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Indie 500: 2008 Drive-Bys and Endgame

The curious Mr. West’s folie de grandeur didn’t, as initially widely predicted, blow up in his face.

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Indie 500: 2008 Drive-Bys and Endgame
Photo: Def Jam

According to a quick check, this column has now been up 22 times since October 2007, which indicates that the month-long gaps between installments are no longer the anomalies I was hoping they would turn out to be and pretty much have become the norm. This means we’re into February and I’m now, at this very second, wrapping up 2008, by which I mean I’ve given up on my completist efforts. Below you’ll find a fairly anal-retentive collection of odds-and-sods from the year, mostly for my future benefit more than any kind of relevance. (I ran out of steam entirely on this house-cleaning effort—sorry anyone who badly wanted to know what I thought of Van She—so there’s also a “Regrettably unremarked upon” list below all that [hat-tip for the phrase to Noel Murray’s most awesome “Popless” project].) Normal service will resume shortly.

Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping: Skeletal Lamping:2008 music :: Synecdoche New York:2008 film? Kevin Barnes’ follow-up to the surprisingly accessible Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? is a monolithic, near-hour slab of disconnected ideas within a conceptual framework probably only Barnes fully comprehends. Forget segueing one element into another: Barnes doesn’t mind juxtaposing Bernard Herrmann synth-strings against faux funk with minimal turnaround time. Discrete pieces of hookiness vie against lyrically-centered dirges (and dirges are what they are, regardless of how upbeat they are); much of it is no fun, and what fun there is is subsumed in the overall narrative slog. Barnes is so unyielding the single comes last on the album. For all this we apparently have Georgie Fruit to thank, Fruit being Barnes’ new alter-ago (“a black man who has been through multiple sex changes. He’s been a man and a woman, and then back to a man. He’s been to prison a couple of times. In the 70s he was in a band called Arousal, a funk rock band sort of like the Ohio Players.”). We also have Fruit to thank for Barnes’ newfound fascination with blunt sexuality, all in the name of shaking up staid ol’ indie rock. (You may also like to know that Barnes is a self-acknowledged Bataille fan.) “I wanna turn you on / I wanna make you cum 200 times a day” blurts the aptly named “Gallery Piece” (maybe Barnes is slyly acknowledging that his “confrontational sexuality” is as hackneyed as a stale conceptual art piece, but somehow I doubt it). There’s dozens of such moments on the album; trouble is, I can’t tell how different that is from an undersexed 13-year-old’s musings (or an oversexed grad student’s), or what I’m supposed to learn from it. (Barnes is still funny: a throw-away I enjoy is “You’re the only one I would roleplay Oedipus Rex with” on “Plastis Wafers.” But he follows that up with “I want to know what it feels like to be inside you.” Oh, I get it now! It’s about sex!) I took up and sort of encourage the Synecdoche challenge; this I’ll have to pass on though. The work to make it all fit together just isn’t worth it for me. Grad literature majors with an emphasis on challenging heteronormative sexuality (or just excited to hear songs that use “phallocentric”) should have a blast though.

Portishead, Third: Hm. #2 album of the year, huh? Certainly Portishead deserve some form of gold star for staging a much-delayed comeback as worthy of respect as any serious album by a fresh new band, and god knows they’ve shown considerably more staying power than, say, The Prodigy (or Massive Attack, for that matter). Even at their bleakest, Portishead always retain a sense of the hypnotic, which is true here as well no matter how minimal they go: “Silence” cuts itself off at a moment when things threaten to get lush, but they’ve already proven in the past they can take things back to pretty if they feel like it. “Nylon Smile” ends with Beth Gibbons singing “I never had the chance to explain exactly what I meant.” So then: deliberate incompletion is our main thematic register, if not exclusively so. “We Carry On” lives up to its title for 6:26, though it peaks with a gorgeously intense acceleration about 2:30 minutes in. It ends, like many of the tracks, playing out a fierce rhythmic groove to its logical conclusion. Early reviews played up how “scary” the album is, which is all relative: compared to Dummy, sure, but we’re still not talking late-period Scott Walker here. I’m limited to abstract comments because this is mostly a very intelligent album that’s very absorbing but kind of leaves me cold. Someone made a decision to let Gibbons’ voice get more curdled and less cooing-centric, which is a brave choice but has the side effect of highlighting the dourly simplistic lyrics, which is frankly a bad idea. Best track: “The Rip,” featuring a bravura, minute-plus extension of one held vocal note without any change in volume or pauses for breath, which is obviously impossible, thereby undercutting the up-to-then airy feel.

Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak: The curious Mr. West’s folie de grandeur didn’t, as initially widely predicted, blow up in his face. If anything, it blew up in Axl’s: in the final indignity of Chinese Democracy’s lengthy saga, Axl’s endless labor of love (metal’s very own Smile!) was handily outsold (in its initial week by a ratio of roughly 2:1) by an album recorded in under two weeks, give or take however long it took West to mess around with additional elements and mixing afterwards. For once the stories surrounding the album might be almost as interesting as the finished product (normally not the case with West), and there seems to be no end to the bizarro shit connected with it: people complained about Kanye’s apparently godawful, un-AutoTuned performances on SNL, but even his Letterman “Love Lockdown” performance featured him contorting in skinny jeans in bizarre and frequently painful-looking directions, appearing for all the world like some kind of emo James Brown, or a less spastic Thom Yorke.

I could talk about this stuff all day, but that’s persiflage. West got away with the arrogance of a quick album entirely in the mode of the widely-hated (though not by me) AutoTune about his break-up and mom dying (in other words, things of interest to roughly no one besides himself) because—despite the fact that he keeps reminding people of it—he’s a staggeringly talented musician whose fundamental instinct for instantly catchy and lush melodies never deserts him. 808s & Heartbreak is, at the very least, slightly better than Celebration: for all its feel-bad vibes, it’s not as self-consciously light (Celebration was fun, but it had the least replay value of any West album—there just wasn’t much there there) and it’s, somehow, more fun. It’s a little drawn-out towards the end—I enjoy the endless, three-minute ominous outro of opening “Say You Will,” which somehow leads into “Welcome To Heartbreak”’s ominous synth intro, which by that point is freakier than, say, any Tangerine Dream ‘80s score (note: this is an entirely specious comparison.)—but the vamping at the end of “Bad News” is pretty dull and Lil’ Wayne’s continuing verbal scat fetish almost sinks “See You In My Knightmares.” But most of it is surprisingly good fun, and “Street Lights” is a strong contender for best Sappy Ballad That Works of the year. My only real complaint is that this is the first time I’ve completely tuned out what West is saying: these are some of the dullest, least insightful or clever things he’s ever come up with. Good thing the tunes are so strong.

Truckasaurus, Tea Parties, Guns & Valor: How to describe this? Truckasaurus are a collective from Seattle who build electronica out of antiquated video game systems and other musty gear. They use monster-truck imagery and wrestling footage in their videos. Their last.fm (presumably ripped straight from some press kit or other) says that “fishing vests, trucker hats emblazoned with bald eagles, and American flags-as-capes are the fashion de rigueur for this crew.” They’re not, in short, my usual listening fare. I can’t really claim, after three listens, that I can really tell the tracks apart—all I know is that “Super Copter” samples the sounds of (presumably) a TV show I’ve never heard of called Airwolf and then covers the theme song, which comes out sounding like the funnest cheesy ‘80s TV theme ever—but it’s a warm and pleasant album nonetheless, albeit without any particular highlights, which always makes it difficult for me to evaluate things. Pretty much half of the “album” is actually remixes, so if you want a brief primer on what’s happening electronically in the NW (a very specialized interest, to be sure) this is probably a decent place to start. “Knuckle Buckemruff (Basic Remix)” proves Aphex Twin is alive and well and chopping up ambient strings in the NW; etc. etc. This has been my annual underqualified excursion into contemporary electronica.

Bonnie ’Prince’ Billy, Lie Down In The Light: BpB is generally pretty hit-and-miss for me album-wise, so I’m not terribly surprised or bothered by the fact that he followed the sporadically transcendent The Letting Go (and excellent covers EP Ask Forgiveness, plus at least two demo/live things I haven’t bothered to keep up with) with the mostly unengaging Lie Down In The Light, though I’m surprised it was generally received as one of the best things he’s done in years. I listened to this two or three times without it making a real impression, so I played it again while reading the Pitchfork review, which seems more like some kind of detailed instruction manual on which instrumentation to listen for in each song than anything. It didn’t really help: it’s factually correct that a clarinet comes in during “For Every Field There’s A Mole” or woodwinds en masse on “(Keep Eye on) Other’s Gain,” but it doesn’t really help push the songs out of sunburned stasis. The general feeling is of an album that doesn’t want to do the hard work of tension-building before offering relief and hope at the end, so it just goes slack and uninflected from the beginning. But I’d like to say sincerely nice things about the first two songs: “Easy Does It,” the right kind of ramshackle, pseudo-spontaneous fiddle-inflected trot, and the grinding duet “You Remind Me Of Something (The Glory Goes),” which benefits much from a continuously expanding arrangement that starts just with guitar and vocals and manages to make the addition of percussion and two violins midway in count for as much as possible. It got stuck in my head a week after I’d listened to it for only the second time, so I’m not real inclined to question it. Next time, Mr. Oldham.

Department of Eagles, In Ear Park: I flubbed this one initially, writing it off as Grizzly Bear-lite when it’s really a sneaky, infiltrate-your-brain grower nearly on par with The National. DoE is partially masterminded by Grizzly Bear member Dan Rossen, which explains the similarities, which are deceptively close at first. What they share is a firm allergy to full-on traditional everyone-at-once assault: you’ll never hear a one-two drum beat, two guitars and a bass all working in concert in service of a hook. (Also, tremulous vocals I can take or leave.) Grizzly Bear, though, likes to digress and amble before building to moments of unexpected intensity: it takes a bit of work to get used to, but they use song structure as so much connective tissue to make highlights even more intense. Department of Eagles feels similarly about the instrumentation thing, but they still adhere to fairly compact structural forms, which means they’re a bit more fun to listen to and definitely a little less work. They have a song called “Classical Records” where they ask “Do you listen to your classical records any more?” I suspect the answer, for them, is no but they used to be quite familiar with them. At least I don’t know how else to explain “Teenagers,” which is all gauzy in-studio band except for an exceptionally clear piano on the chorus, which plays two chords each ascending three octaves, clearly mic’d and overall sonically and melodically suggestive of a piano concerto, possibly by Tchaikovsky. (The chord changes on “Herring Bone” are freakily close to a romantic lieder too.) DoE take this potentially messy fusion of intelligences and make it not just admirable but fun, which means I like them more than TV On the Radio.

Fujiya & Miyagi, Lightbulbs: I’m probably more entertained by the Krautrock-for-dummies stylings of Fujiya & Miyagi than I should be. Though Lightbulbs isn’t as strong as Transparent Things (the monotony of cranking out 11 songs in the same mode—the closer is the opener, chord-wise, just sans vocals, which inadvertently sums it up), it has its moments: opener “Knickerbocker” is as propulsive and whisper-centric as anything they’ve done (I applaud the band’s continuing commitment to deliberately obfuscatory stream-of-consciousness tangents, which creates its own delirious kind of logic: “Vanilla strawberry cherry knickerbocker / I saw the ghost of Lena Zavaroni.” When I looked her up, I got a valuable historical lesson. Also: “We’ve got no room for Technicolor / Emeric Pressburger said to Diedrich Knickerbocker.” Ha etc.), and downbeat “Dishwasher,” with its stand-up bass opener and unexpectedly slack rhythms, suggests a way out and direction to head next. Even if they become one of those bands good for only two songs per album—and those two songs sound like everything else they’ve previously succeeded at—I’ll always be happy to hear from them.

Fucked Up, The Chemistry of Common Life: As far as things I don’t really care about but which I don’t really mind either, hardcore is a prime example. Fucked Up’s break-out disk has been compared repeatedly and inaccurately to Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come; it’s missing both the strident anarchist lyrics and the sense of musical play Refused indulged in. (That’s one of the few truly loud albums I adore.) Fucked Up alternate pummeling passages with flute solos, drone-y interludes (“Golden Seal”) and other self-consciously diverse frippery that never coheres convincingly for me. I can totally understand and sympathize with someone’s urge to get pumped up by singing along to growly loud music, but it’s just not my thing (aside from “Twice Born,” which screams “Hand up if you think you’re the only one”; what follows is irrelevant, but it’s a nice dose of FUCK YOU I WON’T BE EXCLUDED that I guess is hardcore’s original purpose). I say this, however, a bit sheepishly, given that Fucked Up give entertaining interviews and also don’t seem to take it personally if you dislike them, and have a pretty big tent for collaboration; witness this frankly adorable clip of Fucked Up rocking out with Ezra from Vampire Weekend (!). Godspeed merry gentlemen.

The Bridges, Limits of the Sky: The Bridges are a family band, four of whom are named Byrd, which is just about a perfect coincidence. They’re Christians making secular pop music, and they’re really into Fleetwood Mac. Lead song “All The Words” is mostly perfect, four minutes of shamelessly over-the-top three part harmony and soft-rock piano; this works. The rest of the album isn’t really my thing; Matthew Sweet may be a power-pop god to many, but he’s always been a little same-y for my taste, and as producer he drags The Bridges through the same idiom over and over again, and it’s one (‘70s-influenced rockin’) I prefer to dip into sporadically rather than sit down with over the course of a whole album. (You know what this actually sounds like to me? The last two depressive Cardigans albums.) But hey, if this sounds like your kind of thing, dig in; it’s well-tuned all the way through. Should they last, they’ll always be a singles band to me. Probably.

Parenthetical Girls, Entanglements: Apparently one day Zac Pennington discovered sex and found out that sometimes people have sex and then feel guilty and lustful and hysterical, so he formed a band so he could sing in a quavery voice about creased sheets etc. Like Rivers Cuomo’s Pinkerton-era angst, I can’t really claim to be on the same wavelength. Talented guy, lots of neato arrangements—he sure knows what to do with a string quartet and doesn’t just use it for generic prettiness—but the only song I can really get behind is his cover of “Windmills of Your Mind,” because it’s the only song with an excellent arrangement (it turns into a tango grind) yet without lyrical hysteria. Grow up and report back IMO.

Rivers Cuomo, Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo: I interviewed Mr. Cuomo a while back, and for prep, I blasted through his two much-acclaimed volumes of miscellania, and they’re indeed pretty excellent; II trumps the first volume handily. I’ve never been anything more than a casual Weezer fan; they have some really fantastic songs and a lot of mediocre and clunky ones, but I can’t deny that for people my age, Weezer seem to be the fucking Rolling Stones. (I.e., they won’t go away even though they probably should at this point, they have a successful touring fanbase, and pretty much everyone 30 and under seems to know “Buddy Holly” et al. by heart.) Alone II begins with the goofy brass serenade “Victory On The Hill” and segues into a lot of mostly really fun, power-chord heavy angsty: “I Want To Take You Home Tonight” is exactly what you think it is (“I probably won’t see you no more” etc.). I’ve always felt mixed about Cuomo’s lyrics—sincere, sure, copping his lyrical moves after Brian Wilson’s model, but sometimes stupidly so (there’s a confessional song called “I Was Scared”)—but Alone II is mostly pretty tasty rocking-out regardless, mixed with sporadic weirdness (excerpts from the legendary lost Songs From The Black Hole space opera, which I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing it never happened; the excerpts here sound remarkably like Alex Chilton’s experiments in arranging 17th-century arias for full band, and that’s not a good thing) that keeps things lively just by breaking up the monolithic sound approach. Highlights: a cover of “Don’t Worry Baby” that sounds exactly like what you’d imagine and “Can’t Stop Partying,” which is obviously the songwriting collaboration of the year. Jermaine Dupri, master of perfectly crafted R&B vapidity, handed off some typical in-da-club-with-Patron-and-babes lyrics to Rivers, who undercuts the whole thing by turning it into a minor-key dirge, complete with ominous VU organ hum. We’re dangerously close to Dynamite Hack “Boyz N Tha Hood” territory here, but this is no joke: Cuomo uses Dupri’s perfectly catchy words to propel his moody song forward. It’s not subversion, it’s synthesis. Well done Mr. Cuomo.

Empire of the Sun, Walking on a Dream: Sometimes you should just cut your losses and listen to the singles. Empire Of The Sun is a collaboration between two pop-inclined Australians: one is Nick Littlemore of Pnau (no clue), and the other is Luke Steele, a sort of Aussie Anton Newcombe. At least 10 people have come and gone through The Sleepy Jackson, including Steele’s own brother (!); for what, exactly? One excellent guilty pleasure of an album (2003’s Lovers, which is all derivative hooks that stick) and one overblown mess (Personality, which had none). Steele believes he’s some kind of god on earth, when he’s really just a very talented pop scholar. Empire Of The Sun have a full-length album, sure, but I’ve gone through it a few times and it all tends to melt into sludge. Stick with much-feted single “Walking On A Dream” and “We Are The People,” two neo-disco affairs that will never leave your head until you get sick of them. By the time his career is over, Steele will at the very least have a killer best-of compilation somewhere in him.

Vivian Girls, Vivian Girls: A certain kind of music critic has a drooling Pavlovian reflex to girl groups (there’s no other way to explain the Pipettes, frankly), Jesus And Mary Chain-fuzz, self-consciously crude garage rock, low-fi mock-four-track recording, anything that flaunts its brevity, and/or any combination of the above. Hence, Vivian Girls; they’re certainly not bad, but I don’t really have a reflexive response to any of those elements. Vivian Girls pretty much do what they promise to do, which is give you 10 songs in 21 minutes, fuzz it out and sound vaguely snotty/sweet at the same time. I’ll never understand why some people go crazy for this stuff, and I’m sure they’ll never understand why overorchestrated bombast holds a special place in my heart. Really, you don’t even have to listen to the album to predict how you’ll feel about it.

Giant Sand, *ProVISIONS*: By all reliable accounts, Howe Gelb’s been mining his own distinctive brand of spaghetti western-damaged country-rock with remarkable consistency since 1982. In between, he does minor little miracles like providing backing for the lovely Ms. Neko Case (his 2006 solo album ’Sno Angel Like You has the excellent “Howlin’ A Gale,” which is my only other real context for him). This is the first time I’ve engaged with his real claim to fame, and I’m certainly duly amused. “Ready to roll,” growls Gelb Johnny Cash-style to kick off “Can Do,” a dark sort of country rumble, then navigates the lonely ballad “Out There” with equal aplomb. I can’t quite put my finger on Gelb’s vocal style—it’s somewhere between conspicuously-accented baritone crooning and zonked-out carny barker—or the micro-genre shifts he makes from song to song; it’s all one idiom, broadly, but distinguished by little touches from one song to another. (One alarming stand-out: the skronking brass breakdown on “World’s End State Park,” which isn’t that far from free jazz.) I need some more time with Giant Sand’s back catalogue, but I’m duly bemused.

Dominique Leone, Dominique Leone: My official submission for Most Overlooked, 2008. Leone is a former Pitchfork writer, which presumably is at least part of the reason this was barely reviewed; Pitchfork themselves did, and noted that “the majority of Dominique Leone is sunny pop, and as such suffers a bit from over-consistency.” In whatever universe they live in this may be true, but I’m pretty sure a lot of people would find this completely unbearable, which is pretty much the opposite of pop. (It also contains a 13-minute suite not for the faint of heart.) Leone sings in a constant falsetto over skittery keyboards and prefers atonal hooks to simple melodies; at best, he’s appealingly chromatic. XTC has to be cited, but invoking Prokofiev will give you a better idea of what’s actually going on here. Maybe. I find all this immensely appealing, but, as my friend said “Great. Just what we need. XTC with more pretensions.” This is definitely music-critic music—hermetic influences, visceral kick predicated upon your fondness for what it’s constructed out of, and it would annoy hypothetical listeners at least as much as The Fiery Furnaces. Approach with caution.

Listened to, regrettably unremarked upon: Boduf Songs, Danny!, Wale, Monkey, Times New Viking, Cut Copy, Giant Sand, Jeremy Jay, Max Tundra, Van She, Sebastien Tellier, Amadou & Mariam, Deerhunter, Dj/Rupture, Air France, Carrie, Johnny Flynn, Gentlemen Jesse & His Men, PAS/CAL, Quiet Village, Van She, The Last Shadow Puppets, Hercules And Love Affair, The Rosebuds, Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron & Fred Squire, Guillemots, Shearwater.

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Review: Joji’s Nectar Creates a Mollifying Vibe That Feels Removed from Reality

The album is tantamount to the relatable but rote sadness of a Twitterdecked epigram.

2.5

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Joji, Nectar
Photo: Damien Maloney

George Kusunoki Miller’s successful rebranding from the uncouth YouTube memelord known as Filthy Frank into chart-topping artist Joji speaks to the appeal of his sulky, hi hat-accented R&B, which is tailor-made for a Gen-Z audience that came of age during the trap wave guided by such brooding auteurs as Drake and the Weeknd. On his 2018 debut, Ballads 1, the Japanese-American singer’s heartsick lamentations blended together in a mass of chilled-out piano and sleepy falsetto, but at the time it seemed that Miller, stripped of his outrageous internet persona, lacked an artistic identity. With his follow-up, Nectar, Miller flaunts improved vocals and expands his sonic palette with the accouterments of synth-pop and alternative rock, but he comes up short of filling that void.

The album’s opening track, “Ew,” finds Miller exploring the uncomfortable feelings that arise from losing in love. A cascade of piano arpeggios and clouds of sentimental violin shore up ruminations such as “Teach me to love just to let me go” and “I can’t believe that I’m not enough.” “Gimme Love” is as pleading as its title suggests, while on “Run,” Miller confronts an evasive lover, smoothly shifting between morose belting and light-as-air head voice. Glimpses of idyllic love are momentary, their inevitable end always in sight, as on the doting “Like You Do,” where Miller worries, “If you ever go, all the songs that we like will sound like bittersweet lullabies.” At the risk of wallowing, he braves such powerlessness, which similarly informed the best tracks on Ballads 1.

But while the subject of Miller’s intense focus hasn’t changed since his last album, his music’s sonic reach has expanded on Nectar—at least to the extent to which he’s assisted by featured artists. An outlier in Joji’s discography, the Diplo-produced “Daylight” is a soaring, summery post-breakup anthem. Taking singer-songwriter Omar Apollo’s lead, Miller settles into a soul-adjacent groove on “High Hopes,” and experimental producer Yves Tumor leaves his fingerprints all over the glitchy, distorted “Reanimate.” Throughout, the album’s collaborations come off less as inventive genre-bending and more like a hesitation to commit to a genre. What’s more, Miller’s presence on these songs doesn’t display the range of a chameleonic workhorse so much as relegate him to second-in-command.

On his own, Miller is comfortable rinsing and repeating, soporifically drifting over three-minute-long verse-chorus structures. With the exception of the Brockhampton-esque “Tick Tock,” which is enlivened by an off-the-wall sample of Nelly’s “Dilemma,” the songs unspool uneventfully, founded on hazy synths and hollow drum machines. At an excessive 18 tracks, the album ends up feeling like a big-budget version of the nondescript, vaguely hip-hop-flavored study mixes that proliferate on YouTube. This is perfect background music for anyone wishing to emulate those videos’ studious anime girls—which is to say, Nectar is palatable enough to summon a mollifying “vibe” yet uninvolved enough to ensure that listeners maintain their focus on the task at hand.

Miller’s transparency remains his greatest strength. On “Modus,” he seems to address the failures and numbing effects of antidepressants: “I don’t feel the way they programmed me today.” On the page, this lyric’s forthrightness could have the potential to draw blood, but Miller’s unexpressive delivery has a dulling effect. Clearly, Miller doesn’t balk at transporting listeners to his lowest moments through his lyricism, but his placid performances and dime-a-dozen soundscapes fail to do the same. Nectar largely feels removed from its inspiration in reality, so that it’s tantamount to the relatable but rote sadness of a Tweetdecked epigram, the equivalent of a half-hearted “it be like that sometimes.”

Label: 88rising Release Date: September 25, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Sufjan Stevens’s The Ascension Aims for Great Heights but Often Gets Lost

The album is only partially successful at maintaining the singer’s impeccable songwriting.

3

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Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension
Photo: Sacks & Co.

Sufjan Stevens has never shied away from big ideas. From 2005’s massive, baroque opus Illinois, to 2010’s bombastic Age of Adz, to 2015’s achingly personal Carrie and Lowell, the singer-songwriter never seems afraid to go all in on a sound or feeling. Throughout the last two decades, Stevens has churned out intermittent masterpieces, all of them taking on vastly different sonic sensibilities, and his ability to surprise in every conceivable mode has become, perhaps, his defining characteristic as an artist.

So, ironically, Stevens’s turn toward an almost entirely electronic-based approach with The Ascension, his first album in five years, doesn’t come as a shock. Age of Adz, after all, incorporated programming and synthesizers into its explosions of impressionistic noise, but the expansive electronic soundscape that Stevens goes for here is a more complete transformation from his established sound. The album, however, is only partially successful at maintaining Stevens’s impeccable songwriting through this sharp transition.

A few too many of the songs on The Ascension get lost in the album’s overwhelmingly dense production. Opening track “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” starts off with a dark, thumping beat and sheer, foreboding synthesizers, while Stevens’s opening lines are chilling and silky, momentous and inscrutable: “Move me/Move like the waters I cannot drink/I have lost my patience/Make me an offer I cannot refuse.” He makes subtle manipulations to that line, hypnotically repeating the slippery melody as the song intermittently takes off—at one point, it literally sounds like a spaceship launching—before then collapsing. While the first three minutes of are mystical and memorable, the song quickly begins to meander, sinking into repetitions of the title and, eventually, a pulsing, nonverbal coda.

As the album plays out, this feels less like a fluke and more like a trend; too often, the tracks stretch out far longer than seem necessary. The seven-and-a-half-minute “Sugar” spends its first half building tension with chilly atmospherics and a static beat, but it confuses the use of repetition for a great sense of immersion as Stevens slowly and dramatically unveils one pop bromide—“Come on, baby, give me some sugar”—ad nauseam throughout the rest of the track. “Death Star” doesn’t spend a lot of time getting to the point, but it similarly sacrifices a compelling structure for a repetitive hook and overstuffed kind of ambience.

While The Ascension, as a whole, falls short of Stevens’s best work, there’s still plenty to like here. In fact, one of the album’s flaws is that its most emotionally resonant tracks—like the hazy devotional “Run Away with Me” and the dreamy, starlit ballad “Tell Me You Love Me”—are frontloaded. “Video Game,” Stevens’s take on a straight-up pop song, wonderfully melds his well-trodden examination of religious themes (“I don’t want to be your personal Jesus,” he sings in a nod to the Depeche Mode song) with a strong melodic foundation. “Lamentations,” meanwhile, is less straightforward and better for it, with an off-kilter beat that incorporates garbled vocal sounds, recalling the adventurousness of Age of Adz. These songs are sharper, more succinct representations of what The Ascension seems to be going for—a fully realized electronic reimagination of Stevens’s detailed and maximalist songwriting.

The album’s 80-minute runtime makes some of Stevens’s lengthier explorations feel like more of a slog than they might have been out of context. Indeed, this album is so dense that it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the less immediate tracks reveal their nuance as time goes on. Occasionally, stretching the limits of a song can do wonders, like on the mesmerizing closing track, “America,” in which a repeated line—“Don’t do to me what you did to America”—carries more weight with each utterance. But while Stevens often reaches great heights on The Ascension, he almost as often seems to get lost in his big ideas.

Label: Asthmatic Kitty Release Date: September 25, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Watch: Lady Gaga’s “911” Music Video Is a Surreal Death Dream

The video, directed by Tarsem, finds the singer awakening in a desert surrounded by pomegranates and a broken bicycle.

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Lady Gaga, 911
Photo: YouTube

When Lady Gaga’s Chromatica saw its belated release in May, most of the attention was focused on its collaborative tracks with Ariana Grande, Blankpink, and Elton John. But the dramatic transition from the orchestral interlude “Chromatica II” into the synth-pop dance tune “911” soon went viral on TikTok, making the latter the most-streamed solo cut from the album aside from lead single “Stupid Love.”

Enthusiasm for “911” seems to stem mostly from the transition, but the song itself, which is reminiscent of past Gaga singles “LoveGame” and “G.U.Y.,” touches on the timely topics of mental health and pharmaceuticals. The music video, directed by Tarsem and inspired by Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film The Color of Pomegranates, finds Gaga awakening in a desert surrounded by pomegranates and a broken bicycle. What follows is a surreal dreamscape featuring a bride adorned with a red cross symbol, a woman cradling a mummified body, and Gaga performing jerky choreography while dressed, of course, in a series of elaborate costumes.

The clip, which was shot at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, takes a turn for the heavy-handed when the music cuts out and Gaga begins to tearfully wail straight into the camera. It’s quickly revealed that it was all a death dream, and the characters Gaga saw were, à la The Wizard of Oz, either victims or first responders to a fatal car accident that leaves Gaga on a stretcher and her produce scattered on the street.

Watch below:

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Review: Alicia Keys’s Alicia Strikes a Careful Balance Between Hope and Despair

The album reveals the interconnectedness of the singer’s view of both the world and herself.

3.5

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Alicia Keys, Alicia
Photo: Milan Zrnic

Like the most effective political pop, Alicia Keys’s seventh album, Alicia, couches its socio-political observations in a personal context, unspooling to reveal the interconnectedness of its subject’s view of both the world and herself. The album’s de facto intro, “Truth Without Love,” sets the tone with a vaguely political lament about how the truth has become “elusive.” The focus then immediately pivots, on “Time Machine,” from our post-truth society to self-reflection, or “fear of what’s in the mirror,” suggesting that we seek solace not in nostalgia for simpler times, but in a free mind.

At times, Keys’s optimism about the state of the world feels naïve, like an echo from an era when “hope and change” felt attainable, as on the dreamy “Authors of Forever,” with its persistent refrain of “it’s alright.” But that sense of displaced positivity is offset by the directness with which Keys sings about police violence on “Perfect Way to Die” and so-called “essential workers” on “Good Job,” whose sense of hope is tinged by deep despair. That’s when you realize Keys’s optimism isn’t just Pollyannaish, but the kind you muster when you simply don’t know what else to do.

Still, those two closing tracks’ spare arrangements of piano and vocal—though functionally effective at highlighting the lyrical content—feel too conservative for their chosen subject matter. And when Keys’s signature piano is traded for acoustic guitar, as it is on a trio of back-to-back songs in the album’s middle stretch, the result is neo-soul formlessness that, generously, could be described as “mood music.” Keys’s voice, at least, pairs nicely with that of Miguel on “Show Me Love” and Khalid on “So Done” (by contrast, it’s much too similar in tone and timbre to Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra’s on “You Save Me”).

The most interesting of Alicia’s copious collaborations are the ones that diverge from Keys’s usual style. The dub-infused “Wasted Energy,” featuring Tanzanian bongo flava artist Diamond Platnumz, inspires in Keys a blissed-out vocal performance reminiscent of Sade, and there’s a matter-of-fact plainspokenness to her verses on “Me x 7”—“I should push this three o’clock to no o’clock ‘cause I don’t wanna disappear”—that complements Philly rapper Tierra Whack’s eclectic flow.

Alicia is aptly titled, as it largely returns to fundamentals following the loosely experimental Here. Like that album, this one lacks the powerful hooks of Keys’s earlier efforts, but she strikes a happy balance between the piano ballads that helped make her famous, the kick drum-driven R&B jams she so often gravitates toward, and her more recent inclination for less commercial fare. The Funkadelic-inspired “Time Machine” is simultaneously retro and futuristic, alternately sexy and darkly atmospheric, while “Underdog” and “Love Looks Better” update the “No One” template with an island vibe and swooning synths, respectively. That Alicia is at once her most accessible and forward-minded album in years seems fitting for an artist who, until recently, has made a career out of playing things straight down the middle.

Label: RCA Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Cults’s Host Explores the Seduction and Dissonance of Codependency

The album chronicles the euphoric highs and harrowing lows of a parasitic relationship.

3.5

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Cults, Host
Photo: Maxwell Kamins

For nearly a decade, indie-pop band Cults has dealt in the mystique of contradiction. Brian Oblivion’s lush, bewitching instrumentation and Madeline Follin’s guileless vocals, sung in the style of a Phil Spector girl group, conjure the wish-fulfilling fantasy of teenage daydreams. The twist is that Follin’s lyrics tend to recount the ruins of humanity, from alienation and hopelessness to temptation and amorality. With their fourth album, Host, the duo deploys the same tonal contradiction between music and messaging, this time chronicling the euphoric highs and harrowing lows of a parasitic relationship.

With the detail-oriented obsession of hardboiled detectives, Oblivion and Follin study a romance’s toxic dynamic from multiple angles across the album’s 12 tracks. Buoyed by histrionic, ‘60s pop-style violin stabs, “Trials” sees Follin fretting that her lover is so invasive and consuming that he watches her even in her dreams. But she doesn’t play the damsel in distress, à la the Shangri-Las, for too long. She unflinchingly wrestles with the dark and twisted particulars of desire, as on the sweeping “Spit You Out,” where she purges herself from her toxic partner: “Leech, held on, I spit you out/Cleaned you from my tongue.”

Host is the first Cults album to be recorded primarily with live instruments, but the band’s sound continues to be synth-driven. Showy horns give “8th Avenue” a bluesy hue, while “Monolithic” is bolstered by an imaginative, layered string arrangement. Oblivion’s electronic kinetics, however, are responsible for heightening the songs’ drama and suspense: “Working It Over” and “A Purgatory” both boast hooks that turn anthemic thanks to the application of dense, otherworldly synths. Producer Shane Stoneback resumes his role as the unofficial third member of the group, ensuring that Host, in spite of its dabbling in live instrumentation, springs from the same atmospheric vein as previous Cults albums.

The group toys with unexpected melody formulation throughout the album—a gamble that doesn’t always pay off. On “Honest Love,” Fullin whispers a bewildering, oscillating refrain that grates against the robotic backing vocal. The scattered melody on “No Risk” is similarly puzzling and makes the song’s brief two-and-a-half minutes feel like an eternity. Although the band earns points for risk-taking, their flirtation with dissonance is less inventive than it is jarring, producing songs that amount to Frankenstein-like composites.

The album’s real allure is rooted in Cults’s representation of Stockholm syndrome, that sickeningly insidious pathology responsible for a host’s attachment to its parasite. The intoxicating “Shoulders to Feet” depicts attachment to a toxic partner as an almost spiritual devotion. During the soaring refrain, Fullin sings, full of conviction: “Shoulders to my feet/You’re everything I need.” Just as cult leaders are said to exploit faith, so do parasites with their victims, instilling in them the belief that all is for the greater good. Whereas faith represents salvation for most, Host suggests that it can just as easily be one’s undoing.

Label: Sinderlyn Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Gus Dapperton’s Orca Feels Like the Musical Equivalent of Mystery Meat

These restless songs flit between lapses of focused meditation and fretful apprehension.

3

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Gus Dapperton, Orca
Photo: Jess Farran

Gus Dapperton’s most striking quality is his meticulous appearance, which consists of baggy, thrift-chic clothing, pristinely painted nails, and a sharp bowl cut. But like his scrupulous sense of style, the singer-songwriter’s music has felt too faithful to the inoffensive “good vibes” of bedroom pop. Dapperton’s 2019 debut, Where Polly People Go to Read, offered an attractive amalgamation of alternative pop and R&B but did little in the way of distinguishing him from his peers. Think of Dapperton as an edgier Rex Orange County or a less neo-soul-inclined Omar Apollo.

With his sophomore effort, Orca, Dapperton roughens up the edges of his music, trading in sleek synth-pop slow jams for unvarnished balladry and borrowing more heavily from indie rock. Gone are the tepid Casio keys and muted drum pads of Where Polly People Go to Read, replaced by feverish guitar and warm piano melodies. On his debut’s more sensual cuts, Dapperton’s crooning could veer into nasal; by comparison, he relies on a more emotive rasp here, a texture that pairs well with the album’s downtempo rock. On “Grim,” his guttural screams and thrashing guitar comprise a tortured call and response—a far cry from the icy aloofness with which he approached the torch songs on his last album.

As Dapperton analogizes on the Arcade Fire-esque “Bottle Opener,” he intends to uncap formerly bottled-up feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. But his urge to probe these emotions to their depths is often obstructed by their cyclical nature and his misgivings about the future. “Medicine,” which sounds like a draft out of Ben Gibbard’s songbook, culminates with a collision of staccato piano and insistent acoustic guitar as Dapperton declares, “Every time they try to fix me up/I get addicted to the medicine.” These restless songs flit between lapses of focused meditation and fretful apprehension. It makes sense, then, that they were crafted during short-lived moments of stillness in his life, stolen amid the highs and lows of the singer’s hectic touring over the past couple of years.

Dapperton delivers his stickiest hook to date on “Post Humorous,” a deceptively buoyant song about nihilism. Sun-soaked guitar strumming belies lyrics about losing touch with one of the few lifelines available to a pessimist: humor. Dapperton cloaks his messaging in cryptic imagery, casting self-destruction in a softer glow: “I repress the iridescence of a fire…I confess the incandescence of a dying light.”

Most of the songs on the album, however, lack the gravitational pull of “Post Humorous,” their spare, repetitive structures drifting aimlessly as if in free fall. Dapperton’s sister provides sweet-sounding vocal accompaniment on “Antidote,” but the song’s reverb-drowned verses don’t leave much of an impression and its one-word hook quickly grows tiresome. The chorus of “My Say So,” sung by Dapperton and Australian artist Chela, follows a scattered xylophone melody note by note, giving the track a maddening sing-songy feel.

Orca’s heartfelt ballads improve on Dapperton’s numbed-out debut, but he faces the same quandary as many of his bedroom-pop cohorts: How do you avoid making nondescript, vaguely alternative songs like these sound like something more than the musical equivalent of mystery meat? Of course, there’s an audience for the harmless niceties of bedroom pop—as evidenced by the viral success of BENEE’s Dapperton-assisted “Supalonely,” a frothy ode to self-deprecation. But just like a fleeting Tik Tok video, Orca may be enjoyable in the moment, but it doesn’t have staying power.

Label: AWAL Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Every Song on Taylor Swift’s Folklore Ranked

We’ve ranked all 17 songs from the singer-songwriter’s watershed eighth album.

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Taylor Swift
Photo: Beth Garrabrant

Over the course of the four releases preceding Folklore, Taylor Swift developed a model of pop album that was seemingly machine-calibrated to please just about everyone. For each fan-favorite deep cut (“All Too Well,” “New Romantics”) there was an equal and opposite radio hit (“22,” “Shake It Off”). The conflict inherent in this structure came to a head on last year’s Lover, which produced pop-centric, radio-friendly singles like “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” as well as the rootsier title track and the lilting “Afterglow.”

Folklore, by contrast, finds Swift at her most masterful and consistent, which makes comparing its songs all the more challenging. None of these songs reach overtly for the theatrics or immediate pop appeal of earlier singles such as “Look What You Made Me Do.” Instead, Swift foregrounds her narrative sensibility and her eye for detail, reminding us of—in case we somehow forgot—her voice-of-a-generation status. See below for our ranking of every song on the singer’s watershed eighth album.


17. “Epiphany”

It’s commendable that Swift would take a moment on an otherwise introspective album to pay tribute to essential workers and to remind her listeners to wear a mask. The conciseness with which she draws a parallel between medical professionals and soldiers is persuasive, but the device’s neatness and sincerity can feel a bit simple. Still, on such a consistent album, last place isn’t so much a slight as it is a credit to the rest of the album’s songs.


16. “Cardigan”

For a song about a conventionally comfy piece of clothing, “Cardigan” is surprisingly slinky, its swaying melody and Swift’s gasping vocals elaborating nicely on the dark pop of 2017’s Reputation. The song’s protracted central metaphor, fairy-tale imagery, and idealistic mentions of scars and tattoos risk being uncomplicatedly wide-eyed, but it’s Swift’s established style to employ childlike concepts with a sense of irony. “Cardigan” avoids becoming saccharine when Swift allows it to be sensual, possibly name-dropping one of Rihanna’s steamiest singles (“Kiss It Better”) to seal the whole thing with a kiss.


15. “Mad Woman”

Swift’s most credible expressions of resentment are typically couched in a tangible conflict (“Mean”) or balanced against self-examination (“Innocent”), but “Mad Woman” is a declaration of anger justified mostly by an interrogation of gender norms. Its lyrics about the weaponization of internalized misogyny signal that Swift has grown since she wrote “You Belong with Me” and “Better Than Revenge,” but her best songs are even more nuanced and tangible than this.


14. “The Lakes”

Folklore’s tender, self-referential bonus track reveals an important element of the album’s ethos, namely that Swift aims to be remembered as a poet. She seeks to do so here through meta-poetics, naming writerly forms (“Is it romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?”) and building puns around great writers’ names (“I’ve come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze/Tell me what are my words worth”). The song might skew capital-R romantic (“A red rose grew up out of ice-frozen ground/With no one around to tweet it”), but it’s an affectionately detailed testament to the fact that readers can become writers, and writers can become icons.


13. “This Is Me Trying”

This is one of a small handful of tracks on Folklore that feel less like distinct story beats and more like summations of the album’s broader emotional arc. In fact, “This Is Me Trying” is a fitting coda to Swift’s entire discography, mining both her vulnerability and her ability to do harm on a serene mid-album respite from the lyrical density of “Seven” and “August.” The image of a salt-rusted Swift downing a shot of whiskey between ruminations on her very public youth is jarring next to her self-titled debut, but it feels like an honest comedown from Lover’s shine.


12. “My Tears Ricochet”

Like “Mad Woman,” “My Tears Ricochet” tells one of Folklore’s most straightforwardly resentful stories, this time grounded narratively in the idea of a toxic lover showing up at their ex’s funeral. Jack Antonoff’s production touches are stirring: The sharp beats of strings on the chorus recall the bridges of early-2010s Swift songs, and the warm echo of Swift “screaming at the sky” on the bridge evokes the thrill of “He looks up, grinning like a devil.”


11. “The 1”

As one of Folklore’s peppiest tracks, “The 1” is a fitting opener and a smooth transition from Lover’s effervescence. It tells us immediately that Swift’s preoccupation with regret has lasted since Fearless and Speak Now, but she’s got the age and experience to reassure her lover (and herself), that “it’s all right now.” Whereas heartbreak was fresh and monumental on “Fifteen,” nowadays Swift’s approach to love and dating is candid and mature—but wistful enough to avoid being blasé.


10. “Peace”

“Peace” is among Swift’s most spacious and gorgeous songs, leaving the impression of pillow talk deepened by promises—or threats—of loyalty. While the song deflates somewhat from the predominance of lyrical clichés (“The devil’s in the details, but you got a friend in me,” “I’d swing with you for the fences/Sit with you in the trenches”), Swift delivers every word with intimate urgency. It’s a fitting summation of the tension between the thrill of love and the knowledge that it’s never truly promised, a conflict that’s motivated much of Swift’s music.

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Every Britney Spears Album Ranked

We decided to reevaluate the singer’s discography and discovered that her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear.

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Britney Spears
Photo: RCA Records

Over two decades into her career, Britney Spears is less likely to make headlines for her music than her personal and legal battles, which have resulted in the #FreeBritney movement. So it’s easy to forget that, against all odds, the pop singer has amassed an impressive body of hits—from her iconic debut, “…Baby One More Time,” to later earworms like “Till the World Ends” (see our list of Britney’s best singles here).

With the exception of cult favorite Blackout, Britney has never been considered an “album artist.” There’s nothing more satisfying, though, than someone who forces us to recalibrate our expectations, and Britney did just that with 2016’s Glory: By eschewing EDM and embracing subtler pop and R&B sounds, she made her most daring, mature album to date.

Earlier this year, fans launched another social media campaign, #JusticeForGlory, and the album was subsequently reissued, nearly four years after its initial release, with a new track, “Mood Ring,” previously only available in Japan. We decided to reevaluate Britney’s discography and discovered that, defying yet another expectation, her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear. See below for our ranking of all nine of Britney’s studio albums.



Oops!...I Did It Again

9. Oops!…I Did It Again (2000)

“My loneliness ain’t killin’ me no more!” Britney belts on “Stronger,” referencing a key phrase from her debut single, “…Baby One More Time.” The track is, in retrospect, a standout among Max Martin’s many teen-pop productions from the era, boasting an ABBA-esque hook, robust dance beat, and a menacing foghorn that announced a sexier, more sophisticated, and yes, stronger, Britney. But while the singer’s sophomore effort, the cheekily titled Oops!…I Did It Again, doubled down on the Swedish producer’s formula, it also magnified the worst of both teen-pop’s ticks and Britney’s vocal hiccups. A limp cover of the Rolling Stones’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” makes Samantha Fox’s 1987 rendition sound positively electric, while the molasses-slow “Where Are You Now” and the treacly closing ballad “Dear Diary” could rot the teeth right out of your skull. Sal Cinquemani



Britney Jean

8. Britney Jean (2013)

Designed by committee, with up to six producers and nine songwriters per track, Britney Jean is sonically all over the place, stocked with a mix of the most garish presets from the EDM era and flaccid midtempo pop. The filtered synths featured throughout the album (courtesy of producers like will.i.am and David Guetta) are most forgivable on the catchy “Til It’s Gone,” which is as close as Britney Jean gets to earworms like Femme Fatale’s “Till the World Ends” and “Hold It Against Me.” Lead single “Work Bitch” is the aural equivalent of bath salts, a shrill and mechanical assault on the brain, while “Tik Tik Boom” is by far Britney Jean and company’s most egregious lapse in judgment, with T.I. offering tripe like “She like the way I eat her/Beat her, beat her/Treat her like an animal, somebody call PETA.” Uh, somebody call Tip’s probation officer. Cinquemani



…Baby One More Time

7. …Baby One More Time (1999)

When Britney burst onto the scene with “…Baby One More Time,” her adenoidal, childlike vocals suggested an innocence belied by the image of the then-16-year-old on the album’s cover, kneeling in a short denim skirt, her schoolgirl blouse unbuttoned, her head cocked to the side. Prior to 1998, teen pop had been an innocuous, perennial nuisance, but those big, pounding piano chords and processed squawks of “Oh, bay-ba, bay-ba,” followed by the singer’s full-throated delivery of the song’s hook—“My loneliness is killing me!”—signaled the christening of the genre’s very first Lolita. That the rest of …Baby One More Time plays like a glorified Kidz Bop album is neither surprising nor, frankly, inappropriate. The uptempo highlights—the hit “(You Drive Me) Crazy” and the house-influenced “Deep in My Heart”—feel lyrically and sonically chaste compared to the title track, while the ballads alternate between inane (“Email My Heart”) and interminable (“From the Bottom of My Broken Heart”). Cinquemani



Britney

6. Britney (2001)

There’s a learning curve in pop superstardom and Britney’s development always seemed comparatively stunted, if only because she rush-released three albums in as many years—and all before the age of 20. The media generously, if inexplicably, dubbed Britney the next Madonna, but her interpretations of classics like “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” from 2001’s Britney, lacked the irony and grit of a more seasoned and self-aware artist. The album, her best to date at the time, proved she owed much more to the likes of Paula Abdul and, especially, Janet Jackson than the Queen of Pop. The most successful songs here deviate from the Max Martin formula of Britney’s early hits, including the saccharine disco bop “Anticipating” and the Neptunes-produced “I’m a Slave 4 U,” whose skittering synths and heavy breathing served as a preview of what would become Britney’s career m.o. Cinquemani



Femme Fatale

5. Femme Fatale (2011)

In my review of 2011’s Femme Fatale, I lamented its lead single’s “cheesy pickup lines” and “generic Eurotrash beats and dated trance synths.” By the time the album dropped a couple of weeks later, though, “Hold It Against Me,” in all its generic glory, had burrowed its way into my psyche like a brain-eating amoeba. Released at the height of the EDM explosion, Femme Fatale is, like that single, a gaudy, unrepentant attempt to cash in on a subgenre with a looming expiration date. So it’s no surprise that some of the album’s most enduring tracks pivot back toward Britney’s earlier hits, including the bubbly “How I Roll” and “Trip to Your Heart,” which finds frequent collaborators Bloodshy & Avant seamlessly applying their glitchy, pitch-incorrected synth-pop to the fad of the era. Cinquemani



Circus

4. Circus (2008)

With Circus, Britney dropped the richly self-referential posture she almost reluctantly adopted on Blackout in favor of a far more risky mode: self-actualization. Instead of wallowing in the great drama that was her train-wreck quarter-life crisis, Circus represents the rebirth of regression. It’s a dozen-plus songs of blithe denial—one of which, “Radar,” is curiously recycled from the earlier album—that seems to be saying, “Hey, I’m still young enough to eat hard candy without it being a sad anachronism. So let’s get nekkid.” Biographical details are suppressed in favor of shopping lists (“Lace and Leather”), while confessionals step aside and make way for lewd double-entendres (“If U Seek Amy”). Hell, actual lyrics are eschewed in favor of syllables. Because it’s Britney, however, it all seems to work: Ridiculousness comes naturally, and her cooing break, “Ooh lolly, ooh papi,” on “Mmm Papi” is the nexus of cock-hungriness. If the album is a psychological step backward, well, you can’t say Britney doesn’t sound at home in the womb. Eric Henderson



In the Zone

3. In the Zone (2003)

Britney’s fourth album, In the Zone, found the former pop tart coming of age with a bold mix of dance and hip-hop beats, wiping clean the last traces of her bubblegum past. Britney’s unabashed devotion to dance-pop is, perhaps, the one thing that truly links her to Madonna, who—lamentably—appears on the opening track “Me Against the Music.” Britney beckons to an anonymous dance partner on “Breathe on Me,” exploring the eroticism of restraint: “We don’t need to touch/Just breathe on me.” After a night at the club—and little actual physical contact—she passes out on the couch in the “Early Mornin’” (produced by Moby) and finds some self-gratification on the Middle Eastern-hued ode to masturbation “Touch of My Hand.” Lest you start to believe that the girl who began her career by teasing her barely legal status is finally “in the zone,” “Outrageous” finds her singing “my sex drive” and “my shopping spree” with the same dripping gusto. Cinquemani



Blackout

2. Blackout (2007)

One thing latter-day Britney doesn’t lack is self-awareness. “I’m Mrs. ‘Extra! Extra! This just in!’/I’m Mrs. ‘She’s too big, now she’s too thin’,” she quips on “Piece of Me,” the second single from her 2007 album Blackout. Listening to it now, it’s easy to forget there was anything wrong in her starry world at the time. The album is remarkably cohesive, riding the Timbaland renaissance without the man himself (half the album was produced by Timbo cohort Danja). “Gimme More” and “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” hold their own alongside the likes of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous.” But it’s Bloodshy & Avant who hog the spotlight here, ponying up the beats on the glitchy “Piece of Me”—which sounds like robots hate-fucking—and the spunky, Kylie-esque “Toy Soldier.” “No wonder there’s panic in the industry. I mean, please,” Britney sneers on the former. Was that a sly comment on our misplaced gaze? Cinquemani



Glory

1. Glory (2016)

From Glory’s opening “Invitation” to its closer, “Coupure Electrique,” it’s no surprise that Britney stocks her latest album with expressions of uncontainable horniness. What is surprising is the degree to which her agency in the act is emphasized, and how sex here is rarely an act of exhibition. Songs like “Private Show” and “Do You Wanna Come Over?” yearn for a specific intimacy, a moving expression from an artist whose public relationship with sexuality once seemed disturbingly out of her control. The album’s key lyric comes from the single “Slumber Party”: “We use our bodies to make our own videos.” Glory is an album-length reclamation of Britney’s autonomy. Sam C. Mac

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Review: With From King to God, Conway the Machine Reveals His Humanity

Though the rapper pontificates on his wealth and street cred, the album’s biggest boast is his vulnerability.

3.5

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Conway the Machine, From King to God
Photo: MAC Media

Hip-hop producer Daringer has been the principal architect behind Buffalo rap collective Griselda’s sordid, soul sample-heavy world of coke-slanging and mafioso-style close shaves. But while his grim machinations positioned the crew as heirs to Mobb Deep and the Wu-Tang Clan, his minimal, hook-reluctant beats can at times feel repetitive and dreary. On From King to God, Griselda member Conway the Machine—the group’s self-proclaimed lyrical heart—branches out from Daringer’s grimy style, featuring the producer on only two of the album’s 12 songs. From King to God introduces a dark, understated sheen to Conway’s hard-as-nails boom-bap, while conserving all its original grit.

Griselda’s verses are often peppered with high-pitched, maniacal laughter and adlibs that mimic the sound of a machine gun, and their lyrics trace the rappers’ humble origins hustling on the streets of Buffalo. With From King to God, Conway returns to this familiar street sound but doesn’t constrain himself to it. Throughout, the album’s producers mold their sound to Conway’s vision, not vice versa, their eerie synth lines and varied beats bolstering a sense of impending doom. Travis Scott collaborator Murda Beatz presides over “Anza,” an antsy, tempo-hopping track, while “Fear of God” boasts production from Hit-Boy and a spine-chilling hook from Detroit’s baby-voiced Dej Loaf.

Conway tag-teams with Griselda cohorts Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher on “Spurs 3,” brazenly defending his creative turf: “Ask the homie Wayno and ‘em, they’ll confess/Lotta albums are suddenly startin’ to feel a lil’ more Griselda-esque.” The track belongs to a string of them that glorify Conway and the Griselda name. Yet Conway tackles more expansive matters, like on “Front Lines,” where he envisions himself overtaking the Minneapolis police station that was set ablaze by protestors in the days after George Floyd’s murder.

Though Conway pontificates on his wealth and street cred to figure himself as a god, From King to God’s biggest boast is his vulnerability. Conway’s signature drawl isn’t a stylistic choice, but the result of Bell’s palsy, a condition that paralyzed the right side of his face after a gunshot to the head in 2005. Mortality and loss haunt the album, which is interspersed with monologues from DJ Shay, a producer and mentor figure to Griselda who passed away just weeks ago. “Shit was just starting to get beautiful/I wrote this while getting dressed for your funeral,” Conway reveals on “Forever Droppin Tears.” On “Seen Everything but Jesus,” he eulogizes lost friends and family, including Chine Gun, Benny the Butcher’s half-brother.

Conway’s flow is laidback and assured but occasionally seems too comfortable—too in the pocket of the beat. On “Lemon,” he’s outstripped by Method Man’s elaborate multisyllabic rhyme scheme. But despite his moniker, penning bars straight from the heart is Conway’s greatest strength. What the rapper lacks in flow experimentation and dexterous rhyme-craft, he makes up for with his knack for sincere storytelling.

Label: Griselda Release Date: September 11, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Flaming Lips’s American Head Celebrates Humanity’s Resilience

The album combines childlike whimsy with sober realizations of all the sadness in the world.

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The Flaming Lips, American Head
Photo: George Salisbury

Despite what the Flaming Lips’s kaleidoscopic, neo-psychedelic musical fantasies might suggest, Wayne Coyne spent much of his life deliberately avoiding drugs after witnessing his older siblings—absent access to healthier countercultural outlets in ‘60s and ‘70s Oklahoma City—fry their brains. He apparently conquered that fear around 2012, when he began going through what, from the outside, looked a lot like a midlife crisis—separating from his longtime partner, partying with Miley Cyrus, and bragging about all the acid and molly he was doing. Over the next several years, his once comfortingly wide-eyed explorations of weighty philosophical themes turned distressingly bleak, while the Flaming Lips’s timeless pop melodies and intricate orchestrations ceded to droney noise.

Refreshingly, then, the band’s 16th album, American Head, builds on the return to form that last year’s half-tossed-off King’s Mouth promised. And all it took was Coyne getting back in touch with the part of himself that grew up terrified of his brothers not waking up from their next binge. So while there are copious drug references throughout the album—among the song titles are “At the Movies on Quaaludes,” “Mother, I’ve Taken LSD,” and “You n Me Sellin’ Weed”—they’re all characterized with a sense of awed, even fearful detachment. The album features some of the most personal, slice-of-life lyrics that the fancifully minded singer has ever written: Nearly every song can be traced to a real story about Coyne or his “older brothers and their drug-dealing biker friends,” as he puts it in the album press notes.

Even the silly “Dinosaurs on the Mountain”—which boasts lyrics like “I wish the dinosaurs/Were still here now/It’d be fun to see them playing/On the mountains”—has roots in a specific childhood memory, of gazing up at the mountains from the back of a station wagon. “You n Me Sellin’ Weed” directly references Coyne’s experience as a teenage pot dealer, a phase that may have made him feel “like king of the world” but still left him wishing for “a spaceship coming for us/To take us away.” The raw human element to these stories is underscored by Coyne’s small, quavering alto, which—some Vocoder and pitch-shifting notwithstanding—is largely freed from the shrouds of the studio effects of recent releases.

This is the classic Flaming Lips formula: combining childlike whimsy with sober realizations of all the sadness in the world. The band’s recent work has too often veered to one extreme (the dippy King’s Mouth) or another (the utterly grim The Terror). And though the current incarnation of the Flaming Lips has been together since 2014, and thus responsible for these various digressions, the band has undertaken a sonic overhaul here that matches the emotional, sentimental tenor of Coyne and Steven Drozd’s new compositions.

With a couple of exceptions—like the dark, driving “Assassins of Youth” and the psychedelic “You n Me Sellin’ Weed”—there’s essentially only one kind of song on American Head: the starry-eyed acoustic power ballad. The days when the band would alternate their sweeping, emotional ballads with fuzzed-out rockers and experimental pop songs may be gone, but this album’s relatively clean mixes—populated with acoustic strumming, mellotrons, and melodic, Beatles-esque guitar lines—hearken explicitly and effectively back to the more meditative moments of the band’s golden age in the early-to-mid ‘90s.

One exception is “Mother, Please Don’t Be Sad,” which belongs in the pantheon of classic Flaming Lips tearjerkers alongside “Do You Realize??” and “Waitin’ for a Superman.” The song is based on a story Coyne has told before, most memorably in the documentary Fearless Freaks. Decades ago, he was working as a fry cook at a Long John Silver’s when armed gunmen burst into the restaurant to rob the register. While lying on the ground, assuming this was the end, his thoughts turned to his mother. “It’s only me that’s died tonight/There’s so much you still have,” he assures her on “Mother, Please Don’t Be Sad.” He reminds her to let the dogs out, to take comfort in the love of the still living. It’s quintessential Coyne: a simultaneous reminder of humanity’s fragility and a celebration of its resilience.

Label: Warner Release Date: September 11, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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