A Look Back at Week 1 for Pop Music in 2018

Okay everyone, please don’t freak out. We’re one week into 2018, and some historically phenomenal artists have already dropped some songs that could fairly be described as trash. Even if you’re not of the opinion that these songs are terrible, you have to admit that none of these songs are anything to write home about. I had a brief moment of panic while I considered the possibility that I had chosen a dud year to begin writing about and reviewing music, but we’re still working with a small sample size, so I’m hoping that this week won’t be a strong indicator of the the quality of music to be released this year. There’s still plenty of time for 2018 to produce some music worth listening to, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s off to a slow start.

Here’s how I felt about the music from week 1 of this year:

“God Save Our Young Blood” by BØRNS feat. Lana Del Rey

I absolutely loved BØRNS’ 2015 debut, Dopamine. Garrett Borns’ first LP showcased a dramatic production style to support his distinctively androgynous voice, resulting in a simultaneously fresh and accessible album that a large cross-section of listeners could enjoy. Cheeky instrumentals and vocal “oos” and “ahhs” drenched in reverb allowed Dopamine’s vibe to strike an appealing balance between corny and ostentatious as the album delivered a seemingly never-ending supply of catchy hooks to its audience. Given the few years of musical evolution since Dopamine’s release, I had high hopes for the development of BØRNS’ sound in his sophomore release.

Unfortunately, Blue Madonna is slated for a January 12th release, and none of the singles released for it indicate that BØRNS will be treading much new territory with his next album. Overall, “Faded Heart”, “Sweet Dreams”, and “I Don’t Want You Back” sound like Dopamine B-Sides more than the lead singles of a new project. If any progression in BØRNS’ music can be tracked from his first album to these singles, it would be movement away from the light rock flavor of his first album in favor of more traditional pop influences in these singles. I like Dopamine, so I thought these singles were fine, but I don’t feel like I need more of BØRNS’ first album at this point in my life.

“God Save Our Young Blood”, released on January 2nd, is the first of Blue Madonna’s singles that I actively dislike. Lana Del Rey receives credits as a feature on the song, but “featured” might be an overstatement. Del Rey’s contributions are more or less relegated to background vocals in a song that could benefit from variety in its vocal presentation. It’s a mess of a song to position as an album opener, and Del Rey’s inclusion feels like a shameless attempt to attach a big name to a mediocre song. The song manages to be at-once boring and all-over-the-place with its joyless packaging and verses that feel wholly disconnected from its chorus. Ultimately, the single serves as the nail in the coffin for my anticipation of Blue Madonna despite the fact that I would have loved another great BØRNS album.

“Filthy” by Justin Timberlake

This one upsets me because it really could have been such a cool song if they had taken it in a different direction. Incredibly over-produced, “Filthy” sounds like Timberlake and producers Timbaland and Danja genuinely felt that every idea they had for this song was gold. Some of its individual pieces could have been used in a more minimal fashion to make something far better. At its core, “Filthy” features a simple but infectious groove, an interesting bass line, and Timberlake’s inherent ability to milk a song for all it’s worth by vamping the song ad nauseum. It’s a formula that earned much praise for its implementation in FutureSex/LoveSounds and The 20/20 Experience, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark here.

“Filthy” precedes the February 2nd release of Timberlake’s fifth studio album, Man of the Woods. A name like that for the album suggests that Timberlake wants to evoke a narrative of himself as something of a hermit working in seclusion to complete this particular collection of songs, but absolutely nothing about the way this song sounds even comes close to conjuring up that image. A horrid dubstep bass sound fills every bit of empty space in the song and interacts with  stereotypical mechanical noises to craft the song’s overly busy beat. The production aims to sound futuristic without exploring any truly experimental or cutting edge sounds. Instead it chases a conception of what the future will sound like based on dated understandings of the word. The song throws together a tangle of ideas and sounds that have seen success in the past few years without any discernment hoping something will stick. As a result, essentially nothing does.

“All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar feat. SZA

I’m not mad at this one– just disappointed. Those of you who read my Top 10 Albums of 2017 list know that SZA and Kendrick Lamar won the highest honors, so you can imagine how geeked I was to read that they had released a song together so soon after I wrote that list. Not only were two fantastic artists collaborating, this collaboration would be the lead single for the soundtrack associated with Marvel’s Black Panther. Kendrick and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith have been tapped by director Ryan Coogler to create a soundtrack for the film that will include songs specifically written for the film in addition to previously released songs. Black Panther, Top Dawg, Kendrick, SZA– it all sounds like a recipe for some excellent music, but “All the Stars” fails to live up to its potential.

Honestly, it’s not a horrible song. It’s an easy listen, and the lush strings that creep into the latter half of the song give it an appropriately cinematic feel that I imagine will be used to great effect in the film itself. As a single for an album, however, it doesn’t leave the listener with much to get excited about. I always love to hear Kendrick and SZA, but both of their performances here sound a little phoned in. From two artists who have created such exciting and bold work in the past, this song is far too safe for me appreciate beyond a casual listen. Any other two artists could have been on this song and I would have thought it was alright, but the fact that it came from two of my favorite artists made it feel like a tease. Here’s to hoping the next SZA and Kendrick collaboration will feature the things about their music that makes us love them both.

“Hand It Over” by MGMT

Of the songs that came out this week, this was my favorite. While it didn’t make me lose my mind, I liked it, and that’s more than I can say for the other stuff that came out this week. MGMT has always had an experimental approach to pop music that I can appreciate, and they continue to flex those muscles on “Hand It Over.” “Hand It Over” and the previously released single for MGMT’s upcoming album, “When You Die”, don’t take too many risks sonically given the  “out-there” reputation of MGMT’s sound, but the production has enough psychedelic flare to keep things intriguing. I’m more excited to listen to MGMT’s upcoming album than I am any of the other albums that the singles from this week preceded.

“Hand It Over” sounds a little like something out of Tame Impala’s catalog with its steel drum inspired synths and simple hi-hat, kick, and snare groove. Slightly hypnotic and something of a sleeper, the song is easy to zone out to as it rolls along at a leisurely pace. A subtle, disco-inspired guitar riff fills in the gaps to create a micro groove that provides a little definition for the otherwise wavy sounds. A flange effect gradually drifts to the forefront of the song, washing the song out to further solidify a sensation of hypnosis as the listener drifts farther down the rabbit hole with the song. Though it’s not particularly dynamic, I can imagine that the song will play an important role in the eventual flow of the album from which it comes. Maybe it’s because it’s in pretty unimpressive company, but “Hand It Over” did it’s job as a single that makes me look forward to the release of its album.  

So, all in all, it was a pretty disappointing week for music, but let’s not forget that people like Frank Ocean are teasing the heck out of albums that could be released in 2018. It’s nowhere near time to give up on music this year. I feel like I probably sound like a hater, and just because the music released so far in this calendar year sucks doesn’t mean music is going in a sucky direction. Here are some other semi-recent songs I’ve been listening to this week that deserve some love:

Whose music are you most excited to hear in 2018?

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