Less an “album” than a goddamn dissertation on everything rotten at the core of mainstream country music, Faith Hill’s Fireflies, rest assured, will rank as her sixth multi-platinum record and will likely sweep the country field at the Grammy awards come February. That it is so utterly without substance—it’s some kind of engineering marvel that the CD itself doesn’t have to be tethered to the ground—certainly won’t deter NARAS, People, and Entertainment Weekly (who stand to profit whenever Hill’s visage graces their covers), or Hill’s legion of fans from shouting me down to the contrary, but Fireflies is flat-out terrible, the end-all be-all example of how the major labels on music row have diluted the soul out of an entire genre of vital popular music.
For all its many flaws, Fireflies’ greatest liability is the stench of desperation that overpowers it. Hill’s career has been characterized by fashionably late trend-hopping. Her first two albums, Take Me As I Am and It Matters To Me, consisted of the high-gloss pop-country popularized by Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, and Lorrie Morgan in the early ‘90s; other than her uncommonly gorgeous face, there was nothing about her music that set Hill apart from her contemporaries. When Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes beat her to the Hot AC crossover game and to the stages of VH1’s Divas Live lineups, Hill’s sound followed suit with the treacly adult contemporary schmaltz of “This Kiss” and Breathe. (Hoping to capitalize on the bajillion-selling success of the album, Hill remained in the public eye by screaming the god-awful powerballad anthems from two of the most contemptible blockbuster films in recent memory, Opie’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Dread Lord Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.)
Hill’s follow-up, though, was the first critical misstep of her career, at least commercially. Not realizing that the “pop diva” scene had run its course, Hill released her most overtly Celine Dion-inspired album Cry. Though it inexplicably won Grammy awards for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Best Country Album, the album sold less than half of its predecessor, and it failed to produce a single Top 10 hit at country radio, indicative of both the album’s less-than-middling quality and the country establishment’s reaction to Hill’s pants-on-fire, “I’ve never been just a country artist” interview routine.
Now, three years later, Hill has reemerged with an album that, once again, finds her hopping on the latest popular bandwagon, hoping to capitalize on trends other artists have started without having to come up with anything the least bit interesting or innovative of her own. Even Fireflies’ packaging makes this clear—Hill has dyed her blond hair a deep auburn, the same shade of color as Gretchen Wilson’s, Jo Dee Messina’s, Terri Clark’s, and Sara Evans’s tresses. Wilson, Messina, Clark, and Evans, incidentally, are the only women to score a #1 country single in the past three years. Surely, though, this must be a mere coincidence, and Fireflies is another step in Hill’s ongoing evolution into a standards singer, right?
The Southern-fried production of lead single “Mississippi Girl,” however, immediately puts to rest any questions as to whether Hill might choose to do her own thing, rather than to ape shamelessly the things that the women who supplanted her at the top of Nashville’s pecking order have been doing for the past year. It’s written by John Rich, after all, the latter half of Big & Rich and the man responsible for nearly all of Wilson’s success. And, as a declaration of artistic identity, “Mississippi Girl” couldn’t be more dead-on accurate. It’s hardly a surprise at this point that Hill, a complete cipher having been perfectly cast as a Stepford Wife (which is referenced in the head-slappingly stupid second-verse of “Mississippi Girl”), would completely miss the point of the criticisms against Cry and couldn’t even muster a writing credit on her version of “Jenny From The Block.”
Now, country music is filled with artists who don’t often write their own material, and there’s absolutely value to be found in excellent interpretive singers, which Nashville actually has in bountiful supply. Emmylou Harris has deservedly earned legendary status both within and beyond the country genre with her heady interpretations of difficult songs. Yearwood remains the best pure singer, the combination of power, range, and a sense of phrasing, currently recording in any popular genre, and she has an ear for exceptional material. Even Hill’s husband, Tim McGraw, has made a career by emoting all the livelong day, though with the songs he chooses, he’s often trying a bit too hard. Hill, on the other hand, peaked very early as an interpretive singer, on the title track to her sophomore album It Matters To Me. Though she’s made a concerted effort to improve her vocals since then— she attempts (though, as the end of “Mississippi Girl” demonstrates, not always successfully) to hit notes that she wouldn’t have dared to try earlier in her career, and she’s developed a full lower-register that keeps her recent performances from sounding as girlish as “Wild One” or her “Let’s Go To Vegas.” And, while putting in that kind of work is certainly admirable, the attention to the technical aspects of her voice allowed her ability to interpret a song to atrophy. There isn’t a break in her voice anywhere on Fireflies that doesn’t sound fundamentally calculated, and she sings her lyrics as though she learned them phonetically, like Christina Aguilera’s ill-conceived efforts at singing in Spanish.
This, of course, would be a more significant problem if Fireflies contained any songs that might genuinely merit such consideration as subtlety or nuance. The twangy “Dearly Beloved,” for instance, is a bald-faced stab at the ribald perfection of both the Dixie Chicks’ “White Trash Wedding” and Trick Pony’s “The Bride,” filtered through the same neo-con mentality that has made Wilson’s brand of feminism so inherently dishonest (there’s a line about “the effects of sex and alcohol” that should play well in the red states). The first line of the title track is, “Before you met me, I was a fairy princess,” which Hill sings without a trace of self-awareness, and the song, one of three on Fireflies written by Lori McKenna, shares the same central image as the year’s best country single, Miranda Lambert’s “Me and Charlie Talking,” without sharing even a shred of the complexity or resonance of Lambert’s offering. The inevitable duet with McGraw, “Like We Never Loved At All,” is a significant step forward from their previous effort, the smarmy “Let’s Make Love,” but that’s a compliment so backhanded it could dislocate a shoulder.
The songs, then, live or die on the strengths of their melodic hooks and production values. And, though its lyrics completely eschew such trivialities as the meter of the song—the kind of weakness, again, that Hill isn’t a good enough interpreter to overcome—“Mississippi Girl” does have a memorable enough melody, as does the cheerful if empty-headed opener, “Sunshine And Summertime.” Generally, the uptempo tracks fare better than do the ballads, and if executive producer Byron Gallimore’s decision to foreground the occasional banjo on what would otherwise be an adult contemporary ballad is disingenuous, it’s at least successful in making Fireflies sound indistinguishable from recent lackluster efforts by Jamie O’Neal or Deana Carter, or from the dead-eyed Teddy Ruxpin who won the fourth season of American Idol, who might as well be renamed “Faith Hill, v. 2.0.”
What’s ultimately so disheartening about Fireflies is the extent to which it will be championed as a return to (a never-existent) form by a capital-A artist (who doesn’t even merit the lower-case designation as such), and as a benchmark for what mainstream country can and should be. The last few years have seen a refreshing infusion of artistic integrity into the country mainstream, with artists like Julie Roberts, Evans, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Lambert all making music that, at its best, fully holds its own in comparison to the gritty, soulful work of Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn. And, though their shtick is sociologically loaded to an almost impossible degree, Big & Rich have made it commercially and critically viable for major label country artists to attempt to defy the genre’s mainstream conventions. Faith Hill and Fireflies bring nothing new to the table but a particularly shrewd marketing strategy. Hill has nothing of her own to say, nor does she say anyone else’s words with any insight or conviction. That adding some steel guitar to Fireflies’ relentless tripe is being sold with greater efficacy than Hill sells said tripe as a credibility maneuver is nothing short of appalling, even by Nashville’s standards of beating dead horses. There are too many other sources of optimism to view the album as a harbinger of doom for country’s recent, unexpected artistic resurgence, but it’s a nadir both for Nashville’s golden empress and for the genre she embraces only when it stands to profit her most.
Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: August 2, 2005 Buy: Amazon
With “Positions,” Ariana Grande Aims to Set Her Status as Pop’s Reigning Princess
The singer’s new single is filled with plenty innuendo and feminist messaging.
Ariana Grande is clearly vying for the title of hardest-working woman in pop music. Her forthcoming album will be her third in just over two years—Sweetener dropped in August of 2018, followed by Thank U, Next five months later—and over the last year she’s released collaborations with Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Childish Gambino, just to name a few.
The 27-year-old singer aims to further solidify her—pardon the pun—position as pop’s reigning princess with “Positions,” the first single from the new album. The midtempo track, which clocks in at just shy of three minutes, features acoustic guitars, plucky strings, and lyrics filled with plenty innuendo and feminist messaging: “Switchin’ my positions for you/Cookin’ in thе kitchen and I’m in the bedroom,” Ariana sings in her signature smooth, somewhat mumbly affect.
The music video for “Positions,” which was directed by Dave Myers, finds Ariana in the role of president, dressed in Jackie O-worthy duds and effortlessly juggling both affairs of state (with an all-female cabinet, natch) and business in the bedroom. Interestingly, the object of Madam President’s affections is nowhere to be found in the clip—though she is seen walking five of her dogs across the snow-covered lawn of the White House.
Every Janet Jackson Album Ranked
We took a look back at the icon’s catalog and ranked all 11 studio albums from worst to best.
Janet Jackson’s music career can be easily partitioned into three eras, with her commercial peak (from 1986’s Control through 2001’s All for You) bookended by her early, pre-breakthrough period on one side and the years following her infamous Super Bowl performance in 2004 on the other. There’s perhaps no better testament to the power of Janet’s breakthrough album, Control, as a quintessential statement on personal and artistic self-actualization than the still pervasive misconception that it’s her debut, with 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street relegated to the singer’s “prehistory.” But while it should surprise absolutely no one that the quartet of albums that Janet released during her imperial phase handily top this list, her most recent effort, 2015’s Unbreakable, was an understated return to form, reuniting the artist with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Janet’s follow-up, Black Diamond, was scheduled for release this year before the Covid-19 pandemic dashed those plans. While we await word on the fate of Janet’s 12th studio album—and accompanying concert tour—we’ve decided to look back at her catalog and rank all 11 albums from worst to best.
11. Dream Street (1984)
Before Janet struck multi-platinum with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she briefly partnered with another famous production pair, Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte. With the exception of the title track, though, the legendary disco duo’s contributions to Janet’s sophomore effort, Dream Street, fell far short of their iconic work with the likes of Donna Summer. Janet’s least successful album isn’t without its pleasures though: Produced by brother Marlon, “All My Love to You” successfully apes Off the Wall-era Michael, while the sexy, nearly seven-minute “Pretty Boy”—courtesy of Jesse Johnson, who, along with Jam and Lewis, was part of the Time—provided a glimpse of things to come in Janet’s own oeuvre. Sal Cinquemani
10. 20 Y.O. (2006)
20 Y.O. was the first Janet album that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced (this time only in part) after moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. As a result, their ice-cold beats melted into a lugubrious, lukewarm pudding (at under an hour, it still feels almost twice as long as janet. and The Velvet Rope). I don’t know what co-producer and Janet’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri thought he meant when he said he wanted 20 Y.O. to sound like an old Human League record, but I’ll readily admit that the evidence on display suggests he was the only one with the foresight to come up with some new old ideas, even if none of them work to Janet’s advantage. The album’s desperation is that of a dance icon who once sent one hot track after another to the top of the charts and is now deciding she liked the idea of being at the top of the singles charts better than creating immortal dance music. The grindcore “This Body” brings the fugly with surprising abandon, throwing hissing industrial clatter atop an admirably tuneless dirge (you hardly realize it’s a way-late bid in the chopped n’ screwed sweepstakes until the 16 RPM guest rap drops in). “Enjoy” is a seamlessly smooth step groove aboard R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” boat, but its presence here only makes the likes of “Get It Out Me” and “Roll Witchu” seem all the more opportunistic. Eric Henderson
9. Janet Jackson (1982)
If on its own terms Janet’s self-titled debut has nothing on what was to follow, it’s nonetheless a pretty solid snapshot of the post-disco boogie sound. At least, that is, for the duration of side one, where singer-songwriters René & Angela (best known for their steamy funk workout “I’ll Be Good”) serve Janet with three equally perky-cute dance-pop ditties, and one halfway decent ballad. Janet was clearly still finding her voice, but the snappy backing track of “Say You Do” could easily have slotted into the Jacksons’s 1980 album Triumph, and “Young Love” has the confident pristineness of a Patrice Rushen jam. Things get pretty generic on side two, but two or three deep cuts from an artist who came out of the gate only half-formed ain’t half bad. Henderson
8. Discipline (2008)
The title of Discipline was encouraging for those who prefer Janet taking control and cracking the whip (both as leader of her rhythm nation and the boss of her bedroom) over the vapid, single-girl come-ons of her previous three albums. Disappointingly, though, the title track doesn’t hark back to the self-empowerment of Control, but rather the S&M of The Velvet Rope. Lyrics like “Daddy, I disobeyed ya/Now I want you to come punish me” invite all kinds of psychoanalysis that only grow more disturbing when you remember who her daddy really is, which would be fascinating if she hadn’t already written the sexier (and less creepy) “Rope Burn.” If one were to try to identify some kind of evolution in Janet’s latest bout of dirty talk, it might be sex with robots. Throughout the album, she talks to and interacts with a rather compassionate computer DJ named Kyoko, and her voice is robotic and synthetic on tracks like “Feedback” and the Daft Punk-sampling “So Much Betta”—not necessarily such a bad thing for an artist whose vocals often consist of unintelligible murmuring. Cinquemani
7. Damita Jo (2004)
At some point during the afterglow of adolescent sexual discovery, most people realize that there are more important things in life than getting off. Like Marvin Gaye, Janet got it backward, spending most of her post-Rhythm Nation career searching for, publicly relishing, reflecting on, and then lamenting one giant, decade-long orgasm. The singer’s eighth album, Damita Jo, features a slew of the gooey, structureless sex ballads that had become her staple, including “Warmth,” three-and-a-half minutes dedicated to describing how Ms. Jackson If You’re Nasty gives a blowjob (and yes, she’s a method actress, whispering sweet nothings with her mouth full). Even the dance numbers don’t stray from her topic of choice. Janet’s infamous wardrobe malfunction is commonly cited for her career’s precipitous decline, but her inability to evolve beyond her sex kitten persona is more judiciously to blame. Cinquemani
Review: Beabadoobee’s Fake It Flowers Evokes Nostalgia Like a Childhood Bedroom
Over 12 tracks, the singer-songwriter is haunted by older versions of herself and captivated by wishful daydreams.4
Twenty-year-old Bea Kristi is the first to admit that her music owes a great deal to ‘90s alternative rock, not so slyly hinting as much on last year’s “I Wish I Was Steven Malkmus.” But her output under the moniker Beabadoobee doesn’t come down to mere derivation. Unlike Greta Van Fleet, the zoomer band notorious for aping their own revivalist referent, Led Zeppelin, Kristi molds the earnest, fuzzed-out yearning of the Cranberries and Veruca Salt for her own purposes. The Filipino-British songwriter speaks to the challenges unique to 21st-century adolescence, a tricky period in which emotions are impersonally mediated through screens and exes are only an impulsive text away.
Beabadoobee’s debut LP, Fake It Flowers, inhabits nostalgia like a childhood bedroom cluttered with toys, outgrown clothing, and wall posters that serve as relics of innocence and fantasy. Over 12 tracks, Kristi is haunted by older versions of herself and captivated by wishful daydreams. (Appropriately, she wrote the album hunkered down in her childhood bedroom in her London family home, where she also rode out a bout of Covid-19.) She gives voice to statements one would be remiss to utter outside the privacy of their inner sanctum. On “Dye It Red,” she hurls out venomous lines with matter-of-factness: “Kiss my ass, you don’t know jack/And if you say you understand, you don’t.” Throughout, momentous choruses and distorted guitars turn Kristi’s sweetly sung barbs from the stuff of scribbled journal musings into booming anthems, fit for the soundtrack of a Y2K coming-of-age film.
Across the album, Kristi negotiates the tumultuous fallout of her mistakes, only to relapse, clinging to harmful vices. On the melodic, misty-eyed “Worth It,” she confronts her own infidelity, unflinchingly aware of her wrongdoing but still unrepentant. “Together” sees her draw a parallel between crashing her car for the umpteenth time and getting back together with someone she’s wounded one too many times. At several points during the tracklist, the specter of self-harm emerges as a response to guilt, like a self-inflicted retribution. On “Charlie Brown,” which sounds like an homage to Hole and just as taxing on the lungs, Kristi spills about falling into “old habits that no one knows about.”
Kristi’s imaginative songwriting brings levity to Fake It Flowers. The singer opens “Yoshimi, Forest, Magdelene” by joking that an unidentified noise “sounds like a fart” before pivoting to the fanciful affirmation that she’s so head over heels for a significant other that she can’t help but chant the names of their three future children. Curlicues of piano and acoustic guitar give way to swooning strings on the tender “Horen Sarrison,” an ode to Kristi’s real-life beau. This romance isn’t found in the familiarity of a well-worn routine, but in the adrenaline rush of charged chemistry: “And I want you to know that I’m in love/But I don’t want you to feel comfortable.” Kristi’s vision of affection may be distorted by the impossible-to-replicate headiness of a first love, but it’s an enthralling representation of its ephemeral beauty.
Kristi seems aware of society’s history of ridiculing and undermining women for expressing their grievances in ways deemed too passionate or outspoken. While she pointedly entertains the pejorative “emo” in the title of the introspective ballad “Emo Song,” she nonetheless refuses to understate the origins of her trust issues: “You call me up, and lie again/Like all the men I used to trust.” Throughout the album, Kristi leans into her emotions, unconcerned about whether or not they might make her seem fragile or melodramatic. Songs like the Smashing Pumpkins-esque “Sorry” convey her fragility, buttressed by symphonic string arrangements and pounding drums.
Detractors may believe that alt-rock revivalism is more interested in merely serving up a ‘90s bricolage than breaking new ground. While this may be true to an extent, the songs on Fake It Flowers are far from superfluous. Rather, it’s evident that Kristi revives the sound—which was predominantly represented by straight white men—in order to infuse it with her own life and experience as a Catholic school dropout and daughter of immigrants.
Label: Dirty Hit Release Date: October 16, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You Is More Homecoming Than Retread
The album has all the familiar hallmarks of the E Street Band’s signature sound.3.5
Celebrated memoirist Bruce Springsteen’s latest nostalgia trick: reconvening a little rock n’ roll group he used to play with called the E Street Band. Letter to You isn’t exactly classic Springsteen, and it isn’t even the best studio album he’s made in the last decade—though I know most don’t share my affinity for 2012’s Wrecking Ball. But it may be the first album he’s made since Born in the U.S.A. on which he’s fully embraced the E Street Band’s signature sound for longer than a few intermittent stretches at a time.
Recorded live in the studio, sans overdubs, over just a few days in late 2019, Letter to You has all the familiar hallmarks of the iconic E Street Band’s signature sound: Roy Bittan’s roaming piano, bombastic shout-along choruses, creaky harmonies from Patti Scialfa and Steven Van Zandt, and gut-busting sax solos (Jake Clemons fills in ably for his late uncle, Clarence). Springsteen deserves credit for resisting the crowd-pleasing tug of this kind of album for so long that it feels like a warm homecoming rather than a retread.
It’s only when Springsteen leans on the nostalgia with explicitly backward-facing lyrics that the album gets a bit too self-aware. Springsteen has never made an album this personal, filled with paeans to felled bandmates, fans, and rose-colored memories of days and nights gone by. Both his recent autobiography, Born to Run, and his hit Broadway show have demonstrated that Springsteen in a self-reflective mode can be highly effective and deeply moving. Which is why some of the songs on Letter to You are disappointingly mushy by comparison. Album bookends “One Minute You’re Here” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” are cliché-ridden ruminations on life’s impermanence, while songs like “House of a Thousand Guitars” are packed with smug self-mythologizing about the life-changing majesty of rock n’ roll.
On the rousing “Ghosts,” the E Street Band’s thunderous power does far more to convince of the transcendent nature of their music than Springsteen’s lyrics—penned for the late George Theiss, the singer in his first band, the Castilles. All slashing guitars and shouted-to-the-rafters refrains, the song has all the makings of a classic E Street anthem. Even if Springsteen has employed them sparingly in the studio in recent years, the band remains a tight outfit from frequent touring. Max Weinberg in particular continues to be a force behind the drum kit, and he’s the focal point of the lilting title track. Springsteen himself turns back the clock with a howling vocal and searing guitar solos on the propulsive “Burnin’ Train,” which could easily pass for an outtake from Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River.
Barnburning new recordings of a trio of songs that Springsteen wrote in the early 1970s, before the formation of the E Street Band in 1972, provide Letter to You’s most fascinating links to the past. With their epic multi-verse structures, Old West imagery, and country-rock inflections, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans” join “Ballad of Jesse James”—a similar 1972 outtake released on the 2016 compilation Chapter and Verse—in providing an intriguing window into an alternate history. In this timeline, Springsteen never gravitated toward the rock n’ roll soul-circus style of the E Street Band and instead leaned hard into the “New Dylan” hype that surrounded him at the time.
It’s no surprise that the guy who wrote the songs featured on Letter to You became one of rock’s most celebrated storytellers once he discovered his own individual voice. That guy is also fortunate to have found his ideal compatriots. Whether playing 50-year-old songs or brand new ones, the E Street Band proves that when they’re in their element—as they are on this album—they can elevate the Boss to his best.
Label: Columbia Release Date: October 23, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Mountain Goats’s Getting Into Knives Is Overproduced and Under-Thought
The band’s uniquely existential and observational approach to rock is, for the first time, beginning to wear thin.2.5
Over the course of two decades, the Mountain Goats have maintained a near-peerless level of quality even as they’ve evolved their distinct folk-rock sound in unexpected directions. But on the North Carolina-based band’s 19th album, Getting Into Knives, their work manages to feel simultaneously overproduced and under-thought.
The songs on the album focus primarily on aging and those irretrievable things taken by time, with seasoned, older narrators imparting wisdom to less experienced counterparts. “Everything becomes a blur from six feet away/Get used to this,” singer-songwriter John Darneille warns on “Tidal Wave,” repeating “Get used to this” throughout the rest of the track. For every elegantly forlorn lyric on Getting Into Knives, though, there’s a clichéd platitude or overdetermined metaphor. Compared to the incisive and quick-witted nature of typical Mountain Goats lyrics, a line like “It’s not the destination that makes the difference/It’s the freight” feels like a rather lazy observation.
At their best, the band foregrounds an interplay between warmth and darkness, as on “Getting Into Knives,” in which the middle-aged Darnielle sings about taking up a new hobby over delicately strummed acoustic guitar and Jon Wurster’s hand-drummed percussion. Darnielle emotes with just the right amount of knowing distance, and humorously doesn’t elaborate on why “getting into knives” will be a fulfilling new activity or alternative to his current habits, while also promising its worthwhileness through softly yet convincingly performed vocals.
On much of the rest of the album, this tonal bifurcation leans too far in one direction or the other. “Get Famous,” which finds Darnielle wishing celebrity on someone who’s more suited to constant attention and exposure (read: someone with less integrity than him), feels overwrought, smothered by obvious production choices like the insertion of crowd cheers after the line “listen to the people applaud,” as well as by its own suffocating irony. Elsewhere, “The Last Place I Saw You Alive,” a ballad dedicated to a late friend, and “Harbor Me,” about asking for shelter from a companion, are too tender and bald-faced, taking the band’s capacity for rendering human frailty and turning it into sentimental mush.
Though the Mountain Goats’s music still operates firmly within the folk-rock tradition, a few songs here display a jazz influence, such as the light-handed tapping of tom-toms that weaves throughout “The Great Gold Sheep,” the featherweight percussive scene-setting at the beginning of “Bell Swamp Connection,” and Matt Douglas’s noodling saxophone on “The Last Place I Saw You Alive” and “Get Famous.” You can also hear a jazz sensibility in the band’s penchant for finding grooves and then departing from the structures at different intervals. At the other end of the spectrum, the bouncy panache of “Rat Queen” hews closer to the conceptual theatricality of the band’s last few albums, yet the track comes off as little more than a B-side from the group’s 2019 rock opera In League with Dragons.
Getting Into Knives does bear the distinction of being perhaps the most electric guitar-dominated Mountain Goats album to date. Despite the continued centrality of acoustic instruments within their sound, the growl of electric guitar is pronounced and expressive, especially on “Bell Swamp Connection,” where it’s slow and smeary, assisted with a pedal and married with piano. Of course, one wishes Darnielle didn’t feel the need to underline its prominence on “As Many Candles as Possible,” when a rumbling guitar prompts a redundant “There’s plenty of distortion and it’s not real clear…he howls in the night,” which is followed by a screeching strum. Such literalness is unusual for the Mountain Goats, whose uniquely existential and observational approach to rock is, for the first time, beginning to wear thin.
Label: Merge Release Date: October 23, 2020 Buy: Amazon
The 15 Best Smashing Pumpkins Songs
The Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.
As Greg Kot of Guitar World once quipped, “the [Smashing] Pumpkins remain an island unto themselves.” That was in 2001, when the band had spent a decade carving out an impressive art-rock niche, and long after a shortsighted music press had once smacked them with unenviable and laughably off-base label of “the next Nirvana.” But even to this day, the two bands are often clumped together as vanguards of the scathing, grungy brand of alternative rock that defined the early ‘90s. And yet, there’s little doubt that the group is much more than some also-ran grunge outfit chasing Kurt Cobain’s shadow. Indeed, with 11 studio albums and dozens of EPs, compilations, and soundtrack contributions, Billy Corgan and company have proved to be expert evocateurs, stitching together their melodic pastiche from a diverse litany of musical, literary, and visual sources. Armed with a mosaic sound that includes hat-tips to glam rock, art nouveau, psychedelia, goth, vaudeville, new wave, and Victorian romanticism, the Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on July 21, 2013.
15. “Knights of Malta”
The sweeping opening track of 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun bears the hallmarks of vintage Pumpkins: Bill Corgan’s melodic whine, Jimmy Chamberlin’s formidable drumming, and the intricate layers of guitar courtesy of Corgan, original guitarist James Iha, and Iha’s one-time replacement Jeff Schroeder. Everything about the song feels grand and triumphal—right down to the lyrics, in which Corgan sings, “I’m gonna fly forever/We’re gonna ride the rainbow,” as if he’s approaching the gates of rock n’ roll Valhalla.
14. “Set the Ray to Jerry”
As complex as the band’s arrangements and conceits often are, the Pumpkins frequently hit paydirt when relying on Corgan’s ear for crafting simple melodies. “Set the Ray to Jerry” is that principle in practice, as a two-note guitar riff and constantly rumbling snares come together with Corgan’s plain, passionate declaratives (“I want you” and “I need you”) to form a lucid, seductive nighttime jam.
13. “For Martha”
Corgan’s mother inspired plenty of animus throughout the Pumpkins’ catalogue, but none quite as conflicted and harrowing as the kind that fills the song sharing her name. Inspired by her passing, “For Martha” is an eight-minute dirge of gothic piano that bursts into a wave of crying, razor-edged guitars at its halfway point. At the height of it all, Corgan finally delivers his raw, teary-eyed eulogy: “Long horses we are born/Creatures more than torn/Mourning our way home.”
The riffs on “Tristessa” are some of the most efficient the Pumpkins have ever crafted. With four simple notes, Corgan and fellow guitarist James Iha lay down a bouncing, whiplash guitar hook that’s strong enough to carry the song through its shattering conclusion, proving along the way that the band had two other weapons in their arsenal besides panache: power and rhythm.
Serving as a kind of thematic unifier for David Lynch’s Lost Highway soundtrack, “Eye” was Pumpkins fans’ first taste of the band’s post-alternative offerings, where the remnants of their baroque, neo-Victorian rock tastes met Corgan’s new obsession with Pro Tools. While that formula would meet with mixed success on the subsequent Adore, “Eye” remains a sublime slice of electro-goth, pairing Corgan’s understated performance with a litany of chilling instrumentation—not to mention the wonderful angularity of that crisp drumline.
In which the Pumpkins conclusively prove that great art comes from great pain. Purportedly on the verge of suicide, a desperate, perhaps somewhat deranged Corgan penned “Today,” a facetious, goodbye-cruel-world lullaby that, when draped in the band’s trademark cloak of mellow fuzz, becomes a triumphant middle finger to the crippling effects of depression.
There are many points on their 1991 debut, Gish, where the Pumpkins seem caught between their early metal influences (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) and the art-rock band they ultimately aspired to be, but “Snail” isn’t one of them. The track is perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing of the ambitious plans Corgan had for his group: sweeping, unapologetically romantic, and cinematically paced, its verse, bridge, and chorus structured in such a way so that the ultimate catharsis—in this case, a climbing sub-melody full of unbridled optimism—comes bursting through quite dramatically in its final minute.
Review: Laura Veirs’s My Echo Is a Divorce Album That Trades Misery for Escapism
Against a backdrop of hopelessness brought about by personal heartbreak and global disasters, the album is an act of self-preservation.3.5
On the “divorce album” spectrum from Vulnicura to Utopia, Laura Veirs’s My Echo falls closer to the latter. At just under 30 minutes long, the Portland-based singer-songwriter’s 11th album is more concise than it is confessional, but Veirs imbues her lyrics with vivid imagery and gentle humor that trade misery for escapism. This lightness is by design, as she wrote these songs while she was straining to maintain her relationship with Tucker Martine, her collaborator and then-husband. In the album’s press notes, Veirs claims, “my songs knew I was getting divorced before I did.”
The impulse to leave things unsaid motivates My Echo’s sound, which often involves a contrast between acoustic folk instrumentation and electronic flourishes—in other words, between Veirs’s need to stay grounded and her tendency to drift off. It also informs her lyrics, which originated as poems she wrote for a “secret poetry group,” a fact that’s most apparent when she commits to describing her natural surroundings—leaves and rivers and trees—in depth. While Veirs’s lyrics are consistently unsettled and sometimes apocalyptic, they largely sidestep concrete problems in her marriage beyond rare whisperings of infidelity and alienation. Perhaps any lurid drama would have undermined Veirs’s escapist intentions.
Accordingly, when Veirs makes pivotal emotional realizations, they come from outside herself. On “Memaloose Island,” she visits the tomb of Victor Trevitt, where a disembodied voice tells her, “Life is the exception/Don’t you forget it.” The voice, of course, is her own, implicitly acknowledging the negative space around the comfort of marriage or any other source of stability. She spoils this reveal, though, on the album’s opening track, “Freedom Feeling,” when she discovers that the liberation she sought in love was within herself all along.
In fact, Veirs spends a fair amount of time on the album explaining herself, keeping little beneath the surface. On “End Times,” she compares her ill-fated relationship to Armageddon. On “Burn Too Bright,” she asks, “Who were you running from?” and quickly answers, as expected, “yourself.” Veirs gives us little work to do to exhume meaning from her images; she’s experienced the struggle of sorting out her feelings, so she aims to spare us of that emotional labor. On the gorgeous “Vapor Trails,” she reminds us that vapor trails, like people, disappear.
Veirs makes elegant use of her detachment on “I Sing to the Tall Man,” opening the song by reducing her husband to objective descriptors—“the tall man in the red kitchen”—before admitting that his “dark eyes and scarred chin remind [her] we are living.” She lets us in, pointing to the weight of her love and, as on “Memaloose Island,” the love’s interconnectedness with her faith in life itself. “I Sing to the Tall Man” neatly complements “Turquoise Walls,” another song about confinement that contains some of the album’s most immediate lyrics: “I could not sleep, thinking you were keeping someone else’s pillow warm.” These moments of candidness are welcome, especially when they’re funny (“Have you considered maybe his phone just died?” she quips on “Turquoise Walls”).
While many breakup albums explore the distance between the euphoria of love and the devastation of it ending, My Echo mostly sits somewhere in the middle. The album’s opening lines—“I don’t know where I am going/But I got you by my side”—are bittersweet, tinged by Veirs’s sly sense of dramatic irony. Soon after, plaintive strings emerge, setting the tone for a mournful, grandiose album that never materializes. Instead, track two, “Another Space and Time,” is a sonic outlier, embellishing bossa nova with glitchy electronics and lyrics about ditching the internet for “peace of mind.” It’s a diversion, a vacation to a California that isn’t on fire (one of the album’s many eerily portentous details—though any album about loneliness and destruction could be said to have predicted the events of 2020).
Veirs looks to paintings and sculptures for guidance and solace at key points on My Echo. She also displays a similar relationship to music on “Burn Too Bright,” which is about the death of musician Richard Swift, and on the dirge-like “Brick Layer,” which mentions the late Jason Molina. On the standout “All the Things,” Veirs announces that she’s a poet and, on a chorus that could be her artist’s statement, says, “All the things I cannot hold/I cannot save.” To Veirs, artmaking is a means of preserving memories of loves, people, and moments lost. While these things fade, her art doesn’t. Against a backdrop of hopelessness brought about by personal heartbreak and global disasters, My Echo is an act of self-preservation.
Label: Raven Marching Band Release Date: October 23, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Matt Berninger’s Serpentine Prison Is an Easily Digestible Solo Debut
The album is an enjoyable, if predictable, outing from an effortlessly reliable songwriter.3
The National spent the 2010s pushing the boundaries of their music, allowing for nervier, more impressionistic sounds and experimentations with song structure. Many of these evolutions are indebted to the far-reaching influence of members Aaron and Bryce Dessner on the stalwart indie band’s songwriting. But something about the National’s subtle brand of rock, lead singer Matt Berninger’s buttoned-up baritone, and the band’s sardonic lyrical ennui has prompted certain critics to label their music as “boring.”
Serpentine Prison, Berninger’s solo debut, is likely to spark a similar debate. The album distills the singer-songwriter’s work with the National down to its barest form, as it mostly revolves around an acoustic guitar or piano and Berninger’s signature vocal style. The result is a pleasant, if undemanding, album that diverges from the National’s more experimental recent releases, 2017’s Sleep Well Beast and last year’s I Am Easy to Find. But while nothing here is as exciting or memorable as anything the National has released in the last 15 years, Serpentine Prison is an enjoyable outing from an effortlessly reliable songwriter.
Berninger seems to thrive under these lower stakes, as many of the album’s songs evoke a wistfulness missing from his work with the National. The sentimental “Distant Axis” finds his usually biting lyrical deadpan replaced with a certain kind of longing: “I feel like I’m as far as I can get from you,” he sleepily sings on the track. And on “Oh Dearie,” Berninger shows off his penchant for richly drawn downtrodden narrators. His hushed final lines—“I don’t see no brightness, kinda starting to like this”—stand in contrast to the song’s acoustic lullaby quality, an understated but welcome variation of his standard form.
Booker T. Jones’s production brings ornate dimensions to these songs. This isn’t a particularly orchestral album, but the way that judicially placed drums and softly struck keys ring against Berninger’s deep vocals makes it sound like the songs are reverberating throughout a theater full of rapt listeners. When the songs take on added flourishes, like the lush brass arrangement that appears halfway through “Take Me Out of Town” or the string solos that punctuate key moments in “Collar of Your Shirt,” they swell organically with the rest of the arrangements.
These moments of indulgence are helpful in diversifying Serpentine Prison’s tracklisting, which often falls into a monochromatic haze of slow, easily digestible sounds. Another such indulgence comes in the form of a duet on the album’s best track, the bluesy “Silver Springs,” featuring Gail Ann Dorsey in a beautiful back-and-forth with Berninger. Dorsey, who was previously featured in the National’s triumphant “You Had Your Soul With You,” steps in to interrupt what otherwise would have been the album’s loneliest song, the track’s chanting hook enlightening a straightforward, almost juvenile kind of isolation: “They’ll never understand you anyway in Silver Springs,” Berninger and Dorsey sing in unison.
Much of the rest of Serpentine Prison fails to engage the listener as effectively as “Silver Springs” does. These songs easily fade into the background, not unlike those found on so many adult contemporary-influenced singer-songwriter albums. But while Serpentine Prison may invoke familiar accusations of dullness, it’s refreshing to hear Berninger’s disaffected songwriting style take on a more grown-up perspective.
Label: Concord Release Date: October 16, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Annie’s Dark Hearts Dives Into the Past with Both Regret and Wonder
The album sounds like the soundtrack to an imaginary teen drama co-directed by John Hughes and David Lynch.3.5
Norwegian pop singer Annie’s Dark Hearts is, per the artist herself, “a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.” Throughout the album, her first in over a decade, Annie paints nostalgic, richly detailed narratives filled with road trips, fairgrounds, and idealistic young love—all set to jangly, atmospheric soundscapes that feel like they were lifted from some imaginary teen drama co-directed by John Hughes and David Lynch.
Annie broke out in the mid aughts with cheeky, indelible dance-pop like “Chewing Gum” and “Heartbeat,” but Dark Hearts luxuriates in an unapologetically moodier palette. The closest the album gets to a dance-floor filler is “The Bomb,” whose anxious mantra of “S.O.S.” and samples from the 1988 apocalyptic thriller Miracle Mile are backed by a shuffling breakbeat and Angelo Badalamenti-style synth washes. “They’re dropping the bomb/So put a beat on,” Annie sings, resigned to a fate of partying until the end of days.
The rest of Dark Hearts is decidedly more wistful, as Annie reflects on lost loves, family cycles of dysfunction, and her hometown of Bergen, Norway. Film references abound throughout, including more of those cool, cinematic synths on “The Untold Story,” in which Annie’s ethereal but detached vocal evokes that of Lynch muse Julee Cruise, and David Cronenberg’s Crash, which serves as the basis for “American Cars.” The latter details the hazards of a directionless romance, suggesting what it might sound like if Lana Del Rey dropped her indie beat-poet shtick and leaned fully into synth-pop.
Producer Stefan Storm outfits Annie’s bittersweet reveries with big, bellowing drums and textures derived from pitch-affected vocals. On “Mermaids Dreams,” Annie’s voice is bent and distorted, beckoning like a siren from beneath waves of reverb, and her recollections of fleeting physical ecstasy on “In Heaven” are accompanied by mournful, tentatively plucked guitars. The songs leap from genre to genre, sonically tied together by their connections to the past: “The Streets Where I Belong” suggests the small-town tributes of Springsteen as sung by an anonymous dream-pop chanteuse, while the poetic “Corridors of Time” and the deceptively jovial “It’s Finally Over” channel classic pop modes like doo-wop and ‘50s girl groups.
Stripped of these thematic threads or Storm’s inventive studio tricks, Annie’s wisp of a voice can easily float away from the listener. “Forever ‘92” falls flat in its attempts to summon the spirit of the titular era, and the drifting, Sade-esque rhythm of “Stay Tomorrow” isn’t robust enough to anchor the song’s theme of “sailing away.” That’s partly why 2004’s Anniemal, with its innovative production and impeccably crafted hooks, remains such an enduring and satisfying pop debut. In these dystopian times, it’s easy to long for the infectious dance-pop of that album or Annie’s other past releases, but Dark Hearts opts for a different kind of escape. Ten years on from her last full-length album, the singer is reckoning with the present by diving headlong into her past with equal parts regret and wonder.
Label: Annie Melody Release Date: October 16, 2020
Review: 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s Savage Mode II Is a Dark, Robust Sequel
The album is a ratification of “bigger and better,” an example of steady improvement through impeccable craft.4
“Are things better or worse the second time around? Can we really do anything more than once?” intones actor Morgan Freeman early on in Savage Mode II. The album answers affirmatively, in the form of a robust and deeply enjoyable sequel to the 2016 collaboration between rapper 21 Savage and producer Metro Boomin. Freeman’s contributions, especially a delightful rejoinder on the midpoint interlude “Snitches & Rats,” are performed with a mock gravitas that 21 Savage and Metro Boomin frame with equal parts levity and seriousness.
The principal focus of Savage Mode II is Metro Boomin’s production. As a teenager, the knob-twirling wunderkind ditched school to revolutionize trap music, providing stellar beats for Atlanta eccentrics-cum-marquee stars Future and Young Thug, refining the excesses and strange outlier sounds of Southern hip-hop into his own tasteful brand. “Rich Nigga Shit” has the feel of a live band, with peppy synths and fiddle intermingling with exciting freshness while a subtle but dynamic bassline mimics an analog instrument, recalling the sinewy work of both Thundercat and the Internet. The dazzling “Glock in My Lap,” co-produced by Southside and Honorable C.N.O.T.E., boasts a host of moving parts, including squealing violins, the rattle of a tiny cowbell, something resembling a kazoo, and the low rumble of shredded bass.
21 is more often than not the stabilizing force around which Metro paints and creates elaborate designs. As he frequently reminds us, the 27-year-old Atlanta MC has a real claim to legitimacy in his gangsta raps. “I grew up ‘round drugs, sex, and violence,” he tosses off on “Slidin.” (He’s suffered a number of untimely losses of people close to him, often in his presence, including brother Taylor “Tayman” and close friend and associate known simply as Larry, both of whom are eulogized on Savage Mode II’s ornate album art.) 21’s dark, foreboding presence and tone are borne of an early acceptance of death’s omnipresence and randomness; he lays down spiky bars with a sneering swagger but also a pointed humbleness.
In places on Savage Mode II, the rapper succeeds in breaking out of his typical stable of themes and narratives around gunplay, drug deals, smoking weed, and sexual trysts. On “My Dawg,” he reflects on the tragedies that have dotted his lifetime, including a 2019 ICE arrest in which his birthplace and visa were contested. He’s heavy-hearted and thoughtful, a register he’s confidently grown into since arriving on the scene as primarily a horrorcore rapper. His flows aren’t remarkably diverse, but he always spits with precision, and his speed of delivery on “Many Men” and “Brand New Draco” is impressive.
It’s Metro, though, who elevates 21’s stories to something approaching greatness. The producer samples very carefully, using a snippet of Diana Ross’s “I Thought It Took a Little Time (But Today I’m In Love)” on “Runnin,” the wisps of the vintage cut nudging each line forward. He has a finesse for texture and atmosphere, employing the sound of a scratchy vinyl on “Runnin” and “Said N Done,” a static-y beat on “RIP Luv,” and the solemn piano riffs that were the driving instrument on the more minimalist Savage Mode. This sequel is a ratification of “bigger and better,” an example of steady improvement through impeccable craft.
Label: Epic Release Date: October 2, 2020 Buy: Amazon