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album picks

Album Review: Austin Mahone - The Secret
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Album Review: Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
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Album Review: Sam Smith - In The Lonely Hour
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Having just turned 18, it's a little disconcerting yet intriguing to see that YouTube star Austin Mahone coming out with a mini-album that reeks of the sound of the 90s boyband era, but that is what he has done with The Secret.

As a fan of pop music in the 90s, with Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys dominating the airwaves, it was a familiar sound, although with upgraded EDM productions supplementing the tracks Mahone performs. Title track Secrets was definitely heavily influenced by old school, but also implementing new school musicalities.

Throughout the eight-track album, there is however hardly a solid personality that I am seeing of Mahone. Being compared to Justin Bieber might be a tough stretch, but I can see the similarities, although it feels like Mahone is playing safe to see the audience's reception of him and his music before deciding what to be marketed as. It's a fluidity that doesn't bode him well currently, as it seems to dilute his charm as a singer/songwriter.

While I can't say much for the songwriting of the album, All I Ever Need has a soothing melody with ethereal synths, while Mmm Yeah, which features Pitbull, is a viral hit online. I can see why, as it is a really catchy dance, club number, as can be expected from the maestro Pitbull, but does not seem to suit Mahone's young, innocent image.

What About Love is probably my favourite out of the lot, seeing as how it harks back to the Nsync days, and since we can't get a piece of those boys anymore any time soon, we best settle for someone like Austin Mahone for now.

Track Cuts: All I Ever Need, Mmm Yeah, Secrets, What About Love

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We deliberately didn't write a review immediately after the album's release - Lana Del Rey's sophomore album, Ultraviolence, is a cultural event in itself and is too important to respond to quickly.

Lana Del Rey drips pastiche and style and while it’s not Born To Die Part Two, there is real substance to this album. Deliberately avoiding shimmer pop in favour of dark, moody narratives littered with glamorous ciphers, the album is in so many ways a triumph of substance over style. This is, after all, a construction. The 28-year-old Queen of gloom constructs a persona significantly older than herself, more jaded, so it’s less easy to ‘believe’ in the narratives at times – but that has never really been the point.

Ultraviolence is a construction – you only have to find the ‘first three albums’ on the internet to appreciate that she tried a range of options and personas before settling and deciding what ‘Lana Del Rey’ was going to be – and it’s as great and far more meaningful than the mediocrities your average pop starlet mindlessly regurgitates. This is a real attempt at creating something meaningful and tangible, a quality product.

The Gangsta Nancy, 1950’s parody remains intact. It’s a product, and a fantastic one at that. Let’s applaud the fact we have something here that is unique. The tone is significantly blacker than Born To Die – there is little obvious joy and there lies the slight problem for me – there is little light in this darkened heart. The album has one pace and maybe a few higher, lighter notes would have helped. Lana Del Rey has a superlative lower range and she foregoes this often in favour of the higher, tremblier, breathless range.

That said, I have to hit the edit button far less here than on Born to Die where the kooky girlie pop got clichéd. The bonus tracks are worth checking out particularly the (very dark) dance comedy of Florida Kilos.

Thank you Lizzie Grant for giving us Lana Del Rey.

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For some soulful melancholia with an intense Brit flavour, you might want to suss out Sam Smith's debut In the Lonely Hour. Having first had a taste of success lending his falsettos to Disclosure's single Latch (a synth-heavy, sensual number), he has since garnered enough traction to release his own single Money on My Mind earlier this year. The latter track is a personal ode, speaking of his passion for music and not having money on his mind - a sense of righteousness seems to envelop this song, and while it is understandable, the hook is as lazy as it comes. It's catchy all right, but feels a little too uninspired, for lack of a better word. With a set of pipes like Smith's, you'd expect better.

The simplicity works however, in Stay With Me, probably the song of the album. With a clean piano riff, and his sleek set of vocals, building up into a gospel-esque chorus of the title. The lyrics are also deeply introspective, speaking of a desire and longing for a lover to stay after a one night stand. The aesthetics throughout this album are clear: an intense search for belonging, to feel some sort of human connection - in particularly love. His woeful vocals reach out to those who are in despair, I would imagine, in order to relate to a similar emotion of wallowing in heartbreak.

I do love the way I'm Not The Only One, a smooth, light R&B/soul story of a cheater for a lover, with more love from him to give than he wants to. It's not so much the message I am condoning, but the melody has a resigned-yet-i-still-love-you character that complements this song to a T. 

The unrequited love seems to be a personal affliction, apparent in lyrics like "But why the hell/ why do you think I come round here on my free will? / Wasting all my precious time" from I've Told You Now. Similarly soppy is Not In That Way, with a sole electric guitar as he croons about experiencing a rejection.

If this is his concept, of playing the part of a spurned lover, well then he better up his lyrical game, because right now he seems to only be scratching the surface of this particular area - and without much expertise, the 22-year-old is going to run out of material soon. And with his given vocals and the musical production, I believe he can do much better and perhaps be the male Adele.

Track Cuts: Not In That Way, Lay Me Down, Not The Only One, Stay With Me

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When you decide to ambitiously name an album as grand as Forget the World, you better well make sure you live up to the expectations that you elicit. Dutch DJ and producer Nick Van de Wall, or better known as Afrojack, has finally - after recently exploding onto the electronica scene - released his debut album. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing the hype being translated in this album. Could it be blamed on the fact that club tracks generally do not do well in album format, restricted to a setting that doesn't allow it to creatively express itself as well as electronica singles usually do? Perhaps. But then again, you'd expect something better from one of the top 10 spinning DJs in the world right now.

Ten Feet Tall featuring American singer-songwriter Wrabel was a relatively radio-friendly hit, co-written by Wrabel and produced by Afrojack. I have to admit though the synth beats complemented the song's nice build-up into the falsetto-crooning chorus, but moving on after that you get the feeling that this "build-up" with the spacey, swooping electronic beats and bass-thumping rhythms to a big beat drop seem to all blend into one album that will make you forget the world alright, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Hardcore electronica fans might not be amused by this repetitiveness, but casual listeners to club music will be taken with Afrojack's brand of redefining huge pop tracks into breezy, highly addictive numbers that one can dance along to. Having a guest singer that's as unique as Neon Trees' Tyler Glenn makes the song Born to Run a pleasurable listen - with a legendary line as tribute to Springsteen "We were born to run". The chorus, with its piano-heavy turn makes way for a fist-pumper of a beat.

Snoop Dogg also brings a breath of fresh air into Dynamite, working effortlessly with the bouncy, trippin' beats to offer some swagger into the lineup. Definitely one of the better, if not best tracks on this album. 

I'm not sure I'm convinced with Forget the World, but having said that, spinning tracks usually involve many factors, including the vibes of the event, and listening to this alone at home in your room might not be the best mood-lifter when it comes to these sort of tracks. But a good DJ would be able to get a lone person dancing on their feet in their room with their spins, so I might put this on the back burner with this one.

Track Cuts: Ten Feet Tall, Born to Run, Dynamite

Photo credit: Universal Music

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Mariah Carey’s fourteenth studio album has been in the works since 2011, and after numerous delays, poor charting singles and false starts, the album is finally seeing the light of day. Carey’s last studio album, was Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel in 2009, which performed poorly both commercially and critically.

One listen to Me. I am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse, though, is all it takes to know that new Mariah isn’t playing around anymore, well aware of her mistakes on Memoirs, which tried too hard to follow what was current. Opening with Cry, Mariah revisits her roots, starting with the peak of her career. Cry sounds like something that could have been from her best-selling albums in the 90s, with its gospel chords and stripped down production, putting her vocals at the forefront, a format repeated in Camouflage, except the former shows more vocal restraint.

The Elusive Chanteuse is replete with nostalgic moments, with Dedicated featuring Nas, opening with a discussion on nostalgia before segueing into a laidback track built around a sample from Wu-Tang Clan’s Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ curiously punning on Mariah’s name: “Carry like Mariah.” #Beautiful with Miguel leaves you longing for the days of Motown with its old school radio feel.

More up-tempo moments include You Don’t Know What To Do featuring Wale, which teleports you to the disco dancefloors in the 70s and 80s with a tinge of R&B. Meteorite is Mariah’s most current-sounding track on this album, borrowing elements from dance music as she sings “Your fame is a flame. They watch you burn up.” One can only guess what Mariah refers to, having openly dissed pop singers jumping onto the dance music bandwagon in order to sell better.

What is interesting to note is that Mariah, for the first time, let her twin children (also known as Dembabies) on this record, adding in adorable yet professional tunes on the track Supernatural. Mariah fans would go gaga over this sneak peak into her new life as a mother. 

Overall, the songs on Me. I am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse not only remind us that the Voice is very much intact, but also shows us what a consummate producer Mariah Carey is, with such elaborate production that might initially come across as overdone, but on a second listen, one realizes the boundless range of nuances she teases out by layering different timbers of her voice using different registers including her signature whistle register. 

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