CptHampton's Music Reviews


    It seems no one quite knows who said it first, but there is a famous quote that states: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Well I was an architecture major for two and a half semesters and I'm not a terrible dancer, so I figure I'm qualified to give it my best shot.

    Although most of you might know me for a fairly polarizing composition featured on Bosman v Wozniak, what you might not know is that I'm obsessed with music. I dabble in music production and sound design, and I even moved to Nashville, TN in 2014 to be closer to where some of the best music of today is happening. As many of you might have a passion for video games as an art form, I have a deep appreciation for music and its ability to play with our emotions and stick with us.

    With the Grammy Awards coming up in February, I figured this was as good a time as any to start this blog. I'll begin with a month-long analysis of some of the bigger categories of the awards, posting twice a week on Mondays and Fridays until the awards on the 12th. Since the 13th is a Monday I'll probably use that opportunity to do a “Grammy Awards Wrap-Up,” then I'll attempt to keep a steady Monday-Friday weekly posting schedule every Friday. (edit: Once a week for now to maintain some sanity)

    My aim for the main, post-Grammy content of this blog is to be primarily album reviews, with the occasional editorial sprinkled in if the mood strikes me. I figure since I'm using the EZA forums, I'll stick with the tried-and-true review method of a 5-star scale with the EZA rating scale of:
    5 Stars - Masterful, 4 Stars - Excellent, 3 Stars - Decent, 2 Stars - Inferior, 1 Star - Terrible
    (and include half star additions/deductions as I see fit)

    While obviously these reviews are solely my opinions and there's an unavoidable level of subjectivity, I'll do my best to remain as objective as possible to the musicality and artistry of whatever I'm reviewing, even if it's not my cup of tea. Something I constantly tell my friends and family is “There are no bad genres, only bad artists,” and I'll do my best to stay true to that philosophy.

    I'll attempt to limit most of my reviews to recently released albums, but if I find myself in a drought of content I might do some reviews of older albums, whether they were released in the past few years or the past few decades. If anyone has a recommendation of an album they want me to review or think I need to listen to, be sure to let me know and I'll do my best to check it out and fit it into my schedule!

  • [post reserved just in case I need the extra space later on]

  • @CptHampton said in CptHampton's Music Reviews:

    Something I constantly tell my friends and family is “There are no bad genres, only bad artists,” and I'll do my best to stay true to that philosophy.

    Oh, I agree. I despise Jazz, but even it has 1 or 2 songs that are ok:

    Youtube Video


    The 2017 Grammy Awards are upon us, honoring all of the music that came out in...2016. Well technically the music that came out between October 1, 2015 and September 30, 2016. So all the music that came out between 4 months ago and 16 months ago (I feel like these awards could be better timed to make a little more sense...). Regardless, these awards exist to highlight the songwriters, artists, engineers, and everyone else in the music industry that make our own little corner of the entertainment world go 'round. While it seems to be a running joke that this is the lesser of the major award ceremonies in entertainment, it arguably provides us with some of the best examples of modern recorded music year-by-year.

    One important thing to note is that the Grammy Awards don't necessarily exist to honor the “best” music in their respective categories. The level of entry for recording and releasing quality music has been lowered so much in the past 20 years or so that there is an absolutely massive amount that comes out. These awards are decided democratically by voting members of the Recording Academy, so inherently there's some minimum threshold of popularity for the nominees. Furthermore, it has been my experience in following the Grammys that rather than giving awards to the nominees who were listened to the most or even the ones that are the “best” in any given category, it seems that these awards instead exist to honor the zeitgeist of the past year of music. Whichever nominee best encapsulates and builds upon the trends that rose to prominence is likely the one who will take home the award.

    To put it into terms many of you may be more familiar with, think of music in the context of these awards as a competitive multiplayer video game. Each year, there is a certain “meta-game” that rises to the top among the elite players. Instead of honoring the players that have the best raw mechanical skill or manage to be wildly innovative in their strategies, the awards more often go to the nominees that play exceedingly well within the current meta and perfect its finer details to the point that their victory in the competition seems inevitable.

    With all that ranting out of the way, on to the awards! There are a staggering 84 categories this year up for awards, and there's no way any sane individual could (or should) cover every single one. Nevertheless, I'm testing the bounds of my sanity by covering 34 33 (edit: I decided to skip Bluegrass, mostly so I wouldn't have to listen to 20 albums for a single post) of the categories I'm most interested in over the next month. I've grouped the categories into “genres,” amounting to 9 scheduled posts before the award ceremony on February 12. For each category, I'll give a very brief review of each nominee, highlighting the good and the bad I see in each. To make it more fun, I'll then make 2 picks per category: a personal favorite and a pick to win. The personal favorite is 100% subjective and is just the nominee I enjoy listening to the most. My pick to win is who I think will actually take home the award based on how well (or maybe poorly) I understand of the “meta” of modern music in that particular genre (note that my two picks might manage to line up in some categories). In the wrap-up after the awards, I'll tally up how I did, and if you want you can play along and see how your picks stack up against mine!

    Anyway enough editorial-style filler...on to the nominees!

    Part 1: Electronic
    Part 2: American Roots
    Part 3: Country
    Part 4: Rap
    Part 5: R&B (Coming soon)
    Part 6: Rock (Coming soon)
    Part 7: Pop (Coming soon)
    Part 8: Production (Coming soon)
    Part 9: Best of the Year


    Electronic music has skyrocketed in terms of influence over the past decade, wriggling its way into what seems like every other genre of music. But any fans of the genre will ensure you that the music still thrives as its own separate entity, not to be watered down by shoehorning it into other styles.

    This grouping is made a tad tricky by the fact that two of these categories focus on “Dance” as the main qualifier of the genre. Dance music, more than other genres, needs to be somewhat repetitive and easy to predict so as not to throw off the intended listeners in the intended context. Still, skilled artists in the genre are at the forefront of innovation for amazing sound design and the ability to pepper in tiny interest parts that really make their tracks shine above the rest.

    Best Remixed Recording

    • Cali Coast (Psionics Remix) (opb Soul Pacific) – This track takes great advantage of an amazing original vocal that's perfect for remixing. It starts out by giving the song a more tropical vibe, expanding on the feel of the original track, but quickly evolves into a fully-fledged electronic piece with some massive synths and great pitched vocal one-shots.

    • Heavy Star Movin' (starRo Remix) (opb The Silver Lake Chorus) – I love the ethereal and mellow vocal arrangement in the original song, and this remix makes great use of them by sampling them as pads with some good filtering and chopping. Add a chill, mallet-like lead and some great down-tempo drums and you've got the perfect song to melt away your stress.

    • Nineteen Hundred Eighty-Five (Timo Maas & James Teej Remix) (opb Paul McCartney & Wings) – Remixing a song from Paul McCartney's album Band On The Run is a daunting task, as the song itself is wildly dynamic in tone and emotion. I almost feel like parts of this song would lend itself really well to a remix in the style of Daft Punk, but Timo Mass and James Teej go for more of an old school funk rock vibe with some heavy experimentation. It works okay for some sections, but falls flat in others.

    • Only (Kaskade x Lipless Remix) (opb RY X) – This remix stands out in that it has sections which are wildly different from the original song. RY X presents a song more in the style of Bon Iver, while the remix adds some life by layering in a danceable drum and synth beat into the choruses. The best part of this track is the verses allowing the feel of the original to breathe and shine through, piling on emotional depth when the energy ramps up.

    • Tearing Me Up (RAC Remix) (opb Bob Moses) – RAC adds some grunge to the original that reminds me a bit of the Arctic Monkeys in some ways. Unfortunately, it doesn't re-contextualize Bob Moses' song in any significant way that would make it worthy of being called a truly great remix.

    • Wide Open (Joe Goddard Remix) (opb The Chemical Brothers) – Being a song by The Chemical Brothers, the original has a bounty of great vocals, instruments, and themes for the remix to sample from. Joe Goddard turns this into a 10 minute epic with a nice slow burn, which culminates as a song that adds some nice bounce and jolliness to the otherwise introspective source material.

    My favorite: Heavy Star Movin'
    My pick: Wide Open

    Best Dance Recording

    • Tearing Me Up (Bob Moses) – If you like your dance tracks to be more chill and even kind of depressing, you'll love this track. It reminds me a lot of “Gold” by Chet Faker in the overall vibe, but even more subdued. It goes for that old-school feel with some good room sound on the drum kit and a vinyl crackle in the background, but the energy starts pretty low and doesn't manage to peak much higher than that.

    • Don't Let Me Down (The Chainsmokers feat. Daya) – Not everyone can pull off “the drop” that came to prominence with the rise of dubstep a few years ago, and this track is a perfect example. A great guitar part, great vocal, and great build are all undone by an obnoxious synth hook in the chorus. It's a shame because the second half of the choruses (and an intense final chorus) really show off what this track could have been with some better decision making.

    • Never Be Like You (Flume feat. Kai) – A dreamy intro gives way to a hard-hitting, trap-like drum beat in this “electronic pop ballad.” Some great stuttering rhythms and artful detuning on the background pads show off Flume's ability to micro-manage an otherwise simple idea into a fully fleshed-out track that manages to hold interest. Not to mention an amazing vocal by Kai that puts some great restraint and vocal control on display.

    • Rinse & Repeat (Riton feat. Kah-Lo) – The best way to describe this track is a modern version of Benny Benassi's “Satisfaction.” The vocal is repetitive and monotone throughout, and the beat has a minimalist grime with some percussive bass. If you listen to the first 30 seconds, you've listened to the whole song (but what can we ask, the song is called “Rinse & Repeat,” after all). The biggest sin this track commits is that it doesn't feel like anything. This is probably the #1 track on that neutral planet from Futurama.

    • Drinkee (Sofi Tukker) – This track succeeds where “Rinse & Repeat” fails. The same criticism can be said about the vocal line, but the production of the music behind it actually brings it to life. The shining star of this song is the guitar riff that sounds like it's straight out of 60's psychedelic rock. Unfortunately this song's shortcoming is it's lack of energy apart from that one bright spot, with a bridge that feels like it should be building to something but ultimately just middles out.

    My favorite: Never Be Like You
    My pick: Don't Let Me Down

    Best Dance/Electronica Album

    • Skin (Flume) – Flume benefits from a lot of great collaborations on this album, but the overall production of the tracks is the real star. Crazy experiments in sound that somehow gel into cohesive and, dare I say, “poppy” tracks are a marvel to behold. Not only that, but the choices in sound design manage to keep some wildly different tracks stay grounded as part of one, unmistakable whole. The final track, a collaboration with Beck, might be my favorite here and acts as the perfect way to drive the album home.

    • Electronica 1: The Time Machine (Jean-Michel Jarre) – This album is aptly named, as it seems to serve as an homage to classic synth music of the 70's and 80's with his own sprinkling of modern styles and sensibilities. There's even a collaboration with famed director and composer John Carpenter (this track, “A Question of Blood,” is amazingly creepy, by the way). My only real gripe is the song “If..! (feat. Little Boots),” which feels too much like the 2013 indie version of 80's synth pop rather than the genuine article (a criticism the other 15 tracks of the album have very little problem with). This album might also not hold the attention of those who aren't already fans of this classic style of synth music.

    • Epoch (Tycho) – Every track is a journey in this purely instrumental electronic album, from the quiet and reserved selections like “Receiver” and “Field” to the slightly more bombastic and hard-hitting “Slack” and “Local.” Well-arranged guitar parts carry much of the melodic content in lieu of vocals here, but a big criticism that could be levied against this album might be that there's not quite enough variation throughout to help the listener clearly identify any one particular track from another.

    • Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future (Underworld) – Underworld was one of the most significant artists in the electronic movement of the 90's, and they carry that clout into this 2016 album. They retain the analog, house sound that skyrocketed them to underground fame, while trying their hand at some more modern electronic techniques. “Trying” being the operative word here, because while this album is by no means a failure, it doesn't quite manage to seamlessly mesh their classic sound with the more current styles.

    • Louie Vega Starring...XXVIII (Little Louie Vega) – Out of all the nominations in this category, this is the one that is unmistakably a dance album. The opening track hints at some influence from Random Access Memories, but the album as a whole serves as a tour of modern house and club music pulling from genres like funk, disco, jazz, and dub over the course of its 28 tracks. The wide range of influences might serve as a detriment, though, as a lot of the songs sound like Vega is just putting the same house drum loop over classic, 70's-style songs.

    My favorite: Epoch
    My pick: Electronica 1: The Time Machine


    “American Roots” is a bit of a broad category, as it covers a great many styles and influences. It essentially describes the evolution of American folk music in its many forms, from the banjo-laden tunes of the Appalachian mountains to classic blues of Memphis and the explosion of jazz in Cajun cultures like New Orleans. What might be even more confusing is the definition of the genre “Americana,” which seems to be a melting pot of all these other genres which make up the ethos of American music, fused with more modern rock and roll and rhythm and blues influences. If you want to focus on folk-style music that delves into what it means for music to be labeled “American,” this is a category to pay attention to.

    Since this is the first time it's cropping up, I might as well also take this opportunity to distinguish a “Best Song” category from a “Best Performance” category. “Best Song,” in simplest terms, looks at the music as it exists on paper rather than how it sounds. It honors the songwriters and arrangers for the lyrics and compositions that go into the piece. “Best Performance” honors the music as it exists in audio form, focusing on the artist that plays the music and the emotional nuance with which they guide the song as it was written.

    I will be covering five categories of awards here in the genres and styles I most enjoy and feel most qualified to discuss and judge. It should be noted that I will not be covering jazz or traditional blues in this series as I don't think I have a firm enough grasp on the crazy level of nuance and attention to detail that make the forerunners in those genres stand out above the rest. With that out of the way, here are our categories for today!

    Best American Roots Song

    • Alabama At Night (Robbie Fulks) – This song has a style, both in lyrics and instrumentation, reminiscent of 60's folk with a southern country tinge. Impeccable storytelling comes to the forefront here, but don't underestimate the simple yet powerful choices in the chord progressions.

    • City Lights (Jack White/The White Stripes) – This is a previously unreleased song by the White Stripes, written by the frontman Jack White. The acoustic guitar in this composition is really cool, having an interplay with the vocal melody that almost gives it an Eastern, sitar-like vibe. The lyrics are also pretty good, using the extended metaphor of meeting someone at an airport after a flight to convey the comfort of having a deep and reliable connection with someone. The overall structure is a bit lacking though; just three verses with identical melodic content broken up by some guitar interludes.

    • Gulfstream (Roddie Romero And The Hub City All-Stars) – This song hits at the core of classic country songwriting, conveying the monotony of life as a hard-working American in small town, but being able to find the joys in the small, predictable repetitions. There's a recognition that there might be “more” to life, but also a resolution that the comfort of simplicity might be better. Along with the lyrics, the main guitar riff is also well-crafted and easy to get stuck in your head.

    • Kid Sister (Vince Gill/The Time Jumpers) – Here in Nashville, the Time Jumpers have a regular live show every Monday at 3rd and Lindsley, which is a must-see for people who enjoy classic country-western swing. The entire album is a touching tribute to former band member Dawn Sears, and this final track drives the emotions home. The lyrics hit you straight in the gut, and the songwriter (Vince Gill) allows a founding member of the band (Kenny Sears) to say a final farewell to his late wife. Simultaneously depressing and uplifting, this song might get you to shed a tear.

    • Wreck You (Lori McKenna) – This song perfectly encapsulates being in a relationship that seems to be slowly falling apart for no particular reason. The lyrics describe the sorrow of slowly losing someone and the frustration of not knowing how to mend the break. If you've ever been in this situation, it's almost sure to bring up flashbacks of that time and the helpless regret you feel when the end is inevitable.

    My favorite: Wreck You
    My pick: Kid Sister

    Best American Roots Performance

    • Ain't No Man (The Avett Brothers) – A relatively simple and somewhat cliché structure of this song serves as a great bare-bones template for the performance to shine through. A big, booming kick and clap pattern drive the song forward while the addition of gospel-like harmonies in later choruses heighten the emotion of the lead singer.

    • Mother's Children Have A Hard Time (Blind Boys Of Alabama) – A cover of American gospel-blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, this track is on point with the vibe of the original style. The lead vocal is appropriately evocative and soulful with some classic backing harmonies and fantastic blues guitar solos.

    • Factory Girl (Rhiannon Giddens) – This song reminded me remarkably of the version of “O Death” used at the opening of the game Until Dawn. The quiet drone behind the soaring vocal has all the staples of a traditional American folk song in the style of Ralph Stanley, but rather than being soulful and raspy the vocal is clean and refined, with a great sense of control. This is a great performance to evoke a particular mood, but it stays relatively one-note throughout.

    • House Of Mercy (Sarah Jarosz) – If “Factory Girl” sounds like something out of Until Dawn, this song sounds like it's straight out of The Last of Us. The male/female harmonies here are reminiscent of the Civil Wars, and the guitar playing really adds to the feeling of poignant desolation this song conveys.

    • Wreck You (Lori McKenna) – Considering the content of this song (see above), I think the performance is almost perfect. There's a proper feeling of depressing resignation in McKenna's voice, but I feel like the bridge, which is a plea for a solution that will magically fix everything, could sound more desperate and heightened emotionally. Then the final chorus would hit even harder with a feeling of stoic acceptance as McKenna realizes it's truly over.

    My favorite: House Of Mercy
    My pick: Wreck You

    Best Folk Album

    • Silver Skies Blue (Judy Collins & Ari Hest) – Judy Collins was one of the biggest female singers (along with Joan Baez) to come out of the American folk revival of the 60's. You can hear the experience and mastery of the genre in her voice, while her collaboration with Ari Hest helps to update and modernize the sound a bit (but thankfully not too much). Shades of James Taylor come through in the guitar tracks on this album, while the two-part vocal harmonies are reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel. This is actually my main complaint with the album, as every track sounds a bit derivative and it's quite easy to trace their seemingly limited influences. The exception to this might be the track “Run,” which I incidentally see as the high point of the album.

    • Upland Stories (Robbie Fulks) – This album definitely taps into the roots of southern folk music, with acoustic guitars, fiddles, and old-fashioned songwriting aplenty. The whole album might best be described as “wistful,” teetering back and forth between optimistic soundscapes and nostalgic longing for times past. Fulks pushes the limits of his vocal range from high to low (possibly to detriment on “America Is A Hard Religion”), but the real strength of the album comes when sparse, simple arrangements allow raw emotion to shine through (see: “Needed”). This is the kind of album your old-time antique store might play on loop.

    • Factory Girl (Rhiannon Giddens) – This 5-song EP is kind of all over the place. Even as someone who was in an a cappella group in college, I still can't quite wrap my head around “Mouth Music,” it's just kind of a mess. There's definitely a wide variety of styles on display here, but it doesn't make for a very cohesive album. The song “Factory Girl” might be the only worthwhile entry to listen to here.

    • Weighted Mind (Sierra Hull) – This might be the most musically rich nominee of this category, as it's made clear that Hull is a master of both songwriting and playing the mandolin. The whole album seems to be based around the theme of accepting yourself even as life throws its best and worst at you. It's occasionally confident, but always with a looming uncertainty. To get the best sense of this album at a glance, listen to the opening track (“Stranded”) and the closing track (“Black River,” which features backing vocals from Rhiannon Giddens and Allison Krauss), as they offer the perfect bookends to the emotional roller coaster of introspection this entry presents.

    • Undercurrent (Sarah Jarosz) – In good company with Hull's album, Undercurrent is a journey of self-discovery through the medium of music. The album runs the gamut of emotions in its exploration of life's great mysteries, from slow and dreamy tracks like “Green Light” and “Lost Dog” to bombastic cries of affirmation in “Comin' Undone.” Overall, the album ponders some heavy topics but manages to leave you with a feeling of optimism and joy.

    My favorite: Weighted Mind
    My pick: Upland Stories

    Best Contemporary Blues Album

    • The Last Days Of Oakland (Fantastic Negrito) – Rising back to prominence after winning NPR's Tiny Desk Concert Contest in 2015, the Oakland-based veteran of the ups and downs of the music industry promises to make “black roots music for everyone.” The intro here offers a good abstract for the album as a whole, which focuses on the gentrification of Oakland and the tensions in class and race which necessarily follow. But, as stated in this intro: “There's good in the old Oakland, there's good in the new Oakland, let's make a sandwich.” He uses traditional styles of blues and funk to frame the modern turmoil, showing a great respect for the influences that came before, straining his vocal chords in each song to convey every thought in his head. Punctuating the album are two interludes which, along with the intro, sample interviews about the climate in Oakland to drive his overall message home.

    • Love Wins Again (Janiva Magness) – Considering the category is all about the blues, this is an album that doesn't seem to fit in. Not to sound depressing, but the whole thing is just too happy. It definitely gives a vibe of uplifting inner strength as opposed to the usual turmoil that makes the blues so evocative. As a gospel-infused soul record this album is fairly competent, but as a blues record it fundamentally fails.

    • Bloodline (Kenny Neal) – In keeping with the title of the opening track, Kenny Neal is determined not to let the blues die. The whole album is a love letter to the great icons of the blues in the past, striving to let their legacy live on. But as such, this nominee feels like a cover band during blues night at the local bar. Definitely not bad, but also altogether unmemorable. I will say the track “I Go by Feel” is worth a listen as it highlight's Neal's strengths in the genre, but not much else on the album manages to shine through.

    • Give It Back To You (The Record Company) – This album has an unmistakable southern groove with a sound that provides a throwback to blues greats like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. But the album definitely has a more modern sensibility, too, as shown off by tracks like “On The Move” and “Give It Back To You” (which coincidentally begin with the exact same guitar chord). These tracks would sound at home on the album of a group like The Black Keys or The White Stripes with their modern rock take on roots-based blues.

    • Everybody Wants A Piece (Joe Louis Walker) – Walker manages to keep his music fresh by straying away from the typical 12 bars of blues, showing off some more classic rock and even occasional Latin influences in this album. However, pulling a from a variety of influences negatively affects the cohesiveness of the album, sometimes sounding like different bands from track to track. In particular, Walker's version of the classic spiritual “Wade In The Water” falls a bit flat. There's plenty of character in the vocal, but the backing arrangement doesn't quite seem to fit with the overall theme of the original. The bright spot in this entry is definitely the solo guitar work, as Walker proves his adeptness at blues, funk, and even 60's and 70's rock.

    My favorite: The Last Days of Oakland
    My pick: The Last Days of Oakland

    Best Americana Album

    • True Sadness (The Avett Brothers) – The Avett Brothers' 2009 album I And Love And You is something I still find myself listening to years later, but their latest entry into their discography is a continuation of their steady decline since the band's first major breakthrough. A band that used to be defined by an emotional vulnerability that allowed their audience to connect with them has become watered down to a point that's almost unrecognizable. “Satan Pulls The Strings” sounds like a song that Weezer would reject from one of their albums, “You Are Mine” has a bafflingly bouncy bass-synth, and “Divorce Separation Blues” has...yodeling. True Sadness, indeed.

    • This Is Where I Live (William Bell) – An R&B singer/songwriter out of the 70's, William Bell proves he still has his old chops with this Southern soul record. The songs manage to capture that vintage soul sound without stumbling into the area of cliché. The age in Bell's voice adds a sense of weight and experience to his delivery, letting the evocative lyrics hit even harder. The best example of this is the ballad “All Your Stories.” Every track on this album sounds different enough to feel fresh, but not so different as to muddle Bell's overarching contemplations about life and love.

    • The Cedar Creek Sessions (Kris Kristofferson) – Kristofferson has been a staple of southern folk and country music for over 50 years now, and a key figure in the “New Nashville” country movement of the 70's. While his impact on music is undeniable, I'm sad to say this album consists of 25 of his previously written songs, re-recorded over the course of just three days. The advanced age of Kristofferson adds a certain authority to these old songs just like it did with William Bell, but none of these recordings are the best versions of any of the songs. A cool collection to have if you're a fan of his, but not the “Best Americana Album” of the year by any stretch of the imagination. (Oh, how I hope I don't regret those words...)

    • The Bird & The Rifle (Lori McKenna) – Much like the opening track “Wreck You,” this entire album has a bittersweet feel to it, with a constant yearning to what might have been. If you listen too closely, you might end up devastated by the biting lyrical content that's hidden behind the warm guitar strums. This almost might qualify more as a country album than an Americana one, but the theme of being a woman trapped in an undesirable situation is right at home in this genre. Other than “Wreck You,” the high point for me in this album is the penultimate track “Always Want You.” McKenna's voice breaks occasionally, enhancing the feeling of vulnerability in a song that can change meaning depending on the context you bring to it as a listener.

    • Kid Sister (Vince Gill/The Time Jumpers) – As I previously mentioned, this album serves as a tribute to Dawn Sears, who lost her battle with cancer in 2014. Emotions are running high through this whole album, even though the vibe of the songs span a range from bouncy and hopeful to just downright depressing. Dawn Sears' vocals are still on the opening two tracks of the album, which only adds to the weight of her loss (especially the track “I Miss You”). Even though it's become a pseudo-theme song for the band in their live shows, “We're The Time Jumpers” feels a bit out of place here, especially coming directly after the opening two songs. Despite that, the whole album walks the listener through the highs and lows of love and loss, with a few welcome distractions to keep you from getting too down in the dumps.

    My favorite: The Bird & The Rifle
    My pick: The Bird & The Rifle

  • @CptHampton dude this is great where's the rest

  • @RyanBates Life has been getting in the way and shoving this lower on my list of priorities. I've still been listening to a lot of nominees so I'm ready to talk about them, I just need to scramble and actually get the posts done before Sunday.


    I'll be the first to admit that country music hasn't always been my cup of tea. Even more so than pop, I've mostly seen country as being formulaic pandering to its target demographic, almost like artists just go down a checklist of things they think country fans want them to sing about, ticking as many boxes as they can for a hit song. This particular brand of country is often referred to as “Nashville country,” as it's almost always produced by the major studios on Music Row. But ironically enough, moving to Nashville has actually warmed me up to the genre considerably. I still have a general distaste for the same type of music I did before, but being here has opened my eyes to the depth of what country music has to offer.

    I think a big reason as to why country is often on people's minds as “the one genre they don't like” is the songwriting style. Being very broad and generous here, other genres tend to focus on songs as poetry using extended metaphor to convey their message. A lot of country music, on the other hand, comes across as pure narrative and seems to lack depth. The songwriter will often describe the details of a story in their life in the hopes that they can connect to listeners with similar experiences. Country is a form of music that, in its simplest form, has been described as “three chords and a story.” Yes, in the wrong hands this can sometimes turn out bad music, but in the right hands it has the potential to create something utterly compelling that appeals to our deepest emotions.

    Best Country Song

    • Blue Ain't Your Color (Keith Urban) – While I don't love the performance (I'll get to that in the next section), I have to admit I kind of like the songwriting here. The melody and rhythm are catchy and singable. The actual lyrical content isn't necessarily bad, but it has a slight tinge of “white-knight syndrome” where the male protagonist thinks he can fix all of some girl's woes that must be caused by a man who doesn't know how to “treat her right.”

    • Die A Happy Man (Thomas Rhett) – Pretty straightforward lyrics here, the protagonist is so happy with the experiences he's had with his significant other that he doesn't need to seek satisfaction from anywhere else. While the simplicity helps convey the message really well, it also sounds a bit like a poem a teenager would write for his high school sweetheart.

    • Humble and Kind (Tim McGraw) – This song was originally written by Lori McKenna (see my “American Roots” post for all the praise I heap onto her) and her particular brand of country music shines here. Even if lyrics in country music are mostly narrative-driven, the lyrics here paint one hell of a picture. I want to pick out a line to quote, but find myself wanting to just quote the whole thing. Above all, the emotions here come across as simple, but genuine.

    • My Church (Maren Morris) – If country music has their own version of “woo girls,” this song was written for them. It's Katy Perry's “Roar” aimed at church-going, middle-aged, white Southern women. Maren Morris is a woman. She's not like other girls. She likes Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. She drives a car just to hear the radio. She admits small flaws, but she loves her life. “Can I get a Hallelujah?” That's about as deep as this song goes.

    • Vice (Miranda Lambert) – Now this song has some real teeth and emotional depth. It explores why we make decisions in our life that we know are wrong, as well as why we sometimes feel good about them even if they're “bad” for us. The lyrical details in the story-telling work really well here to let the weight of the message sink in.

    My favorite: Humble and Kind
    My pick: Vice

    Best Country Solo Performance

    • Love Can Go To Hell (Brandy Clark) – The banjo and drum pattern in the intro give a more bluegrass-y feel to the song, but once that first chorus hits the song becomes gleefully bombastic country with a biting, end-of-relationship message. Clark really sells it vocally, putting on a performance that outwardly shows someone who is apathetic and jaded, but every now and then little hints of her true emotions peek out through the cracks in the surface.

    • Vice (Miranda Lambert) – The opening is a really nice touch in this performance, using only the crackle of a vinyl record as backing while Lambert makes the comparison of a needle digging into a record as a painful necessity to hear beautiful music. The rest of the song is appropriately contemplative (with a pretty cool dark bass synth in the background at places). It really strikes the balance between gritty and clean, which mirrors the dilemma posed in the lyrics.

    • My Church (Maren Morris) – Despite my opinions on the song itself, I have to admit it's performed in a catchy enough way. Were I a church-going, middle-aged, white Southern woman I would probably be singing “Hallelujah” with my hands in the air at every chorus. Gospel harmonies and happy feelings abound, this is a pretty good way to package an otherwise shallow song.

    • Church Bells (Carrie Underwood) – This is where I have to come out of the closet: I love Carrie Underwood. Her songs aren't necessarily deep intellectual explorations of the human condition, but damn if she doesn't bring an energy that few others in her genre can even come close to. The vocal here is a powerhouse and the track is something that you can't help but tap along to.

    • Blue Ain't Your Color (Keith Urban) – With my thoughts on the writing out of the way, I have to say in different hands I would probably love this song. It has the vague feeling of something from Chris Stapleton's award-winning Traveller, but lacks the emotional conviction in both the vocal and instrumental performances to really strike the right emotional chord. The staccato quarter notes in the backing chords are especially out of place and make the song a bit too cheesy, highlighting the problems in songwriting rather than rising above them.

    My favorite: Church Bells
    My pick: Vice

    Best Country Duo/Group Performance

    • Different For Girls (Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King) – I have a bone to pick with the songwriting here, but this is in a performance category. Still, this song feels pretty bland and the performance doesn't really carry the weight necessary to sell it. Elle King is a singer who can really bring it, but her appearance here is wasted. It feels like this song could have replaced her with any halfway decent female vocalist without losing anything. I do like the string arrangement, the solo cello near the end is an especially nice touch, but apart from that there's really nothing to write home about in this song.

    • 21 Summer (Brothers Osbourne) – I'm really close to liking Brothers Osbourne, but there's something that's just not quite there yet for me. This performance is almost too tame. The vocals are pretty good, just slightly more subdued than they should be. The vocal choir in the background that mirrors the guitar solo feels a bit too pop-rock compared to the rest of the song. Overall it feels like the song is trying to balance a little too close to center, and I just wish they would take a hard right turn somewhere and really commit to it.

    • Setting The World On Fire (Kenny Chesney & P!nk) – Another wasted feature here. With P!nk (boy, I hate having to use symbols in the middle of an artist's name...) contributing, I'd hoped to hear a Kenny Chesney song that drifts in the direction of powerful pop-rock. Instead we get another bland performance that fails to live up to the emotions the song wants to convey. Based on the instrumentation present here in the drum pattern and guitar, I almost want to hear a pop-punk band like A Day To Remember cover it just so this song could be injected with some life.

    • Jolene (Pentatonix feat. Dolly Parton) – Dolly Parton is the queen of country music, and I'll fight anyone who dares to disagree. This is one of her classics, and her vocals are still as perfect as ever in this new rendition. Pentatonix, the group that made a cappella cool again, is also in really good form here (I could listen to Avi's buttery bass all day). The second half where the group takes over the main vocal and Dolly belts out ad libs over the top of them is definitely the highlight of this version. Old-fashioned? Yes. Amazing? Hell yeah.

    • Think Of You (Chris Young with Cassadee Pope) – Someone please tell me the intro of this song doesn't sound eerily similar to the Verizon Airwaves ring tone. Anyway, finally a song where the performers bring some energy! Young's and Pope's vocals both fit the vibe of this song perfectly, with Young showing off his smooth country baritone before flipping up the octave with some extra power. Pope even gets a chance to show off her vocal chops in the soaring bridge and outro. This song is a breath of fresh air in a relatively stale category.

    My favorite: Think Of You
    My pick: Jolene

    Best Country Album

    • Big Day In A Small Town (Brandy Clark) – If you want to pander to me personally as a critic, open your album like this one. An ethereal soundscape followed up by huge vocal harmonies just makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. As an album, this entry varies hugely in style from intimate songwriter pieces to stadium-esque barn burners. It varies emotionally as well, with some songs like “Broke” being brazenly humorous prods at country music culture, but others, like “Homecoming Queen,” being classic country character sketches that ultimately end in feelings of existential despair. The title track, “Big Day In A Small Town,” actually marries these concepts well, with an almost upbeat description of a high-schooler going into labor and a drunk driver crashing his pickup truck. The high point of this album is definitely its closing two tracks: “Drinkin' Smokin' Cheatin'” chronicles Clark's fantasies of how to (futilely) cope with the end of a soured relationship, and “Since You've Gone To Heaven” describes the devastating emotional fallout of losing a father. The impact of the album as a whole may be slightly lessened by the stylistic gymnastics on display, but nevertheless there's something to like about every song here.

    • Full Circle (Loretta Lynn) – Loretta Lynn is an icon of country music in the raw, gritty style of Johnny Cash. Now 83 years old, she uses this album as an opportunity to look back on both her career and on country music as a whole. It feels almost more like a time capsule than anything, with an artist who isn't afraid to recognize her own mortality. Most of the entries on this album aren't originals, but rather renditions of traditional and classic tunes of the past. Still, Lynn recasts and re-contextualizes these old tunes with a deftness and depth of experience that you can feel in every word and phrase. The sound on the record is straightforward and simple, but never to a detriment. It just feels right, as if there would be no other way for this particular artist to sing these particular songs. If you want to hear why Lynn is one of the greats that continues to influence artists to this day, this album is your one-stop-shop.

    • Hero (Maren Morris) – Hero doesn't have the sound of a traditional country album, but it also doesn't stumble into many of the same pitfalls that other cross-genre country find themselves trapped in. A lot of the songs feel almost like they were inspired by a reggae-rock-fusion that reminds me a little of No Doubt's albums of the 90's. “How It's Done” even has a modern, electronically-infused R&B vibe. That's not to say Morris doesn't show off any country chops, though. The genre crops up in most of the songs' choruses, as well as entries like “I Could Use A Love Song” and “I Wish I Was.” The varying styles even all gel relatively well across the whole album. As a modern pop album this is a fairly competent entry, I'm just not sure the voting members of the Academy will see it as “country.”

    • A Sailor's Guide To Earth (Sturgill Simpson) – Sturgill Simpson has proved time and time again that he's rooted in the sub-genre of “outlaw country,” but like a true outlaw he refuses to follow any traditional rulebook for the genre. This bold album acts as true “concept album,” the entirety of it serving as a father's instructions to his son on how to become a man and navigate through life. The opening to the album is immaculate (again, critic-bait for me) with appropriately cosmic-sounding synths breaking into a gorgeous piano line. The album itself is drenched with classic 70's style psychedelic rock and soul, but Simpson makes it clear that his goal is to push music forward rather than bank on nostalgic revivalism. It does have a few songs that can pretty be safely categorized as country (“Breakers Roar,” “Sea Stories,” and “Oh Sarah”), but like with Hero, I don't know if this album exactly fits in the genre. Still, regardless of what genre you might end up trying to classify it as, this is one hell of an album that definitely deserves a listen. Luckily it happens to be nominated in another small category...but more on that later.

    • Ripcord (Keith Urban) – Yet another entry that pushes the boundaries of what might be considered country music in the modern-day, Urban isn't afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve in this album. Hell, one of the songs is a collaboration with Nile Rodgers (the disco-era guitarist featured throughout Daft Punk's Random Access Memories) and Mr. Worldwide himself, Pitbull. The beats throughout this album are obviously hip-hop and R&B inspired with Urban's signature country-pop vocals laid over the top. As someone who's never really been a huge fan of Urban, I actually like this departure from mainstream country as an experiment to see what kind of music can arise out of otherwise disparate genres. Overall though, it feels like he's grasping at something that's just barely out of his reach. This album comes dangerously close to something special, so look for his next one to see if he can hit a home run.

    My favorite: A Sailor's Guide To Earth
    My pick: Full Circle

  • Modern Country is beyond bland, and in recent years, you can barely distinguish it from Pop. Classic 50's and 60's Country is the way to go.

  • @Oscillator There are still artists making the classic style of country out there. Unfortunately you just have to look farther than what they decide to play on the radio.

  • PART 4 – RAP

    In a way, rap is music in its rawest and simplest form. You have a beat, and you have lyrics. Those are the only two things that matter. The spotlight shines directly on the performer and the message they want to convey to the listening audience. That being said, the message isn't always that substantial. Many of the more popular rap songs seem to serve mainly as braggadocious remarks on the rapper's success and fame. Not only that, but with the modern trend toward beat-fetishism, the lyrics don't even really matter that much as long as the beat “hits hard.”

    That being said, a song or album in a rap category has a lot to prove to win a Grammy Award. The relatively new genre only joined the “mainstream” categories in 1989, and the the genre as an art form has evolved in an exponential way since the early days when DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith won their award for “Parents Just Don't Understand.” Now, rap music needs to have a clear and poignant message in the lyrics that is propped up by, but not obscured by, an amazing backing track. With extremely small recognition outside genre-specific awards, rap seems to have to go the extra mile to be seen as “worthy” by the old guard of music among the Recording Academy.

    Best Rap Song

    • All The Way Up (Fat Joe & Remy Ma) – This song definitely qualifies as a self-congratulatory anthem of success. Gold chains, big houses, and brands are ubiquitous in these lyrics that describe how it feels to be on top. That's great for Fat Joe, but I don't think I can consider this a work of lyrical genius.

    • Famous (Kanye West) – This song at least has the self-awareness to try to subvert the shouts of success in other rap songs. Kanye has no problems recognizing how successful he's been, but he uses that success as a lens to realize how people might tend to use him for that success in an attempt to claim their own 15 minutes of fame.

    • Hotline Bling (Drake) – Drake comes across as a pretty depressing guy in most of his songs. This song is no different, as the Degrassi wunderkind laments a broken relationship with someone he has gradually lost touch with.

    • No Problem (Chance The Rapper) – Chance, a nominee for the year's Best New Artist, uses this song to criticize record labels for trying to stifle his artistry and change him into something more marketable. The best verse actually might be from contributing artist 2 Chainz, which opens by pointing out the silly caricatures that can often emerge when executives try to waywardly guide an artist's creative vision onto a different course.

    • Ultralight Beam (Kanye West) – This is probably the most truly poetic out the nominees in this category. Kanye uses the significance of a guiding beam of light common in Christian theology as the key theme. The light can reveal and lead, but it can also expose and disorient.

    My favorite: Ultralight Beam
    My pick: Ultralight Beam

    Best Rap Performance

    • No Problem (Chance The Rapper feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz) – With the lyrical content behind this song already discussed, it shouldn't go without mention that you can feel the conviction behind the words in these performers. The frustration and anger is real and manages to come across as justified rather than petty.

    • Panda (Desiigner) – Is it enough for me to say I just really don't like this song? It seems like it's here just because it was popular last year. I can't understand half of what he's saying and the song is littered with honestly really strange noises shouted and screeched in the background. Please don't win.

    • Pop Style (Drake feat. The Throne (Jay-Z & Kanye West)) – I'd like to say this is a nice break from Drake's more dreary, sung R&B-style tracks about bad relationships and unrequited love, but this really isn't much of an improvement. The rap comes across as sleepy and slow, with not enough lyrical density to feel like Drake (or even the featured artists) are really giving anything close to their all.

    • All The Way Up (Fat Joe & Remy Ma feat. French Montana & Infrared) – As far as bragging raps go, Fat Joe at least really sounds pleased with himself. It's almost as if he's using the performance to vent any frustration he's had in past for not reaching the success he felt he deserved, and this song acts as a moment of catharsis from the top of the mountain.

    • THat Part (ScHoolboy Q feat. Kanye West) – Unlike “Pop Style,” this song feels like it has a firm grasp on how to present down-tempo rap. There are actual dynamics in the performance from ScHoolboy Q, but it does feel like this particular style is a bit outside of Kanye's strength. The emphasis he puts on the end of lines borders on squeaky and unsettling rather than impactful.

    My favorite: THat Part
    My pick: No Problem

    Best Rap/Sung Performance

    • Freedom (Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar) – You can just feel the power in this song from both of these amazing performers. The Queen and Kendrick are both artists that might be considered untouchable, and every line in this song hits exactly the right emotion and energy. Listen to this song. Now. Use the free trial on Tidal just for this one song if you have to.

    • Hotline Bling (Drake) – Like “Pop Style,” this is ultimately Drake doing what Drake does best with overall depressing energy punctuated by moments of sheer pain. It is slightly more dynamic than some of his other performances, but ultimately the performance doesn't manage to convincingly sell the content of the song itself.

    • Broccoli (D.R.A.M. feat. Lil Yachty) – There's a weird dissonance in this song I'm not sure I can fully wrap my head around. The backing track is bouncy and light, and D.R.A.M.'s parts of the song match it really well in a way that reminds me a bit of Biz Markie's “Just A Friend.” But Lil Yachty's sections are in stark contrast: he sounds half-asleep, a little sad, or both.

    • Ultralight Beam (Kanye West feat. Chance The Rapper, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin & The-Dream) – The gospel-inspired lyrics are matched completely by the performance from all parties in this song. The entirety of it shows these artists as if they're experiencing a true revelation, and the amazing sung parts by The-Dream and Kelly Price make you feel like you're part of the congregation witnessing the best sermon of your life.

    • Famous (Kanye West feat. Rihanna) – I think Rihanna manages to outshine Kanye on this one. Her voice encapsulates the personification of fame in the hooks with the necessary balance of gratitude and a hint of desire to know what it's like to be back on the other side. Kanye definitely isn't bad on this track, as he carries through his signature style that he perfected way back on MBDTF, but Rihanna is definitely what got this song the nomination here.

    My favorite: Freedom
    My pick: Freedom

    Best Rap Album

    • Coloring Book (Chance The Rapper) – This album is steeped in gospel blues through and through. Chance manages throughout to take thoughtful, provoking lyrics that would give Kendrick Lamar a run for his money and set them against a backdrop of finding a hope in a time where it sometimes seems like there might not much left to hope for. It seems like the track “No Problem” wouldn't fit in here as it breaks with the general spiritual theme of rest of the album, but the message of transcending above the expectations of others actually fits really well and gives the album an added dimension to ponder.

    • And The Anonymous Nobody (De La Soul) – This group has been pushing the boundaries of what can be done in the genre for close to 30 years now. Other than a mixtape in 2009, they've all but disappeared from the hip-hop scene until this release. Unfortunately it seems like the hiatus might not have been time well-spent. The album is absolutely a shining example of old-school rap, but it seems like the group has eschewed trends that have come and gone since their inception to just stick with what they know. The album has a continuous motif of struggle and frustration, but in listening to it in the grand scheme of the genre, one gets the feeling that the group's trials and tribulations can be chalked up to their unwillingness to evolve in a corner of music that has long since left them behind.

    • Major Key (DJ Khaled) – More than the other nominees in this category, Major Key feels a bit too much like an attempt by DJ Khaled to cater to hip-hop radio listeners rather than deliver much real substance. Over the 14 tracks on this album, I count 35 features; no song has Khaled on his own. He holds his own in some of these songs, like “I Got the Keys,” but then isn't even present on “Nas Album Done” aside from a role as a hype-man in the background. Some songs (“Pick Those Hoes Apart,” “Work It”) seem like they're just there to pander to the lowest common denominator as desperate hail mary plays for hits just in case his album actually isn't as good as he hopes it is.

    • Views (Drake) – I've already mentioned how Drake is often typecast as the soft, introspective, friend-zoned member of the rap community. This album seems to play into that full force rather than try to break away from it. What results is generally more of the same Drake that we've already heard over the past few years. The album is overall pretty dull, not helped by the fact that it's really long. There are small moments of enjoyable music, but it's buried under so many layers of self-introspection, which comes off as drab and mundane rather than profound, that it's difficult to get excited about looking out for them.

    • Blank Face LP (ScHoolboy Q) – This album feels a little bit bipolar, but that actually works more to its benefit than to its detriment. Q's style might best be described as hardcore rap, but that doesn't stop some of the tracks from having a dream-like, down-tempo trap beat. He doesn't shy away from coming off as self-indulgent, but does so in a way that somehow feels genuine and aware of not straying too far in that direction. His flow is all over the place, yet also finely honed as if every oddity was meticulously planned out rather than improvised. This particular brand of rap might not have broad appeal, but in his own little corner of the genre ScHoolboy Q produces an album that demands to be listened to.

    • The Life Of Pablo (Kanye West) – The Life Of Pablo and Coloring Book are both similar in that they fuse modern hip-hop with classic gospel roots. But while Chance's entry has a fairly clear and coherent message, Pablo seems to just be a deep dive into the wildly unfocused mind of Kanye. That sounds like a criticism, but it's actually what makes this album great. There are feelings of uncertainty mixed in with an unshakable sense of self-worth, and a pervasive humor undercut with moments of introspective sobriety. The result is an unshakable, rambling energy that carries the listener through the album. This record doesn't feel like Kanye is trying to make any great leaps forward to re-invent himself and transform the genre like some of his previous work; instead it seems like a manic artist at the top of his finally trying to find comfort with the place he has been given in history.

    My favorite: Blank Face LP
    My pick: The Life Of Pablo

  • PART 5 – R&B

    Unfortunately, time has caught up with me and there's no way I'll be able to finish all of these posts before the actual awards happen. I've listened to all of the nominees and I'm making this post as a placeholder and to mark my favorites and picks to win. I will come back and give full reviews like the other categories soon, I promise!

    Best R&B Song

    • Come And See Me (PARTYNEXTDOOR)

    • Exchange (Bryson Tiller)

    • Kiss It Better (Rihanna)

    • Lake By The Ocean (Maxwell)

    • Luv (Tory Lanez)

    My favorite: Exchange
    My pick: Lake By The Ocean

    Best R&B Performance

    • Turnin' Me Up (BJ The Chicago Kid)

    • Permission (Ro James)

    • I Do (Musiq Soulchild)

    • Needed Me (Rihanna)

    • Cranes In The Sky (Solange)

    My favorite: Cranes In The Sky
    My pick: Needed Me

    Best R&B Album

    • In My Mind (BJ The Chicago Kid)

    • Lalah Hathaway Live! (Lalah Hathaway)

    • Velvet Portraits (Terrace Martin)

    • Healing Season (Mint Condition)

    • Smoove Jones (Mýa)

    My favorite: In My Mind
    My pick: Velvet Portraits

    Best Urban Contemporary Album

    • Lemonade (Beyoncé)

    • Ology (Galant)

    • We Are King (KING)

    • Malibu (Anderson .Paak)

    • Anti (Rihanna)

    My favorite: Ology
    My pick: Lemonade

  • PART 6 – ROCK

    Unfortunately, time has caught up with me and there's no way I'll be able to finish all of these posts before the actual awards happen. I've listened to all of the nominees and I'm making this post as a placeholder and to mark my favorites and picks to win. I will come back and give full reviews like the other categories soon, I promise!

    Best Rock Song

    • Blackstar (David Bowie)

    • Burn The Witch (Radiohead)

    • Hardwired (Metallica)

    • Heathens (Twenty One Pilots)

    • My Name Is Human (Highly Suspect)

    My favorite: Burn The Witch
    My pick: Blackstar

    Best Rock Performance

    • Joe (Live From Austin City Limits) (Alabama Shakes)

    • Don't Hurt Yourself (Beyoncé feat. Jack White)

    • Blackstar (David Bowie)

    • The Sound Of Silence (Live On Conan) (Disturbed)

    • Heathens (Twenty One Pilots)

    My favorite: Don't Hurt Yourself
    My pick: Blackstar

    Best Alternative Music Album

    • 22, A Million (Bon Iver)

    • Blackstar (David Bowie)

    • The Hope Six Demolition Project (PJ Harvey)

    • Post Pop Depression (Iggy Pop)

    • A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead)

    My favorite: 22, A Million
    My pick: Blackstar

    Best Rock Album

    • California (Blink-182)

    • Tell Me I'm Pretty (Cage The Elephant)

    • Magma (Gojira)

    • Death Of A Bachelor (Panic! At The Disco)

    • Weezer (Weezer)

    My favorite: California
    My pick: Tell Me I'm Pretty

  • PART 7 – POP

    Unfortunately, time has caught up with me and there's no way I'll be able to finish all of these posts before the actual awards happen. I've listened to all of the nominees and I'm making this post as a placeholder and to mark my favorites and picks to win. I will come back and give full reviews like the other categories soon, I promise!

    Best Pop Solo Performance

    • Hello (Adele)

    • Hold Up (Beyoncé)

    • Love Yourself (Justin Bieber)

    • Piece By Piece (Idol Version) (Kelly Clarkson)

    • Dangerous Woman (Ariana Grande)

    My favorite: Piece By Piece
    My pick: Hello

    Best Pop Duo/Group Performance

    • Closer (The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey)

    • 7 Years (Lukas Graham)

    • Work (Rihanna feat. Drake)

    • Cheap Thrills (Sia feat. Sean Paul)

    • Stressed Out (Twenty One Pilots)

    My favorite: Closer
    My pick: Closer

    Best Pop Vocal Album

    • 25 (Adele)

    • Purpose (Justin Bieber)

    • Dangerous Woman (Ariana Grande)

    • Confident (Demi Lovato)

    • This Is Acting (Sia)

    My favorite: 25
    My pick: 25


    Unfortunately, time has caught up with me and there's no way I'll be able to finish all of these posts before the actual awards happen. I've listened to all of the nominees and I'm making this post as a placeholder and to mark my favorites and picks to win. I will come back and give full reviews like the other categories soon, I promise!

    Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical

    • Are You Serious (Andrew Bird)

    • Blackstar (David Bowie)

    • Dig In Deep (Bonnie Raitt)

    • Hit N Run Phase Two (Prince)

    • Undercurrent (Sarah Jarosz)

    My favorite: Undercurrent
    My pick: Are You Serious

    Producer of the Year, Non-Classical

    • Benny Blanco

    • Greg Kurstin

    • Max Martin

    • Nineteen85

    • Ricky Reed

    My favorite: Benny Blanco
    My pick: Max Martin


    This is what it really all comes down to. 84 categories, but the vast majority of the focus leading up to and following the Grammys is always these 4 “General” categories. These are the 4 that Grammy-focused artists really strive for, and they almost make the other 80 feel like consolation prizes for a good effort. If you read or hear a news story about the awards show the day after the Grammys, it will probably be about who came away as winners in these major categories.

    There are a few housekeeping things before we take the dive into the nominees. First, “Best New Artist” is a pretty silly title for a category. None of these artists are new, nor are any of the nominees in this category ever truly new. This award is focused on artists who had their first breakout success this year, which in itself is vague and open to a lot of interpretation when it comes to the nomination process. Second, “Record of the Year” is a bit more inclusive than the “Performance” categories in specific genres. Not only does this award honor the artists performing on the song, but also every level of production that went into it.

    Best New Artist

    • Kelsea Ballerini – This pop-country artist reminds me a little of a cross between Carrie Underwood and early Taylor Swift. She can provide an energy and level of vocal control and clarity that's a small step below the chops of Underwood, but also brings to the table an ear for singer-songwriter country hooks and lyrics. Her song “Peter Pan” is what really catapulted her to widespread fame, and it's definitely a better song than the awful song about the same subject this year by Ruth B.

    • The Chainsmokers – These guys started as what seemed like a one-hit wonder a few years ago with the bizzare single “Selfie.” However, they proved this year that they have a lot more to provide to music than mindless, unpalatable dance hits. Their strength follows the modern trend of introspective, chill electronic music with powerful vocal hooks. If you remove the awful “drop” in “Don't Let Me Down,” I actually enjoy every song they've put out this past year.

    • Chance The Rapper – Chance has been steadily gaining an underground following for the past few years, but this was undoubtedly the year he was thrust into the limelight. Not only did he release his amazing and soulful rap album Coloring Book, he also co-wrote what many rap fans believe to be the best album of the year, The Life of Pablo. His style is such that he makes his influences transparent (Kanye West, Common, and Lupe Fiasco might be the easiest to pick out), but he manages to mold it into something that is solely his.

    • Maren Morris – Morris this year came to prominence with her album Hero, which shows off her ability to mix country and soul and wrap it in a pop-friendly package. She occasionally has a grit and rawness in her voice that can be likened to Elle King, but her songwriting and production style are such that they challenge radio stations not to play her songs.

    • Anderson .Paak – I've been following Anderson .Paak since he produced the album All You Can Do by Watsky back in 2014. He then followed that production up by featuring as a rapper on numerous tracks on Dr. Dre's Compton. Since then, he has proved that he can deftly apply his ear for production into his own songwriting. His music feels open, mellow, and well-paced, which serve him well for songs that demand focus on the thematically dense lyrics. If you need a quick primer on Anderson .Paak, listen to my favorite track of his, “The Season / Carry Me” from 2015.

    My favorite: Anderson .Paak
    My pick: The Chainsmokers

    Song of the Year

    • Formation (Beyoncé) – This song is very much on the pulse of modern-day social politics, serving as an firm embrace of blackness in a nation and world where racial tension is on everyone's mind. Beyoncé takes full ownership of African-American stereotypes, showing that differences in culture are special and unique rather than aspects that need to be hidden or polished away. My favorite line is simultaneously humorous and biting, taking her man to Red Lobster for a treat, or perhaps a ride on her chopper instead. She shows she can own up to cultural norms that might be used to mock or ridicule, and makes it clear that the same culture used as a punchline is also one that can find overwhelming success despite the artificial obstacles.

    • Hello (Adele) – This is Adele back in fighting form after the hiatus coming off the success of her previous album. It tells a story from the perspective of someone reaching out to one of her past relationships, possibly in an effort to rekindle it and possibly in an effort to just gain some closure with her own demons High Fidelity style. The seemingly futile attempt at reconciliation comes across as being directed inward, as if she's been reflecting on her past and full of regret and how her choices have affected her personally.

    • I Took A Pill In Ibiza (Mike Posner) – Most of you probably know this song from the remix that played on the radio at the height of the single, but the original is actually a slow acoustic guitar ballad (don't bother looking it up, the remix is better). Posner, an artist that was essentially a flash-in-the-pan success nearly a decade ago, uses this song to contemplate if an artist has anything to look forward to once they pass their 15 minutes of fame. The lines dig deep to the core and actually manage to make you feel sorry for someone that you otherwise wouldn't have a shred of sympathy for.

    • Love Yourself (Justin Bieber) – A song that is very clearly co-written by Ed Sheeran, Bieber simultaneously shows a caring and a bitter side here. The double-meaning is most apparent in the title hook: listen to the song once with the phrase “Love Yourself” as a urge to find happiness for yourself before seeking to get it from a relationship, then again with the word “love” as if it's a SFW placeholder for an expletive synonym. The contrast is stark on both listens, and the only thing that changes is audience perspective.

    • 7 Years (Lukas Graham) – This is not a well-written song. Its best line is the first one, and it's all downhill from there. What could have been a good exploration into feelings of inadequacy and the pressures of striving for greatness instead turns into a list of humble-brags that only give off the illusion of depth.

    My favorite: I Took A Pill In Ibiza
    My pick: Hello

    Record of the Year

    • Hello (Adele) – Adele is Adele. No one else can be Adele, which is why Adele is so good at being Adele. The vocals are soulful, dynamic and gutting. I will say this was the first Adele song where I really noticed her accent. I first heard this song on the radio and started in the middle of the chorus. I thought the words were “Hollow from the outside,” which I thought was kind of cool imagery but didn't think it made much sense. The song booms where it needs to, backs off where it needs to, and the background vocals are absolutely on point.

    • Formation (Beyoncé) – There are some songs where Beyoncé shows off her amazing vocal range and character. There are other songs where she puts that talent aside to just be plain fierce. This falls into the latter category. There's a palpable mix of anger and cockiness both in her vocal and the beat that fits the song perfectly.

    • 7 Years (Lukas Graham) – You're already starting off with a poorly-written song as a base. Add in the lead singer's squeaky, shrill tenor and a pop-rock track that sounds like it belongs 15 years in the past and I'm baffled how this made it into any category. The music box playing the theme at the beginning is a fairly nice touch, at least.

    • Work (Rihanna feat. Drake) – It's a bit odd that of all the Rihanna songs, this is the one to get a performance nomination. The instrumental loop is a slick work of production by Boi-1da, but Rihanna's lyrics are infamously impossible to interpret without looking at the words as she goes. Maybe that's somehow the point, but it doesn't come across very well. Drake is undoubtedly at his best when collaborating with Rihanna, and there's definitely that same track chemistry here. Still, I can't quite tell what I'm supposed to extract from this song.

    • Stressed Out (Twenty One Pilots) – This song could act as an anthem for millenials. A desire to go back in time not only to be a kid again, but to avoid being an adult in 2016 was the theme of a lot of music this past year, and this track was pretty much leading the charge. The warmth and easy pace give you a desire for the song's description of security, but the track succeeds in keeping itself just barely too complex and deep to let you actually achieve it. Admittedly though, many listeners are probably confused by the seemingly bizarre references to the “Blurryface” character and the pitched-down vocals at the end.

    My favorite: Stressed Out
    My pick: Hello

    Album of the Year

    • 25 (Adele) – First of all, this album has one hell of a credits list in terms of producers: past Producer of the Year winners Paul Epworth, Max Martin, and Danger Mouse as well as past nominees in that category Greg Kurstin, Ariel Rechtshaid, The Smeezingtons and Ryan Tedder. It also helps that Adele took home 6 awards in her last Grammy outing in 2012. Speaking of that huge win for her, it's impossible to look at this album without comparing it to 21. It's very similar in sound, but shifts in overall theme to more retrospective and wistful. It's not as good as 21 was, but that doesn't mean it's not amazing.

    • Lemonade (Beyoncé) – This album is just so many things at the same time. It presents an emotional roller coaster that spans genres and has Beyoncé absolutely killing it on every track. I don't care what kind of music you like or don't like, there has to be at least one track on this album you would give a thumbs up to.

    • Purpose (Justin Bieber) – If all pop artists can make this kind of transition and shift in focus, the radio might actually become a reliable source for quality music. I'm not saying this album is the height of pop or anything, but just compare any song on this album to any song on his other albums. Bieber takes some big risky swings here, and while there are a few strikes and not many deep balls, he's pretty consistently hitting doubles to left-center and batting in some runs.

    • Views (Drake) – If you take Drake out of the “rap” categories and are allowed to hear this album in the wider context of music, it holds up a little better. The introspective R&B vibe feels more at home among some of the nominees in this category (Purpose especially) and the rapping sections of these songs aren't what pulls in a mainstream audience anyway. Still, couldn't this album just be a few songs shorter? No re-contextualization can change the fact that this entire album is a chore to get through with its tiresome, limited emotional range.

    • A Sailor's Guide To Earth (Sturgill Simpson) – Similar to Views, this album has enough fringe influences that it reviews better in a genre-less category rather than being tossed in the “country” pile. I've already said I love this album. I wish it would win, and the fact that Beck won against Beyoncé in 2015 gives me a sliver of hope. But this Beyoncé album is better, plus there's the small matter of a new Adele album to contend with. You'll always be special to me, at least, Sturgill.

    My favorite: A Sailor's Guide To Earth
    My pick: Lemonade


    The biggest night in music has come and gone, so it's time to give some final thoughts on the event that essentially gave me the inspiration to start this blog. I'll start with some thoughts on the actual winners that came away on top, and end with how my picks and favorites lined up with the results.

    For the 4 general categories, pretty much everybody knew that it would be a battle between Adele and Beyoncé. I hedged my bets between the two of them (I do legitimately think Lemonade was more deserving than 25, but admittedly that could just be my absolute love of 21 tainting my opinion of Adele's new album). Adele swept the big 3, and Chance The Rapper took Best New Artist in a surprise to me over the undeniably more popular Chainsmokers.

    When it came to categories in the rock genre, I had a pretty good feeling the late David Bowie would sweep them all. I don't think those nominees were necessarily the best in their categories, but they were still very good and the outpouring of love after Bowie's death locked them in as safe picks.

    I guess I underestimated how much people still like Drake, despite how often he's picked on by many hip-hop and R&B fans. Best Rap Song is a pill I can almost swallow, even though I think the songwriting is tame compared to the rest of the genre which is defined by lyrical dexterity. For performance, however, I can't wrap my head around how he beat Beyoncé/Kendrick, Kanye/Chance, AND Kanye/Rihanna.

    I am unbelievably glad Sturgill Simpson won for Best Country Album, albeit pretty surprised. He has been pretty outspoken about his distaste for modern country music and didn't receive a single nomination at the 2016 CMAs (two facts which might be strongly linked), so I didn't think members of the Academy voting in the country categories would give him a fair shake.

    I'm a little ashamed I missed the mark on both “Production” categories I followed, since that's the area of music I'm most interested in. I guess I should have carried over my “Bowie wins everything this year” mentality for album engineering, and I shouldn't have underestimated how much an Adele album can carry a producer. Mainly I'm surprised that Max Martin, a man who has now produced 20 number one hits, still only has a single Producer of the Year Grammy to show for his two decades of churning out hit songs.

    Now let's see how well I was able to pick out who would win, as well as how my personal favorites performed at the awards cermony:

    • My picks to win: 15/33 (45%) Considering completely random picks would approach 20%, I'm fairly happy with this result, although there are a few more winners I should have seen coming.

    • My favorites that won: 6/33 (18%) I predicted 6 of my favorites to be winners, although only 2 of those actually won and there were 4 that I was pleasantly surprised with.

    • Best category: Rock 4/4 (100%) I said it before, Bowie was a safe pick this year

    • Worst category: Production 0/2 (0%) ...oops.

    So thanks for sticking with me through this crazy experiment to start a music review blog! Now that it's over I can begin doing actual, full reviews of albums one at a time rather than five (or fifteen) short ones at a time. Look forward to the first one this Friday! (Assuming I can actually stick to my regular schedule, that is...)

    If you're reading this message right now, I am still working on the mini-reviews for some of the different categories I had to skip in order to get all my picks in before the Grammys aired. I'll get them up as soon as I can, but if you're still reading this in March you might want to send help (in the form of some focus and self-discipline).

  • REVIEW – EDEN – i think you think too much of me

    EDEN - ityttmom
    (Released August 19, 2016)

    EDEN, formerly known as The Eden Project, is the performing alias of Irish producer and singer-songwriter Jonathon Ng. Under the title of The Eden Project, Ng focused primarily on the production of EDM tracks, specifically dubstep and electro-house, but gradually began to show his talents for lyricism and arrangement and made more use of his amazing voice. With the name change in 2015, EDEN pulled the focus away from dance-oriented tracks into the realm of indie pop-rock, while still retaining the liberal use of electronic sound design. His music incorporated more organic instrumentation layered over ambient soundscapes reminiscent of a band like M83, and he forced much more of the listener's concentration on his lyrics and vocal arrangements.

    i think you think too much of me is the second EP released by EDEN, the first being 2015's End Credits EP. Ng makes it clear from the first instant of this project that he's moving even further from his strictly electronic roots, starting off the opening track “sex” with a thumping drum beat (from an actual, irl drum kit) and huge sustained piano chords. It's pure indie pop that would find itself in good company with the likes of Bastille or Walk The Moon.

    That first track just lies on one end of the wide spectrum this album provides, however. The other end of the spectrum comes immediately after with the track “drugs.” In stark contrast to the opener, this song is brooding and chaotic with heavy electronic synths. Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, or maybe on a different spectrum entirely, lies the second half of side A, “and” and “rock + roll.” “and” is almost more experimental and sparsely produced, while “rock + roll” shows some heavy influences from classic rock and R&B.

    Side B is a bit of an oddity, as it contains three remastered versions of songs Ng penned as The Eden Project. These versions are better than their original releases, with rising star Gnash even filling in on the previously instrumental-only second verse of “Fumes,” but they seem a bit tacked-on in an attempt to extend the album's run time. Since End Credits EP featured nothing but original songs (7 in total), it's a bit of a disappointment that we only get 4 originals from EDEN this time around.

    Where this EP really shines is in its lyrics. All of the songs, even the 3 on side B, are incredibly focused on that aspect, which Ng must now realize is one of his greatest strengths as an artist. The songs are all lyrically-dense and brutally honest. You could pull pretty much any single line out of any one of these tracks and see its depth, even out of context (and it gets even deeper when you add the context back in). “sex” and “XO” are similar in that they're almost anti-love songs. In both, EDEN presents himself as the member of a relationship who isn't really putting in the effort to keep it strong, and the two songs almost offer a different perspective about how that starting point may evolve. “rock + roll” and “Circles” are my favorite offerings lyrically, as they dive deep on introspection about how to navigate life and live up to expectations.

    The production is immaculate on every track, although Ng seems to enjoy adding distortion to his voice in sections where he's shouting. This can get a little heavy-handed to the point where you can't tell what he's singing, which is a shame since those parts are often the most emotionally intense. And even though each track sounds fantastic, there's little to no thematic glue holding them together. Other than the sequential titles, side A may as well be a collection of singles much like side B. This is especially disappointing because End Credits EP was incredibly well constructed as a whole, with excellent transitions between tracks and recurring lyrical and instrumental themes.

    If you've never listened to any post-EDM, “indie electronic” music, then EDEN is definitely a fantastic starting point. The two EPs he's put out under this project name are absolutely at the top of their class. Even if ityttmom doesn't quite live up to it's predecessor (which is available for free download, so there's really no excuse), it's laudable in that it shows EDEN stepping even further away from the comfort zone of EDM and demonstrates to a listener better than ever who he truly is as an artist.

    Favorite tracks: rock + roll, Circles, drugs
    Least favorite: none

    Score: 4/5 stars - Excellent

    EZA 4