Willpower.jpgWILL.I.AM: #willpower
Rating: 1.5/5

With their run of mega-hit singles, Black Eyed Peas have proven that being incredibly annoying is a good way to get noticed.

It’s an even better way to get hated. No other pop act of the last decade, not Justin Bieber, not Miley Cyrus, not even Chris Brown (who all tellingly make appearances on frontman’s new solo album #willpower) have earned as much critical vitriol for their terrible music.

The soul-crushing shittiness of #willpower is thus no surprise but it also has the unique distinction of being commercially useless, a problem hasn’t had to deal with since the late ‘90s. The Britney-supported single “Scream & Shout” aside, its singles are D.O.A., and its remaining tracks leave little hope. Most fall into two equally detestable categories: those set to the current faux-rave b.p.m. standard of pop radio (“Hello,” “Gettin’ Dumb’”), and those constructed of cheap, repetitive hip hop beats (“Geekin’,” “Freshy”), with fake slang words and lyrics that will make you want to unlearn the English language.

If that wasn’t bad enough, enjoy the requisite, cynically calculated stab at “positivity” that is “Ghetoo Ghetto” [sic]. The song laments how popular culture rewards facile entertainment while devaluing more challenging pursuits, a subject that would be worthy of discussion by anyone other than the guy who dumped his promising career as a “conscious” rapper to make the most insufferable pop music of his time.

Ultramarine-Art.jpgYOUNG GALAXY: Ultramarine
Paper Bag, 40 minutes

Rating: 4.5/5

Montreal’s Young Galaxy handed their third album Shapeshifting (2011) to producer Dan Lissvik of Swedish duo Studio; his reworking of their recorded tracks helped turn Young Galaxy from just another indie rock band languishing in the overhyped Arts & Crafts catalogue to Canada’s most promising practitioners of electro-pop.

For its followup, Ultramarine, the band cut to the chase, recording on site at Lissvik’s studio in Sweden. So quite expectedly it resembles Shapeshifting, but with some intriguing adjustments.

For one, the band’s lyrical ambitions have been scaled way down. While Shapeshifting featured songs about biological transmogrification and the unknowable randomness of the universe, nothing on Ultramarine is so incredibly overblown. Its subject matter is more down-to-earth, covering platonic love (“Pretty Boy”), career ambition (“What We Want”), morning sickness (“Fever”) and other human concerns.

Ultramarine also keeps its hooks even sharper than Shapeshifting. All its songs are structured for maximum memorability, making it the most immediate pop album of the year next to The 20 / 20 Experience — with better lyrics.

JunipCover.jpgJUNIP: Junip
Mute, 43 minutes

Rating: 3.5/5

Before forming Junip, José González was at something of a creative standstill. His first album Veneer (2003) had earned a measure of success for its cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats,” and its followup In Our Nature (2007) confirmed his status as a virtuoso guitarist. But it left precious little clearance for takeoff. González had already proven himself as a musician, but his songwriting had grown repetitive, his subject matter awkwardly topical.

González hasn’t released any solo material since 2010 — a stripped-down version of the future Junip song “Far Away,” for the Red Dead Redemption video game soundtrack — indicating Junip is not a mere side project, but a necessary evolution of his solo work.

This emphasis on Junip’s frontman is not meant to discount the work of his band mates; drummer Elias Araya and keyboard / synth player Tobias Winterkorn add crucial weight to the Junip sound, keeping González’s airy compositions from floating away. Their jams are essential to their self-titled sophomore album’s best songs — “So Clear,” “Walking Lightly,” “Your Life Your Call” — and in more subdued moments (“Baton”) their relatively lack of presence is deeply felt. Kudos to them for keeping such a promising songwriter on the right path.

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