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.
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.
Before The Walkmen announced an “extreme hiatus” late in 2013, frontman Hamilton Leithauser had begun work on a solo album featuring members of revered indie-rock groups like Vampire Weekend, The Shins, and Fleet Foxes. As the release of his solo debut, Black Hours, approaches in May, Leithauser’s first single is “Alexandra,” one of two songs co-written and produced by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij. “Alexandra” is an energetic number in which Leithauser loudly and proudly proclaims his love for the titular subject while seemingly questioning others’ tendencies to move on from relationships so quickly. Though relatively short, clocking in at a mere two minutes and 46 seconds, the song packs in fuzzy production, hand-claps, and drum beats at the beginning. Throughout the later verses, it becomes increasingly more layered with harmonica, guitar, cymbals, and a jolly, fast-paced piano, resulting in a complex sound that makes more sense considering The Walkmen and Vampire Weekend have shared the stage with the experimentative Dirty Projectors in the past. Despite the loud, lo-fi wall of sound that accompanies its melody, “Alexandra” manages to be upbeat and catchy from the first listen, with the instrumentation adding unique appeal and charm.
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.
“I gotta get out into the world again,” Glee breakout star Lea Michele sings on her debut solo single “Cannonball.” Following the loss of her boyfriend and costar Cory Monteith, the selection of this Sia-penned song seems particularly heartfelt. As with most of Sia’s work this year, the midtempo cut is empowering, with a strong chorus with heavy rhythmic backing. Where it differs is in its crisp articulation and theatrical delivery, based on Michele’s performance background. Her experiences are apparent in her vocals as well: though written before Monteith’s death and originally unintended for Michele, her personal connection to the lyrical content of the song allows her to elevate each line, from the “break down” to the build-up.
The biggest downfall for “Cannonball” is its lack of dynamism, a disappointing factor considering the formidable power and range Michele has displayed through numerous covers as a part of the Glee cast. While the entire song is delivered with Michele singing with at least a mezzo-forte dynamic, peaking within each chorus, its mere five-note range provides nothing new beyond the first refrain. Further, the lack of a different middle eight, modulated ending, or anything more than a cut-and-pasted final chorus causes this “Cannonball” to be somewhat of a belly-flop instead of living up to its potential. However, its pop accessibility and solid backing talent offer a good slice of what’s to come from Michele’s forthcoming solo debut, Louder (due March 4 on Columbia), and prove that her future as a pop artist has strong footing.
When Lorde (née Ella Yelich-O’Connor) released previous single “Tennis Court” (with B-side “Swingin’ Party”) back in June, her star had barely begun to glow in the United States, despite having quickly rocketed to #1 in her homeland of New Zealand. However, with less than a month left until the release of highly-anticipated debut album Pure Heroine (due September 30 on Lava/Republic), buzz around Lorde and her breakout hit “Royals” has grown immensely as she races up radio and retailers’ charts. With her latest offering “Team,” she releases a pop-friendly track that keeps strong her track record of sparse, minimal instrumentation. Unlike the rest of the offerings on her first EP The Love Club, “Team” places Lorde’s soft, apathetic vocals atop a thumping bed of bass drums and organ-like synths that provides an accompaniment as suitable for a club setting as it is for pop radio. The standout element of the single comes in O’Connor’s lyrics: she makes a dig at her radio-ready competition in the post-chorus with the line “I’m kind of over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air / So there,” and like in “Royals,” she provides another shout-out to the small towns that “you’ll never see on screen” in the chorus. The self-proclaimed Queen Bee treats her subjects to a party that stays just sophisticated enough to stray from the typical structure of party-focused pop songs without being overly pretentious.