Nostalgia is usually an enjoyable look back at the highlights of yesteryear, now digitally championed in BuzzFeed lists and Twitter hashtags, but the theme is given a darker twist in the debut single from UK singer-songwriter Martin Luke Brown. “Would the kid you used to be still be proud of you?” he asks before continuing to question old memories and whether those memories act as a catalyst for action or become haunting, restrictive shackles. He sings a wistful reminder that nostalgia isn’t always a positive action — that looking back can sometimes get you stuck in the past, rather than moving forward; and that the dreams and passions built as a child may have been eroded by the struggles of the adult world. For Brown, though, “Nostalgia” is a powerful pop single, whose reflective, relatable lyrics are accompanied by keyboards and light percussion that recall the styles of OneRepublic and Mikky Ekko, making it a likely positive catalyst for a formidable music career.
Mary Lambert signed to Capitol Records late last year after rising quickly to the upper echelon of the pop charts as the featured vocalist on the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis hit “Same Love.” The EP release that followed, Welcome To The Age Of My Body, included spoken-word poetry and a full-length expansion of the aforementioned vocal hook, “She Keeps Me Warm,” which reached the top twenty of adult top 40 radio earlier this spring. In attempt to launch her upcoming debut album, reportedly entitled Heart On My Sleeve, “Secrets” is more in line with current radio trends, combining a voice that recalls Sara Bareilles or Ingrid Michaelson with bouncy, horn-inflected production. Yet despite such traits that seem somewhat calculated to score a radio hit, “Secrets” is all the better for remaining a little left-of-center. Along with a lighthearted intro and an operatic middle eight that carves her a more distinct niche as an artist, Lambert sings a friendly and relatable narrative that champions unashamed individuality, remarking on topics that range from weight and sexual orientation to family dysfunction and unexpected fashion choices (“I rock mom jeans, cat earrings”), all the while steadfastly proud and unabashed. Tying everything together is the message catchily repeated in the chorus: “I don’t care if the world knows what my secrets are.” Launching from that ascending melody into a repetition of the words “so what?” the melodic line slightly resembles the playfully taunting call of a child, as if Lambert is daring the world to judge her for her imperfections and diversions from the norm. After a string of hits by women challenging societal norms on beauty, individuality, and self-worth, “Secrets” adds to the list with a confident, courageous challenge that rallies against hiding who you are.
As Graffiti6’s sophomore album The Bridge opens, with the deep echo of piano keys introducing a short, stripped version of “Beside You” before transitioning into the album’s massive title track, it becomes clear that Jamie Scott and Tommy “TommyD” Danvers have experienced just as large a musical evolution since the original 2010 release of debut album Colours. Since then, the Colours album era produced notable singles in “Free” and “Stare Into The Sun,” while each member of the duo expanded their horizons individually — Scott’s songwriting played a major role in the breakout success of One Direction, and he added songwriter credits for Christina Perri, Michael Kiwanuka, 5 Seconds of Summer, Little Mix, and more; Danvers, meanwhile, provided production and orchestration work for several artists, including fun., Emeli Sandé, Tinie Tempah, and Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher. Accordingly, the sound of Graffiti6 as an ensemble has grown as well, drawing from each member’s new influences. Throughout the album’s fifteen tracks, layers of background harmonies, expressive piano and string lines, and production elements pack a punch behind sentimental lyrics of love and loss, creating a wide, expansive soundscape that is as engaging over the long term as it is catchy upon the first listen.
One of the highlights of The Bridge is its title track, in which heavy percussive beats, guitar slides, and impassioned harmonies surround lyrics that evoke loss and helplessness, searching for a comfort zone after a breakup. A similar lost sentiment is heard in an ode for restless insomniacs, “Losing My Mind,” followed by the post-breakup tale of living “Separate Lives,” whose extended coda is a tender, yearning cry: Scott cries out “I miss you, I miss you here, miss your love…” as a soft bed of synths, echoing vocals, and a string line builds until it seemingly ascends into the clouds. Previously-released Christmas song “No Snow” is also included, a smoldering original take on the themes of the classic “Blue Christmas.” However, not everything is dark and dismal, as evidenced by the album’s kaleidoscopic cover artwork: Graffiti6 returns to their familiar theme of sunshine, comparing it to the feeling of love on upbeat track “U Got The Sunshine;” on the intro and extended versions of “Beside You” that serve as the album’s bookends, a couple resolves to stay together through thick and thin.
In addition to several songs with a more traditional, radio-friendly structure, The Bridge includes multiple cuts more akin to jam sessions, following in the footsteps of debut album track “Calm The Storm.” While “Washed My Sins,” which first premiered on YouTube last May, continues to build into a frenzy with each refrain, others (“We Fall Forever,” “Resting Place”) feel a little too long and repetitive even despite their fluid instrumental sections. However, to their credit, these work to provide more focus on the band’s multifaceted production and instrumentation, which draw from the duo’s vast array of musical influences. Like on their debut album Colours, Scott’s smooth vocals are enhanced by TommyD’s production skills — from the sweeping strings on “Separate Lives” to the frenetic beats in “Washed My Sins” and “We Fall Forever,” the production showcases the musical expansion and invention that Graffiti6 has experienced since the release of Colours. As a result, The Bridge is a follow-up release that is anything but a sophomore slump — instead, it is the musical result of looking through a kaleidoscope, demonstrating a formidable melange of genres and influences that shifts boundaries while staying true to the band’s own formula of charming lyricism and adventurous genre-hopping.
Following featured vocal credits on international hits by Naughty Boy (“La La La”) and Disclosure (“Latch”) and “Money On My Mind,” which topped the charts in the United Kingdom, “Stay With Me” is the latest single to preview Sam Smith’s solo debut album In The Lonely Hour. It’s also his first solo offering in the United States, where Capitol Records has promoted him as the successor to previous British exports Adele and Emeli Sandé. As such, “Stay With Me” features a sparse arrangement of keys, hi-hat, and tambourine, which almost predictably allows room for the backing of a full gospel choir as Smith pleads to extend his one-night stand against his better judgment, knowing “deep down … this never works.” Smith’s voice is soft and smooth over the accompaniment, but doesn’t quite match the level of emotion felt in the ballads featured on his previous Nirvana EP. Nevertheless, the song astutely portrays another, less common aspect of loneliness that will hopefully allow for both variety and cohesiveness on In The Lonely Hour.
A spotlight shone brightly on Lea Michele from the opening scenes of FOX’s television musical juggernaut Glee when it premiered in 2009, as she took the female lead role of talented McKinley High School student Rachel Berry. The diverse musical experience of Michele and the other cast members going into the show — as well as the logical desire for mass commercial appeal — resulted in an amalgamation of many genres and decades of music being covered on the show, leading to record-breaking Billboard chart success. Now faltering in its penultimate fifth season, Michele is expanding to new projects, beginning with an attempted career as a solo pop artist with the release of debut album Louder.
While Michele received critical praise for her Broadway-infused performances on Glee, much of that influence is stripped on Louder in favor of pop music with light, diluted dance beats and overwrought emotion. Though Michele and team assembled a formidable army of esteemed pop songwriters and producers, including Sia, Ali Tamposi, Matt Radosevich, and John Shanks, very little of the pop material on Louder feels like a natural fit for Michele’s Broadway-trained belts. The upbeat pop production on songs like “On My Way” and “Burn With You” forces her voice to squeak as she fights against rising waves of synthesized beats. With more careful arrangements, such as those the Broadway-leaning “You’re Mine” (one of four Sia co-writes), “Cue The Rain,” and “Empty Handed” (a Coldplay-resemblant number on which Christina Perri shares writing duties with Shanks and David Hodges), Michele’s stellar set of pipes is able to shine through. While there are more vulnerable moments as well, such as the tender “Battlefield” and personal album closer “If You Say So,” which Michele wrote with Sia and Chris Braide, they are so few and far between and so oddly sequenced in the narrative of the album that they feel like afterthoughts, a skin that Michele has shed on her way to stake her claim as a pop powerhouse.
Louder certainly has its fair share of earworm melodies, and it is hard to deny that Michele is an extremely talented vocalist. However, the material that she presents as her solo debut squanders her potential and tries to place her in a mold where she does not naturally fit. As a result, the album comes across as a heavily-calculated attempt to commandeer her popularity among the young but rabid Glee fanbase into the same type of catchy, accessible, mainstream-leaning pop that propelled its cast onto the Billboard Hot 100 so many times — and it’s no more believable than the show’s sudden bursts into fully-produced fun. or Journey hits in the middle of a high school classroom. As Michele sings in “Burn With You,” “there’s a white light and it’s calling me” — but it’s the light of the Great White Way that beckons to her, rather than the spotlight at a pop concert.
When Karmin’s YouTube-powered rise to fame began in the spring of 2011, the duo of Berklee graduates gained appeal for their quirky, calculated covers of pop and hip-hop hits, the latter category featuring rapped verses spat with a wink and a nod by Amy Heidemann while partner Nick Noonan often took on a featured role as harmony vocalist and instrumentalist. Following a major-label deal with Epic Records, Karmin released the Hello EP in May of 2012 on the back of top ten hit “Broken Hearted,” after which began a lengthy period of label delays and frustrations. Nearly eighteen months after its planned debut, Pulses was released with two failures to launch in singles “Acapella” and “I Want It All.”
Much of Pulses presents Karmin in the midst of an identity crisis, toeing the line between the original but short-term viral success of their urban-leaning YouTube covers and the hitmaking potential uncovered by the success of “Broken Hearted” and the array of pop’s heavy hitters (Cirkut, Stargate, Claude Kelly, “Tricky” Stewart) that assisted on Hello. While traces of Heidemann and Noonan’s origins are still present, with tracks like “Pulses,” “Drifter,” and “What’s In It For Me” containing urban beats and rap verses, most of the material veers into the pop lane. Among the highlights on that end is “I Want It All,” whose brassy instrumentals, on-trend retro production, and catchy melody bridge the best of both worlds; “Hate To Love You” also excels with its use of bouncy guitars, hemiola-shifted chorus lines, and Nick Noonan’s verse melodies paired with concentrated bursts of rap from Amy Heidemann. “Night Like This” is a less successful bonfire party anthem, with lyrics calling for raised cups and the increasingly popular combination of acoustic guitar and dance beats, while ballad “Neon Love” stands out by stripping back the production to keyboard and percussion. On the other end of the spectrum are tracks like “Acapella,” whose repelling falsetto breakdown in the middle eight was a likely contributor to its lack of radio success, and “Drifter,” which features a dubstep drop and Heidemann pitch-altered to sound like a male.
Where Karmin excels is in catchy melodies, harmonies that feature both Heidemann and Noonan on vocals, and spunky instrumentals that add a touch of flair to what could otherwise become generic pop fodder — benchmarks that tracks like “I Want It All” hit solidly. However, Pulses falls flat in part due to the many peculiarities that make up a large part of the record, primarily in word choice and vocal delivery. Obnoxious, cringeworthy lyrics are sprinkled throughout nearly every song, with topics ranging from Olive Garden and tryptophan to Belvedere and “party pants,” and the rap shtick that gained viral video attention doesn’t translate as well to the record, especially with the duo’s melodic vocal talent often outshining it. Worse yet is when an otherwise good song like “Neon Love” is brought down by distracting vocal quirks, such as Heidemann’s repeated gasps for air, wavy vibrato, and bent notes. Creative differences with label executives likely influenced the confused sound of the album — at times, Heidemann’s voice is so over-processed that she sounds completely unlike herself, even aside from the intentional gender-shifted rap — but the duo themselves seem to have an acute sense of self-awareness regarding their oddball nature, almost applauding their corniness at times on the record. Karmin has potential with strong compositional skill and a unique niche in their “swag-pop” brand, making their eccentricities frustrating at best and annoying at worst.
Leading off his upcoming sophomore album on S-Curve Records, “Back Home” is Andy Grammer’s personal take on the ode to a hometown. After his eponymous debut album produced three hit singles in 2011 and 2012, including breakout hit “Keep Your Head Up,” his popularity has increased while touring and releasing the Crazy Beautiful EP last year in the interim. Seemingly as a response to his newfound fame, “Back Home” represents hometown glory, reminiscing on old memories and friendships before remarking in the pre-chorus that as time goes on, “we won’t forget where we came from; this city won’t change us.” Sparse finger snaps elicit the feel of a summer evening in the backyard, entering softly under a simple acoustic guitar line.
While the verses retain his usual acoustic-pop sound — and a dash of beat-boxing, which Grammer employed sparingly on his self-titled debut — the choruses burst into bright, wordless vocalizations and shout-along lines (“No matter where we go, we always find our way back home”). The heavy accompanying hand-claps and percussion evoke the feel of the many stomp-folk songs that have been popular on adult pop radio, Grammer’s core format, since his departure from the charts. The juxtaposition of sounds in the verses and choruses creates a smart parallel between the light, laid-back arrangement in the verses and the louder, more produced chorus, which are bridged by an ascending scale from the instrumental accompaniment in the pre-chorus. With his typical sound still in tact for the majority of the song, it feels more like natural artist progression than an attempt to chase a trend.
Sia has spent recent years behind the scenes of the music industry, providing vocal duties on Flo Rida and David Guetta hits while assembling a songwriting portfolio that includes an army of pop artists such as Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Céline Dion, all while shying away from the spotlight herself. Now for the upcoming release of her sixth studio album, she takes center stage in a big way with lead single “Chandelier.” The idea of swinging from a chandelier usually evokes of excessive party- and alcohol-fueled debauchery, resulting in a daring ride around the room that gains the full attention of the partygoers. When coupled with Sia’s lines in the first verse describing popularity and belonging in typical young-adult fashion — “phone’s blowing up, they’re ringing my doorbell / I feel the love, feel the love” — it seems to suggest that carefree happiness is the theme of the festivity. But as the song takes a minor-key turn in the pre-chorus and Sia sings “One, two, three / One, two, three: drink / Throw ’em back ’til I lose count,” it’s clear that that the song carries darker undertones.
In the chorus, Sia reveals that the likely-autobiographical subject’s indulgence in alcohol is aimed to help her forget her troubles as if “tomorrow doesn’t exist,” much like the lyrical content of many recent radio hits. However, what inevitably follows the morning after is a hangover, at which point the chandelier crashes down from the ceiling, leaving the rider at rock bottom. The fragility and precarious position of the dangling chandelier serves as a fitting symbol of Sia’s previously-recounted struggles with alcoholism, wrapped up into a powerful downtempo song. Sia’s polarizing yet undeniably powerful tone propels the chorus to astonishing heights, flying up to a high F# in the chorus that effortlessly surpasses the zenith of many fellow pop artists’ vocal ranges, while accompanied by snappy snare beats and a hazy cloud of synthesizers. While her roads both personal and professional have been long and arduous, “Chandelier” emerges putting Sia in a powerful position to stake her own claim as a singular pop powerhouse.
Leading Coldplay’s upcoming sixth studio album, Ghost Stories, “Magic” eschews the group’s now-typical pop hooks and soaring melodic lines for a more subdued sound, both vocally and instrumentally. Chris Martin’s voice is relaxed (and potentially less polarizing as a result), resting above a bobbing guitar riff. Meanwhile, the fluorescent, echoing synths that were present throughout much of previous album Mylo Xyloto have been removed, resulting in a more natural, organic sound accompanied only by a few swirling synths that enter as the song progresses.
While the lack of loud and catchy hooks makes “Magic” a bit less instant, the single appeals more gradually with its subtlety and emotive qualities. Martin’s soft vocal delivery grows from the refrain of “no, I don’t want anybody else but you” into the middle eight, at which point he slides into a vulnerable falsetto, singing “I wanna fall so hard” as guitars rise above the synths. As the song reaches its climax, Martin admits that he still believes in “magic,” referring to the romantic flame that still burns between the subject and his partner even after a long time.
There is little question that Pharrell Williams was a dominating force in 2013, with feature credit on big hits from Daft Punk and Robin Thicke and production work for a wide array of artists including Beyoncé, Jay Z, John Legend, Miley Cyrus, Aloe Blacc, and Mayer Hawthorne. By signing to Columbia Records late in the year before a chart-topping promotional push for “Happy,” originally included in the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack among several other Pharrell productions, his continued reign into 2014 has become as secured as the hat usually adorning his head.
G I R L, Pharrell’s sophomore solo album following 2006’s In My Mind, comes primarily packed with smooth R&B grooves that pair Pharrell’s easygoing falsetto with rhythmic bass lines, catchy guitar riffs, and a dash of hand-clapping. This recalls the sound of Justin Timberlake’s similarly-hyped The 20/20 Experience, but with the ego and track lengths reigned in, the album doesn’t lose itself in its pretension. Violin melodies are used sparingly to good effect: a brief rising line introduces the album before Pharrell’s utterance of the word “different” interrupts and cues a heavier beat in “Marilyn Monroe;” sweeping lines work well as a representation of the titular “Gust of Wind.” Background vocalizations, indiscernible vocal loops, and hand-claps are also placed in moderation, providing a bouncy and buoyant underbelly to tracks like “Brand New” and “Come Get It Bae,” which feature Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus respectively and sound in tune with each artist’s latest albums. More unusual sounds come in the percussive African influence of “Lost Queen” and the Stevie Wonder-recalling, Caribbean vibe of “Know Who You Are,” adding a splash of variety and intrigue that almost makes the simple-yet-euphoric production of “Happy” feel too lightweight by comparison.
More intriguing still are some of the melodic choices throughout the record. Album opener “Marilyn Monroe” goes from sixths in the prechorus to building from the tonic in the chorus before ending on the supertonic, showing that Pharrell is as “different” from his fellow contemporaries as his girl is from the norm. Additionally, while Daft Punk’s vocals in the chorus are fairly traditional, Pharrell eschews the tonic in the verses in favor of dominant and minor sevenths; the atypical harmonies on the prechorus to album closer “It Girl” provide another compositional treat. On occasion, the falsetto deliveries seem to veer sharp of the intended note, ranging from seemingly unintentional (Timberlake’s entrance in “Brand New”) to deliberately humorous (as Pharrell gasps “you’re leaving me … you can’t be serious!” in “Hunter”).
Romance is a main theme of the album, but it seems as if Pharrell learned from the blowback from last year’s controversial hit “Blurred Lines,” opting to be more gentlemanly. Even on “Gush,” easily the album’s most sexually explicit offering, he questions his urges, noting “my mama didn’t raise me that way” before informing his partner after mentioning how he could treat her well: “I don’t want to mislead you: tonight I think I wanna get dirty, girl,” almost as if asking for permission — a welcome change from the lack of agency given to women in many recent pop hits. Pharrell also follows suit from Kanye West’s “Bound 2” video, sprinkling lighthearted motorcycle metaphors in “Come Get It Bae” and “Lost Queen.” However, much of G I R L feels more upbeat and celebratory of women than aggressive and flirtatious. In “Marilyn Monroe,” she, Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc fail to compare to Pharrell’s desired partner; in “Lost Queen,” his love is placed as otherworldly as the only explanation for her perfection before evolving into hidden track “Freq,” in which Pharrell and JoJo praise uniqueness and self-love (and potentially provide a theme song to his collective side project, i am OTHER). Most importantly, Alicia Keys duet “Know Who You Are” champions feminism and self-esteem, as Keys even calls for a pledge to “do what I need ’til every woman on the Earth is free.”
While little seems to echo the hitmaking potential of “Happy,” the material stands well as its own body of work, and Pharrell’s accomplished name alone will likely elevate multiple singles to hit potential, especially as the weather begins to more closely reflect the upbeat melodies on the album. Nevertheless, G I R L displays Pharrell’s knack for catchy melodies and instrumental grooves while putting his own name at center billing, and it will likely continue to cement his place in the pop environment for a long time to come.