TIME Music

Review: Adam Lambert’s The Original High Is an Actual Pop Album

adam lambert the original high
Warner Bros. Records

After two LPs that didn't quite deliver on his potential, Lambert finally finds collaborators who help him draw out his talents

Former American Idol runner-up turned glam soft-rocker Adam Lambert has had some trouble, as Idol finalists often do, settling on a sound. His last studio album, Trespassing, is faintly remembered for its two lead singles: the stodgy power ballad “Better Than I Know Myself” and energetic piece of Bruno Mars showmanship “Never Close Our Eyes.” Neither did much on the charts, and neither represents the album all that well. To get a better sense of this slept-on if uneven release, one must revisit the album tracks, like Pharrell-produced “Kickin’ In,” or Sam Sparro-Nile Rodgers collaboration “Shady”: funky, sexy, and quite ‘70s.

None of that sounds particularly unusual—Pharrell, after all, produced a huge swath of 2013’s pop music, and Rodgers, with his fellow disco-era artists, has graduated from session-musician legend to marquee Top 40 guest—but look at the date. Trespassing was released in 2012, a full year before ubiquitous songs-of-the-summer “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky,” and well before everyone from Maroon 5 to Ed Sheeran had begun churning out disco-funk. Rising pop artists, who are both too early in their career to be pigeonholed and too green not to be on the most cutting of edges, often record albums that sound eerily prescient years on, from the coquettish retro-pop of Ariana Grande’s Yours Truly to Icona Pop’s shouty, gonzo electro. Adam Lambert, it turns out, may merely have been ahead of his time.

Lambert has since switched labels over “creative differences”—here, a euphemism for his label pushing him to release an album of ‘80s covers, which is both a godawful idea and well short of Lambert’s ambitions. While Lambert has the voice—and religiously devout fan base—to coast on a post-Idol career of Broadway spots and franchise compilations, his ambitions are the charts, the higher the better. So it’s little wonder that the first two tracks on The Original High cast Lambert as an L.A. sleaze antihero—an imaginary genderflipped Lana Del Rey narrative, perhaps, where “God and James Dean” haunt “the summer back in Hollywood”—and let him revel in sex, drugs, EDM and the sounds of the moment. Nor is it much surprise who’s responsible: unsinkable pop juggernaut Max Martin and his protégés Shellback and relative EDM-world newcomer Ali Payami. Whatever one thinks of Martin—his first go-round with Lambert, “Whadaya Want From Me,” was a second-tier single from cowriter P!nk—on The Original High he’s a godsend. He allows Adam Lambert up to record actual pop songs rather than dated power ballads.

The timing is spot-on. Lambert’s sound fits right in next to funk-pop showmen like Jason Derulo, Maroon 5, Nick Jonas and the newly Max Martin-produced The Weeknd, not to mention belters like Sam Smith, Patrick Stump and Bruno Mars. “Ghost Town” is not far off from Avicii, “Another Lonely Night” from Disclosure’s “Latch.” Often, he outdoes them. On house-inflected “The Light,” Lambert out-Sam Smiths the Brit without any of Smith’s vocal histrionics; “Evil in the Night” and Brian May collaboration “Lucy” are as campy—in a good way—as any of this year’s Fall Out Boy singles, without even having to sample The Munsters.

The album tracks on Trespassing predicted all this, of course; if you’ll allow a little pop prognostication, the album tracks on The Original High might predict something else. For better or worse, male artists tend to be given deeper repertoire than female artists, and Lambert’s songwriting certainly gets introspective, but what’s interesting is that the moodiness comes out in the sonics as well. Much has been written about R&B’s long brood state, born of quietstorm and popularized by the nocturnal slow jams of Noah Shebib; though R&B radio has moved on from this sound somewhat, Payami evokes it on “Underground,” with a disarmingly plaintive vocal from Lambert which recalls Shebib and Alicia Keys’ similarly submerged-sounding “Un-Thinkable.” Going further underground, album closer “Heavy Fire” suggests someone’s been listening to Massive Attack—specifically, the riff to “Dissolved Girl” and the gentle click of “Teardrop.” In fact, it’s almost a shame when the chorus ignites. Tove Lo, probably Lambert’s closest female counterpart, joins Lambert on the moody “Rumors,” adds 808 handclaps, lonely synth peals, sinuous vocal echoes and a Drakean cadence. The result is far more haunting than any song containing the lyric “get out of the haterade” should be.

That’s not to say the album is perfect. “Things I Didn’t Say” is maybe the sixth-best midtempo EDM track on the album, which suggests there are too many. “There I Said It” is one of those power ballads Lambert is theoretically moving away from, and the lyric doesn’t contain a retort worthy of the title. But it’s easily the most coherent album Lambert has released. Where For Your Entertainment was an Idol alumnus’s album, and Trespassing was the work of an artist with intermittently interesting material, The Original High is a pretty good pop album, with ambitions toward more.

TIME Music

Review: Best Coast Go Full Power Pop on California Nights

best coast
Harvest Records

All the fuzz and distance of Best Coast’s previous records has been Lemon Pledged into guitar sparkle

Nothing harshes California’s mellow like California itself. As power-pop lifers Kay Hanley and Linus of Hollywood, who named their band Palmdale for it, once said: “Palmdale sounds like a happy, beautiful place, but it’s actually a bleak, concrete-encased desert town with a very high meth lab-to-people ratio.” It just takes an hour too long at the beach for sun-soaked to turn into sun-sick, after all, and parallel to the carefree music codified by the Beach Boys and pornified by Katy Perry runs a tradition that’s equally indebted to the West Coast, and equally irresistible: the fun-and-sun pop song about dead-end suburbia, sulk-around boredom and bad decisions in sunny weather. California girls, they’re inconsolable—and none more so than the girls who inhabit any given Best Coast song.

Anyone who knows Best Coast probably also knows the Best Coast memes: the cannabis-fueled sulking, the Cathy-approaching levels of pining over boys, the cat Bethany Cosentino wishes could talk, the state of California getting a literal bear hug, the fact that all their songs famously sound the same. As one writer said of the band and its contemporaries, they’re “obsessed with the various qualities of sand, sunshine, friendship, and/or the waves, and they’re too high to take a position on much else.” As a band concept, it’s snappy as a sales pitch, inviting as a June beach and responsible for a lot of fans falling fast in summer love. Still, it’s the sort of thing that, when sustained over more than one album, easily leads to a backlash. As backlashes do, the sniping about Best Coast’s music soon turned into a referendum on their personality, and specifically the personality of Cosentino herself. Her looks, her persona, her relationships (notably with fellow indie kid Wavves) became fodder for sneering-at-best bloggers. These days, even people who like Best Coast tend to liken Cosentino, who is 28, to a “needy, narcissistic teen.”

It shouldn’t have to happen this way. When Best Coast debuted with Crazy For You they were quickly lumped in with what was at the time a surfeit of lo-fi, all-women or at least female-fronted garage bands. This was always an awkward fit, less a scene than a trendpiece, and most of these acts soon abandoned the fuzzy girl-group sound for other lands, like ‘80s mall goth, or breakups. Meanwhile, Best Coast have quietly found themselves in the zeitgeist. Haim, by channeling California cool, have earned a besotten following of music heads and, increasingly, celebrities. Weed, quarter-life crises and power-pop gloss make up Colleen Green’s excellent and much-feted I Want to Grow Up, to name one of a bouquet of flower-powered California acts. The sad-girl act has been lately embraced as an Internet aesthetic (take the 200K follower-strong tweeter @sosadtoday, from—where else?—L.A.). That other California drear-er of note now tops the mainstream charts. Improbably, Best Coast have become underrated.

Luckily, the band’s well-positioned to drop that “under.” California Nights—sharing a name with a track by the late Lesley Gore—is the band’s major-label debut, on Capitol’s Harvest Records, and it sounds it. If The Only Place was Best Coast’s big pop move, then by comparison California Nights is the size of the Hollywood sign. All the fuzz and distance of Best Coast’s previous records has been Lemon Pledged into guitar sparkle; the result’s almost unrecognizable as the product of two people who used to be in a drone-folk band. A lot of the credit here goes to producer Wally Gagel, who produced Best Coast’s last EP Fade Away as well as the power-pop likes of Superchunk, Juliana Hatfield and Tanya Donelly’s post-Belly debut, the underrated Lovesongs for Underdogs. Unlike Jon Brion, who helmed The Only Place, Gagel’s not afraid to go for the hook, and where The Only Place didn’t sound polished so much as sprayed stiff, California Nights sparkles like pavement and sounds great: one shining hook, directed right at your heart.

We’re in the realm of power-pop, in other words, where the band’s always belonged. “When Will I Change” tweaks the riff from Blondie’s “Dreaming”; “Fine Without You” is a dead Letters to Cleo ringer; “Heaven Sent” sounds, gloriously, like half the radio did in 1995. Bobb Bruno races through fast tracks, while Bethany Cosentino pulls syllables like bubblegum, deploys words like punctuation—which is key. The average Best Coast lyric (representative: “why don’t you like me / what’s with the jealousy / sha la la, sha la la…”) can be rewritten with no more than three emoji, and you’d probably end up re-using the same three. But you could say the same of the best power-pop acts—think Shonen Knife, or the Ramones even—and there’s a method to Cosentino’s single-mindedness. The themes are largely unchanged: bad boyfriends, friend breakups, more weed—concentrated on the title track, a psychedelic reverb trip without a scrap of irony—and the push-pull inertia of wanting to grow up and not really wanting to move. By track two Cosentino’s bouncy and hooky, telling herself to stop wasting time and sounding convinced; by track 12 (“Wasted Time”) she doesn’t sound convinced of much of anything but the soporific drift, as easy to get lost in as one slept-away afternoon, then five more.

It’s tempting to call this maturity, but neither the sounds nor the shrugs are anything Best Coast hasn’t dwelled upon since Crazy For You. Go back and re-listen and it’s all there, like re-runs of the same show on the same TV, watched in the same apartments during the same long summers. That’s the point, and it always was. Being 28 and having meandered for years through variations on the same love and life limbo is, to put it lightly, not an unfamiliar scenario for most of Best Coast’s listeners, old or new. California, as it does in so much fiction, becomes a stand-in for the whole country; the California blues turn out to be not that different than any given listener’s own personal inertia. But the trick of this music—a trick Best Coast are very near perfecting—is that it sounds like so much fun.

TIME Music

Review: Kelly Clarkson’s Piece By Piece Is a Victory Lap

Kelly Clarkson's 'Piece By Piece'
RCA Records

Clarkson still has some of the best pipes in pop, but she's using them to hit the same note — over and over again

Kelly Clarkson won her fame on the basis of her voice, but she kept it by being a survivor. It’s the subject she returns to most frequently in her music, and it’s the underpinning of her entire career. She survived an American Idol thresher so notoriously brutal to its alumni that one of its winners recently sued the show. She unapologetically torching bridges with mogul Clive Davis and songwriter Ryan Tedder over, respectively, the commercial viability and alleged label mishandling of 2007’s My December and Tedder’s repurposing the backing track of single “Already Gone” for Beyonce’s “Halo.” Throughout, she’s navigated pop-music tides that haven’t always welcomed her big-voiced balladry. Lesser artists might be sunk by any of these setbacks, but it’s a testament to Clarkson’s talent and persistence that she’s still being written about in 2015. And the 2015 music landscape would seem about as good as it gets for Clarkson: longtime collaborator Greg Kurstin has found himself in high demand as a songwriter for P!nk, Katy Perry and other A-listers, while artists like Sia (another Kurstin colleague) have brought her sort of emotive pomp-pop back into vogue. In many ways Piece By Piece, Clarkson’s first full studio album since 2011’s Stronger, couldn’t be coming out at a better time.

Early returns were promising. Lead single “Heartbeat Song” — thanks in part to a hefty lift from Jimmy Eat World’s pop-emo hit “The Middle” — is as poppy as anything Clarkson’s done and, as is her wont, more nuanced than par. It’s not just a crush song but a song about a crush that strikes long after giving up hope on the matter (sample lyric: “I’m so used to feeling numb”), and Clarkson’s delivery is one long breathless jolt of life, like an EKG spike rendered in heart emoji. The single’s one of her best, but sadly, it’s an anomaly on Piece By Piece, which mostly runs the gamut from midtempo ballads to slightly slower ones. Perhaps inevitably, the highlights are the tracks most likely to rankle purists. EDM might not seem like a natural match for Clarkson’s earthier presence – it’s probably telling that apart from club remixes of her singles she’s mostly avoided the genre – but her tiptoes in that direction turn out surprisingly well. “Take You High” begins with orchestral pomp but, come the chorus, dissolves into Purity Ring-esque vocal gurgles, by far the most triumphant moment on the record. No less exuberant is bonus track “Bad Reputation,” like a brassy update of “Miss Independent” with a retro punch; the style has suited her ever since her electrifying Idol performance of “Stuff Like That There,” and it’s surprising she hasn’t done more like it since.

Otherwise, Piece By Piece is near one-note, like an album-length take on her platitudinal coronation song “A Moment Like This.” There’s been a conservative quality to Clarkson’s albums after the My December fallout, and Piece By Piece might be the most uniform yet. Clarkson recently told BBC Radio 1, to a minor Internet furore, that she “felt like she had the plague” after artist after artist turned her down for collabs. Whether that’s true or exaggerated (Clarkson has since backpedaled), it’s hard not to have the quote in mind while listening to Piece By Piece’s filler. What collaborators are there are often surprising. “Heartbeat Song” was co-written with Kara DioGuardi – who also has ambivalent ties to the Idol apparatus and worked on much of Breakaway, though very little this decade – while Antonina Armato and Tim James, best known for producing pre-twerking Miley Cyrus, give John Legend duet “Run Run Run” a lovely touch. Oddly, the most promising collaborations fall flat. Working with Shane McAnally, who with the likes of Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves has produced country’s most ambitious work in years, would seem so natural (or, more cynically, like a smart exit strategy), since Texan-born Clarkson’s always been a little bit country, anyway. But “Good Goes the Bye” suffers from a truly embarrassing lyrical conceit. At least that one’s not her fault, unlike “I Have a Dream,” a would-be generational anthem that sets carping about the kids and their “Jezebel ways” to a cod-gospel choir in a juxtaposition that’s ill-advised at best.

The faults of Piece By Piece are less Clarkson’s fault and more that of her repertoire. (It’s perhaps telling that ever since My December, Clarkson’s written less and less on her albums.) She’s in strong voice throughout and no less confessional than ever. One of the album’s strongest moments is when she drops the vague inspiro-platitudes and names names on the title track, a dagger to deadbeat dads everywhere that marks her most pointed lyrics since Stronger’s “You Love Me.” The song’s all the sharper for the dull ballads and toothless screw-y’alls one has to slog through to get to it.

Some critics suggested around Stronger that Clarkson’s music and/or life has to be angsty to produce musical fruit, and that’s not the case. It’s more that for whatever reason, they’ve brought out in her a specificity this album lacks. At its best, Piece By Piece sounds like a victory lap from an artist who’s earned about five. At its worst, it evokes the umpteenth hour of an Idol finale with no victory in sight.

TIME Music

Listen to Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney Team Up on ‘FourFiveSeconds’

Roc Nation

Rihanna and Kanye West trade vocal duties, with Macca on acoustic guitar, on a surprisingly breezy new track

At the iHeartRadio Summit on Jan. 21, Kanye West played an audience of mostly industry people a new duet with Rihanna and Paul McCartney — the latter of whom we heard collaborate with him on New Year’s Eve on the introspective “Only One.” The new duet, titled “FourFiveSeconds,” has now premiered online for everyone who isn’t a radio programmer.

Earlier, a spokesperson for West called his teaming with McCartney “a prolific musical collaboration,” and it’s easy to hear his influence on the acoustic guitar and organ-driven track. Kanye continues this year’s streak of entirely-sung work and Rihanna sounds as relaxed, even folksy, as she’s sounded in years on her sunny, harmonized chorus.

According to Ty Dolla $ign, who spoke to Billboard and said he contributed to the duet, a video was also shot and coming soon. Ty Dolla $ign said the track was planned for West’s upcoming album, but Rihanna posted it herself, calling it the “FIRST GLIMPSE AT MY NEW MUSIC,” making it unclear whose song it is, exactly.

“FourFiveSeconds” is out on iTunes; listen below.

TIME Music

Review: Nicki Minaj Reinvents Herself on Personal The Pinkprint

Young Money

Minaj's new LP sees her donning many identities at once — and that's a good thing

“I had to reinvent,” says Nicki Minaj at the beginning of her third record, The Pinkprint. It’s less a rap than a plea. The reinvention in question is “All Things Go,” a Drake-like quietstorm lament about the cost of fame. And a reinvention it truly is.

“All Things Go” has nothing in common with “Anaconda,” Minaj’s raunchy flip of “Baby Got Back” that, depending on who you ask, is either a revelation or out of Revelations. It’s got something in common with “Pills N Potions,” her moody erstwhile Top 40 single, but where the former was made for radio, “All Things Go” was made for being kept up at night forever. “There’s never been such a huge gap between two [of my] singles,” Minaj said about those two, and “All Things Go” widens the gap even more. It’s the track where she stamps her bid for rap history, a counterpart to Jay-Z’s iconic The Blueprint: “This is the Pinkprint,” she says forcefully. It’s also the track where she contemplates giving it all up to be with her family — to take her future kids to preschool — and sounds entirely like she means it.

It’s a contradiction, in other words, and a tough one even by the standards of Minaj’s career, which is both impressive and impressively torn. Nicki has her ever-loyal core fans, her Barbz — all major artists do. But she’s also got the Mixtape Nicki fans, who show up once an album cycle to be appeased by the promo tracks and haughtily bemused by the record. She’s got her Pop Nicki fans, the ones who loved “Super Bass” and “Starships,” although the biggest Pop Nicki fan may be the pop market itself, which demands and demands until artists die. She’s got Character Nicki fans, the ones who can relate every detail of Roman Zolanski, Harajuku Barbie and the rest of Minaj’s sometime personae in encyclopedic detail. Then there are the R&B Nicki fans, the Dancehall Nicki fans, and – as usual, louder than the rest – the haters: the ones who use Minaj as a metonym for bad taste, musical and otherwise and often without listening beyond snippets of the singles, and the patriarchal industry forces at which Minaj has taken increasingly explicit shots leading up to The Pinkprint. It’d be impossible to sate even one of these groups, let alone them all.

Little surprise that her last album, Roman Reloaded, was a fragmented attempt to serve every demographic at once with Nicki content. As a marketing strategy, it’s fine, even smart – one of Nicki’s many underrated qualities is her marketing acumen – but for a grand Blueprint-esque statement, it won’t do. The Pinkprint, mercifully, barely tries to satisfy the masses. The Mixtape Nicki tracks, as usual, were relegated to promotional tracks. “Anaconda” is an anomaly that exists in its own Top 10 partyland. The pop songs might be more lugubrious than the urban-radio fare.

What we get instead are entirely new Nickis, of her own invention and on her own terms. First is Confessional Nicki – in the singer-songwriter sense of introspective ballads designed for wistful use. Much has been made of The Pinkprint being a “breakup album” – specifically, about Safaree “SB” Samuels, her rumored longterm companion. Part of it’s how intensely private Minaj is: the sort of woman whose media statements are things like, “If I call the ambulance, it’s gonna be on TMZ,” and whose relationship, or whatever it was (she’s that reserved) played out largely not in public but in little plausibly deniable lyrical nudges. He’s been more forthcoming – and publicly salty – about its demise than she was. More of it’s the urge to cast Nicki in increasingly salacious and/or gossipy lights, which women – and women of color especially – know well.

But The Pinkprint’s best confessional stretch is barely about boyfriends. (In a Complex cover story, she specifically talked down that idea.) “All Things Go” is starkest when addressing the shooting death of Minaj’s cousin Nicholas Telemaque, and her subsequent self-laceration: “His sister said he wanted to stay with me, but I didn’t invite him… yes, I get it, I get it was all me; I pop a pill and remember the look in his eyes the last day he say me.” “I Lied” is about a breakup, but it’s more about the fear of vulnerability, down to the visceral fear of being touched; in sentiment it’s not far from Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel. The Andrew “Pop” Wansel-produced “The Crying Game” gets starker both in content– “blood drippin’ out your arm on my Asian rugs … now we in the crying game, hearts laced with slugs” – and spiky guitar backing. It’s a hell of a stretch, and it elevates even the more conventionally weepy ballads. Even “Pills N Potions,” which came off simultaneously too druggy and too drippy for the radio, works here, because it has stakes.

Not that The Pinkprint’s a downer. We’ve also got Boss Nicki, happy-drunk on the same ego she laments on “I Lied.” On “Get On Your Knees,” Minaj and Ariana Grande revel in both sexual control and vocal control, of the disarmingly pretty instrumental; thank god it didn’t go to co-writer Katy Perry, who’d make it the guy’s domme fantasy that Minaj and company dismiss. On “Four Door Aventador,” she emulates Biggie in flow, and on “Feeling Myself,” she does it all: getting laid, getting off, getting puns off, hanging with Beyoncé, conquering rap, conquering worlds. There’s also Curatorial Nicki, who assembles cred and taste as well as anyone has year. She’s generous with it, turning over a large portion of her grand statement record to Maya Jane Coles samples, Fatima Al Qadiri takeoffs, luxuriant Jessie Ware choruses and Beyoncé, who brings “Feeling Myself” to a halt – a literal halt, then “please resume” – to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her own imperial phase. It’s returning the favor for Bey’s own “Flawless” remix, far from the girlfights or beefs the media loves to make records like these into. The Pinkprint is devoid of all that; it’s a work of solidarity, of boosting, prolonging, even saving careers (if you’re feeling generous, you could call her Skylar Grey collab that). And specifically, those careers are female.

The worst moments on The Pinkprint are the ones where men lumber in to ruin the mood, whether they be Drake, Chris Brown and Lil Wayne trading locker-room inanities on “Only,” or Dr. Luke, who produces both that track and the dismal radio castoff “The Night Is Still Young.” They’re not only unwelcome — they feel tired, as if they’d have been dated years ago. (If you’re not feeling generous, you could call her Skylar Grey collab that too.) They’re necessary intrusions of commercialism that belie Minaj’s claim she “ain’t gotta rely on top 40” and undermine what’s presumably meant to be a classic.

But maybe those are the wrong expectations. Maybe The Pinkprint isn’t so much The Blueprint as, as the cover art hints, a fingerprint: something indelibly unique to one person, to Nicki. At this, it succeeds entirely.

TIME Music

Review: On Sucker, Charli XCX Outdoes Her Peers

Charli XCX Sucker
Atlantic Records

Sucker contains a dressing room’s worth of new styles and a Top 40 playlist’s worth of pop moves

To those who know Charli XCX from “Boom Clap” — the sugary, besotten cut from The Fault in Our Stars turned breakout hit — she’s a newcomer: another bratty new face from a pop machine that stamps out bratty new faces. In reality, Charlotte Aitchison is already a pop lifer at 22, on about her fourth reinvention. First, she was a Myspace DIYer, then a gothy ‘80s maximalist, then a crushed-out chillwave purveyor, and now an unlikely teenpop starlet. Madonna would be dizzied by reinvention at this pace: Sucker is not Charli XCX’s debut album but her third.

It’s also the normal pace pop runs at in 2014, where artists’ A&R reinventions – the retoolings upon retoolings that precede artists’ debut – take place not behind label doors but on SoundCloud, across blogs and otherwise in public, allowing each successive style to sweep in a new microdemographic of followers and fans. “Tweenage spitfire” might seem a stretch for someone whose prior demographic was mostly pop nerds and indie fans, but you could hear it coming. You could hear it on one-off “SuperLove”; you could definitely hear it on radio smash “I Love It” (which Charli gave to Icona Pop thinking it didn’t fit her sound — so much has changed in so little time); and you could infer it from her entry into the major-label songwriters’ gallery, penning tracks for up-and-comers like Ryn Weaver and Bella Thorne, her Disney doppelganger. Even her earliest shows in smallish venues, pulsed with bumping-and-grinding star charisma, made for huge arenas.

“Boom Clap” is a songwriter’s pop song, a smart song – drunk as much on love as it is on form and onomatopoeia, and full of enough Charli touches to sound like hers. Still, it’s far more saccharine than career highlights “Stay Away” or “You’re the One.” It suggests a worst-case scenario of polishing away everything that made Charli XCX compelling, turning her into a could’ve-been story like X Factor personality bomb Cher Lloyd (homogenized by Simon Cowell’s Syco) or British musical polyglot A*M*E (by Max Martin’s proteges).

Fortunately, Sucker is not that album; it only resembles a traditional teenpop debut during its draggy final stretch. It’s also not True Romance. That album was great for its deathly serious melodrama, but Sucker is great because it takes nothing seriously. Credit Aitchison, who’s proven herself adept both at musical reinvention and at industry politics. “I proved a point to my record label that I wasn’t f-cking around,” she recently told TIME. “I can write big pop songs, but I can A&R myself as well.” What she’s A&Red herself into this time is something like a late-‘90s movie soundtrack, down to a Republica homage: lead track “Sucker.” The rhythms and sass come directly from “Ready to Go,” but the bridge — “Sitting on a plastic speedboat in the ultraviolet ocean, playing cool songs, trying to show off,” shouted singsong — is pure Charli, both in acid-trip surrealism and in attitude. Single “Break the Rules,” paced like an EDM stomper, takes ‘90s Shampoo and Garbage and turns them into ‘10s treasure. Icona Pop drove pop off this particular bridge years ago, and it’s thrilling to hear an artist revive these pleasures without the guilt.

Even the bad ideas work. “London Queen” is like the Ramones as interpreted by Mary-Kate and Ashley, punctuated with Britishisms “Oi!” and “Wank!” like emoji. When she chirps things like, “When I’m driving on the wrong side of the road, I feel like J! F! K!” it’s embarrassing on the first listen. But on subsequent plays it’s exuberant, and great fun.

Elsewhere, Charli XCX easily outdoes her peers. “Gold Coins” is Lorde’s “Royals” with the saturation and satire cranked up, and the broke bitterness even more acute. Throwbacks “Need Ur Luv” and “Breaking Up” (on the former, shades of The Chalets) should render would-be doo-wopper Meghan Trainor entirely irrelevant. Given her younger fanbase, “Body of My Own” can’t go past PG-13, but smartly, it reserves its best euphemisms for the music – the “Turning Japanese” quotes, the effervescent bridge-as-climax. “Doing It” is pastiche worthy of last year’s Haim album, and fans of early Madonna will get much from “Dress You Up” pings and eerily reproduced vocal shimmer. And while Rivers Cuomo cowrite “Hanging Around” sounds exactly like early Weezer, its spoken-word bridge is as much a throwback to – again – Aitchison’s own “Stay Away.”

Sucker is full of callbacks like these: “Doing It” is like a sequel to “Take My Hand,” and “Body of My Own” outsulks anything on True Romance. It’s fitting. While Sucker contains a dressing room’s worth of new styles and a Top 40 playlist’s worth of pop moves, Charli XCX is a smart enough songwriter to make them her own, and magnetic enough a presence to make that a winning prospect.

TIME Music

Review: Jessie J’s Sweet Talker Leaves a Sour Aftertaste

Republic Records

On the U.S. follow-up to Jessie J's debut Who You Are, she shows off everything except who she is

Jessie J’s weathered a lot of music-industry nonsense for someone bequeathed its never-ending support. She attended the BRIT School with Adele and Amy Winehouse, which for awhile in the U.K. seemed like a guarantee of two albums and a critical lovefest, but despite efforts spent on everything from industry awards to premature Video Music Awards facetime to make Jessie J happen, she didn’t happen – outside the U.K., that is. Despite teaming her with familiar producers like Claude Kelly (“Price Tag”) and Dr. Luke (“Domino”), her last album, Alive, wasn’t released in the United States. Though she’s moved to Los Angeles (in part to flee gossip), after three albums, the stateside market’s still not quite sure what to make of her.

Jessie J isn’t unaware of this: “As soon as I had a bob, my music sounded like Katy Perry’s. Now I’ve got short blonde hair, my music all of a sudden sounds like Miley’s and Pink’s,” she said last year. “As soon as I go dark, I’m sure I’ll have comparisons to Rihanna.” It’s hard not to feel for her. Though the ample criticism directed her way is mostly because her music isn’t good, the phenomenon is real and shared by nearly everyone — women, especially – who attempts to go from songwriter to star and finds they’ve peddled their sonic personality to the better-known stars who’ve cut their songs. Cornish’s confusion seems genuine — it’s natural to be confused when it seems you’re doing everything right to only moderate success.

Fortunately or not, Sweet Talker has solved the problem of doing everything right. Jessie J has admitted the album was made unusually fast, and it comes off as both slapdash and retooled to an inch of its life. Though Cornish is an accomplished songwriter — the sticky hook to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” is hers — she has very few credits here. The big names involved like Max Martin, The-Dream and Diplo present a sonic panoply that’s only notable for who isn’t there — namely Pharrell, who was supposed to work with Cornish on new material that was presumably scrapped. The only recurring themes are a breathless forced energy and a frenzied vocal and production crusade against the haters, the loud, the doubters and, on lead track “Ain’t Been Done, the “unbelievers.”

This theme isn’t new for Jessie J — Who You Are had the clownish “Who’s Laughing Now” — but Sweet Talker has it almost everywhere, from “Masterpiece” (“If you don’t like my sound, you can turn it down”) to “Loud” (“I tried to drown them all out in my sound, but they won’t stop until they tear you down”). The latter, despite a briefly pretty turn by pop violinist and YouTube celebrity Lindsey Stirling, comes off particularly tone-deaf, a way of taking haters and making them self-fulfilling prophecies.

The one distinguishing factor of the Jessie J Brand, as demonstrated on Sweet Talker, is that she can sing. Yuks about pop stars aside, this is a curious statement to make in 2014, as the year’s biggest divas, our Beyoncés and Arianas, aren’t short on chops. Nevertheless, Sweet Talker proves, at exhausting length, that Jessie J can indeed sing — enthusiastically, frequently, sometimes sharply. (That said, it’s best when she sticks to singing; the “hip-hop” tracks come off like Cornish heard talk of a rapper “spitting” and thought they meant it literally.)

It’s clear that, like much of the music industry, Jessie J’s team is taking cues from Beyoncé; mercifully, this comes not in the form of release-gimmick shenanigans but a certain heft to the vocal production. But what Beyoncé had that Sweet Talker does not is innovative production. “Fire” and “Get Away” are dull vocal showcases. “Bang Bang” is soul via claustrophobic digital compression, but it’s tolerable compared to the fetid swirl of classic-rock guitar and stomp of “Burnin’ Up” (which boasts the album’s worst lyric, the needlessly spelled-out “subliminal sex”). “Personal” — written by R&B aspirant Elle Varner — aims at “Pretty Hurts” but lands instead on “Pretty Hurts,” if Katy Perry did it as was threatened.

That’s lot of comparisons, again, but Sweet Talker’s best moment comes when Cornish stops dwelling on them and embraces the derivative. In a world where Ariana Grande’s Mariah revivalism has made her a genuine star, the similarly ‘90s-indebted “Seal Me With a Kiss” isn’t exactly a risk, but Cornish lets up on the vocal assault, the need to make her stamp, and sounds breezy, even fun — two words rarely applied to her. For all the straining on Sweet Talker to make Jessie J a star, she’s best when just focusing on making good pop.

TIME Music

Review: Weezer Insists That Everything Will Be Alright in the End, and It Is

Republic Records

Weezer heads back to 1994 — with mixed results

It’s generally a bad sign when a band starts out its new album campaign by apologizing, particularly when that band spent the better half of the 2000s in unfettered self-indulgent decline. Yet that’s exactly what Rivers Cuomo does on the lead single of Weezer’s ninth album Everything Will Be Alright in the End, renouncing his past few years of radio rumspringa, B.o.B appearances and other cross-promotional musical detritus: “Sorry guys, I didn’t realize I needed you so much / I thought I’d get a new audience / I forgot that disco sucks … Maybe I should play lead guitar and Pat should play the drums.”

There’s something more than a little rich about this. That song, “Back to the Shack” is mostly the same song as “Memories,” from new-audience-era Hurley, and cowriter Jacob Kasher is signed with super-producer Dr. Luke. More to the point, a song that from the start pleads with the Weezer Cruise demographic to return with their fandom and their dollars doesn’t have much room to go on about obscurity and feelings and how you “can’t put that on sale.” But there are just enough flashes of self-awareness – like that conspicuously pricey sheen of power-pop gloss, and a just-emphasized-enough “turn up” pun – to suggest it’s maybe part joke. Maybe Weezer’s in on it, for the first time this decade.

But if “Back to the Shack” doesn’t quite work as a lead single, it does work as a promise: that Everything Will Be Alright in the End will be Weezer returning to “the place where the lightning struck.” That’s back to 1994, to Blue Album collaborator Ric Ocasek (The Cars, Nada Surf, Hole) and his spit-shine production, and back to, as drummer Patrick Wilson enthused, “the tight structure of Blue Album with a little more abandon like Pinkerton.”

In other words, the album’s a deliberate, slightly abashed retcon, an album from a world where nothing since 2000 happened and the albums that did happen were far more palatable. As usual, the order of the day is dad, band and girl problems, expressed via dorky off-kilter Cuomo conceits – Patrick Henry, Cleopatra and Stephen Hawking – alongside meat-and-potatoes power-pop. The character-study-if-you’re-nice shtick of Pinkerton reappears, too, in slightly diluted form: the right-outta-alt-lit “Lonely Girl” (which interpolates the Blue Album’s much-loved closer “Only in Dreams”) and “Go Away,” with the welcome addition of Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino calling Cuomo’s persona on his crap. Cosentino’s presence on Everything Will Be Alright is one of the few holdovers from 2010-era Weezer — specifically the band’s habit of pairing Cuomo with a series of decreasingly simpatico duet partners, from Paramore’s Hayley Williams to Sara Bareilles to Lil Wayne’s rap-rock guy Kevin Rudolf. Luckily, Best Coast’s self-loathing power pop is close enough to Weezer’s own self-loathing power pop that it seems far more natural.

The Blue Album ranks-closing is so strong, in fact, that it makes everything that’s off-brand come off organic: the aforementioned duets, The Darkness co-writes and the falsetto that comes with them, the radio-rock whistling. It’s an easy shot that Weezer lands near-perfectly. “Eulogy for a Rock Band,” much like U2’s recent “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” is an earnest remembrance both of rock in general and of one unnamed Great Act — but much unlike U2’s mandatory moment of worship, it serves as a touching requiem because it doesn’t set its stakes too high. They reserve that for the album’s closer – a litmus test for listeners, either the album’s highlight or nadir: a three-part, largely instrumental suite comprising multiple showy solos, every sugary pop-punk harmony in the book, climaxes upon climaxes, a children’s choir, a title drop, and the title of “The Futurescope Trilogy.”

It’s not much of a litmus test, though. If you’re sticking around with Weezer at all in 2014, you’re likely the sort of person who’s got the gene that makes you start, somewhere around the second half, grinning happily. It’s the same gene that allows you to shrug off the idea of a self-consciously riffy album-closing “futurescope trilogy” as Rivers just being Rivers. It might be Everything Will Be Alright in the End’s greatest, most improbable accomplishment: making that prospect sound not awful, but maybe even pretty good.

TIME Music

MDNGHT Catch a Lovely “Breeze” in New Video: Premiere

Watch the premiere of the U.K. quartet's latest music video

Manchester’s MDNGHT (pronounced “midnight”) take their inspiration from a number of sources: the house revival that acts such as Disclosure and Clean Bandit have made the top trend of the U.K. and now, increasingly, the U.S. as well; the drifty, tropical dance music that’s swept Europe for the past several years; the synths that strobe across dance floors during the, well, midnight hour.

Last year’s Into the Night EP earned the quartet acclaim abroad, and “Breeze,” out in September, expands on their nocturnal sound. Flecks of guitar, piano stabs and wall-of-sound background vocals gathering around Jordan Lewin’s breathy falsetto; the lyrics may be about faffing about and going where the breeze blows, but sonically, it’s a gust. The video nods to MDNGHT’s live-house background while providing an ideal dusky, half-urban half-beachside visual accompaniment. Watch it below.

TIME Music

Sofi De La Torre’s ‘Vermillion’ Is Your Gorgeously Gloomy Song of the Summer

Certain lines in pop songs can stop you in your tracks under the right conditions. Sofi de la Torre’s “Vermillion” has one; it might hit best at dusk, outside under an artificial scatter of light: “I love these streets, but they weren’t meant for me to walk.” The Spanish singer-songwriter, now living in London, has garnered acclaim overseas — she cracked the German charts with a single from the YA-fantasy film Rubinrot (Ruby Red) — but “Vermillion” suggests both a potential crossover bid and a more introspective sonic turn.

The sound of “Vermillion” — half dream pop, half Italo disco — has a lot in common with the shimmery synth pop of Say Lou Lou (“Better in the Dark,” “Everything We Touch”) or the numbed confessions of Tove Lo (“Habits (Stay High)”), but it’s less showy than either. The original track is spare, built on an isolated kick drum, nocturnal synth throb, and little more, and captures a certain late-night, post-drink existential pathos that’s near-universal; it’s equally haunting in house remix form (by Andre Crom and Chi Tanh). Its video, shot in the parts of L.A. that resemble deserted suburbia more than neon famescape, provides an ideal evocative backdrop.

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