a lifeless opener, but “BUSH” does have it’s funky moments at times. It’s fun, and I think that’s all that Snoop’s going for now. If so, then it’s a minor success. But even so, he seems too content to be releasing placeholder, schlocky albums. This is the man who was vaguely involved in murder charges; the man with a drug rap sheet longer than Willie Nelson’s. It doesn’t seem right that he has settled into such a steady and easy life that he can release self-serving, basic funk. From reggae on “Reincarnated” to funk on “BUSH,” it seems like Snoop is closer to forfeiting the rap game rather than leaving it behind. But, it answers my question. When a successful rap artist can make enough and settle down, provided they didn’t marry Beyonce, then what are they to do? Keep it easy.

-By Andrew McNally

Fade In: Beck

Beck just won the Grammy for Best Album, upsetting the shoo-in win for “Beyonce.” It’s led to some ‘controversy,’ Bey fans taking to Twitter to ask, “Who in the heck is Beck?” Well, I thought I’d use this opportunity to premiere a new feature of this blog: introductory playlists. It’s an idea I’ve been toying with for a little while, and this seems like the perfect time to start. Every so often, I’ll be publishing 5 or 10 song Spotify playlists with a range of songs from a certain artist. Big hits and deep cuts included, to give the best sense in a short time.

So who is Beck? Well, by this point everyone should know. He’s been releasing music since Beyonce was 12 years old. Though primarily a singer-guitarist, he often plays all the music on his albums, which can be anywhere from one to 15 instruments. His first and biggest hit came in 1994 with “Loser,” and two years later he released the seminal alternative album “Odelay.” His music has taken on a number of different personae. His early music is characterized by a huge blend of alternative, folk, psychedelia and often hip-hop influenced freestyled verses (Beck would record verses on a whim and promise to change them; he never did). A distinct change (no pun intended) came in 2002, when a break-up from a long-time relationship led to the somber, acoustic “Sea Change.” Since then, his music has taken more of an indie approach, regaining much of his early fun but sacrificing less structure. The album he just won a Grammy for, “Morning Phase,” is seen as a more optimistic sequel to “Sea Change,” and is a return to his soft, acoustic side. Want to talk about Beck but don’t know his music? No fear; here’s ten songs to start with.

1) “Loser” – His most well-known song, this song is marked by a depressing chorus, acoustic slide guitar mixed under freestyled, nonsensical lyrics and a vibe that no one else was doing in 1994. Coupled with Radiohead’s “Creep” and the Stone Temple Pilots’ “Creep,” it completes the trifecta of pure 90’s self-loathing.

2) “Nausea” – This 2006 single didn’t have a huge impact, but it’s one of Beck’s most fun songs off of one of his most underappreciated albums. It acts as a throwback to his earlier music – more defined, more practiced, but still acoustic madness that sounds unrehearsed.

3) “Blue Moon” – The lead single off his recent Grammy win, “Morning Phase,” “Blue Moon” is a gorgeous song, surprising by even the most somber of Beck standards. Featuring some beautifully poetic lyrics and a waking acoustic rhythm, it’s one of Beck’s best tracks, and one that showcases a very different side to his music.

4) “The New Pollution” – One of three big hits from his classic “Odelay” album, it’s typical Beck insanity. Catchy, and almost overstuffed with various instruments doing various things (including a nice saxophone bit).

5) “Think I’m in Love” – Another track from 2006’s “The Information,” “Think I’m in Love” is a more straight-forward indie song, an approach he took for the next few years. With an ever-repeating bassline, Beck sings optimistically about a new relationship. But – Beck fans know it’s only a few years removed from “Sea Change,” and it adds an unsettling nature to the song.

6) “E-Pro” – Maybe Beck’s loudest song, it was a roaring comeback in 2005. This is the first track on his “Guero” album, the first album he did after the soft and moody “Sea Change,” and Beck wastes no time announcing his return to his old self. With a beat sampled from the Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want,” an 8-bit music video and a heavy guitar line, it’s one of Beck most distinct tracks.

7) “Gamma Ray” – Beck’s 2008 “Modern Guilt” received decidedly mixed reviews, with some people saying he plays it a little too safe and structured. Agree or not, on “Gamma Ray” Beck shows he can pull that off, too. “Gamma Ray” acts as a somewhat direct indie song, and might not sound out of place on a Death Cab For Cutie or Modest Mouse album. It’s an unfortunately forgotten Beck release.

8) “Girl” – The other hit from “Guero” mixes acoustic guitar and game-y chiptune bits into just a simple, fun song. With all of the instruments Beck plays, it’s somehow one of his only songs to feature a solo, on acoustic guitar. Beck has always been one to have great choruses, but “Girl” is one of is most memorable.

9) “Wave” – Almost definitely the most unnerving Beck song, it’s the black sheep of his recent “Morning Phase.” Showing up directly in the middle of the album, it breaks the flow of light, cheery tunes with an utterly brooding lack of rhythm and emotion. It’s just Beck’s ghostly vocals and strings, with no chorus or discernible rhythm. It’s a haunting track and already one of the biggest standouts in his discography.

10) “Where It’s At” – Beck’s other big hit, this one doesn’t get quite the airplay “Loser” always has, but it’s close – and earned Beck his first Grammy. This is the key track from “Odelay,” and it’s crazy Beck at his finest. Every instrument imaginable shows up, it’s catchy but twisting, noisy, rapped, random, and druggy. It’s a little long, sure, but this is what you get when you give Beck two turntables and a microphone.

There you have it, ten Beck songs to introduce you to his music. This specific playlist leans more on hits, future ones will likely incorporate deeper cuts. Now you can properly debate whether or not Beck deserved to win the Best Album Award! (He didn’t, but I still love Beck).

-Andrew McNally

Sorry Guys, Women Won Music (Again) in 2014

Man, us men really spent the year treading water. As 2014 comes to a (well-deserved) close, and we discuss the best and worst in music, one thing in evident – women really lead the way. Women released better songs, better albums and had more progressive things to say than men did. So although men can boast, dick around and talk big, it was women that paved every path this year. Aloe Blacc was the man? Well Beyonce was Flawless. From Laura Jane Grace to Ariel Pink, Wiz Khalifa to Mish Way, both men and women helped women become the beacons of music in 2014.

2013 was an exceptional year for women in music, too. I almost wrote this article last year, but I was then too devoted to keeping this blog strictly reviews. It’s amazing to think it was only last year that unknown teenager Lorde nearly overtook Robin Thicke for biggest song of the year. But where 2013 was all about new acts establishing themselves in new niches of music (like one Crutchfield sister in Swearin’ and the other in Waxahatchee, both redefining punk), 2014 was all about the big names taking sides and taking stances.

2014 began on December 13th of last year, when “Beyonce” dropped unexpectedly. Not even the album’s guest stars knew there was an album coming out. Only Beyonce could have a release that huge, that unannounced and that coherent. It would go on to champion a year full of feminism and sexuality where women dominated, with only minimal exceptions.

Women Dominated Albums

“Beyonce” may have been the year’s best album (if you count it), but it was one of just many great albums from women. Charli XCX and Nicki Minaj followed in Beyonce’s path and released December albums – a month usually reserved for contractual-obligation Christmas albums. Tinashe and FKA twigs released two of the year’s best debuts, two R&B albums that establish each singer’s other-worldly confidence. And speaking of other-worldly confidence, the year’s best album unabashedly went to St. Vincent. Annie Clark’s guitar-drenched songs of surveillance and snakes were nothing else we heard all year, in both scope and confidence.

Taylor Swift did something usually disastrous for musicians and switched genres (Remember “Forever“?). But she went passive, attacking armchair critics on “Shake it Off,” not coincidentally one of the year’s best/biggest songs. “1989” was a big mess of a pop album that convinced many people (myself) that there really is more there than angry break-up songs.

Another one of the year’s best albums came from Lana Del Ray, who listened to criticisms and improved her music in every way. “Ultraviolence” was dark, brooding and seductive – a 60’s minimalist pop work that’s ready to defend itself from Youtube comments. With songs like “Fucked My Way to the Top,” Lana owned her identity, to the chagrin of many. In comparison, Sam Smith provided one of the year’s best songs – “Stay With Me” – but struggled to find his own musical identity, with a lackluster debut and less of a personality than his minimalist pop peers.

And this brings us back to last year’s minimalist dear, Lorde. Lorde didn’t release any music in 2014 save one song, “Yellow Flicker Beat.” But the song came from the soundtrack to the recent Hunger Games movie, a soundtrack she was assigned to curate. That, itself, is a huge deal for anyone – especially someone still in their teenage years. And, she chose people of a like mind – CHVRCHES, Tove Lo, Tinashe, HAIM, Bat For Lashes, Charli XCX and Grace Jones (!!!) all make appearances.

Women Dominated Songs

“I got one more problem with you, girl”

“I go on too many dates / at least that’s what people say”

“Fuck the skinny bitches in the motherfucking club”

Women seemed to rule the radio this year, too. The year’s best songs and most provocative lyrics belonged to women. Let’s look at these three examples – Ariana Grande dominated the charts this year, with no bigger song than “Problem,” with Iggy Azalea. It was a horn-blasting, bombastic pop song influenced by DJ Mustard’s production but without any unnecessary DJ attachment. Taylor Swift tossed critics askew in a side of her we’ve never seen before, and Nicki Minaj rallied against pro-look pro-anti-feminists. “Anaconda” was one of the year’s best songs – she took a comedically remembered hit from ’92 about the male gaze and repurposed it into a song about female body positivity. What’s better than that?

Elsewhere, there was the female talent showcase of Jessie J/Grande/Minaj on the excellent “Bang Bang,” a song that’s just about bangin,’ and it’s great. It’s just a fun, upbeat pop song that shows off some talent. Grimes’ only contribution to 2014 was “Go,” a crazy, pseudo-steampunk song that reflects your every mood when you listen to it. Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” might not be one of the year’s most revered songs, but it tied Janet Jackson for most weeks at #1, and it’s just another notch in her book.

Women Owned Feminism & Sexuality

So let’s talk about the most important woman of the year, alright? Laura Jane Grace, of Against Me! In 2012, after Against Me!’s miserably regressive “White Crosses” album, Tom Gabel announced that he was going to start living as a woman, Laura Jane Grace. Grace joined Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, among others, in a year where the transgender movement finally came to a public eye. So Against Me!’s 2014 album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” opened a wide audience to a previously closed movement. And while the album had some weak points, tracks like “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Unconditional Love” and “Drinking With the Jocks” illustrate Grace’s struggles with gender identity in the way of some of Against Me!’s most abrasive lyrics yet.

And while we’re on punk, two of the year’s best feminists were Mish Way and Meredith Graves. Mish Way’s band, White Lung, released one of the year’s best albums in “Deep Fantasy.” The album is heavy and real from start to finish, but it’s centered around its second best song, “I Believe You,” a song that’s written from the POV of a surprisingly understanding friend of someone who’s admitting they’ve been sexually assaulted. The song is both musically and lyrically the heaviest thing they’ve done, and it’s one of the year’s most important minute and 42 seconds.

Meredith Graves, of Perfect Pussy, had a busy year. Perfect Pussy’s debut, “Say Yes to Love,” was secretly modeled off the line, “Why do we say yes to love?” The album has a feminist tone throughout, with Graves frequently taking on the established male punk precedent (if you can hear the vocals). Punk music needs a reason to be energetic; Graves and co. don’t hold back about that reason.

Outside of the band, Graves published essays on being a woman in the music industry, comparing Andrew W.K. to Lana Del Ray, and on male pattern violence after Mark Kozelek made an unnecessary, public feud with the War on Drugs.

On the sexuality side, it’s easy to say that sexuality in music as all about confidence – whether it’s outward, like Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,”  Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” – or sultry and subversive – FKA twigs “Video Girl,” Tinashe’s “2 On,” this year was full of strong, confident women, and it’s been a joy of a ride. Keep it up, 2015.

There Are Always Exceptions

Of course there’s exceptions. With Azealea Banks finally getting to release her excellent debut, “Broke With Expensive Taste,” came some harassing, homophobic Twitter rants that diminished credibility. (I won’t link to them – know that they’re out there).

She also started an ongoing feud with 2014’s most problematic female, Iggy Azalea. For those of you reading this, by now you’re surely at least familiar with the name – she had a number of huge hits in the summer – “Problem,” with Ariana Grande, “No Mediocre,” with T.I., and her own songs “Fancy” with Charli XCX and “Black Widow” with Rita Ora. I have to admit, from a music standpoint, I think they’re all great songs. But I wish I didn’t know anything about her when I listen to them. Azalea is Australian by birth, British by upbringing, and whiter than a jar of Hellmann’s. But she raps in a fake, black Southern accent (see: Atlanta) to mimic those who “influence” her. She’s trying way too damn hard and yes, it’s really racist. And yes, she has dropped the N-word.

Lana Del Ray also sparked some controversy by saying she would rather talk about space travel than feminism. The degree to which it’s just to fit in with her old-money, Gatsby-befriending persona is debatable, but it’s something that was said and can’t be forgotten.

Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus also made trouble with some serious, continuous cultural appropriation, done for their own “artistic benefits.” Both artists have remained silent when asked by fans to stand up for actual black issues like Ferguson.

But Here’s What Men Did This Year

Men accomplished little this year, in terms of music (and most other things). As always – exceptions. Pharrell’s “G I R L” album was a great, feminist work (and acted as an unintentional apology for “Blurred Lines”). Perfume Genius’ song “Queen” was one of the most honest, heartbreakingly rattling songs of the year. Patrick Carney, of the Black Keys, had a year spent on the offensive where he called out people like Jack White for their actions. And, artists like John Legend and J. Cole led the movement to recognize the need to acknowledge Ferguson, with ?uestlove adding that we need more Bob Dylans and Rage Against the Machines – artists with political motivations. But for every Run the Jewels, there’s at least one Eminem, so let’s look at men being men:

Eminem. Eminem released a song where he threatens to punch Lana Del Ray. Why? To what purpose? Eminem is 42 years old, and his fight for relevance includes threatening the most passive, pacifistic singer you can think of? That’s not intimidating. If Eminem wanted to stay popular, he’d retire and let his record speak for itself. Or, he could actually focus on the quality of his music, since he hasn’t had a good song since “Lose Yourself” (arms spaghetti) and his 2014 contribution was a Shady greatest hits compilation no one asked for.

Mark Kozelek. Sun Kil Moon’s 2014 album “Benji” was remarkable, but the 47 year old singer is also fighting a losing battle with aging, as he started a one-sided, unnecessary feud with the War on Drugs, a band that has looked up to him, and has taken no part in this imaginary feud. It all culminated with the admittedly silly and meta but still homophobic single, “The War on Drugs Can Suck My Cock.” The fact that these attacks are unresponded to amounts to nothing more than Kozelek trying to prove his manliness and yelling at a crowd that isn’t listening.

Ariel Pink. Human clickbait Ariel Pink’s 2014 album, “pom pom” made a lot of year-end lists. I didn’t listen to it. Ariel Pink called out Grimes, for some reason, calling her “stupid and retarded,” insults I never realized people used after the age of 12. Pink said he was contacted by Madonna to record for her new album only to say she’s been on a big downward spiral. Madonna’s publicist said he was lying, that she had never heard of him. Downward spiral? Meet Ariel Pink.

Robin Thicke. Thicke! Thicke was quiet in 2014, but he wasn’t trying to be. Black metal bands be damned, the creepiest album of 2014 went to “Paula,” Thicke’s in-depth, hyper-specific public apology to his ex-wife. First week sales counts: USA – 24,000. UK – 530. Australia – 158. 158 copies in Australia didn’t crack the Top 200.

Phil Rudd. For a band that sings constantly about manly stuff like rocking and violence, AC/DC’s first controversy didn’t come until this year, when drummer Phil Rudd was arrested for trying to hire a hitman to kill his wife. The band was as shocked as it’s fans, where was this rock and roll stuff in 1977?

Future killed the good fortune he’d set up with one of the best albums of the year, “Honest,” by admitting he cheated on Ciara and by guesting on the atrocious “Pussy Overrated” with Wiz Khalifa. Jack White did interviews where he groomed his image by verbally attacking respected artists like Adele, the Black Keys, and even Meg. Chris Brown got arrested a few more times, and had the gall to release a song about disloyal girlfriends. I could keep going on about men in music, but these are the biggest examples. Most of the best music of the year was done by women, and women made the bigger stories. They’ve had to, because to be anything less than extraordinary is going to get them shelved under male musicians. Let’s keep this going. 2015 should be the return of Adele, and Beyonce might even give us another album. We’re starting on the right foot.

-By Andrew McNally. Inevitable responses can be directed to amcnal817@gmail.com. Article can be reprinted or referenced, with citation. Feel free to remove links if ya do.

U2 – “Songs of Innocence”

(Photo Credit: www.engadget.com)

(Photo Credit: http://www.engadget.com)

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” “Cedarwood Road”

There’s a new U2 album out. It’s called “Songs of Innocence,” and you probably found it in your iTunes account. It’s free. Take it or leave it, listen to it or don’t, because nothing has ever mattered less. It’s not very good, but it’s what you’d expect from a U2 album. Exactly.

U2’s personally invasive new album has an interesting marketing strategy – ‘what if people just, like, had it?’ The band is giving their album away for free to all iTunes users in all countries, which in any year past 2005, is about everyone. It’s bold, but when you consider the band’s often convoluted and conflicting messages, it, like the album itself, is just another thing to hold against them.

U2, on this album, are practicing both of the worst evils. There are some songs, like “California (There is No End to Love),” that don’t sound like U2’s template. And then there are some, like “Iris (Hold Me Close),” that fit their template exactly. Listen to the song and tell me it doesn’t fit in just as easily on “War,” or “Atomic Bomb,” or “Joshua Tree.” “Songs of Innocence” is filled with songs that either sound way too much like U2, or not nearly enough. U2’s go-to template isn’t exactly run dry – it’s never truly been copied (though Coldplay’s still trying), but it is tired. There’s only so many high-neck frets the Edge can touch, and he’s pretty much exhausted them. U2’s problem in 2014 is ultimately the same they faced in the 90’s – they don’t know how to do anything new.

“Songs of Innocence” is constructed in typical U2 fashion. The first song has a certain energy, and the Edge contributes an admittedly nice riff. The next four songs, meanwhile, are all slow pop-ish ballads that kill any momentum set up by the opener. The last six songs see the band relaxing and trying out different influences – there’s a great bluesy song (“Cedarwood Road”) and a pretty meh synth-based one (“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”) among the mix. There’s also a few rockers, that could’ve benefited from a different track order. That’s pretty much been the standard since U2’s 90’s experiments.

But, look, a straight review doesn’t matter because 1) Everyone’s got this album for free, so you might as well listen to it and 2) U2’s the biggest goddamned band on this planet, so my stray observations aren’t going to influence anyone. So, let’s talk instead about this questionable marketing strategy. U2’s previous album, 2009’s kinda actually underrated “No Line on the Horizon” became a thorn for the band. Bono was unimpressed with the album’s sales. It produced only one hit, and not a big one, and it sold less than almost every prior album of theirs. So the band was a little scared that they are no longer “relevant” in today’s music, and took to a newer strategy than straight album sales. But here’s the thing – that album “underperforming” still meant hitting #1 in 30 countries, setting sales records in Brazil, becoming the seventh highest selling album in 2009 globally, and producing the highest-grossing tour in history. That’s U2 on a bad day. So was this questionable, unwarranted release necessary? No, it wasn’t. And it goes against the album’s themes.

“Songs of Innocence” is largely centered around the band’s members growing up in their native Ireland, listening to punk music. Their opener is even titled, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).” And they released this album for free, that’s a very punk thing to do. But, it’s the band’s fortieth anniversary (Ruby!), and they’ve always tried to be punk, and they’ve never succeeded. Releasing your album for free is completely negated when it’s not only through the world’s biggest corporation, but against it’s customer’s wills. That’s not punk. That’s way not punk. And it’s not like U2 is the first to release their music for free, or by surprise – “Beyonce” wasn’t attached to any corporate releases, and “In Rainbows” and “The Slip” were released for free simply for fan appreciation (and both in 2008). iTunes users don’t really have a choice in whether they want to download the album or not, and sure you can just delete it right after, but still. U2 has so much shoved up their asses that it’s the absolute opposite of punk. 5 million wasn’t a big enough of a reach for the band, so they hit a bigger reach regardless of the financial losses with it.

So one final note on the marketing. If you’re gonna do a bold strategy, you’d better have the album to back it up. “Beyonce” was a rap/R&B/pop odyssey and “In Rainbows” was an unnervingly melodic album. “The Slip” didn’t work that well, and NIN didn’t have as much success with it. This album doesn’t work well. It’s like every other U2 album, pretty much no better or worse. People getting it for free are likely going to shrug and accept it, maybe listen to it once and forget about it. There’s nothing special about this album, and release strategy be damned, the quality of the music is still what’s going to grab people. Maybe, U2, you should actually just accept that you don’t know how to play any other songs. You’re still going to get millions.

If you like this, try: Going outside, for once

-By Andrew McNally

Ariana Grande – “My Everything”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Problem” “Bang Bang”

There are certain singers and rappers that, when they show up on a track, are automatically going to outshine the star – Beyonce, Andre 3000, Nicki Minaj. The problem with Ariana Grande is that she’s shown up by everyone. Iggy Azalea, Big Sean, Zedd, Cashmere Cat, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, A$ap Ferg and, in an excellent Deluxe Edition-only song, Juicy J and Minaj all make appearances and they all help otherwise mediocre songs excel. On the four songs where Grande stands alone (not counting an intro), she sounds like an empty copy of a different singer.

“My Everything” does have its moments, most of which being the quicker, more EDM-embracing songs. Despite my best efforts, local rap radio has forced me to love “Problem,” a song with beats bigger than Grande’s whole first album combined.  “Break Free,” with Zedd, “Hands On Me,” with A$ap Ferg and “Bang Bang,” with Juicy J and Nicki Minaj are in the same boat. They’re great, fun songs with crushing beats but inoffensive mission statements. When Grande lets loose and has some fun, the album does too. These four songs are well-positioned, too, saving bursts of energy to come up every few tracks instead of using it all up early. Of the ballads, and there are plenty, the most noteworthy one is “Love Me Harder,” collaboration with The Weeknd, which matches some great vocals with catchy beats.

The rest of the album isn’t bad – it doesn’t ask you to form any kind of opinion. Much of the album, even the better songs, goes in one ear and out the other; cheap entertainment that’s forgotten as soon as it’s over. Grande’s voice shines throughout, and it stays as bouncy and inoffensive as it can, which results in a generally fun listen. The real issue lies in Grande’s lack of identity. She can really sing, maybe even better than most other pop singers out there right now (saving you, Adele), but her ‘carefree, bubblegum’ identity was unfortunately worn out in the early-00′s. Pop singers nowadays have to establish their own, unique beings – Adele is a soulful, 60′s throwback, Lorde is a hip-hop inspired, minimalistic hip-hop basher, Lady Gaga is a theatrical and newsmaking shock. Grande is trying to establish herself as a straight pop singer, but to do that, she’s going to have to compete with the current queen – Katy Perry. And frankly, in this current music world, only one is going to be allowed continued success.

So “My Everything” isn’t bad, just forgettable and bland, and it is never sure of where it wants to be placed. Grande is still (very) young, and she’s still finding her place. Working with big names like Zedd and Minaj could still shape her place in a crowded music scene. But for now, she’s standing as a successful but unexciting singer, and her second album provides a safe, somewhat bland listen.

-By Andrew McNally

Wiz Khalifa – “Blacc Hollywood”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Promises” “Stayin Out All Night”

The best hip-hop albums are either wide-ranging, embracing different emotions and musical styles (“Beyonce”), or are directly consistent, pulling all of their material from the personae of the people behind it (“Straight Outta Compton”). “Blacc Hollywood” is neither of these, and it isn’t a great hip-hop album because of it. Rather, “Blacc Hollywood” starts with a call, a semi-political, semi-social trumpeting of the new ‘Blacc Hollywood,’ before quickly diverging into inconsistent weed songs and rough-childhood ballads. “Blacc Hollywood” wants desperately to have a point, but it never does.

The biggest fault with “Blacc Hollywood” is the lack of any flow. Khalifa tries to embrace different influences with the pairing of ballad “Promises” and weed song “KK” close to the beginning, but it only comes off as two disagreeing songs that don’t fit at all. It isn’t laziness – it’s ambition and ideas, without knowing how to execute them. The ideas on “Blacc Hollywood” compete rather than complement. “House in the Hills,” a ballad about not wanting to raise his son in the world he was raised in, doesn’t sound complete with the vain club banger “We Dem Boyz” popping up three songs earlier. This early disconnect faults the album’s second half, which is more consistent but less noticeable.

Indeed, Khalifa’s writing on this album isn’t that remarkable. “We Dem Boyz” has been getting airplay since it’s release in February, but there’s really nothing to the song. It’s a glorified chorus with little change for 3:45. His personal songs are honest and gut-punching, but the others are often too predictable (look no further than “Ass Drop”). Later album track “Stayin Out All Night” is helped by a huge, fuzzy, banging beat, but it’s in the middle of a string of forgettable songs.

Some guest spots do help the album – Ty Dolla $ign shows up on two different tracks, as do fellow Taylor Gang rappers Juicy J, Chevy Woods and Project Pat. Curren$y shows up on the honest “House in the Hills,” and Nicki Minaj drops a spot on the largely excellent closer, “True Colors.” (Unfortunately, a proposed collaboration with Adele was never more than an idea – how weird would that be? Bring new meaning to “Rolling in the Deep”).

So “Blacc Hollywood” isn’t Khalifa at his best. He’s more treading water – fueling a fanbase with self-serving bangers and ballads without offering anything great or consistent. It doesn’t come to a point, and it doesn’t flow like a hip-hop album should. Khalifa sounds fine on his own, but there isn’t anything noteworthy going on around him. As confused as it is average, “Blacc Hollywood” deserves a spin or two at a house party, but little more than that.

-By Andrew McNally