First Impressions: Amorphous by Icon for Hire

First Impressions is a segment where I give my first (minimally edited) thoughts on an album that’s new (or new to me), without research, months of listening, or the benefit of letting it “ruminate”. It’s a way to get out my thoughts much faster than the time and effort I would put into real album reviews, thoughts, and track rankings.

Oh, bet you didn’t see this coming. The lady who writes about The Weeknd and Miley Cyrus also likes Icon for Hire.

Actually, Amorphous, and IFH’s discography in general, isn’t too far removed from The Weeknd’s slick production and Miley’s flair for catchy hooks and genre-hopping.

On this record, the band continues with their themes of recovery, mental illness, addictions–and the struggles and triumphs that are entailed within. I have always connected with them because of the rawness and candor of Ariel Bloomer’s lyrics, paired with in-your-face, head-bangin’ rock. While the band is predominantly alternative hard rock, they have always incorporated plenty of EDM elements to some degree. You can add rap to the list now, too. Sort of.

The rap works, except when it doesn’t. Ariel is talented, but the aggressive yell-singing she has done in the past is a much better fit. On another note, I really like the production and mixing on this album. They’ve managed to stay true to their core style and sound, but I can definitely tell a difference in the way they mix together the electronica and rock parts together. The lyrics are also very good on Amorphus. There are a lot of incredibly poignant, well-crafted, and even, clever moments, showing Ariel’s growth as a songwriter. I’ve always enjoyed the way she paints a picture, but she stepped it up a few notches in several places here.

Highlights: Songwriting, good production, well-mixed electronica with rock.

Lowlights: some really bad rhymes that should have never made it past first draft, and the rapping is sometimes cringe.

Favorite track: “Brittle”. It’s not even close. The album is quite good, but “Brittle” is Icon for Hire pulling out all the stops. There are lot of good songs, even great ones, on this album, but if I made a tiered track listing, “Brittle” would be in its own tier. Probably. This is First Impressions. I shouldn’t make bold statements.

Least favorite
: If “Impossibles & Obstacles” weren’t an interlude, it would be the worst track. But it’s actually “Warrior”. Empowering though it may be in content, I cannot abide the rap verse, or…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Read the track thoughts below.

Grade: My completely meaningless grade based on an arbitrary rubric and bias is 88/100 (B). That feels about right. Or it’s way off. Who knows!

Track-By-Track Thoughts on Amorphous

My real-time thoughts that were later re-edited, or largely left alone. It depends on the song. You’ll be able to tell which one is which. I can’t wait to facepalm when reading these later!

“Brittle (Prelude)” – I love the strings, but are preludes necessary? Especially when they’re this short.

“Brittle” – Liked this song almost immediately, but went from loving it on the first chorus to worshipping it on the second one. Setting the bar this high on the first song is a bold move. They pulled out their absolute best moves on this song from the writing to the song structure and composition to the theme and message. It brought me to tears the first time I listened. And the second, for what it’s worth.

“Curse or Cure” – The hard rock, anthemic chorus will probably do well in concerts. you know, if we ever get them back.

“Enemies” – This one sounds like a Nightmare Before Christmas reject remix. It slaps.

“Panic Attacks” – Part of me hates that this is a “rap”. But honestly, Ariel kind of kills it. Plus, it sounds like it’s from the POV of the panic attack, or at least the source of it, and I think that’s really interesting and unique. The lyrics are really good, too.

“Seeds” – Is this annoying or cool? Maybe both. Rhyming “flames” with “history” is the real crime.

“Thirteen (interlude)” – felt this way since you were 13? yeah, I feel that. But stream of consciousness about how you “play in A minor because it feels like me”–ugh, I hate when songs talk about being songs. I just don’t like interludes, actually. They usually feel like they weren’t good enough to be a full song, but the band obviously liked it enough to want it on the album. Make a full song, you cowards. Oh they did already; it was called “The Grey” and it was fantastic. That’s what this is.

“Background Sad” – a change of pace, this ballad talks about how maybe she won’t get any better. I really relate to this. Is this as good as it gets? Am I always going to be background sad?

“Last One Standing” – Sort of a “rise up” from the lows of “Background Sad”, this song is another anthemic, sing-a-long, gather the misfits, fight the good fight kind of song. Should I add some more descriptors?

“Waste My Hate” – Another anthemic one, this one has a bitter bite to it. Love the marriage of hard rock and electronica. Very well-blended on this song. Classic IFH. Another one that would rank highly, maybe even 2nd, if this were a ranked list

“Impossibles & Obstacles (interlude)” – It’s not that this isn’t well-written or well-rapped, it’s just that it’s bad and I hate it.

“Sticks & Stones”– This feels like the sister to “Waste My Hate”. Another anthemic, vengeful, hateful song. Not sure what makes this song different from “WMH”. Oh, yeah, it’s this: “hell hath no fury like me; don’t mess with her majesty. Well-behaved women rarely make an empire.” The empire line rhymes with nothing and feels really out of place at first, though I admit the echoing of “empire” after that makes it sit in the air and imprint on your brain, so maybe it does work.

My real problem is this: the lyrics “hell hath no fury like me; don’t mess with her majesty” are good on paper. But Ariel insists on pronouncing “me” like “may”, so it sounds like she’s rhyming “may” with “majesty”. It made me cringe and recoil so hard the first time I heard it that I stopped and rewound it trying to figure out what she was saying, and dear god, WHY pronounce it this way? It ruins an otherwise impactful bridge.

“Warrior” – The chorus rocks hard, but the way it all slows down so she can say “damn it feels good to be a warrior” with a very Kesha vibe is just not doing it for me. By this point in the album, this song sounds a little formulaic and doesn’t stand out much. It’s still an empowering message, and I can’t hate on that too much. But I can hate on the rap attempts and how half-done the song feels. Come on guys! Did you waste all your best moves on “Brittle”? These things should come from an authentic place, not a half-hearted, try to make it a rap/rock anthem place. That’s not a good place. You remember 2002.

“Only Be A Story” – a reflective song that has Ariel wondering about her legacy after her death. It builds up into a big rock number, but starts with just a simple, beautiful piano. Maybe “Thirteen” could have been worked into this somehow. They’re different melodically, but simplistic, introspective piano ballads can find a way to coexist together, I imagine.

–Queen Dopamine

Songs You Should Hear: Jhené Aiko

Songs You Should Hear is a new segment I will be doing in place of the song spotlight-type posts I’ve made where I write about a song I love. This space will now be for multiple songs that I want to showcase featuring a common theme. In most cases, the theme will be the artist or the genre. Lacking the research and overall fuller story that my other posts provide, this feature will be focused specifically on the songs.

I thought the modern R&B slow jam wasn’t my thing. It’s not a genre I’ve really gotten into much, besides an occasional toe-dip here and there. I’ve always enjoyed singers who lean more into the neo-soul, hip-hop, or pop elements. There’s something so intimate about R&B, and I guess it’s never really filled a need within me. If I want to listen to someone croon about sex, love, and heartbreak, I much prefer the classic soul singers of old, like Marvin Gaye or Bill Withers.

However, I’ve found that I definitely have a place in my heart for modern R&B singers who want to sing about relationships in a silky smooth voice. I heard Jhené Aiko on a best of 2020 list and decided to give her other stuff a listen (besides just the features I know her from). I love her vibe and her voice so much I knew she had to debut my Songs You Should Hear segment.

Here’s an unbiased, high-level look at some tracks* I’d like to showcase by Jhené Aiko. I’m no expert, nor do I claim this to be a comprehensive or “best-of” list. This is a new fan’s perspective on what I think her standout tracks are. I put them in reverse chronological order, just for some semblance of organization that wasn’t a ranking. Yeah, for once, I didn’t want to do track rankings.

*This will only include songs that she released, not her features on someone else’s track.

Triggered (Freestyle) – The fact that this was written about a real “moment” of pain in regards to a breakup really shows. I’m here for it.

None of Your Concern (feat. Big Sean) – A good tandem with “Triggered”, especially considering that “Triggered” and “None of Your Concern” are about, at least in part, ex-boyfriend Big Sean. Not only does she remain friends with him though, he’s FEATURED ON THIS DAMN SONG. That’s iconic.

BS (feat. H.E.R.) – Beautiful, chill R&B jam that has quickly become one of my favorite songs by Jhené. H.E.R. kills it, too, and combined with her singing of “America the Beautiful” before the Super Bowl, I am definitely going to check out her music.

P*$$Y Fairy (OTW) – This absolute killer sex jam was the song on a YouTuber’s year-end countdown list that made me look her up.

Party for Me (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)– Her rap part is kind of cringe, but the rest of it is “24K Magic” Bruno Mars, retro goodness (which itself is inspired by late 80s and early 90s funk and soul).

OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive) (feat. TWENTY88) – Evoking skating rink banger vibes of old, everything about this is euphoric, young-and-in-love gold.

Sativa (feat. Swae Lee) – I usually don’t like songs about getting high, but this is an exception for obvious reasons.

Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect) (feat. Dr. Chill) – I usually don’t like songs about getting high, but this is an exception for obvious reasons. Also, after learning that Trip (the album this song comes from) was about her coping with the grief of losing her brother to cancer, I realized it’s not just about “getting high”.

Ascension (feat. Brandy) – Hey, remember Brandy? No idea if she’s making music anymore, but she’s a good addition on this hopeful lullaby that turns into a soulful mantra.

WTH (feat. Ab-Soul) – I usually don’t like songs about getting high, but–. Okay, I’ll write something different. Honestly, this song was saved by Ab-Soul’s verse. Otherwise, it would have been a good song, but ultimately left off the list.

The Worst – “Don’t take this personally, but you’re the worst.” Wow. She does know how to synthesize her heartbreak into a good song, doesn’t she?

Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle) – Amazing that this made the list despite having no discernable beat or melody. I love her fun, breezy jams, but her songs about heartbreak and pain are amazing.

Jhené Aiko Spotify Artist Page
Jhené Aiko Apple Music Page

–Yours Truly, Queen Dopamine

First Impressions: “Medicine At Midnight” Foo Fighters

First Impressions is a segment I started for giving quick, minimally-edited thoughts on an album. Without the benefit of research, multiple listens, or letting it “ruminate”, I try to just give my first impressions of the album based on just a couple of listens. It’s fun to look back on and see what all has changed, a few months, to a year, down the line. This is the third installment.

Wasting Light is my clear favorite Foo album. I’m not saying it’s their best. It’s probably not. But it’s my favorite. Very closely followed by the former favorite, One by One. I also liked, and maybe even loved, Concrete and Gold (despite what this review makes it sound like). In Your Honor holds its own, despite not really having the material for a double album. Saint Cecilia is completely overlooked and underrated, probably because it didn’t receive much hype (and is “only”an EP). There Is Nothing Left to Lose is completely overrated because it has “Learn to Fly”, and a lot of poppy, filler crap. The Colour and the Shape is as exactly as good as it was when it came out–no better, no worse.

And rightfully so, I forgot Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace when I first wrote the above paragraph. I usually do, though it’s probably much better than I remember. I also didn’t mention their self-titled debut album because that was basically just demos and hastily-written written lyrics that were fashioned into a solo project that Dave put under the name Foo Fighters. There’s also one other album that I didn’t mention; we’ll get to that.

So where does Medicine At Midnight rank among these? It’s too early to tell if it’s my new favorite. First Impressions are not where favorites are made. No, real favorites are forged in the fire of a thousand listens. A slow burn over real time, real emotions, real situations. Wasting Light became my favorite not because it was a perfect album, but because of the memories I had while listening–how applicable certain songs and lyrics felt to my life. It became the soundtrack to my life. I listened to it nonstop for months.

Remember how Sonic Highways was supposed to be inspired by a different city for each song? That was hilarious. But, it feels like Medicine at Midnight took inspiration from a different genre or artist for each track. It doesn’t feel like a ripoff or a cheap imitation, either. Each track feels like a very intentional, well-written, hashed out, fucking real song. And all 9 of them deserve to be on the album. Each song truly feels unique and discrete from one another, while firmly having the mark of Foo Fighters on them.

I wasn’t going to do this initially, but I think First Impressions would be even more fun with some preliminary track rankings. I love lists. I love order. I love categorizing shit. If you don’t, feel free to not read this or care about it. I will also include my very-early, very little edited first draft thoughts on these songs. I hesitate to do so because many listens will definitely change how I feel and what I hear. But it’s SUPPOSED to. This bit is called FIRST IMPRESSIONS though. Not Final Impressions. Not Eventual Impressions.

Even if this is just for me to look back on and make fun of myself for putting one song above another, or laugh at my hilariously bad takes, it will be good for posterity. I’m not going to number them though because it’s not that serious. You can get the general idea that the favorites are at the end, while least favorites are listed first.

“Waiting on a War” – Oh, a song about something. I’m ready to cringe. It sounds like they missed doing stuff from the second half of In Your Honor. Why can’t you make your soft, acoustic little bullshit songs as intentional and good as your other songs? Did different people write this vs “Cloudspotter”? I just do not feel this at all. It eventually quickens the pace and turns into a faster, punkier rock song. Much too late though. And it completely lacks any passion. The vocal melody sucks ass.

“Love Dies Young” – uptempo, punk-type rock song. It sounds like they definitely wrote the music first, coming up with a cool riff, but not knowing what to put with it. This isn’t a bad topic at all, but is it a love song or an anti-love song? It’s not the worst song. It’s not the best song. I like a lot of things about it, for instance, if this is a filler song, then we’re doing pretty good.

“Chasing Birds” – This was the obvious Taylor Hawkins song, guys, come on. It’s a little repetitive, but it’s a nice, pretty song. Kind of like what “Happy Ever After” was trying to be from Concrete and Gold. But better.

“No Son of Mine” – The other song I didn’t realize I’d heard already. Good ole fashioned rock song poking fun at religious zealots. I think of Motorhead and the song “Barricuda” when I hear this one. I am not saying that’s RIGHT of me, but I’m saying that’s what I think of.

“Shame Shame” – I only heard this song once before this album. It’s good. Hearing it again, I think it’s probably great. But I’m not sure. I don’t even know what to call this genre mashup. I’m confused, but I like it. It’s very controlled confusion. I have a hard time remembering it after I’ve heard it, but when I DO hear it, I always think, “wow, this is really good.”

“Making A Fire” – Who is this, The Black Crowes? Background singers that vaguely sound gospel-influenced. Rock that has a 90s alt rock leaning. Southern rock chorus (or one that very badly wants to be). It’s like if The Black Crowes wanted to make “Bridges Burning”, but in their style, and not too obvious that they copied it.

“Holding Poison” – I’m definitely sure this position will change, but I do like it a lot. Then I hear it all the way through, and I’m like, yes, this is top tier shit. It’s like if “Rope” and “Dear Rosemary” had a baby. OMG. It’s Rosemary’s baby. I don’t know how to describe this song. It’s spunky and punchy, but there’s an air of despair. I mean, poison is in the name. That probably helps.

“Medicine At Midnight” – This is the exact opposite of the previous song in the track listing (“Waiting on a War”). It hooks you in right away. Imagine, having a melody and beat on all your songs. Imagine. This sounds like Grohl trying to do Bowie during his glam rock phase? Best I can do. There’s probably a better comparison. But it was a compliment either way. This has so many good elements going for it.

“Cloudspotter” – This would be very at home in 90s alt rock for the soft, subdued verses and then louder chorus. Kind of the Foo Fighters’ specialty. This is better than pretty much anything they actually released in the 90s though. I have no idea what this is about, but it sounds like it knows what it’s talking about. The rhymes are tight. It absolutely goes off in all of its weird, perfect glory. This could easily still be my favorite 6 months from now.

–Queen Dopamine

Song Review: “Anyone” Justin Bieber

2020 should have been Justin Bieber’s year. He released so much music, whether it was his own singles, an entire album, or a feature. But he’s not Drake. He can’t just obtain good-faith clout by slapping his name on something mediocre. While he had success commercially on singles with Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, and Chance The Rapper, his album Changes was panned. Lead-off single “Yummy” in particular has received a lot of flak from critics and fans alike as being…oh, what’s the technical term? Not good.

I personally don’t think “Yummy” is really that bad. In fact, “Intentions” annoys me more. But neither of them are that bad, as far as pop song fodder goes. Are they good though? Of fucking course not. But this is the top 40; not the damn hall of fame. I give pop music a wide berth when it comes to being mediocre or disappointing. Does it have a good beat? I’ll vibe to it. I guess after Purpose and so many successful collaborations in the more recent years, we’ve given Bieber a high bar.

So did he get back to that high bar with his 2021 single “Anyone”?

He did not.

The thing though is it’s not a bad song at all. In fact, it has a lot of likable things about it. For example, since getting married, Bieber’s songs about love are like 100x more sappy and romantic, which feels completely genuine. This is a wholesome, sweet song, as far as content and lyrics go. I also like the subdued retro touches, like the reverb and double tracks. The “In the Air Tonight” drum transition leads us into a much more “loud and proud” display of the late-80s/early-90s vibe, injecting much needed energy and life into the song.

The problem with this is that it comes across as less Peter Gabriel and more contemporary Christian concert. This last chorus with the most energy lasts for about 30 seconds before it just ends. Why tease us with this at all? And why does it sound exactly like something you’d hear at some Youth Ministries Summer Jam for Jesus thing? The chorus, for all its attempts at being positive and uplifting, feels flat and empty, with only Justin’s soaring vocals to carry us through. They’re not bad vocals, but it’s just like, where is the rest of the song? It’s a weak-ass chorus.

Also, isn’t it weird that he tried to make an R&B album (key word: “tried”), and then made an 80s pop song? I am not saying I don’t like this direction (I do love this trend in current pop music) but most of Bieber’s career has been pretty much the exact opposite of this. Even when he was first starting out on the scene, he’d rather be caught with Ludacris than Phil Collins. Is he an ever-changing chameleon and student of music, like our friend Miley Cyrus, or does he just use black culture and black music like the latest outfit he wears… also like our friend Miley? Either way, it reminds me of another Justin that I know.

This isn’t the song from Justin Bieber that we needed and wanted. But maybe it’s what we deserve after expecting so much more from him. His best songs this past year were with other people: “Monster”, “Holy”, and “Stuck with U”. I don’t know if Team Bieber knows what they’re doing, but he still seems to find success no matter what he does. So, I guess he’s more like Drake than I thought.

–Queen Dopamine

Song Review: “Better Days” by Ant Clemons and Justin Timberlake

My dad forwarded this song to me after these two performed at the Inauguration of Joe Biden. However, this review is about the studio version, since it’s the one I was introduced to and have listened to in preparation for writing this. I tried to listen to a version with Kirk Franklin on it, but we won’t talk about that.

My first thought upon first listen was that Justin knocked this out of the park. His performance is essentially flawless. My second thought upon second listen is that they needed Justin to prop up this song because 1) who is Ant Clemons? And 2) why is his voice autotuned to hell? Is that his style?

This review is about “Better Days” though, so I’m not going to stray too far from that, including listening to the rest of Ant Clemons’ work. Maybe this is his style. Maybe I should listen to his other work. Maybe I’m an asshole for not knowing who he is. Regardless of the reason, Clemons’ stylized voice really sounds out of place on a stripped-down song.

This song was written by Clemons and Timberlake in lockdown, in response to “frustrations and challenges”. That is completely unsurprising because it sounds exactly like a song that was written in response to the pandemic and the political climate of the past 4 years. In fact, my biggest gripe is that it’s a little bit weak lyrically. I feel like it wants my attention. It wants to say something meaningful. It feels a little flat. Like they wrote it purposely to be this contrived pandering during difficult times.

Speaking of contrived pandering, I don’t officially like Justin Timberlake’s “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING”, a title in all-caps for some reason for the Trolls movie he co-starred in. I thought it was obviously trying to be another summer feel-good song that was also attached to a movie. It felt like a cash grab. I could practically hear the songwriters discussing it in a conference room as they tried to write it. “What if we made another song like ‘Happy’?” Yeah, guys, that would be great.

As obvious as that is to me, I still cannot help but sing along to that song and feel even a tiny bit happier when I hear it. Damnit. Their plan worked. Whoever is on the Dreamworks music production team knows how to make hits–or, at least gather together people who do.

Similarly, I find myself wanting to like the gospel elements of “Better Days”, the hopefulness, the smooth croonings of my man, JT, who I am a big fan of. When I first heard this song, I thought it might even become a contender for “Song of 2021”. This year’s anthem.

The song certainly wants to be this year’s anthem. It certainly wants you to like it and see it as this optimistic, reassuring, gospel-tinged R&B jam. I want to see it that way, too.

Unfortunately, it’s just not. It has its moments, but it fails to really reach its full potential. It builds up to nothing and ends abruptly, instead of capitalizing on all the momentum it created.

It’s a perfectly fine, non-intrusive song that has a positive message and some pretty-sounding moments. But it’s just not going to change my life. I’m happy that they released something like this because of its intentions. I’m happy to hear Justin still serenading us with his beautiful voice. Also, the man will be 40 in 2 days. FORTY. He looks too good at 40. I’m kind of mad.

Queen Dopamine – Made in Canva by me

Track Rankings: “After Hours” by The Weeknd

Here at Queen Dopamine’s Wonderful World of Music, we like to do retrospectives of old albums and favorite artists, hype for songs we love, and a few actually new, or somewhat new, reviews. We love our track rankings.

I don’t know why I say “we”. It’s just me. All my multiple personalities don’t really count as different people.

When I originally did a First Impressions on After Hours, I knew it was good. Even great. Some things have changed since then, some have stayed the same. My biggest takeaway is that it’s so much deeper and more nuanced of an album than I could have been expected to realize on a couple of superficial listens.

I was going to make a long intro and talk broadly about the album, but this is all that needs to be said: After Hours is a goddamn masterpiece. I already thought it was great, but after dissecting the lyrics and piecing together the story it tells, I’m ready to praise it as the work of art it is. This album is more than just a technical and musical masterpiece, which you can easily tell it is from one listen; it’s one of brilliant and beautiful storytelling, stitched together so masterfully into a cohesive, but discrete, narrative. I’m even more angry now that The Weeknd was snubbed at the Grammy’s. ZERO nominations for this dude? GTFOH.

One other note: because of the awkward nature of referring to him as “The Weeknd” or, worse, just “Weeknd”, I call him Abel a lot in this post, which is his real name.

Alright, the heart and soul of this review and this segment is track rankings–so let’s get to them!

F Tier – The F Were You Thinking?


D-Tier – D stands for Did You Even Try?

13. Save Your Tears – Yes, this has a cool 80s vibe to it, but so does half the album. This is the only case of a song truly revealing how awful it is over the course of researching and listening for this album review. I originally had it in C-Tier, but I am so fucking sick of it, especially since it’s come out as a single now.

It’s my least favorite song because it’s likely about Abel’s longtime on-again-off-again ex, Bella Hadid, but I don’t know why she would need to “save her tears for another day”, when the WHOLE SONG is about him feeling sad because she’s ignoring him at the club. The chorus alludes to getting back together and that’s why she should save her tears. But he broke her heart, and even admits it in the song. Why should she “love you for a second time”? It’s just a selfish song. I guess I’ve been there myself, but even with that understanding in mind, I can’t really get behind anything about this contrived, ugly song, except the synth bassline.

C-Tier – Songs that “See Tears” Because They Aren’t Better

12. Hardest To Love – While I’ve always thought it was off-putting how this song pairs lyrics about being a terrible boyfriend with a sick beat, that’s kind of just The Weeknd’s thing. The song is more about how he can’t believe she (probably Bella) still wants to be together after all they’ve been through. I can’t believe it either. He’s clearly hurt her a lot, by his own admission, and even he can’t understand why she still trusts him and wants to take him back.

All of that being said, I like “Hardest to Love” quite a bit more than “Save Your Tears”. The production team somehow pulls off mixing 80s keyboard and electronica, borderline dubstep, beats. This is a small detail, but I like the voice distortion they do in the second verse. It could be for narrative reasons, like emphasizing that he’s full of shit, but I like it, even if it was just to break up the monotony. I also like the outro that fades perfectly into “Scared to Live”. I’m a slut for great song-to-song transitions you can only get from listening to the album in order. More on that later.

11. Snowchild – This one has actually grown on me quite a lot. From least favorite to 11 isn’t much of a bump, but it’s still in better standing than it used to be. I do really like the mood, the melody, and the theme. The main problem I had with it upon first listen is the same problem I have now: I just cannot stand the barrage of wordplay and puns: “Walking in the snow before I ever made my wrist freeze/I was blowing smoke, had me dizzy like Gillespie.”

This couplet comes early in the song but is indicative of the whole problem. First of all, try harder. This sounds like a first draft. Second of all, less is more; there are far too many “ayyy, check out this cool reference” double entendre. Third, there is a way to make slick rhymes and turns of phrases on a reflective, nostalgic song, but this ain’t it. You know what song of his did this well? “The Morning”, from his compilation of remastered mixtapes, Trilogy. These are basically cousin songs, born 9 years apart.

This part is my favorite though, both musically and lyrically:

20 mil mansion never lived in it, zero edge pool never dipped in it
Super star neighbor in my business, paparazzi trying to catch me slippin’
Goin’ on tour is my vacation
Every month, another accusation
Only thing I’m phobic of is failing
I was never blessed with any patience

It’s also a really nice transition to “Escape from LA” where he wants to escape both memories of his ex and the general LA lifestyle. He ends by repeating that he’s “leaving, leaving into the night”. Both are really nice parts of the song that I wish were more front and center, instead of the goofy wordplay.

B-Tier – Songs That Are Good

10. Scared to Live – The 80s ballad of the album, “Scared to Live” is a solid song with great production (shocker). I can totally see awkward middle schoolers dancing to this at prom in the 80s. The keyboard that plays the main melody reminds me of the intro to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”, just a little bit. Any connection to Prince is a positive for me. At first, I thought it was just a filler song of sorts, until I delved into the lyrics and the connection to Abel’s ex-girlfriend. The whole story is about him admitting, “I’m the reason you forgot to love”, but “don’t be scared to live again.” It’s kind of an olive branch, wishing her well and hoping she can recover and move on. It’s a glimpse at a more mature, more emotionally stable version of Abel. Don’t get used to it.

9. In Your Eyes – And here I thought Abel left behind his MJ impression. I’m a huge fan of the King of Pop, but we don’t need another “I Feel It Coming”, where he clearly just impersonates Michael Jackson the whole time. Thankfully, “In Your Eyes” has a much more toned down MJ influence. The 80s, however, are very strong with this track–serving up a catchy beat, beautiful synth bassline, and a little bit of sax at the end. It’s a perfectly good song that’s easy to listen to without much scrutiny. Therefore, I won’t give it any.

8. Heartless – Alright, I’m rewriting this entry entirely AND bumping it to B-Tier. This is why:

I lost my heart and my mind
I try to always do right
I thought I lost you this time
You just came back in my life
You never gave up on me
I’ll never know what you see
I don’t do well when alone
You hear it clear in my tone

Why would this bump the song up the rankings? These aren’t the best lyrics ever, or anything. No, they’re not. But, they are a mirror to the bridge from “Faith”, the song that comes after “Heartless”. It’s very similar–like intentionally similar–in melody, and delivery to the one on “Faith”. When I recognized this, embarrassingly far into my listening and writing for this album review, I stopped cold. I had already recognized the parallels in both songs talking about “being a better man” and going “back to my ways”. But the bridge similarities gave me chills. I’m a big fan of sister song synergy (see “Cabaret”/”TKO”).

This song has taken awhile to climb into my good graces, starting in C-Tier, at number 11. In fact, since I’ve heard the single, I’ve never really given this song a full chance, I guess. Why? Because I’m heartless.

No, really, though. I’ve always thought this song was trying a little too hard to be something it’s not. The production and beat are practically begging to be a hardass rap song, but Abel is no hardass and certainly no rapper. I’m just not buying it, even though the song tells me how heartless he is, numerous times. Speaking of the title, I always thought “heartless” was a pretty poor word to describe what he’s doing in the song: getting laid, driving expensive cars, doing drugs. Those things do not make you heartless.

There could be many reasons why they’re making this (tenuous) connection. Like, he’ll never be able to love and care for someone because he’s too busy living that crazy, rich bachelor life. I guess “heartless” is a pithier way to get there. It could also be a song about doing all those things in response to your ex wanting to get back together, which would definitely be a heartless thing to do to someone who loves you. And a confusing thing to do, since half the album is him obsessing over her and missing her. Maybe he’s heartless because he doesn’t care who he steps on or who he hurts while he’s partying and living it up? I don’t know. But when you have three different explanations, it’s probably because none of them are good enough on their own.

In spite of ALL of that nonsense, I bumped this song up to number 8 because first of all, have you heard the damn beat? It really does forgive a lot of flaws. Second, once I made that mental leap for WHY he’s heartless (pick a reason; any reason), I started to sort of get behind the narrative a little. Sure, Abel isn’t a hardass rapper, but I don’t for one second think he’s making up any of this. I do believe he’s trying to have the time of his life in Vegas, covering up the pain, pretending he doesn’t care. He’s trying to do all of this and brag about it, when really he’s inflicting more pain on himself. If you don’t believe that, listen to “Faith”, which is basically the comedown of “Heartless”. Hell, listen to the bridge of THIS song.

I’m all about narrative. And the beat. That helped significantly.

A-Tier – Songs That Are Great

7. Alone Again – As the album opener, this track’s job is to set the tone for the whole experience. It’s not going to be your go-to song for anything, with no discernable beat or riff to dance to, but it’s stylistic, full of ethereal sounds, and beautiful synthesizers.

The reason it’s in the Great Tier is because of its incredible production, especially the transition from the drawn-out synth note in the bridge to Abel’s autotuned vocals in the latter half of the track. It’s a dreamy, hazy bit that holds your hand gently, at first but slowly becomes more ominous. The whole mood of the song slowly changes here. Now, you’re in a different song. He repeats a lot of previous lyrics with this heavy auto tune, but they have this new feeling of being more detached and more surreal. It’s not a detail that will jump out at you as being spectacular, at first, but it’s so well-executed. The album is full of stuff like this.

The chorus says: “I don’t know if I can be alone again”. That line right there says a lot. Whether you’ve been in a codependent relationship yourself, been obsessed with someone who broke your heart, or just miss being in a relationship, this line can work on many levels. He says it a lot, too, so it must be important. This song could have had nonsense lyrics and it would still be great, but it still has a plot to it, and I love that.

6. Escape from LA – This is classic Weeknd-fare–pulling back on the synthpop/80s-retro drip, in favor of a more moody and dreamy R&B style. It’s always been high on the list, figurately speaking. There are a lot of things that work really well here: the lyrics, the vulnerability in Abel’s voice, the mood. He makes me feel exactly what he’s going through–dejection, melancholy, missing his ex, memories that now feel sad, hating the LA scene. I also really enjoyed this reference: “Keanu Reeves, the way a n**** speed/Diamond cross hangin’ off of me; I’m fighting for my soul, Constantine”. THAT is how you do wordplay and pop culture references in a reflective song.

Another reason this is so high up is that it has three distinct phases of storytelling and musical composition. I love how verses 1 and 2 are different stylistically, but do their part to move the story along and add a new texture to the song. The bridge completely changes direction, in favor of a vibe-y, dreamy number that leads us into Abel reminiscing about a visit from his ex, while he was in the studio recording. I feel every bit of this song, especially this part in the studio. The Weeknd’s production team and Abel’s vocals know how to sell a song and its story.

S-Tier – Songs That Are Flawless

5. Until I Bleed Out – This is such a good song in theme, lyrics, and execution. I originally had it as high as number 1, but had to drop it because it’s such an intense and heavy song.

There’s no quirkiness in “Hardest to Love” to hide behind. There’s no bitterness or missing her like in “After Hours”. There’s not even the glimpse of acceptance and well-wishes from “Scared to Live”. It’s just pure pain and agony. “I don’t even want to get high anymore,” “I want to cut you out of my dreams.” I feel nothing but pain. There’s nothing I can do. I messed this up. I’m the worst. It’s a lot to deal with emotionally and doesn’t make for the best standalone listen. It’s at it’s best as the album closer–the story ender–with all the other songs before it to give it the most context and significance. It’s a fantastic song in concept and execution.

4. Too Late – There is something about the auto tuned vocals, crisp percussion, and sugary 80s pop vibe that hits that special spot in my brain. It’s almost like cheating. When that part of my brain gets tickled, it overrides all logic and reason. I automatically shot “Too Late” to S-Tier without any contemplation or debate from myself when I started putting the songs into categories. The problem with that is all the other songs on here received scrutiny, critical thinking, analysis. I don’t have anything else good or bad to say about this. It’s a fun track. I love it. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t make it “deeper”. I wouldn’t write it any better. I think it’s perfect as is. I don’t have 3 paragraphs to write about it, and that’s okay.

3. After Hours – I’m going to use this opening paragraph to talk about the Interlude right before “After Hours”. “Repeat After Me” is a Bruno Mars-style track that’s pretty clearly about Abel desperately trying to convince a woman into believing she’s still in love with him, even though she’s with someone else. I’m not the only one who interpreted it that way. I didn’t give it an official ranking because it’s hard to judge this song too much on its own merit, as an interlude. I did want to talk about it a tiny bit though because what’s there is good and helps the narrative; it’s just rather incomplete.

Now, let’s talk about “After Hours”, which is both a banger and a heartfelt song about pain and affliction. So, basically, “The Weeknd Special”. This track has risen up the ranks over the course of my writing this article, where it originally starting in A-Tier. There’s a lot going on lyrically, from dealing with his sadness and pain about hurting someone (my money is on Bella, even though this interpretation thinks parts of it are about Selena Gomez), to missing her, to apologizing for his behavior. It sounds bitter and remorseful in the same chorus: “Baby, where are you now when I need you most?” and “Sorry that I broke your heart”. This stream-of-conscious in the lyrics shows the cycle of emotions we go through during painful breakups.

I’d be remiss though if I didn’t talk about the musical composition and structure. It starts out slow and plodding, building up to a beat drop that comes a robust 2 minutes in. Before that moment, we are treated to a lot of expositional foreplay; haunting, echoing vocals; and a lyrical foundation to help paint a vivid scene. The addition of crackling film and clinking glass suggests two things to me: a) analog recording, b) smoking crack. But since my knowledge of both is limited, I’ll just say I like the aesthetic choice, regardless of their meaning. It’s a really well-crafted song from a musical standpoint, as every beat, every reverb, every second feels intentional, yet effortlessly executed. I love the way this song flows together and creates a big, tragic, touching story in one song. It essentially sums up the entire story and themes of the album.

2. Faith – I called this my favorite song on First Impressions because of the way it stood out from the other songs. Now I’m finding even more reasons to love it. I already talked in a previous entry about its synergy with “Heartless” and how this is the aftermath of everything that happened in that song.

Besides all the gripes I have about “Heartless”, there’s another reason that “Faith” is so much higher in the rankings. It’s the exact same concept, but executed miles better. He’s still doing drugs, he’s still numbing the pain, he’s still a “low life”. But I don’t get this false bravado from it. He’s not hiding anything. He’s self-destructive, past the point where he should stop. It’s not fun anymore. It’s not glamorous. It’s just pain. He still can’t stop. He can’t help it.

What always captured my attention about this song was the bridge that begins with this line: “I lost my faith; I’m losing my religion every day”. That’s the same bridge that “Heartless” mimics. The bridge here on “Faith” is a great contrast to the rest of the song’s musical composition. The other part that bumped this so high was the dreamy, ethereal part toward the end where it sounds like he’s singing through a drug-induced haze, lying on the sidewalk, waiting for the police to arrive. All his bad behavior leads to him being in “the back of a flashing car”, facing the consequences of his actions. All his antics are catching up to him.

It’s an absolutely perfect segue into “Blinding Lights”, especially with this lyric: “With the city shining on my face; The lights are blinding me again.” A song that clearly conjures up images of being obsessed with your ex, while you’re on a bender in Las Vegas, straight out of prison (I mean, clearly, right?). The same ex, who you’re so obsessed with that you say this about her on “Faith”: “if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me; I want you to follow right behind me. I want you to hold me while I’m smiling, while I’m dying”. Can I get a “YIKES” in the comments? Holy shit. That’s fucking intense. It’s a great story about a tragically co-dependent and unhealthy relationship paired with brilliant-as-always production.

  1. Blinding Lights – Unclutch your pearls for a second and listen.

I really didn’t want to put this at number 1 because first of all: it’s the song that I’ve listened to the most on its own (it was my number 1 song of 2020 on Spotify), so I feel it’s a biased choice. Second of all: it’s generally considered lame when you’re a fan of an artist to love a hit single of theirs, much less consider it your favorite track from an album! Gasp!

I originally had “Too Late” as number one, but it didn’t feel right, despite that it’s a fun and awesome song. “Until I Bleed Out” was number 1 at one point because of the themes and writing, but it didn’t “feel” like number 1, either. I could have even put “Faith” here and it would have hit a lot of the same points that each of these songs hit. It was my favorite on First Impressions, after all.

But I decided to put “Blinding Lights” as number 1 because the true mark of a favorite song is that you do want to listen to it over and over again, outside of the album. I mean, I just made that up, but I’m going with it because it does feel right in this case. Hit or not, “Blinding Lights” is my favorite. It fits perfectly within the narrative of the album, but it’s also a killer standalone song.

And sure, it’s about codependency and an unhealthy relationship, but boy, is it disguised under an unbelievably catchy beat and infectious riff! Just like how “Can’t Feel My Face” was a song about doing blow, disguised as a fun, danceable song. I really do not care. It’s fun. I need fun. I’ll listen to it a hundred more times this year. It was my feel-good song a lot of the times, and my god, do I love bopping along to it. I don’t have much to say in the way of a technical breakdown, but if I did I’d talk about the perfect riff, the god-tier percussion, the gorgeous mix of vocals seamlessly between the melody. Those things make a good song from an engineering standpoint, but my connection to it is what made it great. Perfect. Favorite.

Re-commence pearl-clutching.

Fancy Q in black stamped on a marble background with a gold flourish bordering it
Made in Canva by me

“Pretty Boy” – The Neighbourhood

I have noticed an increase in my usage of the word “vibe” or “vibey” in the past year. I can’t help but describe this song as vibey though. What do I mean by that? I mean that it’s chill and sounds like you could “vibe” to it. Just hang out and let it message your brain. It’s like a sugar rush in musical form.

I know this band for the song “Sweater Weather”, which I am lukewarm on. “Pretty Boy”, however, is red hot.

Enchanting melody, beautifully eerie harmonies, a vocal performance that gently picks you up and soothes your aches and pains. That’s all there is to it. Doesn’t have to be much.

I want more music like this in 2021.

“My Favourite Game” – The Cardigans

Despite being a 90s kid and a fan of music from that era, The Cardigans somehow flew completely under my radar. Besides that one hit that I thought was a No Doubt song until I was well into my 20s, I couldn’t have told you who they were. That’s probably because they were Swedish and didn’t make much of a splash on the US charts.

Before hearing “My Favourite Game” pop up on a playlist, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what it was called. But there’s something so familiar about it. I went searching online for where else I might have heard that hook, maybe sampled somewhere. But I couldn’t find any evidence. The lyrics don’t conjure up any memories, but the riff is infectious and lights up the nostalgic part of my brain.

It doesn’t matter where it’s from though because this is another 90s pop-rock treasure. The melody is catchy; the vocalist, Nina Persson, has a nondescript singing voice that works as a perfect vehicle for the song; the vibe is sort of whimsical and happy.

I honestly don’t care what the song is about, and I won’t bother with the lyrics. The song is a perfect way to encapsulate songs from the 90s. This wasn’t a “serious” rock song. It wasn’t trying to say something with the lyrics, like some from other genres. It was just a fun pop song.

We have those today. We’ve always had them, really. There’s nothing remarkable or incredibly special about this song. But it’s nostalgic, and that’s enough to bring it to your attention so that we don’t forget The Cardigans’ other contribution to our musical history.

First Impressions: Plastic Hearts by Miley Cyrus

First Impressions is a segment where I give my first, minimally edited thoughts on an album that’s new (or new to me), without research, multiple listens, or the benefit of letting it “percolate”. It’s a way to get out my thoughts much faster than the time and effort I would put into real album reviews, thoughts, and track rankings.

I’ve never been a Miley Cyrus fan. I’m not saying that to be better than you. I like Nickelback, okay? I’m not better than anyone. There’s something about her persona and musical style that has always seemed fake and forced. She’s a little obnoxious, has no real musical identity, and seems to do most things for attention. I guess that’s just what pop stars do (and teenagers/young adults), but I’ve never connected with any of her music. However, as Ashley O for “Black Mirror”? I’m all in on that.

So why am I doing a First Impressions about her? I heard that this album was more in her wheelhouse as far as her vocal talents go, and really, she does have a nice voice–she’s just never paired it with a song I would call “good”. Let’s see what Plastic Hearts has to offer.

Overall impression: There’s a lot to like here, but it feels like Miley is just cashing in on the retro, 80s synthpop sound that was trendy in 2020. I love that we’re going back to that corner of the 80s, but this feels like she’s trying on the genre the way she’s “tried on” rap and hip-hop. On my first listen, I thought it was a cheap imitation of new wave with some great moments. On my second listen, I thought it held up much better. I don’t think Miley will be a synthwave Queen going forward though. This is just another experimentation for her. Isn’t that pop stars, though? Maybe I’m being too hard on her because 1) experimentation is her thing, and 2) it’s ALL pop singers’ thing!

That being said, her voice is definitely suited to this type of pop music–passionate, yelling, everything sounding purposeful. In general, it was a pretty likeable album with a lot of fun moments and a lot of earnest moments. Her voice really makes me yearn for a country/roots album, or something more bluesy, even. My heart can dare to dream. Maybe when she’s experimented with every other genre she’ll get bored and go back to what she grew up on–because everything she’s done so far seems like a rebellion against country and roots-style music.

After her SHE IS COMING EP, which I definitely didn’t just look up and listen to after hearing Plastic Hearts, maybe the themes and sound of the new album shouldn’t be such a surprise or a change in direction. She didn’t even give up on rap music like I thought! That’s to say nothing of the weird Dead Petz album that was all over the place and gave us that very weird video of her in a diaper. With these two, uh, musical releases in mind, Plastic Hearts hits a lot different–and is MUCH tamer and palatable.

Miley strikes me on Plastic Hearts as an evolving and growing artist, who learned about some cool 80s icons. She’s retained a lot of her “it’s our party, so we’ll do what we want to” vibe. I guess that’s okay. It just looks like dumb fun when you’re in your early 20s, albeit a little immature, but when you’re *checks notes* 28– She’s 28? Jesus Christ. Okay, I guess as you get older, the whole “We Can’t Stop” thing is just who you are. In fact, it’s considered rather punk rock to not care what others think of you.

I can’t help but admire people who don’t care what others think and like to “stick it to the man”, but newsflash, Miley: the punk rockers and new wave alternative icons you wanted to imitate on this record actually rebelled against things that mattered. It wasn’t just about getting high, getting drunk, and fucking everyone. It was about rebelling against an archaic, unmalleable society–AND it was about getting high, getting drunk, and fucking everyone.

Still, it’s the best thing she’s ever released in my opinion, and I’m kind of here for it.

Favorite Song: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I had trouble deciding between like 4 songs. I’m going with “Bad Karma”. “High” is up there, too, as well as “WTF Do I Know”, “Never Be Me” and definitely, “Gimme What I Want”. Hmm, that’s 5!

Least Favorite song: “Golden G String”. She tried to do something heartfelt and sincere here. But her and her producers paired it with the worst possible music.

Grade based on my arbitrary rubric that’s entirely subjective and mostly based on my feelings: 85/100 B

While partly arbitrary because I “go with my gut”, my general rules are that S-rated albums or songs are perfect and could not be improved upon; “A” grades are fantastic and nearly perfect, with just some minor, nitpicky problems; “B” grades show a lot of promise and good material, but have a few subpar or unpleasant elements; “C” is the opposite of B, in that it has a few good bits, but it is mostly subpar or unpleasant; “D” means you barely tried; “F” means the F were you thinking.

If you want to see how the sausage was made, here were my real-time thoughts (mostly) for each track as I listened:

WTF Do I Know – Is this…is this rock and roll Miley? Sort of? It’s the Miley attitude we’ve all grown indifferent to, but with more likeable music behind it. I like that she sounds aggressive on this track. I don’t know many of her other songs, but they’ve always rubbed me the wrong way. This one does a good job to reverse that.

Plastic Hearts – another boppy song with a juicy bassline. She does have a nice voice for this style. It’s very good, great even, until after the first chorus. I can’t help but think this song wanted to be a modern version of Hall and Oates’ “Maneater”. We already have “Maneater”; do your own thing.

Angels Like You – a ballad, sort of. It’s okay. Later songs will prove she does this slower style much better.

Prisoner – This is a pretty good pop song, but it feels like it’s lacking something. Dua Lipa didn’t help much. I forgot it right after, both times I listened to it.

Gimme What I Want – What in the 90s boyband shit is this? I love it. Very short, but I really dig the sound.

Night Crawling – You thought putting Billy Idol on here would give you some credit? It does. I’m actually really impressed. The song could use a little bit more of that punk/rebellious punch that Idol’s songs had. It’s still a danceable song, but it’s lacking in personality.

Midnight Sky: I’m somewhat familiar with this song, but had never heard it all the way. I don’t know what the hell this song is about or why it’s called Midnight Sky. Like many songs on here, the’y have snippets of interesting or cool-sounding lyrics that are ultimately meaningless when you piece them all together. Who cares? The synth and bass are just absolutely fantastic. But like with “Plastic Hearts, this reminds me of a far superior song: Edge of Seventeen. In this case though, I think they pull off being influenced without sounding like just a cheap discount of it. –Oh, there’s a remix with Edge of Seventeen at the end of the album. That’s…something.

High – Okay, this makes me feel something. It’s not just her raspy voice struggling to hit the notes that feel a little high for her. This is the first song that sounds like it’s really her trying to be herself and not shoved into the mold of today’s trends. I am telling you. Miley needs to do a real country album. Not country pop. Not hiding behind other styles. Just straight country and roots. But the whole point is for her to do a style that resonates with her, and I don’t know what her style actually is. This is still really good though.

Hate Me – Another track that diverges from the 80s synth, but it still retains that raspy growl and the belting high notes that she’s been fond of on this album. This is another song also that alludes to something that I still associate her with: getting drunk and high. So maybe she’s not trying to shed her old image after all. She’s just trying to repurpose it a little. This song isn’t too bad, but she can’t pull off the waling punk vocals as well as she thinks she can. It’s grown on me quite a lot with a second listen though.

Bad Karma – Oh, I was stoked for this when I saw Joan Jett is on it. If there’s any doubt that Miley’s embracing the attitude, as well as the sound, of the 80s alternative/new wave scene, this should erase it. Maybe she’s just trying on new sounds, but keeping the old attitude she had, which was “fuck everyone else”. I have to say, I respect it more and more through the album. She’s not necessarily trying to be something she’s not, though I don’t know if synthpop is her thing (or anyone’s after this phase dies out). But she’s wearing it well. This almost wants to have a country vibe to it. Yes, I know. I desperately want her to do country. So this is maybe as close as we’ll get, but it’s shrouded in those background vocal moans and the minimalist riff in the background so that everyone can be happy.

Never Be Me – This is another one that has made me feel things. It’s really beautiful. Instead of belting it and pushing her voice, she goes for a softer tone and staying in her register. It’s no less impactful than the yelling she does on other tracks. This is also one of the only ones that make me think the lyrics are actually about something.

Golden G String – Oh god. Is this…Miley trying to give us her version of “Sorry” by Justin Bieber? She’s explaining her past a little bit, but make us sympathize with her and feel sorry for her. It kind of works. But the song is dull and has no real melody or discernable tune.

“Mother, Mother” Tracy Bonham

This one is new to me, even though it’s Tracy Bonham’s most famous song and it’s from 1996. I’m a fan of 90s music, especially alt rock, so I’m surprised I never came across this. But I’m glad I did, thanks to a Spotify playlist full of female rock artists.

Bonham mixes soft, acoustic guitar verses with a raging chorus that builds to her screaming, “Everything’s fine”. Something makes me think she’s not fine. Coupled with her deft songwriting that contrasts what she tells her mother about her life with what is actually happening, “Mother Mother” is a nuanced and layered song both musically and lyrically.

I really feel her struggle as an adult who maybe doesn’t feel like an adult when talking to her parents. It also highlights how we make small talk, tell our parents what they want to hear, but face a different reality. I’m always going to connect with good songwriting. It helps though that the song kicks ass and melds the acoustic and louder rock together in one song.

I really do miss the alt rock and adult contemporary singer/songwriter combos of the 90s. We could use a revival of this type of music on today’s charts. The modern iteration of “adult contemporary” is basically just regular pop music. It’s not that we don’t have artists who emphasize writing and create minimalist songs; it’s just that those people don’t have their own category or genre, besides maybe indie or folk.

Thank God for streaming services.