Troye Sivan’s ‘Bloom’ needs a splash of colour

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Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘My! My! My!’, ‘Bloom’, ‘Plum’, ‘Lucky Strike’

Anyone on the pop blog scene will be au fait with Troye Sivan’s ‘My! My! My!’ – the synthpop spectacular that sounds like Phil Collins sharing drugs with M83 in the bathroom of a Berlin gay club.

Understandably, the poptimist who fell for its whirring groove back in January might have tentative hopes for the Australian singer’s sophomore album to be something on the scale of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, an unapologetically sugary listen with enough five-star press clippings to soften its perilous fall from the charts.

But for better or worse, Bloom never again matches the glittery nerve of its big single (or its fabulous, voguing video).  

Then again, Troye was never obliged to stray far from his 2015 debut Blue Neighbourhood. The uncluttered, Lorde-ish stylings that album embraced have since proved popular with the masses, embedded in the kind of slow-burn hits synonymous with the streaming era. 

Troye plays it safe with ten mid-tempos buffed to a lustrous electropop sheen. Ironically, for all its approved-by-committee glory, there are zero single options here. Yet as a collection, Bloom is a rather fetching vehicle for its star, and at a mere 37 minutes, never outstays its welcome.

Queer lyrical themes aside, there’s not much of a spark to slower songs like ‘The Good Side’ and ‘Seventeen’. The former is John Grant-lite, the latter plugs the holes in its melody with a crap ‘oh oh oh’ line. At the same time, they’re both tenderly written snapshots of a young man’s burgeoning sexuality.

The pop-cynic would argue that the short runtime flatters Troye’s limited range, both as a vocalist and an emoter (not least next to a guesting Ariana Grande on the misleadingly titled ‘Dance to This’). Doe-eyed apathy is his brand, and although his flower is certainly in bloom, you might come away hoping for a splash of colour next season.

 

Daphne & Celeste’s comeback album is an unpredictable triumph

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Hey Daphne, whatever happened to Yazz?

It’s a shoulder-tapping question on an album that begs a few of them. What divine force brought the gruesome twosome behind early-noughties school playground anthems ‘U.G.L.Y’ and ‘Ooh Stick You’ near a recording booth again? And why did wonky-pop maestro Max Tundra choose to write and produce his first full-length in ten years for them?

The point is, in a parallel universe, Tundra’s pop obsession runs so deep, he could have just as easily gifted …Save the World to 80s singer Yazz (she of ‘The Only Way is Up‘ fame) , or Taylor Dayne, or Shocking Blue, two more flash-in-the-pan icons name-checked in the same song. And they’d be lucky to have it. The album is a touching tribute to the juvenile sugar rush only class A drugs and supposedly throwaway music can provide, all while managing to sound fresh and unpredictable.

But make no mistake: this record belongs as much to Daphne & Celeste as it does to the man twiddling the knobs. Thrown into the pop machine as teenagers, fronting singles overflowing with insults – which they would fearlessly perform to a violently drunk crowd at Reading 2000 – the pair’s story is unique, and the best tracks tend to play off their serendipitous friendship.

Tundra makes heavy use of vocoders to heighten, rather then tame, their cartoonish personalities. On ‘BB’, they take ‘basic buskers’ to task for clogging the charts with heteronormative drivel. An Ed Sheeran-skewering guitar-and-vocal refrain gives the song a solid melodic foundation, but in a meta twist, the girls make no effort to hide their disdain for it: ‘This is the first thing you figure out when you get a guitar’.

…Save the World is aimed squarely at those with a sweet tooth for irony-laden pop. Daphne & Celeste & Max spend so much time winking, they may well have been legally blind recording these songs, and ‘Sunny Day’ and closer ‘Kandy Korn’ arguably push the 90s-Nickelodeon-show-on-crack vibe an inch too far. That said, if you can’t hear an inexplicable beauty in the acid-trance gem ‘Alarms’, then maybe you don’t deserve to be saved.

8.5 / 10

Kesha takes the highest road on “Praying”

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2009’s party classic “TiK ToK” may have sold Kesha – she’s dropped the “$” for now – as a one-note character, but it was one others wanted to play. A force at her initial peak, she wrote Britney Spears’ hit “Till the World Ends”, and had her schtick jacked by Katy Perry (“California Gurls”), Miley Cyrus and LMFAO.

For all the bludgeoning EDM and Auto-Tune, there was a perceptibly punk bent to Kesha Sebert’s music. She can belt like a rock star, but knows dance music is more conducive to free love than any other.

Praying” – her first single in four years, and first shot at a ballad release – is upsetting for many reasons, but the shadow it casts over her dollar-sign days is its first knife-twist. Addressing her troubling legal battle with producer Dr. Luke, Kesha takes the high road, and seeks to see the best in her abuser.

Religious references abound, but more so musically then lyrically. Ryan Lewis’s piano is the song’s backbone, propping up a quiet, dignified chorus, even as it blossoms into a stomping country-gospel rapture: “I hope you’re somewhere praying / I hope your soul is changing”.

Kesha’s naked vocal is impressive, and her zesty, adenoidal tone channels the melody better than any studio trickery could. A quiet admission of “I’m proud of who I am” is the link between her old and new material. Kesha’s self-love has suffused her search for both carnage and catharsis – so as long as she has it, the party is far from over.

cupcakKe’s “Queen Elizabitch” delivers the sex-positive pop we deserve

cupcakKeSince last year’s minor viral hit “Vagina”, cupcakKe’s been cornering the sex-positive alt-hip-pop market. The Chicago-born rapper leaves little to the imagination – not only with graphic, spit-take one-liners (“I save dick by giving it CPR”), but by also committing to her fully-rounded persona for each and every song. 

cupcakKe dropped three mixtapes in 2016, and Queen Elizabitch is her first album proper. The bought-in beats are tighter, but the execution is scattered – pushing listeners off the dance floor and into a hard-faced confessional a little too often.

The split between Queen Elizabitch’s teeth-bearing hip-hop and X-rated dalliances with the mainstream works because neither style tries to diminish the virtues of the other. The cupcakKe eloquently recounting her impoverished childhood on “Scraps” is no more complex or worthy than the one asking to be creampied throughout “Cumshot”.

Vulgarity is the common thread – whether she’s marking her territory over menacing trap (“Bitch you ain’t hard / Probably run from the sound of a fart”), or giving life-saving blowjobs on the irresistible “Cpr”, which reworks “La Macarena” for 2017, and may be more quotable than Mean Girls.

The album continues the “Reality” saga from cupcakKe’s mixtapes. Part 4 charts the rapper’s torrid journey, and accepts her growing fame with grace. But as a dose of reality, it falls flat, simply because the character never feels like a fantasy. In fact, the body-positive “Biggie Smalls” overflows with humanity.

Furnished with tropical house synths and arpeggio squalls, it’s as commercial as Queen Elizabitch gets. What makes it special are actionable tips in lieu of dull platitudes, including “Fuck a dude if he don’t like small boobs”. There’s a gap in the market for such candour, and something tells us cupcakKe will have a great time filling it. 

8/10

Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” – “House-pop parfait with a cold, tart centre”

bon appetitForget fresh – Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” is practically antiseptic. That kitsch title comes with her signature lowbrow wink, but this electropop parfait has a cold, tart centre. Hackneyed ‘food-as-vagina’ puns are deadpanned in an alluring whisper. Eurodance synths stabs come thin and quick, and prick like a needle.

One of the song’s bigger risks may be the inclusion of hip-hop trio Migos. Following the streaming monster “Bad and Boujee”, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset are hot property, but their off-colour remarks about gay rapper iLoveMakonnen should raise brows – particularly as Katy’s own supposed brushes with bigotry have recently emerged.  

The good news is that Perry and Migos seem to be on the same prog-pop wavelength. She certainly makes them feel at home, with the house beat dropping into chill trap for a mercurial four-part verse. Speaking of drops, producer Max Martin lands a doozy for Katy’s base but velcro-like chorus: “Got me spread like a buffet / Bon appétit, baby!

Zara Larsson’s So Good: “Promising newcomer falls at the final hurdle”

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Zara Larsson and Rihanna share more than a cadence that’s catnip for radio.

Just like the Barbadian superstar circa 2006, Larsson holds immense promise, yet her international debut is at best a benign vessel for a half-dozen plastic-wrapped hits.

Last summer’s “Lush Life” is still a sticky party-starter with more choruses than sense. It’s also the best thing on So Good by far, and prefacing it with the feeble “What They Say”, a #motivational Instagram post set to music, is a telling cop-out.

A flexible singer, Larsson slings hooks like a sailor aboard everything from moody electro (MNEK duet “Never Forget You”), to schoolyard hip hop (“Ain’t My Fault”), to vogueing dance-pop (“I Would Like”). Aside from some killer singles, only “TG4M”’s dreamy tropical lilt really adds to her CV.

There’s never been a bigger gulf between title and song than on “Make That Money Girl”. That sassy name, along with the teenager’s unabashed feminism, suggests a banger for the ages, but its funereal beat is more befitting a documentary about sweatshop slavery.

Larsson has everything it takes to go A-list, but too often, So Good overlooks the spunky musicality that put her on the map. Drippy ballads like “Only You” and “One Mississippi” actively drain her charisma, and could be fronted by any Rihanna-lite ingenue.

Thank goodness then for Clean Bandit’s “Symphony” – a feel-good smash and vocal showcase that’s bought Team Larsson time to plan a crucial next move.

5.5/10

Grab some tissues and watch Clean Bandit’s self-directed “Symphony” clip below.

 

Ed Sheeran – Divide: “Listless balladry and boundless opportunism”

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If only Ed Sheeran could produce an album that split opinion. Despite commercial success being a given for the Suffolk-raised singer’s third LP, the erroneously-titled Divide is about as edgy as a sausage roll.

The pandering doesn’t even end with a base-covering single campaign that made a smart play for Radio 1 (catchy “Cheap Thrills” knock-off “Shape of You”) and 2 (“Castle On The Hill”). Divide isn’t afraid to exploit cultural generalisations in order to connect.

Opener “Eraser” is a self-pitying take on drinking like a twenty-something. Here and elsewhere, Ed romanticises his humility. He’s a Grammy-winning everyman “without a nine-to-five job or a uni degree”, singing to millions in “the same old jeans”. It’s pure department store fodder, so perhaps a fan will pick him up a pair.

Even worse is “Galway Girl”, combining flavourless Irish trad and noughties boyband melodies to soundtrack a one night stand with a fiery Celtic waif. Any pop chorus beginning with “She played the fiddle in an Irish band” should by right lead to a filthy couplet about handjobs, but Ed shows no ambition beyond reaping marketing royalties from Ireland’s tourism board.

Banality is occasionally swapped for bitterness, as on the unlikely highlight “New Man”. Underneath the slick acoustic-pop is a mean-spirited sketch of an ex’s metrosexual lover, right down to his plucked eyebrows and bleached arsehole. Ed’s observations border on bigotry, but hey, at least it’s interesting, right?

A wet mass of listless balladry and boundless opportunism, Divide shirks any duty to say something new, and will no doubt achieve homeric sales throughout the year. When Britain’s biggest popstar sings “Love can change the world, but what do I know?”, the modesty is hard to stomach. Ed Sheeran knows exactly what he’s doing.

03/10

Katy Perry is wide awake on “Chained to the Rhythm”

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“Chained to the Rhythm” is the closest Katy Perry has come to a political statement. Over an italo-disco groove reminiscent of Carly Simon’s “Why”, the singer both condones and condemns a generation adept at blocking out the world’s woes.

Producer Max Martin doesn’t budge from his power-pop formula, swaddling Perry’s epiphanies in pastel synths and slippery bass. At times it even works as a snarky endorsement of cheap escapism (“Put your rose-coloured glasses on, and party on”).

The chorus is wordy and elastic, ending on a clunky hook that betrays Sia’s co-writing credit. Perry’s moral awakening is perhaps best summed up by Skip Marley (grandson of Bob) in a rousing and hopeful verse: “We’re about to riot / they woke up the lions!

The 30 best pop songs of 2016 (part one)

30. PARTYNEXTDOOR – Not Nice

As the man behind Rihanna’s “Work”, PartyNextDoor gave pop’s baddest bitch a momentous start to 2016. Yet the elegant soca of “Not Nice” suggests he doesn’t have much time for attitude. “Girl, you’re not nice, you’re rude,” he sings, eschewing “Hotline Bling”-style pettiness for a refreshing shot of sensitivity.

29. The Weeknd – Starboy (feat. Daft Punk)

Money. Drugs. Women. Lyrically, “Starboy” is firmly in The Weeknd’s wheelhouse. The solid-gold elephant in his echoey abode is a struggle with ubiquitous fame, steeping the collar-popping brags in paranoia. Daft Punk only add to the drama with digital blips, a strong hiccuping backbeat, and robotic backing vocals that come in shivers.  

28. Nick Jonas – Bacon (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)

Nick is an old-fashioned popstar – a Just Seventeen coverboy with a voice that sounds perennially romantic. In a bid for some edge, “Bacon” weighs up the virtues of bachelor living and domestic bliss. It’s all deftly arranged: ambient synths fizz, the percussion tickles, and there’s a snap-and-retract hook that would make Aaron Carter jealous.

27. Tove Lo – Cool Girl

More than a tribute to Gillian Flynn’s famous Gone Girl monologue, “Cool Girl” explores the balance of power in a no-strings relationship. Lyrics like I wanna be free like youchallenge potential double standards, while Tove Lo’s half-spoken vox linger over every syllable to a sensual degree, giving her suitor just a taste of what could be in-store.

26. Usher – Crash

Would you mind if I still love you?” Usher croons on “Crash”. The world responded with a shrug, but the 38 year-old pop veteran can take pride in this honourable stab at relevancy. That crystal-clear falsetto shines like moonlight on the minimalist electro-R&B, even if it fails to fit among radio’s current obsession with dodgy diction.

25. AlunaGeorge – Mean What I Mean (feat. Leikeli47 & Dreezy)

A hipster “Lady Marmalade” with an up-to-the-minute tropical house beat, “Mean What I Mean” was 2016’s best consent anthem. Predictably, there’s a post-chorus drop that sounds like an irate animal (this time an elephant), but the wordplay is sharp, and Aluna and rappers Leikeli47 and Dreezy work alarmingly well as a supergroup.

24. LIV – Wings of Love

“Wings of Love” flies a bit too close Fleetwood Mac’s sun to be considered fresh, but it’s still an impressive debut from supergroup LIV, starring singer Lykke Li, Miike Snow, Peter Bjorn & John. Predictably cloying lyrics – “I wanna live, I wanna die, on a silver lining” etc. – are nimbly illustrated by the band’s Tusk-era harmonies. 

23. Ray BLK – Chill Out (feat. SG Lewis)

I hate to be so goddamn depressive,” Ray BLK half-apologises on the fuckboy-frying “Chill Out”. Unraveling 8-bit Power Ups and sawtooth waves follow the example set by the title, but it’s the south London singer’s verbal castrations that elevate the track from a Soundcloud hit to a promising calling card.

22. Keke Palmer – Hands Free

Keke Palmer’s résumé largely sports mellow but modern R&B,  so for now the panting dancehall of “Hands Free” is an anomaly. Luckily, she’s nothing if not versatile, spitting out unabashedly horny lines (“If I wind it back, would you promise to break my bone?”) like Rihanna on payday, before dropping into an erotic lower register that’s all her own.

21. Britney Spears – Do You Wanna Come Over?

How should Britney Spears sound in 2016? Staccato urban-pop guitars, a dilating bassline and a sexy if slightly non-committal vocal do the trick on “Do You Wanna Come Over?” Juicy electropop production and a rambunctious chorus chant do some heavy lifting, but Britney herself hasn’t been this fun since 2008’s Blackout.

20. Drake – One Dance

Following the blueprint of his 2011 Rihanna collaboration “Take Care”, “One Dance” stuffs another under-the-radar gem (minor UK garage hit “Do You Mind?”) with Drake’s signature, puppy-eyed self-loathing. Gentrified afrobeats mesh awkwardly with tinny house piano – but as Drake himself admits, this is a song to hear with a Hennessy in hand.

19. Ariana Grande – Into You

They don’t make them this anymore. Grande is a dab hand at scaling huge Eurodance melodies, and “Into You” is her most extravagant uptempo yet. Hooks like “a little less conversation, and a little more touch-my-body” bring spectacle, but super-producer Max Martin takes his time building from bare ribbed synths to a chugging, neon-lit rave.

18. Lady Gaga – Perfect Illusion

Before the track’s premier in September, a 16-second “Perfect Illusion” clip drove fans into a frenzy with the same snarling guitar chord. It was a perfect preview: from there on out, Lady Gaga’s comeback single became a relentless, scorned stomper. Not even Kevin Parker’s (Tame Impala) stoned synths can anaesthetise Gaga’s ferocious delivery.

17. Zara Larsson – Lush Life

This 2015 Swedish hit only found its footing in the UK this summer, but it’s double-barrel chorus still hits like a trayful of Jägerbombs. Zara Larsson’s tangy pronunciation verges on patois at times, making her perfect match for an unmistakably breezy beat powered by clucking synths and playground hand claps.

16. Kaytranada – You’re the One (feat. Syd)

Canadian electro-hip-hop wonderkid Kaytranada and The Internet’s Syd have history. The same woozy sex appeal heard on 2015’s “Girl” is poured into the eminently more danceable “You’re the One”. The barely-lucid groove can’t judge Syd for inviting a destructive lover with a whipsmart bargaining chip: “If I survive, baby you’re the one”.

15. Rae Srummerd – Black Beatles

Sonically foreboding, trap seems to be at its most lucrative when spun as an alternative to sugary pop hits. Despite their stakes in the genre, sibling duo Rae Srummerd are born entertainers. “Black Beatles” marries their goofy energy with swirling fever-dream keyboards to create a credible hit that could become the status quo.

14. Laura Mvula – Overcome (feat. Nile Rodgers)

Beginning with a half-spoken preamble that threatens to taper off, “Overcome” sounds unlikely to achieve the Dionysian rush hinted at by opulent strings and Nile Rodgers’ subtle but funky rhythm guitar. Mvula’s songwriting acts as a pithy appetizer before the track’s rapturous orchestral bellow is unleashed, but her presence is unmistakable.

13. Flume – Never Be Like You

Australian electro-prodigy Flume stews Timbaland’s sliding mid-00’s R&B melodies in bubbling future bass on “Never Be Like You”. The hooks initially come in dribs and drabs as Kai sluices her voice through the Flumes latticed, spasmodic synths, but this is the chill-out power ballad of a generation.

12. Unloved – When a Woman Is Around

Unloved brings together composers David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia, and singer Jade Vincent. The result is as cinematic as you would expect, yet the group’s jazz-inclined psychedelia stands on its own. On “When a Woman Is Around”, Vincent’s tones ooze old Hollywood glamour, before exploding into a chorus indebted to 60’s girl groups.

11. David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away

On the very last track on David Bowie’s very last album, there’s an occasional twinge of wheeziness – both to Bowie’s stately vocal, and synths that sprint towards the finish line. Burdened with a seemingly impossible task, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” never loses its focus, and somehow ends an iconic career on a miraculous high.

#10 – #1