A note to readers: So as you can probably gather, I have missed quite a few weeks of album write-ups, and I am sorry. They’re on their way. However, I realized my template needed some tweaking. Ultimately, I want the blog posts to be informative and engaging, but I also don’t want writing them to be such a burden that I’m not publishing anything at all, which is what has happened for the past six weeks. I figured at the very least, I should stop digging my hole deeper and start publishing these weeks of musical adventures as they happen while I play catch up on weeks gone by.
It’s been tricky, as I firmly believe that it’s impossible to really know how you feel about an album after a single listen. I felt like it wasn’t fair to write about an album until I had listened to it several times and was fairly confident that my opinions wouldn’t change much upon further listening. Unfortunately, trying to listen to seven albums numerous times within a week is hard. I found myself having to go back to familiar favorites in order to feel like I was qualified to write without too much listening time.
If this project is going to be what I want it to be, I can’t punish myself for listening to music I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t want an incentive structure where new music comes with a lot of extra work and familiar music doesn’t. Besides, it’s ludicrous to think that listening to a new album 4-5 times in one week is equivalent to listening to an album countless times over a decade or longer. Our thoughts on any art will always be based on when we first encountered it, who we were at that time, and how we’ve evolved since.
So instead, I’ll be writing three sections about each album: my prior relationship with that album, my impressions listening to it this go-around, and what kinds of music fans I think would enjoy it. Hopefully this should help you see when I’m truly reviewing an album I know well and when I’m simply sharing some first or second impressions. Any specific songs that I think are worth mentioning will be mentioned, but I won’t have any lists of best and worst songs or anything of the sort.
I’ll also be doing away with the numeric cohesive/average scores. I believe these scores were a big part of what held up my writing process, and I question their helpfulness. An album with songs that are all decent but not amazing can score the same as an album with some fantastic songs and some atrocious songs. That’s kinda dumb, since these two albums would offer completely different listening experiences and their numeric score doesn’t reflect that.
That’s enough on housekeeping issues. Let’s talk about music!
March 11, All at Once by The Airborne Toxic Event
Genre: Alternative rock
Total tracks: 11
Songs you might know:
– “All I Ever Wanted” (ft. The Calder Quartet)
My prior relationship with this album: I went through a pretty hardcore Airborne Toxic Event phase in the late spring of 2017 and it was primarily fueled by this album. I fell into an Airborne Toxic Event rabbit hole, relished in it, and eventually bought both this and their self-titled debut. While it’s impossible to pick a best song of all time, “All I Ever Wanted” might just be the one I would pick depending on what week it is, and I also love “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.” That being said, this is definitely one where I’m more likely to skip around to my favorite tracks rather than listen to the whole thing beginning to end.
My impressions this time around: The album is surprisingly cohesive for the amount of variety it has. There’s some catchy hooks here and there, but also a fair number tracks that weren’t even trying to be radio friendly, such as “The Kids Are Ready to Die.” Lyrically it’s kind of all over the place, with some political commentary with “The Kids Are Ready to Die” and its complimentary “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.” Yet, we also have more introspective songs like “Numb” as well as frustration with a significant other as shown in “Changing.” This makes for an album that is simultaneously emotional and analytical in a wonderful way. It’s noncommittal enough that no song sticks out in a bad way, but yet it doesn’t cross the line into eclectic or disjointed.
That being said, there’s enough forgettable filler that All at Once isn’t really a masterpiece either, and that didn’t change on this listen. Both “Half of Something Else” and “Strange Girl” gave me that “Oh yeah. This. Huh.” feeling you get when you eat under seasoned mashed potatoes. I had literally banished “All For a Woman” from my mind entirely and was caught off guard when it showed up again here. Not because it’s a bad song, but because it’s just that forgettable. While I wouldn’t say I dislike any song, “All I Ever Wanted” and “Welcome to Your Wedding Day” are probably the only two I wouldn’t skip if I were to shuffle my whole library.
Who would enjoy it? People who like/are willing to tolerate a relatively generic alternative rock sound for outside-the-norm lyrics. Though “All I Ever Wanted” should be heard by EVERYONE.
March 12, Breakout by Miley Cyrus
Genre: Pop with country undertones
Total tracks: 12 (nine original songs, two covers, and one remix of a song from a prior album).
Songs you might know:
– “7 Things”
– “Fly on the Wall”
My prior relationship with this album: The relationship I have with Disney Channel music made circa 2006-2010 is difficult to explain, but the recent JoBros reunion has inspired me to explore it. I enjoyed writing parody lyrics and listened to this album looking for material. (If you’re curious, “7 Things,” “Fly on the Wall,” and “Wake Up America” all got this treatment). I actually listened to this album fairly often after it came out, but certainly had a negative view of Miley/Hannah Montana/Disney in general so I never really gave it a fair shake. After all, I was one of the cool kids listening to Good Charlotte and Fall Out Boy (LOL) so even if this album was good, I never would’ve admitted it at the time. It’s probably been at least a decade since I listened to the full album beginning to the end, so I thought it could be fun to see if a more rational, objective Anne would feel differently.
My impressions this time around: The real shame of Breakout is that a fair number of these songs could’ve been masterpieces had they not been performed by a 15-year-old Miley Cyrus. I mean sure, there’s some insufferable atrocities that could not be salvaged by anyone, such as “Wake Up America” and “Fly on the Wall,” but most of the other songs here had so much unfulfilled potential.
There’s two big problems going on here. For one, teenage Miley often didn’t have the vocal chops to bring the material to its full potential, as evident in songs like “The Driveway” which might’ve been quite good in the hands of Carrie Underwood or someone similar. Hell, I actually really like the arrangement for the cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” but unfortunately the production is wasted on vocals that sound like a teenager at their karaoke slumber party.
The other problem is that there’s a palpable emotional disconnect between Miley and the material she was given. Miley’s post-Disney shenanigans make it even more evident that Breakout is not an organic expression of an artist’s creative vision; it is a list of songs that Miley sang because a market research team at Disney determined these songs were most likely to appeal to her target audience. Yes, she does have writing credits on 8 out of 12 tracks, which is cool I guess especially given that two songs are covers. However, she was 15 and to deny the presence of the Disney machine helping her is naive. The title track “Breakout” is the worst offender, as it’s about teenagers bitching about school and dreaming about all the fun stuff they’ll do outside of school, like a rejected HSM2 song. You can tell this doesn’t reflect the actual challenges of being a Disney Channel superstar Miley was facing. The result is a song that just feels fake and overly juvenile.
YouTube autoplay decided to play Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” shortly after I finished this album, and that song perfectly encapsulates what this album was missing. You can feel that the person singing has actually lived through the struggles she’s singing about, and the only times that’s sorta kinda present on Breakout are “Simple Song” and “Goodbye” which are probably the album’s two best tracks, but still could’ve been 10x better if performed by more experienced vocalists.
I also want to say that I hope Disney fired the person who decided to end this otherwise cohesive album with a Rock Mafia Remix of the Meet Miley Cyrus track “See You Again.” No one needed this. If anyone DID ask for this remix, it was a small child who should not have been taken seriously. The dark, mysterious, but still basic dance pop song doesn’t belong here the way that Peter Griffin doesn’t belong in an episode of Spongebob. It’s THAT bad, and the fact that any semi-serious Miley fan already had a different version of this song renders its presence completely unnecessary.
Who would enjoy it? If you’re into that 2010-2012 era of Taylor Swift that wasn’t quite country but not fully pop either, it might actually be worth your time to go back and listen to this, because it’s quite reminiscent of that sound.
March 13, Just the Beginning by Grace VanderWaal
Genre: Pop with an above average amount of ukulele.
Total tracks: 12
Songs you might know:
– “Sick of Being Told”
– “So Much More Than This”
My prior relationship with this album: Target used to play clips of the “Moonlight” music video in their music section to promote this album, and it hooked me. After falling in love with this song in particular, I listened to the full album and fell even further in love with Grace and her sound. I used to play “Insane Sometimes” on repeat and it’s still one of those songs I crave whenever I’m having a rough time.
My impressions this time around: I felt compelled to listen to Just the Beginning because frankly, it’s everything Breakout wasn’t. I’m super impressed by Grace VanderWaal and the team she worked with for this album. It’s balanced like a good wine. She sounds youthful without sounding childish. The lyrics are universally relatable, while still feeling unique and authentic to Grace’s life. Her quirks and eccentricities shine through, but don’t feel gimmicky. There’s enough of a pop vibe that this would appeal to a mainstream pop audience, but it’s not generic either and could still appeal to many people who don’t think of themselves as pop music fans.
Part of what makes this album so special is its consistency. I mentioned how “Insane Sometimes” has always been the real standout song to me, but almost every song here can stand on its own two feet, and none are duds. Revisiting it reminded of other great tracks like “Can’t Escape My Mind” and “City Song.” It’s the kind of album where you find something new to love with every listen.
Who would enjoy it? Everyone. Especially people who are partial to ukuleles.
March 14, Unbroken by Demi Lovato
Total tracks: 12, including an extra version of “Skyscraper”
Singles you might know:
– “Give Your Heart a Break”
My prior relationship with this album: While I had never listened to this album in its entirety, I do remember friends liking it when it first came out and having me listen to certain songs. That is to say, I knew slightly more than “Give Your Heart a Break” and “Skyscraper.” I’ve always seen this as the album that transformed Demi from just another Disney kid into a bonafide pop star so it’s worth looking at closer.
My impressions this time around: I have mixed feelings. There’s some super high quality tracks on here, including the aforementioned “Skyscraper” and the equally emotional “For the Love of a Daughter.” There’s also the tastefully cheesy “Together” (ft. Jason Derulo) which very much sounds like a Disney Channel song but just palatable enough to appeal to adults.
However, there’s also a fair amount of pop music that’s very middle of the road to me. We’re talking songs that aren’t bubblegum-y enough to be fun in a guilty pleasure sort of way, but also not interesting or inventive enough to stand out from the rest of pop music. I will give Demi credit for actually having above average vocals that outdo many Disney Channel acts, but I just wish every track on here reached the same standard as “For the Love of a Daughter.”
Who would enjoy it? I think that if you’re a pop music fan who never gave this album a chance because of Demi’s Disney status, you should. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. However, it’s not for everyone, and definitely not for people who put a strong emphasis on originality.
March 15, Don’t Forget by Demi Lovato
Total tracks: 11
Singles you might know:
– “Get Back”
– “La La Land”
– “Don’t Forget”
My prior relationship with this album: I remember listening to this when it first came out and not LOVING it, but at least having more respect for it than say Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez music of that same era. As the cover would suggest, this album has more of a rock vibe than most Disney Channel pop albums, which certainly appealed to teenage Anne. After listening to Unbroken it seemed like it would be fun to go back to Demi’s debut and compare.
My impressions this time around: Honestly, it’s a little less respectable than I remember. While there’s glimpses of the amazing Demi vocals we hear on more recent albums, there’s also times where the vocals are noticeably unrefined. It’s almost as though Demi didn’t know how to be loud and powerful without simply yelling.
There’s also the fact that virtually every song on here sounds like it was originally written for the Camp Rock soundtrack. There’s even a collab with the Jonas Brothers (which to be fair, is one of the stronger tracks). Don’t Forget is rock music on paper: heavy on the guitar, slightly raspy vocals, and more aggressive than pop music. Yet it’s still overly commercial in a way that would be off-putting to actual rock fans. There’s also similar issues to Breakout in that Demi doesn’t always feel like she’s emotionally connected to what she’s singing about and that holds the whole album back.
The stronger tracks are those that don’t force the rock vibe, such as the title track. “Don’t Forget” which starts as a lighter ballad and then builds into rock.
Who would enjoy it? People who like Avril Lavigne.
March 16, V by Vanessa Hudgens
Genre: R&B (I guess?)
Total tracks: 12
Songs you might know:
– “Come Back to Me”
– “Say OK”
My prior relationship with this album: I honestly can’t tell you whether or not I ever listened to this album in its entirety prior to this project. I mean, it seems like a thing 2006 Anne might’ve done but I’m not positive. I definitely remember the two main singles, and I’m quite sure I at least listened to the 30-second Amazon samples. From what I remember this was just okay. Not particularly obnoxious but certainly nothing that compelled me to want to play the whole album on repeat.
My impressions this time around: This one had a surprisingly ’90s vibe. The two artists that come to mind when describing it are TLC ( as heard on “Let Go”) and Michelle Branch (as heard on “Drive”). It is to R&B what the Demi Lovato album is to pop punk. No, it’s not straight pop, but it still feels like a watered down version of the genre it was going for.
Overall, V is… just… fine. There’s nothing I can really point to as a glaring flaw that renders the whole album terrible, except maybe “Psychic,” which is devoid of all emotion despite lyrics insisting Vanessa is desperate. But even if this one track were to be omitted the album would still be just… fine. I can listen to the whole thing beginning to end without getting too angry or annoyed at it (except maybe “Psychic”). But this is also possibly the first album of the entire year where there isn’t even a single track that I think is special. It’s a generic voice singing generic songs with generic production. No wonder I couldn’t even recall whether or not I’d listened to it before. Congratulations Vanessa Hudgens, you’ve reached the pinnacle of tolerable.
Who would enjoy it? If for some reason you were sitting around wondering why you don’t have more songs that sound like they belong on the Princess Diaries 2 soundtrack, this one’s for you.
March 17, ÷ Deluxe Edition by Ed Sheeran
Genre: Folksy pop
Total tracks: 16, including four bonus tracks not included on the standard edition.
Songs you might know:
– “Castle on the Hill”
– “Shape of You”
– “Galway Girl”
My prior relationship with this album: I had certainly listened to Divide before, and no I’m not going to use the symbol every time because my keyboard doesn’t have a button for it and the way WordPress formats it otherwise annoys me. However, I never really bonded with it the way I’ve bonded with other albums. That has nothing to do with the quality, as I’ve always felt Sheeran truly outdid his first two albums, which were also wonderful. Instead, it has to do with the fact that it wasn’t streamable on Amazon Prime. The retail shop where I used to work did enjoy playing quite a few tracks from Divide, which did serve to strengthen my relationship with it, especially “Galway Girl.” It’s not a coincidence that I picked this album on St. Patrick’s Day.
My impression this time around: One of the things I love about Ed Sheeran is how he manages to explore a lot of different sounds while always sounding 100% authentic. There’s more traditional Irish folk songs like “Nancy Kerrigan” which alone might be enough to justify buying the deluxe edition. Then there’s “Galway Girl” which marries that sound with more of a popish rap verse. But then we also get vulnerable ballads like “Happier” and “Supermarket Flowers.” Don’t forget stuff like “Your New Man” and “Shape of You” which come closest to the sort of catchy pop songs the rest of the industry is making, while still having some Ed Sheeran flair. Yet at no point do we ever feel like Sheeran is trying to be something he’s not, which is quite refreshing after some of the albums I listened to earlier this week.
Overall Sheeran threaded the needle of giving us what we’ve come to expect from him after his first two albums while still making enough interesting choices to feel fresh. He’s expanding his sound without betraying that sound, and that’s not easy to do.
Who would enjoy it? Pretty much anyone, especially people who like more acoustic instruments in their pop music.