Tag Archives: pop

An Unapologetic Assessment of Kelsea Ballerini’s New Record

Country Rating: 0/10
Pop Rating: 6/10

The above rating discrepancy perfectly sums up what is wrong with mainstream country today–you can sing anything and have it be labeled country, never mind the definition or roots of that genre before now. Make no mistake, Kelsea Ballerini, although she did have some more pop country stuff on her debut album, has released, in Unapologetically, the most blatantly non-country thing I’ve heard in 2017 operating under that title. Thomas Rhett’s album is more country than this. Kesha’s album, though correctly labeled pop, is more country than this. This is like a complete “f you” to country music and all it stands for.

And this is arguably an even worse offense when you take into account the industry’s systematic discrimination of women, and factor in that Kelsea is not only pretty silent on the issue, but continues to take advantage of it for her own success. She was in the right place at the right time when Keith Hill made the infamous tomato statement, so she became country radio’s token female. Never mind that she’s got not one shred of country anywhere on her sophomore effort. It’s a pop record through and through, and for better or worse, mainstream country has demonstrated with alarming firmness that there are only so many slots for females, so Kelsea Ballerini becomes in a way even more polarizing than some of her male country counterparts as she mercilessly hogs one of the precious few slots to release immature pop music. When you think of all the talented and systematically overlooked women in country music, both of the more traditional and the more pop country persuasions, it’s hard not to cringe every time you hear “Dibs” or “Yeah Boy” gracing your radio dial.

But in this complicated era of country music and all things being marketed as such, some difficult situations sometimes arise. It’s easy to hate stuff like the aforementioned “Dibs” and write off Kelsea Ballerini as an immature pop princess, but what happens when she shows personal growth on her second effort? You could see glimpses of it even on her debut, though except for “Peter Pan,” her maturity wasn’t allowed to show in her singles. It doesn’t often happen, but how do you judge the music when it is so obviously mislabeled, yet it’s pretty decent music for its own genre?

In a just world, I wouldn’t be making assessments of albums so blatantly pop as this because they’d be in the correct genre, but the fact is, Ballerini called this country, and I have to call it out for not being country in the slightest. That said, music always comes first before genre lines, and Kelsea Ballerini has made a pretty decent pop album. I’m sorry she didn’t label it as such, but from now on, I’m going to review it as such, as that does more justice to Kelsea Ballerini and her music.

The most encouraging thing about this new record is Kelsea Ballerini’s obvious search for more depth and maturity. You’ve got songs like “High School,” where she sings of a guy who’s still stuck at seventeen, still driving his high school car, still calling his high school sweetheart, because he can’t grow up and move on. The girl continues to ignore his calls because she’s not looking for a relationship like this. It’s a much more realistic way of portraying high school than much of mainstream country, and Kelsea, in her twenties, is writing songs about growing up while men in their forties still sing about trucks and tailgates and cell phones like they’re still teenagers. She also shows maturity and vulnerability on “In Between,” which details all the ways she’s living in between a child and an adult; “Young enough to think I’ll live forever, old enough to know I won’t.” Again, a song like this shows a lot more self-awareness from Ballerini than we might have imagined she possessed after listening to stuff like “Yeah boy.”

She’s still exploring relationships for much of this record, just as on her debut, but again, the writing and themes go deeper. In the opener, instead of some bright, upbeat pop song, we get the dark, moody “Graveyard” that is comparing this guy to death essentially, as he takes the hearts of “hopeless, broken girls” and casually breaks them one by one, all to end up in his graveyard. It’s an interesting metaphor, and the production works well here. “Roses” is the more developed version of “Legends,” which, by the way, is slightly more bearable in the context of the album, but still remains pretty empty and shallow. “Roses” explores the same theme but compares the relationship to roses in that they are beautiful for a period but eventually die. “Miss me More,” although it suffers from some annoying production, is a pretty clever take on the aftermath of what seems to have been a controlling, abusive relationship. The narrator has lost friends and dressed differently than she would have, all for the sake of this guy, and now that it’s over, instead of missing him, she misses herself, the person she used to be. Another clever moment comes in “I Hate Love Songs,” as it makes fun of all the clichés associated with falling in love. She still loves her man, but it’s not a cliché. This song would be better if it weren’t sandwiched between two love songs, but taken on its own, it’s quite a cool piece of songwriting and one of the standouts.

There are still some major problems with this record, production being the worst. There’s some overproduced, annoying stuff going on in the chorus of “Miss me More” which serves to distract from an otherwise thoughtful track. “Machine Heart,” which is also one of the worst songs here in terms of writing, just sounds lifeless. This song really adds nothing at all to the project. “End of the World” isn’t a bad song and actually demonstrates Kelsea’s knack for melody quite well, but it’s underdeveloped lyrically, as we never really figure out why the narrator was at the end of the world in the first place. We hear that she found new love in a very dark place, but when you say things like, “gotta go through hell to get to heaven,” it leaves me wondering what hell entailed. “Unapologetically” is just forgettable, as well as being rather unfortunately placed after “I Hate Love Songs.” “Get Over Yourself” is a bit hard to decipher because it’s hard to tell whether she’s really over her ex, as the song states, or whether it’s meant to be an obvious lie, and we’re supposed to get that she’s lying to herself. I tend to go with the latter, which would make the writing better, but the writing ultimately isn’t quite clear enough, so it’s just kind of confusing. And “Legends” is still empty, bland, and boring, and absolutely the worst single to release for this and the worst way to close the album.

But there’s nothing here to make you cringe like many of Kelsea’s radio singles from her debut album. “Legends” is the worst offender here, and that’s just bland and uninteresting. It actually shows quite a bit of growth from Ballerini, and there’s definite improvement in her songwriting. There are some terrible production choices on this record, and fixing those might have even made this rise to a light 7. The parts that Kelsea Ballerini is responsible for aren’t bad at all, even if sorely mislabeled. It’s not fair to ignore the fact that this is not country in any universe, and I’ve made that perfectly clear. But it’s also unfair to overlook the improvements made by an artist, and Kelsea has shown improvement, as well as the ability to listen to her critics. A pop album through and through, but not a bad pop album by any stretch.

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Pop Spotlight: Yes, I’m Talking About Kesha’s Rainbow. Sue Me.

Why am I talking about Kesha’s latest album? Even taking into account I said awhile back I was going to start spotlighting non-country stuff occasionally, why this? It’s not as if it’s got any shortage of coverage.

Truthfully? Because it’s held my attention more than any other album these past couple weeks, especially during my small break from writing.

So then, why is this long-awaited Kesha album the one I keep coming back to at the moment, especially over country records?

Well, honestly, my initial interest had, as I”m sure is a commonality among people who paid attention to this project, to do with the drama surrounding Kesha and the release of this record. I wanted to know all about #FreeKesha, and whether she’d really made music that sounded different from her ridiculously processed, virtually lifeless party music from before. And then I listened to this record and was pleasantly surprised by a lot of things, not the least of them being that she seems to understand country better than the majority of mainstream country artists. It’s reflected in the cheating song “Hunt You Down,” which is reminiscent rhythmically of “Walk the Line,” and certainly in her version of Dolly Parton’s “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” which is both unique to her and a tasteful representation of the song. Her mother wrote this song, and Kesha grew up with classic country music. She’s obviously not country, but it’s plain to see that she does respect it, and it’s cool to see Dolly Parton joining her on this song like a nod of approval. The two sound surprisingly good together as well.

Admittedly, some of my fascination and connection with this album is personal. I don’t want to insinuate that I’ve experienced even half of what Kesha would have of us believe she went through, but at the same time, I can empathize to a certain, if small, degree, and a song like “Praying” just takes me out of a place of review altogether and just leaves me in a place of solidarity with her. This is just an incredible song honestly. You can tell she’s pouring her heart into it. The same goes for “Learn to Let you Go,” which is sort of the upbeat, less serious version of this one. She’s stronger in this one, but it’s still so honest. It’s the sincerity in these and some of the other straight pop songs that make this different from her previous material; this really is Kesha. You might not enjoy the style, but a lot of this is real. Music is supposed to make you feel something, and that’s what Kesha does for much of this album.

But she’s not always reflecting on her past either. “Boots” is a very cool, fun song that shows her having moved on and found love. “Woman” is sort of like a more mature version of one of her older songs, and “Bastards” and “Let ’em Talk,” although both serious, serve to provide a lighthearted way of saying we should ignore the well, bastards, in our lives, and move on from the hatred. This record ends like that with the very cool, very atmospheric “Spaceship,” where she asserts that in death, she’ll finally be able to escape all that hatred and fly off to her home in another galaxy. This one has got to be the most interesting as far as production, so if you are drawn to weird production, I urge you to check that one out.

So, if you like pop albums, this is absolutely the best one I have heard in 2017 without question. If you are more staunchly rooted in country, i still say check out “Hunt You down” and “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You).” If you like interesting production , there may be a lot for you to enjoy here because there’s quite a bit of diversity and certainly some intriguing collaboration choices. Some of you might just hate this because well, it’s not your style, but it pleasantly surprised me, and it gave me passion to write, which is more than I can say for many country projects that have come out recently. Not in the business of rating pop albums because well, for one, I don’t listen to them as regularly as country and therefore don’t have as much to compare this to, and also because I’m no authority on pop music, but if I’m just rating this against stuff I’ve heard in 2017, without consideration of genre, this gets a solid, strong 8.

Standout Tracks: “Praying,” “Boots,” “hunt You Down,” “Spaceship,” “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)”

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Single Review and Rant: Kelsea Ballerini’s “Legends”

Rating: 1/10

Look, I’ll be the first to say that I didn’t hate Kelsea Ballerini’s debut album; I think she’s a good vocalist, and she showed potential as a songwriter in several places. It was sorely mislabeled as a country project when most of it was straight pop, and the few pop country offerings were mostly way too overproduced. To add to this, she released a couple of God-awful singles to country radio in the massively annoying “Dibs” and female bro country-ish “Yeah Boy.” But she also released a pretty nice one in “Peter pan” and a catchy, if pop, song in “Love me Like You Mean It,” and I was interested to see if her second album would take her into the land of full-on Disney pop princess music or more into stuff like Lauren Alaina’s recent record, definitely pop-leaning but with more substance and maturity.

So we come to “Legends,” Kelsea’s first single from her new record, and here’s what she had to say about it…”Every time I’ve listened to it, I find a different meaning … it brings me back to the heartbreak I wrote it from.” she goes on to say that at different times, she’s thought of her fans and her journey, and now she thinks of it as a “legendary love story” and concludes with the sentiment, “I hope everyone hears something in it that brings them to a place of nostalgia and is as excited as I am to begin this new chapter together.”

Well, let me say for the record, listening to “Legends” only brings me to a place of boredom, and it makes me about as excited to hear the rest of her new album as I would be to watch paint dry. I want to find something to like, or at least something positive to say, and it’s not like I’d change the station if this came on because it’s not outright obnoxious like “Dibs” or “Yeah Boy”–but that’s just it, it’s so vapid and shallow, and there’s just nothing at all here. It’s supposed to be this legendary tale of past love, but the only line that sticks out is “I’ll always wear the crown that you gave me,” and that’s just because that line is so idiotic and conjures up more images of the Disney princess music I mentioned before. I suppose maybe it’s talking about prom, but the fact remains it’s a lazy piece of songwriting throughout, and when I think of legendary love stories, I don’t think of songs where neither the melody nor the lyrics stand out and where the singer doesn’t even sound engaged. Yes, as I said, Ballerini does have a good voice, and in a technical sense, she sings this well, but she sounds so bored–and who wouldn’t be? It’s vapid, bland, safe, formulaic, and so forgettable that it’s not harmless 4-ish or 5-ish material like “Speak to a Girl” but complete emptiness similar to “Live Forever” by The Band Perry from a couple years ago. In fact, that song is a great comparison because while there’s not something glaringly wrong with this, like offensive lyrics or cringe-worthy Sam Hunt style spoken word, it’s the nothingness of this song which renders it awful. And finally, let’s erase the notion that this in any way, shape, or form should have ever been considered country–but that’s almost an afterthought, because at least the most recent atrocities to receive a rant here, Keith Urban’s “The Fighter” and Thomas Rhett’s “Craving You,” were actually catchy and therefore at least marginally better as pop songs. This? this is a failure in both genres and wouldn’t make it on pop radio.

I want to find something to like about Kelsea Ballerini. I want to support more women being given a voice on country radio, but this is not country in the slightest, and there are so many more women, both country and even in the pop and pop country realms, who deserve the limited space more than her, and if “Legends” is a success, it will in no way represent progress, either for females in country or for music of substance and the genre in general. Here’s to hoping her album is much, much better than this.

Written by: Kelsea Ballerini, Glen Whitehead, Hillary Lindsey

Pop Spotlight: Lea Michele–Places

Yes, we’re called Country exclusive, and yes, we’re about to discuss a pop album. Truthfully, this record is something I discovered by accident based on a link from Twitter that made me want to hear it, and it hit me more than most of the country albums this week. I think most of us listen to music from many genres, and I’m going to start talking about music outside the country genre from time to time. I don’t expect it to be often or to have much rhyme or reason; really, I expect it to be just random non-country stuff that I like and want to share. Also, while I listen to plenty of good music in all genres, I cannot claim the amount of knowledge, or indeed even close to the amount, necessary to judge other genres like I can with country, so I am not calling anything non-country a review–these will just be short spotlights of stuff that I enjoyed and thought worthy of passing along to you. Now that that’s all out of the way, let’s talk about Lea Michele and her second studio album, Places.

As I mentioned, I heard about this by accident on Twitter from a comment that said, “Lea Michele has never sounded so good.” So I searched her and this album on Apple Music, and that’s the perfect thing to point out because the best thing about Places is the sheer vocal talent and emotion of Lea Michele. Often, there is just a piano, or just a piano and a string section, and her vocals, but, in contrast to many pop albums–and indeed many modern country albums–that is all Lea Michele needs to make you listen to songs like “Run to You” and “getaway Car.” It is rare to find such a technically great singer who can also express emotion so well, and I have been blown away by her ability to consistently do both each time I listened to this.

I knew nothing about her before Friday, but I have since found out that before her two solo records, Lea Michele was on Glee, and that while this album is a pop effort, it seeks to be more theatrical. It certainly does have a little of that quality. It’s definitely very ballad-heavy, so it won’t probably be for everyone, but the songs themselves and the fact that Lea Michele just murders these songs mostly makes up for that. IN fact, I’d say the weakest points on the whole record are the few moments where she tries to be more upbeat. I’d normally welcome the variety, but the more energetic tracks don’t do as much to showcase all that raw vocal talent. Anyway, if you are a fan of good pop music that has something to say, stripped-back ballads, or just sheer, impressive vocal ability, I recommend giving this a listen.

Standout Tracks: “Run to You,” “Heavenly,” “Getaway Car,” “sentimental Memories”

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Album Review: Cam–Untamed

Rating: 7/10

2015 has come with much discussion about the lack of female representation on the country airwaves. As the concern has grown, we have seen several new female artists breaking onto country radio, most notably Maddie & Tae, Kelsea Ballerini–who is anything but country–and Cam. After Saladgate in May, Bobby Bones and On the Verge selected Cam’s “Burning House” for promotion, and the results have been unprecedented. This second single off Cam’s debut EP, Welcome to Cam Country, has been certified gold and is currently #6 on Billboard Country Airplay. These are remarkable achievements for any new artist, especially for a female country artist. Cam’s label has given her the completely laughable release date of December 11th, a statement of lack of faith in Cam’s music that will ultimately hurt the album’s sales and chances on end-of-year lists. Cam fans should be outraged, and if Cam were a more established artist, she would be fighting this release date. With all that said, despite the terrible release date, I was excited to see more from Cam, as “Burning House” made Country Exclusive’s
Essential Songs of 2015
list. I was hoping this album would give us more incredible music from Cam. So, did it live up to my expectations?

The album opens with crickets and a harmonica, which immediately got my attention. The song that follows is the title track, “Untamed,” which is pretty much a female bro country track: dirt roads, moonshine, etc. I think most people hearing this song will hate it, but surprisingly I don’t–in and of itself, it’s not a bad song. The production and instrumentation are decidedly country, and the lyrics aren’t bad either–it’s just that I’ve heard this particular song before at least a thousand times. Having said that, if I hadn’t, I’d probably enjoy “Untamed.” As it is, it’s tolerable. Next is “Hung Over on Heartache,” a nice blend of pop, rock, and country that fits Cam’s unique style rather well. I feel the lyrics could have gone a little deeper, but this song grows on me with each listen, and it’s interesting to hear an upbeat heartbreak song. “Mayday” and “Burning House” are next, and I group them together because their track placement is brilliant. “Mayday” is a pop country song in which the woman is trying to tell the man she’s no longer in love, but she’s finding it difficult. She’s trying everything she can to leave, but she can’t seem to. The relationship is compared to a sinking ship; Cam is begging the man to “abandon ship with me.” “Burning House” is the mirror opposite of this–here, the narrator is trying desperately to hold onto a love that is slipping through her hands. “I’ll stay here with you until this dream is gone,” Cam sings. I still prefer the acoustic production on “Burning House,” but the pop country style really works for ‘Mayday,” and together, these songs show two distinct and real sides of failing relationships. If you already loved “Burning House,” you will love it even more after “Mayday.”

“Cold in California” is the first song that is completely ruined by production. Lyrically, it’s beautiful; it’s a song in which Cam sings of missing a man who left her to pursue his dreams in California. But this song leaves the good balance of pop and country for an overproduced, distracting pop sound that pulls this listener away from the lyrics. Following this are the other three songs from Cam’s EP. Country Exclusive didn’t exist when the EP came out, so I will share my thoughts on these now. The first single, “My Mistake” is a pretty solid pop country song–not anything remarkable, but certainly not filler. This song about a one-night stand after meeting in a bar should have done better at radio and was a good single choice. “Runaway Train” was my favorite from the EP besides “Burning House.” The production here is an excellent blend of country, rock, and pop that suits Cam excellently. This is the sound I would like to see her develop. “Half Broke Heart” has grown on me quite a lot since the EP–this is a heartbreak song in which the narrator is upset over the sudden ending of a relationship that had started with no strings attached. “I wasn’t looking for a ring, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting when you cut and run so soon,” Cam sings. I think this might make a good future single.

The next song is the only truly terrible moment on the album, and I have no idea why the singer of “Burning House” would stoop to recording it. It is a pop song called “Want it All” that is so unremarkable I’ve listened to it three times and can’t quote a single word. Cam sounds as bored singing it as I am being subjected to it. It’s filler of the worst kind. The last two songs are two of the best, however. The hilarious, upbeat “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty” could be an instant hit if Cam released it. It’s the perfect blend of pop and country, comparing city girls who are “singing about the country” and “putting out them hits” to women who actually live in the country on farms. “Instead of hairspray and curls, you got hay and dirt, slam your unpainted nails in a barn door. But it’s all right to look kinda shitty, cause country ain’t never been pretty”–this is excellent, and a great message to send to young girls who are listening to Cam. “Village” closes the album on a somber but hopeful note–it’s a song about a dead brother telling his sister he is still there watching over her. “Your whole heart’s a village, and everyone you love has built it, and I’ve been working there myself.” This is the closest thing to the acoustic production of “Burning House” on the entire album, and you can really appreciate the rawness of the lyrics.

Overall, Cam has given us a solid debut album. Some songs are more traditional, but more of them are a good, tasteful blend of pop, country, and sometimes rock. However, I think this style suits Cam, and the production only hurts a couple songs. I think Cam has found a great balance of radio relevancy and traditional appeal. “Want it All” is inexcusable, and many will feel the same about “Untamed,” but most of this album is pretty good. Some of it is great. I think Cam will only get better, and I look forward to more from her. In the meantime, give this album a listen.

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