First Impressions Frank

First Impressions: Frank Ocean, Future, The Chainsmokers And More

First Impressions are our weekly roundtable reviews sifting through all the fresh new music. Our writers take a listen, slap a score on it and then justify said score. This week Calvin Harris, Future, The Kite String Tangle, Lastlings, Zedd and The Chainsmokers face the jury.

Calvin Harris - Slide (Feat. Frank Ocean and Migos)

Reece: I mean, this couldn’t really go wrong, could it? Despite essentially giving us two albums last year, just seeing Frank Ocean’s name in the new releases feels special in a way few other artists do. Kudos to Calvin Harris for realising the talent he has on this track and not overdoing it with the generic club womp. All three artists on this song don’t seem to be trying especially hard, but I almost feel like if they did Slide wouldn’t work as cohesively as it does. People might cringe at this, but Slide honestly feels like Blonde tuned down for commercial radio. It doesn’t top anything from that album, but adds a brilliant addition to every party playlist for the next decade. 4.5

Sam: I didn’t believe that Calvin Harris could actually get Frank Ocean on a release but here we are and, low and behold, he didn’t screw it up. Harris keeps his annoyances to a minimum on this jam that actually feels exactly like cruising in LA. Of course, this track would be nothing without Ocean. The beat is good but it’s Ocean’s monotonous drawl (I mean that in the nicest way possible) that truly makes this. “Do you slide on all your nights like this,” is an effortlessly, instantly iconic hook that only Ocean could deliver. He’s never chased hits but he may just nab one with this. 4

Future - Selfish (Feat. Rihanna)

Reece: I’m not sure we truly understand the gravity of Future releasing two excellent albums in two weeks yet. Selfish is a standout if not for anything but how much of a departure it is from Future’s trap-heavy sound. Who knew Pluto could crank out a pop tune like this? It certainly helps he has one of the best pop artists of all-time on hand in Rihanna, and they combine with excellent chemistry to produce something really endearing and engrossing. Selfish is an intimate and patient tune that allows Future’s autotuned vocals to mesh into Rihanna’s gracefully clear chords, working in away I couldn’t have expected. It’s almost hilarious how great this is only a week after I gushed about Draco, a guns-blazing rap flurry by the exact same guy. Future is wild, guys. 4

Sam: Future and Rihanna’s Loveeeee Song is a highlight of RiRi’s catalogue so I was instantly excited to see her on the tracklist for HNDRXX. Selfish is even better though. It continues down the same raw, desolate path of ANTI and Future sings alongside in his greatest vocal display on the album. They’re both gravelly, dark and emotional, juxtaposing the bravado that both of them bring in droves on the harder-hitting urban tracks. This is straight back to the Pluto Future - the one that somehow mixed crooning with rap. Both of them make it so great. Not one outshines the other. 4.5

The Kite String Tangle - Selfish

Reece: I’m quite the fan of The Kite String Tangle, he has an incredible knack of stirring up the emotions and making some really powerful music. That said, Selfish is just… missing something. Like the bottom layer of the track has been cut out or something. It’s not a shocking track by any stretch, but feels more like the filler track of a good album rather than a single that should be spotlighted. 3

Sam: It’s the battle of the Selfish songs this week. Unfortunately for The Kite String Tangle, he’s fighting giants in Rihanna and Future. This doesn’t pale in comparison but it lacks that raw emotion. Obviously, it’s a totally different vibe and it’s actually one of his most accessible, forthright tunes yet. It’s clear his voice is better, his production is more adventurous and his feel for melody has matured. It just feels like it needs to be a little less polished. 3.5

Zedd - Stay (Feat. Alessia Cara)

Reece: So there’s been a million different takes on capturing the commercial dynamite The Chainsmokers had on Closer. Whatever, I get it - artists gotta eat. Maybe it’s just my love for Alessia Cara, but Stay is one of my favourite takes on this formulaic ‘let’s make a pop hit’ type of collaboration. Alessia Cara has a brilliant quirk to her vocals that makes every line she delivers feel like it's bursting with life. Zedd’s production bogs the song down a bit in my eyes, as it straddles an uncomfortable line between Mura Masa and Cobra Starship (not a compliment) but the end product is serviceable enough for me to enjoy. 3.5

Sam: Every time I hear Zedd’s name mentioned I always instantly think I dislike him but upon further pondering I remember what he’s done with Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga and settle that he’s better than fellow EDM giants. I agree with Reece. This is definitely the best take on that post-Chainsmokers drop and it’s infinitely more enjoyable than Chainsmokers’ recent drop. I think it comes down to the sweetness of Alessia Cara’s voice paired with the excellent vocal melody and the treatment of the vocals right before the drop. It’s a small touch but he manages to make something pretty formulaic enjoyable. 3

Lastlings - Urges

Reece: Lastlings are the organic progression of that Joel Little sound that exploded under Lorde and Broods a few years ago. On Urges, they capture the atmospheric minimalism brilliantly but manage to keep Amy Dowdle’s vocals feeling strong and guiding. There are so many bright spots in Australian music right now, but this might be my pick for the brightest. Now all I need is that Nico Ghost collaboration we know would be perfect. 4.5 Reece’s pick

Sam: It really feels like Lastlings have arrived with this one. There’s so much of this late night, woozy electronica going round in Australia right now and I’m so bored by all of it but Lastlings constantly manage to grab my attention. Urges is their best drop yet. Amy’s vocals are utterly hypnotising and the backdrop with those howling, distant synths is pretty spectacular. I love seeing an Aussie band growing and these guys are pushing ahead in leaps and bounds. 4

The Chainsmokers & Coldplay - Something Just Like This

Reece: If your song is uninspired and generic, could you at least make it catchy? I think The Chainsmokers are actually a social experiment, testing to see how many times you can release literally the same song with new vocals before people catch on. I can’t find anything redeeming. What is “this”? What is the “something” you so crave, Chris Martin? Is this song just written so everyone in the focus group agrees that this song just gets them? I have so many questions, so few answers. This is the week one soundtrack of everyone returning to university. Not a compliment. 0.5

Sam: You know what? I’m just over talking about them. It’s clear for whatever reason that The Chainsmokers and Coldplay have decided not to try so I’m also not trying to review. 1

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Genre-pushing pop princess pairings of 2014

popprincessSomething’s been happening in the world of pop this year. Well, duh. Let me rephrase. A lot  has been happening in the world of pop this year. From Beyonce’s sly-dog release of Beyonce, to the alarming growth that’s firmly attached itself to Nicki Minaj’s behind, to Tay Tay getting busy exacerbating racial stereotypes while she’s shaking it off to Lily Allen’s comeback tour, it’s been a busy year for pop and its chart toppers. Controversial MTV appearances and obligatory twitter beefs aside though, what’s really interesting is that, in its fatigued 2014 state, pop just isn’t pop anymore. Blame exhaustion or simply growing out of that awkward preteen stage, pop is increasingly becoming less and less like the pop of the the late '90s and early 2000s.

Once guarded by boy bands in matching outfits and bad die jobs, pop was a pristine domain reserved for the Britney Spears’ and Christina’s -before she was X-tina - of the world. A clearly defined realm, with the occasional true diva slash pop princess flourishing amongst a sea of Mandy Moore’s and Jessica Simpson’s. This year however, those same pop princesses that, in say 1999 or even 2009, would’ve been left to their preordained place on So Fresh of Summer and Ryan Seacrest’s weekly Top 40, have become, for all intents and purposes, transcendent. Chameleon-like, female pop artists of 2014 are opting to work with some seriously unlikely producers, and no, we’re not just talking about the David Guetta’s and Calvin Harris’s of the world. Suddenly, Ariana Grande is bosom buddies with Cashmere Cat and Miley’s a female rebel with Alt-J. And, do you know what’s even more interesting? As pop fatigues of its own pop game, and grows out of its own pop boots, those same unlikely producers are choosing to work back and undeniably helping to carve a new path for the future of a now more mature, dynamic pop. Here we have a look at just 5 unlikely pop princess pairings released over the last year that are helping to push the boundaries of the genre ever onward.

Ariana Grande and Zedd: Break Free

When Break Free dropped earlier this year, Grande’s Zedd produced mega hit broke all the rules on its way to freedom. Music camps everywhere sat perplexed facing the same conundrum, to like or not to like. Here was a song with undeniable pop appeal. With vocals bellowing out from yet another sequin-clad Disney Channel escapee, and a house-anthem quality to its thumping bass and roller coaster rise and falls, this song was surely destined for Top 40 success, buoyed by the starry eyed 12 to 16 year old girl market, while simultaneously anticipating ridicule from more discerning music snobs. Remarkably, however, it wasn’t just the aspirational tweens that found themselves crooning along to Grande’s grammatically incorrect chorus. Zedd’s production gave not only the song a level of unexpected credibility, but Grande herself. Instead of lampooning the 21-year-old for, well, what else are Disney graduates for? Pitchfork evoked comparisons to “Swedish pop mastermind, Robyn,” while noting Grande’s “sky scraping voice” was in top form. And Slate called it a “soaring pop ballad... propelled by synth chords and a pounding bass beat.”

Ariana Grande and Cashmere Cat: Be My Baby

Grande’s debut album My Everything is riddled with collaborations from Nicki Minaj and Jessie J, to The Weeknd and Childish Gambino. It’s well and truly old news, but in case you’ve been living under a rock, everyone wants a piece of this intergalactic pop princess. Perhaps the album’s most unexpected cameo however is by Norwegian producer Cashmere Cat who, not only produced Be My Baby, but in more recent weeks has released an alternative version to the sanitised edit that made its way onto Grande’s album. Brimming with blippy synths, all out gun shots and punch-packing chorus breakdowns, Cashmere’s re-edit is effortlessly cool in a way that the original could never be. While superficially the two artists find fans in diametrically opposed walks of life, collectively the same-same-but-different tracks somewhat unashamedly demonstrate a rumbling conversation currently taking place between chart toppers and the underground. It seems intrigue and a genuine desire to bust genre wide open is a priority on all fronts at the moment: Alien-pashing pocket rocket or super-side fringed cat alike.

Miley Cyrus and Alt J: Hunger of the Pine

Of all the pop princess collabs on this list, Miley’s sample on Alt-J’s track Hunger of the Pine was critically the least well received. Lifted from 4x4, a non-single track on Cyrus’s Bangerz album, Sam called the sample “beyond clumsy,” while Bianca vilified Cyrus for bringing her “big wrecking ball” in and ruining the track’s chance of truly “happening.” Billboard simply lamented Alt-J’s oversight in not sampling Nelly’s verse from the same song. A non-appearance by Nelly on any track is already disappointing enough, let alone when it’s replaced by Miley. Hunger of the Pine remains however, a crystalline example of how reworks, samples and collaborations between unlikely bedfellows attribute a fresh sense of credibility artists and their music. Suddenly Miley was not just Miley of Robin Thicke infamy, but Miley, an artist in the eyes of incomparable (thank god) Alt-J.

Jessie Ware and Cyril Hahn: Tough Love

Labeled breakout producer of 2013, Cyril Hahn has steadily been making a name for himself remixing and sampling the lofty vocals of female artists at the top of their game. From Destiny’s Child, to baby sister Solange and Californian outfit HAIM to a truly x-rated, quivering pants-party rendition of Mariah’s Touch My Body, it’s not surprising that the Swiss R&B re-animator quickly turned his hand to Jessie Ware’s Tough Love. Described as “the missing link between SBTRKT and Sade,” Ware was praised for the release of her down-tempo R&B, synth-infused pop album (yes, there is such a thing), Devotion, earlier this year. While there ain’t nothing tough about the original Tough Love, when in Hahn’s hands, the breathy pop-ballad is easily transformed into a house beat that bubbles frenetically under a vocal tapestry rich in high highs and slow burn crescendos. A Hahn remix is quickly becoming the tell tale sign of a true pop princess. Watch out Ariana Grande, he’s coming for you.

Sia and Four Tet: Chandelier 

Sia’s Chandelier caught attention for a myriad of reasons. Firstly it was her bold, unapologetic announcement of return after an extended hiatus between albums. Secondly, dat video clip, am I right? And thirdly, the incredibly powerful press and TV talk show performances that accompanied its debut, all seeming to herald the return of this unique artist, while firmly maintaining her shadowy space, just beyond the limelight's desperately creeping finger tips. Read, Lena Dunham’s doppleganger act on Late Night with Seth Meyers and her back-to-the-camera recreation on Ellen. Pitchfork claimed Chandelier made “her previously released solo material seem impossibly minor by comparison,” while our own writer Sam noted a presences of guts in Chandelier absent in the work of contemporaries like Katy Perry. In the face of such pop stardom, producers and DJ reactionaries have two choices, run in the opposite direction, save daring to take on soon-to-be pop classic or conversely dive straight in, rework and take the track in a totally new direction. For his take on Sia’s Chandelier, British producer Four Tet chose the latter. Stripping out the instrumentals, Four Tet left Sia’s impossible audio intact, twanging over an fresh hip-hop inspired beat and softly sparkling keys. Like the Cashmere Cat re-release of Grande’s Be My Baby, Four Tet’s Chandelier is more than a remix or mere dialed up BPM. It reinforces pop's sky rocketing power to transcend what has been a chaste genre and a willingness on the behalf of certifiably non-pop producers to encourage this fresh approach to limits and genre. As Sam says, the Four Tet interpretation just “adds extra edge as if to take it from the hands of Commercial Radio and plop it in Triple J’s lap.”