Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Coldplay, FINNEAS, Lil Ugly Mane, Remi Wolf, PinkPantheress

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

Another week has come and gone, leaving many disappointments and many surprises in its wake. Pop titans fall flat while beginners blossom. As always, it has been another exciting week of releases.

Coldplay – Music Of The Spheres
Pop Rock
Released October 15, 2021

3 Globes out of 5

Being a Coldplay fan in 2021 is tough work. I am constantly slandered for defending the band’s catalogue, both old and new, from numerous different types of music fans. I never understood the hate they have gotten and continue to receive. Sure, they have had some clunkers along the way, but they are certainly not a bad band by any means. My love of the band led me to be more hyped about this album than one should for a Coldplay album released after 2008. Unfortunately, “Music Of The Spheres” is likely the band’s worst album but with some strange surprises inside.

This new record was presented as a concept album, but like all pieces of conceptual art based around “music is banned in future space dystopia,” it is overly confusing, barely fleshed out and easy to ignore. That last point is exactly what I did. The thinly strung together narrative adds zero to the enjoyment of the album. In fact, it actually detracts as you try and understand it and realize how half-baked it is. But anyway, let’s talk about the music of “Music Of The Spheres.”

There are three short ambient interludes across the album, each named by an emoji. The second two do not add anything to the album’s flow, but the first does serve as a nice intro to the album’s lead single “Higher Power.” I was not big on this song when it came out, but it has since grown on me as a nice piece of new wave 80s revival pop rock that is serviceable enough. “Humankind” follows next and is a bit more immediate due to a much better chorus than the previous song. After these two, the album sags drastically. “Let Somebody Go” is a ballad featuring Selena Gomez, who genuinely could’ve been replaced with almost any other vocalist because her vocal performance is so humdrum. “Human Heart,” another emoji song, is an all a cappella number featuring Jacob Collier. While the harmonies are gorgeous, this did not need to be a full song, as it doesn’t really progress anywhere. “People Of The Pride” is an old “Viva La Vida” outtake that was retooled for this record, but it still sounds unfinished. While the verse melodies are fantastic, the guitar riff is just so hokey that I feel like I’m watching a commercial for a truck. “Biutyful” features an absolutely obnoxious pitched up vocal and “My Universe” is not elevated by the appearance of BTS. While the group is fine themselves, they just don’t fit on this song very well. SUGA and j-hope’s verse in particular seemed really out of place and the chorus, while infectious and groovy by itself, does not lend to the rapping at all. Thankfully “Infinity Sign,” the final emoji titled song, brings things back. Longtime collaborator Jon Hopkins lends a hand on this track, creating a remarkable trance song with the group that comes totally out of left field. It is certainly one of my favorite experiments the band has done thus far.

While only three songs so far are what I’d call “winners,” the album is saved with its closing track. Coldplay have always had phenomenal closers and “Coloratura” is no exception. Swirling keyboards and plucked strings open the song before Chris Martin sings one of the band’s best verse melodies unaccompanied except for his piano. The chorus soars, the full band enters and magic is made. Jonny Buckland reminds everyone that this band has an excellent guitarist in an all too brief solo. This is by far the group’s lushest and most sprawling song. It is a classic in every sense of the word, not wasting a single second of its over 10 minute runtime.

Maybe I was a fool for expecting more from Coldplay at this point, but I will never admit they have a bad album. Sure, this is probably my least favorite, but I can’t slam the album with “Infinity Sign” and “Coloratura” too hard. It has easily some of the best tracks they have ever made, and I can only hope that they take more risks like those two.

FINNEAS – Optimist
Released October 15, 2021

1.5 Globes out of 5

Billie Eilish has cemented herself as one of the biggest names in music at the moment, but her older brother has been right there behind her the whole time. FINNEAS has served as her producer thus far, but he has yet to release an album of his own until now. “Optimist” serves as an ironic title, much like his sister’s “Happier Than Ever” from earlier this year. However, unlike his little sister, FINNEAS doesn’t have anything really interesting to say.

Keeping in theme with his work with his sister, the production on “Optimist” is top notch in the current pop landscape. However, the songwriting leaves a lot to be desired. Many of the tracks on this album start to blend together after the first four or five songs. “A Concert Six Months From Now” is a stirring song due to the universal relatability to the lyrics, but it leans a bit too cynical for comfort. Speaking of misanthropical songs, “The Kids Are All Dying” is a frustrating and tone-deaf song about cancel-culture and whining about being a rich white guy. Sorry guy, but saying you “tried to save the world” but got bored is asinine. FINNEAS, it is not reprehensible for people to ask you about your carbon footprint as you likely contribute to it more than most neighborhoods. Also, people can sing about love and drugs and whatever they want even if there are atrocities being committed in the world. Are you really saying that you want Olivia Rodrigo to sing about the war on drugs or Pitbull to rap about Flint, Michigan? I’ve heard enough poorly executed attempts at scenarios like that to know that some people should stay in their lane.

“The 90s” is the kind of beautiful naivety that only someone born outside of the decade they write about can craft. I hate to break the bad news again FINNEAS, but being alive in the pre-internet era wouldn’t save you from this dreaded “cancel culture” that you seem so afraid of. Beyond the wince-inducing lyrics at this point, the album just gets really boring. “Peaches Etude” is at least a little interesting due to it being a classical-influenced piano instrumental. “Around My Neck” also has a bit of swagger to it that made me remember that I was listening to something. There is only so much brooding one can take in 45 minutes. One glance at the song titles will tell you everything you need to know about this record.

Music like “Optimist” gets by for two reasons. FINNEAS has name recognition that will keep him from failing right out of the gate. The second aspect is that this fits in perfectly with the rest of those streaming hits with millions of plays from an artist you’ve never heard of because people put on curated playlists to have in the background. Truth be told, this album is really the best as background music as it isn’t interesting enough to distract you. Good production and a few catchy melodies does not make a good album. I’ve seen people call FINNEAS the Janet Jackson to Billie’s Michael, but that statement is wildly untrue. Janet is much better than Michael, so that must mean FINNEAS is Tito.

Lil Ugly Mane – Volcanic Bird Enemy And The Voiced Concern
Released October 12, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

Rappers turning into rock musicians is not a new trend, but it seems to have become more prevalent in recent years. The king of this transition is one Mr. Travis Miller. Genres bend to his will. I am of course being tongue-in-cheek, but Travis has covered more ground than most musicians alive could only hope to in their lifetime. In the past 15 or so years, he has worked under an immense amount of pseudonyms, each with their own unique style and sound. These projects range over a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop, black metal, free jazz, harsh noise, post-punk and so much more. A few years ago, Travis retired his most popular alias, Lil Ugly Mane. Lil Ugly Mane ranged from memphis rap to sound collage and much more, but still remained deeply rooted in hip hop. So the moniker returning alongside a surprise neo-psychedelia album is entirely unexpected, yet very on brand.

“Volcanic Bird Enemy And The Voiced Concern” is a lot less directly violent or self-introspective compared to other works of Travis, but it trades in the bluntness for a more subtle introspection. Maybe it could also be this being one musical avenue he hasn’t exactly explored before, as the new sound allows him to flex his songwriting chops in new directions. Maybe it’s Travis’s deadpan delivery, but this overall feels more relaxed compared to his other work. Whether it’s the abusive relationship of “Benadryl Submarine” or the delightfully bitter wishes contained in “Cursor,” the anger across this album feels weary and worn down. Some of the trip-hop elements also recall the first Gorillaz album. “VPN” is a heartbreaking anthem about withering away on the internet. “Headboard” and the closer “Porcelain Slightly” are far and away the album’s two biggest highlights. Both are two truly wonderful pieces of shoegaze that hit deep on an emotional level due to the pensive lyrics.

While this sounds nothing like Travis’s other work, it is certainly somewhere I would consider starting on the journey through his expansive career. To think this is the same guy who made “Mista Thug Isolation” is wild. Even if he is a music nerd’s musician and will likely stay in his niche, I am so glad Travis Miller continues to feed us weirdos every so often with one magical project after another.

Remi Wolf – Juno
Contemporary R&B
Released October 15, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

Remi Wolf is another artist to join the club of “great debut albums in 2021” with her album “Juno.” Remi encapsulates the best part of younger musicians being given a voice. Her style of funk-infused soul and R&B blended in a pop context is not the newest sound, but is one that hasn’t been executed this well in a while, especially this wonderfully early in an artist’s career. She seems to have a fully formed identity and voice that is engaging. Her lyrical work is also steller, with many songs having some absolutely hilarious lines. See “wyd” and “Quiet On Set” for more about that last part.

The guitar work on this record is magnificent. The noisy solo on “Sexy Villain” and the vocal and guitar duet on the bridge of “Grumpy Old Man” are prime examples of the lovely guitar tone across this album. I also cannot express enough love for “Anthony Kiedis” and the playful lyrical references to the titular Red Hot Chili Peppers’s singer. “Buzz Me In” is such a cute little song but is overshadowed by how blissful the closing track “Street You Live On” is, despite the bitter lyrics. She really channels her inner Prince on this album, both lyrically and instrumentally. Also, the frequent rap breaks do not feel out of place for once in a pop album.

This is such a fun and funky album that I feel most people will be able to vibe with. It just grooves and grooves and never stops grooving. I cannot wait to hear where Remi goes next with her sound. For now, we have one of the most fun and enjoyable debuts in a while.

PinkPantheress – To Hell With It
Atmospheric Drum And Bass
Released October 15, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

The age of TikTok allowing an artist to blow up is upon us, and PinkPantheress is the prime example. Her style of music is not something that most casual listeners would seek out, but being exposed to these sounds through social media allows doors to new tastes to be opened easier. “To Hell With It” is not an album, but a mixtape. Even then, the 10ten songs are all brief, keeping the project under a neat twenty minute runtime.

I am sure the short songs play into the mass amount of spins this release has garnered, but the social media influence cannot be understated. While this album sounds good and PinkPantheress is a fine enough vocalist, most of the samples are very poorly reworked. In fact, many of the instrumentals are just taken from other songs with a new drum beat placed underneath. As I’ve said, it sounds nice, but it is really lazy from a production and songwriting standpoint. A lot of this chalks up to lack of experience though. PinkPantheress, being only 19, is still young in both her life and musical career, so I don’t doubt that she has room to grow. It is just odd to see what are essentially building blocks being released as a debut project. Had this been most other artists, these tracks would be reworked for a few years before being put into a public spotlight. “Notice I Cried” and “Passion” are some highlights that show that she has the seeds for much bigger and better things planted in her already.

While I hope this leads to more people checking out other music similar to this, I worry that people will compare any future releases in this genre to this and claim they are “rip-offs” as it seems people so often do with internet fandoms. On the other hand, I hope people don’t bully PinkPantheress for having such a sudden start due to social media sending her into the stratosphere this quickly. Just based on “Break It Off,” I can tell she has a lot of good ideas in her that she just has to work up to. Here’s hoping that she has a wonderful career and only improves from here.