The Knack Music Reviews

Ariana Grande's My EverythingAriana Grande's "My Everything"

Ariana Grande's debut album Yours Truly was released almost exactly a year ago, and over the past 12 months, the former Nickelodeon star has transformed from pop artist you ought to know to an undeniable superstar, with three singles in the Top 10 of the current Hot 100 chart, a slot opening the MTV Video Music Awards, red-hot dating rumors and millions of followers watching her every move. Grande is expanding as both a brand and a musician: as her profile has gotten bigger, she has pulled more sounds into her repertoire while keeping her biggest weapon, a remarkable vocal range, as a steady foundation. As a full-length, Yours Truly succeeded due to its consistency, with R&B producer Harmony Samuels concocting a buttery sound for Grande to embrace and keeping the subject matter uniformly kid-friendly. My Everything acknowledges that winning formula and disregards it, instead opting to turn Grande into a dance artist, a pop artist, a soul artist and an artist capable to singing the line "Picture me and you making/Making sweet love/Baby, give it to me" with no hesitation.

As a result, My Everything is a less cohesive project than Yours Truly, although its best moments eclipse the highs of Grande's 2013 debut. The singles "Problem" and "Break Free" remain dizzying dance tunes, and back-to-back solo songs "One Last Time" and "Why Try" possess the types of flawless melodies that are typically reserved for the world's biggest pop divas. The back half of the album's many collaborations are hit-or-miss -- "Love Me Harder" with the Weeknd amazingly meshes together two dissimilar types of artists, while the A$AP Ferg appearance on "Hands on Me" is lost amidst the song's sexual vibe. The deluxe edition of the album is a similar grab-bag, with the explosive Top 10 hit "Bang Bang" giving way to the comparatively breezy "Only 1."

One plea for Grande's future albums: it's time for her to own a stunning ballad. Songs on My Everything like the title track and "Just a Little Bit of Your Heart" attempt to match the awe-inspiring effect of Grande's voice but fall short, and one is left longing for the rising star to burst through with her own "I Will Always Love You," "Un-Break My Heart" or "Someone Like You." Grande has proven that her fizzy pop-R&B sound can get our hearts soaring, but next time, let's hope that she breaks them.

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Taylor Swift 1989Taylor Swift: 1989

Recently, Taylor Swift was promoting 1989, her fifth album, which reviewers are hearing just once, after signing a lengthy non-disclosure agreement. In Australia she "lashed out" at critics who didn't care for her candid, confessional songwriting and its narrow focus on her past relationships. Swift called this criticism sexist because, as she pointed out, no one derides Ed Sheeran or Bruno Mars for the same tactic. Touché.

Those commentators will be rupturing veins when 1989 finally comes out. Of its 13 tracks, roughly 10 find Swift in love, out of it, or in transition. There are exceptions - such as Shake It Off, Swift's sassy US No 1 single, which rejects the bile of the haters. Recently revealed online, Welcome to New York is a love song, but to Swift's new city. As New York songs go, WTNY is not up there in the Jay Z /Alicia Keys stakes, but there's wisdom among the cliches. "Everyone here was someone else before," Swift notes, reinventing hard. WTNY is this album's scene-changing opener, proffering 80s pop as its signature sound. Swift may have been born on 13 December 1989, but here she is claiming the 80s - gated drums, synth-pop -as a formative influence.

The remainder of 1989 is singularly focused on making eyes at boys, severing ties with boys, and what went wrong with whom. Since storming through the genre qua non of break-up songs, country music, with her first three albums, Swift has since become one of the world's biggest entertainers thanks to these adroit affair postmortems. Songs such as her ubiquitous pop hit, 2012's We Are Never Getting Back Together, skilfully tease universals from juicy particulars.

This album carries on her skilful works, with increased stylistic and tonal variation. "You look like my next mistake," runs Blank Space, an out-and-out pop song with an intriguingly skeletal undercarriage. There is a rewarding pen click when Swift prepares to write down this man's name. Bad Blood faintly recalls Charli XCX with its stark beats. Wildest Dreams borrows a bit of glaciation from Lana Del Rey.

The allure of Swift's songwriting has of course been increased immeasurably by the pop star's choice of companions - a long A-list of singers, actors and boy band members. I Knew You Were Trouble, Swift's killer hit from 2012's Red, is universally understood to be about One Direction's Harry Styles.

Now, the bludgeoningly catchy Out of the Woods recounts a certain stuttering high-profile relationship that climaxes in a snowmobile crash. One of its two characters receives "20 stitches in the hospital room". Even more minxish is Style, a percolating funk-pop number that satisfies on every level: a Love and exes soundbed Swift has never used before, a plot arc about dress sense.

Being able to "tag" exes in love songs has been a manoeuvre in pop for far longer than the concept of online tagging has existed - one distributed pretty much equally across the genders through the ages. A generation ago, Cry Me a River found Justin Timberlake angsting over Britney Spears. Swift's fifth record is a bold, gossipy confection that plays to her strengths - strengths which pretty much define modern pop, with its obsession with the private lives of celebrities and its premium on heightened emotion. The album's one failing? There's no obvious single here as unequivocally great as I Knew You Were Trouble.

For almost a decade, Taylor Swift has been waging, and winning, a war, smiling all the while.

Country music has been - was - a natural enemy for her: hidebound, slow moving, lousy with machismo. She could break the rules and make people nervous simply by showing up. And yet country was also a hospitable host body. She faced almost no direct competition there, and it's a genre that embraces success, grudgingly if need be.

Most important, country gave Ms. Swift context. It made her a transgressor, which means even her most benign songs could be read with mischievous intent. From the outside, she looked like a conquering titan. But from the inside looking out, even as the genre's biggest star, she was always something of an underdog, multiplatinum albums and accolades be damned.

Full of expertly constructed, slightly neutered songs about heartbreak, "1989," which is to be released on Monday, doesn't announce itself as oppositional. But there is an implicit enemy on this breezily effective album: the rest of mainstream pop, which "1989" has almost nothing in common with. Modern pop stars - white pop stars, that is - mainly get there by emulating black music. Think of Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber. In the current ecosystem, Katy Perry is probably the pop star least reliant on hip-hop and R&B to make her sound, but her biggest recent hit featured the rapper Juicy J; she's not immune.

Ms. Swift, though, is having none of that; what she doesn't do on this album is as important as what she does. There is no production by Diplo or Mike Will Made-It here, no guest verse by Drake or Pitbull. Her idea of pop music harks back to a period - the mid-1980s - when pop was less overtly hybrid. That choice allows her to stake out popular turf without having to keep up with the latest microtrends, and without being accused of cultural appropriation.

That Ms. Swift wants to be left out of those debates was clear in the video for this album's first single, the spry "Shake It Off," in which she surrounds herself with all sorts of hip-hop dancers and bumbles all the moves. Later in the video, she surrounds herself with regular folks, and they all shimmy un-self-consciously, not trying to be cool.

See what Ms. Swift did there? The singer most likely to sell the most copies of any album this year has written herself a narrative in which she's still the outsider. She is the butterfingers in a group of experts, the approachable one in a sea of high post, the small-town girl learning to navigate the big city.

In that sense, the most important decision Taylor Swift made in the last couple of years had nothing to do with music: She bought a pad in New York, paying about $20 million for a TriBeCa penthouse.

It was a molting, the culmination of several years of outgrowing Nashville combined with interest in Ms. Swift that placed her in tabloid cross-hairs just like any other global star.

But it also afforded her the opportunity once again to be seen as a naïf. In Nashville, she'd learned all the rules, all the back roads. Now, with that place more or less in the rear view, she is free to make the John Hughes movie of her imagination. That's "1989," which opens with "Welcome to New York," a shimmery, if slightly dim celebration of the freedom of getting lost in Gotham: "Everybody here was someone else before/And you can want who you want." (As a gesture of tolerance, this is about 10 steps behind Kacey Musgraves's "Follow Your Arrow.")

Ms. Swift hasn't been the type to ask permission in her career, but she has long seen herself as a stranger to the grand-scale fame that New York signifies. "Someday I'll be living in a big ol' city" she taunted a critic on "Mean," from her 2010 album "Speak Now"; now here she is, making the New York spotlight her backlight.

On this new stage, Ms. Swift is thriving. And crucially, she is more or less alone, not part of any pop movement of the day. She has set herself apart and, implicitly, above.

The era of pop she channels here was a collision of sleaze and romanticism, of the human and the digital. But there's barely any loucheness in Ms. Swift's voice. Her take on that sound is sandpapered flat and polished to a sheen. The album, named for the year she was born, is executive produced by Ms. Swift and Max Martin, and most of the songs are written with Mr. Martin and his fellow Swede Shellback. Both men have helped shape the last decade of pop but what's notable here is their restraint. (Mr. Martin also did almost all the vocal production on the album.) Ms. Swift's old running buddy Nathan Chapman produced "This Love," a mournful ballad that would have been at home of the "Hunger Games: Catching Fire" soundtrack, and the only song here that could be mistaken for a concession to country.

The best country-defying songs on her last album, "Red" - especially "I Knew You Were Trouble," another collaboration with Mr. Martin and Shellback - were also a move toward forward-sounding pop. Ms. Swift has many charms but stylistic envelope pushing has not always been among them. And yet those songs showed her to be more of a risk taker than she'd ever been, and savvy enough to know her fans would follow.

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Better Than Ezra All Together NowBetter Than Ezra: All Together Now

Better Than Ezra tried to strike a balance between creating a sound that's both familiar and fresh when writing music for its new album, "All Together Now," due out this Sept. 9 on The End Records.

"When you've been doing it for a while, you want to stay inspired," singer Kevin Griffin told CBS News. "But it's a challenge because you want to stay true to your sound, to your roots and also bring something new...For us we've been doing it a while and so if we're going to put something out we want it to be different."

The band members, who rose to fame in the '90s, started working on material last year and hit the studio in the summer of 2013 where they performed the songs live for the first time.

"It definitely has a different approach production-wise. I think that's a credit to Tony Hoffer -- the guy who produced our record," Griffin said about Hoffer, who has previously worked with the Kooks, Beck and Foster the People.

"Tony's aesthetic is different than maybe ours -- production-wise. He wants to have less elements do more. Our default when we like, 'We need more guitars!"...And Tony is like, 'No we're going to do one guitar and make it sound great and interesting."

That comes through in songs like lead single, "Crazy Lucky" about "the serendipitous nature of a relationship -- just how it's happenstance, how we meet people and the significant events over the course of our lives are so random," said Griffin.

It all ties in with the album title -- one that Griffin, along with bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Michael Jerome -- had been kicking around for a while.

"It feels like it's what the band's about, which is bringing people together and having fun," Griffin said about the title.

The guys from Better Than Ezra say that's been their goal since forming in 1988 in Louisiana. Looking back on their breakthrough sophomore album, 1990's "Deluxe," Griffin can recall how everything started to change. "We had been together for a while -- almost about six years touring in a van, playing for $50 and a pizza, living the dream, or at least pursuing it. And after being signed suddenly we were the hot band at South by Southwest."

"When we saw that first single 'Good' star reacting that's when we knew we had something," said Griffin, who has co-written songs with countless artists through the years, including Sugarland and Howie Day. "And we had written a lot of songs and they didn't get that kind of reaction. And then the rest of your career you're in an endless search to recapture that."

Ready to recapture some of that magic, Better Than Ezra recently unveiled the ultra-catchy single "Crazy Lucky" and is looking forward to reactions "All Together Now" from.

"Every time you put an album out you hope all the dominoes are lined up so they fall in succession and things that happen in the sequence that will make it be successful," said bassist Tom Drummond.

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Maroon 5 VMaroon 5 Tightens Up on 'V'

The guys of Maroon 5 have the art of making pop records down pat. They've been sneaking into ear canals and embedding seemingly irremovable songs in four minutes flat for more than a decade. And lately, they've been doing it spite of lead singer Adam Levine, who's wrestled with an unsavory image for a while now (for the record, he gets why you may think he is a douchebag, but is, in fact, not one).  

They've also been accused of leaving behind their brand of honeyed California coastal soul (see "Sunday Morning") in favor of full-on pop jams ("Payphone"). Sure, a great deal of their success can be credited to going that route. However, a close listen to fifth album V reveals that their foundation has not been removed. Levine's hummingbird vocals and passionate delivery are as earnest as they were on their 2002 debut Songs About Jane.   

Since then, they've buddied up with big-name producers -- Benny Blanco, Shellback and Ryan Tedder all assisted on V. Levine's also become a master at stretching and twisting words, like he did with that final "moves" in the "Moves Like Jagger" chorus. Such additions put V in the fast lane to chart-topping victory: after all, lead single "Maps" peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100, and follow-up "Animals" is creeping up the chart now.
V is a tight relationship album, clocking in just shy of 41 minutes. Capturing, losing, and demanding love is the set's focus. To find out what songs Billboard fell hardest for, check out our track-by-track review of the new album.

Twenty-seven million album sales and multiple Max Martin collaborations into its career, Maroon 5 can no longer accurately be called a rock band, as much as Adam Levine's increasingly dense skin canvass of tattoos might seem to indicate that the label still applies. As the band has maintained a consistent presence in the global pop market over the past decade, whatever sharp edges it displayed on 2002's Songs About Jane—the cheeky garage-guitars on "Harder to Breathe", say—have been sanded down, lacquered over, and decorated with an impressively slick array of flashy sonic embellishments, culminating in the parade of top-ten singles produced by its 2012 effort Overexposed. When a band starts releasing songs via lucrative inclusions in Kia Soul commercials (see: the recent offering "Animals"), it's fair to identify that behavior as selling out. But if you take Maroon 5 for what it's become—a meticulously produced pop act with a barely detectable rock pedigree—then it's worth crediting the band for having spawned a distinctive sub-species of guilty-pleasure earworm, one containing just enough traces of actual instruments to remind listeners that digital synthesizers haven't completely cannibalized rock 'n' roll.

Co-written with four of pop music's reigning hit-machines, including Benny Blanco and Ryan Tedder, V's lead single "Maps" epitomizes the formula that has secured Maroon 5 a seemingly ubiquitous presence on the radio. As with the melismatic groove that distinguishes "Moves Like Jagger", "Maps" optimizes Levine's remarkably flexible falsetto by adding surprising vocal touches like the melodic uptick on the line "map that leads to you-ou" and the downwardly cascading, vocal-exercise-esque delivery of the verb "following". Like Tedder's recent hits with his own band One Republic, the song pivots sharply between verse, pre-chorus, and chorus in such a way as to hold the listener's attention throughout, not always an easy feat in an era when the "shuffle" command is just a finger-swipe away. The song harnesses Police's breezy guitar licks as well as Daft Punk's disco danceability, anchoring those two elements with peppy handclaps and percussion that builds and relieves pressure as the song's structure switches gears.
Maroon 5 hits a far more innovative stride on "Sugar" and "Feelings", two songs that manage to elegantly hybridize syncopated funk grooves and synth-driven '80s nostalgia. In interviews, Levine constantly mentions his adoration for Stevie Wonder, and these two tracks bring him as close as he'll probably ever get to sounding like his idol. "Sugar" hits a sweet spot by layering a subtly funky guitar pulse over gossamer synths and multiple tracks of Levine's easy-on-the-ears upper range, while "Feelings" draws on the disco catalogue yet sneaks in transgressive turns-of-phrase such as "You and me let's go all night / Going so high we fucked the sky / Come with me now fuck that guy." While "Sugar" and "Feelings" benefit from collaborations with Dr. Luke and Shellback, respectively, fun. lead singer Nate Ruess's co-writer credit can be felt a bit too ham-handedly on "Leaving California", which finds Levine's hyper-earnest delivery sounding exactly like Ruess's, while lifting melodic passages straight off the sheet music for fun.'s hit "We Are Young".

If V doesn't seem destined to yield the formidable helping of catchy singles that Overexposed did, the album delivers a consistent palette of genre-melding pop offerings and affable fist-pumping anthems, on the whole surpassing the flaccid duo of records released in the wake of Songs About Jane. Leaving scrappier rock behind for the sunny horizons of chart-friendly pop was surely a wise commercial move for Maroon 5, but reaching for ubiquity on the singles chart often means sacrificing any hope of making a conceptually cohesive and musically sophisticated album. As far as lightweight, easy-listening charts pop goes, V doesn't totally offend the sensibilities, and that's surely more than can be said about some of Maroon 5's overly pandering, less exploratory "pop-rock" peers.

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