2020 has been one of the most hellish years in recent memory, due in no small part to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that kept us all inside for much of the spring and summer. And with all this newfound free time, many artists have taken it upon themselves to release new music. So, as Branson’s resident music critic, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the music released during this time. I’m going to go over eight singles or albums gauntlet-style, and give my thoughts. Four of them are my favorites, shining examples of how the quarantine has sparked the creativity and artistry of many musicians. And the other four will be music I hated, albums or songs that are so bad, I’d prefer contracting the coronavirus to being subjected to them ever again. So, with that being said, let’s get into the list:
Best: The Weeknd — “After Hours”
This record sees The Weeknd reinvent himself once again, returning from a four-year album hiatus with a new look and new nostalgia-soaked sound. Although “After Hours” does pull heavily from the sounds of 80s R&B and pop, there’s something distinctly modern and cutting edge about these songs, too. You have spotlit and gorgeous ballads like “Scared to Live” shoulder-to-shoulder with infectious pop-rap tracks like “Heartless.” The level of popularity that this record has achieved is remarkable given the fact that it doesn’t play into any mainstream clichés. If you haven’t checked this album out for whatever reason, do so immediately.
Worst: Drake — “Dark Lane Demo Tapes”
Now we look at another ultra-popular Canadian, who had an infinitely worse quarantine release this past May. For me, this project exemplifies everything wrong with Drake and popular music at the moment. This album is so insultingly low-effort. I honestly can’t remember a time in the past five years where Drake seemed to actually care about the music he puts out. The songs on this record seem to range from mind-numbingly boring to unbelievably effortless and vapid. For nearly every moment of this album’s 50-minute runtime, my eyes are in the back of my head. Either I’m being bored to the point of sleep, or being presented with something so corny that I’m rolling my eyes. Drake tries (successfully) to artificially manufacture a TikTok on “Toosie Slide.” Drake attempts to hop on the Playboi Carti-Esque minimal trap bandwagon on “Pain 1993.” Drake suddenly becomes British for the UK drill-inspired songs “Demons” and “War.” Everything about this record seems so corporate and meticulously crafted in order to serve the current hot trends and popular styles. Drake continues to be a less-offensive version of better artists on “Dark Lane Demo Tapes,” and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Best: Joji — “Run”/”Gimme Love”/ “Daylight”
Internet comedian turned R&B superstar George Miller (a.k.a Joji) released a trio of phenomenal singles during quarantine, each seeming to build upon the last in a great way. First, we got “Run,” this amazing, guitar-backed ballad that features one of George’s best vocal performances so far. The drama of the song’s lyrics matches the sonic qualities of this song very nicely, and the soaring choruses explode between the subdued verses. “Gimme Love” was the second to drop, and is a great two-part track. There is obviously a heavy Frank Ocean influence on this song, but Miller more than does the style justice. The bustling percussive groove on the first half and the heavenly strings on the second half are integrated perfectly as well. Finally, the Diplo-produced “Daylight” released, and is a cinematic piece of pop music. It has this great “wide-screen” and panoramic quality that is perfect for a night drive. All three of the tracks are set to release on Joji’s new record “Nectar,” which gives any of you a perfect excuse to check these songs out.
Worst: Green Day — “Father of All …”
Green Day has always held a special place in my heart. Hearing their songs played on the radio as a kid has always been a source of nostalgia for me, and I still enjoy their early catalog from time-to-time. Those fond memories of the band just make this album even harder to stomach. This album has already been ripped to shreds by most fans and critics, so I’ll keep this brief. “Father of All …” plays into all of modern rock music’s worst stereotypes and does so in the most annoying way imaginable. Every song on this album sounds like it was made specifically for a “Madden NFL” video game soundtrack or to be played during a Honda commercial. Yup, this thing is bad.
(And yes, I know that this technically came out before the quarantine, but I couldn’t let it escape my wrath. Deal with it.)
Best: Rico Nasty — “IPHONE”
Rico Nasty has been on my radar for a few years now and seems to be getting better with every passing year and album. Her August single, “IPHONE”, is a prime example of her career’s progression so far. Production on this track is handled by Dylan Brady, one half of the boundary-pushing and increasingly popular electronic music group “100 gecs”, and is perfect for Rico. The combination of blaring pop-punk guitars, glitchy electronica, and trap drums is something I didn’t know I needed until I heard it. Combined with Rico’s instantly catchy vocals and endearing lyrics about love in the internet age, this song is a three-minute escape into a visceral, neon-lit world. This is the kind of song that will have you addicted and coming back to it over and over again. Don’t let this track pass you by.
Worst: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion — “WAP”
This song has achieved mass popularity, in large part due to the controversy its lyrics have caused. And while it’s impossible to discuss this song without mentioning its impact, I’m going to save my thoughts on the cultural aspect of this song for the end of this segment. This is a music review. And musically, this song sucks. For one, this instrumental is annoying and super generic. I feel like both Cardi and Megan have used a very similar beat on multiple songs before. The lyrics, while very raunchy, are just trying way too hard. It’s just crude for the sake of being so. This song is like if South Park was unfunny and didn’t actually provide any sort of cultural critique. I’m not opposed to songs meant to be racy and provocative, but Cardi and Megan go about doing so in such an over-the-top way that the intentions of this song are completely transparent. They wanted a song that would grab attention, and it certainly did. This song has spent three weeks atop the Billboard 200. A week after this song’s release and subsequent controversy, Cardi B interviewed the Democratic nominee. The argument that nobody takes this song or the people attached to it seriously is just untrue. This song has, for some reason, captivated the American public, and I feel it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Best: Don Toliver — “Heaven or Hell”
This album took me by surprise a bit. I had always known Don Toliver as the guy who made average solo music and had one good feature on Travis Scott’s “Astroworld”. That being said, he actually came through with a pretty great debut album. It doesn’t overstay its welcome at 12 tracks and 35 minutes, and packs a lot of punch in its tight runtime. Yes, the Travis Scott influence bleeds heavily into everything on this record, but I think that Toliver does enough to distinguish himself here. This album offers up one great, catchy track after another. “Cardigan,” “After Party,” “Can’t Feel My Legs,” “Company,” “Had Enough” — all of these are enveloping, psychedelic rap songs with great refrains from Don. Is this album a little derivative? Yeah, it is. But is it also incredibly enjoyable? Totally.
Worst: Gunna — “WUNNA”/ NAV — “Good Intentions”/ Lil Yatchy — “Lil Boat 3”/ Lil Baby “My Turn”/ Dababy — “Blame it on Baby”
By far the ugliest trend over the past few months has been the string of bloated, predictable, and underwhelming pop-rap albums. It feels like every rapper has decided to drop a 20-track, hour-long album this year, and the music industry is far, far worse off because of it. I made the grave error of listening to all of these albums. Sweet mother mercy, these albums are so boring. I maybe came back to five songs total from all of these records. Let that sink in. Around 80 tracks of material, closer to 110 if you count the deluxe versions. Nearly six hours of music. And about five or so tracks are memorable in any way. I hope that this trend dies out as quickly as possible, because this is total garbage.
So there it is, my quarantine music love/hate list. What did you think? Feel free to tell me your opinion, or what you want me to review next at [email protected].