The Song of Summer is Here: Never Really Over by Katy Perry

Katy Perry is the Song of the Summer Queen. Some of her biggest hits, including "I Kissed a Girl"and "California Gurls," dominated the beach seasons of their respective years. After an off-brand creative cycle with 2017's Witness, Perry is back to what she does best: giving us hope with upbeat pop music. Her latest single, "Never Really Over," revives her strengths, as well as features flourishes that only 2019-era Perry could produce.

Our favorite California Gurl was queen of the Turbo-Pop era, which spanned from 2008 through 2014 (or so). Characterized by anthemic choruses, big hooks, and high energy EDM productions, some of the signature hits from the era include Kesha's "Tick Tock," Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You," and Ariana Grande's "Break Free." This subgenre of mainstream pop music owes a lot to late 90s Bubblegum, as well as dance music like House and Techno. Perry dominated the period, charting nine number 1 hits--"Roar," "Dark House," "Firework," and "Last Friday Night (TGIF)," to name a few. However, as always happens with pop cycles, tides turned and tastes moved away from the diva's bread-and-butter style.

That's why "Never Really Over" works so well as a return-to-form. It features a busy but energetic production from Zedd--perhaps the most sought-after DJ right now--and a deliciously wordy chorus. It's also a treat to hear Perry in good spirits again, making jokes about her broken heart while also providing some insight into relationships. By the time she belts the pre-chorus, "Oh we were such a mess/ but wasn't it the best./ Thought it was done/ but guess it's never really over," I've already fallen under the spell of dance beats and her boisterous vocal. The track features a more insightful Perry--an earthier creation rather than the whip-cream bombshell of yore--and yet the song plays well alongside her Prism era singles, especially "Roar," "Walking on Air," and "Birthday." As a Perry fan, it's a delight.

Of course, other divas have thrown their hat into the ring for Song of the Summer: Taylor Swift's "ME!" plays with bubblegum energy; Shawn Mendes' "If I Can't Have You" is the best track of his career; Carly Rae Jepsen's "Too Much" is a highlight from her stellar synth pop Dedicated; Madonna's "Medellin" is a laidback jam featuring Maluma; and Perry's own collaboration with Daddy Yankee, "Con Calma," continues to gain traction in the Top 40. However, my vote for the best track of the season goes to "Never Really Over." It's a perfect slice of summer pop, prime for driving with the windows down, and it will be a strong addition to playlists and radio.

Enjoy this tune and the sunshine, dear reader. Sing and dance a lot!

Pastel Pop: Pregaming Summer

After a somber 2018, pop stars are rolling out cheery and playful tunes for 2019's warmer seasons. As we head to summer (not mention Pride Month), some of the biggest acts are pushing tunes ready for weekend drives and pool parties.

"A No No" by Mariah Carey

The third single from her stellar Caution record, "A No No" finds Mimi working the cheeky but laid-back mood she flaunts throughout the album. She's not taking any man's guff, and her absurd posturing succeeds because Carey is having a good time with the track. She's not taking any of it too seriously, and her sense of humor elevates "No" to urban pop perfection. When she performed it to begin her medley at the Billboard Music Awards, the tune stood up with her best hits, and that's saying something.

"If I Can't Have You" by Shawn Mendes

Like many heart-throbs before him, Shawn Mendes traffics in melodramatic mope. Though his raspy nasal can add tension to even mediocre ballads, his voice works even better on upbeat tracks, balancing the bubblegum with some pathos. "If I Can't Have You" finds Mendes longing for a lover, but the peppy track pulls him out of his doldrums with an energetic chorus, making it his best single yet. (The Calvin Klein ads don't hurt either!)

"ME!" by Taylor Swift featuring Brendon Urie

Taylor Swift is not subtle with her aesthetic shifts (notice the snake exploding into butterflies in the video below), but it's a relief to see her in a cheerful mode after the angry reputation. Like most lead Swift singles, it's not her best track. Heavy-handed while it foreshadows a new era, I bet the other tracks on her forthcoming LP will better represent her new direction. (Though I generally enjoyed repuation, I loathed "Look What You Made Me Do," and "Shake It Off" turns my stomach despite the masterful work on 1989.) The tune is helped by Brendon Urie, who is always a welcome presence. "ME!" doesn't quite work, but I am hopeful for what it represents in Swift's career.

Queer Pop Check-In: Greyson Chance and Ben Platt

Hello, dear reader! We are knee-deep in National Poetry Month. In celebration, I am reading lots of poetry right now. (If you want to know what I'm reading, check out this Tumblr that I run with friends and my Instagram.)

I'm also listening to lots of pop music.The biggest albums to capture my fancy of late are records by two young gay artists: Greyson Chance and Ben Platt. One record surprised me, and the other underwhelmed.

Greyson Chance's Portraits

Though technically his second album, Portraits feels like Chance's proper debut. He gained notoriety as a preteen via  a viral video cover of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" and landed an initial record deal through Ellen Degenere's label, but Greyson Chance needed time, a few stumbling recording projects, and a hiatus from the business to find himself. He had to grow up and discover his musical identity. Under a new label, he has done that with Portraits--a record about love, family, and the wanderlust of young adulthood. There are sweet reflections on growing up ("plains" and "west texas"), but the best tracks explore the romantic entanglements of being gay and in your 20s. The high-water marks include singles "shut up" and "yours" (my personal favorite), as well as "black on black." So far, Portraits is the most promising record of 2019 and shows signs of a great artist developing his craft.

Ben Platt's Sing to Me Instead

Though I had been anticipating the record for months, Ben Platt's Sing to Me Instead underwhelmed. The album has many successes, including the belting "Bad Habit," the heartbroken "Grow as We Go," and the philosophical "Older." The songs are well performed and feature nicely observed lyrics. However, the record suffers from a sameness in both mood and tone. It has a consistent melancholy with little deviation. Though Platt is one of the great young voices on Broadway, his instinct is often to over-sing and embellish his tracks with the same runs, so that the songs ultimately sound homogeneous. He is at his best when he plays it light, as he does on portions of "Older" and "Grow as We Go," but those moments are scant. Still, he has great vocal skill and his record shows potential.

Betty Who, Carly Rae Jepsen, and a New Poem

Welcome back, dear reader! First, I am excited to announce I have new poem in the most recent issue of Rise Up Review. "In the Pink" is part of my second poetry collection, which I have been working on for the better part of three years. I wrote the poem on a weekend trip to the Midwest last spring, and I hope it lifts your spirits.

As for music, here are my obsessions lately:

Betty Who's Betty

Like for most underappreciated pop singers, going independent has been great for Betty Who. Her third record, Betty, follows her tradition of frothy, catchy pop tunes about love with an 80s bent. With the exception of may Carly Rae Jepsen (more on her in a minute), no one is better at crafting a good chorus. In contrast to the melancholy and nostalgia of her first two albums, this most recent effort finds the singer/songwriter in a more hopeful and mature romantic space. Highlights: "Do With It," "Marry Me," "I Remember," and "Between You and Me."

"Now That I Found You" and "No Drug Like Me" by Carly Rae Jepsen

Speaking of Carly Rae, Ms. Jepsen dropped a double single, following up her teaser track from late last year, "Party of One." "Now That I Found You" is the kind of buoyant pop with a big chorus that's her signature. "No Drug Like Me"--my favorite of the two tracks--is more low-key and channels her affection for Hall-and-Oats-style synths. Both tunes are logical extensions of the sound she perfected during her Emotion era and I hope they foreshadow the arrival of a new record in 2019.

New Madonna Music?

I am also giddy over the news that Madonna has filmed a video and is planning on dropping a new track this month. I hope those rumors are true. Stay tuned!

While I wait for Madonna to grace us with a new project, I am going to savor the above tunes, work on my poetry collection, and continue to draft a new fiction project. 2019 is busy so far! I hope you are a well. I wish you happy days full of dancing and books. Talk soon.

Happy Valentine's Day! Updates, New Poems, and New Music

Happy 2019, dear reader! Where have I been all this time? The short answer is writing (but a trip to the west coast, teaching, reading, and watching horror movies would be valid answers too). I'm juggling two book projects right now (finishing my second poetry collection, as well as drafting a fiction project I spent last year planning). Because I plan on devoting most of my writing time to these projects, my blog posts will be shorter this year. I will still jump in with mini-reviews, as well as writing-related updates.

Speaking of which, I had a new poem out in Mad Swirl . Because it's about love and lust, "Splatter Reel" seems like the perfect piece to share with you on Valentine's Day. I also plan on featuring the poem in my second collection.

For music, I want to recommend Lauv and Troye Sivan's song, "i'm so tired..." The laid-back jam embodies millennial melancholy. For listeners in the mood for a soothing downer track about being fed-up and hungry for love, "tired" is ideal.

Enjoy, dear reader! Check back for more music reviews (including a post about the new Betty Who record!) and writing updates. I wish you a day full of love.

Happy Holidays and Signing Off for 2018

Before I head out for the holidays, I wanted to recommend two holiday tunes for the season.

The first is Katy Perry's "Cozy Little Christmas," which she released as an Amazon Original. The kitschy, sweet tune has a pleasing melody and catchy hook. It's the kind of song Perry has mastered--a mix kooky humor and romance--and a return to form for the pop diva. "Cozy" makes you want her to record an entire holiday record. After a decade in the business, it's the perfect time for her to consider such a project. Check the song out on Amazon.

I'm also infatuated with the Jolly Remix of Leann Rimes' "Joy" medley, most notably featuring her take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." The tune is the perfect mix of holiday cheese and hopefulness. In fact, "Joy" is the ideal title for the track because it is downright joyful. I recommend her entire 2018 holiday record. Don't be discouraged that it's a soundtrack for Rimes' Hallmark holiday film, It's Christmas, Eve; the album is a fun and consistent set of holiday tunes.

In the spirit of the season, I wish you happy holidays, dear reader. May you find lots of warmth, joy, and peace. See you in the new year.

My Favorites of 2018: Albums

With a glut of great music, picking five favorite 2018 records was a challenge, so I have included a bonus pick as well. This list features my usual caveat: while I consider artistic merit when I pick my top records for the year, my selections center around what albums I could not resist playing over and over. Perhaps there are records with more critical praise or commercial success, but these are the albums that kept me dancing through my day.

BONUS: 6.  Love, Simon Soundtrack (Various Artists)
Great soundtracks are hard to build, but Executive Producer Jack Antonoff picked a selection of tunes to reflect Simon's optimism and longing. Because the record includes several previously released tunes, it felt unfair to include it any higher on the list, but I played this album non-stop. It's a perfect companion to the film.

5. Bloom (Troye Sivan)
Troye Sivan arrived in a major way this year. After teasing a series of solid singles, he released his sophomore effort, Bloom. Exquisitely produced, these ten tracks are on opus of pop perfection--moving from melancholy ballads like "The Good Side" to ecstatic dance tunes like "My My My!" Bloom is an ode to coming of age, coming out, and falling in love. An instant classic.

4. Golden Hour (Kacey Musgraves)
After two excellent major label records, I was unsure how Kacey Musgraves could top herself, but she did with Golden Hour. 2018 marked the return of the romcom to mainstream success, and love was in the air for Musgraves too. Though it features some of her trademark humor, the album focuses on breezy love songs. Highlights: "Slow Burn," "Lonely Weekend," and "Love is a Wild Thing."

3. Dancing Queen (Cher)
Who knew ABBA and Cher would be such a great mix? On this pristine tribute to the Swedish pop group, Cher fused her high camp style with the comfort food of ABBA's pop tunes, and the combination was the perfect balm for a politically challenging year. While many of the productions nod to the 70s originals, Cher's covers have embellishments indicative of her dance-diva aesthetic, such as the house-stylings on "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!," which fits nicely alongside "Believe" in her discography. That said, she is at her best with the somber tunes, especially her passionate take on "SOS," her perfect version of"The Winner Takes It All," and her down-tempo interpretation of "One of Us." Dancing Queen  proves Cher is more compelling than ever, and it's a blessing she's still making music.

2. Voicenotes (Charlie Puth)
Before 2018, I paid little attention to Charlie Puth. His tunes felt artificial, and it was hard to differentiate him from other young pop singer/songwriters. Voicenotes reversed my previous feelings. These fun, melodic songs show Puth has an ear for choruses, romantic lyrics, and meticulous production. Some of the tracks lean into his cheesy side (such as the Boyz II Men assisted "If You Leave Me Now"), but even the indulgences play as a strengths because he gives each track a distinct texture. Though he has a gift for ballads, Puth is at his best with upbeat tracks ("How Long," "BOY," "Empty Cups"). Voicenotes is a great record for a party or road trip--the kind of album that makes you sing.

1. Palo Santo (Years and Years)
Though I've listened to the album over and over, Years and Years' Palo Santo surprises me every time. Lead singer Olly Alexander and crew owe a lot to late 80s/early 90s Madonna, as this album mixes religious imagery, dance music, and eroticism. However, the band makes that formula their own, filling their contemporary house tunes with queer imagery. The whole record is a gem, but "Hallelujah," "All for You," "If You're Over Me," and "Rendezvous" give the listener a strong sense of band's aesthetic and achievements with their sophomore album. If you want to dance, buy Palo Santo.

One more post before I escape for the holidays! Next up: a couple holiday music recommendations. Stay tuned!