Saturday, December 20, 2014

Madonna - are those new tracks any cop?

Madonna wasn't supposed to put out any new music this year. But that was before a "helpful" associate decided to share demo tracks for her entire new album with the internet.

The star had been plagued by leaks anyway. Earlier this month, she posted a photo of a smashed iPod on Instagram as a reaction to the appearance of the title track, Rebel Heart. "This broken ipod is a symbol of my broken heart!" she wrote. "I have been violated as a human and an artist! #fuckedupshit."

If I was the source of the leaks, I'd wouldn't like to be around when Madonna finds out my name. But at the same time, she pretty much has herself to blame - her 13th album has been gestating longer than an elephant and the more people get involved, the more likely it is that something will tunnel it's way onto the internet.

But, being Madonna, she responded in style: Tackling the leaker head on by depositing five tracks on iTunes, and another onto YouTube this morning.

"I was hoping to release my new single 'Living For Love' on Valentine's Day with the rest of the album coming in the Spring," she said in an official statement. "I would prefer my fans to hear completed versions of some of the songs instead of the incomplete tracks that are circulating. Please consider these six songs as an early Christmas gift".

Living For Love, sadly, is the YouTube-only track but it's the most interesting, because it was supposed to (and basically still does) set the tone for the album. It sounds like this:

Madonna - Living For Love

So what's all this new material like? It's quite simple: If you like Living For Love, you're going to like everything else. Diplo, the album's main producer, has his fingerprints everywhere - dirty synth hooks, pitch-shifted vocals and, on Unapologetic Bitch, a cod-reggae backing track. The only exception is Ghosttown, a stately ballad that sounds like a future single.

Personally, though, I'm not a huge fan of Madonna's late-period vocals - she's still doing that half-sung, half-spoken trick that became her stock sound on the Hard Candy album. It's a style that makes good use of her limited range, but it has the tendency to sound harsh and bitter, even when the lyrics are sentimental.

That's not always a problem here - as the song titles suggest ("Bitch, I'm Madonna", "Unapologetic Bitch", "Illuminati") she's in street-fighting mode right now, and Diplo usually has the good sense to dress her up in club sounds (all over, all over) that make a virtue of her demanding delivery (from her head down to her toes).

After my first few listens, the Madge album it compares to the most is Confessions On A Dancefloor - aka her last decent record - so the auspices are good. A solid 6/10.

You can get the tracks for yourself by pre-orderding Madonna's album, Rebel Heart on iTunes.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Pop gem: Veronicas - If You Love Someone

"You don't have to be an activist to want to make a change," reads a banner halfway through The Veronicas' Occupy-themed new video, If You Love Someone.

The visuals just about mesh with the uplifting, uptempo single, whose message is more "stand up for your love rights" than "stand up against the injustices of your fellow man". As protest songs go, it's too adorable to shake the foundations of power, but it's a darn sight more palatable than Russell Brand's revolution of narcissism.

Driven by an acoustic guitar and an irresistible chorus, it was co-written and produced by Syndney production house DNA songs, whose previous high water mark was The Saturdays' Not Giving Up.

Unlike that song, this is quite obviously brilliant from beginning to end.

The Veronicas - If You Love Someone

PS: Here's the interview I did with the band last month for the Beeb. It's not documented in the text, but our conversation was temporarily interrupted when one of the band turned on a radiator and it smelt of raw chicken. You don't get that with Nicole Scherzinger, do you?

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Eleven of this year's best Christmas songs

It's less than a week to Christmas Day - so here's a quick round-up of this year's new Christmas songs and festive cover versions. Presented in a big long list with next to no commentary because I'm drunk on eggnog.

1) Indina Menzel and Michael Buble - Baby It's Cold Outside
The video is almost too cute to bear.

2) Nothing Left To Do (Let's Make This Christmas Blue) - The Both

3) Ariana Grande - Santa Tell Me

Stick around for the blooper reel at the end of this video.

4) Nashville Cast - Blue Christmas

5) Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
A supercut of every Darlene Love performance for David Letterman since 1986.

6) Dum Dum Girls - On Christmas
Shades of St Ettiene here.

7) Bombay Bicycle Club - In The Bleak Midwinter

8) Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett - Winter Wonderland
Don't let this fool you into buying their album.

9) Sam Smith - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
For God's sake, won't someone give him a hug?

10) Cornershop - Let The Good Times Roll

11) Little Mix - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Technically awful, but oddly compelling.

And that's it from me for now... I'm taking a break for my first Christmas as a Dad (which is as exciting as it sounds).

I'll be back with my annual Top 10 lists sometime between now and the new year.

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Marina: Stripped back and Happy

Marina and the Diamonds has always had a confessional element to her lyrics. The opening lines of her debut album are about the hair-pulling anxiety of signing her record deal: "Was I meant to feel happy?" she sings, her mental state directly feeding those nervous tics in her vocals.

But her presentation has always been stylised and conceptualised - from the diamond-encrusted diva of I Am Not A Robot to the "American archetypes" she portrayed in the Electra Heart project.

So it's refreshing to see this unvarnished acoustic performance of her new single, Happy. The video is as naked as the lyrics, as Marina quietly describes her struggles with sadness, and how she found sanctuary.

Marina and the Diamonds - Happy

As I said last week, Happy is a fragile and beautiful song. But I've also worked out what was niggling me about the melody: The "I believe" section really reminds me of Dire Straits' Romeo and Juliet (specifically the line "Juliet, when we made love you used to cry").

Which isn't necessarily a flaw.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

St Vincent isn't my album of the year, but...

St Vincent’s fifth album recently topped both the Guardian and the NME's "record of the year" lists. You can see why – the self-titled album is further out there than the Mars Voyager, fuelled by warped guitar lines and discordant harmonies, without abandoning a core catchiness (there are proper choruses and everything!)

But it's an album I admire - not one I love.

Why? Because all the effort is on show. "Look at this clever thing I did here," it screams, "isn't it clever?" (I feel the same way about parts of Taylor Swift's 1989, truth be told). Great pop should sound spontaneous, no matter how much sweat is shed in the studio.

At the same time, St Vincent fulfils Lady Gaga's consistently broken Artpop promise. These songs have the potential to exercise the brain and the feet. And in its freer moments, the album is superb. One such moment is Birth In Reverse which, coincidentally, is the next single.

The video suffers from the same self-conscious stylings I mentioned above – but the "guitar hero in space" section is brilliant.

St Vincent - Birth In Reverse

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Must listen - Kendrick Lamar: Untitled

It's not often that lyrics website Rap Genius gets to deploy the phrase "Saxophone interlude" - but there it is, bold as day, in the middle of the write-up for Kendrick Lamar's new song, Untitled.

Premiered on The Colbert Report last night (where Lamar was the last-ever musical guest before Colbert departs to take over David Letterman's Late Show), the song is a sublime, jazz-inflected reflection on all the advice he's been given since becoming famous - buy property, chase women, abandon your core audience and get rich.

Watch below - and don't skip Colbert's interview, in which he quizzes the rapper on his stage pseudonym: "Why did you decide to name yourself after Anna Kendrick and Senator Lamar Alexander?"

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