Reviews for Normal People

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Best Songs of the Month (November 2017) — December 13, 2017

Best Songs of the Month (November 2017)

Sorry I’m a little late on this one. Finals and whatnot. This was a pretty solid month for music. Not much in the way of earth-shattering singles, but we did get some hotly-anticipated returns by the likes of Eminem, Beyonce, Rihanna, N.E.R.D., Natasha Bedingfield, Ashanti, and many more. At least three members of One Direction put out new music (plus one Big Time Rush member and one Jonas Brother), Sia dropped a surprise Christmas album, and a ton of other artists were putting out great new music throughout the month, though things seemed to quiet down a bit towards the end. Still, only twenty singles made the list, and to kick things off, here’s a long-awaited release by DMX.

20) RUDOLPH THE REDNOSE REINDEER – DMX

Back in 2012, DMX did a radio interview where he performed a live cover of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” That video went viral, five years passed, and now here we are. I’m not the type to put a ton of stock in novelty, but this is actually a really good cover. DMX’s off-the-wall energy brings sheer fun to a Christmas classic, aided by a really solid hip hop-infused instrumental. I was genuinely surprised by how good this turned out to be, and I like DMX.

19) TRAVELING LIGHT – Talib Kweli feat. Anderson .Paak

When he’s not engaging in pipin’ hot discourse on the world wide web, Talib Kweli still puts out music. Back in April, he dropped a solid EP with Styles P, and he’s already back with a full-length this month. The first single off that new album, “Traveling Light,” is a frenetic five-minute display of charisma and penmanship, slathered liberally with silky Anderson .Paak vocals. 20+ years into his career, Kweli’s as sharp as ever, and if you’re looking for bars, he’s got ’em in droves.

18) SOMETHING FOREIGN – SiR feat. ScHoolboy Q

SiR is the latest signee to Top Dawg Entertainment, and “Something Foreign” is his silky-smooth new single with fellow unconventionally-capitalized TDE crew member ScHoolboy Q. It’s got a cool, old-fashioned soul beat, with a late-night jazz club piano backing and rainy day drums. SiR’s unassuming voice carries free-flowing, flirty vocals, leading up to ScHoolboy’s show-stopping verse. Q doesn’t give out guest verses to just anyone, but when he comes through, he comes hard. 

17) PIÑATA – Vice feat. Bia, Kap G, and Justin Quiles

This was the last song I decided to put in the top 20. It was between this, Louis Tomlinson’s new song, and a couple others. I ultimately chose “Piñata” because it was the one I was thinking about the most. It’s not perfect. It’s a little simple, it feels like it could’ve come out in 2014 or 2011 or maybe even 2009. The hook is pretty ridiculous. There’s a buildup, but no real drop, which can be irritating a lot of the time. But it’s just… fun. I love the hook, I love that ludicrous suh-winnng! sound effect, it’s just a really enjoyable, memorable song. I’ve also been meaning to put something by Kap G on one of these lists for a while. Mostly the other stuff, though.

16) CARTOONS – CupcakKe

“Cartoons” is exactly the kind of song CupcakKe shines on: a dizzying two-and-a-half-minutes of raw energy, lyricism, and unfettered personality. Everything about her is over the top, from her image to her raunchy lyrics to her indulgent beats. There’s lots of wonderful wordplay all over this track, but my personal favorite is probably “I’m a snack, so I attract Scooby Doos.” CupcakKe was one of the rap game’s biggest revelations this year, and I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.

15) PINEAPPLE SKIES – Miguel

Miguel came back in a major way this month with a summery, idiosyncratic record full of soaring vocals, glitchy pop beats, and metaphorical critiques of American imperialism.  “Pineapple Skies” is one of the sunnier tracks on the record, with beachy synths and assurances that “everything’s gonna be alright.” It’s a four-and-a-half-minute journey of ecstasy, one of the most blissfully enjoyable R&B songs to come out this year. After his 2015 album Wildheart was seen as a stagnation of sorts, “Pineapple Skies” is a welcome reinvention of Miguel.

14) FAKE HAPPY – Paramore

Speaking of new directions, Paramore traffics in depressing ’80s-infused pop jams now. “Fake Happy” runs in the same vein as “Hard Times” and many of the other tracks off After Laughter, one of the best albums of the pop punk band’s illustrious career to date. Conceptually, you get a lot of what “Fake Happy” is about from the title: the narrator is fake happy, and she’s trying not to confront her reality, noting “I bet everybody here is fake happy, too.” Hayley Williams delivers an excellent vocal performance, which I suppose is to be expected, but it comes out especially on this song in particular.

13) RODNEY, LEHMAN BROTHERS PROFITED FROM SLAVERY AND OTHER TALES – Lupe Fiasco

This is another track released via Twitter by Lupe Fiasco, featuring a handful of lyrics from the previous set. It’s also another eight-minute lyrical tirade by Lupe Fiasco, swimming from topic to topic effortlessly with legendary lyrical skill. You can also barely hear it. As the song opens, you listen and think “Oh, he must have recorded this on his phone, since he’s releasing it on Twitter and everything.” But as the song wears on, you notice some samples standing out in front of others, the beat becoming clearer, deeper, while Lupe’s voice fades into the background. I have no idea what he was going for with this, but it’s mesmerizing regardless.

12) OBSESSION – OK Go

The trouble with OK Go, or perhaps their entire strategy, is that they put so much time, money, and energy into their videos that the music often gets lost in the fray. Outside of “Here It Goes Again,” their biggest hit and potentially their best song, I can’t say I remember many of their songs. It’s hard to even get an idea of how I feel about them as a bad when the videos themselves are so dazzling. I like this one, though. Lyrically, it’s not the most revelatory stuff I’ve ever heard, but there’s something about the instrumental. Something about those space-age synths, the sparse use of hard rock guitar and cowbell. It’s simplistic in a lot of ways, but deceptively complex, and it’s as tightly-produced as we’ve come to expect from the band. This is one OK Go song I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

11) SOMETHING BOUT OUR LOVE – JONES

JONES is a British alt-pop artist whose first album came out late last year. I had never heard of her before this month. But if this song is any indication, she’s found a new fan. “Something Bout Our Love” is a sparkling disco-infused electropop track with an absolutely killer beat and a pretty solid hook. I don’t have too much to say about it, it’s just a great tune by an artist with tons of potential. Check it out, why dontcha?

10) STRANGERS – Sigrid

Speaking of big tunes, I’m really digging this song. I’ve heard Sigrid a few times before, and I always felt she had a certain je ne sais quoi that I admired. This song immediately stood apart from the pack, though. Its most obvious inspiration is 1989-era Taylor Swift: introspective lyrics, hard-hitting ’80s synths, that one “hey!” sound effect in the background, you get the idea. Still, Sigrid expands on Swift’s ideas, creating someone that sounds particularly modern while still wearing its influences on its sleeve. And what a hook. It stands about halfway between Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me,” and that’s high praise.

9) TISK – MellowHype

After being declared dead in January 2015, cult favorite hip-hop duo MellowHype (consisting of Odd Future’s Hodgy and Left Brain) return, sounding fresher than ever on “Tisk.” The track serves as a five-minute show of lyrical strength by Hodgy, who swims through complex wordplay and elongated syllables over the simple, mesmerizing Left Brain beat. I was impressed with a lot of the stuff on Hodgy’s most recent solo effort, but he’s really stepped up to the plate on this track. At one point, he uses the word “Lincoln” about six different ways in the span of a few seconds. I’ll admit I never listened to MellowHype in their heyday, but after this onslaught, I’ll be sure to keep my ears peeled.

8) SAY LESS – Ashanti feat. Ty Dolla $ign

After a few years of dormancy, early-’00s R&B it girl Ashanti is back on a new track with Ty Dolla $ign, produced by DJ Mustard, and it absolutely slaps. Musically, the beat is a slight step backwards for Mustard, who proved his prowess with Rihanna’s “Needed Me” last year, but despite him playing his old tricks, he’s clearly harnessed their power in a major way. The beat is infectious from start to finish, as Ashanti and Ty$ glide from hook to hook with no end in sight. I don’t want to jump the gun and say this is another hit for Ashanti, but with the right team behind her, it certainly has it.

7) JUICE – Chromeo

Chromeo is a group known for bringing an ’80s flair to their electropop bangers, and “Juice” might be their freshest yet. It’s delightfully corny, incessantly catchy, and it’s got a talkbox solo. What more could you want? The hook (“You got the juice / That’s why I keep pressing ya, pressing ya”) is pure camp brilliance. Earlier this month, I revisited Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic after it was nominated for Album of the Year. “Juice” embodies a similar spirit, and its swagger can’t be tamed.

6) LEMON – N.E.R.D. and Rihanna

Yes, after years of silence (SpongeBob soundtrack album notwithstanding), N.E.R.D. is back and as ahead of its time as ever. “Lemon” is an acquired taste; its pulsating beat feels a little too fast, and Pharrell’s whiny, repetitive vocals are just barely tolerable. But once Rihanna starts rapping, there’s no turning back. You’re hooked. Rihanna’s always carried the swagger of a rapper, and this song is all the evidence we need that she should pursue rapping on a larger scale. The world needs a Rihanna rap album, that’s all I’m gonna say.

5) HEY BOY – Natasha Bedingfield

You might remember Natasha Bedingfield from her two smash hit pop masterpieces, “Unwritten” and “Pocketful of Sunshine.” Those two songs remain ingrained in the psyches of Generation Z, but little was heard of her since then, and she hasn’t released a full-length album since 2010. Now, the voice of a generation is back with “Hey Boy,” a swinging retro pop song taunting immature men in power. It’s iconic, it’s powerful, and it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time, when the world is in desperate need of A) shitty men to be taken down a few pegs and B) more Natasha Bedingfield. Also, apparently this song was co-written by Linda Perry? That’s fucking wild.

4) FINALLY IT’S CHRISTMAS – Hanson

For those of you not “in the know” who only faintly recall Hanson as mildly irritating ’90s teenyboppers, please be advised that they’ve since become the greatest Christian rock band of all time. Okay, it’s debatable whether they’re the greatest, or especially Christian, or rock, but they are a phenomenal pop rock group, and “Finally It’s Christmas” is a fine introduction to their many charms. It knows what it is, it gets you in the Christmas spirit, and it absolutely kicks ass in the process. As previously mentioned, Sia put out a Christmas album this month, and it had a few singles I seriously considered putting on the list, but at the end of the day, I haven’t heard a new Christmas song that works as well as “Finally It’s Christmas” in ages.

3) CHECK YA FABRICS – DRAM

DRAM has quickly set himself apart as an artist for whom I’ll drop everything to listen when he puts out a new single. “Check Ya Fabrics,” produced by the incomparable Rick Rubin, is one of his best songs to date. It’s a simmering slow-burn full of dizzying observations on DRAM’s own obsession with clothing. The chipmunk vocals deterred many fans, but I think they suit the song perfectly and make for a delightfully weird experience, which is what all the best DRAM songs deliver. There’s something so perfect about how it all comes together. I don’t know who it’s for, or why it was made, or what mood it’s trying to convey, but I love it all the same.

2) PUT JEWELS ON IT – Statik Selektah feat. Run the Jewels

I sort of surprised myself with how high I ended up putting this on the list. I love Statik, and I love RTJ, but it’s not like I was clamoring to see these two forces collide. There’s just something about the way they work together on this track. It’s rare to hear an RTJ track without El-P producing, but the duo’s lyrical stylings suit Statik Selektah’s refined old-school sound effortlessly. This is also one of the more impressive lyrical displays by RTJ to date. It most reminds me of the song they did with DJ Shadow last year, “Nobody Speak,” and as much as I love that song, I’m tempted to say this one outdoes it. I may come to regret putting this so high up on the list, but I’m certainly not there yet, so enjoy it!

1) KIWI – Harry Styles

November is the month Harry Styles got absolutely robbed by the Grammys, receiving a resounding zero nominations for his beloved debut Harry Styles or its lauded lead single “Sign of the Times.” November was also the month that the album’s latest single “Kiwi” was released, and it proves why Harry deserved better. I’ve probably listened to “Kiwi” more than any other song on the album, including “Sign of the Times.” It’s just so infectious, so fun, so raw. In it, Harry plays around with vintage punk aesthetics to describe a debauched encounter with an anonymous woman (ostensibly a Kiwi). If anything, it’s a show of Harry’s sheer artistic range, transitioning seamlessly from boy band fluff to glammy, indulgent ballads to this fuzzy, unfiltered rock. There’s some great lyrical moments (“It’s New York baby, always jacked up / Holland Tunnel for a nose, it’s always backed up”), but what drives the song is Harry’s sheer energy, hollering classic rhythms with a delightful intensity. It kicks ass.

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Top 20 Songs of the Month (October 2017) — November 11, 2017

Top 20 Songs of the Month (October 2017)

To be honest, I’ve been putting off this list for a couple days. I definitely really like all these songs, but something about the compiled list feels a little lackluster. I just couldn’t put them in a ranking order that satisfied me. So, this month’s list is actually not going to be in order, but just a collection of my 20 favorite songs to have been released (not including album tracks) in the month of October. There’ll also be a Spotify playlist of all of them at the end, and songs near the bottom of the article will generally, though not necessarily, be the ones I appreciate most. Still, these are just twenty of the many, many songs that came out this month, so if you had any favorites you wanted to bring up, let me know in the comments.

SHOW LOVE – Everything Is Recorded feat. Sampha and Syd

“Show Love” is a threefold collaboration: The Internet lead singer and queer R&B up-and-comer Syd, British soul singer and Kanye West collaborator Sampha, and XL Recordings president and influential dance producer Richard Russell, as Everything Is Recorded. Of course, Russell and Sampha have worked together a few times already, so the real takeaway from this track is the magnetic chemistry of Sampha and Syd. Both artists dropped phenomenal debut albums earlier this year, and despite their soulful styles and similar writing chops, somehow, no one’s ever thought to bring them together on a track. It’s beautiful, catchy, and at times fun in its own way. It’s perfect rainy day music, and it shows that these two artists are likely to be here to stay.

HEADPHONES – Walk the Moon

Walk the Moon garnered the public’s attention with their 2015 hit “Shut Up and Dance,” one of the biggest hit songs of that year. With their new album What If Nothing, they seem to be out to prove they’re not a one-trick pony. While some of their new singles got a bit too far into Maroon 5 territory for my tastes, “Headphones” is quite the opposite. It’s a thrashing, electric rock track built around exhilarating guitars and witty, referential lyrics about bitter jealousy. It’s a relentlessly fun track that definitely shows a side of Walk the Moon we haven’t really seen before.

ONE CHANCE TO DANCE – Naughty Boy feat. Joe Jonas

Being an electropop song built around a shamisen sample is interesting enough to warrant a mention, but “One Chance to Dance” has a surprising amount of history to it. Naughty Boy first announced the song in 2014 as the next hit single from… One Direction.  The song was apparently cowritten by Zayn Malik and Emeli Sande, and Naughty Boy announced it just as 1D was rolling out their album Four. Of course, “One Chance to Dance” didn’t make the album, and if a 1D version of the song was ever recorded, we haven’t heard it. Things took more interesting turns after that, when Zayn left the band just six months later and immediately linked up with Naughty Boy, drawing ire from 1D’s remaining members and fans. Zayn said they were best friends, then that they weren’t friends, and things generally took a lot of weird turns, but now, all of three years later, we have “One Chance to Dance.” Frankly, the song works much better as a Jonas Brothers song than a One Direction song, even if only one JoBro appears. It’s a neat, inspirational pop jam with (as previously mentioned) a really cool beat. It’s also got a catchy hook, and Joe’s really flexing his range, where most of what we’ve heard from him recently is in his goofy DNCE falsetto. I’m glad the song came to see the light of day, even if it wasn’t necessarily worth all the drama.

LOOK AT YOUR HANDS – Tune-Yards

Honestly, I haven’t had a chance to check out Tune-Yards yet. As I understand, this eclectic mix of rudimentary electronic sounds is generally what I can expect from them, with some occasional ukulele. I gotta say, I do like the song. In spite of its apparent messiness, it’s earnestly catchy at times, and I really like the way it plays around with Merrill Garbus’ distinctive vocals. It has a very retro-techno feel, but still feels decidedly new. And Garbus’ vocals are great, by the way. She’s got a uniquely androgynous voice that seems to transition seamlessly between mellifluous and shrill, and helps convey the really interesting lyrical content in a fitting way.

ANITA (REMIX) – Smino feat. T-Pain

Anyone who knows me IRL or has been with this blog for long enough knows I’m an absolute thot for the soulful sounds of T-Pain. Here, his bombastic Autotuned crooning is paired with the soulful Chicago instrumental of Smino’s “Anita.” Smino delivers some brand-new bars of his own, more of the wry flirting that made the original track so charming. Of course, T-Pain’s presence adds a lot, giving the song a certain aged gravitas, a worldliness that sort of takes its concept to a new level. It also gives T-Pain a chance to show off his long-underappreciated rapping skills.

COLORS – Beck

I really dig Beck’s new album. Some feel it’s a shallow step towards soullessness relative to his previous (unjustly) Grammy-winning album, but I think Beck’s sheer pop craftsmanship shouldn’t go unrecognized. “Colors,” the album’s title track, is a great example of Beck’s ability to tie his quirky songwriting and unique instrumental ear into a polished, perfectly danceable pop package. It’s catchy, interesting, and magnificently weird, all the things I want to hear from a Beck song.

MAN LISTEN – Belly

Criminally-underrated Weeknd signee Belly is back with another phenomenal album that you probably haven’t listened to. If you haven’t heard what he has to offer, or you’re not quite convinced yet, check out “Man Listen.” It’s got a catchy hook, a great MMG-type beat, and clever, layered lyricism, all delivered with Belly’s signature swagger. It’s a pitch-perfect brag rap track: you can play it in the clubs, you can play at the gym, you can play it at home, it’s got a great beat and dazzling poetics that’ll keep you on your toes. It showcases Belly’s many talents in a concise package.

MOTOR SPORT – Migos feat. Cardi B and Nicki Minaj

One of the biggest acts of 2017, Migos, are back yet again with the first single off their anticipated album Culture 2, “Motor Sport.” Or “MotorSport.” It has many of the same charms as “Bad and Boujee,” the smash hit that catapulted them to superstardom, with some added elements to push it even further (Takeoff has a verse! And a good one!). All three members come through, though Quavo’s verse is pretty lackluster. And then there’s the featured artists. You’ve got Cardi B, the biggest breakout rapper of 2017, Offset’s fiancee, the hottest newcomer on the scene with one of the bestselling singles ever released by a female rapper. Then you’ve got Nicki Minaj, the queen of the game for the better part of this decade, an artist whose monumental celebrity has allowed her to go two whole years without a hit single and still be relevant. After a lot of speculation about them possibly feuding, they came together on a track, and it is divine. Both artists come through, with Cardi B showcasing some new flows and witty punchlines while Nicki effortlessly slips from deliberate to rapid-fire in an exhilarating 24 bars.

FAKING IT – Calvin Harris feat. Kehlani and Lil Yachty

“Faking It” is the latest single off Calvin Harris’ veritable single goldmine Funk Wav Bounces, Vol. 1 (“Cash Out,” one of the best songs on the album, still hasn’t been made a single yet). It features the dulcet tones of Kehlani, a surprisingly sweet verse from Lil Yachty, and an introspective funk beat with elements of ’80s techno, courtesy of Harris. It’s actually really similar to “Honor” by DJ Cassidy, another funky retro dance jam about relationship woes featuring a DJ, an R&B songstress, and Lil Yachty. That song remains one of my favorite songs of the year, and this song, while maybe not quite as catchy, has many of the same elements that make that song great, plus some elements that are done even better (Kehlani is probably a better singer than Grace, and Harris is probably a better producer). Still, I’m basically just trying to put “Honor” on the list again.

FEELINGS – Hayley Kiyoko

I know this makes me a homophobe, but I’ve never been particularly into Hayley Kiyoko. She was great in Lemonade Mouth, but her music’s always seemed a bit… dry. I’ve come to appreciate “Girls Like Girls” a lot more than I did when I first heard it, but it doesn’t really fit her voice. It’d do better in the hands with someone a little more dynamic, like Sia or even Halsey. “Feelings” feels much more within Hayley’s zone, and it’s phenomenal. She sounds so fucking cool on this song. She’s got an incomparable swagger that works in tandem with the dynamic electropop beat. On songs like “Gravel to Tempo,” it sometimes feels like Hayley drains the energy from the song. On “Feelings,” someone else could’ve done it, but no one else would’ve sounded so awesome doing it.

MEDICATION – Nick Murphy

I never listened to Nick Murphy when he was Chet Faker. I guess I don’t really “listen to him” now. This was a bad way to start this entry. “Medication” is a great song. It’s sort of reminiscent of Superorganism’s “Something for Your M.I.N.D.,” which I believe was on last month’s list, in that it’s experimental and kooky and sometimes the music cuts out entirely right in the middle, but somehow it’s still really catchy. Structurally and lyrically, there’s no reason this can’t be classified as a pop song, but the shapeless electronic beat, varying vocal distortions, and aforementioned instrumental disappearances say otherwise. It’s still got a great hook, and as heavy as it sounds at times, it’s generally a pretty fun song. Maybe I should start listening to Nick Murphy. Or Chet Faker.

ACHOO! – Keith Ape and Ski Mask the Slump God

South Florida weirdo Ski Mask the Slump God has quickly become one of my favorite new rappers of 2017. He’s funny, endearing, relentlessly fun, he has a really interesting voice and always pulls through with excellent, unique flows. On “Achoo!,” he’s joined by Korean rapper Keith Ape to teach you how to be sick, like a sneeze. Ski Mask spits rapid-fire references to R. Kelly and Reese’s Pieces, Keith Ape says some things I’m sure are also cool, and along the way, bass is served and the word “sick” is said 104 times. This club has everything.

ALMOST LIKE PRAYING – Lin-Manuel Miranda and Artists for Puerto Rico

Sure, it’s for a great cause, but this is also just a really solid song. LMM is a master producer, flipping West Side Story into a fun-yet-urgent Latin pop bop, joined by Latinx artists ranging from Fat Joe to Gloria Estefan. There’s a chance it’ll get caught in your head, which isn’t something you can say about a lot of benefit songs. I mean, who would’ve thought that a song that, for all intents and purposes, is just a list of places in Puerto Rico would be so darn catchy?

ALL WHILE DOING A RUBIK’S CUBE ONE-HANDED – Lupe Fiasco

Releasing two-minute singles on Twitter is a move so disastrous from a business standpoint that only Lupe Fiasco could be behind it. The rap legend returns with some of his finest bars in a long while, delivered over an excellently mellow soul beat. Highlights include the brilliant “Trust all these Einsteins if you want the facts / Fuck Harvey Weinstein if you want to act.” These new songs are likely standalone projects to hold us over while we await the release of Lupe’s next album, DROGAS Wave, and they’re solid enough content to last us a while, as short as they may be.

HOW LONG – Charlie Puth

I’ve joked that Charlie Puth’s hit single this year, “Attention,” was his “one for the gays,” but he really seems to be keeping this funk train rolling. “How Long” is arguably an even better single than “Attention,” with a swagger and ear for hooks that recalls Timberlake in his prime. I never thought I’d be so into Charlie Puth, especially after “Marvin Gaye,” but I’m rooting for the guy at this point. In my opinion, you can never have too much funk on the radio, and I’m glad Puth’s keeping the spirit alive while Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake are between albums.

WALLOWA LAKE MONSTER – Sufjan Stevens

I’ve had some out-of-character artists make it onto these lists, but Sufjan Stevens may just be my biggest leap yet. I am actually a fan of the guy, though I didn’t love Carrie and Lowell, the album this song seems to be a reject from. If I was a little bit more of a dick, I would say it was left off the album for being too interesting. But anyway, this is the type of shit I like to hear from ol’ Suf-Jan. It’s got his soft, folky elf boy vocals, but it’s also just fucking bonkers conceptually and lyrically, with inspiring instrumentation that lends to an overall feeling of epicness.

DIANE – Cam

As a young country singer, it takes some serious guts to make a response record to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” one of the best country songs of all time. But Cam’s got guts, and the sheer power to pull it off. “Diane” is certainly different from “Jolene,” but at its best moments it carries the same immense weight as the original. It’s hard to imagine a “Jolene” response record coming terribly close to the original, but this comes closer than anything else I’ve heard. Suffice it to say, have you ever seen a country song so high up on one of these lists before?

ALWAYS ASCENDING – Franz Ferdinand

It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from Franz Ferdinand in the form of a proper single, but they did an anti-Trump thing last year, and a collaboration with Sparks the year before that, and brought back the Sparks collaboration this year, so they’ve certainly been keeping busy. Now, they’re back full-force with “Always Ascending,” an epic art rock track where the “Always Ascending” referenced in the title, in addition to its lyrical meaning, also refers to the rising sound effect perpetually happening in the background for the entire song. It’s also got layered electronic drums, real guitars, and Alex Kapranos’ weirdly deep-high voice. It’s not the kind of music I’m best at describing, but it is a really good song.

SPICE GIRL – Aminé

This song will be stuck in your head for days. I’ve already talked a bit about Aminé, the Portland rapper who sprung into stardom this year, developing a sound that’s uniquely his own and releasing a number of charming, relentlessly catchy, goofy hip-hop jams. “Spice Girl” is one of the finest of the bunch, a delightful little tune that’s an even better showcase of Aminé’s charms than his big debut single, “Caroline.” I don’t want to give too much away, but just listen to the song. At least the first ten seconds. You won’t regret it, if you don’t mind an earworm.

PILLS – St. Vincent

It’s possible that “Pills” isn’t that good a song. It overwhelms me every time I listen to it, from its electro-clusterfuck production to its sunny ’50s soap jingle hook to its strangely hopeful, cinematic outro, it’s got enough song in it that it could’ve taken up this entire list. It works really well in the context of St. Vincent’s (fucking amazing) new album MASSEDUCTION, but it’s sort of a concise narrative on its own. It’s got dystopian and sci-fi elements, personal exploration, a beginning, middle, and end, and sexual moaning. It’s a trip, for sure, but I’m glad I took it a few times.

Here’s a Spotify playlist of all the songs on the list (except Lupe’s, which as I said, was released on Twitter), in case you’d like to listen to all the songs on the go.

Review: Thunderfuck — November 7, 2017

Review: Thunderfuck

Wonderstruck was destined for success. It had phenomenal source material: an acclaimed book by Brian Selznick, who already proved his works were especially screen-compatible with 2011’s Hugo. It had the directing talents of cult favorite filmmaker Todd Haynes, who directed the groundbreaking Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There and queer classics Poison and Carol. It had a rock-solid cast, Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions backing it, and it even competed for the Palme d’Or.

All this is especially interesting because the movie is not good. Sure, it has charming moments, a great soundtrack, pretty good cast, a real sense of wonder, but Todd Hayne’s melodramatic style combined with Brian Selznick’s, let’s say, inexperienced screenwriting work in tandem to create a film devoid of purpose, thoroughly sappy, and at times insufferable. The very first scene in the film is so laughably poorly-written that I breathed a sigh of relief when the main character went deaf.

One of the major problems with the film is that it delivers exposition like Mike Tyson delivering a punch to your jaw. The aforementioned scene contains lines in a conversation between one of the leads and his mother like “Happy birthday, twelve-year-old” and, completely unprompted, “So, dad was an astronomer?” A character who can only communicate through writing, in a very hectic scene, takes extra time to write “I miss you, mama,” just so that the audience doesn’t have to think too hard. Later on, the same deaf character, now adult, writes entire paragraphs of exposition in a matter of seconds.

The film also does a pretty poor job expressing the main twist of the book, that the girl from the ’20s is the grandmother of the boy from the ’70s. Sure, in the film, the grandmother is played by Julianne Moore, who also plays the girl’s mother, but the audience’s only incentive to put it together is that the movie would be utterly pointless otherwise. The decision to differentiate the two time periods aesthetically by having the earlier one be black-and-white is one of the most uninspired decisions Todd Haynes has ever made, in what is easily his least inspired film. The black-and-white portion of the film is abandoned entirely a little more than halfway through, which is kind of what happens in the book, but it makes much more sense in that case because the perspective shifts to an older Rose (the female protagonist), where in the movie we’re still following Ben (the male protagonist) when we’re introduced to adult Rose.

The characterization in the film is pretty shoddy, too. Ben’s friend Jamie lies to him to keep him from finding out about his father for no reason other than to make the movie about 20 minutes longer. He says it’s because he doesn’t want to lose him, but there’s no reason to believe he would lose him once he found his grandparents at the bookstore. Part of the reason Rose being the grandmother is rendered baffling is because a large chunk of Rose’s life is left out of the story, and the two seem like completely different characters. Ben’s brother is the second character introduced in the entire movie, and we literally never see or hear from him again after the first few seconds.

Now, a few positives. Todd Haynes may be melodramatic, but he’s certainly a good director. He plays with some very clever concepts in the film, and does a lot with very little dialogue. My favorite part of the whole movie is the sequence where Ben and Rose have both just arrived in New York and are just exploring the city. There’s no dialogue, no plot or character development, but it’s a purely magical moment, something I was hoping to see more of in this movie. The kids are phenomenal (Have you noticed how all the child actors got really good all of a sudden in the past couple years?), and some of the adults aren’t really pulling their weight, but the focus is on the kids, and it really works. The potential romance between Ben and Jamie is probably the sweetest aspect of the film. Like I said, I really appreciated much of the soundtrack, especially the jazz-infused ’70s portion. There are parts where it seems to be throwing bells and whistles in to be quirky without purpose, but it’s still mostly captivating.

Still, I couldn’t give Wonderstruck more than a 3.8/10. It suffers from many of the same issues I found with Carol (a film I did generally like, to be fair), coupled with a godawful script and source material that really lends itself much better to one of Selznick’s visual novels than a feature film. I’d like to see these kids go places, and it’s always good to see Todd Haynes working, but this is definitely one you can skip.

Top 20 Songs of the Month (September 2017) — October 10, 2017

Top 20 Songs of the Month (September 2017)

Hey, y’all! Sorry if this article is later than usual; I had a stack of technological absurdities as soon as it came time to write it. I know it’s my M.O. to start off each list talking about what an amazing month it was, but honestly? This was one of the weaker months for music I’ve seen thus far. It felt like this month got the shorter end of the fall single stick, including tepid new tracks from the likes of Zayn, Kelly Clarkson, and Sam Smith. Still, I’ve managed to turn a pretty solid top 20 out of it, and you’re about to look at it! Right now! First, let me clarify as always that this list is for songs released outside of an album. This means that a song that’s been around for years as an album track, but only just now got released as a single, would be considered eligible, but plenty of songs that were released this month still aren’t eligible. The rules are arbitrary, but they make narrowing down a list easier. Now, let’s get down to business.

20) UP ALL NIGHT – Beck

Beck’s 2014 album Morning Phase was good. Certainly not Album of the Year cough cough, but a solid folk album, coming from a listener who’s not always down with that ethereal shit. That being said, I’m glad Beck decided to follow it up with a poppier album, because this shit slaps. “Up All Night” opens with a crunchy guitar reminiscent of the bridge from “Dreams,” the first (by a long shot) single from this same album, but things quickly move in a different direction as the beat flows magically between that ‘90s guitar sound and the wild electronic vocal samples of modern pop. All this sets the stage for a rousing banger that, sure, borrow a couple elements from the likes of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and Kesha’s “Die Young,” but I’m certainly not complaining.

19) SPENT THE DAY IN BED – Morrissey

Noted insufferable prick Morrissey returns after a few years of speaking out against whatever-the-fuck to bring us more unfortunately-good tunes. This one’s about how people use the endless corruption of politics/media as an excuse to ignore current events and “sleep on” the problems at hand. It also has a really neat keyboard riff going on, which is cool. Listen, I do like the song, but it feels weird to shower praise on the man whose autobiography has a Penguin Classics edition.

18) SWEET DREAMS – BØRNS

Indie pop artist and fellow Michigander BØRNS has been dropping some heat the past couple months, but this is the first to squeeze its way onto the list. Something about the ethereal chaos of the chorus, perfectly conjuring the blissful, dreamlike state the title implies, plus BØRNS’ silky androgynous pipes give this song a really unique feel that sets it apart from a lot of other music to come out this month. It’s hard to describe a song with such a vibe-based appeal, but trust me when I say you’ll be transported.

17) SOMETHING FOR YOUR M.I.N.D. – Superorganism

Superorganism is one of the most exciting bands on the come-up right now, and just like their previous singles, “Something for Your M.I.N.D.” feels breathtakingly new. It’s unmistakeably psychedelic, but outside of bulbous guitars, it has few of the hallmarks of psychedelia. I’m absolutely in love with the way it keeps rhythm in moments of complete silence, spacing the pause between “for your” and “MIND” just right so as to jar and mesmerize without losing a beat while also making the vocals seem so genuine, they sound like a dazzlingly well-integrated sample. Superorganism is the future, so get used to ‘em now.

16) THE LAST OF THE REAL ONES – Fall Out Boy

Fall Out Boy’s been rolling out their perpetually-forthcoming album M AN IA for a long while, and the first couple singles were uh… not great. “Young and Menace” just might be the worst song they’ve ever made, but to be fair, that’s what I say about every lead single from a Fall Out Boy album. It’s typically not until the second or third single that the band’s true potential shines through (see: “Uma Thurman,” “The Phoenix”). Enter “Last of the Real Ones,” a truly kickass pop rock jam that wins by not trying too hard. It’s fun, energetic as hell, and while the whole llama thing is a shitty gimmick, the video (a loving recreation of Kanye’s “Flashing Lights”) is super enjoyable too. Not everyone’s on board with this “rockstar” phase of Fall Out Boy’s career, but even detractors will admit this one’s a cut above the rest.

15) HOW CAN U SLEEP – Brain feat. Lil Dicky and The Game

Now that I think about it, thematically speaking, this song is upsettingly similar to that Morrissey song from earlier. Anyway, Lil Dicky put out his “I’m Brain” concept EP earlier this month, and it’s really bad. Brain was a character who wasn’t even funny or interesting to begin with, nothing more is really done with him on this project, and Dicky’s move towards being taken seriously has sapped much of the fun out of his music. Still, “How Can U Sleep” is fire. It’s funny, the best is great, the verses are great, it might’ve caught like wildfire if it weren’t a Lil Dicky song in 2017. Dicky’s verses are great, if cluttered with quite a bit of filler, and The Game delivers his best verse in years. I really like how Dicky delivers the “How can you sleep” line, as though he’s disgusted by the very thought of someone sleeping. It’s also really funny when Game says “I just brought six strippers from Vegas home with me” and Dicky responds with a genuinely taken-aback “Six?!” More this, less “Cocaine.”

14) WILLY WONKA – Macklemore feat. Offset

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ hiatus has swiftly and unsurprisingly proven that Lewis was the real heavy-hitter of the two. In the time since they’ve broken up, Macklemore delivered a lukewarm, derivative hip hop album, while Ryan Lewis delivered “Praying” by Kesha, which you already know my thoughts on. And while I wasn’t exactly Gemini’s biggest fan, one thing I must admit about the new Macklemore album is that “Willy Wonka” fucking slaps. Macklemore does some interesting stuff in his verse, revisiting the pitter-patter flow of “Can’t Hold Us,” but like “How Can U Sleep,” the real star of this track is the guest rapper. Offset imbues a weird dubstep-rap experiment with glorious purpose, giving it a much better hook and a really solid verse. One thing though: I’m a little upset about the line “Willy Wonka been had haters.” I mean, I guess people didn’t like him, but it wasn’t a defining character trait of Willy Wonka that he had haters. You could just as easily say “Richard Dreyfuss been had haters.” In fact, Richard Dreyfuss also lives on acres and has a lot of paper. Bottom line: great song, but should really be called “Richard Dreyfuss.”

13) MISTAKES – Tove Styrke

I’ve missed out on a few great songs in the process of making these lists. You can’t always tell what kind of staying power a song will have right off the bat. One such omission was Tove Styrke’s “Say My Name,” whose boisterous hook immediately embedded itself into my permanent memory. I hate to consider this a consolation prize, because “Mistakes” is good enough on its own to make the list, but it does sort of feel that way. I really admire Styrke’s particular breed of pop, which deconstructs elements of the genre without losing fun or functionality in a sea of half-baked downers (not naming names, but Billie Eilish). “Mistakes” has an almost maddeningly-simple hook:

You make me

You make me

You make me wanna make mistakes

Love how bittersweet it tastes

That’s it. But listening to the song, how the beat drops out and the robotic choir kicks in so subtly, it’s sort of divine. Tove Styrke stands alongside Julia Michaels as a breath of fresh air in pop who takes the genre in a new direction without losing its raw enjoyment.

12) THE SCHEME – Primus

This song is essentially a two-and-a-half-minute bass solo, and it’s the craziest shit I’ve ever heard. If you had any doubts about Primus’ place in the rock hall of fame, listen to this and tell me your fave would ever.

11) SHOCKANDAWE – Miguel

“Guess what this song is about?” Miguel deadpans at the start of this frenetic anti-war anthem that stands out for its bold stance against subtlety. Miguel gleefully invites you to marvel at his unfathomably obvious “I rock, I run” double entendre, playing the hits from “Satire for Dummies” over the modified sounds of Tyler the Creator’s “I Ain’t Got Time!” All of this sounds like mockery, but I genuinely love this song. It’s great to see Miguel, one of the most exciting acts in R&B, moving in all these new directions lately.

10) MISBEHAVING – Labrinth

“Misbehaving” and Labrinth made big waves this month after being featured in Apple’s new ad campaign. Since then, the neo-blues track has slowly etched its way into our daily lives, its synthetic moans and sporadic trumpets popping up wherever Apple promotional material can be heard, which is an increasingly wide area. And of course, it is an amazing song. It’s a pitch-perfect blend of old and new, combining ‘20s sensibilities with innovative sampling to create something purely enchanting and pretty damn fun. It’s a song that feels specially-designed to play over an Apple ad, but organic at the same time.

9) SEXY DIRTY LOVE – Demi Lovato

Tell Me You Love Me is Demi Lovato’s best album to date. Since her 2015 clunker Confident, she’s upped her writing game and harnessed her incredible vocals to create a great power pop album. “Sexy Dirty Love” feels like Lovato’s answer to Nick Jonas’ “Levels.” It’s powerful, catchy, it’s got an incredible beat, and it’s even got the same conceit, using literal height as a metaphor for proximity to climax. Fun stuff. It sucks that the pop machine is dead, because I would’ve loved to hear this on the radio.

8) GRĀ- KAMAU feat. Nkō Khelî

KAMAU’s been on my radar for a long while now. He’s one of the more exciting acts on the come-up in hip hop today, combining tribal elements and an a cappella vibe with the nasally sing-rap sensibilities of Anderson .Paak. “GRā,” like KAMAU’s typical fare, is idiosyncratic, exceptionally well-made, and meaningful. It also stands out with the likes of “BooDha” as one of his catchiest, cleverest tracks, opining on oppression and the lasting effects of slavery. It’s a delight.

7) HILLSIDE BOYS – Kim Petras

Kim Petras is quickly becoming one of my favorite pop starlets on the rise. She’s got a great voice and a penchant for delightful ‘80s-infused synth-pop. “Hillside Boys” calls on the spirit of Cyndi Lauper in her prime, and it’s a real treat. I talked about Kim quite a bit last month, but suffice it to say she’s one to watch.

6) POWER – Rapsody feat. Kendrick Lamar and LanceSkiiiwalker

Hey, here’s something new: Kendrick Lamar is on this month’s list. Yes, I’m a creature of habit, but when two of the best rappers alive join forces on a track, how can I not give it a mention? Rapsody delivers truth bombs with the poise of an elder statesman, while Kendrick throws the track for a curve, bouncing off the walls in full DAMN. mode, all over a phenomenal beat by 9th Wonder. What’s not to love?

5) HOMIE – Young Martha (Young Thug & Carnage) feat. Meek Mill

Truth be told, I considered giving this song the #1 spot more than a couple times as I was making the list. I’ve probably listened to it more and gotten more enjoyment out of it than any other song on this list. The beat is amazing. Young Thug’s untamed growl is wonderful. Meek delivers a potent if short verse. The video is purely mind-boggling. It’s an incredible song, but it’s not particularly accessible to those who aren’t already fans of Thug and/or Meek. Still, I absolutely love it, and there’s a good chance you will too.

4) LOS AGELESS – St. Vincent

When we last saw her, St. Vincent took the #1 spot on the list with a deeply affective piano ballad called “New York.” This time, she receives high marks again, but we’re not in New York anymore. Where her previous single was touching, powerful, and organic, this one’s rough, distorted, uncomfortable. They’re both extremely catchy, and there’s some serious underlying emotional depth to the dark electronica of “Los Ageless.” It’s not bad; in fact, it’s phenomenal. But it’s definitely different, both from “New York” and from much of St. Vincent’s back catalogue. There’s a reason she got to make an album with David Byrne.

3) SEE YOU AGAIN – Tyler, the Creator feat. Kali Uchis

“See You Again” is yet another phenomenal single off Tyler, the Creator’s phenomenal album Flower Boy. Admittedly, it doesn’t do much to distance itself musically from Tyler and Kali’s last collaboration, “Fucking Young/Perfect,” but it’s still a deeply moving, heartfelt track with a Stevie Wonder spirit and inescapable pull quotes like “I wonder if you look both ways when you cross my mind.” The production is amazing, too, fading seamlessly from starry-eyed pianos to crunchy hip hop noise. This is the most perfect version of Tyler’s artistic vision. Flower Boy is a true portrait of the artist’s soul.

2) HOMEMADE DYNAMITE (REMIX) – Lorde feat. Khalid, Post Malone, and SZA

Alright, listen: “Homemade Dynamite” was released as a single in August. How was I supposed to know that such a great remix was coming in September? I know it’ll look ridiculous to have the same song in the top five on two lists in a row, but hindsight is 20/20, and the “Homemade Dynamite” remix is a masterpiece. Lorde is joined by likeminded artist SZA, Post Malone, and Khalid, all of whom draw clear influence from her seminal 2013 album Pure Heroine, to create a vibrant exploration of the original track’s complex themes. It’s a track where each artist pulls their weight, bringing their own point of view and style to the table before joining everyone else for a stunning rendition of the chorus. It’s the best official remix to a pop song I’ve heard in years.

1) LOVE – ILoveMakonnen feat. Rae Sremmurd

“Trap is the new punk” takes are a bit tired at this point, especially given Rae Sremmurd already has their anti-establishment #1 single, but “Love” proves that pop punk is in these guys’ veins. The track is a happy marriage of Fall Out Boy and Soulja Boy, gleefully sloppy but never unenjoyable, and capturing an undeniable spirit that’ll resonate with anyone who’s ever been an angsty teen in the summertime. Makonnen and Rae Sremmurd are among a cabal of young artists touted as the wave of the future, and “Love” proves they’re far more than one-trick ponies. It’s simple, derivative, and not particularly well-made, but I love every second of it.

Top 20 Songs of the Month (August 2017) — September 12, 2017

Top 20 Songs of the Month (August 2017)

This one’s super late. Starting college, all that. It didn’t help that it wasn’t a particularly easy list to narrow down. The initial shortlist was over five pages, including four songs apiece by Brockhampton, Leikeli47, and Migos, all but one of which were knocked off the list. It seemed like practically everyone released music this month, including notorious recluses like MF Doom and wild cards like Lil Wayne. As a result, even though all the people I’ve mentioned so far have been rappers, this is perhaps the most sonically diverse of these lists I’ve done to date. For those of you who don’t know, this list doesn’t necessarily include the best songs that were released this month, but the ones that were released separate from an album (typically as a single). This means that a song that’s been out for over a year could still be eligible while many songs released during the month would be ineligible. It’s complicated, but it works. Let’s get it underway.

20) RIGHT NOW – PHresher feat. Cardi B

Against all odds, stripper-turned-reality-star-turned-rapper Cardi B is on her way to becoming a megastar. Her single “Bodak Yellow” is the #3 song in the country right now, she’s all over the news, and she’s working with some of the biggest names in hip hop today. Of course, PHresher isn’t one of those people. He’s an off-the-wall, erratic underground MC who had a song with Desiigner in 2014 (it was called “Danny Devito”). But like Cardi B, PHresher is a force of personality, and the two of them coming together on a track creates a menacing romp reminiscent of B.o.B and Nicki Minaj’s “Out of My Mind.”

19) CAROLINE – Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers

If there’s anything that doesn’t need to be said, it’s that Steve Martin is a master wordsmith. We’ve seen him bring his one-of-a-kind wit to the screen, stage, and page, and also to folk music work with the Steep Canyon Rangers. “Caroline” is sort of the folk tune equivalent of a Judd Apatow movie (right down to the casting). It’s goofy, with an askew worldview and sharp sense of humor. It’s a tale of lower-upper-class white people falling in and out of love. And it’s pretty damn emotionally affecting if you let it be.

18) WATER ME – Lizzo

It’s become increasingly apparent that Lizzo is a star in the making. She’s already won over a devoted base of listeners with her empowering ’60s soul-infused hip-pop stylings, and now that she’s signed to Atlantic Records, it seems like she’s not going anywhere. “Water Me” is more of what we’ve come to expect from Lizzo, but it packs a hard EDM punch that makes it stand apart amongst the rest of her discography. You might not hear this one on the radio, but you’ll be hearing from her sooner rather than later.

17) COCAINA – Captain Cuts feat. Rich the Kid and Daniels

Rich the Kid is a trap artist of the new school who’s got a nice energy but doesn’t quite stand out among the crowd. Daniels is another rapper that, as far as my research seems to indicate, only existed for the three minutes it took to record this song. Captain Cuts is the production team behind “Shut Up and Dance.” What do you get when you put them all together? A potential pop hit, believe it or not. I don’t know how comfortable the radio companies will be with a song very explicitly named after cocaine being played on their stations, but the Weeknd made a song about coke that won a Kids’ Choice Award, so who knows? And this song fucking slaps. It’s sort of got that island flair that’s been all the rage this past year and a half, but it’s a bit less dancehall and a little more reggae. The rappers are fun, and the chorus is super catchy, but Captain Cuts are the stars of the show.

16) STROBELITE – Gorillaz feat. Peven Everett

The latest single off Gorillaz’s surprisingly bounteous latest album Humanz was criticized by some for really just being a Peven Everett song. And while that may be true, it’s still an absolute banger. The electro-disco groove is some of the finest, most danceable production work to come out this year. And Everett’s vocals are nothing to sneeze at. He carries a certain passion that drives the surprisingly-complex lyrics home.

15) MY STYLE – Poppy feat. Charlotte

If you’ve been reading this blog, then I don’t need to tell you who Poppy is. That being said, this song carries a whole different energy from most of her other work. Usually, the menace of her music is subdermal, obscured under layers of bubblegum. This one’s lowkey frightening from the get-go. A simplistic, droning beat accompanies equally repetitive lyrics and a creepy, hypnotic video aesthetic. The lyrics mostly seem like nonsense, until the chorus kicks in. “Poppy is an object / Poppy is your best friend / Poppy will break your neck / Poppy will be your pet.” The computerized voice (“Charlotte”) only makes the song more skin-crawling, and seems to point towards Poppy’s narrative going in some bizarre new directions.

14) FLOOD WATCH – Juicy J feat. Offset

Even in his Three 6 Mafia days, I never really thought of Juicy J and friends as anything more than “okay.” That being said, I seem to find myself getting into just about every song he puts out. “Flood Watch” is decadent right from the start. Inspirational, almost cinematic pianos accompany J’s muffled chants of “Get up, bitch, get up.” It approached heavenly levels when the drums subtly kick in. Juicy J and Offset are both pretty average rappers, and their verses on this track are not their best by any means, but it all comes together in a really enjoyable way.

13) LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO – Taylor Swift

Yes, I know. I love joking about how bad this song is as much as the next person. Whose idea was it to turn “I’m Too Sexy” into a Disney villain song? What did we make her do? She doesn’t like my keys? But in the end, I gotta come clean: this song also slaps. Taylor Swift always comes through with great pop music, and when you pair her with Jack Antonoff and a newfound acceptance of her role as the villain, the results are a fun techno-pop track perfect for when you want to feel like that bitch.

12) ACROSS THE MULTIVERSE – Dent May feat. Frankie Cosmos

This one’s so out of my comfort zone that I’m not sure I’ll be able to describe it, but I liked it enough to put it on the list so I guess I’ll hope for the best. I’d describe it as a psychedelic indie pop track with airy sci-fi disco vibes, like “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” with an Angel Olsen twist. The mix of funk guitars, space-age synths, and big band disco horns really does it for me, y’know?

11) BABY SCALE – IDK feat. Yung Gleesh

When we last saw the artist formerly known as Jay IDK, he was treating us to The Empty Bank, one of the finest self-released hip-hop records of 2016. His star quality shines even harder on “Baby Scale,” a jazz-infused track that mixes equal parts introspection and braggadocio to create an intricate piece of work. IDK’s flow has progressed a ton in just the past year, and his lyrical prowess is as high as ever. Yung Gleesh’s part is fine.

10) FRIENDS – Justin Bieber and BLOODPOP®

At the end of the day, is “Friends” just a harder version of “Sorry”? Absolutely. But “Sorry” is great, and that ’80s driving synth is great, so what’s not to like? The Biebs’ transition from punching bag to heavy-hitter seemed to come in a flash, but looking back on it now, it seems like we just got tired of hating him. After a few years of near-constant radio play, some people have changed their tunes once again, but there’s still comfort in knowing you’ll no longer be mocked mercilessly for liking a Justin Bieber song, or forced to pick apart things you hate in something as purely and genuinely good as “Friends.” So that’s nice.

9) PEOPLE SAY – Wu-Tang Clan feat. Redman

Of course I had to make room for the Wu. In their first public outing since their 2014 album “A Better Tomorrow,” the Staten Island MC’s are as sharp as they’ve ever been. The beat by Mathematics is some classic New York shit, and all five rappers featured on the track are spitting, though I think my favorite verse is Inspectah Deck’s. Wu-Tang forever, indeed.

8) THE SEVEN – Primus

Bieber to Wu-Tang to Primus; how’s that for diversity? I’ve always appreciated Primus and their uncanny ability to just do the weirdest shit 24/7. “The Seven” is no exception. I honestly have no idea what this song is getting at, or if there are any layers of meaning to it, but on the surface it seems to be about seven malevolent creatures, representing the colors of the rainbow, that just go around ruining things for everyone. It’s hard to describe it any further, but if you’ve listened to Primus, you know what you’re in for, and if not, let this be your introduction.

7) LIKE A MAN – ONHEL feat. Lil Wayne

I was wary about considering this one for the list, because I first encountered it in an article saying it was a leak from one of the Carter albums. However, everything I can find about it now says that it’s just a brand new single from Lil Wayne (and longtime engineer ONHEL). That’s pretty exciting just on its own, but it also finds Tunechi in rare form, spazzing about sex, drugs, and skateboarding with a craftsman’s precision and an artist’s spirit. He’s got crazy rhyme schemes, bizarre imagery, killer puns, and everything else that once had legions of fans calling him the best rapper alive. It’s hard to call it the second coming of Wayne, especially since he drops a song of this caliber about every two years, but it’s still a rare treat.

6) I DON’T WANT IT AT ALL – Kim Petras

People who know what they’re talking about have called Kim Petras the next Britney Spears. We’ll have to wait and see where her career goes from here, but “I Don’t Want It At All” showcases a star power that’s rare for an artist as new as she is. After first making headlines for transitioning at an unusually young age (Remember when that was enough to make headlines?), she started releasing music and this song, her major label debut, is already blowing up on Spotify. This is another one that might make big waves on the radio this fall, and it’s perhaps the most delightful of any of them. It’s schlocky pop perfection, reveling in vanity and hedonism over sunny synths. It’s an absolute joy from start to finish.

5) TRUE LIGHTYEARS – KMD feat. Jay Electronica

Hmm, how do you top entries from legendary rappers like Lil Wayne and the Wu-Tang Clan? I know, how about the new song from MF fucking DOOM. If you don’t mind the high-pitched flute sample, you’re treated to an otherworldly lyrical onslaught by two unparalleled MCs. Jay Electronica might have been a rarer treat a couple years ago, but he’s still much appreciated. And Doom’s as marvelous as ever, mixing layered intellectual poetics with unapologetically goofy punchlines to create something beautiful.

4) HOMEMADE DYNAMITE – Lorde

Not to give away any spoilers, but Lorde’s Melodrama is a strong contender for album of the year. It’s just so distinct, so raw, so layered, so enjoyable and thought-provoking and troubling all at once. “Homemade Dynamite” is, in some senses, the cornerstone of the album. It’s certainly the song that feels most radically different, from production to vocals to content. It brings home the album’s themes of, well, melodrama, taking the teen spirit that was idealized on Pure Heroine and showing the darker side of it. It’s a magical moment when a song as weird and sad as this one still works as a pop song, but here we are.

3) HAVANA – Camila Cabello feat. Young Thug

This song is so goddamn good. Camila Cabello’s output since leaving Fifth Harmony has ranged from interesting (“Crying in the Club”) to atrocious (“Bad Things”), but “Havana” is in a whole other boat. I want this to be all over the radio. I want it to shatter records. And here’s the thing: everyone knows I’m a Young Thug stan. I rave about Young Thug all the time. But my appreciation for this song has nothing to do with him. If he wasn’t on the song at all, it’d probably still be right here. What makes this song is some phenomenal production work by Pharrell, an insanely catchy hook, and Camila’s lovelorn vocals painting a picture of regret that’s so enjoyable and relatable and just great. But for what it’s worth, Young Thug’s verse is really good too.

2) THE NO PANTS DANCE – TWRP feat. Ninja Sex Party

“The No Pants Dance” just might be a masterpiece. It features the goofy, hypersexual lyrics of NSP, the killer electro grooves of TWRP, and it’s called “The No Pants Dance,” for god’s sake. If you can’t appreciate a song about dancing with your pants off, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve always found Danny Sexbang’s vocals to be a bit jarring on some of the songs NSP chooses to make, but it fits so perfectly with the vibe of this one. It just works on so many levels. But it’s not song of the month.

1) TAKE ME – Aly & AJ

Aly and AJ Michalka were true rock stars of the Disney Channel age, winning over a generations of kids and teens with their 2007 classic hit “Potential Breakup Song.” But soon after, they split from Hollywood Records, did some solo acting projects, and took a strange turn towards indie rock under the name 78violet. Now, finally, they’re back as Aly & AJ, and so we enter “Take Me.” The song starts slow, but immediately attention-grabbing, with muffled drums and synths that seem to have been recorded via VHS. Aly materializes, wisping wistfully about the trappings of dating in the modern world. Suddenly, things start building up, and like “In the Air Tonight” for the girl power pop set, drums pummel us into another dimension as AJ cries “When you gonna take me out?” The song is pure bliss, a perfect union of Carly Rae Jepsen and The 1975 that stands out as one of the finest pieces of pop music to be released in 2017. I think we all needed a little more Aly & AJ in our lives.

Review: The Weird Bear Movie — August 18, 2017

Review: The Weird Bear Movie

As promotion for Brigsby Bear started to pop up, what struck me about it, in addition to its star-studded cast and crew, was just how different it was. In an age where so many movies lay it all out for us months and sometimes years before they hit theaters, it was refreshing and intriguing to see a movie that no one could really get a read on. Clearly, the film was writer and star Kyle Mooney’s passion project, but what was it exactly? A sci-fi mind bender? A family drama? A flat-out comedy fitting its producers (the Lonely Island and Lord/Miller)? Either way, it quickly set itself apart as a must-see for me, and now that I’ve seen it, I can tell you it’s everything I hoped for and nothing like I expected.

I don’t want to go too in-depth about everything that goes on in the movie, because I think everyone should see it with fresh eyes. What I will tell you is that it’s not particularly funny. It has plenty of funny moments, sure, and it takes place in a world that’s rife with comedic potential, but it’s actually very grounded and emotional. If you’re expecting a gut-busting romp (which you probably shouldn’t be if you’ve seen the trailers), you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for a weird, beautiful, thoughtful movie, you’ve come to the right place.

The gist of the film, in the least spoilery way I can explain it, is that it follows Kyle Mooney’s character, James. He’s a young adult who was kidnapped as a baby and raised in a cultish environment by faux parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who had him convinced that an apocalyptic event had rendered the outside world unlivable. Growing up, his only interest was Brigsby Bear Adventures, a propaganda series made exclusively by Hamill’s character for James. Obviously, once James is rescued and taken to his real family, he struggles to process his new reality, but becomes closer to reality and his new family as he produces a feature film adaptation of Brigsby Bear. 

All told, the movie is a celebration of creativity and fandom, as well as a thought-provoking commentary on how media shapes our understanding of self and the world around us. As the movie goes on, we start to see James as a conduit for Brigsby, and vice versa. He can’t become a complete individual until Brigsby’s story is complete, so he spends the movie running around putting the different pieces of Brigsby together, like an emotional treasure hunt. And in a very literal sense, each part of Brigsby brings out more humanity in James. A lost eyepiece brings him closer to his sister, tracking down an actress from the show helps him discover love and attraction, and recording the characters’ voices allows him to achieve closure with his kidnappers. The idea of a “spiritual quest” is as hackneyed and meaningless as they come, but the phrase describes this movie to a T.

And technically speaking, everything about the movie works. The sci-fi influenced score is captivating, as are most of the performances. Mooney’s work isn’t too much of a departure from what we’ve seen him do on SNL, but it fits his character perfectly. Mark Hamill is amazing as always. In terms of cast, this movie’s only crime is that it underuses some of its strongest names. Claire Danes is pinned as the perpetrator of James’ kidnapping, but her character is never explored. Beck Bennett gets about five minutes played completely straight. Andy Samberg’s character certainly feels necessary for the movie’s progression, but feels more like Samberg stepping out of the producer’s chair to push the plot forward than an actual character in the same world as everyone else.

Speaking of which, the movie’s world is on a bit of a peculiar wavelength. Like I said, there’s Lonely Island and Good Neighbor-esque comedy to the world, and the characters would easily fit in in a straightforward comedy, but everything’s played completely straight. You sort of need to be a fan of Mooney’s previous work, or at least in tune with it, in order to appreciate Brigsby Bear. If that describes you, make this movie a priority.

Brigsby Bear is a film that surprised and touched me, though it feels like a movie that’ll require some more deep thought before I can truly offer my opinion. It’s not the kind of movie I’d appreciate from most people, but Mooney, the Lonely Island, and Lord/Miller’s unique sensibilities and worldview make it stand out as one of the most mature, thoughtful movies of the year. For that, I give it a 96/100.

Top 20 Songs of the Month (July 2017) — August 9, 2017

Top 20 Songs of the Month (July 2017)

What a month. I know I say something to that effect every month, since there’s more good music being put out than there’s ever been before, and in all honesty, my shortlist this month was actually shorter than usual, but still. We got great new music from the likes of Capital Cities, Kamaiyah, The All-American Rejects, Jennifer Lopez, Nine Inch Nails, Mystery Skulls, Shania Twain, Wyclef Jean, Demi Lovato, The Darkness, BØRNS, Mick Jagger, and those are just the ones that didn’t make the list. This month, we’ve got some triumphant comebacks, some steady mainstays, and a few impressive newcomers. Let’s get things underway. Remember: for the purposes of making these lists easier to make, I generally only include songs that were released in some form outside of an album. That can be in the form of a single, a video, or a few other things, but it generally can’t be something I put or almost put on a previous list. This means that a song could have come out on an album years ago and still make the list if it was just released as a single or video this month. I also try to avoid having more than one song to an artist on each list, but there’s one notable exception to that this time ’round.

20) RUN FOR COVER – The Killers

The Killers are a bit hard to get a read on, in terms of public opinion. Most, I think, became infatuated with them for a glimmering moment in the mid-2000’s and then came to be annoyed by them. Still, they have a rock-solid fanbase, and at least one of the best songs of all time (“Mr. Brightside,” naturally). Last month, they put out a single called “The Man,” the first off their forthcoming fifth album. That song is, uh, not good. It showcases everything that caused the general populace to quickly grow tired with the Killers, a song that’s equal parts generic and trying too hard. “Run for Cover,” I think, does a better job showcasing what many people (myself included) still admire about the band. Brandon Flowers’ Modest Mouse-lite crooning is a bit more subdued, leaving room for a song that’s goofy, but still enjoyable on a base level.

19) RAGE – Vic Mensa

“Rage” is arguably Vic Mensa’s most self-indulgent song to date. There’s nothing wrong with that; self-indulgence is a staple of hip-hop and music in general. But for some, this song could definitely be a bit overwhelming. It opens with Vic singing about planes crashing, at first alone with a bit of reverb, then with a passionate, almost theatrical piano accompaniment. The refrain of the song is “I want you to rage into the night,” and the beat consists of Mike Dean and Om’mas Keith doing their finest Alex da Kid imitation, with the usual rocky drums, important-sounding synths, a barely-noticeable choral backing, a much more noticeable “aaaaaayyy” backing, and ranch on the side. Still, it’s an effective and at times moving ballad with some solid wordplay and an interesting metaphorical conceit.

18) I AIN’T GOT TIME! – Tyler, the Creator

Sure, it’s one of the less resonant cuts on Tyler’s brilliant new album Flower Boy. It’s not nearly as introspective and syrupy as, say, “911” or “Glitter.” But it’s a damn good track. It’s hard to even describe the instrumental, but it’s a noisy Middle Eastern-sounding beat with obvious Pharrell influence that perfectly matches Tyler’s gravelly tones. And of course, nestled between cheesy boasts is the most buzzworthy revelation on an album full of them: the already-famous “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004” line. Way to go, Tyler.

17) LET’S MAKE A VIDEO – Poppy

I feel like I’ve already said more than enough about Poppy in recent articles, so I’ll keep it brief. Poppy’s great. This song is great. I love the bubbly synths. I love the corny pop lyrics. I adore the hook, especially the non sequitur “I love you when you’re happy, I love you when you’re down.” It’s just great.

16) P.O.P. – Belly

After presenting it at multiple stops on The Weeknd’s Starboy tour, Palestinian-Canadian rapper Belly bookended the month of July by releasing his latest single, “P.O.P.” The title, of course, stands for “power of pussy,” and the song follows various men, Belly himself included, being ensnared by greedy women. It’s sort of like an even more misogynistic version of “Gold Digger,” but like “Gold Digger,” it’s also really funny and well-written, so we’ll give it a tentative pass.

15) BIG B’S – Chance the Rapper and Young Thug

After apparently saving SoundCloud from the brink of collapse, Chance the Rapper celebrated with a new loosie, joined by Young Thug. Both rappers have sort of become recurring characters on these lists, and on this track, you can see why. Despite representing different cities and different factions of the rap game, both rappers have an unshakeable charisma and off-the-wall energy that makes them irresistible, and an absorbing way with words to sweeten the deal. “B’s” means “business,” by the way.

14) THE PAIN – Rapsody

Having come around at the turn of the decade, Rapsody’s already built a reputation as one of the finest conscious MC’s working today, and one of the great female rappers of all time. Her latest single, “The Pain,” showcases the subdued wisdom and intricate wordsmithing that gave her that reputation. Over Nottz’s urgent production, Rap describes “the pain,” in order, “of watching us kill each other,” “of black men/women disrespected by the world,” “of a man who never knew the man that made him,” “of a daddy’s girl without a daddy,” “of a mother who went half on a baby and got a whole lot to deal with,” and “of a man that wanna raise his child, love his child / Baby mama crazy, she don’t ever let him see his child.” It’s the exact kind of deep, powerful bars we’ve come to expect from the brilliant mind of Rapsody.

13) WEDDING CRASHERS – Aminé feat. Offset

Aminé dropped his debut album Good For You this month, and on a preliminary listen, I thought it was really good. Still, a solid contender for best track is the single he released the week before the album, “Wedding Crashers.” It’s a cheeky ode to old flames centered around weddings that features a goofy Rugrats beat and a solid if forgettable Offset verse. Aminé’s verse is packed with dense wordplay and references, some of which appear to be inside jokes with himself. Still, the highlight of the song is the irresistible hook. It’s fun enough to be enjoyable while still delivering the bite its subject matter deserves.

12) MIDNIGHT – Jessie Ware

English singer/songwriter Jessie Ware’s throaty, soulful pop tunes have led to the respect of some of pop’s heavy-hitters, and a fair amount of being mistaken for Jess Glynne. “Midnight” is one of the best songs I’ve heard from her to date. I love how the beat builds itself around her devastated vocals, taking the tone from mournful to triumphant without skipping a beat. I love it for its bouncy R&B refrain, but the more tender parts of it are still captivating.

11) CATCH ME OUTSIDE – Ski Mask the Slump God

BIG shoutout to Ski Mask the Slump God, an artist I hadn’t even considered considering at the start of this month. After some solid work with XXXTentacion, “Catch Me Outside” is the song that made me realize just how brilliant this guy actually is. Over Timbaland’s classic Missy Elliott “She’s a Bitch” beat, Ski Mask fires off wild wordplay reminiscent of Missy herself. Before the song even begins, he’s bringing out killer wordplay. “Shoutout my mucus, ’cause you know that be my slime,” he announces just as the beat kicks in. From there, it’s a two-and-a-half-minute whirlwind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wordplay and references. Congrats, Ski Mask. You have my attention.

10) WOULD YOU MIND – PRETTYMUCH

PRETTYMUCH is Simon Cowell’s latest boy band find. Based off this one single, it’s hard to say if they have any staying power, but they certainly can crank out a great pop tune. “Would You Mind” pays homage to more than one of history’s great boy bands, borrowing the a cappella harmony intro from the Beach Boys, the new jack swing sound of Boyz II Men, the futuristic breakdowns of *NSYNC, and One Direction vocals to create a wholly enjoyable earworm with a little something for every pop listener.

9) MISS ME – Leikeli47

Leikeli47’s been a long time coming for this list. Ever since a surprise endorsement by Skrillex and Diplo back in 2015, the masked MC has been one of the most compelling new rappers on my radar. “Miss Me” is laced with unflappable confidence and a killer beat, again reminiscent of Timbaland’s seminal turn-of-the-century production. It simply oozes swagger.

8) DON’T GET CAPTURED – Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels is another act I’ve already covered extensively on this blog, but I’ll go into it again. El-P’s dystopian electronic production is as strong as ever on the latest single from Run the Jewels 3, “Don’t Get Captured,” which explores racial injustice from two different perspectives. Killer Mike takes a more typical angle, examining class struggle and corruption as someone who came from a poor neighborhood watching gentrification sweep through. El-P takes on the role of a ruthless, crooked cop delighting in his ability to oppress and murder with no repercussions. It’s a message that could’ve been delivered in a simple, straightforward manner and served just fine, but leave it to RTJ to go above and beyond.

7) ONE NIGHT ONLY – The Struts

The Struts are a newer English glam rock band, and like many modern glam acts, it can be hard to tell to what extent they’re being serious and to what extent they’re joking. What I can say, for sure, is that this song is epic. It’s got an overpowering stadium hook, some really solid guitar work, and it’s packed to the gills with flair. My favorite moments include the guitar solo and when he rolls the R in “riding.”

6) BOYS – Charli XCX

One of the biggest surprises in music this month was the release of Charli XCX’s “Boys” video. After her excellent Number 1 Angel mixtape, Charli could’ve easily taken the rest of the year off, but she decided to grace us with a phenomenal pop track and one of the best music videos of 2017. The song and video flip the music industry’s objectification of women on its head, with the help of over 50 male celebrities in varying degrees of undress. It’s also a great pop tune, with a really cool electronic beat and potential to become another sleeper hit for Charli in the coming months.

5) NEW YORK – St. Vincent

This is another song that pop heavyweights like Lorde lost their shit over this month. And with good reason, quite frankly. St. Vincent’s been winning over critics and other listeners for a full decade, and her last album left a huge impression. While “New York” is generally much more straightforward than what we’re used to hearing from Annie Clark, her bitter lyricism is as sharp as ever. The sheer emotional buildup in this song is amazing. It’s St. Vincent’s answer to “Green Light” by Lorde, and that’s a good thing.

4) THE STORY OF O.J. – Jay-Z

One of music’s most major events this month was the release of Jay-Z’s acclaimed 13th album 4:44. The album’s first “single,” if it’s even worth calling it that (they can’t exactly play this one on the radio), is “The Story of O.J.,” one of the album’s crowning artistic achievements. Over a beat that feels refreshing and ancient all at once, Hova implores his community to use their money wisely, if they want to escape the cycle of poverty and failure that white people set them up for. There’s an exhausted quality to Jay’s vocals that gives the track’s devastating truth bombs a sizable punch. One bizarre antisemitic line aside, this could turn out to be one of Jay-Z’s defining tracks.

3) WOMAN – Kesha feat. The Dap-Kings Horns

Here’s this month’s leading music story: Kesha pulled off the most magnificent comeback in recent memory. After a years-long battle for artistic freedom from her abuser, the pop star rose like a phoenix to grace us with three phenomenal pop songs and counting. “Woman” is a goddamn masterpiece. I could make a whole different top ten list of all my favorite moments in this song alone. At one point, she’s laughing too hard to finish the verse, and then it just cuts to the chorus! That’s incredible! This is one of the greatest pop songs I’ve heard in a while, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it places highly on my end-of-the-year list. But for now, there are two songs I thought were better.

2) IT AIN’T FAIR – The Roots feat. Bilal

Bilal is one of the greatest singers alive. Black Thought is one of the best rappers of all time. The Roots is quite possibly the best band in the world. And when you put them all together, you get “It Ain’t Fair.” I’d say the song is this year’s answer to last year’s “This Bitter Land” (Nas & Erykah Badu). It was a relatively quiet release for a soundtrack single that’s political, powerful, and beautiful. It starts very slowly, with about a minute of Bilal singing unaccompanied, followed by some more crooning over a jazzy piano riff. But when it kicks in, by god does it kick in. By the end of the hook, it bursts with glorious color as guitar, drums, bass, brass, keyboards, everything but the kitchen sink comes together beautifully to punctuate Black Thought’s frenetic flows and mature, emotionally-vulnerable bars. This is what world-class talent sounds like.

1) PRAYING – Kesha

Now, this is highly unorthodox for me. I don’t think I’ve ever put two songs by the same lead artist on one of these lists, let alone at numbers 1 and 3. But Kesha isn’t your everyday musical talent, and I truly couldn’t see myself parting with either of the two songs. “Praying” is a thing of beauty. It’s an expertly-crafted pop masterstroke that turned Kesha’s narrative from victim to hero, suddenly becoming one of the most respected figures in music. The lyrics are simple, powerful, and even catchy. The production by Ryan Lewis is phenomenal (proving that Macklemore was actually second banana and Ryan Lewis was the star all along). Kesha’s vocals are jaw-dropping. The sheer freedom encapsulated in this scant four minutes of music is more moving than the fogies who derided Kesha in her heyday could ever hope to be. Dr. Luke may still have a contract, but the world is on Kesha’s side.

Review: Ape Escape — July 17, 2017

Review: Ape Escape

Who would’ve thunk that, in the age of adaptation, the best film reboot franchise of all time would be Planet of the Apes? The classic series has always had a compelling story behind it, and the original 1968 film made waves, but before screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver got their stinkin’ paws on it, the idea never really got the in-depth examination it deserved. Nowadays, the franchise is a critical and commercial juggernaut, consistently offering fascinating commentary, memorable characters, and phenomenal special effects.

The third film in this reboot series, War for the Planet of the Apes, is no exception. This is the first of the three to not be written by Jaffa and Silver, and admittedly, their loss is palpable at certain times, but the movie is just as riveting as the rest of them. The series’ star, Andy Serkis, delivers his finest performance to date, marking himself as a serious contender for the first actor in a CGI role to be nominated for, and perhaps win, an Academy Award. His human foil in the movie, Woody Harrelson, is just as phenomenal; his performance led me to ponder if Harrelson is one of the greatest actors alive. Of course, no one does comic relief better than Steve Zahn, who shows up in the film as an escaped zoo ape who speaks limited English and leads Caesar’s merry apes to Harrelson’s military compound.

The plot of the movie goes something like this: humans raid Caesar’s compound. The apes are victorious, but send the humans back alive as a peace offering. The humans don’t take kindly to this, and launch another raid on the base, killing Caesar’s wife and son. Now Caesar’s out for revenge, taking along three other apes and a mute human girl. After being captured by the humans, he seeks to kill Harrelson, but is haunted by the spirit of Koba and relents, seeking a route that won’t result in the death of his fellow apes. Among the human troops, Harrelson is a sort of god-king, and he believes that the apes will come to rise up and turn the humans into cattle if they aren’t neutralized. We’re entering into spoiler territory up ahead, so skip to the end if you don’t want to know what happens.

At the end of the movie, Caesar’s ape buddies prepare an elaborate escape plan. Harrelson, now suffering from the same ailment that made the girl and the abandoned soldier mute, shoots himself. Just as the apes are leaving, an opposing white-clad human force shows up and destroys the entire camp in a sea of explosions. An avalanche takes out those humans, but the apes survive by taking refuge in tall trees. They make their journey to a desert safe haven, and Caesar dies just outside of it. It’s a really touching and thought-provoking bookend for Caesar’s story, and he’s survived by his son Cornelius, who you may recognize as the lead ape from the 1968 film. How the whole world gets taken over in the lifespan of a single ape, I couldn’t tell you. But it’ll be cool to see where the series goes from here.

War is a thought-provoking movie in a lot of ways, but first and foremost, it’s an Exodus story, the humans being the Egyptians and the apes being the Israelites. The apes are enslaved by the humans and their god-king. The apes’ leader, Caesar (Moses), who is well-known among the humans and can speak their language, leads them out of captivity and to a “promised land,” but dies before he can enter the land himself and is succeeded by a close friend and confidante. Of course, there’s plenty more to think about here. Harrelson’s warlord is a textbook fascist who forces the apes to build a wall (on the California/Oregon border) to keep out his enemies. Caesar, Bad Ape, and the mute human girl bring up a lot of interesting ideas about communication and how people from different cultures understand each other. Practically every decision Caesar makes in this movie, or any of these movies, has a tremendous weight to it. He’s a pragmatic and elegant leader, but still a deeply flawed character.

I give War for the Planet of the Apes a 93%. Despite some minor narrative shortcomings, it’s just as profound and entertaining as Rise and Dawn, and immediately stands out as one of the best movies of the summer.

Hoo Boy: Despicable Me and Marxism — July 10, 2017

Hoo Boy: Despicable Me and Marxism

A couple weeks ago, Despicable M3 came out, and it introduced children to Trey Parker, killer ’80s music, and fundamental flaws in the Rotten Tomatoes rating system. For the rest of us, the movie didn’t offer much. After the monumental success of the last two-and-a-half movies, it got some prime movie real estate and has already made upwards of $450 million on a global scale, but saw a swift drop in revenue as soon as Spider-Man hit theaters. It also suuuuucks. It lacks the humor, compassion, and focus of the other two movies, replacing 95% of its actual humor with clever-isa ’80s references and the crude slapshtick that went over so well in the Minions movie. It also opened my eyes to the troubling politics of this franchise, which seems perfectly content to bait Marxist theorists, but only offers up contemptuous takes that people all over the aisle can be upset with.

Before we get into it, we should first examine other “villain movies” of Despicable Me‘s time. I’m not necessarily referring to movies from the bad guy’s perspective, but specifically films that take a classic villain or archetypal villain and play with our perceptions of good and evil through portraying them on a more personal level, Grendel-style. This seems oddly specific, but it was practically a bona fide trend in the early ’10s. Most notably, there’s the big three: Despicable Me, Megamind, and Wreck-It Ralph, all of which also happened to be animated kids’ movies (it never ceases to baffle me how out of these three, Despicable Me was the most successful by a long shot).

Now, the message of Megamind is a little hard to pin down, because it’s a surprisingly-nuanced film. The general theme is that archetypes of “good” and “evil” can’t exist unless they’re in constant opposition to each other. If you take this to represent the two-party system or class struggle, you’ve got a handy-dandy interpretation right there. There’s certainly ample evidence of the “villainous” Megamind representing the lower class and his foil Metro Man representing the upper. Each born on a dying planet, Metro Man gets a cushy upper-class upbringing, his solid-gold escape pod landing under a wealthy family’s Christmas tree and his powers being celebrated by his peers from a young age. From birth, Megamind is less privileged, given a smaller, shoddier spacecraft and being forced to share it with his friend and confidante, Minion. His craft lands at the Prison for the Criminally Gifted (subtle), raised by criminals, and becomes an outcast for his “dangerous” intellect. Oh shit, is that a critique of the prison-industrial complex as a tool of oppression in goddamn Megamind? Told you this movie was juicy. Later on in the movie, Megamind attempts to create a new hero, the hero becomes a villain, and he becomes a hero, i.e. the very thing that he fought against his entire life. Now that’s Marxist.

The theory behind Wreck-It Ralph is a bit simpler. In attempting to research it, I was delighted by monarchists decrying Vanellope’s throwaway line about democracy as an unnecessary, single instance of political commentary in an otherwise… pure movie? I mean, sure, it was unexpected (which is sort of the idea behind, y’know, jokes), but it’s not like it’s uncharacteristic for Vanellope and Ralph to embody democratic principles. Ralph is a marginalized minority who teams up with a disabled young woman to take down a tyrannical king and save the video game world from King Candy’s imperialism. It’s a pretty clear-cut liberal message that one ought to expect from Disney.

Looking at Despicable Me, if we want to consider villains a marginalized group as they are in the other two, it seems to fall left of Ralph, but not as far into Marxist territory as Megamind. Gru and his fellow villains are shown to exercise a sort of direct action, snatching goods and symbols of power from the upper class in an attempt to break down the corrupt society that keeps them in the shadows. Gru joins the Anti-Villain League in Despicable? Me Too!, ratting out his fellow villains and working on behalf of the status quo, but after being unjustly dropped by the organization at the start of D3spicabl3 M3, he and his upper-class wife become free agents pursuing justice regardless of who it favors. It doesn’t perfectly add up, but it seems like an okay answer, right?

Well, there’s one hole in this interpretation: the Minions. You can’t look a foot into the Despicable Me franchise without recognizing the Minions as a hateful, mocking portrayal of the working class. Where Megamind’s Minion is portrayed as the protagonist’s equal, the Minions are Gru’s fat, lazy, dependent, thoroughly incompetent and morally bankrupt underlings. Once you look at it from this angle, it becomes clear that the villains aren’t minorities; they’re governments. They exploit their disposable workforce for the purpose of petty one-upmanship and showy displays of strength, they borrow money and advice from Lehman Brothers to put their unpaid populace to work destroying the planet and building weapons of ever-increasing scale, and they do all this with reckless abandon right under the noses of watchdogs and civilians with no repercussions. And Gru’s not just the protagonist, he’s the hero. We’re constantly reminded that he’s a good guy and he’s a softie at his core and he helps get rid of the villains that are even worse than him so we should unequivocally support him. Meanwhile, the Minions are shown to be a primitive, lesser species, constantly seeking out a new master to oppress and exploit them, and speak an exaggerated pidgin language mixing elements of Spanish and English. Oh, in the third movie they do stage a strike… and it takes all of 20 minutes in a correctional facility for them to all realize they’re dependent on Gru and run back to him, perfectly content to work for no pay doing the exact opposite of what they were striking for.

It becomes clear that the message of these films isn’t anti-communist. It isn’t just right-wing. It seems like the Despicable Me franchise is specifically anti-poor people, which seems like a position we can all agree is pretty fucked up, right? It’s as baffling as it is unavoidable. The Minions are even the villains in their own movie, and Illumination Entertainment brings this message into reality by perpetually exploiting them for profit. They speak a wacky language, they all look the same, they defy gender norms, and make no mistake; you’re supposed to hate them. Sure, kids are supposed to giggle at their goofy antics, but adults are meant to find them detestable, vile, hard to even look at, let alone tolerate. And it worked, didn’t it? Of course, the likely truth is that Chris Meledandri, the multi-millionaire producer behind this franchise, only intended to be funny little yellow dudes the kids could appreciate while adults enjoyed the more mature humor littered throughout the film. He may have worked out some anti-working-class aggression in how he built the characters, which is still something that ought to be criticized regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, but it’d be unfair to go as far as to call the movies a deliberate piece of anti-Marxist propaganda. At best, they’re an accidental one.