The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 8 — Cody Jinks, Brent Faiyaz, Miley Cyrus & more!

Welcome to the first edition of The Endless Music Odyssey of 2021 and the eight volume overall! In this volume I take a look at several albums (plus a single) that were released in late 2020 as I continue to knock out the backlog of releases from 2020 I didn’t cover yet. So if you don’t see something covered here, it’s likely in the next volume or it’s going to be a separate review. Let’s dive in…

Buy It

Cody Jinks — Red Rocks Live

Basically if you’ve ever wanted a Cody Jinks greatest hits album, here you go. A live album is always hard to review, as they’re mostly songs that have been heard and reviewed before. So you have to judge it just like you’re at a show. And if this was a show, I would give it an easy two thumbs up. As someone who greatly misses live music, this makes you feel like you’re back in person. The only complaint I have with this album is I would have liked to have heard more crowd noise incorporated, as at times it feels like they go missing. You gotta remember to keep the live element to distinctly differentiate it from the studio recordings, otherwise it sounds sterile and uninteresting (Midland’s live album is unfortunately an example of this). If you want a great example of a modern band who does this well on their live records, see all of Blackberry Smoke’s live albums.

Other than that this is a fun album front to back that covers all of the great Jinks songs from his first handful of albums. The sped up live version of “David” and the encore, extended performance of “Loud and Heavy” are the immediate standouts. And of course I really enjoy Jinks’ cover of Alan Jackson’s “Chasin’ that Neon Rainbow,” as it’s one of my favorites from Jackson and the song fits Jinks like a glove. I’ve never seen Cody Jinks live before, but this album reminded me I need to change that once concerts return one day. This is a great live album and well worth your time and money if you’re a fan of Jinks.

Stream It

Brent Faiyaz — F**k the World

This was an album that slipped through the cracks for me last year and when I discovered this at year’s end I immediately rectified this. I wish I had heard and reviewed this sooner because it would have without question gotten attention on at least one year-end list. Brent Faiyaz is an artist I’ve been following with interest, as his independent approach has been written about countless times and he’s an example of an artist who’s figured out how to thrive outside of the traditional music system.

His debut album didn’t do a lot for me, but it showed enough potential that I hoped I would like the next one. Well I definitely enjoy F**k the World. It’s a fantastic fusion of R&B, pop, soul and hip-hop that see Faiyaz explore relationships, wealth, indulging in pleasures and consciousness of one’s own self. The song that best exemplifies this is “Clouded,” a song that clocks in just under two minutes. Despite it’s short length, this song pulls no punches and showcases everything great about this album: the catchy lyrics, Faiyaz’s confident and cool delivery, the musing lyrics and the drowning, atmospheric production that engulfs the listener.

“Been Away” is a really nice take on 90s R&B and I enjoy the wandering anxiety of doubt and trust that’s explored in a relationship. The album’s title track shows off Faiyaz’s crude humor, as best shown by the line “Fuck the world I’m a walking erection.” That’s the funny thing about this album: how Faiyaz is able to pull off this weird juxtaposition between thoughtful reflection and outward bravado. They’re polar opposite reactions, but I feel like that’s the point Faiyaz is making with this album. It shows how complicated people can be and how the inside and the outside don’t always match up. “Bluffin” only reinforces this idea. And oh yeah Faiyaz really makes some fun songs that quickly grab your attention.

As funny as this is to say out loud, a great R&B album should have a sexy, classy tone. And F**k the World quickly establishes this mood and keeps it from front to back. Also I must say this album impresses me with how long it feels in terms of runtime while listening to it despite it coming in under 30 minutes. It speaks to how great this record is and I can’t wait to hear more from Brent Faiyaz.

 

Kishi Bashi — “Never Ending Dream”

I usually stick to albums for The Endless Music Odyssey, but I had to make an exception here. Kishi Bashi continues to be one of the most underrated artists in indie music and his pop sensibilities are incredible. His new song “Never Ending Dream” only drives this point harder. Made as the theme song for Apple TV+ kids show Stillwater, this song is so damn bright and colorful, as it bursts with the kind of happiness you expect from a song for a kid’s show. Yet it’s not cartoony or corny and works equally great as a regular song. The soaring, whimsical melody and the catchy lyrics can’t help but make me grin as I listen. Can more people finally start paying attention to Bashi on his next project, please?

Worth a Listen

Miley Cyrus — Plastic Hearts

I really wanted to like this album more than I ultimately did. It’s the type of album I’ve been hoping to hear from Miley Cyrus: an 80s pop rock album with a modern touch. This style of music is right in my wheelhouse. It starts out promising, as the first three songs are pretty good and feature strong hooks. Then you get to “Prisoner” and I’m expecting something great with Dua Lipa being featured. After all Lipa released one of the best pop albums of 2020 and she did an excellent job of utilizing retro sounds. But this song is so underwhelming. Lipa’s vocals sound incredibly weak and I can’t believe there’s no harmonies on the song, as it strongly calls for it.

The rest of the album follows suit for the most part with songs that have potential, but fall short. I will say an exception is “Night Crawling,” as Billy Idol’s feature is good and the over-the-top, synth driven sound has a real infectious appeal. Some songs the hooks are weak (“Midnight Sky”, “Hate Me”), others the production is half-baked (“High,” “Golden G String”) and lacks any sort of melody or groove. I’m shocked by the lack of guitars featured on this album, as you would think this style of music would feature plenty of guitars. But they’re largely absent until “Edge of Midnight,” which is a clear highlight of the album (even this song could use more guitars). Stevie Nicks sounds great on the feature and there’s harmonies that give the song real power (see why this was needed for “Prisoner”).

While Miley Cyrus clearly appreciates 80s pop rock, her execution of it on Plastic Hearts is unfortunately lacking overall. If you enjoy this style of music, it’s definitely worth one listen and who knows you might find more to like than I did. But as someone who’s listened to a lot of this type of music, there’s certain elements that just aren’t strong enough for this album to rival any of it’s inspiration.

Izaak Opetz — Hot & Heavy-Handed

While the chill and lo-fi approach Izaak Opetz takes to this is intriguing and drew me in, the only song I found myself wanting to re-listen to was “Drunk on a Plane.” And I feel like that was only because of my familiarity with it and the jarring contrast to the original. This is a fun novelty album that I’m glad I gave a chance, but not something I see myself returning to in the future. The aesthetic and presentation of this album is make or break for you.

Ariana Grande — Positions 

Ariana Grande has a fantastic voice, probably one of the best in pop music today. But her music has always proved to be elusively appealing to me because it feels like her songs just lack the type of melody that get me interested in a pop song. Her songs also have a more modern sleekness, which I personally don’t enjoy as much as pop music that reutilizes retro sounds and combines with modern stylings. There’s a few songs I enjoy on this and while I respect Grande’s work, it’s just not something that appeals to me.

Goodie Mob — Survival Kit

Man, the production on this is fantastic! It’s rich, varied and immediately commands your attention. There’s a melting pot of influences from hip hop to soul to gospel. Andre 3000 and Big Boi deliver great features as you expect from Outkast. And CeeLo Green is singing his ass off throughout it. But the songwriting is just flat-out weak and fails to hold my attention in any way. The hooks are somehow even weaker and are instantly forgettable. It’s worth a listen just for the production, but if the songwriting was just a little better this album might have bumped up a category. Damn shame.

Jim Clack — Submariner 

For a debut album, this is a decent effort from Jim Clack and shows enough potential that I would check out his next project. But this one just doesn’t quite have enough to go from decent to good. The songwriting is not bad and explores interesting themes, but it falls just short of being interesting enough to merit revisiting. The touches of harmonica throughout give the songs a nice bluesy feel. Clack has passionate vocals, but at times stretches himself a bit too thin like on “Long Lost Innocence.” He feels much more comfortable vocally on the rowdy and catchy “Sick” and the reflective “Someday I’ll Go into Space.” It’s a short project, so if you enjoy country music with a bluesier, rougher edge I think you’ll find things to enjoy.

Avoid It

38 Spesh — Interstate 38

The production on this is intriguing at first and keeps you listening. It’s the clear strong point. But the hooks on this are weak, the lyrics are not memorable and it feels like 38 Spesh’s flow never changes throughout the album. Even Benny the Butcher’s feature is kind of unremarkable. This album feels like the perfect example of an unfortunate side-effect in music, but especially in hip-hop: artists are churning out music so quickly that it pressures those around them to keep pace and not being forgotten by listeners. Not to mention it also pressures a lot of artists to stay close to the sound “that works.” The result is album’s like this that feel like your standard hip hop album in today’s music world; there’s nothing that really stands out or is remarkable.

Country Perspective’s Top Five Pop Albums of 2020

Country Perspective will be posting multiple best of albums lists this year to recognize the staggering amount of high quality album releases in 2020. It will ultimately conclude with Country Perspective’s Top 10 Albums of 2020, which will reflect all genres and crown this blog’s top award, Album of the Year.

Today I take a look at the top five pop albums of 2020. Pop had a pretty good year in my eyes. More artists embrace melody in their music than they have in recent memory, which was great to see. It’s been my biggest criticism of the genre in the modern era, as too many artists try to ape a watered-down alternative or hip hop flavored sound. Pop needs to stick to what makes people like pop: sticky hooks, catchy melody and singalong quality. I would also like to see the throwback/retro trend that seemed to emerge this year to continue into 2021, as I think there are many modern artists who can bring fresh takes to classic approaches. This is always the hardest genre to evaluate in my opinion, as there’s just so many releases and determining what’s pop is more ambiguous than any other genre. So without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top Five Pop Albums of 2020:

5. Niall Horan — Heartbreak Weather

Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather is an enjoyably solid album of soft rock meets pop love songs. Although I will say it’s not all straight-ahead love songs, as Horan weaves in themes throughout the album of insecurity, doubt and details of the hard road one can experience in finding love. The album has an overall sound of being bouncy, fun and upbeat, while Horan demonstrates himself to be a charismatic vocalist with range. And while there’s many fun moments like on “Everywhere,” there’s also some more serious and introspective moments that give this album a softness to balance it out (“Put a Little Love on Me” and “Still”).

4. Taylor Swift — folklore

The first thing of course that stands out about this Taylor Swift’s folklore is the production, helmed by her longtime producer Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner. Both of their influences shine through in the music, but especially Dessner’s, as this album certainly embraces indie and folk aesthetics. It’s not an indie folk album as many have erroneously called it, but rather a pop album that incorporates elements of modern indie, folk, bedroom pop and lo-fi. Swift cherrypicks some of the more obvious and basic elements of these styles and makes them work with her style of pop for the most part. Combined with her most mature and arguably best songwriting to date, this makes folklore one of Swift’s best albums.

3. Dua Lipa — Future Nostalgia 

Dua Lipa delivers an absolutely fantastic album in Future Nostalgia. It has the elements I want to hear in a pop album and it comes oh so close to be an album of the year contender. Despite one slip-up, this album delivers everything else perfectly. It encapsulates disco, electro pop and dance music with the kind of aplomb and grace I would expect out of Carly Rae Jepsen, while at the same time delivering incredibly infectious hooks and vocal performances that will stick with you long after listening.

2. Kylie Minogue — DISCO

This album is full of soaring production that lives up to it’s album name while also giving it a fresh, modern feel. The songwriting focuses around love, excitement and just pure joy. To me it’s one of those albums that if you love pop and disco music, it’s impossible to come away not smiling. Minogue meant for this album to be enjoyable escapism and DISCO is absolutely phenomenal in this regard.

1. Carly Rae Jepsen — Dedicated Side B

Dedicated Side B is yet another pop masterpiece from Carly Rae Jepsen. I can’t believe how she just continues to blow me away with fantastic project after fantastic project. Once again she’s showing her “B material” is better than many artists’ A material. Every song on this album is enjoyable and shows why she is one of the best pop artists in music today. Jepsen won Country Perspective’s 2019 Album of the Year with Dedicated and she’s putting herself in the unprecedented position to win it again in 2020 to make it back-to-back. It’s simply incredible.

Country Perspective’s Top Ten Albums Mid-Way Through 2020

2020 has been a tumultuous and crazy year around the world. But throughout all the madness of this year, I’ve found this year in albums to be pretty damn amazing in terms of quality. In fact it’s already surpassed the last couple of years and 2020 is easily on pace to be at the fantastic levels of 2014-2016, which saw some of my absolute favorite albums of the 2010s released. By year’s end some really good albums won’t even crack the top ten that would easily make it in average years. From your usual suspects and new contenders to surprise releases and comebacks, my best albums of 2020 list has a little bit of everything in terms of sound and artists. So without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top Ten Best Albums of 2020 so far (in no particular order)…

(Click on the titles to read the full review)

Dua Lipa — Future Nostalgia

Dua Lipa delivers an absolutely fantastic album in Future Nostalgia. It has the elements I want to hear in a pop album and it comes oh so close to be an album of the year contender. Despite one slip-up, this album delivers everything else perfectly. It encapsulates disco, electro pop and dance music with the kind of aplomb and grace I would expect out of Carly Rae Jepsen, while at the same time delivering incredibly infectious hooks and vocal performances that will stick with you long after listening. This is one of the best pop albums you’ll hear in 2020.

John Moreland — LP5

LP5 is another fantastic album from John Moreland. He’s always been a great songwriter since his first album, but it’s the recognition to grow and experiment with his sound starting with his last album that’s taken him to a whole new level in my mind. Too many singer-songwriter artists think they have to stick to a stripped-down, folk-y sound for their lyrics to be taken seriously. At the same time, drum machines are dismissed as “not real instruments” used by pop stars. Well with LP5, Moreland proves both these claims to be moot.

Khruangbin — Mordechai 

While I wouldn’t put it at the level of their great, southwestern-flavored 2018 album Con Todo El Mundo, this album is another pretty damn good record from the trio. This album centers mostly around a groovy, psychedelic funk sound with tinges of disco and jam pop mixed in at times. The band also surprises by mixing in some vocals on this record and they actually work pretty well. Most importantly they don’t detract from the hypnotic sounds of the band, which will always be the focus and strength of the group. If I had to pick my favorites they would be “Time (You and I)”, “Father Bird, Mother Bird” and album closer “Shida.” The latter is probably the top song for me, as the bass line is simply flawless. And if you’re looking for a relaxing album, you will be hard-pressed to find one more chill than this one in 2020.

Ashley McBryde — Never Will

Ashley McBryde delivers exactly what I had hoped for and then beyond with Never Will. She leans heavily into her natural heartland rock sound and combines it with traditional country to create an album I will remember for a long time. The songwriting is brilliant and varied, running the gauntlet of emotions and most importantly I think Ashley McBryde delivers a flawless presentation of flawed characters. They’re never framed as likable, but real and as they are, which can be hard to get behind as a listener. But just like Sturgill Simpson’s SOUND & FURY, it can be understandable to not want to listen to music about such real and flawed characters, songs where there are no heroes even. For me though this is the music that is truly intriguing and has a lasting impact.

Tennis — Swimmer

With Swimmer, Tennis delivers an excellent album about love. It’s quickly became one of my favorite love albums. And this isn’t rash hyperbole on my end. I’m being serious when I say that this album truly delivers a heartfelt, genuine and truly touching take on true love. Love albums and love song are an absolute dime-a-dozen. They’re churned out every day. Most only focus on the surface level of love and the flip-side with heartbreak. What they don’t ever seem to focus on are the little things, the nitty gritty of relationships that aren’t easy to convey in an informative and interesting way. But that takes brilliant songwriting with equally high-quality production that aids it. Tennis delivers this.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — Reunions 

While I wouldn’t put this amongst the very best of Jason Isbell’s work, it’s yet another fantastic album from the singer-songwriter and his talented band. Reunions more than anything is a testament to Isbell’s relentless pursuit of his craft and how he constantly pushes himself to do better than he’s done before (which is quite difficult considering how high he sets the bar). Of course as always there are lots of sad songs too. But it’s hard to argue anyone writes sad songs better than Isbell. Every generation has their own Dylan and Lennon. I feel it’s safe to say Isbell is that level of songwriter for this generation.

Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats — UNLOCKED

The songs themselves don’t have any big messages and are essentially bangers that focus on delivering fun bars. So many hip-hop albums are like this today and many are largely forgotten because the delivery just flat-out sucks. But Curry brings so much aggressive passion and rawness in his voice, along with his choice of diction in his delivery makes what would be an average banger into something that’s truly memorable. And this big reason is why UNLOCKED is the first great hip-hop album I’ve heard in 2020. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of ZUU (an album I’m ashamed I omitted from my best of 2019 list), this is yet another high-quality project from Denzel Curry (and another great one from Kenny Beats too).

Carly Rae Jepsen — Dedicated Side B

Dedicated Side B is yet another pop masterpiece from Carly Rae Jepsen. I can’t believe how she just continues to blow me away with fantastic project after fantastic project. Jepsen won Country Perspective’s 2019 Album of the Year with Dedicated and she’s putting herself in the unprecedented position to win it again in 2020 to make it back-to-back. It’s simply incredible. And oh yeah she still has another album on the way.

The Weeknd — After Hours

After Hours is a phenomenal achievement by The Weeknd. This album is a rich, cinematic experience of love, losing it, fighting to regain it and ultimately reaching the realistic conclusion of realizing that it’s lost. The production team absolutely nails every emotion on this album and takes the lyricism to a whole new level. The juxtaposition of the breezy, mixed cocktail of genres (R&B, pop, hip-hop, dream pop, 80s) feels perfect on this album of frenetic, dark emotions that permeate throughout it. This is without a doubt an album of the year contender.

Tame Impala — The Slow Rush

The Slow Rush is another great album from Tame Impala without a doubt. But it’s also hard not to see this album is a few missteps away from equaling the brilliance of Currents. It lacks focus in a few spots and there’s one song that just isn’t needed. But this is also a bit nitpicking admittedly. The production from Parker is once again deeply rich and textured, engulfing you with it’s fantastic details. And the songwriting mostly hits. So ultimately I can say this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Honorable Mentions (just missed the top ten)

Album Review — Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

Dua Lipa hasn’t really been on my radar up until this point. Her debut self-titled album didn’t catch my attention. But the lead single for her second album did get my attention and I’ve quietly been hopeful about it. After listening to her second album Future Nostalgia quite thoroughly, I’m beyond hopeful. I’m ecstatic, as this is the kind of pop music that excites me with it’s bold sounds that pay homage to the past while sounding quite fresh and modern.

The album’s title track leads off, greeting with an ominous “future” echoed in the background that frequently interplays throughout the song. Fueled by an infectious electro-pop sound that gives a glimpse of what’s to come in the album, the song feels like Dua Lipa reintroducing herself to everybody, as she proclaims in the chorus: “I know you’re dying trying to figure me out/My name’s on the tip of your tongue, keep running your mouth/You want the recipe but can’t handle my sound.” The synth part in the bridge by Jeff Bhasker really gives it a cool sound to close out on too.

The album’s lead single and what brought this album to my attention, “Don’t Start Now,” is about a woman coming to realize she’s a better and stronger person for getting over her breakup with her ex. She realized how toxic he was and has slammed the door shut on the relationship. It’s a fist-pumping anthem that excellently utilizes various violins to create a classy, yet spacey sound. And of course it did what a lead single should do. “Cool” is about losing yourself to love and seeing something more beyond sexual chemistry. This song screams summer anthem and not just because it references the season, but more than anything the overall vibe puts me in mind of driving down a beach highway at night with the streetlights lit up with it’s smooth, futuristic sounds.

“Physical” is a straight-up banger that hooked me from the first moment I heard it. The combination of tight bass, plenty of synthesizers and well utilized drums creates a frenetic, disco meets sci-fi sound that makes it impossible not to want to dance to. And Lipa delivers a vocal performance with the kind of ferocious charisma that will have you easily singing along. This song has every element I want in a pop song: fun hooks, infectious sound and great vocals. “Levitating” is another exciting love song with good hooks. This song definitely has more disco influences and dare I say some 90s pop influences too. The talk box is beautifully utilized, as it gives the chorus more gravitas.

“Pretty Please” is about missing your love and finding instant relief once you’re in their arms. Once again I have to praise the production aspects, as a groovy, slightly understated bass line drives the rhythm of the song and what I love about it is how it shows you don’t have to have a “wall of sound” to create a big feel. Too many pop artists try to shove so many instruments into their sound to create an “epic” sound, but I’m glad to see Ian Kirkpatrick and Juan Ariza recognized how a simple approach is all that was needed to give this song a punch. “Hallucinate” is another perfect pop song in the same vein as “Physical.” On a 1-10 scale of danceability, it’s a 20 and Lipa delivers the hook with the amount of emotion needed to convey the desperate, intoxicating love being explored in the song. The sound is completely in synch with what feels like an out of control love.

Lipa explores overcoming doubt and insecurity on “Love Again.” It can be easy to overlook how much depth is in the songwriting here, as Lipa goes into many details about how she was previously in the state of never believing she would find love and the storm of emotions she once experienced before finding the love of her life. It’s another song too that nails the futuristic disco sound and the big hero for me is the violin play by Drew Jurecka (who also did the great violin work on “Physical”). It gives the song an appropriately triumphant and resilient feel, while also fueling the catchy disco sound too. “Break My Heart” is about falling for a heartbreaker, enjoying the rush of falling in love and dreading what feels like the inevitable falling out. The drums and the tambourines do a great job of creating that bouncy, disco sound. And I know I keep praising this, but I have to point out that it’s essentially a different team of producers on each song. So it’s kind of incredible how cohesive this album sounds.

Unfortunately “Good in Bed” is a complete mess, even though it does something incredible: it brought universal agreement amongst critics, in that essentially every critic says it’s the worst song on the album, and universal agreement is quite rare these days. The choppy cadence and the clunky lyrics about sex just makes this a bizarre song within the context of the rest of the album, as it just doesn’t fit in any way. Closing song “Boys Will Be Boys” doesn’t really fit the theme of the album either, although at least it’s good and it has a great message. It’s about how boys and young men are given a pass for dangerous behavior that increasingly leads to predatory and violent action towards women, often with the casual phrase “boys will be boys.” All the while girls are expected to be women and forced to adapt to these social double standards. It’s a powerful and meaningful way to bring a message that all should take to heart.

Dua Lipa delivers an absolutely fantastic album in Future Nostalgia. It has the elements I want to hear in a pop album and it comes oh so close to be an album of the year contender. Despite one slip-up, this album delivers everything else perfectly. It encapsulates disco, electro pop and dance music with the kind of aplomb and grace I would expect out of Carly Rae Jepsen, while at the same time delivering incredibly infectious hooks and vocal performances that will stick with you long after listening. This is one of the best pop albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 9/10