Indie artist tackles issues of mental illness

Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann has been a force on the music scene since her initial debut in 1982 with the band ’Til Tuesday, and the release of her first solo album, Whatever, in 1993. Mann has just recently released her ninth studio album, Mental Illness, ending a five-year hiatus from the industry.

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Mann states that Mental Illness is “the saddest, slowest, most acoustic” album she has written to date. Over the years, Mann has garnered a reputation for releasing, almost exclusively, depressing songs. In the interview, Mann commented about her reputation and how it affected her songwriting process for Mental Illness

“If [my fans] thought that my songs were very down-tempo, very depressing, very sad and very acoustic, I thought I’d just give myself permission to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it record I could,” Mann said, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The style of Mental Illness is certainly more raw, intimate and unplugged compared to Mann’s signature rock roots. Here, she channels similar vibes to those present in the soundtrack to the Oscar nominated movie Magnolia, for which she received the nomination for best original song. 

None of Mann’s previous work, however, matches Mental Illness—at least in terms of melancholia. Throughout the album, Mann delves into concepts of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses through the means of characters dealing with a variety of situations varying from heartache to daily life. 

The idea of mental illness continues to be an extremely controversial concept, as its credibility is constantly questioned by society. Many people even deny its existence altogether. 

Mann takes this controversy on by taking common situations that everyone goes through and comparing them to the struggles of mental illness, illustrating just how unbearable the latter can be. The album achieves Mann’s goal of being her most “depressing” work to date, exceeding all previous albums for miles. Mental Illness captures the essence of human struggle with such perfection and beauty.

The album’s introductory song is also its first single, “Goose Snow Cone.” This track deals with the concept of loneliness and feeling homesick—concepts that can resonate with almost anyone. Mann croons about that pit of loneliness that persists, even when in the presence of friends, as well as feelings of insecurity when outside one’s own home. 

“I saw a picture on Instagram of a cat I know named Goose. Her fluffy white face was looking up at the camera in a very plaintive way, like a little snowball, and I started singing a little song about her that turned into a song about loneliness,” Mann said about writing “Goose Snow Cone.” 

“I intended to change the lyrics [of “Goose Snow Cone”], but could never find a phrase to replace the one I started with,” she added. 

This perfectly demonstrates the authentic and intimate quality to Mental Illness.

The powerful imagery and emotion continues in the track “Philly Sinks.” Mann uses this song as the epitome of her album’s concept, giving her listeners an even more stripped down, bare and personal song. 

In “Philly Sinks,” Mann focuses on thoughts of suicide and how easily one can slip down such a path, birthing the actual potential to commit the act and how suicide affects those left behind. Additionally, Mann comments on the death of innocence in our society, alluding to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, as she possibly sees this loss as a cause for increased suicide rates.

Mann promised to produce an album that would exceed her previous works, which were already believed to be rather gloomy. She has certainly established herself as a dominant presence in the indie music scene, especially when it comes to sorrowful pieces.

There’s no doubt that with Mental Illness, Mann has delivered. No track on this album will leave you with dry eyes.


Drake’s latest project takes a mellow turn

Just under a year after releasing Views comes Drake’s newest musical endeavor. Labeled as a playlist, the Canadian rapper dropped More Life on OVO Sound Radio on Apple Music’s radio station on Saturday March 18. 

Unlike Views, this playlist arrived with little advanced hype—but it’s no small addition to Drake’s musical repertoire. With 22 tracks, More Life is over an hour of Drake grappling with getting let down by friends, family and lovers, all the while exploring the sounds of black music; this ranges from the United States and his hometown of Toronto all the way to Africa and the Caribbean. 

More Life boasts more of Drake’s brooding, melancholic sentiments, while also offering the mic to various other rap and R&B artists. If there is one thing about Drake, he keeps his lyrics personal and honest. In “Lose You” he ponders over losing someone—or some people—close to him while trying to remain true to himself, saying, “Inspirin’ and never takin’ credit/I know I deserve more, I just never said it/Two middle fingers as I make a exit.” 

With relaxed beats enveloping each track, this playlist seems to scream R&B more than Drake’s usual hip-hop nature. Some critics argue that Drake is worn out, but he assures his audience that this is untrue. In “Sacrifices,” Drake openly acknowledges his opponents, noting, “Niggas see me in person/First thing they say is ‘I know you need a break’/Hell nah, I feel great, ready now, why wait?” 

One track that stands out from this playlist is “Passionfruit.” Musically more upbeat than most of the other tracks, Drake croons in his balmy voice, “Passionate from miles away/Passive with the things you say/Passin’ up on my old ways/I can’t blame you, no, no.”

It seems like Drake is ready to explore other facets of music production through his experimentation of marketing More Life as a playlist. Playlists tend to be made up of songs brought together under an overarching theme or mood. Besides “Fake Love,” there are no standout party anthems, however—something that Drake always manages to include on all of his other albums. The mood of More Life is an air of tranquility and placidity, as evoked by each track.

A review from Slate refers to More Life as “long and meandering, but never exhausting.” This description perfectly encapsulates the playlist. The review goes on to name Views as “Drake’s safest and most unadventurous album to-date.” More Life was a bit safer in terms of musicality, in my opinion. The beats are a bit redundant, and sometimes his raps become monotonous. 

Drake certainly stepped out of his comfort zone in terms of format, though. By playing around with brief interludes from artists Jorja and Skepta and by shifting from an album format to a playlist, Drake’s passion for music remains clear, even if some of the tracks fall flat.

More Life seems like a playlist that will continue to grow on fans with every listen. Drake remains a master of his craft, and only time will tell with what he chooses to experiment with next.

Chance the Rapper first Grammy winner without label

Twenty-three year old newcomer Chance the Rapper took home three Grammys last Sunday. He is the first artist to ever win the award without a record label. (Matt Sayles/AP Photo)

There is much to talk about in the days following the 59th Grammy Awards—from Beyoncé’s show stopping performance while pregnant to Adele’s big wins—but perhaps the most talked about artist of the night is newcomer Chance the Rapper. 

The Chicago native won three major awards on Sunday Feb. 12—best new artist, best rap album and best rap performance—and he did it all without a label, choosing instead to give his music to listeners for free. 

With a career that began when he was just 18 years old touring as Childish Gambino’s opening act, Chance—born Chancelor Johnathan Bennett—has created a total of three mixtapes, the latest of which earned those three Grammy wins.  He then released them online for listeners to stream—completely free of charge. 

Both Acid Rap and Coloring Book have received rave reviews from fellow rap artists, critics and former White House inhabitants (Malia Obama is a fan). In fact, Coloring Book, with its authentic themes of “God, love, Chicago and dance,” beat out some huge names in the category for best rap album, including DJ Khaled, Drake and Kanye West. 

Although he’s certainly had the chance to sign with many major labels, Chance decided to stay independent, which allows him to “offer my best work to people without any limit on it” and work more creatively and freely. Plus, Chance has said that he doesn’t want to be a part of the record labels’ “dick-swinging contest” to get the most and best rappers.

And his refusal to sign with a record label hasn’t hindered Chance in the slightest. He’s written for and learned from West, collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda and toured with Macklemore. 

“I honestly believe if you put effort into something and you execute properly, you don’t necessarily have to go through the traditional ways,” Chance said.  

So how exactly does this 23-year-old rap genius make a living? The answer is simpler than expected—by selling concert tickets and merchandise. That’s it. Being an independent artist comes with some seriously dedicated fans. Who wouldn’t appreciate being able to legally and easily download quality content straight to their iPhones and computers?

Although he doesn’t come without his fair share of history, everything about Chance seems to be genuine: his love for his new family—as he has a young daughter with girlfriend Kirsten Corely—his dedication to producing meaningful music and his determination to tell the truth. 

In fact, Chance is an active fighter against gun violence in his hometown of Chicago and is a part of the My Brother’s Keeper campaign, which strives to address the challenges faced by young black individuals and to promote racial equality. 

As for the rapper’s next move, it could be anything; he’s independent, after all. But for now, he’s followed up his Grammy wins with the announcement of his spring tour, which will be sure to keep Chance out of record labels’ reach.

Musical mixtape serves as social commentary

The Hamilton Mixtape premiered on Friday Dec. 2 to great anticipation and fanfare. The album consists of songs from the Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton,” as written by the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, but sung by our favorite musical artists. Miranda began the mixtape that eventually led to the creation of his famous musical in 2009. The album features 22 songs from the original score, featuring artists including Usher, Sia, Alicia Keys, Jimmy Fallon, Kelly Clarkson, Chance the Rapper, Andra Day, John Legend, Ashanti, The Roots and many more. Miranda has suggested that this is only Volume I, with a second volume expected to release shortly afterward.

The album’s songs are similar in style to the original score, which drew a widely positive reception from both critics and audiences for its unprecedented and unique portrayal of a common historical narrative. The experience of The Hamilton Mixtape does not just come with the music itself, however; with it also comes its place in the current political and social atmosphere of the country.

While most of the album is composed of covers, there are also a few uncut versions of songs that are not featured in the musical. This includes “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” which is performed by a diverse group of artists, comprising of Somali-Canadian rapper K’NAAN, Mexican-American singer Snow Tha Product, British-Pakistani actor and rapper Riz Ahmed and Puerto Rican rapper Residente. This song deviates from the rest by rooting itself in the present, referencing the current status of immigrants in the United States.

“It’s really astonishing that in a country founded by immigrants, ‘immigrant’ has somehow become a bad word,” the song says.

The song also tackles issues of border security, discussing the contributions immigrants have made to this country: “We’re America’s ghost writers, the credit’s only borrowed.”

The foundation of “Hamilton” itself lies in its ability to redefine the role of immigrants and minorities in the whitewashed landscape of American history. The story of Alexander Hamilton is told using a fusion of various musical styles popularized by minority groups, including R&B, rap and other combinations of hip-hop with ballads and show tunes.

The cast is also made up of many diverse performers. With members of the LGBTQ+ community, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians—in combination with the musical’s current role in pop culture—reassurance is provided to marginalized people living in fear of the current issues surrounding society. This includes everything from police brutality to hate crimes.

In terms of the lyrical content, Miranda’s creative genius shines through with the inclusion of his early demo songs, “Wait For It,” featuring Usher, and the new take on “Satisfied” with Queen Latifah, Sia and Miranda himself.

Miranda’s combination of modern American musical sound with a retelling of the classic white dominated story of this country’s origins sends an important message about the changes that have since transformed the face of this country. The new face of America is a diverse melting pot of brown, black and white faces that embody the true American values of freedom and liberty.

The Hamilton Mixtape serves to show that our history and our present don’t have to be mutually exclusive; rather, the two serve as two pieces of a puzzle that complete each other and paint a bigger, more important picture. The Hamilton Mixtape embraces change and addresses the diverse America, establishing its connection with the past and its continued presence in the future.

Buffalo band turns 90s influences into original, modern sound

Stress Dolls—a student band out of Buffalo—recently released their self-titled EP on Thursday Nov. 10. The release of this album comes directly after the band’s performance right here in Geneseo, with fellow student bands Ponder the Giraffe and Scarecrow Show. The album features a variety of musical influences, ranging from grunge to indie rock, but lead singer and guitarist Chelsea O’Donnell’s distinctive vocal tone helps deliver a unique twist. Even with the stylistic differences in the songs, the common theme running across the entire album is its ability to revitalize music from the 90s and early 2000s.

The album begins with “Crazy,” which starts off with heavy drums that slowly build into the chorus. O’Donnell belts, “The whole world’s gone crazy and so have I” as the song continues to describe the frustration that befits its title. “I am sure, I am sure I was better before/Are you sure, are you sure, you were better before?”

The lyrics accurately convey the emotions that accompany the song’s subject—it is definitely a song you can sing out loud.

“Pills” switches gears from the previous track; it still retains the band’s overall musical style, however, while the lyrics again reflect the track’s title. While the theme of “Pills” might seem a little familiar, this song discusses the reality of these pills, what they provide and what they mean for the people who take them.

This sense of reality can be seen through the lyrics, “I take my pills they keep me sane/Well they can save me from dying but they don’t save me from shame” and “But with those pills/He’s found his way.” O’Donnell’s voice is slightly sweeter here, but with the same inflection heard in the entire album.

“Swollen” takes on a different tempo from the previous tracks. There is more of an alternative rock influence that can be heard in “Swollen,” such as with the line, “I’m swollen from the tip of my spine to the back of my neck/And I know it/But I stand up straight so it won’t reflect.”

The song begins to talk about being “swollen,” perhaps as a reference to preventing the world from seeing your fear, as conveyed in the lyric, “Shielding ears from what is real/I know nothing is absolute so accept the truth.”

This song strikes a deeper chord, however, which is delivered well through its lyrics. “Swollen” allows the listener to understand and to relate to what O’Donnell is crooning about—all without requiring her to spell out the message of the song.

The final song on the album, “Curves and Edges,” is a combination of many different components seen previously throughout the album. The lyrics seem to discuss society and the experiences of going through life.

“If you’re young then you’re pitied/If you’re old you’re ignored,” she sings. O’Donnell speaks about her own experience with this current issue: “I’ve got no curves just edges/In case you didn’t notice.”

The Stress Dolls do an incredible job of taking musical influences from popular genres that aren’t as common today as they were a decade ago. Through EDM influences, the Stress Dolls bring back nostalgic feelings, all the while managing to stay current by rooting themselves in their own unique and distinctive style—one that is sure to stand out.

Singer-songwriter Jacobsen provides fresh, funny take on meaningful messages

David W. Jacobsen may be a seasoned songwriter and performer—as he’s been in the music industry for 15 years now—and a graduate of Berklee College of Music, but don’t mistake him for your typical folk artist. Rather, Jacobsen gives us humorously realistic tracks that “combine poetry, satire and narrative storytelling.” With four albums already under his belt, Jacobsen debuts his most recent work, Begin the Chagrin. A set of 20 songs all equally as humorous as its predecessors, this album “presents a range of noble, relatable, pitiable and revolting characters” who are either “dealing with disappointment or causing it for someone else.” With this combination of ridiculous humor and relatability, Jacobsen creates a whole new genre of music that is sure to get every listener chuckling and thinking back on their own experiences.

Standouts are “Thanksgiving in West Paterson” and “Christmas in East Paterson.” A satire of the dread of spending holidays with the family, “Thanksgiving in West Paterson” presents a series of unfortunate events, from family food fights to getting arrested. It is cheekily followed by the refrain, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Along a similar vein, in “Christmas in East Paterson” Jacobsen croons about a jailbird cousin, a fat uncle and an “Oxycotton-popping” aunt, which is all followed by a cheery “La La La Have a Merry Christmas.” It may seem odd at first to hear such unsavory characters described in such an upbeat song, but Jacobsen is able to pull it off, prompting listeners to think about their own weird relatives.

“Your Sister” provides a take on adultery—one that most music-lovers aren’t used to. Jacobsen unapologetically sings as a man who cheats on his wife with her sister: “Well now your mom just hates me/For all that I have done/But she looks great for her age/Maybe she could be the next one.” Somewhat reminiscent of Fountain of Wayne’s hit “Stacy’s Mom,” the lyrics of “Your Sister” have a shock-factor that only adds to the hilarity.

“Do You Want Fries With That?” is certainly not a song one would expect to hear on the radio. But this track is surprisingly deep, as it comments on the difficulty of making decisions.

The song starts off by dramatizing a scenario at a fast-food counter, but the listener quickly grasps its message with the following lyrics, “And how the mighty have fallen/How we find ourselves brought low/Where once we demanded now it’s/Do you want that to stay or to go?” Despite this rather serious theme, the song manages to stay lighthearted, always asking, “Do you want fries with that?”

Many of Jacobsen’s songs include such deeper meanings, making Begin the Chagrin more than just a satirical album. In fact, his humor works so well with the somber themes that it makes his work more accessible and rather refreshing.

Any music fanatics looking for something completely new, but still meaningful, should definitely give Begin the Chagrin a listen.

Solange epitomizes black female strength in third solo album

Solange Knowles—younger sister to musical sensation, Beyoncé—has recently wowed audiences with her third solo album, A Seat at the Table. As a document of the struggles of black women, Solange expresses intense emotions and painful memories while also addressing current race issues in the U.S. After taking an eight-year hiatus to get married, give birth to son Julez, move to Idaho, star in Bring It On: All or Nothing, get divorced and write songs for her sister’s albums, Solange has decided to alter her sound dramatically.

Her previous albums invited influences from the ’60s funk and soul scenes. They aimed to express her individuality and reject the expectations attached to being Beyoncé’s sister. Her 2012 album True mixed the current pop trends with her already established funk and soul-inspired sound.

A Seat at the Table, however, takes her musicality in a completely different direction as she invites discussion about current political, social and racial affairs while utilizing an emotional openness that has not been present on her previous albums. Some listeners have commented that this dramatic change in sound is a direct result of a recent, rather traumatic, event in her personal life, which has led to a growth in maturity.

In contrast to the opening tracks of her previous albums, which demanded the listener’s attention with hard-hitting beats and suggestive lyrics, “Rise” opens the album slowly with a piano instrumental. When Solange’s voice enters, it is barely recognizable as the same artist who sang the theme song for Disney’s animated television series “The Proud Family.”

“Rise” acts as an anthem for black women in this current time of desperation. The lyrics strongly echo sentiments of recent events and the encouraging lines of the melody lay out the album’s central tension surrounding sorrow, pride and pain.

“Cranes in the Sky” details Solange’s desire to escape the rejection experienced in her life, specifically referencing her struggles during her childhood, marriage and divorce, as well as her personal process of coping. The song also features subtle nods to the infamous elevator incident, in which Solange physically attacked her sister’s husband, rapper Jay-Z, for publically unknown reasons.

Toward the end of the song, listeners are reminded of the singer’s strong vocals, which are influenced by the likes of Minnie Riperton, who is famous for her immense control in the upper registers of the voice. In fact, these strong vocals are what allow Solange to remain at the center of the album, rising above the catchy beats in the background, which are created by stars in their own right, Timbaland and The Neptunes.

A subtext of issues surrounding racial discrimination can be read into almost every song on the album, and a discussion about A Seat at the Table is barely complete without addressing these. Solange addresses her own personal disgust at society, while also aiming to encourage black women to strive for success and to reject the social stigmas attached to them.

As a child, her family was forced out of their home in Louisiana due to racial tensions. She uses these memories and, along with current events, sings with a rawness that echoes the sentiments of many across America.

A Seat at the Table strongly confirms Solange’s rightful place within the music industry. It forces her out of her sister’s shadow and allows Solange to present a unique and powerful mastery of vocals, tension, performance and emotion.u

Indie rock band Local Natives excites fans with dynamic ensemble of instruments

In California, there is a little blue building that serves as the band Local Natives’ practice space. This is where they produced their indie rock album Hummingbird in 2013. Local Natives is an indie rock band that was formed back when the members were still in high school. Although the band is based out of Los Angeles, they released their first album, Gorilla Manor, in the United Kingdom in 2009, which came out in the United States in 2010. Local Natives has not only opened for bands such as Kings of Leon and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, but have also headlined at popular Chicago music festival, Lollapalooza.

Three years after the release of Hummingbird, Local Natives has finally released their third album Sunlit Youth. To celebrate, they held a surprise concert on the roof of that same little blue building.

Compared to their first album, Sunlit Youth is upbeat, with a style that excites the mind, as opposed to Hummingbird’s more somber and serious tone that causes one to reevaluate their life. Local Natives is the arsenal of musical instruments that bombard your eardrums with harmony. Their new album does this in spades.

As with their previous two albums, Sunlit Youth offers up 12 tracks. The album opens up with “Villainy,” a song with instrumentals reminiscent of fellow indie rock band Panama’s signature style. “Villainy” speaks about wanting to start fresh in a new place, but acknowledging how difficult that can be. The end of the song features a smooth transition that leads to a brief spoken word piece—an essence that feels similar to folk rock.

One popular song off the album, “Past Lives,” discusses our tendency to dream of endless possibilities, although in reality only one thing is certain. This song also pays homage to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles—reminding the band where they come from—in the verse, “Take me/To Dorothy Chandler tonight/And I’ll find you/Reflected 100 times.”

The pavilion was named after Dorothy Buffum Chandler, who was the frontrunner of a movement that worked toward establishing a proper music center in Local Natives’ hometown of Silver Lake in Los Angeles. A reflection pool—later replaced with a fountain—was built in her honor.

“Fountain of Youth” speaks to remembering one’s fleeting youth as they grow older, which is a track that will surely resonate with new students on campus who feel overwhelmed with the transition into college life. Listeners will learn that growing older does not mean you will lose the sense of wonder and joy once experienced in youth.

It’s uncertain to say where Local Natives will go next, but if the past five years are any indication of what’s to come—and if there really are endless possibilities as “Past Lives” ponders—then we’re in for a treat.

Bastille’s sophomore album fuses film, electric sounds

It’s been three years since the release of their debut album Bad Blood, but Bastille’s still got “it.” In fact, they’re offering up even more the second time around, releasing a total of 19 songs on the complete version of their second studio album, Wild World. Bastille reintroduces us to the same boundless energy and irresistible beats in this new indie pop record. Bad Blood’s inspiration stemmed from mythological and historical sources with hits such as “Icarus” and “Pompeii.” But with Wild World, there is an obvious shift in inspiration. This time, the focus is classic film and television. The majority of the songs contain audio samples from various obscure old films and television shows. Although many of the songs on the album include audio reminiscent from another era, the band manages to keep their own modern style.

This fusion of mediums is not unknown territory for Bastille. Their 2012 cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” was a mash-up of The XX’s “Angels” and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The style of this song closely mirrors what Wild World has to offer—a collaboration of audio samples, synthetic tunes and upbeat choruses—all of which give the album an individual sound that is foreign to most modern indie-pop albums.

The majority of the album’s songs can be categorized as EDM, featuring a variety of beats that all happen collaboratively. Although the sound is distinctive, the album could benefit from more variation between tracks.

Bastille’s sound has predominantly involved upbeat tunes alongside lead singer Dan Smith’s belting vocals. Bad Blood has more variety in songs in addition to less synthesized notes, whereas Wild World seems to be an attempt to try new styles with synthesizers and drum machines—but that doesn’t make the album more difficult to listen to. In fact, Wild World is really just an extension of Bastille’s talent.

The album opens with “Good Grief,” a single that was released earlier this summer. The euphoric song about the ups and downs of grief is equal to Bad Blood’s “Pompeii,” which played on radio stations everywhere and became the band’s breakout song. “Good Grief” is catchy and fun, and can be played on repeat without tire.

“Way Beyond” directs attention to the way our world looks at global crises. As the only explicit song on the album, the track negatively observes our reaction to problems around the world. Smith sings, “It only matters if we care now/If you’re way beyond that/Then I’m gonna dust you off of my shoulders.”

“Send Them Off!” begins with a fabricated line based on the Italian sci-fi film War of the Planets and is followed by a brass riff, almost as a “call to arms” as Smith describes it. “Send Them Off!” speaks of irrational jealousy, and Smith calls for someone to “exorcise” his mind of unwanted jealous feelings.

“Oil and Water” and “Two Evils” are a much-needed break from the previous upbeat electronica. “Oil and Water” is slow and relaxed, while “Two Evils” is the most stripped down song on the album, featuring only lead singer Smith and guitarist Will Farquarson. If anything, the album would benefit from more soulful and intense tracks like these.

Regardless of the consistent—and somewhat repetitive—style of the songs, what makes Wild World stand out is that it offers a different point of view on the topics it covers. Bastille doesn’t like to hit you in the face with their point—they want you to search for it. The layers that make up each song command more than just a simple listen, which makes the album worth listening to more than once.

Ocean’s new album tackles social issues, memorializes past

As one of 2016’s anticipated albums, Frank Ocean’s sophomore effort Blonde marks the follow up to 2012’s raved channel ORANGE. Prior to the album’s long-awaited release, cryptic messages were posted on Ocean’s website, such as band dates on a library book card. Blonde begins with the haunting “Nikes” featuring KOHH, which includes layered high-pitched vocals and a dreamy production style. With lyrics like “R.I.P. Trayvon, that n**** look just like me,” Ocean lets listeners know that—on a musical platform—his silence regarding the ongoing issue of police brutality has ended. In the song, Ocean also touches upon themes of materialism and loyalty.

“Ivy,” the second track from the album, takes more of a balladic form. Sprinkled with Ocean’s idiosyncrasies, the track features a 1960’s mellow rock melody over soft vocals that lead into a screamo-esque outro. Love is a common topic in Ocean’s music, and this song sounds like it could be from channel ORANGE due to its theme.

“Be Yourself” is a motivational interlude spoken by Ocean’s aunt. The aunt warns listeners not only about students’ antics in regards to alcohol and drug consumption, but also speaks about learning how to be your own person—not a follower. It serves as the precedent for “Solo,” which lyrically revolves around the same themes: drugs, loneliness and autonomy.

In “Facebook Story”—which features spoken word by producer Sebastian—Ocean makes his statement on the contemporary times with which Blonde coexists. It gives the listener a glimpse of how love and relationships now gyrate around social media. Whether or not future music historians go back and listen to Blonde, social media’s influence on contemporary relationships and the problems it causes has been instilled within the album.

Ocean not only makes references to current and futuristic times, but also to the classics of the past. “Close to You” contains a sample of a Stevie Wonder cover, as the song uses spacey, mirrored vocals. Ocean again reminds us of a modern context through “Close to You.” Furthermore, Ocean later references The Beatles in “White Ferrari,” with John Lennon and Paul McCartney being credited as songwriters.

“Futura Free” closes the album. This song ends Blonde by introducing a simple piano arrangement. Lyrically, the first half of the song speaks about Ocean’s success story: from “work on my feet for $7 a hour” to “making 400, 600, 800K momma, to stand on my feet momma.”

Interestingly enough, “Futura Free” references artists that are regarded as musical pioneers, such as Selena and Tupac Shakur, who were both assassinated at the climax of their careers. This serves not only as a good juxtaposition to the earlier parts of the song, but it also highlights the dangers of fame.

Ocean makes these allusions in “Futura Free” to exemplify how fame becomes bothersome. He makes it clear, however, that he’s still “a guy” and “not a god.” He also addresses his sexuality, saying, “If I was [a god] I don't know which heaven would have me momma.”

Indeed, just days before channel ORANGE’s release in July 2012, Ocean made headlines when he posted a heartfelt memo on Tumblr addressing how his first true love was with a man.

Whatever you may perceive Ocean to be—whether avant-garde or overrated—you cannot deny that his profound, worldly lyrics leave room for a lot to be said. Blonde proves to be a thematic mix that touches upon various aspects of life: love, loneliness and social issues.

Apart from the atmospheric and audiovisual production, Ocean shines in his niche. His play on words and unconventional analogies could not make his lyrics or style any more interpretive and enticing.

Blonde is an album that you simply cannot summarize; it is an album you have to experience and interpret individually.

Folk band takes a fresh spin on classic sounds

“From deep in the hills of the Finger Lakes” comes Mulberry Soul, a Middlesex-based band that “blends folk, bluegrass and old time music with soulful original songs.” The band is set to release their debut album, Mulberry Soul, on May 20. Started in 2012 at the Rochester Folk Art Guild, the band has had major success playing all around upstate New York, including the popular Rochester bar, Bug Jar, and bar-pub-concert venue combination, Flour City Station. Members include Gabriel Schliffer, Scott Calpin, Cordelia Hall, Aaron Oldweiler, Carla-Marie Padvoiskis and Chris Machanoff ‘06.

In true folk and bluegrass style, Mulberry Soul’s sound uses an eclectic array of instruments including the banjo, the mandolin, the upright bass, the fiddle and an acoustic guitar. It is the use of these instruments—combined with their authentic sound—that distinguishes Mulberry Soul from other popular bands.

Their self-titled debut album is a compilation of 10 songs inspired by traditional folk, bluegrass and country music. Overall, the album is a great addition to anyone’s summer playlist. Many of the songs, such as “Pappy Johnson,” have a storytelling quality that seems to be lacking in today’s pop hits.

In addition to the storytelling within the songs, there are also many long instrumental breaks. In fact, “Harlem Blues” has no lyrics at all. One would think that a lack of lyrics would make a song hard to listen to, but that is not the case here. “Harlem Blues” delivers such a strong fiddle melody that the listener is never bored. Other songs, such as “Shed,” provide a happy medium of both lyrics and instrumental breaks.

The album mixes it up a bit with vocals, as well. In some songs Hall—the band’s only female member—can be heard complimenting the main vocals with her own warm and earthy voice. The closing track, “What We’re Made Of,” features Hall’s voice at the front and center, providing a nice change of pace and a perfect end to the album.

Whether they are channeling old school country music or leaning more toward a folksy sound, every song on Mulberry Soul takes classic roots and turns them into fresh new melodies and rhythms. We may have heard the banjo and the mandolin before, but we’ve never heard them quite like this.

“Wilding Grove” and “Shed” are great examples of this innovation, “Wilding Grove” with its edgy chords and “Shed” with its delicate and airy introduction. This seamless merging of the old and the new evokes a wistful longing for simpler times, but also a fresh feeling that suggests that those times are still here.

Mulberry Soul isn’t slowing down anytime soon, either. Accompanying the release of their album, they will be embarking on a summer tour that will take them to big festivals throughout the state, including the upcoming Rochester Lilac Festival and the Grassroots Big Splash.

It seems that Mulberry Soul achieved a great balance: their sound is divergent from the rest, and yet they receive recognition at some of New York’s greatest musical events. From the sound of this album, it is well deserved.

Lumineers keep signature folk sound on sophomore album

Indie music has experienced a surge in popularity over the past few years—and in the forefront of this movement have been The Lumineers. The Denver trio’s 2012 self-titled debut album was a widely popular commercial success and produced many fan favorite songs—from “Ho Hey” to “Submarines”—that have become indie radio mainstays. After a three-year hiatus, The Lumineers returned with their anticipated sophomore album Cleopatra on April 8. With 11 songs and just over 30 minutes in length, Cleopatra is a tight album. It successfully hits its Americana target with an aura of folk rock that is accessible and doesn’t overstay its welcome—a common issue with some music of that genre.

As an album, Cleopatra is a mixed bag. Many songs have the classic Lumineers sound that fans love, such as “Ophelia,” the album’s first single. The song contains melancholy lyrics, but also includes an upbeat, catchy instrumental that gives the listener a number of ways to find meaning in the song, as well as have a very pleasurable listening experience.

With other Cleopatra songs, however, this formula is not nearly as successful. The juxtaposition of feelings in some songs can come across as forced at times. Some lyrics fall flat and fail to stir the emotions that they aim for, making the songs seem like generic versions of earlier Lumineer hits. On the less impressive songs, the band tends to sound like a generic folk-rock band, which is unfortunate because they are much more than that.

In the vastly popular genre of indie music, it’s imperative to stay ahead of the curve sonically; if you don’t, you run the real risk of fading into obscurity. This was seen with popular folk rock band Mumford & Sons, who changed their sound completely with their most recent album in an attempt to avoid pigeonholing themselves into a certain sound in which they may not have been able to escape from.

The good outweighs the bad on Cleopatra, though, with many standout songs. “Ophelia,” the title track “Cleopatra” and “Long Way from Home” are all songs that manage to find the magic with the music that made The Lumineers a popular band in the first place. It is songs like these that make up for those that don’t quite live up to the listeners’ expectations.

Though offering some new sonic pathways not explored before, Cleopatra is not the standout sophomore effort fans may have expected. In some respects, it feels as though the band is keeping their cards too close to their chest instead of exploring a new sound. The pure talent of The Lumineers, however, helps save this album, making it a very pleasurable listen overall—despite the times when they seem to miss their mark.

The Lumineers are undeniably good—even on Cleopatra’s lesser offerings—and they have set themselves up for quite a successful career. It’s likely that they will be making enjoyable music for years to come and it will be interesting to see what they have learned from their work on this album and what direction they take their music next.

Zayn forces maturity on debut solo album

When Zayn Malik left One Direction a little over a year ago, fans didn’t know what to expect. There was a lot of uncertainty about when people would hear from him musically again. Then, on New Year’s Eve 2015, he posted a simple tweet: “Z016.” After that, Malik announced his first solo album Mind of Mine, which he would release as ZAYN. He promised that his lyrics and musical style were headed in a much more mature direction from his previous work. With much of One Direction’s fan base considering Malik to be the strongest vocally in the band, it’s understandable that many people—including myself— had high expectations for Malik’s return to the music scene.

The style of Mind of Mine is certainly a departure from the pop sound of One Direction. Malik worked with producer Malay—who has previously worked with artists such as Frank Ocean—to create a heavily R&B-influenced album. It’s not surprising to see that Malik has already been compared to other contemporary R&B singers, including The Weeknd and Usher.

One of the first songs on the album is its first single: “PILLOWTALK.” The lyrics are certainly more mature at first glance, centering on sex and featuring profanity. These lyrics, however, come off as so focused on trying to appeal to an older audience that it reaches the point where it feels forced. Despite that, the song is catchy and works well as a single.

In some of the more upbeat songs—such as “BeFoUr”—Malik’s powerful vocals manage to get lost in the loud music backing him up. He strikes a skillful balance between his voice and the music in “sHe,” however, which I found to be one of the strongest tracks on the album. Malik’s artful lyrics create a vivid picture of who “she” is with lines like, “She puts her spirit in a nightcap/She always knows where the crowd’s at/She puts her mouth ’round the cigarette.”

This powerful imagery continues in the following track “dRuNk.” Again, Malik proves that he can make a song that knows exactly what it’s trying to do. Here, he creates an intimate atmosphere with simple, yet expressive lyrics. His vocals take precedence, especially when he hits his trademark falsetto.

One of the shortest songs on the album is also one of the most beautiful. “INTERMISSION: fLoWer” is less than two minutes long and it’s sung in Urdu—the first language of Malik’s father. Featuring a sparse guitar and Malik’s echoing voice, the song is touching and emotional—even if you don’t speak the language.

In an interview on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 radio show, Malik spoke about his song “wRoNg,” which he said was originally written to be a rap. Now a song featuring singer Kehlani, it falls flat. As the only duet on the album, “wRoNg” disappoints by not utilizing Kehlani’s voice as much as it could have. It sounds more like two tracks were awkwardly strung together rather than one cohesive song.

While Mind of Mine is an accomplished album, it still flounders in some respects. Malik’s audience was promised more mature lyrics—and Malik did deliver—yet many songs feel flat and emotionally detached. But when the lyrics are strong, they’re amazing.

Malik had a goal when he set out to create this album and while it’s definitely a step in the right direction, he still has a long way to go until he’s truly established himself as a renowned solo artist.

Rochester native creates dream pop album, emphasizes nature’s ephemerality

With this year’s surprisingly warm, sans-snow winter in Upstate New York, it’s odd to be reminded of last year’s freezing winter by this snow on the ground in April. Rochester native and singer-songwriter Susanna Rose does just that, however, with her latest album Snowbound. With a title like Snowbound, it’s no question that this album will bring back those peaceful winter tunes we all know and love, such as “Once Upon a December” or “Winter Wonderland.” As Snowbound was released on Nov. 22, 2015, the album’s release is far enough away for listeners to have overlooked—but not have completely forgotten—the frigidly cold winter season.

“This album was written during and inspired by Rochester’s coldest winter ever, the winter of 2015,” Rose said.

The songs’ lyrics emphasize that winter motif, especially in the titular song “Snowbound.” Rose sings, “It’s a cold night out there/So come on in/And let’s pretend/ We don’t know how this ends, we don’t know how this ends.” So many of us don’t wish to dwell on the winter snow and harsh winds—it’s much nicer to go indoors, bundle up in warm sweaters next to a fire and drink a hot chocolate, just as Rose suggests.

Although the other songs on the album aren’t quite so apparently winter-themed as “Snowbound” is, the mellow acoustic guitar—mixed with Rose’s soulful voice—create an alluring type of dream pop music that is ever-present throughout Snowbound. Developed in the 1980s, dream pop is like alternative rock, except its emphasis is on creating a more ethereal and dream-like sound. Dream pop is the type of music a person would play while trying to lull into a sleep—or while trying to warm up from a cold hike in the snow.

Snowbound’s plethora of songs are a perfect depiction of dream pop. It is especially apparent in “Lullaby,” a three-minute song that discusses nature and how Rose simply wants to “catch” the sky’s snow. “Lullaby” ends perfectly with, “So goodnight, my dear/Sleep tight” to finish off the dream pop vibe to Rose’s album.

The background music to “Lullaby” is also very hypnotic and airy, as if listeners truly could “sleep tight” while listening to it. “Separate Ways” promises an OK future of dreams, too, as in “Lullaby”—because right now, Rose’s dreams are ‘unsettling.’

That otherworldly quality is apparent in the other tracks of Snowbound. Though these songs don’t quite have the same emphasis on snow and nature like “Lullaby” and “Snowbound,” they do mention these qualities, such as in “Ancient History.” In “Ancient History,” Rose discusses how one can’t always just sit on a porch drinking lemonade—you’ve got to face reality, because there is a brevity to nice weather that people have to accept.

This idea of nice weather being short becomes a symbol of the transient nature of happiness in the other songs on the album. Rose explores harsh, yet relatable topics that people face in their lives; “Old Broken Heart” showcases the pain of having someone you love fall in love with someone else, while “Working Girl” explores the disenchantment that comes with having a job that leaves you feeling only tired and empty.

“Don’t fear that the good times won’t last,” Rose sings in the song “Benediction.” “Because you know of course they can’t.”

And she’s right. The good weather will not last, and neither do picture-perfect times. But with ethereal music like Snowbound, one can have something to listen to and enjoy while it’s snowing outside or while life seems to be crumbling beneath you.

Indie rock artist channels 90s grunge sound

Freddie’s Extra Teeth is a new album from South Dakota native and indie rock artist Von Zimmer. The album’s title is an allusion to a story about Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury and his unwillingness to have his extra teeth removed for fear of losing his ability to hit his trademark high notes.

Though the album’s title would imply a musical connection to the Queen front man, Zimmer’s coarse vocals and lo-fi sound on Freddie’s Extra Teeth seem to have been inspired more by artists such as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who helped cultivate the famously grungy, lo-fi sound.

Accompanying Zimmer’s vocals are an electric guitar and drums, with pianos and strings occasionally peppered into songs. The guitars and drums often seemed muffled and distorted, almost feeling un-mastered and mixed at times. This allows the pianos and strings to really shine during their parts in the songs, however. Along with Zimmer’s raw vocals, this gives songs a garage-like rock feeling.

Where Freddie’s Extra Teeth lacks, however, is in the repetitiveness of the songs. For instance, the guitar riffs often repeat over the length of any song. Furthermore, the drums and vocals feel flat at times, causing some of the songs to become stale and boring very quickly.

Despite this, there are a number of bright spots on Freddie’s Extra Teeth, including “The End of the World” and “Where Were You”—two tracks that benefit from the raw sound. Zimmer’s vocals blend well with catchy guitar riffs and the solid percussion is very audible on these two songs.

John Golden—a respected producer who has worked with industry elites—mastered Freddie’s Extra Teeth. Golden’s experience in the industry leads one to believe that it was a conscious decision on his part to keep the songs sounding lo-fi and demo-like, perhaps in an attempt to give the album a grungier personality and sound.

Where Freddie’s Extra Teeth succeeds is also where it unfortunately fails. The album attempts to channel its inner Cobain—and it does achieve this at times. It doesn’t achieve this consistently, however, which can create a disjointed listening experience.

Despite this, Von Zimmer is an undeniably talented young artist who delivers a few solid tracks with this album, making it worth a listen.

Freddie’s Extra Teeth is available for listening through Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud and YouTube. Rough mixes and demo versions of the songs are also available at Von Zimmer’s SoundCloud page, which offers listeners some insight into the creative process behind the music and how the songs came to fruition.

It will be very interesting to see where Von Zimmer goes from here—and it’s always fun to brag to your friends that you heard an artist first.

Macklemore’s album haphazard, disappointing

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released their unforgettable, number one Billboard Hot 100 hit “Thrift Shop” over four years ago. Fast forward to 2016: when the hip-hop duo released their fourth album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made on Feb. 26. Among other notable artists, Ed Sheeran and Chance The Rapper are featured on this album.

“Thrift Shop” jumpstarted Macklemore and Lewis’ careers. With his succeeding albums, however, Macklemore proved to the world that he was not a one-hit wonder. The Heist was a hugely successful album with hits like “White Walls” and “Can’t Hold Us.” In contrast, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made turned out to be a complete flop.

“Try-hard” is the only phrase that can accurately describe this album. It’s apparent that Macklemore was merely trying to stay relevant after The Heist’s huge success—a plan that completely backfired.

Successful music reaches its listeners through its messages and artistic quality. In this album, however, the messages did not translate and the music was lost. At times, it felt as if Macklemore were talking in a conversational setting rather than rapping in a studio.

It’s tough to say which was worse: the music or the lyrics. “Downtown” raps about mopeds to the beat of funk music—a true tragedy of a song, in my opinion. The song itself is a gag inducing, peppy version of “Uptown Funk,” and it’s hard for me to see how this song could appeal to any demographic.

“Brad Pitt’s Cousin” was arguably the least understandable song on the album. In the song, Macklemore jokes that he’s Brad Pitt’s “ugly” cousin, calling out to all his “Angelinas.” What was supposed to be a lighthearted, funny song only worked to reveal Macklemore’s completely bizarre, unsympathetic sense of humor.

“Let’s Eat” is a track that centers on dieting, in which Macklemore raps, “My girl shaped like a bottle of Coke/ Me? I’m shaped like a bottle of nope.” This song was embarrassingly terrible, highlighting Macklemore’s declining songwriting abilities.

Lastly, “Buckshot” focuses on how Macklemore grew up in a poor and vandalized property with graffiti—a song which directly contradicts his persona. In “Buckshot,” Macklemore identifies with the poverty-stricken population that many rappers come from and use as inspiration in their music. In “White Privilege II,” though—and seemingly the rest of his music—he identifies with a more privileged population that has never had to overcome hardships. If a rapper does not know who they are, how is their music supposed to be understood, let alone appreciated?

In the past, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have been known for cleverly bringing social justice issues to light through their music, as seen in “Same Love” featuring Mary Lambert. “White Privilege II,” however, is just short of a disaster. Macklemore raps for nearly nine minutes about the different opinions surrounding the current racial climate, addressing issues from culturally appropriated rap to marching as a white man in Ferguson protests. 

“Black Lives Matter” is chanted throughout “White Privilege II,” along with people voicing their opinions about the movement. Miley Cyrus, Elvis Presley, Iggy Azalea and Mike Brown are all somehow mentioned in the same verse. While dissing other artists through a song is not a new phenomenon, it can be tasteless—especially when done in a song that deals with such heavy topics as the shooting of Michael Brown. The track comes off as tacky and Macklemore seems like another white male trying to convince others of his understanding of the black struggle.

This Unruly Mess I’ve Made was exactly what the title implies—a complete and utter mess. Connecting with listeners seemed to be the main struggle of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ album, with bad songwriting and poor musicality not helping their cause. While there may be a few tolerable songs off this album, overall, it gives white rap a bad name.

The 1975 explores different genres, take risks on sophomore album

The 1975’s latest album I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It was perhaps one of the most highly anticipated album releases of the year. The 1975 took drastic measures to ensure that fans would understand the grandeur of their second album. First, they deleted all of their social media accounts after tweeting cryptic messages revealing lyrics—a highly successful publicity grab.

Released on Friday Feb. 26, the album contains 17 tracks. This album contained more electro-pop songs than previous releases, however it still had many slow songs—in line with older works.

In addition to electro-pop, the band experiments with both gospel and ballad music on the album. The 1975 is widely known as an alternative rock band. With this album, however, the band pushes its boundaries by exploring different genres that many rock bands would not dare to venture into. On top of it all, the band was able to maintain its angst—something so beautiful that seems to disappear every time a rock band steps into the pop genre.

Every mainstream album has at least one or two defining songs that blow up in popularity due to their repetitive, catchy sound. The 1975 decided to make these songs readily available for the public to enjoy as samples of the album. “The Sound,” “UGH!” and “Love Me” are the three pop songs on this album that are most likely to be overplayed on the radio and get stuck in people’s heads. While undeniably mainstream-friendly, these songs carry a unique electronic sound that works to maintain their originality.

Fans of The 1975 crave their slow, romantic songs alongside their pop songs. “A Change of Heart” and “Somebody Else” are the typical heartbreak songs that listeners love so much. With deliberate melodies and long notes, the two songs are dreamy, beautiful break up songs.

For the track “If I Believe You,” The 1975 traded in slow melodies for jazzy gospel music. “If I Believe You” was a huge risk for this band to take—alternative rock bands seldom experiment with gospel music. The song turned out to be a success, though, and the soulful gospel choir complemented lead singer Matty Healy’s voice extremely well. The amount of emotion expressed is so tangible in this track—especially with the addition of the gospel choir.

Many songs on this album deal with the psychological, a topic that can be very difficult to present in a comprehensible way. “UGH!” is a reflection on Healy’s cocaine addiction, delving into his frustration and shift in mental state through the pure angst of the lyrics. “The Ballad of Me and My Brain” is more explicitly named regarding the exploration of the inner psyche and discusses the less glamorous aspects of being famous.

The album closes with “She Lays Down,” a song about Healy’s mother going through depression shortly after giving birth. Despite many critics’ opinions, The 1975 is not a band catered to 15-year-old girls. The deep, self-aware lyrics indicate that The 1975 is a sophisticated, mature band.

Too often, rock bands lose touch with who they are after their debut album. Pop culture infiltrates their music to the point where they become part of it. Paramore is a prime example of this, as they lost their angst throughout the years as exemplified by their latest album, which was disappointingly pop. I Like It When You Sleep for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It may have a ridiculous Fall Out Boy-esque name, yet it is hugely successful in combining the pop sound that a general audience likes so much while also keeping their originality and identity.

The 1975 experimented with different genres of music on this new release, a true sign of an extraordinary band. The sophomore album has lived up to expectations and was the antithesis of a “sophomore slump” for The 1975.

Kanye’s album dynamic, reminiscent of older work

“A gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it” is how Kanye West described his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, which was released on Feb. 14. This sparked excitement amongst the many fans that favor West’s first album The College Dropout, an album known for its soulful feel. Though reminiscent of the spiritual sound associated with earlier West, the final product is something much more than anything a younger, College Dropout-era West could have made. The album is a beautiful mess. It opens with one of West’s best songs ever, “Ultralight Beam,” which features Chance The Rapper and a full chorus. This song is reminiscent of “Jesus Walks” from The College Dropout.

Following “Ultralight Beam” are what can only be described as gospel-trap songs titled “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,” produced by Metro Boomin. This pivot in musical style foreshadows the rest of the album.

After its upbeat beginning, the album moves into a more somber tone with “FML” featuring the Weeknd, “Real Friends” and “Wolves” featuring Frank Ocean. Each of these songs retain the album’s gospel feel, but also focus on heavier subjects such as failed relationships, bad friendships and depression. An intermission titled “Silver Surfer Intermission” and four bonus tracks—with guest appearances from artists such as Kendrick Lamar and André 3000—follow.

Though the gospel vibe remains constant throughout the album, West layers this with other music styles and with lyrics that reflect his own personal experiences with the pitfalls of fame and past relationships—which some people consider to be controversial and misogynistic.

With the release of his sixth studio album Yeezus in 2013, West offered a new, minimalistic sound that won over many listeners who were initially skeptical about this sound. Making musical departures has been commonplace for West, as he excels at making music that is sonically ahead of the game. The Life of Pablo is no different.

West took the non-traditional tactic of inviting the public into the creative process that led up to the release of TLOP. West changed the album’s title multiple times and tweeted out multiple track lists, then added and removed songs seemingly at will.

On top of this, West—unafraid to speak his mind—unleashed a Twitter tirade on fellow rapper Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose—West’s ex-girlfriend and Khalifa’s ex-wife—after Khalifa tweeted his displeasure at one of the previous album titles.

An early version of the album was unveiled during a fashion show at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 11, where West also launched his third clothing line. Following an erratic performance on “Saturday Night Live,” the full album was released for streaming to eager consumers three days later on Tidal.

While the changing styling from song to song on TLOP can seem as if it is haphazardly thrown together, it’s almost certain that this was an intentional move by West. Ever the perfectionist, West continues to tweak the songs daily on Tidal.

With its sonic highs and lows, The Life of Pablo perfectly encapsulate what seems to have been West’s mindset when making the album. Religion ties together the offerings, whose themes range from depression to pure elation.

With Paul the Apostle—a teacher of Christianity in the first century—as the album’s namesake, West seems to signal that he, too, is bringing Christ’s teachings to the modern world in his own strange, beautiful and twisted way.

Sia’s This Is Acting boasts superior songwriting abilities

You may have first heard of Australian singer-songwriter Sia due to her chart-topping single “Chandelier,” which rocked radio stations throughout 2014. The hit “Elastic Heart” was also featured in various television shows and movies, and both successful songs are off of her 2014 album 1000 Forms of Fear. To the surprise of many, however, Sia has actually been in the music scene since the late 1990s. She has even written songs for big artists—such as Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” and Rihanna’s “Diamonds” along with countless other hits you’ve most likely heard on the radio. While songwriting is Sia’s primary craft, she is also known for her raspy, powerful belts and cracked, slurred vocals.

Although Sia likes to keep away from the spotlight—she began to hide her face with a blonde wig beginning in 2014 to avoid the attention that fame brings—her music often shows her vulnerability, personal struggles and fight to be alive.

Her most recent album This Is Acting is so named because virtually all of the songs on the album were written for other artists. Therefore, Sia is “acting” by singing these songs.

1000 Forms of Fear and This Is Acting sound very alike sonically—with the beginning of “One Million Bullets” sampling the beat of “Chandelier”—but this is not a bad thing.

Prior to 1000 Forms of Fear, Sia’s music was collectively alternative/new wave. Beginning with 1000 Forms, though, Sia delved into dance beats, techno synths and electropop. This Is Acting is a continuation of Sia’s newfound, more upbeat sound.

“Alive” features a chilling, belted chorus, similar to that of “Chandelier.” Though the song was originally written for Adele, Sia could not have done a better job of encapsulating the power and raw emotion of the song with lyrics like, “I wanted everything I never had/Like the love that comes with light/I wore envy and I hated that/But I survived.”

For those seeking a dance track, “Move Your Body”—fittingly titled—offers a break from the independent, introspective theme of the album with its upbeat and suggestive lyrics.

This Is Acting’s impressive number of highlight tracks makes it a five-star album, with powerful songs such as the opening track “Bird Set Free,” which speaks about rising above from criticism. “Unstoppable” is another inspiring song and speaks of being a “Porsche with no brakes.” The songs “House on Fire” and “Footprints” are also must-listen-to songs.

Produced by Greg Kurstin, “Cheap Thrills” is one of the most memorable tracks on the album. The track is accompanied by Chipmunk-esque vocals and cheerleading squad chants echoing in the chorus.

Lyrically, though, “Reaper” is a much stronger song. The song discusses the struggle of battling with depression and suicidal thoughts. In the song, Sia speaks to her mental illness, singing in the second verse, “Don’t come for me today/I’m feeling good, let me savor it/Don’t come for me today” and singing in the pre-chorus, “So close I was to heaven’s gates/But no baby, no baby, not today.”

A final standout song from This Is Acting is “Broken Glass,” a four-minute track where Sia speaks to her lover about their violent relationship. Sia pleas for peace, comparing their fights to stormy weather and rough seas, but still lets her lover know that she will not discard them so carelessly like broken glass.

Sia may not have written these songs for herself, but at the end of the day, the lyrics shine through her. This Is Acting clearly demonstrates how much heart and soul Sia has placed into every one of her songs—even if other artists rejected them. The album drips with emotion, emphasizing Sia’s musical talent in singing and songwriting, all while also showcasing liberation from her personal battles.

Rihanna’s newest album avant-garde

It has been more than three years since R&B and dance-pop singer Rihanna released her last album Unapologetic. Rihanna’s lengthy hiatus is surprising to many because ever since she released her 2005 debut album Music of the Sun, she has released or re-released an album nearly every year. Her hiatus was broken, however, with her much-anticipated release ANTI. ANTI arrived after various delays and much confusion. With Rihanna switching labels, distancing herself from the spotlight, venturing into acting and avoiding album discussion, many were hard-pressed and clueless as to what her ninth studio album would sound like.

In early 2015, however, Rihanna officially broke her silence. She returned to the music scene by releasing her new singles “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “American Oxygen.” A final single titled “FourFiveSeconds” was also released, with Rihanna collaborating with Kanye West and Beatles legend Paul McCartney. Additionally, Rihanna performed at the 2015 Grammy Awards. Surprisingly, none of these songs actually appear on the album.

ANTI is an experiment and feels much more like an experience than an album. It subconsciously showcases how far Rihanna has come as an artist, where she stands now and how she has once again reinvented her image. ANTI shifts from your “conventional” Rihanna album full of chart-topping hot singles, a variety of reggae-infused melodies and some pop ballads.

Interestingly enough, ANTI manages to complete Unapologetic’s trajectory. With Unapologetic, Rihanna began to venture into the world of unconventional production and complex rhythms with songs like “Phresh Out The Runway” and “Jump.” ANTI takes it a step further, delving deep into diverse genres such as folk, psychedelic and experimental. Tracks like “Woo” mix abrasive beats with grunge-like layered vocals, whereas “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is a cover of Australian psychedelic rock band Tame Impala’s song “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.”

“Work” features Canadian rapper Drake. “Work” ignores all of the hype following Rihanna’s 2015 singles—it creates its own. The song quickly becomes a reggae track, showcasing Rihanna’s prominent Barbadian accent. It is one of the most danceable songs on the album, even though the production still incorporates a soft techno beat.

“Kiss It Better” is introduced with a faint electric guitar. Rihanna follows through with a memorable chorus and layered vocals. While the vocals of the song are classically Rihanna, the meticulous structure of the song is not.

Many songs span from one to two minutes and seem to be intentional cuts, each sounding drastically different from one another. For example, “James Joint” is a vibrant one-minute hymn about marijuana and love, as opposed to “Higher,” which is a two-minute mini-ballad with intoxicated and croaky, heartbroken vocals. It’s also backed by a crooning, noir-esque violin melody.

The highlights of the album, though, lie in ballads, such as the nearly four-minute long “Love On The Brain” where Rihanna uses her voice in an innovative way. Her raspy, jazzy vocals do not even sound like her at certain points.

“Never Ending” is another highlight of ANTI. Had I not known this was a track off of the album, I would’ve thought it was sung by a folk musician. The country-esque vibe of the song is backed by acoustic guitars and soft, light vocals. I found this song distinct due to its sound; it offers a refreshing break from the overarching experimental sound of the album, even though “Never Ending” is ironically experimental within itself; toying with a genre and sound that Rihanna hasn’t explored before.

Though some may not have found ANTI to be worth the wait, I think it is an asset to Rihanna’s discography. No one could have expected what ANTI was going to be like and if that was one of Rihanna’s goals, she surely accomplished it.