What a strange, enigmatic pop star Lana Del Rey is. Despite nearly torpedo-ing her career before it even started with that infamous SNL performance, she’s carved her niche as a YouTube-generation torch singer, thanks to the atmospheric “Video Games” off 2012’s Born to Die.
Subsequent releases have been rapturously received by both critics and her rabid fanbase, yet excepting a fluke remix of “Summertime Sadness,” her songs rarely grace top 40 radio. Unburdened with the need to generate huge singles, Del Rey’s albums instead function as masterclasses in evocative dream-pop.
Del Rey’s fifth LP, Lust For Life, continues this trend, with each track infused with her trademark lush, Wall-of-Sound production. Booming lead single, “Love” exemplifies this best, with the song’s nearly operatic grandiosity enveloping you like a warm embrace on a cold evening.
Likewise, the Max-Martin-penned title track shines, as Del Rey and the Weeknd trade surreal lines about “dancing on the H of the Hollywood sign” against the best production this side of a Phil Spector song. And as always, Del Rey’s vocals stun and enchant with effortless beauty, allowing her to glaze over some of the album’s so-so lyrics (“high tops in the summer/don’t be a bummer”).
Despite largely preaching to the choir, Lust For Life still manages some subtle surprises: the confident, hip-hop swagger of “Summer Bummer” recalls past Born to Die glories. The echo-y “In My Feelings” is a brilliant fuck-off, with Del Rey sneering, “get that cigarette smoke outta my face.” And while she normally sings solo, the album is sprinkled with surprising guest vocalists, including Sean Lennon on ‘60s-love-letter, “Tomorrow Never Came,” and a meeting-of-ethereal-minds duet with Stevie Nicks on “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems.”
Also, while the album tackles familiar terrain (summer in “White Mustang,” love in “Groupie Love,” and America in “God Bless America—And All the Beautiful Women in It”), Del Rey struggles with an existential millennial dilemma in “Coachella—Woodstock on My Mind,” as she fails to reconcile a weekend of music festival bliss against mounting tensions with North Korea. This small, toe-dip into politics—along with her recent announcement that she’ll stop using American flag imagery because of President Trump—stands in stark contrast to Del Rey’s typically unrelenting Americana obsession, whilst expertly showcasing her growth as an artist.
Because so many of Lust For Life’s songs sound like silky smooth stoner anthems, the album lacks the dramatics peaks and valley associated with more traditionally-pop albums (and it’s about three songs too long). This relative uniformity won’t convert any newcomers, but to her slavishly devoted fans, Lust For Life perfectly encapsulates Del Rey’s enigmatic, singular brilliance.
On July 20th, 2017, singer, Chester Bennington, committed suicide. Bennington rose to prominence in 2000 as the lead singer of Linkin Park. The band’s debut album, Hybrid Theory, was the perfect distillation of alternative rock, nü metal, and rap, and went on to sell over ten million copies in the U.S.
Subsequent albums—including 2003’s Meteora and 2007’s Minutes to Midnight—solidified the band’s sound and cemented their status as America’s favorite hard-rock band. Bennington played a key role in the band’s success, his striking vocals acting as the perfect foil to Mike Shinoda’s MC-skills.
Despite Linkin Park’s success, Bennington’s personal life was embroiled in chaos. Sexually abused by an older male friend, and the product of childhood divorce, he fell into alcohol and drug addiction at an early age. As an adult, he was plagued by health issues, including a recluse spider bite during OzzFest 2001, a hatial hernia that sidelined him in 2003, and a shoulder injury that required surgery in 2011. Even with all his fame and fortune, he couldn’t catch a break.
It’s heartbreaking to imagine the demons Bennington battled, but I hope he’s finally found peace. To commemorate his talent, here’s a look back at five of his most impressive vocals:
Crawling—Linkin Park: “One Step Closer” was Linkin Park’s introduction, and “In the End” became the massive single, but “Crawling” provided Hybrid Theory’s most stunning vocal. Utilizing a familiar ‘90s alt-rock sonic template, Bennington delivered deceptively quiet verses before detonating in the throat-shredding chorus. Despite being a literal pain for Bennington to sing live, “Crawling” marked Linkin Park first step towards world domination.
Numb—Linkin Park: Built around an unforgettable keyboard-synth hook, “Numb” is the ultimate outsider anthem. Bennington’s searing vocal raged his frustrations in the verses (“Every step that I take / is another mistake to you”) before exploding in the cathartic chorus, with a generation of disaffected youths finally finding their voice when he screamed, “All I want to do / is be more like me / and be less like you.”
Shadow of the Day—Linkin Park: One of Linkin Park’s best ballads found Bennington surprisingly restrained. Stripped of the rap and electronica elements they built their empire on—and borrowing liberally from U2’s “With or Without You”—the track’s sparse production perfectly showcased Bennington’s sweet vocals in this delicious lullaby of a song.
Waiting For the End—Linkin Park: Later Linkin Park singles suffered from the law of diminishing returns, but “Waiting For the End” is their mid-period masterpiece. The soaring, alt-rock power ballad is best remembered for Shinoda’s impassioned reggae-inflected verses (including the epic line, “the hardest part of ending is starting again”), but Bennington’s crystal-clear chorus provided the bedrock from which Shinoda soared.
Crawl Back In—Dead By Sunrise: While writing for Minutes to Midnight, Bennington found some of his songs were too dark and personal for Linkin Park. Rather than tossing them aside, Bennington formed a side-project, Dead by Sunrise, with members of industrial-rock group, Orgy. Sadly, the super-group’s lead single, “Crawl Back In,” is generic post-grunge rock, but the conviction of Bennington’s distinct vocal saves it from the bargain bin.
Kesha started this decade as one of pop’s brightest stars. Though initially signed as a songwriter, she parlayed her guest vocal on Flo Rida’s 2009 hit, “Right Round,” into her own music career, launching her debut single, “Tik Tok” later that same year. The Auto-Tuned, half-rapped/half-sung vocal and her trashy, poor-man’s-Lady-Gaga aesthetic polarized critics, but the song was a runaway smash, sailing to #1 for nine weeks and kick-starting an impressive run of hit singles.
Then, of course, came Kesha’s claims of sexual assault and battery against her producer, Lukas “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. Gottwald denied the allegations, hitting back with a defamation countersuit, and the resultant legal brouhaha sidelined Kesha’s once-blossoming career. In 2016, a New York judge dismissed all of her claims—keeping her chained to Gottwald’s contract—though near-unanimous support from A-listers like Adele, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift granted her victory in the court of public opinion.
Kesha returns under these dramatic circumstances with “Praying,” the lead single from Rainbow, her first album in five years. The song’s simple piano introduction immediately differentiates it from the party anthems that built her career; “Your Love is My Drug” this most certainly is not. Against this stark production, Kesha details the struggle of surviving—and being strengthened by—a tormentor (obviously Gottwald). Despite one understandably bitter lyric—“when I’m finished, they won’t even know your name”—the song stands as a testament to empowerment and even forgiveness, as she sings, “I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees.” Eventually the piano bleeds into a gospel-organ, weepy strings, and a big, stomping drumbeat to match the rawest, most righteous vocal of her career. And I dare the most cynical of hearts not to tear up when she hits that high note after musing, “some things, only God can forgive.”
The stunning music video also perfectly showcases her recent struggles. It starts with Kesha asking, “Am I dead? Or is this one of those dreams?” as pig-masked, suited men hover over her casket. In between symbolic black and white images of the singer adrift at open sea upon a raft, she successfully escapes her piggy antagonists through a thrilling Technicolor, desert trash-scape dash. The heroic, cathartic video concludes with the words “the beginning” announcing Kesha’s rebirth.
“Praying” is a perfect, rise-from-the-ashes reinvention. Stripped of Auto-Tune, shorn of the ironic “$” that once stylized her name, and baptized by the fires of her legal trials, the real Kesha Sebert finally shines. It’s a glorious, triumphant return, and I cannot wait to hear what she does next.
Hard to believe, but 2017 marks ten years in the biz for Calvin Harris. While the former Adam Wiles was an instant U.K. success, it took his massive, 2011 Rihanna-collaboration, “We Found Love,” to break him Stateside.
Since then, an irresistible run of dance-pop hits has crowned him as the world’s top paid DJ, with a Las Vegas residency, a steamy Calvin Klein underwear ad, and high-profile romances with pop chanteuses like Rita Ora and Taylor Swift further expanding Harris’ brand.
Having reached the apex of the EDM empire, Harris uses his fifth album, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, to experiment with nu-disco. While his former compositions bounced with big beat exuberance fit for cavernous clubs, the ten languid, tropical songs on this compact collection are aimed at sound-tracking summer barbecues and chilled, stoner beach parties.
To achieve his new sound, Harris traded his normally-British cast of rotating vocalists (Ellie Goulding, John Newman) for rap and R&B heavyweights (Snoop Doog, Migos), infusing each Funk track with a decidedly hip-hop flavor. Unfortunately, most of these new collaborators fail to deliver. Pharrell adds the excellent, silky smooth hook to the “Get Lucky”-esque “Heatstroke,” but similar attempts by John Legend and Nicki Minaj fizzle rather than sizzle. Contributions from the occasional pop vocalist are especially underwhelming: Katy Perry’s dreadful, “baby, I know you ain’t afraid to catch feels” chorus to “Feels,” surely has Harris’ former flame (and Katy Perry-antagonist), Taylor Swift, cackling.
Strangely, it’s the lesser-known talents who shine brightest on Funk. Up-and-coming Oakland hip-hop singer, Kehlani, rap-sings with convincing spite on “Faking It,” while Canadian newbie, Jessie Reyez, ups the emotional ante when she sings, “I’d rather be hard to love than easy to leave,” in album-closing slow-jam, “Hard to Love.” Harris’ quirky vocal, which previously powered hits like, “I’m Not Alone” and “Summer” is also conspicuous in its absence.
Despite the album’s shortcomings, Funk succeeds in providing a relatively cohesive summer playlist that connects with fans: the album debuted at #2 in both the U.S. and the U.K. Whether Harris has permanently traded dance-y beats for tropical vibes remains to be seen (although the Vol. 1 in the title suggests as much), but for now, EDM’s Golden Boy can light a spliff and bask in the summery glow of his continued success.
2017 radio is strangely devoid of rock music. While guitar-driven rock songs dominated the mid-‘90s, rap and pop currently command the airwaves, with only the occasional rock hit finding a home at top 40 radio. Las Vegas rock band, Imagine Dragons, hope to buck that trend with their third album, Evolve.
Imagine Dragons burst onto the scene in 2012 when sleeper-hit, “Radioactive,” crossed over to pop radio.
The Grammy-winning single crystallized what the band did best: namely, fusing electronic, hip-hop, and alternative music against booming drums and lead singer, Dan Reynolds’, trachea-shredding vocals. The amalgamation of styles struck a chord, as “Radioactive” spent a record-shattering 87 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, propelling parent album, Night Visions, to multi-platinum success. Their ambitious follow-up, 2015’s Smoke + Mirrors, became their first #1 album, while contributions to the Divergent, Suicide Squad, and Passengers soundtracks further solidified their position as rock music saviors. The pieces were in place for their third album to launch Imagine Dragons into the stratosphere.
Sadly, Evolve fails to deliver anything new, with too many of the songs retreading previous glories: the rap-like verses and vitriolic vocal of “Believer” is “Radioactive” MK 2.0. The mid-tempo, lighters-in-the-air chorus of “Walking the Wire” is this year’s “Demons.” And the echoing drums that give “Thunder” its punch are the same ones heard throughout Night Visions. Similarly, instead of expanding their sound, the band simply dialed up the synth-y, vaguely-ethereal production of their first album, resulting in Tangerine Dream-lite soundscapes that sound more like the soundtrack to Molly Ringwald’s first kiss, and less like a brave step forward for rock music’s torch-bearers. Consequently, while none of the songs sound abysmal, they all suffer from familiarity.
Furthermore, the album’s occasional sonic deviations are a mixed bag. “I’ll Make It Up to You” twinkles with simplistic beauty, thanks to one of Reynolds’ rare, restrained vocals, yet “Yesterday” and its hand claps, punishing piano, and waltz-like melody is the unholy love child of Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Strangest of all is “Dancing in the Dark.” Sadly, not an inspired Bruce Springsteen cover, the closing track’s distorted, “if you ever want to join me/I’ll be dancing in the dark” chorus and minimal, floaty production acts as the perfect homage to cold ‘80s synth-pop. It’s a bizarre detour for rock’s reigning royalty.
Evolve certainly has its strengths, namely Reynolds’ commanding vocal, which impresses whether he’s spitting rapid-fire verses like a pseudo-MC on “I Don’t Know Why,” or belting out his trademark sing-shout style in the chorus to “Start Over.” The visuals—including excellent, Tron-inspired single artwork, and the amusing boxing-against-Dolph-Lundgren music video for “Believer”—are also noteworthy in their attention to detail.
Despite not being the evolutionary leap forward its title suggests, Evolve delivers solid, if unspectacular songs. But most importantly, it’s a hit: the album debuted at #2, and “Believer” recently became the first rock single to make the top ten in 2017. Imagine Dragons fill an essential void in popular music, and as long as guitar-driven music continues to die out, their music needn’t evolve so much as rock.
Hard to believe, but the year is already half over. And between Beyoncé birthing twins, Lady Gaga triumphing at the Super Bowl, and Ja Rule taking the fall for the disastrous Fyre Festival, it’s been a jam-packed year. Let’s look back at some of the biggest winner and losers of the first half of 2017.
Justin Bieber: Once pop music’s most notorious laughing stock, Bieber rose from the ashes with a troika of aces off 2015’s Purpose; currently between albums, his stock continues to soar thanks to vocal guest-spots on DJ Khaled’s first #1 single, “I’m the One,” and Daddy Yankee’s song-of-the-summer, “Despacito.” With rumors of a new album dropping in time for Christmas, 2017 might finally convert the most adamant haters into Beliebers.
The Chainsmokers: Though the NYC duo successfully transformed from kitschy one-hit wonders (2014’s “#Selfie”) into dependable hit-makers, their frat-boy image and simplistic melodies made them the EDM Nickelback: critically-reviled, million-selling populists no one admits to loving. Critics and closet fans be damned, though, as the Chainsmokers spent 2017 planning a Las Vegas residency, modeling for a Tommy Hilfiger ad, collaborating with Coldplay, and basking in the glow of a #1 album.
Drake: How to follow up a commercial high-watermark like “One Dance”? Well, if you’re Aubrey Graham, you lock yourself in the studio to record the critically-appraised, genre-spanning More Life. The album topped the charts and broke single-day Spotify records, solidifying Drake as the King of Streaming. If that wasn’t enough, Billboard announced that a combination of endearing hits and scene-stealing features has allowed Drake to chart at least one song on the Billboard Hot 100 every week for eight consecutive years and counting! It’s Drake’s world, we just live in it.
Ed Sheeran: Everyone’s favorite ginger-haired singer-songwriter released his third album, ÷ , in early March. It stormed to the top of the charts and granted Sheeran his first U.S. #1 single with the dancehall-inspired “Shape of You.” ÷ even necessitated a rule change in the UK charts when massive streaming of the album enabled Sheeran to lock down fourteen of the top fifteen songs that week. Expect him to clean up once award season rolls around, as he’s a critics’ darling.
Harry Styles: Long considered the most talented member of One Direction, Styles’ solo debut was amongst the last out of the gates, as Zayn Malik’s 2016 album initially grabbed all the glory. The wait was worth it, though, as Styles’ epic debut single, “Sign of the Times” perfectly blended the Beatles, Bowie, Blur, and the remaining best bits of British music into five and a half minutes of soaring power pop. An upcoming world tour and a role in Christopher Nolan’s war-drama, Dunkirk, ensure a busy rest of the year for the former boy-bander.
Camila Cabello: Cabello was riding high in 2016 as one-fifth of girl-group, Fifth Harmony, thanks to their slinky hit, “Work From Home.” However, encouraged by modestly-successful collaborations with Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly, and with an eye on becoming the next Nicole Scherzinger, Cabello struck out on her own. Her bandmates were blindsided by her departure, resulting in an ugly war of words that sapped public goodwill. Subsequently, Cabello’s debut single, “Crying in the Club” has failed to crack the top 40. Time to kiss and make up with her old band?
Miley Cyrus: Cyrus twerked her way into infamy at the 2013 Video Music Awards in a crass, calculated attempt at distancing herself from her Disney past (riding naked atop a wrecking ball didn’t hurt, either). And it paid off in spades as her antics became the talk of the town. The world patiently awaited her next move…sadly, unexpected new single, “Malibu,” is a snooze, the song’s mellow, soft-rock breeziness acting as stylistic sedation. Also, the song’s complete about-face from the hip-hop influences of her last album has not gone unnoticed, with Cyrus having to answer fresh accusations of cultural appropriation.
Gorillaz: Despite positive reviews and an eclectic host of talent that encompassed everyone from Mavis Staples to Grace Jones, the triumphant return of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon band was marred by lack of a hit. While previous songs like “Feel Good Inc” and “Dare” were gloriously ubiquitous, none of Humanz’s six singles took off at radio. Even more damning was the album’s lack of streaming success: innovative, colorful music videos are the band’s endearing hallmark, yet none of the promos found an audience this time.
Katy Perry: Is Katy Perry OK? “Chained to the Rhythm,” the lead single for her fifth album, Witness, was supposed to represent “purposeful pop,” but the song was an awkward, Technicolor hot mess with one too many syllables in its title. Follow-up singles, “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish” barely bothered the charts. But it’s her Witness press that’s been most troubling. Perry’s erratic interviews mirror Mariah Carey’s Glitter-era meltdown, culminating in a tearful breakdown during her 72 hour livestream. Get the help you need, girl, and come back, whip cream bra guns blazing.
PWR BTTM: PWR BTTM found out the hard way that not all press is good press. The once-promising queer indie-rock group’s fortunes were torpedoed just before the release of their second album, Pageant, when band member, Ben Hopkins, was accused of sexual assault and making unwanted sexual advances towards a minor. The band denied the allegations, but the fallout was swift and severe: their music was pulled from online retailers like iTunes and Amazon, and they were dropped by their label. The band have also canceled all upcoming performances. Is their career already over?