Ed Sheeran: X
From the start, Ed Sheeran has demonstrated a skill for shrugging off the conventions of mainstream pop while still managing to enjoy its successes: His breakthrough radio single focused on a crack-addled prostitute. "The A Team," from Sheeran's debut album, "+" (pronounced "plus"), cloaked its harrowing subject matter in a sensual melody, a nifty trick that has helped the 23-year-old British singer-songwriter transition from pub-playing troubadour to arena act in roughly three years. The accented yearn of his vocal delivery distinguishes him from other aspiring folkies, but Sheeran's real gift lies in his writing -- his lyrics' attention to detail and unorthodox phrasing in particular. As the title implies, "x" (pronounced "multiply"), Sheeran's highly anticipated follow-up, ups the ante from his debut. He sinks even deeper into feelings of love, jealousy and inebriation while trying to navigate pop superstardom -- a problem this album is sure to only amplify.
To that end, "x" looks like a smash. Every song synthesizes the catchiest qualities of "The A Team" and its follow-up hit, "Lego House." "Bloodstream" flaunts a soulful naiveté over the most delicious guitar lick on the album, while "I'm a Mess" builds into an anthemic ending that will surely cap off Sheeran's future live show. As the hooks intensify, Sheeran paradoxically spends much of the album trying to hide -- from the bright lights that make his eyes squint with intoxicated confusion, but also from unnamed women who endlessly frustrate him. There's a reason Sheeran name-checks two Bon Iver songs on separate tracks; throughout the album, he attempts to spin his heartbreaks into an empathetic cry for shambling twentysomethings. "Loving can hurt sometimes/But it's the only thing that I know," he concludes on "Photograph," which lets its careful piano keys and acoustic strums simmer until arena-size drums kick in.
The daring spirit at the heart of Sheeran's appeal is magnified here, and he outclasses other rising male singers simply by utilizing a deeper bag of tricks. Few artists could pull off as stark a transition as the leap between "Sing," a swaggering, Justin Timberlake-inspired dance track, and "Don't," a blue-eyed-soul hymn built around the line "Don't fuck with my love." Elsewhere, Sheeran raps like The Streets' Mike Skinner on "The Man" and crafts a new-school wedding jam with "Tenerlife Sea." Such wild swiveling never feels forced, or even unexpected, from Sheeran, who has proven his exacting musicality onstage. There, he uses chopped-up loops, but few ideas get repeated on "x."
Sheeran seldom lets his songs breathe, packing each second with syllables even when he's not spitting bars. But that overeagerness will likely be tamped down, as Sheeran continues to polish his impressive craft. "x" finds a hungry artist doing everything possible to elevate to another level, simply by abiding by his instincts. After arriving on the U.S. pop scene with an offbeat folk ballad, Sheeran is expanding his profile on his own terms.
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Neon Trees: Pop Psychology
Island Def Jam
Reviewed by rollingstone.com
On their two hit singles – 2010's "Animal" and 2012's "Everybody Talks" – Neon Trees refashioned post-Strokes dance rock into unshakable radio pop. If the Utah band was from New York or L.A., its slick simulations of neo-New Wave might seem cynical. But there's something sweet about kids from more or less the middle of nowhere getting their little piece of modern rock. They're not Foster the People, they're everyday people.
The Trees' third album ups the empathy quotient: Frontman Tyler Glenn, who was raised Mormon, recently came out as gay, so phrases like "I was socially absurd" take on unexpected resonance. Pop Psychology opens with the biggest, shiniest songs he's come up with, each taking on a slippery aspect of post-modern romance. There's the sun-kissed altpop of "Love in the 21st Century," the Peter Gabriel arena gush of "Sleeping With a Friend," the Bowie-quoting bubble-punk of "Teenager in Love." The stark, chilly synth ballad "Voices in the Hall" works as both a late-night breakup lament and a testament of personal struggle, as if the difference between pop and art was no difference at all.
Reviewed by Entertainment Weekly at ew.com
Neon Trees first sprouted nearly a decade ago, a mohawked branch on the Killers' dance-rock family cactus. Like their desert-bred forebears, the Mormon-rooted Utah natives mastered the Technicolor hedonism of modern-rock radio — a sound splashed all over their breakout singles ''Animal'' and ''Everybody Talks.'' And on their third release, they've boldly put the word ''pop'' in the title, signaling their full-on turn to sugar-smacked new-wave revivalism.
But lurking beneath the shiny primary colors is a complex new collage of adult perspective. It's a natural reflection of their personal lives: Since their last album, frontman Tyler Glenn has come out as gay and drummer Elaine Bradley became a mother. Glenn's few direct nods to his revelation are just one part of the wiser, more wide-ranging sort of poetry within the sonic gloss, adding an emotional heft the band's earlier songs lacked. ''It's never like it used to be/Maybe it just never really was,'' Glenn croons on the humming ''Voices in the Halls,'' letting in enough grown-up darkness to give the keyboard throbs some weight. Nothing here is as relentlessly hooky as 2012's ''Everybody Talks,'' but its bubbly propulsion informs the cheeky ''I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends)'' and swooning ''Teenager in Love.'' That mix of energy and insight makes Psychology a 40-minute master class in the kind of pop that moves both the body and the brain.
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Pharrell Williams: Girl
2013 was the year of Pharrell. Sure, he's been lacing the pop charts for more than a decade, composing beats and singing hooks for everyone from Snoop Dogg and Jay Z to Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. But last year, he finally capped his transition to center-stage stardom with Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" – two megasmashes driven to ubiquity by Pharrell's lighthearted cockiness and free-range funkiness. Pop music can get pretty overbearing and self-serious in the era of Drake, Kanye and Lorde. Compared to them, Pharrell's records are like the big, goofy-ass hat he wore to the Grammys and the Oscars.
Despite being ludicrously consistent in supporting roles, he's never had much success as a leading man: N.E.R.D., the early-'00s rap-rock band he led with fellow Neptune Chad Hugo, and his no-fun 2006 solo album, In My Mind, are mostly best forgotten. That bad luck ends with Pharrell's second solo disc. Girl is a simple, even slight record – and that's definitely meant as a compliment. Everyone in pop owes him a favor, but the superstar cameos are few and easefully turned: There's Timberlake harmonizing on the mirror-ball fantasia "Brand New," and there are the robots of Daft Punk vocoding along to the spiraling astral-groove come-on "Gust of Wind." The music is just as uncluttered as the track list, riding the light, euphoric vibe Pharrell established on the album's Number One hit, "Happy." The only requirement for getting into this club is admitting your own joy.
The 10 songs on Girl are steeped in sunshine, air and the most natural, universal strains of Seventies and Eighties R&B. The thick, juicy beats are full of hand claps and falsetto sex; the overall vibe is less $300 champagne behind the velvet rope than Miller High Life on the stoop in summertime. Where Jay Z big-ups his Basquiats and Kanye namedrops Le Corbusier, Pharrell plants his flag on the stanky soil of American pop culture at its most goobery: "Duck Dynasty is cool and all/But they got nothing on the female's call," he teases on the elegantly asinine "Hunter," a daffy blast of disco slapstick.
When Pharrell first tickled our collective trunk 15 years ago with genius-establishing Neptunes cuts like Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass," his go-to beat was dirty and Southern. Lately, he's drawing from a broader, smoother palette: "Hunter" evokes New Wave sophisticates Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and the high-gloss strings and jazz-kissed keyboards on "Gush" could give 1979 Quincy Jones the vapors.
Girl plays like a concept album, the concept being that Pharrell likes girls a lot. But he's never pushy or gross about it. On opener "Marilyn Monroe," he includes OG strong woman Joan of Arc in his historical canon of hot chicks. And the album's most charming song, "Lost Queen," is a Lion King doo-wop valentine with trace elements of South African mbube, beautifully sung with a lovely, generous sentiment: "Though my planet's full of warfare, you make it feel like a dream." Times like these, it's nice to see such a good dude winning.
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