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Review

Top Five Films of 2020

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In addition to listening to music, I also watched a lot of movies in quarantine. I’m guessing you already know what is next so here are my favourite films of 2020! Since releases were halted, I was not able to come up with a list of 10 films I absolutely loved this year but I did make a top five with a few honourable mentions in the runner ups section. Enjoy!

Runner Ups

Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee)

photo taken from Vanity Fair

I had no idea how Spike Lee would follow up 2017’s BlacKkKlansman. However, in typical Spike Lee fashion, he surprised everyone by dropping an almost three-hour long Vietnam war epic and did not disappoint. The film honours black veterans while also diving into the effects of PTSD and nationalism on families and individuals alike.

I would be lying if I said that Chadwick Boseman’s appearance was not one of the highlights of the film. The role he plays feels like an extremely fitting tribute to Boseman despite Spike Lee not knowing of his condition at the time of filming. All the performances are excellent though, especially Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors in the unforgettable scene pictured above. The quality of the direction and cinematography is also fantastic. It may not be my favourite Spike Lee film of all time, but it certainly is his grandest achievement to date.

Onward (dir. Dan Scanlon)

photo taken from Variety

There are actually two Pixar films on this list and, despite Soul being the obvious frontrunner, Onward was able to personally move me in a way I have not experienced in a long time. Don’t get me wrong, Soul was also exceptionally thought-provoking, but the exploration of brotherly connection and familial loss was personally very impactful, especially at the time I saw the film. 

From an actual story standpoint, it is a classic hero’s journey. The animation itself is not as innovative as Soul but is still very pleasing. But by far the best parts of the film are the performances. Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus all climb out of the woodwork as some of Pixar’s best voice actors since the original Toy Story cast. They’re so convincing, especially Holland and Pratt, which makes the film hit that much harder. 

I feel like this movie has been compared to a lot of other Pixar classics which, by comparison, are monoliths. However, as a standalone film, Onward has a lot to offer and the dynamic between Holland and Pratt is utterly infectious.

Top Five

5. Mank (dir. David Fincher)

photo taken from Variety

Before I saw this movie, I had heard a lot of things about it, particularly that it was “heady” and “slow”. Maybe that’s why I was pleasantly surprised to find this film as engaging as I did. It is actually quite fun! The performances from Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried are obvious highlights but would be nothing without the absolutely flawless dialogue that shoots rapid fire throughout the entirety of the film courtesy of Jack Fincher.

The atmosphere of the film was also particularly interesting to someone who is quite into the medium and history of film. The Finchers have done an excellent job of weaving real-life events into a story that still feels relevant. Now, it does help, nay it might even be necessary, to have seen Citizen Kane before as the film contains quite a few obvious and subliminal references to Orson Welles’ (or rather, Herman Mankiewicz’s) 1941 epic. With Mank, Fincher adds another worthy member to his already impressive lineup of classic films. 

4. Enola Holmes (dir. Harry Bradbeer)

photo taken from The Verge

Stranger Things made it clear that Millie Bobby Brown was one to watch but Enola Holmes shows her undeniable range. She is utterly captivating. The film would be nothing without her enticing mix of charisma, determination, and naivety. She is a star through and through. However, the film itself is also extremely well done, sporting well developed characters, captivating visuals, and a stunning mystery.

But hidden beneath the fun plot is a narrative powerfully dealing with women’s suffrage and sexism. It is incredibly satisfying to see Enola break stereotype and barrier after barrier throughout the run time of the film in a way that does not feel forced. It is just who she is. It has been a long time since I have seen a character who is just so effortlessly empowering. Overall, Enola Holmes is a thoroughly entertaining film while tackling tough issues with the wit of its titular character.

3. Soul (dir. Pete Docter)

photo taken from Entertainment Weekly

Soul has had many talking since its release on Christmas day. Its well-deserved praise complimented virtually every aspect of the film: its sophisticated and well-executed concept, its unparalleled visuals, and its virtuosic sound-mixing and vocal performances. It is truly hard to say something that has not already been said about this wonderful film. I cannot wait to watch it again.

Perhaps something of note is the year in which this film was released. 2020, as I am sure you know, was one of high polarization and civil unrest. To see a film that some may be tempted to label as a “children’s film” effortlessly and simplistically highlight the importance of every life regards of gender or race was truly something of a magnificent feat. It was much-needed to say the least. As with virtually every Pixar film, Soul showcases jaw-droppingly beautiful animation but also packs a serious emotional punch while presenting a message of utmost importance.

2. Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan)

photo taken from The Indian Express

Are you as confused as I am? Even if you are, it is impossible to not see the absolute genius of Tenet, whether it be visually, conceptually, or narratively. It may not have lived up to box office expectations due to its pandemic release but it was most certainly not a disappointment in Christopher Nolan’s filmography. John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, and Robert Pattison are all absolute knock-outs as usual, which is impressive considering they admitted to not understanding what was happening in the film most of the time.

In all honesty, Tenet is not beyond comprehension and sports some of the best time travel sequences in movie history. The combination of reversed and regular footage also makes for some mind-blowing, larger than life scenes. The pacing of the film is impressive and, despite jumping around quite a lot, all feels necessary. It is just everything you could want in a Christopher Nolan brain-warping thriller. I loved Dunkirk and Interstellar, but Tenet is hands-down Christopher Nolan’s best and most enjoyable film since Inception and one of the most complex films of the year.

1. Trial of the Chicago 7 (dir. Aaron Sorkin)

photo taken from Deadline

In my Soul review, I briefly mentioned the circumstances under which that film was released. I think it is especially important to consider when discussing this film. Upon the release of The Trial of the Chicago 7, protests were being held around the country to fight against systemic racism in society which was unfortunately once again highlighted by the murders of unarmed black civilians by racist police officers and white attackers. Needless to say, a film dealing with systemic injustice, racism, and the fallout of protests hit a little bit harder given the context.

As always, Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue could be studied as a masterclass in this discipline (if he did not already have one!). He is just unparalleled in this realm and the future looks bright for his directing career as well. The performances from Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, and, with extreme emphasis, Sacha Baron Cohen were absolute magic and only added to the exceptional nature of the film. Although this film, or any other for that matter, could never come close to solving the issues presented within, it does an exceptional job of highlighting just how corrupt society at large is, how little progress has been made, and, consequently, the need to push for additional change.

Thanks for reading!

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Review

Top Ten Albums of 2020

11 min read – Characters: 15117

Since I was able to listen to a substantial amount of music while quarantining in 2020, I also decided to make a list of my favourite albums of the year! As always, there is a runner up section for albums that did not make the top ten but I thought were worth mentioning. Enjoy!

Runner Ups

Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas

photo taken from Genius

What sparkled on her debut, Lianne La Havas zeroed in on for her self-titled sophomore record. Lianne is wholly captivating as her silky-smooth vocals and jazzy songwriting make the record feel like a conversation with a good friend rather than some grandiose presentation. Nothing is overdone, every piece feels like it has just enough to perfectly frame Lianne’s voice and nothing more. Although the instrumentals are often sparse, Lianne uses this to its maximum potential on tracks like “Can’t Fight”, “Paper Thin”, and her stunning cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes”. It is beautiful, soft, and warm, making this record a much-needed pick-me-up for 2020.

Notes on a Conditional Form – the 1975

photo taken from Genius

If you’re not interested in the strange experimentation and overindulgence of the 1975, this record will most likely leave you feeling confused. Despite its polarizing nature, the 1975 comes through with a batch of solid tunes and interesting arrangements that feel more like a journey than a typical album experience. The sounds shift at abrupt intervals, keeping the listener constantly on their toes. Although it fails to reach the soaring heights and urgency of A Brief Inquiry Into Online RelationshipsNotes on a Conditional Form still stands out as an interesting, albeit lengthy, addition to the 1975’s discography.

Man On The Moon III: The Chosen – Kid Cudi

photo taken from Genius

It’s safe to say that no one was expecting Kid Cudi to release the finale to the album series he began over a decade ago. It was previously rumoured to drop soon after Man On The Moon II, but was eventually abandoned by Cudi and most expected it to never see the light of day. Needless to mention, there was a lot riding on this record and somehow it managed to live up to the hype. Each track features extremely atmospheric production that seems to sound like the unbelievable cover art. Tracks like “Tequila Shots”, “She Knows This”, “Sad People”, “Lovin’ Me” (featuring none other than Phoebe Bridgers), and fan favourite “The Void” are the best of the bunch and reveal Cudi’s ear for melody and moving lyricism. After a string of polarizing records, it seems like Cudi saved the best for the last of his trilogy. Luckily, this is not the end of Kid Cudi as he has teased a deluxe edition of this record coming in early 2021. I cannot wait to see what else he has in store.

Top Ten

10. Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple

photo taken from Genius

I think it’s safe to say that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is unlike any other record that has come out this past year. It is an achievement that could have only come from Fiona Apple. It is wholly and uniquely her own, never ashamed of its form and style, the most obvious example of this being the stunning opener “I Want You To Love Me” which ends with dolphin-like squeals from Fiona. It is not often that an album is met with instantaneous critical acclaim and hailed as a “classic” but it is undoubtedly deserving of it. On Fetch, Fiona is laser-focused on her personal expression in the #MeToo era. Whether it be highlighting the importance of female empowerment on “Shameika” or addressing the misogynistic silencing of women on “Under the Table”, Fiona unapologetically addresses the common struggles of women in the twenty-first century.

The biggest standout moment on the record comes in the form of the song “For Her” which rapidly changes pace and genre throughout its near three-minute run time and was written in solidarity with Deborah Ramirez and other survivors of sexual assault. Its disorienting structure is no doubt a reflection of the confusion and rage many felt over the tragedies of these women. Yet, through the frantic and blunt pain (“You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”), there are moments of hope in Fiona’s angelic vocal harmonies that close out the song. Through stunning poetic lyrism and homemade instrumentals, Fiona rallies support and draws attention to the mistreatment of women, bringing together a supportive community that refuse to be silenced.

9. Ungodly Hour – Chloe x Halle

photo taken from Genius

Until now, Chloe x Halle had really just been a Beyoncé-supported YouTube sensation. In 2020, however, Chloe x Halle had their breakout year with a series of unforgettable performances and award nominations all kicking off with the release of their sophomore album. Ungodly Hour flaunts the sisters’ sheer talent and ear for ear-worm melodies and innovative production. There is never a dull moment on this record despite the subtle nature of a lot of the songs. They seem to creep up and become immediately infectious. Tracks like “Lonely”, “Busy Boy”, “Do It”, and the title track show that Chloe x Halle are not to be messed with. Talents like these only come around once in a while and, although they might be dealing with the worst, most confusing times of their lives, Chloe x Halle have never sounded more heavenly.

8. evermore – Taylor Swift

photo taken from Genius

The praise for folklore was so pervasive it was hard to miss. I mean, who else could drop a critically acclaimed, indie folk record after working exclusively in pop for the last 6 years? It could only be Ms. Swift. However, to me, Taylor’s second surprise record of the year surpassed its subtle sister record. Where folklore was more reserved, evermore let loose to allow Taylor Swift to dive farther into plucky folk (“willow”, “dorothea”, “marjorie”), boot-stomping country (“no body no crime”), lush electronica (“closure”), and indie pop (“gold rush”, “long story short”). But the standouts by far are when all of these genres blend perfectly on the Bon Iver assisted tracks “ivy” and the title track. Folklore was unexplored territory for Swift, but evermore proved she can master even the most uncharted waters.

7. SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama

photo taken from Genius

At the beginning of 2020, Rina Sawayama was only on the radar of the most dedicated underground pop connoisseurs. She has since skyrocketed in popularity after the release of her debut album to much-deserved acclaim. SAWAYAMA is a smorgasbord of different genre experiments including metal (“STFU!”), arena rock (“Dynasty”, “Who’s Gonna Save You Now”), experimental pop (“Akasaka Sad”), and theme music (“Paradisin’”, “Snakeskin”). And yet, it somehow maintains a certain cohesion that is no doubt the product of Rina’s uncompromising vision. The album is truly a journey into the Rina’s world and throughout she makes it clear that she is only just getting started.

6. Maverick City Vol. 3 – Maverick City Music

photos taken from Genius

Born from their writing camps that unite songwriters from across the globe, Maverick City Vol. 3 is one of the most impressive releases to come out of the Christian music industry in years. Diversity for them is not something they strive for but is woven into the fabric of who they are. Their desire is to bring people of all backgrounds together to share in community and collaboration. Perhaps this is what made the hateful comments they received when standing against the unjust killing of George Floyd sting that much more. These songs are not only products of their deep faith and dependence on God, but are sung through all of the unique pain and joys they have experienced.

There is a sense of authenticity on this record that is not always as present on other releases in a similar vein. Whether they are venturing into traditional ballads (“Promises”, “Lean Back”, “Be Praised”, “God of Midnight”), gospel (“Man of Your Word”, “My Heart Your Home”, “Yahweh”), or folk musings (“Holy Ghost”, “Closer”), simplicity is key to Maverick’s success. Their writing is sharp but some of the most impactful moments are in the repetition of their thoughtful phrases. Instrumentally, the album would seem at home at a campfire or quaint cabin in the woods. Admitting they would be nothing without Jesus, Maverick City Music beautifully illustrates faith-filled community and the simplicity in worship that makes the heart soar.

5. how i’m feeling now – Charli XCX

photo taken from Genius

I seriously do not think anyone other than Charli XCX could create an album in thirty days during a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and have it turn out this good. Not only that, but she found a way to perfectly capture the sentiments of the time. how i’m feeling now truly deserves the title of “the first quarantine album”. From the erratic “pink diamond” to the self-doubt of “detonate” to the yearning of “anthems”, Charli was able to successfully unveil the feelings of being quarantined and coming to terms with life in the current decade better than any artist this year. But it was perhaps the standout single, “forever” that is truly an anthem for our distanced world. The fact that she made this while filming herself to get input from fans in a month’s time only adds to the impressive nature of this project.

4. After Hours – The Weeknd

photo taken from Genius

The Weeknd is perhaps most known for his dark, late night jams about partying, drugs, and other forms of escapism. However, After Hours sees the self-titled “King of the Fall” start to reflect on the effects of his excessive hedonism. Abel cleverly uses retro-synth soundscapes to create a feeling of nostalgia while drawing visual/narrative inspiration from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Somehow he weaves these references through his own self-analysis and eventual breakdown on the final track “Until I Bleed Out”. Abel pulls out his best tricks from his discography on After Hours while making it a momentous commentary on the consequences of hedonism, something that not only applies to Abel but extends outward to all of us. It not only feels like a logical evolution of the Weeknd as a character but of Abel’s entire constructed world.

3. Women in Music Pt. 3 – HAIM

photo taken from Genius

Funnily enough this is the only album on this list that is nominated for Album of the Year at this year’s Grammys. It goes without saying I am rooting for it to win. This is without a doubt the Haim sisters’ best record. The songwriting is sharper, the melodies slicker, and the production more engaging. It is everything one could want from them.

As the title suggests, HAIM use their 16-track record to explore what it’s like being women in the music industry and in the world in the #MeToo era. “Man from The Magazine”, “Los Angeles”, and “3 AM” each deal with the various advances of men in their lives and careers and how this impacts them. Each song not only feels timely but deeply personal and urgent. The implementation of jazzier instrumental mixes only adds to these mature themes.

One of the most interesting things about the album is the inclusion of “Pt. III” at the end of the title shows that, as their third album, it is not only an investigation of their experience for a singular project but ingrained in their existence as artists. Not only are the hooks catchy and memorable but they infuse their work with rare, brash empowerment and truth.

2. Restoration – Lecrae

photo taken from Genius

This. This is the album I always knew Lecrae was capable of making and he exceeded my expectations. Restoration is at once an honest confessional and narrative album about redemption and the struggles of being a Christian and, yet, still being prone to sin. Whereas Anomaly and All Things Work Together felt like collections of well-produced singles, Restoration feels like a hero’s journey to which anyone can relate. It is dark, chaotic, and, simultaneously beautiful.

It opens with the fittingly titled “Restore Me” which acts as the thesis statement and prayer which guides the rest of the experience. Over the album’s 14 tracks, Lecrae unpacks his own past traumas and addictions, struggles with fame, and constant conflict with systemic racism only exacerbated by the senseless murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of racist police and citizens in the United States last summer. As a result, Lecrae crumbles on tracks like “Drown”, “Deep End”, and “Only Human” which populate all sections of the album, not just the first half. This creates a similar statement to that of Kings Kaleidoscope’s 2016 epic Beyond Control, where one’s redemption story through Christ does not just take place at a single fixed point in time: it is a continual process.

Restoration‘s message is similar to that of Kirk Franklin’s message on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo: “you can never go too far where you can’t come back home again”. Oddly enough, Franklin shows up here, not to offer a message of reassurance but rather to present a wake-up call of the fleeting nature of life inspired by the deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others at the beginning of the year. The record at once exerts a timely and timeless message of redemption for all while also presenting a reactionary journey through the chaos of the modern world.

1. Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers

photo taken from Genius

I could go on for ages about this record. For your sake, I will try to keep it relatively short. It has been a long time since I have heard an album that has captured a beautiful simplicity such as the one displayed on Punisher. Phoebe’s songwriting and vocal performance are so incredibly addictive and feel claustrophobically lived-in. The minimal yet haunting production perfectly complements Phoebe’s musing about “love” (“Savior Complex”, “Moon Song”, “Halloween”), God (“Chinese Satellite”), and the apocalypse (“I Know the End”). 

In a year as tumultuous as this one, Punisher feels more like a good cry with a close friend than just another record about the topics above. It just feels like a perfect statement for a such a confusing and difficult time. Phoebe’s honest anecdotes often come as a relief, perhaps best displayed on “Garden Song” where she flirts with the possibility of disposing of the body of her skinhead neighbor who has met an unfortunate end before fantasizing about what her life could look like in the future. But she also doesn’t shy away from orally depicting the tension of the modern age whether it be through her passionate screams on “I Know the End” or her honestly about disassociating from those she disagrees with on “Punisher”. 

Although the range of topics and emotions covered on Punisher is vast, the project somehow does not feel like a behemoth on its own and I think that is what makes it so special. Phoebe was somehow able to break these large ideas and feelings into digestible, and frankly, entertaining vignettes which play out like a home movie projected on a wall. Overall, Punisher demonstrates Phoebe’s unparalleled ability to transcend her music and truly connect with her fans in the most beautiful, human way possible.

Thanks for reading!

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Review

Top Ten Singles of 2020

9 min read – Characters: 12967

If you remember, I made a blog post about what I was looking forward to doing in 2020 and, as you may have guessed, the pandemic put a stop to those plans. For months, we were all stuck at home and isolated from friends and family. During this time, I listened to A LOT of music which is why I wanted to write a feature on my favourite songs of the year! The past year has no doubt been a tumultuous one but the soundtrack was great. Similar to my older top tens, I have added a runner up section which features songs that also deserved recognition but missed out on the top ten. The same rule applies in that there is only one song per artist to make sure that there would be a mix of different genres and artists on the list. Enjoy!

Runner Ups

Dragonball Durag – Thundercat

photo taken from Genius

It’s tempting to write this song off as a joke. I mean, what other song this year has had lyrics as ridiculous as “I may be covered in cat hair but I still smell good” but I think that’s the point. While no doubt being quite instrumentally and vocally well-constructed, Thundercat’s aim is not to take himself too seriously. While he legitimately pines for his love interest in some moments, he frequently injects quirky anecdotal questions and pleas which actually elevate the song beyond a traditional love ballad. He almost seems to undermine the traditional “flexes” different artists use to try to appeal to their love interests by both mentioning his “new whip”, “ice”, “video games”, and “comic books”. Plus, that instrumental is just so dang groovy you can’t help but be swept away. At the end of the day, only Thundercat’s unique vision could produce as equally addictive and ridiculous a song as “Dragonball Durag”.

Hold On (feat. Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, & Natalie Hemby) – Yola & The Highwomen 

photo taken from Genius

As you can probably tell from the list of collaborators and features, this track is a demonstration of country music at its very best. Yola’s southern-bluesy, growly vocals compliment the background harmonies from the other artists so perfectly that it is truly something to behold. The sentiment of the track is also quite special since it’s a comforting, reactionary anthem released in the aftermath of the unjust murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor this past summer. The track reminds listeners to hold on the beautiful things in their life and never let go of their passion to push for a better future. Well said, Yola and friends, well said.

Weird Fishes – Lianne La Havas

photo taken from Genius

Okay, it is my time to confess something: I usually detest cover songs. To me, if something was already perfect or close to, it is better to leave it be. I am now happy to say that Lianne La Havas blew my mind this year with the true possibilities of covering another artist’s work. It pained me not to include this song in my top ten because it truly is something special, so consider this placement actually like a 10.5 in my top ten list. It is seriously that good. Lianne’s arrangement gets under your skin and is infectiously silky. Her vocal performance soars over the sparse production before the soaring finale which honestly rivals the original (which, again, I hate to say because Radiohead are also quite special to me !). Lianne is truly one of the most interesting songwriters in music today but this shows she is just as great even when she’s not singing her own material.

Top Ten

10. The Steps – HAIM

photo taken from Genius

From the jangly guitars that kick off the song, you know you are in for a ride. The Haim sisters cooked up quite a special record this year and I think this song perfectly encapsulates the magic they were able to create. It is sassy, yet, personal, showy, and somehow reserved. The sentiment of fighting for what you want and trying to no avail are also extremely relatable even to the best of us. It especially speaks to the wider frustrations of, as their album title suggests, being women in music. On “The Steps”, HAIM show that they’re able to have a lot of fun while also empowering their female counterparts and creating an infectiously catchy tune that packs a punch.

9. forever – Charli XCX

photo taken from Genius

I cannot think of a song that better encapsulates the COVID-era (if we can address it as such). The hook “I’ll love your forever even when we’re not together”, despite being written before quarantine, became the rallying cry for many this year who were experiencing isolation apart from their loved ones. The experimental and gritty production also further expand on Charli’s capabilities in the PC music realm. The auto-tune on her voice in combination with the aforementioned production also create this sweet-and-sour dynamic that resolves in the chorus in such a beautiful way. I think “forever’ proves that we should never refer to Charli as “the boom clap singer” again. She has effectively shown that she is capable of intimately expressing the longings of an entire culture while still being the pop innovator we know and love.

8. BLACK PARADE – Beyoncé

photo taken from Genius

She has gone by many names over the years, including the well-known and deserved “Queen Bey”. On Juneteenth, she proved to us once again why she holds that title. Filled with many empowering quotable lines like “I can’t forget my history is her story”, “Put your fist up in the air, show black love”, and “Rubber bullets bouncin’ off me/Made a picket sign off your picket fence”, Beyoncé effectively empowered black people all over the world while also addressing the injustices, and subsequent protests, of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of racist police officers and citizens.

A further investigative look into the lyrics of the song also reveal the rich African history that Beyoncé has woven into, not only the song, but the related Black is King Disney+ film. This is all in an effort to begin reclaiming the ancestral heritage stolen from black people during the era of colonization and slavery which she first spoke about on her seminal 2016 visual album LemonadeBeyoncé has once again shown that she is in a league of her own amongst her contemporaries but she will not let this diminish her ability to connect and empower those at the edges of society and reclaim what is hers.

7. My Future – Billie Eilish

photo taken from Genius

Billie Eilish has surprised many in her relatively short career. Whether it be her horror-inspired imagery and lyricism or her left-field production choices, she never fails to shock. However, I found the understated “My Future” to be her most surprising release yet. Instead of relying innovative soundscapes (which are still great), Billie took a jazz-inspired direction for this single which was the perfect showcase for her often overlooked vocals and harmonies. The switch from the soft instrumental at the midway of the track is also just as shocking as it morphs into something completely different in the most beautiful way. Her declaration of excitement for a future that is wholly her own was also unprecedented and some welcome optimism in the chaotic year that was 2020.

6. Sweeter (feat. Terrance Martin) – Leon Bridges

photo taken from mxdwn.com

Leon Bridges’ “Sweeter” was a heart-wrenching reaction to the senseless killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and vocalized the subsequent feeling shared by black people all over the world whenever these tragedies occur. His hope for a better future while seemingly stuck in a cycle of violent tragedy because of his skin is truly felt in every infliction of his voice and the passionate yet minimal instrumental. The horn that joins him on the final chorus just accentuates the already somber tone and is utterly tear-inducing. Leon Bridges has always been an exceptional songwriter, but he only surpasses his past achievements on the much-needed “Sweeter”.

5. After Hours – The Weekend

photo taken from Genius

“After Hours” is the centerpiece of the record with the same name. The 6-minute epic has a similar structure to “House of Ballons / Glass Table Girls” where the song’s production drastically changes halfway through the track which I think is purposeful. After Hours is the fulfillment of all of the desires that Abel dove headfirst into on his debut which have now left him unsatisfied and broken. Nowhere is this clearer than on this track. Abel’s passionate “Where are you now when I need you most?” is nothing short of heartbreaking and the droning synths that accentuate this section of the song create this uneasy soundscape which is impossible to escape. It’s addictive and dramatic, making it the best fusion of everything Abel has done up until this moment in time.

4. Restored (feat. 1K Phew, Wande & Hulvey) – Lecrae

photo taken from Genius

I guess it is now time for my second confession of this article: I usually detest deluxe edition tracks. If you had have told me a year ago that I would include a song from a deluxe edition in my top 5 of the next year I would have audibly laughed. And yet, here we are. As much as any of the songs from Lecrae’s Restoration could have filled this spot, “Restored” is a collaboration of epic proportions. It is like the “Forever” of Christian rap and I have not stopped listening to it since it came out. Over the four minutes and change run time, Lecrae and co. reel with personal struggles and addictions, financial issues, God’s providence and grace, and their experience of being restored. It’s timely, deeply personal, and features career best verses from Lecrae and his 116 affiliates (See “Said you had fake faith, you’re starting to race bait”, “I see new dimensions like I’m Rick and Morty”, “Haven’t you noticed when we at our lowest is when our prayer life be having some focus?” and “Honda Civic I know God steerin’, in the Lamborghini I know God steerin’”).

3. Bad Friend – Rina Sawayama

photo taken from Genius

Rina Sawayama has had an unbelievable year. I remember when she premiered “Bad Friend” on BBC Radio 1 weeks before the release of her debut album. The song was an honest confessional and, yet, instantly one of the catchy pop tunes of year. This was already after she had released “XS” and “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” which both could have been in this place on this list. Instead, Rina’s heart-breaking and lush “Bad Friend” became the magnum opus of the album. The song seemed to take on additional meaning this year with lyrics like “so don’t ask me where I’ve been/Been avoiding everything because I’m a bad friend”. Who hasn’t tried to escape the online world and all the awful events this year and ended up neglecting personal relationships while in quarantine? Even if the song did not obtain a special status because of COVID, it is still a testament to Rina’s ability to dominate the pop genre while curating a beautifully, innovative soundscape.

2. Kyoto – Phoebe Bridgers

photo taken from Genius

This was Phoebe’s year and “Kyoto” could have easily taken the top spot on this list. The airy instrumental with the taut drums and gorgeous horns allow Phoebe’s vocals to dominate every part of this track. The instrumental blend of the song actually feels like a perfect summation of all of her previous musical experiences on her first record, the boygenius EP with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and the Better Oblivion Community Complex project with Conor Oberst. 

Over the course of the song, Phoebe comments on being bored on tour and her subsequent FOMO which evolve into grand reflections on her complicated relationship with her father, watching the sunsets in the suburbs, and other memories from her childhood. It perfectly captures one’s stream of consciousness where the simplest things can trigger a flood of disjointed memories. Overall, the song just reflects Phoebe’s uncanny ear for subtle melody and one-of-a-kind songwriting which somehow feels deeply personal, nostalgic, urgent, and flippant all at once.

1. Me & You Together Song – The 1975

photo taken from Genius

Yes, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” could have also occupied this spot. Yes, I know it was the favourite among fans and critics alike from their last album. Personally, I think “Me & You Together” actually captures the true spirit of what makes the 1975 so great. It feels truly nostalgic in a way that only the 1975 can capture. The anecdotal lines about crappy carnivals, changing diapers, and rejected offerings of love are at once comedic and picturesque. It feels like a lived experience that I have never had but fondly remember.

No, this song does not encapsulate the crazy year that has been 2020. It was nice to actually have some space that was untainted by the pandemic. It is cautiously optimistic while not being overly complicated. It’s the 1975 knowing exactly who they are and sticking to what makes them one of the most interesting bands in music right now. 


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Review

Top Ten Films of the 2010s

11 min read – Characters: 16573

I took the last few weeks to really dive into the films of 2010s. This included suggestions from my friends and family in addition to films I that had been on my radar which I never got the chance to see. There were so many great films that I added a runner up section which contains films that are still fantastic but did not make the top ten. Enjoy!

Runner Ups

Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Photo taken from One Room With a View

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is an enigma of a film, much like its main character, Reynolds Woodcock. He’s all consumed by his work as a dress maker until he falls in love with a woman named Alma. This sends his household and mental sanity into a downward spiral which starts to affect his work and coworkers. As Alma seeks to win back Reynolds’ love and attention, we see the broader implications of Anderson’s thesis. His unique take on love, passion, and obsession is nothing short of extraordinary.


The cinematography is near perfect and every scene feels like a Victorian oil painting. The characters are complex, making it unpredictable what will unfold as the film progresses. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Reynolds is the shining centerpiece of the film as he is both restrained and unhinged. Phantom Thread is truly in its own league as its originality and craftsmanship are far above much of contemporary cinema. 

The Big Short (dir. Adam McKay)

Photo taken from Roger Ebert

The Big Short is a film about the market crash of 2008 and the factors behind it. Sounds boring and confusing, right? That is what most would assume. However, Adam McKay commands a journey of four sets of characters who each journey to short the housing market which they realize is built on risky bonds. Along the way, pop culture icons like Selena Gomez, Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Richard Thaler all assist in explaining important concepts to the audience.


The film is also full of many seemingly random clips of news, celebrities, world events, and more. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the film as it shows how distracted the world is by all of the information being spewed from television, social media, and the internet. This is part of the reason that the big banks were able to become as corrupt as they were.


The dialogue is witty and engaging despite the often-uninteresting nature of the subject. McKay also built up a stacked cast for the film including Hollywood heavyweights Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Christian Bale who all allow the film to soar to new heights.

Uncut Gems (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)

Photo taken from Indy100

I was a little unsure of this film but I had heard only great things about Adam Sandler’s performance and the overall story, despite being ignored by the Oscars. It just did not seem like a film I would enjoy. I am glad to say that I was deeply wrong.


This film is pure adrenaline; a thriller in every sense of the word. It begins at the highest level of intensity and continues throughout the entirety of the film. Not only is it suspenseful, exciting, and surprising, but the film’s commentary on gambling and deception is equally as fascinating. The Safdie brothers’ trademark style of overlaid dialogue only adds another layer of chaos to this already anxiety-inducing film.


The cinematography and score are perfect compliments to the overall nostalgic aura. Even the Weeknd’s presence feels strangely at home. The performances of every major character are absolutely fantastic and Sandler most definitely deserved a best acting nod for his portrayal of Howard Ratner. The best way I can sum up this film is that it is the visual manifestation of driving down the Autobahn. All gas, no break.

Top Ten

10. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)

photo taken from The Globe and Mail

The Grand Budapest Hotel was actually recommended to me by a close friend. Thankfully, I listened to his advice. Wes Anderson’s imaginative and beautiful pastel set pieces paired with the genius costume design make this film visually one of the most interesting films I have ever seen. Pair that with the excellent performances from Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Tony Revolori, and the many other A-list actors featured such as Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson and you have got yourself a masterpiece in the making.


The story is also highly original, quirky, and interesting. There are many moments that are high-stakes, funny, and/or moving. However, everything in this film feels as if it is a product of Wes Anderson’s wild imagination. Even the shootout at the end is full of zooms, set pieces, symmetry, quirky humour, and cupcakes.


It is a film that is so unlike anything else I have ever seen and, despite its often-silly premise, it maintained my full attention until the credits rolled. I still have no idea what convinced Wes Anderson to make this film but I sure am glad that he did.

9. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)

photo taken from YouTube

To think that a franchise film such as this one would end up on a top ten list may seem quite ridiculous to some. However, Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most original and inventive action films of the past decade. The action itself is gripping and chaotic. This is partially due to the excellent world-building done within the film. There are so many crazy inventions, vehicles, characters, and set pieces which take the action to the next level.


Additionally, the acting from all of the characters is extremely compelling, especially from Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy. Hardy especially is hysterically frantic and feels as if his character from Venom was in a better film. The strongest part of the film, however, are the visuals. Everything seems slightly oversaturated to the point where common elements like fire and lightning look alluring and strangely beautiful. It is just such a wild ride through every aspect of the film.

8. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)

photo taken from Film Comment

Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age tale of a daughter and her mother is an emotional rollercoaster and has to be one of the greatest solo directorial debuts of all time. For quite some time, it had the highest Rotten Tomatoes score ever on the platform. The film is full of dynamic performances from the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Beanie Feldstein, Timothee Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, and Laurie Metcalf. Lady Bird, Ronan’s character, is impossible to not adore by the time that the credits roll.


The story itself is extremely compelling as it puts more emphasis on familial relationships and friendships than romance for young woman. It is a reminder of how desperately Hollywood needs to nurture and encourage more diversity and specifically female directors to execute their desired stories and visions. The fact that Greta Gerwig’s first solo film was as successful as it was is a testament to her power as a director. Her latest film, Little Women, has just released (it is also fantastic by the way) but it was clear from the opening moments of Lady Bird just how special she was.

7. Thor Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi)

photo taken from MTV

Yes, this is in fact a Marvel movie about a god of thunder, a god of mischief, a Pegasus riding warrior, and a Hulk. What about this should not be considered art Martin Scorsese? In all seriousness, however, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the most fun films I have ever watched.


After Thor: The Dark World, I vowed to never see another Thor movie as long as I lived. But years later I was roped into seeing Ragnarok and was beyond pleasantly surprised. Not only did this movie defy the common arc, aesthetic palette, character dynamics, and dialogue of most of the Thor/Marvel films up to this point, it actually worked as a Marvel film and a standalone epic. The dialogue was actually funny, the action scenes were colourful and dynamic, and the characters were all really interesting and relatable (even the bad ones!).


One of the other elements of the film I really enjoyed were the visual effects. The battles scenes with the Valkyrie and where Thor is enveloped in lightning and descending from the sky are some of the most visually satisfying scenes I have witnessed in any film, MCU or regular. With Ragnarok, Taika singlehandedly pulled the Thor franchise out of the doom and gloom it had currently been swallowed by and into a film that has been elevated on every level.

6. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)

photo taken from Film School Rejects

I was taken to this movie on a whim. My friends asked if I wanted to go to an advanced screening and I thought “Why not tag along?”. I had no idea what I was in for. Get Out was undeniably haunting, but not for the reasons one would think. The metaphor that envelopes the entire story is the real killer as its desire is to expose “liberal racism” which is the tendancy to treat African American people as different from white people or “other”. This is all disguised as an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type thriller that is truly a breath of fresh air.


The scriptwriting is sharp and witty to the point where when you watch the film again it is clear what each of the character’s motivations are. There are moments that play out more like the comedy that Peele is known for and others that are executed with almost Kubrick-style dramatic intensity. The acting of the entire cast is also superb. Who could forget the chills of the crying scene with Betty Gabriel?


Get Out is a film that plays out as a thriller just as well as any other horror film but also works as a statement. It is this genius that makes Get Out such a critically important film as Jordan Peele proves himself an unstoppable force within both cinematic and social circles.

5. Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)

photo taken from Film School Rejects

It is hard to believe that Inception is almost ten years old. I can still remember the initial trailers for the film that piqued my interest which featured Leonardo DiCaprio falling into a bathtub and a café exploding (both in slow motion). I hadn’t the slightest clue of the significance of the scenes but I could tell that this would be a film like no other.


Ten years later, Inception still holds up as a mind-bending, wildly inventive thriller about “dreams within dreams”. What is even more compelling is that the story is focussed on the power of planting an idea in someone’s mind as that is what the characters are tasked with inside the film.


Throughout all of the armies of subconsciousness and dreamscapes lies exceptional acting performances from A-listers such as DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt among others. However, the visual effects are the most impressive element of the film, whether it is the zero-gravity fight scene in the hotel or the initial experimentation in the dream world between DiCaprio and Page’s characters. This film packs a punch and will keep you up at night trying to figure out what exactly that last scene means.

4. Jojo Rabbit (dir. Taika Waititi)

photo taken from Pinterest

Upon walking out of the theatre after I had seen this film I called my parents and told them that “films like this are the reason why I am into movies”. Granted, upon first glance Jojo Rabbit should not work. It is a satire about a German child in World War II whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. Yet, the true core of this story is the importance of love and the dangers/idiocy of intolerance. Perhaps this is why it took home the coveted “People’s Choice Award” at TIFF this past year.


The acting in this movie is all around fantastic. In fact, I think this is one of Scarlett Johansson’s best performances. She is so lovable and (SPOILER) her eventual demise tore my heart out. Even the child actors in this film are beyond impressive. They are so endearing and really drive the main themes of the movie home through their innocence and natural kindness.


The comedy within this film also lands well and does not feel as if it is pushing the envelope. Rather, it seems to call attention to problems and ridiculous nature of hatred and intolerance. This film makes a strong case that using comedy to deal with difficult topics can actually reduce the power that they have over us.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (dir. Stephen Chbosky)

photo taken from Pop Sugar

This film is my guilty pleasure. I remember rewatching it the night after my first viewing because I just could not escape the characters and moving story. As a student, this story of finding your “people” was extremely compelling and the performances from the three leads were all extremely convincing in bringing a unique perspective to each character.


The story itself is an impressive adaptation from the novel of the same name. It does not seem to lose any of the emotional punch and fits in all of the key plot points without feeling rushed or messy. One of my favourite elements of The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the impressive soundtrack compiled for the film which has permanently changed my reaction to “Come On Eileen” and “Heroes”.


I do not think I have ever felt as drained by the end of a film. The sadness that I felt and released during this film was so cathartic. The Perks of Being a Wallflower will break your heart but its endearing tale of friendship and support will hopefully also encourage you to seek comfort in those closest to you and help those who are struggling.

2. Baby Driver (dir. Edgar Wright)

photo taken from F Slate

As someone who loves both music and film, Baby Driver is a dream come true. Baby, the protagonist, listens to music because of a condition that he developed after an accident that killed his parents. Everything is precisely timed to the soundtrack from within his earbuds and is one of the most entertaining and satisfying things that I never knew I needed.


Visually, the film is also extremely well-crafted. Each scene seems vibrant and picturesque, even if the setting is only a drab apartment or drafty warehouse. The dialogue and characters within the film are also grand achievements. There’s the sleeping giant within Buddy (Jon Hamm), the flirtatious Darling (Eiza Gonalez), the loveable Debora (Lily James), and the manic Bats (Jamie Foxx) among others who all play vital roles within Edgar Wright’s tale of theft and hot pursuit.


The soundtrack is also expertly selected and features music from the likes of Queen, Beck, and The Commodores. The execution of the harmonization of this music with the various sequences in the film is extremely well-done and pristine. If Edgar Wright left anyone wondering after the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, Baby Driver makes it clear that he is one of the most fascinating directors currently working in film.

1. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)

photo taken from NPR

Perhaps my love affair with musicals began with Veggie Tales or when I saw High School Musical for the first time. Regardless, La La Land is a special treat for any musical and/or film lover. The soundtrack is elegant and jazz-oriented which makes this story feel mature and grounded unlike many other musicals who try and appear extremely flashy and fantastical.


The story is set in director Damien Chazelle’s idealized version of Hollywood where every setting is dramatic and all of the characters dress monochromatically. This allows for cinematography that is unparalleled in any other film. The last twenty minutes of the film are something of a true masterpiece and the images themselves could be framed within the Louvre and blend in perfectly.


The story is also expertly executed with the ease of seasoned professional, and yet, Chazelle’s career is only just beginning. He takes your typical tale of love and loss and transforms it into a struggle between love and personal dreams. This conflict is not only present in Hollywood but is an issue to which many can relate. This is just another way that Chazelle takes the often-outlandish musical template and brings it back to reality. The acting from Hollywood sweethearts Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is also compelling and caused Stone to win the Oscar for Best Actress at the 2016 Academy Awards.


Every aspect of this film is perfect. It is visually stunning, the story is emotionally engaging, the characters are well-developed and relatable, and the music is beautiful and memorable. It will most likely go down as one of the greatest films of all time and is a cinematic achievement that only comes around once in a generation.

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Review

Top Ten Albums of the 2010s

15 min read – Characters: 24337

Over the past few months, I have been furiously listening to countless records from the past decade to try and finalize my list. As it turns out, there were many spectacular albums in the 2010s and it was unbelievably hard to cut it down to only ten albums. As a result, I have included a runner up section which houses albums that narrowly missed the top ten. The rule I made for the top ten was that there could only be one album per artist to make sure that there would be a mix of different genres and artists on the list. Enjoy!

Runner Ups

1989 – Taylor Swift

photo taken from last fm

What happens when you combine pop powerhouses Max Martin and Jack Antonoff with a high-profile singer/songwriter who wants to transition into pop music? It turns out that the result is exactly what you would expect: pure magic. The story is simple: love and life in New York City. However, the journey through it all is soundtracked immaculately. Whether she’s saying goodbye to the haters on “Shake It Off” or being a “nightmare dressed like a daydream” on “Blank Space”, Taylor Swift has never been more infectious.


Every synth is perfectly placed, every vocal the perfect balance of passion and restraint, and she genuinely sounds like she is having the time of her life. As a result, 1989 could easily be a “greatest hits” record for any other pop artist. Songs like “Style”, “Out of the Woods”, and “All You Had To Do Was Stay” could make even the harshest critics tap their toes. There was a lot of initial hesitation for Swift’s pop crossover, but it is no doubt that the result was absolute pop perfection.

IGOR – Tyler, the Creator

photo taken from Genius

Many will likely remember Flower Boy as their favourite Tyler, the Creator record. However, IGOR is still equally as impressive and finds Tyler’s production skills at their most advanced and cohesive to date. He has a way of never creating the same album twice and IGOR is no exception as it veers pretty far from Tyler’s typical hard-rap style into silkier R&B jams. Yes, the album is a breakup album which can, at times, be an oversaturated market. However, Tyler’s lo-fi and layered approach to this concept is one of the most interesting entrances into the category to date.


The radio-ready pop of “EARFQUAKE” and “I THINK” are immediate draws but more experimental R&B cuts like “A BOY IS A GUN”, “GONE, GONE / THANK YOU”, and “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS” pack more than enough punch to propel the album to an epic finish. IGOR also plays strictly by Tyler’s rules which may be the most interesting part of the record. He makes features from Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Solange, slowthai, and Kanye West all sound like another dimension of his established soundscape palette. Tyler may feel like he is the puppet of his love interest but when it comes to music it is clear that he is the puppeteer.

Astoria – Marianas Trench

photo taken from Cover My Tunes

As a Canadian band, Marianas Trench has long been overlooked by the world at large. In 2011, they were at the height of their career and even started to gain international attention. Suddenly, the lead singer, Josh Ramsay, broke off his engagement, found out his mom had dementia, and ended up in the hospital. This terrible spiral of events caused them to eventually release Astoria four years later. The wait was well worth it.


If you couldn’t already tell from the Goonies-inspired title, the band drew on the music and culture of their childhood to tell of one of the band’s darkest periods. The 17-track magnum opus follows through the emotional pain of Josh’s last four years through the addictive pop of “Burning Up”, heartbreak of “Dearly Departed”, “Wildfire”, and “Forget Me Not”, and the Toto-inspired highlight “Who Do You Love”. The band ventures into uncharted instrumental, vocal, and conceptual territory, with every track striking gold. Complete with sweeping instrumentals, stunning synths, Queen-esque harmonies, and orchestral interludes, Astoria is truly a blockbuster that any true music fan would not want to miss.

Top Ten

10. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves

photo taken from Run for Cover Records

Kacey Musgraves’ old soul brought her success within the country music community fairly quickly. Her plucky guitar and traditional country sound was one that would never go out of style and could continue to be successful. With the release of Golden Hour, Kacey decided to instead become an innovator instead of an imitator by swapping out her old style for techniques common in pop and hip/hop communities.It is no wonder that some found it difficult to view Golden Hour as a country album as Kacey’s vocals seem relatively polished and the ragged, plucky nature of most modern country songs is entirely absent.


Everything seems to shine on the record as Kacey takes an inventive approach to country clichés such as on the songs “High Horse”, “Space Cowboy” and “Velvet Elvis”. She’s not singing about beer, tractors, short skirts, or honky tonks. Instead, Kacey tells the story of her own hardships and loneliness while assuring listeners that “It’ll all be alright”. It’s a relatable and intimate experience that seems to drift through the air like a light breeze on a summer’s day.


Golden Hour marks a mature turning point for Kacey Musgraves and unlocks a world of possibilities for her future sound. Every track is expertly written and produced to a near-perfect degree. She’s never sounded more convincing and beautiful than on songs like “Butterflies”, “Mother”, and “Rainbow”. It’s pristinely polished, bravely innovative, beautifully intimate, all the while showcasing the true possibilities of breaking genre boundaries and making something you believe in.

9. Blonde – Frank Ocean

photo taken from Genius

Frank Ocean received, or rather, commanded everyone’s attention with the release of Channel Orange near the beginning of the decade. From then on, fans were eagerly awaiting his next record, tentatively titled Boys Don’t Cry. After many delays and much disappointment from fans, Frank Ocean returned on one fateful night in August of 2016. He dropped two albums over that weekend, one being the visual album Endless to fulfill his prior commitment to his old label. The other was the critically applauded and experimental Blonde.


On this record, Frank traded out the R&B-pop fusion of “Thinking Bout You” and “Forrest Gump” for postmodern ambience and R&B. The swaying “Nights” follows a similar two part structure to “Pyramids” but seems much more airy and fluid. The stacked instrumentals on songs such as “Pink + White”, “Pretty Sweet”, and “Futura Free” seem to almost drown out Frank Ocean, as if he has become nothing other than another layer in much larger sonic mural. However, songs like “Ivy”, “Solo”, “Self Control”, “White Ferrari”, and “Godspeed” find Frank singing over very minimal production and pack enough emotional punch to make Arnold Schwarzenegger break down.


The album also features guest writing credits and vocals from high profile artists like Paul McCartney and Beyoncé which is a testament to how well-respected Frank is within the music community. Both Channel Orange and Blonde are legendary within their own right but differ so much on almost every level imaginable making Frank Ocean one of the most fascinating artists currently working in music. However, Blonde is truly one-of-a-kind and is a record that will go down in history as a marvel of the imaginative possibilities of recording technology and artistry.

8. To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

photo taken from Catapult

It is no doubt that Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest artists to emerge during the decade. His poetic style and extremely sophisticated approach to hip/hop and storytelling has gained him a lot of attention, many accolades, and even scholarly courses dedicated to analyzing his works. To Pimp A Butterfly, however, is Kendrick Lamar at his creative peak and even inspired David Bowie for the direction of his final album, Blackstar.


Kendrick Lamar broadens his focus on this record to discuss the construction of the African-American identity, institutionalization, police brutality, and black pride. For an album prominently focused on race, Kendrick draws on typically African-American dominated music styles such as hip/hop, jazz, and R&B. It’s a beautiful culmination of African-American art and influence led by one of hip/hops most imaginative MCs.


Kendrick uses the practice of pimping as a metaphor for the treatment of African-Americans throughout history. He also uses the idea of a cocooned caterpillar and a butterfly to talk about self-image and institutionalization within black communities. The wit and relevancy of each of Kendrick’s verses on this record is a work of literary genius. Tracks like “These Walls”, “u”, “For Sale (Interlude)”, “How Much A Dollar Cost”, and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”, “i”, and “Mortal Man” demonstrate this to a degree unparalleled by any of his contemporaries.


Additionally, Kendrick does not bow to genre pressures and focuses more on substance and concept than making every track a “head-banger”. The impact of the content hits a lot harder than many of the beats on the record as a result which is extremely inventive and interesting to follow. To Pimp A Butterfly finds Kendrick Lamar at the top of his game with respect to every aspect of the record and is no doubt one of the most relevant and inventive records to be released within the last 20 years.

7. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West

photo taken from Genius

Not many artists could make an album like The Life of Pablo work. If anyone could though, it would be Kanye West. On the surface, The Life of Pablo feels very much like the rough, unfinished cover art and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. The stunning “Ultralight Beam” and instant earworms like “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, “Famous”, “Waves”, and “Fade” are immediate crowd pleasers. But some of the deeper cuts like “FML”, “Real Friends”, and “Saint Pablo” really propel the album through the narrative Kanye has constructed, or rather, lived.


This album is one of contradictions and juxtaposition. As an illustration, there are features from both Chris Brown and Rihanna which, considering Chris’ past abuse of Rihanna, would be in quite poor taste on any other album. Yet, on The Life of Pablo it seems right at home. The controversial Taylor Swift lyric and the lyric about bleached – well – y’know all follow the gospel-infused opening track “Ultralight Beam” which features a prayer for those who feel they’ve “gone too far” from none other than Kirk Franklin. This constant imbalance between the spiritual and secular has not only been extremely popular in gospel music throughout its history but also within Kanye’s own life.


Kanye’s honesty and braggadocious persona create a dazzling and autobiographical experience. By the time the second half of the record comes around it’s no surprise that Kanye is struggling with his identity, faith, and family, as expressed by tracks like “Real Friends” and “Wolves”. It is clear that although Kanye wants to focus on the highlights and perks of the fame and women in his life, he cannot move past the feeling that he is stuck in a fantasy much darker than he ever imagined. Musically, Pablo features a multitude of samples, artists, and production styles. For example, “No More Parties in LA” has more of a vintage rap feel which contrasts with the gospel feel of the first two tracks and the experimental nature of “FML”.


Overall, The Life of Pablo is very hard to discuss in such few words as this. It is an album that is quite literally always evolving as Kanye continued uploading new versions of the songs after the album’s initial release. It is a sprawling journey through multiple genres and stories, until Kanye’s facade cracks on the stunning finale “Saint Pablo” which finds Kanye wrestling once again with his faith and family. The Pablo referred to in the title is the Biblical figure Paul, who was converted to Christianity after initially oppressing Christians. Once described as “a gospel album with a lot of swearing” The Life of Pablo may not be the gospel revival that would come later in Kanye’s career, but it is an essential first step.

6. Lemonade – Beyoncé

photo taken from Tidal

The sparse, vocal-heavy opening track “Pray You Catch Me” makes it clear: this is no ordinary Beyoncé record, or record in general. This is a journey. Over the albums twelve tracks, Beyoncé discusses jealousy, infidelity, anger, heartbreak, and finally healing, restoration, and forgiveness. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough there’s the truck-rattling Black Lives Matter anthem ‘Formation’ to top it all off at the end. However, this is not Sasha Fierce or the flawless persona from her self-titled album. This is the journey of one of the most buzzworthy artists of the decade at one of her darkest moments. Beyoncé has never been more vulnerable and yet it seems that in her weakness, she has also never been stronger.


The music itself expresses her internal strife as it hops between numerous genres such as reggae, rock, country, pop, hip/hop, and more. Beyoncé not only experiments in this uncharted territory but effortless nails every one and, dare I say, even improves on some. The heartbreaking ‘Sandcastles’, explosive ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, and the thumping ‘Daddy Lessons’ are among the albums many highlights. Everything Beyoncé does on this record comes with a twist, one only Queen Bey herself could add to the “lemons” she’d been handed.


Perhaps what is most impressive about this album though was its ability to dominate the conversation in 2016, a year already full of critically acclaimed releases from the likes of Frank Ocean, her sister Solange, and Kanye West. It was Lemonade’s year and everyone knew it. That’s what made Adele’s acknowledgement of this even more bittersweet when she had beat Beyoncé at the subsequent Grammy awards for Album of the Year. Nevertheless,Lemonade will continue to dominate the conversation and forever be remembered as a groundbreaking moment in musical history.

5. A Seat at the Table – Solange

photo taken from Wikipedia

Beyoncé always seemed to outshine her sister. She was in a massively popular girl group and became one of the biggest popstars on the planet. Solange, on the other hand, was involved in an infamous elevator incident with her sister’s husband which was more publicized than her entire career up to that point. However, the release of A Seat at the Table would change everything.


Not only is A Seat at the Table an important record conceptually but it often relies on minimalistic production and simple melodies to sustain all 21 tracks. This pays off in a way that only Solange could orchestrate. Whether she’s talking about self-care, lost loves, or her struggles as an African-American woman in modern day America, she does so with exceptional grace. Sonically, the record is very cohesive. Every track seamlessly transitions into the next making it more of an experience than a compilation of songs. It is clear that Solange’s knowledge as an artist goes far beyond songwriting as every aspect of the record is utterly flawless.


The interludes throughout the album also provide more interesting windows into the African-American experience during segregation and the present day. Not only are they entertaining and informative, they feel essential to the album’s success by tying every aspect of Solange’s story to her identity and heritage. At one point, one of the featured guests denounces “reverse racism” by providing such a simplistic explanation of why black pride is integral to society that a child could understand. This conversation should not have to be had in our society and yet it has never been more important. It is a true testament as to why we need more diverse voices in Hollywood and the music industry. Solange successfully commands an exceptionally moving album lyrically and instrumentally and spreads love and empowerment to black communities throughout the world in a way that has never felt more authentic and relevant.

4. Beyond Control – Kings Kaleidoscope

photo taken from Jesus Freak Hideout

“But still this faith I hold/is my reality” is the bold proclamation that comes within the final minutes of this album. And when it does come, it feels as if it’s been ripped right from midst of an intensely personal and difficult journey. Although the Christian hope in Jesus is at the center of this album, it’s not all sunny skies and rainbows. Tracks such as “Most of It”, “Gone”, and the cleverly titled “Lost?” all follow along on Kings’ faith journey of learning to be okay with what they cannot control and gaining dominance over their fears. However, this all occurs before their breakdown at the end of the album revealing that this is no hero’s journey but instead one of continual wrestling, praising, pain, and growth.


Instrumentally, the album follows a rather optimistically jazzy flow, with hints of subtle samples and layers throughout for the first half. The interlude titled “Friendship” is just the band messing around with melodies in the studio capturing the kindred spirit that lies behind most of the tracks. In the second half of the album, the band falls into more stripped back sonic textures as they wrestle more with their fears and insecurities. Even the closing song “Trackless Sea” is rather mellow until a rather chaotic praise snippet bursts forth after a brief moment of silence revealing their cycle of emotions and return to praise.


Still, it is an album that deals with pain as much as it does praise such as on the controversial track A Prayer which features the line “where the fear is f—-ing violent” taken from the lead singer’s journal while suffering with severe anxiety. The industrial instrumentals sound as if they’re scraping along the ground, weary from a long battle. In the same breath it asks “Jesus where are you?/Am I still beside you?” while affirming and finding comfort in His death and resurrection. Kings Kaleidoscope prove time and time again that they are not afraid of the tough questions but at the same time are okay with not knowing all the answers. It is a uniquely human album that delights in the trials and triumphs of faith and the human condition, all the while accepting that it is truly beyond our control.

3. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

photo taken from DJ Booth

It has been said that good things always happen in threes. For Chance the Rapper, this meant three beloved mixtapes, the Holy Spirit, and his iconic three hats to commemorate all of this. Coloring Book marks the third entry in his mixtape trilogy and swept Chance into the mainstream. The success of this mixtape even caused the Grammys to change their qualification policy to allow albums exclusively available on streaming platforms to be able to be nominated for awards. Perhaps it was poetic that this allowed Chance to also win three Grammys for Coloring Book.


But Chance would attribute this much luck and success also to God as Coloring Book finds him boldly expressing his faith across a plethora of expertly produced and addictive gospel beats. Coloring Book practically perfected the gospel-rap fusion that had been started by artists like Kirk Franklin and Kanye West. Every single song feels as if it’s been lived in and grown for a significant period of time. Take the mellow “Summer Friends” a tribute to those relationships that only exist for a short period in one’s life. The Francis and the Lights feature is perfect, Chance’s verses are witty and feel like a confessional instead of a rap. Even Jeremih’s feature blends perfectly into the sonic landscape of the song. Each track follows this pattern of expertly selected guest vocals, fitting verses from Chance, and joyous instrumentals.


He talks about his family, his faith, and his friends with a level of optimism that is unheard of. With the world seeming so dark at times, this record shines like a light. It would be impossible to not burst out in a grin while hearing tracks like “All We Got”, “No Problem”, “Angels”, and “Finish Line/Drown”. The fact that this record is only a “mixtape” is also stunning. No wonder Chance sings “it seems like blessings keep falling in my lap” because Coloring Book feels heaven-sent.

2. A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – The 1975

photo taken from Wikipedia

To think that at the beginning of the decade The 1975 had not even released their debut album is mind boggling. Their progress from small indie band to politically-charged, arena rock icons has been a fascinating journey to follow. While their first two albums seemed to overstay their welcome, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships feels shockingly relevant and mature.


The instrumental, sonic, and lyrical styles have not changed but have been injected with more substance and wisdom than on their previous efforts. Every track is addictive and seems carefully chosen. Even the partially ambient detours à la “The Man Who Married a Robot/Love Theme” and “How To Draw/Petrichor” both fill necessary holes in the album’s narrative while being some of the most beautiful moments on the whole record. The paranoid and spastic nature of “Give Yourself a Try”, “I Like America and America Likes Me”, and “Love It If We Made It” is infectious and highlight the fears that many hold with our access to such a vast amount of information, good and bad. But the thought put into this record goes far beyond the vocal performance and instrumental landscapes. “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)”, “Be My Mistake”, and “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” all shed a strikingly honest and personal light on drug addiction, infidelity, and suicide respectively. Each song seems to showcase another new example of how technology is mediating our relationships with both things and people.


It is a message that has previously been explored by various artists throughout music history, most famously Radiohead. However, The 1975 take it to the next level by using modern recording technology like auto tune to showcase the mechanization of our humanity and even use a gospel number to discuss our fears of being sincere with one another. The message is not only one that is continually important but also one that is necessary for anyone alive right now.

1. Melodrama – Lorde

photo taken from W Magazine

Clocking in at 11 tracks and just over 40 minutes, Melodrama is a testament to every great thing about pop music. In the time between this album and Pure Heroine, Lorde had grown up, won a Grammy, and lost a significant relationship. The highs and lows of her experience are showcased here and form the basis of the record. So yes, Melodrama is a breakup album. It is a coming-of-age album. It is a pop album. But it is also so much more than that.


The opener “Green Light” is a peculiar track as it violently switches from minimalistic opening chords to a proper pop song courtesy of Jack Antonoff. The tone grows darker with the whisper-pop and heavy synth vibes from “Sober” and “Homemade Dynamite”. Suddenly it clicks: the album is set at a house party. What better place for a teenager to contemplate their life?


Every song that follows is a new dimension of heartbreak that draws you close and rips you open. The production is beautiful and cohesive, each track oozing into one another while still feeling intimate. It is clear that Lorde has never been in more command of her craft. By the time “Perfect Places” rolls around, Lorde has felt deep pain and regret, acknowledged her romanticism of the past, and realized her true self-worth. She is now free to return to the party while remembering that nothing is ever truly perfect in this life.


This album does not succeed by having a large persona or grandiose production. Rather, it retreats into the corners of your brain and feels like a heartfelt letter from a close friend. Lorde puts her entire soul into every breathy note and synth and focuses more on the quality than the quantity. Emotions are amplified and every track sticks the landing. Her journey back to being whole is one that is melodramatic but captures the deeply human truths about self-image, growing up, getting your heart broken, and putting the pieces back together again.

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Categories
Review

Top Ten Singles of the 2010s

5 min read – Characters: 6521

Over the past decade, there has been a multitude of fantastic songs which made it extremely difficult to narrow the list down to only ten! Because of this, I have added a runner up section which features songs that also deserved recognition but missed out on the top ten. The rule I made for the top ten was that there could only be one song per artist to make sure that there would be a mix of different genres and artists on the list. Enjoy!

Runner Ups

Love on the Brain – Rihanna

photo taken from Ali Express

Who would’ve ever thought Rihanna would release a retro, doo-wop love song? As it turns out, her extremely passionate and expressive vocals over the vintage chords created one of the best songs in her entire catalogue.

Thinkin Bout You – Frank Ocean

photo taken from Genius

Before this, Frank Ocean was just another member of the rap collective Odd Future. “Thinkin Bout You” showed off Frank’s impressive range and revealed his show-stopping songwriting to the world.

Royals – Lorde

photo taken from Wikipedia

“Royals” was meant to be a song given out for free but ended up winning Song of the Year at the Grammys. On this song, Max Martin told Lorde to switch the chorus and the prechorus. Thankfully, she didn’t listen and ended up defying the traditional song structure of pop music to give listeners a taste of her unique approach to songwriting and storytelling.

Top Ten

10. No Tears Left to Cry – Ariana Grande

photo taken from Ariana Grande Fandom

After the attack at her show in Manchester, Ariana Grande took a much-needed hiatus. Her triumphant comeback was marked by the release of “No Tears Left to Cry” which combined Ariana’s angelic vocals with a beautiful, heavenly soundscape. Instead of being stuck in regret, depression, and fear, she chose to look past those things and encourage the legions of fans who still believed in her.

9. Run Away With Me – Carly Rae Jepsen

photo taken from Carly Rae Jepsen Fandom

It would be a shame for Carly Rae Jepsen to be remembered only for her diamond hit “Call Me Maybe”. “Run Away With Me” allowed her refined abilities as a pop songwriter to take center stage. Complete with blazing saxophones and a gargantuan chorus, “Run Away With Me” is four minutes of pure pop bliss.

8. Love On Top – Beyoncé

photo taken from Genius

If Beyoncé has not convinced you by the end of this song that she is one of the most talented performers of this generation then you need to hit replay. The multiple key changes, flawless vocals runs, and fitting instrumentals are a testament to how Beyoncé takes every aspect of her music to the max.

7. Summer Friends – Chance the Rapper ft. Jeremih & Francis and the Lights

photo taken from DJ Booth

This song is absolutely gorgeous as each element successfully communicates Chance’s nostalgia and desire to return to the summer. His verses are some of his best yet and the soundscape created by Francis and the Lights’ vocals, synths, and other various textures that would fit in at an arcade feel like the audio equivalent of watching a sunset.

6. A Prayer – Kings Kaleidoscope

photo taken from Jesus Freak Hideout

The controversy surrounding this song almost overshadowed its greatness. Almost. It sounds tortured, rough, and raw before breaking out into a response to the lead singer’s questions of God during his severe anxiety. The passionate “I love you” near the end is one of the few musical moments that never fails to send chills down the spine.

5. Teenage Dream – Katy Perry

photo taken from Katy Perry Fandom

When I think of the quintessential 2010s pop song, “Teenage Dream” always comes to mind. The minimalistic instrumentals of the verses seem fitting before the immaculately constructed and sugar sweet hook. At the time, this song and the album of the same name dominated the radio and will continue to be a truly iconic moment in pop history.

4. All Too Well – Taylor Swift

photo taken from Amazon

For every gigantic hit single, there are many other songs in Taylor’s discography that reveal her talent and versatility as a songwriter. “All Too Well” is one of those songs. The song itself feels more like a scrapbook than a ballad and walks the listener through the history of a relationship. It focuses on the little moments such as a lost scarf, dancing in the kitchen, and running red lights which make the song feel lived-in rather than fabricated for profit. It’s raw and breathtakingly beautiful.

3. Track 10 – Charli XCX

photo taken from Genius

The production choices alone on this song are constantly surprising and perplexing. The song at its core would be good enough to go toe-to-toe with whatever Max Martin has worked on this decade. But Charli is not interested in a good melody, she wants to manufacture an entire sonic soundscape. This song seems to constantly evolve throughout its 5 minutes runtime and is unlike any other song out there. The chaotic synths, swirling distortion, and pitch-shifted vocals create an atmosphere that showcases how far ahead Charli is among her contemporaries.

2. All of the Lights – Kanye West

photo taken from Genius

It would be foolish to think that, despite his many controversies, Kanye West has not had an enormous impact on the sounds of this decade. “All of the Lights” finds Kanye at an all time high in terms of production, flow, and creative decisions. His choice to involve Rihanna, Fergie, and Elton John (among others) on the track would seem fantastical to most other artists but all of their contributions blend so well into the atmosphere Kanye has created. Upon its release, it showcased the mountainous possibilities for rap music and inspired countless artists for years to come.

1. Love It If We Made It – The 1975

photo taken from Wikipedia

When selecting which song would be number one of the decade the choice to me was fairly obvious. The ideal choice would be one that captured the true spirit of the decade and featured a memorable vocal performance, flawless instrumentals, and impactful lyrics. There is no other song I can think of that not only fulfills these criteria but exceeds them at every turn. The instrumental layers and subtle harmonies on the chorus make for one of the most beautifully anthemic musical moments of all time. Lyrically the song focuses on the sheer amount of good and bad information/news that we are presented with while hoping we’ll “make it” through the challenges left by the failures of modernity. It’s thoughtful, challenging, and unbelievably euphoric.


Thanks for reading!