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By John Brodeur

Now that all the non-Kanye fourth-quarter biggies have hit the market, it’s time for a bit of reflection. I began my Major Lift tenure less than a year ago with Animal, the debut album from trash-pop starlet Ke$ha. How convenient that she’d drop number two (see what I did there?) just in time to put a cap on 2010. Originally just an EP intended to be included with a deluxe version of Animal, Cannibal is also being sold separately, a move not only intended to make up for today’s shortened pop-single life cycle, but to capitalize on the fact that this girl can actually sell records. Like, for real: The lead single, “We R Who We R,” debuted at the top of the Billboard pop chart, only the seventh song to do so. It’s of a piece with her previous material, meaning the lyric, reportedly written in response to the recent rash of suicides among bullied gay teens, is delivered in a half-rapped, half-sung drawl over high-decibel, flatlined dance beats. And while her ode to celebrating one’s own weirdness is a bit flawed (surely a girl’s aim in life shouldn’t be to “make the hipsters fall in love”) it’s nice to know she cares. It’s at least nice to hear her sing about something other than drinking and fucking.

In fact, it’s that last bit that comes as Cannibal’s biggest surprise. The eight new tracks here, while sometimes sounding like the outtakes they probably are, almost manage to avoid the debauchery chronicled on Animal in favor of party jams—and a few genuine choruses. The problem with Cannibal (though you wouldn’t know it from the sales figures) is the sameness of the material—Dr Luke, Benny Blanco, and Max Martin are the parties mainly responsible for the sound, and it’s the same auto-tuned, blown-out noise that they’ve dominated radio with for years now. (“Grow a Pear” actually re-recycles the “Tik Tok” chorus hook borrowed by Luke/Martin/Blanco for Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.”) The standout tracks are the less-characteristic: “Sleazy” finds the singer committing to both rapping and singing, separately, over a chopped-and-screwed beat courtesy of producer Bangladesh; David Gamson brings a lighter touch to “C U Next Tuesday.” His production lays off on the auto-tune, too, and it turns out Ke$ha can actually sing. Maybe next time she’ll get some real songs to work with.

 

The Major Lift’s calendar year actually started with Rihanna’s Rated R; she, too, is back with a quicker-than-expected follow-up. Loud is the Barbadian singer’s fifth record, and it’s a decidedly more pop affair than its rather dark predecessor. Fun seems to be the overall aim here: The post-Chris Brown drama of “Russian Roulette” is replaced with “Sticks and stones may break my bones/But chains and whips excite me” (on opener “S&M”). Loud is streamlined, in a manner of speaking, with less producers and less guests to clutter the space (though those guests are no slouches: Drake, Nicki Minaj, Eminem). And while the more artistic bent of Rated R is missed, the hooks are undeniable, especially the Shama Joseph-produced dancehall of “Man Down” and “California King Bed,” an acoustic guitar-based ballad that could have just as easily fit on the latest Taylor Swift release. Expect hits.

 

 

 

 

Sticking with some familiar names, one of the fall’s most anticipated releases is Pink Friday, the long-awaited debut from Nicki Minaj. She’s already turned in memorable verses for about a dozen other artists—her turn on Kanye West’s “Monster” is possibly the year’s best, the Trinidadian rapper’s numerous personalities all boiled down to a single throat- ripping turn on the mic. And her famous friends all return the favor here, from West to Drake to will.i.am (whose Buggles- sampling collaboration “Check It Out” was one of the fall’s guiltiest pleasures).

When she’s at her best, she’s one of the best: “Roman’s Revenge” finds her more than holding her own alongside a fire-spitting Eminem (who sounds more like himself here than anywhere on Recovery); “Blazin’” finds West returning the “Monster” favor, and Minaj’s opening lines are like a dissertation-length extension of that great verse. (The half-buried Eurythmics sample makes this one a particular highlight.) Unfortunately, Pink Friday is a mixed bag. Minaj is an excellent rapper, but she spends half of the album singing. The fact that it skews more pop than hip-hop gives it an unearned feel of desperation—subpar hooks, like those on “I’m the Best” and “Save Me,” nearly sink the disc. When Minaj brags that she “shitted on ’em” (on “Did It On’em”) one wonders if she’s referring to her own record. For someone with so much to say, she doesn’t seem to know quite how to say it.

 

 

Kings of Leon are a band with virtually nothing to say—to paraphrase some dude’s tweet, they do not make intellectual music. Their melodic ideas are simplistic and limited; their vocals, nearly indecipherable. Think of it as stoner-rock, in that it’s probably pretty easy to perform while stoned. So it’s often on the producers and engineers to create interesting worlds for the band’s rather rudimentary riffs to live in.

At the outset of Come Around Sundown, the Grammy-winning band’s fifth album, the production threatens to swallow the band whole: Everything about “The End” sounds like it’s coming from another room, or the basement, or somewhere in a house down the street. With lead single “Radioactive,” the sound moves in closer only to reveal a one-note hook. The top third of Sundown is a dud, honestly. But it gets better: It could be said that “Pyro” distills the band’s aesthetic into one 4-minute song; it could also be said that it borrows ideas from half a dozen other KOL songs. But as the hook (“I won’t ever be your cornerstone”) makes itself cozy with your ear, it’s easy to get sucked in. Indeed, there are few new ideas here, but they’re good ones: “Mary” introduces a little T-Rex glam stomp to the band’s rhythmic palette; “Back Down South” adds some slide guitar and a bit of country flavor. The band’s knack for recycling hooks, both their own and those of hits past, points to a singular brand of unselfconscious songwriting that is, honestly, kind of refreshing in a time when most major rock bands are aiming for the fences with every swing.

 

My Chemical Romance swung for the fences—and cleared them, mostly—on The Black Parade. Four years, a few lineup changes, and an entire scrapped record later, they’re back with Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. It’s a concept album, but do read on. Producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day) brings his best to the proceedings, and the band sound like they’re having a ton of fun, from the singsong melody of the exhilarating lead single “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” to the garage-y thrash of “Party Poison.” If there’s a theme here it’s a pretty loose one; rather than confine the band, it’s allowed them to do some much-needed role-playing. Overall it’s more of a rhythm record than one might have expected from this formerly emo-tastic group—while the gang-vocal harmonies and diminished chords that made them stand apart from the pack on past hits like “Helena” remain, they’ve added more pop elements (processed drumbeats, synths a-plenty). But that’s not to say they’ve gone soft: “Destroya” sounds like a more polished Refused, which still makes it pretty raw, and most definitely rock. It’s the first MCR record to really look beyond the black-nail-polish set, and it’s all the better for it.

 

 

 


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