I’m probably the only person for whom David Byrne’s 2001 album Look Into The Eyeball was a formative experience, which is kind of a shame. Poised at the odd crossover moment between embracing pop/rock/whatever whole-heartedly and firmly pushing away the classical music I was raised with, Byrne’s with-strings experiment made perfect sense, even if we were seemingly going in opposite directions. (In retrospect, Byrne was obviously preparing me for Andrew Bird; more on this below.)
It was a transitional moment for Byrne too: ignoring the wretched run he’d had in the ‘90s (the nadir culminating in 1994’s self-titled monstrosity, as ugly as its cover), he threw away Talking Heads once and for all. Eyeball was warm, direct, and surprisingly well-crafted. Its follow-up—2004’s Grown Backwards—isn’t half bad either, a considerably more sedate jog through increasingly beefed-up string arrangements: Eyeball is a bit of a chamber music piece, while Backwards is ambitious enough to find Byrne tackling not one but two operatic staples, one a duet with Rufus Wainwright no less.
If all of that’s a tough sell—and most people had trouble with the idea of a newly vital Byrne, as with most solo artists abandoning what made them famous—Live From Austin, Texas might be a good place to start. 13 tracks gives you 6 from the Heads-era catalogue (if you count “What A Day That Was”—technically a solo song, but popularized by its slot in Stop Making Sense), 2 covers, and 4 highlights from Byrne’s solo work. It all hangs together beautifully, integrating Byrne’s new aesthetic into refreshing covers of earlier work, so you can just skip to the back half and hear songs you already like if you’re suspicious of where this is going. Before the strings come in, Byrne works through a few staples, allowing some of the more dated aspects of late-80s production to be sloughed off. Beginning with the first verse of “Nothing But Flowers” solo on guitar, Byrne seems to mean it this time around when he sings “Years ago, I was an angry young man.” Serenity rather than irony’s the new tone of the seemingly satirical post-apocalyptic song (“This was a Pizza Hut/Now it’s all covered with daisies”), which makes a lot of sense: Byrne was the man who moved to shit-tastic New York in the mid-‘70s and promptly advised all his art-school friends to do the same. Ironic about squalor and conflict though he may be, he loves that big-city stuff, and “Nothing But Flowers” seems quite genuine in asserting that he’ll take a parking lot over nature any day, now that nuclear apocalypse is seemingly not quite as relevant.
Sung directly, without production gloss, “And She Was” sounds better than ever; “Once In A Lifetime,” instead of a dutiful slog through an overheard song, is a joyous flashback. It’s Byrne’s one chance the whole night to break out the freaky, silly voices that initially made him the world’s most instantly compelling frontman. The song works well, even without the shock of stream-of-consciousness in the top 40 and the treated Brian Eno production. But things really kick up a notch when the Tosca strings finally show up: their 1:20 intro to ”The Great Intoxication” has no vocals and hardly any percussion. When Byrne kicks in, it’s just him, percussion without a traditional drum kit and Tosca in a serene acoustic landscape. Much of what’s striking about the back half is how little amps are used: Rei Momo highlight “Marching Through The Wilderness” only has an electric bass, with the extensive percussion filling in everything and the strings providing the melody. Never listen to electric guitar if he can help it.
If you’re still not willing to take a chance on Byrne’s recent solo material (and you weren’t one of the many people who heard “Like Humans Do” involuntarily while starting up Windows Media Player on Windows XP—the savviest marketing move imaginable), check out some of the excellent back half remakes: “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” swipes out ‘80s keyboard for an excellent string arrangement, while “Life During Wartime” gets a Motown gloss. If you’re just looking for the novelty-cover-that-transcends novelty, skip to Byrne’s version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which is joyous and soaring and is one of the best kinds of covers, where the original structure is preserved with all the crap peeled away so that a song you grudgingly appreciate when it gets stuck in your head becomes what it should’ve been. (Cf. Clem Snide’s version of “Beautiful.”) With ‘80s-crap-gets-peeled-away, replaced strings and thoughtful percussion, it’s the near-disco classic it always wanted to be. It kind of gives me chills, especially if, like me, technically great but soulless vocalists like Houston—who never miss the big belt and never seem to care what the melody is—scare you. Byrne’s thin, endearing voice is never better than when it’s straining extra hard to go high and hold a note.
On the other side of happy and intricately arranged: “I’ve got nothing that I want to do/more than another sonic fuck you” sings Elliott Smith on “Looking Over My Shoulder,” one of 24 near uniformly impeccable songs from New Moon, the anthology recorded in the period encompassing 1995’s self-titled and 1997’s either/or—i.e., the transitional period between the sparse second album that most non-fans despise (unofficially sometimes referred to as “The Heroin Album” and possibly his darkest album in general), and the prettier, more user-friendly acoustic album that followed and let Elliott pump out something suitable for the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Personally, I love it all, but I thought I’d sated myself on the collected discography in high school—the proper time, really, to listen to the 90’s most talented incarnation of the eternal teenager. For all his musical talent—and the big surprise to me was how exacting these songs are, many of them more melodically fleshed out and complicated than anything on the first 2 albums—Smith’s lyrics alternated between the smart, funny-sad and outright self-loathing, a mixture only to be taken seriously when your hormones are going crazy. To be blunt, it’s got the stigmata of high school all over it. (At least it’s more respectable than my other high school angst staples, Placebo and Travis. Oh well.)
There’s nothing hard to take seriously, though, about the melodic twists and overall excellence on display here. Heavy on the sturm-und-drang of the first three acoustic albums, New Moon’s biggest contribution is letting some of the sunnier acoustic moments out of the vault. Aside from either/or’s “Say Yes,” there’s virtually no upbeat moments before the studio-enabled lift of XO and Figure 8; now, there’s a lot more to prove that Smith didn’t need to rely on his producers to sound upbeat. “Whatever (Folk Song In C)” is anything but the Bright Eyes its title suggests; C Major and endearingly shy, it’s as close to a sunny day song as he ever got. “All Cleaned Out” is practically martial in its grandeur—as huge as the twin-drum kit of “Coast To Coast” in its own way, which is all the more impressive considering it’s just two guitars and Elliott’s characteristic double-tracked vocals, as close as he got to belting it out.
Even more impressive is how full all these songs sound. The common, misinformed rap on Smith is that his first three albums are “poorly recorded,” because they’re full of analog tape-hiss and dead air hanging heavy; on Roman Candle, recorded in privacy on a 4-track, it’s common for the end of a song to be signaled by the cutting off of one layer after another. I can’t help but think it’s deliberate: the studio recordings are as clean as can be, and he could be a notorious perfectionist about tone etc. Personally, I’m pretty sure it’s a brilliant strategy for saving Smith from the death of the boring singer-songwriter, where cleanly recorded guitar and vocals are all you have to occupy you for the album’s length. The sound creates texture, and New Moon confirms how much can be done with, at most, guitar (a very vigorous guitar, with plenty of lower bass lines for bass and complicated melodies and none of the lazy, rote chord-strumming that gives SS’s a bad name), vocals, one bass, half a drum kit, and maybe an organ. Maybe. (This is also why his live bootlegs sound better than most: that audience chatter is almost integral.) Mixed exceedingly well, it’s got the full range of sound from high to low the best bands strive for. I hate to say it, but I think I’m starting to fall back in love with Elliott Smith, even if I don’t think externalized self-loathing is a positive character trait anymore. Here’s hoping the estate keeps the unreleased material coming: I have enough B-sides and live recordings stocked away to know that until, say, “I Figured You Out” is available legally, everyone’s missing out.
Things I’m falling out of love with: Daft Punk, thanks to the inexplicably acclaimed Alive 2007. It sure looks like an awesome party I would’ve loved to been able to afford. I’ll keep it simple: aside from the fact that my computer freezes every time I play it—which I suppose Daft Punk can’t reasonably be held responsible for—this is a pretty lousy live album. Sound-quality wise, it’s only slightly above a bootleg, which I can live with. But it’s a damn long album, and without the in-concert quality of “OH SHIT THEY’RE MASHING UP THAT SONG WITH THAT ONE,” all I really learned is that a lot of Daft Punk songs have pretty similar backbeats, so it’s pretty easy to put them together. I guess sugar rush + sugar rush should = EXTRA SUPER AWESOME SUGAR RUSH, but it doesn’t, not really. Discovery is one of the most perfect albums I know for making me giddy in record time, partly because the songs are so ridiculously excessive and gaudy, and partly because they’re songs. I don’t need to skip to the good parts; they’re all good already. And when you ask me to accept that one of the songs will get better if you isolate a riff and throw in a stupid raspy steam voice rasping “STEAAAAAM MACHIIIIIIIINE”…well, no. Sporadic highlights stick out—I dig the way “Face To Face”’s vocals are put on top of “Faster Harder Stronger Better,” both slowed down, and then sped up until they’re in sync and racing together, so you can hear the BPM increasing bit by bit—but it’s mostly a slog. Buy me a concert ticket already; I will try to repress my sneaking suspicion that all the positive reviews are from happy critics having acid flashbacks.
And one thing I’m glad I did spend the money on: Andrew Bird, for which I will offer a few token notes. Live reviews aren’t really my bag—I hadn’t been to a show since Pitchfork Music Festival this summer—but keeping up with everyone’s favorite Squirrel Nut Zippers-assistant turned only violinist that matters in the pop music scheme seems worth it. A few general notes, seeing as there’s little to be gained from a detailed appraisal of a nearly 2-week old performance:
1. The Beacon Theater has excellent sound and a cool light show, but really uncomfortable seats if you’re gonna be leaning forward for two hours. Seated shows suck in general. Pass next time.
2. Dude knows how to put on a show. By the time he “spontaneously” kicked off his shoes and settled in for the long haul, he had everyone who wasn’t a girl dreamily mooning over his undeniable good looks eating out of his hand.
3. Bird is an interesting violinist: he’s not interested in “good technique” per se—although he’s a very good violinist indeed—and I doubt he could pass the traditional classical music trial-by-fire of, say, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. He hits his notes cleanly and clearly and in tune (although weird fact that you’ll only be able to pinpoint if, like me, you have the fairly useless attribute of perfect pitch: he doesn’t whistle in tune with his violin, which makes things sound subtly off sometimes).
4. Nonetheless—despite the fact that his violin, and its relative novelty in the pop context, have definitely helped make him pretty famous pretty fast—Bird seems kind of minimally interested in playing it. Sometimes he’s got his guitar slung over his back, ready to put down the violin in a second and start strumming. When playing a song like “Heretics,” with no violin, he seemed peppiest: while everyone was wishing they could play a non-traditional instrument and the death of the traditional rock band prayed for by Brian Eno and other progressives, Bird seemingly wishes he could be a guitar star. Weird.
5. The songs from Armchair Apocrypha sound a lot better live; on record, a lot of them seem to be missing the X factor that would make them cohere. But Bird live is a lot different from the meticulous, near-fussy recordings; he has the unnerving habit of rushing through entire lines (generally, the lyrics I’m most fond of), pausing, and then catching back up to the verse by the chorus. The performances are wilder, more intense, occasionally on the border of histrionic before rescuing themselves.
6. Martin Dosh is the most stoic drummer I’ve ever seen in my life. Traditionally the drummer in bands generally resembles Animal from The Muppets; Dosh resembles an unusually talented accountant with perfect posture. He’s awesome.
Review: With High Road, Kesha Finds a Comfortable Middle Ground
The album sets out to prove that people are complicated creatures, capable of being more than one thing.3.5
The opening track of Kesha’s fourth album, High Road, begins with a piano melody in the key of Cheers, followed by a life-affirming refrain about “the best night of our lives.” But, then, “Tonight” abruptly pivots to a flurry of 808s and Kesha’s half-rapped, half-slurred admission that she can’t find her phone. If that sounds awfully familiar, that’s precisely the point. “Woke up this morning, feeling myself/Hungover as hell like 2012,” she quips on the following track, “My Own Dance,” an obvious nod to her breakout hit “Tik Tok.”
If 2017’s Rainbow proved that Kesha didn’t need producer-cum-svengali Dr. Luke to create compelling pop music, High Road is an attempt to show those who lamented her shift away from party anthems that people are messy, complicated creatures, capable of being more than one thing at the same time. The album’s first single, “Raising Hell,” is a gospel-tinged rave-up that provides a bridge between Kesha’s breakout sound and the more reflective, roots-inspired Rainbow. It’s admittedly hard not to long for Dr. Luke’s euphoric EDM hooks, but the album’s ferocious opening salvo makes clear that even when she wasn’t the one navigating, Kesha has always been in the driver’s seat.
By the album’s midpoint, she returns to the heart-on-her-sleeve introspection of songs like “Praying,” even making melodic reference to that momentous single during the coda of the midtempo “Shadow.” The next track, “Cowboy Blues,” is a meditative acoustic ballad that finds the singer examining the ways in which loneliness can cloud one’s instincts (“They say you’ll know when you know/What do you do when you don’t?”), while the country-inflected “Resentment” transcends the genre’s typical narrative of a woman scorned (“I don’t hate you, babe, it’s worse than that”).
From Brian Wilson to Sturgill Simpson to Big Freedia, the guest artists featured throughout High Road are as disparate as the songs themselves. “The Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)” is a silly, vaudevillian rejection of grown-up things, while “Birthday Suit” is pure retro pop, complete with glitchy sound effects inspired by Super Mario Bros. And despite “Ke$ha” receiving a guest credit on “Kinky,” the track is more of a throwback to early ‘90s R&B than to the Auto-Tuned electro-pop of the early 2010s.
Those mottled sounds make High Road Kesha’s least consistent album to date, at least sonically. But there’s a clear emotional through line from the joyous, unapologetic bombast of the album’s first third to the naked vulnerability of “Father Daughter Dance,” in which Kesha deliberates on the absence of a formative relationship in her life (“The worst part of this is I’m not even sad/How do I miss something I never had?”), and the rapture of the gospel-infused closing track, “Chasing Thunder.” With High Road, Kesha has found a way to double back and carve out a comfortable, if not happy, middle ground.
Label: RCA Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Destroyer’s Have We Met Is As Strangely Vexing As It Is Familiar
The album both calls attention to its artifice and proves it can still hold a broad emotional range.4
Dan Bejar insists there’s no deeper meaning to the name Destroyer. In 2016, he told NPR he chose it because “It’s got three syllables, which is good, but it’s still one word, that’s also cool.” And yet, Destroyer figuratively destroys itself every few years: abandoning guitars for electronics, or veering from big-band dramatics to adventures in solitude.
Bejar began Destroyer as a solo project, tracking songs by himself on a basic four-track cassette recorder. His touring band has grown its ranks since then—peaking with the current eight-piece art-rock orchestra—but in the studio, Bejar has occasionally opted to return to the DIY spirit of his earliest work, as he did on 2004’s Your Blues, which was performed almost entirely on MIDI instruments. Destroyer’s 13th album, Have We Met, was constructed similarly, with electronic elements layered on top of Bejar’s basic demos. Not unlike his lyrics—which are the most layered and entertaining they’ve been in years, both dark and funny—the resulting music is as vexing and strange as it is comforting and familiar.
Unlike Your Blues, though, Have We Met features real electric bass and guitar, and the synths are slicker and fuller, landing very far from the chintzy, fake-sounding tones Bejar employed on that album. And the drums on Have We Met are heavier and funkier than on any previous Destroyer album. On “Kinda Dark” and “Cue Synthesizer,” they lock into a dirty stutter, crossing over into hip-hop-like territory and cleverly contrasting Bejar’s relaxed delivery.
Have We Met is perhaps closer in timbre to 2011’s Kaputt, with its angular guitar work, dreamy synthscapes, and Bejar’s detached, lackadaisical vocals. But while the synths on Kaputt are cold and dreary, and distinctly retro, here they’re warm, inviting, and modern, establishing an entirely distinct emotional tone. Swaying reveries like “University Hill” and “foolssong,” which Bejar first played live in 2009, are much sweeter-sounding than any other recent Destroyer songs. “It Just Doesn’t Happen” plays up a similar late-night, neon-lit atmosphere as Kaputt, but the synths here are more evocative of a video game arcade than a discotheque. Even as Bejar calls attention to the artifice of his musical surroundings on “Cue Synthesizer”—“Did you realize it was hollow?” he asks before listing off the culprits of this “idiot dissonant roar”—he proves that artifice can still hold a broad emotional range.
Credit for this should go largely to longtime producer and bassist John Collins, who mostly pieced together the final tracks himself on top of Bejar’s home demos. (The only personnel on Have We Met are Collins, Bejar, and guitarist Nic Bragg, whose distinctively wobbly playing has been perhaps the sole consistent element in Destroyer’s ever-shifting sound since he joined the band in 2002.) To Collins’s credit, the album certainly sounds more like the work of a full band than that of someone seated alone at a keyboard, iPad in hand. Still, the arrangements are inevitably more utilitarian and less focused on band dynamics than any of Destroyer’s post-Kaputt efforts. This is vital, because for the first time in too long, those arrangements sound like they’re built to follow Bejar’s voice and lyrics rather than the other way around.
Bejar the enigmatic, drunken poet has for several Destroyer albums now taken a back seat to Bejar the singer and bandleader. And while the singing on Have We Met remains tastefully restrained, lyrically there are glimpses of the younger, brasher Bejar here. He makes himself known a verse into opener “Crimson Tide,” the sort of rambling stream-of-consciousness epic that used to constitute almost the entirety of Destroyer albums. It’s a quintessential Bejar track, largely for its liberal use of comfortingly well-worn lyrical tropes: the direct juxtaposition of the poetic with the flippant and coarse; conscious contradictions like “I was like the laziest river/A vulture predisposed to eating off floors/No wait, I take that back”; direct references to other songs, both those of others and his own, including allusions to, of all things, “The Gambler,” as well as at least two other Destroyer tracks.
The rush of catharsis “Crimson Tide” provides is rivaled a few songs later by “The Raven,” which opens with its own slippery couplet—“Just look at the world around you/Actually no, don’t look”—and proceeds to careen through delightfully idiosyncratic territory, from a “city of dying the embers” to a “petite terror train” and “the Grand Ole Opry of Death.” Despite the apocalyptic imagery, the tone is invigorating. “It feels so good to be drunk on the field again,” Bejar intones, his voice quivering with the kind of ardor that he rarely draws for his singing anymore. Like most of his lyrics, if there’s a literal meaning to the line, it’s impossible to parse, but the implication is clear enough: Bejar is feeling the groove again.
Label: Merge Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: With Manic, Halsey Fearlessly Inhabits Her Myriad Parts
The singer’s refusal to pick a lane is what makes the album her most compelling effort to date.4
In a recent interview, Halsey, née Ashley Frangipane, lamented the confusion with which her music and public persona are sometimes met in the press. “Like, how fucking immune are you to the human experience?” she scoffed, incredulous at the implication that she has—or indeed is even able—to choose just one version of herself. Certainly, at least over the past year, her music has defied easy categorization; from the trap-influenced “Without Me,” to the punky “Nightmare,” to her guest appearance on K-pop group BTS’s vibrant “Boy with Luv,” she’s slipped from genre to genre effortlessly. It’s this refusal to pick a lane that’s precisely what makes Halsey’s third album, Manic, her most compelling effort to date.
The album’s shifting production style allows Halsey the space to inhabit different parts of her personality and even invite them into conversation with one another. Opening track “Ashley” gets the album off to a confessional start: “I told you I spilled my guts, I left you to clean it up,” she sings, and it’s hard not to feel like that should be in the present tense, so affected is her open-throated, emo-inflected delivery. “Clementine” is no less raw, but here she creates a subtler atmosphere, though no less disquieting as a cyclical piano line rings out like the melody of a music box as she breezily delivers the lyric “I don’t need anyone/I just need everyone and then some” and her more distraught backing vocal echoes the sentiment.
Rarely does Halsey let herself off the hook across the album’s 16 tracks, confronting even the most damaged parts of herself head on. But she doesn’t let the men who did the damage off scot-free either. “I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you/’Cause you can’t love nothing unless there’s something in it for you,” she sneers on the country-inflected “You Should Be Sad,” and there’s no shortage of derision on “Without Me”: “And then I got you off your knees/Put you right back on your feet/Just so you can take advantage of me.”
The most arresting moments on Manic come via openhearted storytelling, as on the gorgeous closing track, “929,” which is composed of a series of vignettes as Halsey recounts the precise time of her birth, her teenage years in a “cheap apartment,” the most exploitative moments of her career, and the hope that her father will finally pick up the phone. It’s a welcome moment of quiet reflection after 15 tracks of shifting perspective, tone, and genre, as it sees Halsey expose herself with precision and purpose. Bearing your soul publicly is fraught with complications—“I should be living the dream/But I’m livin’ with a security team,” she sings ruefully on “Still Learning”—but it does seem, for Halsey, to be a truly productive way of figuring out what makes her complicated in the first place, and how to embrace those complexities without fear.
Label: Capitol Release Date: January 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Eminem Drops Surprise Album and Anti-Gun Violence Video for “Darkness”
Music to Be Murdered By was released unexpectedly, accompanied by a music video for the track “Darkness.”
Less than 17 months after his last album, Kamikaze, swooped in out of nowhere, Detroit rapper Eminem, né Marshall Mathers, has dropped another surprise album. Music to Be Murdered By was released unexpectedly tonight, accompanied by a music video for the track “Darkness.”
Directed by James Larese, the clip was seemingly inspired by the 2017 Las Vegas gun massacre, as Eminem narrates the disturbing inner thoughts of an isolated, mentally ill mass shooter. The video ends with the message, “When will this end? When enough people care” and a call to register to vote.
The 20-track album features collaborations with Ed Sheeran, Juice WRLD, Q-Tip, Anderson .Paak, and more. It also includes a song called “Stepdad,” about the rapper’s abusive stepfather.
Music to Be Murdered By is out now on Shady/Aftermath/Interscope Records.
Review: Selena Gomez’s Rare Is Spotty in Its Attempts at Authenticity
Despite glimmers of authenticity throughout the album, it’s hard to discern who Gomez is, musically or otherwise.3
Selena Gomez is no stranger to reinvention. After making the tricky transition to maturity with a starring role in Harmony Korine’s drug-fueled 2013 film Spring Breakers, the former Disney sweetheart stepped out as a bona fide solo pop star with Revival, an album chockablock with R&B and dance-pop gems.
On her long-awaited follow-up, Rare, Gomez attempts another about-face, shedding the empowerment anthems and EDM-infused bangers of Revival and aiming for a quirkier brand of pop and, purportedly, a new sense of candor. But even though this is the closest she’s invited us into her headspace, it still feels like we’re being held at arm’s length. Despite glimmers of authenticity, it’s hard to discern who Gomez is, musically or otherwise.
Notably, it seems like Gomez is finally making music she can fully get behind. The album’s four-and-a-half-year germination seems to have heartened the singer to incorporate more vulnerability into her songs. Whereas on Revival, Gomez tiptoed around emotional rawness, there are moments throughout Rare in which she fully inhabits it. On the stirring lead single, “Lose You to Love Me,” the most evocative vocal performance on the album, she dons the clarity of hindsight, which yields uncompromising truths: “I needed to hate you to love me.”
Elsewhere, attempts at emotional authenticity miss the mark. The platitude-ridden “People You Know” suffers from distracting Auto-Tune, which produces a distancing effect as Gomez offers up such banalities as, “People can go from people you know to people you don’t.” More insightful is “Cut You Off,” a midtempo meditation on protecting oneself from a toxic relationship; the chorus’s ascending melody are redolent of Taylor Swift’s best pop incursions, but the track is sanitized to the point of being forgettable.
Rare continually teases intriguing forays into leftfield pop, but so many of the album’s experiments come off as just that, without ever crystallizing with memorable hooks. Gomez’s breathy vocal on “Crowded Room,” assisted by a melodic verse from rapper 6lack, lands on just the right side of fragile, but the track’s innocuousness lets the singer float away completely. The pulsing bass of “Fun” calls to mind her excellent, one-off 2017 single “Bad Liar” (included on some deluxe versions of this album), but the chorus rests on a scant four words—“You look like fun”—and a flimsy guitar riff. On the title track, Gomez makes it known to a distant lover why she’s rare and deserving of attention, but based on her performances throughout Rare, it’s dubious as to whether she’s convinced of that or not.
Label: Interscopes Release Date: January 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon
The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs
We count down Janet’s 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites.
Nothing summarizes Janet Jackson’s contributions to pop music any clearer than the interlude that serves as the transition between Rhythm Nation’s opening trio of socially conscious tracks and the largely feel-good love songs that follow: “Get the point? Good, let’s dance.” She’s gone through many phases (industrial trainee, man-conquering vamp, spiritual gardener, 20-year-old), but span her entire career and those stages seem less clearly delineated than most comparable icons’ respective chapters, with symmetrically uniform peaks and surprisingly rare valleys. With Janet, the pleasure principle has always served as her musical conscience, and it’s guided her through a career near unparalleled in its ability to serve unfussy pop confections. Unlike that of big brother Michael or her rival on the ‘80s and ‘90s dance charts, Madonna, there ain’t no acid in Janet’s delivery, just bubblegum. The nasty boys of Slant have decided once and for all to count down her 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2015.
Technology is the thrust of 2008’s infectious and ridiculously weird single “Feedback.” With it, Jan got her 4/4 back, equating her vagina to a subwoofer (and, notably, her clit to guitar strings) and her swagger to a heavy-flow day. The beats are spare but oppressive, the synths scratchy and impatient, the perfect accompaniment for the singer’s libidinous frustration. Sal Cinquemani
24. “All for You”
Hard to tell which was bigger: this comeback disco anthem (which sat atop the Billboard charts for a lusty seven weeks in 2001) or the size of the impressive basket the guy who caught Janet’s eye apparently had (and upon which, according to the lyrics, she later sat atop). What was striking about “All for You” at the time wasn’t its unabashed frankness (the entire song is Jackson basically knocking the listener upside the head with the promise that she’s not hard to get), but the atmosphere of airless frivolity around it. It’s a sex jam that sounds like a carnival ride. Henderson
23. “Funky Big Band”
Realness, as anyone who’s seen Paris Is Burning knows, presumes aspirational designs among those who espouse it. “Funky Big Band” grasps that harshly glamorous concept right from its opening interlude, “The Lounge,” which drops listeners into the illicit milieu of a password-only speakeasy before reminding them, “You’ve got to be real/If you want to hear the funky big band.” From its tangy clavinet doodles to its roaring Lionel Hampton-sampled jazz loops (producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had clearly spun Soho once or twice), “Funk Big Band” is the militant bastard stepchild of the zoot-suit antics of “Alright.” Henderson
22. “Velvet Rope”
A song about self-empowerment, featuring a children’s choir and violin solo to boot, smacks of inevitable mawkishness. But with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s thoughtful production, Janet’s unpretentious delivery of even lyrics like “One love’s the answer,” and violinist Vanessa Mae’s edgy solo, this potential schmaltz-fest became a thoughtful theme-establishing introduction to Janet’s most personal album to date. Cinquemani
Throughout Janet’s imperial phase, the template called for each of her albums to close out with a suite of love ballads. Skippable as any of them may have seemed when all you wanted to do was follow Janet’s own mantra “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” the best of them—like this sultry, intimate invitation from one isolated soul to another—expose themselves at the most unexpected moments. Just like sex. Henderson
Review: Poppy’s I Disagree Obliterates the Niceties of Genre Convention
The album tosses the singer’s pop aesthetic into the shredder with heavy metal and industrial rock.3.5
In many ways, Poppy was an inevitability: a YouTube personality turned pop singer, portrayed by Moriah Rose Pereira as a cyborg controlled by “them”—referring, presumably, to co-creator Titanic Sinclair and the duo’s actual or imagined corporate overlords. From Alice Cooper to Lana Del Rey, there’s a storied history of musicians concocting personae for public consumption, but Pereira has taken the gimmick to absurd, if predictable, lengths, conducting entire interviews as a soft-spoken, obedient automaton that seems culled directly from a straight male fantasy. Poppy’s early YouTube videos were glorified ASMR porn, featuring the singer sensually licking cotton candy from a stick and blankly answering a disconnected rotary phone, an ominous male voice—presumably Sinclair’s—occasionally posing questions to her like a sexual predator might to a captive.
For Pereira and Sinclair, with whom the former recently cut ties, Poppy is a commentary on social media and a satire of how we use the internet more broadly. But Pereira’s decision to finally break character during an interview with NME last year represented a more intriguing development, conveniently doubling as an extension of the Poppy narrative, wherein she becomes sentient, and a reflection of Pereira’s ostensible real-life struggles as a female artist.
Though Poppy’s third album, I Disagree, was largely co-written by Sinclair, it’s littered with allusions that telegraph Pereira’s creative and personal emancipation from him. “Godspeed to the radio star/Stop the beat when they take it too far,” she delicately warns on “Sit/Stay.” Opening track “Concrete” is about the killing of one’s former self—“Bury me six feet deep and just cover me in concrete, please/Turn me into a street”—while “Nothing I Need” and the title track find her reevaluating her own values and those of others, respectively. “If only all of you could see the world I see,” she sings on “I Disagree.”
The album also marks a sonic rebirth for Pereira. Poppy’s first two efforts were defined by bubble-gum pop filtered through the lens of J- and K-pop, which, in turn, are influenced by American music, resulting in a re-translated sound that felt at once familiar and alien. I Disagree is decidedly “post-genre,” tossing Poppy’s pop aesthetic into the shredder with heavy metal and industrial rock, previously only hinted at on the tail end of 2018’s Am I a Girl? “Concrete” shifts abruptly between tempos and genres, between commercial jingles and Beatles-esque chamber-pop, all shot through with roaring electric guitar riffs. That might sound incoherent, but it serves as a bold, deftly executed mission statement.
Inspired by a quote by British writer Alan Watts, “Bite Your Teeth” boasts I Disagree’s starkest contrast between thrashing verses and harmonious hooks, with a dreamy, almost ‘70s AM radio-style bridge and a moody synth-string coda. The glitchy “BLOODMONEY,” which takes no prisoners in its skewering of religious hypocrisy, likewise juxtaposes abrasive noise-pop with sugary melodies, punctuated by blood-curdling screams.
These individual elements aren’t new to pop music—the album at turns evokes Rammstein, Sleigh Bells, and Lady Gaga—but it’s regurgitated and repackaged in a way that manages to escape derivativeness. Where Poppy does sound overtly imitative is on “Anything Like Me,” which hews extremely close to Billie Eilish’s brand of avant-pop—ironic given that the song is a response to an artist with whom Pereira and Sinclair have been engaged in a contentious copyright battle. The track, though, is more sonically expansive than Eilish’s work, an exhilarating guitar solo bumping up against the softly strummed acoustic guitar of the bridge, during which Pereira generously offers, “Love is never-ending in me.”
I Disagree’s final two tracks present a more promising direction forward for Poppy as she, presumably, continues to shed the artifice of her persona. Thematically, “Sick of the Sun” and the two-part “Don’t Go Outside” share a distinct sense of despondency: The former details the singer’s self-isolation, her unexpectedly emotive vocals couched in hazy, reverb-soaked guitars, while the latter shifts the focus to the world outside (“The TV says we’re out of time/Suck the fear in through your eyes”). The second half of “Don’t Go Outside” reprises several songs from earlier in the album, including the Marilyn Manson-indebted “Fill the Crown,” the sole track on I Disagree that veers into caricature. A lyric from that song—“You can be anyone you want to be”—takes on more potent significance when repeated here, the dream-pop approach charting a middle ground between the sugary dance-pop of Poppy’s earlier efforts and her nascent metal shtick.
Label: Sumerian Release Date: January 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Field Music’s Making a New World Plays Like a Strangely Funky History Lesson
The band’s latest is an ambitious concept album about the aftermath of World War I.3.5
David and Peter Brewis of Field Music have carved a unique niche for themselves in the U.K. music world, outlasting many of their buzzy British peers. Their music has always stood out from the post-punk revival of the mid-2000s thanks to an intellectual underpinning and less emphasis on massive shout-along choruses. That tack continues on Making a New World, an ambitious concept album about the aftermath of World War I. Even if you don’t feel the need to follow along with their historical lyrics, these 19 short songs are an entertaining, unpredictable listen.
This isn’t the first time Field Music has delved into the past or current events: Previous projects have included a soundtrack for John Grierson’s 1929 silent documentary Drifters, following a day in the life of a fishing fleet, while their last album, Open Here, was inspired by their hometown of Sunderland becoming the first city to declare its vote in favor of Brexit. The band’s interest in WWI dates back to 2016, when they collaborated with electro-pop duo Warm Digits and the Northern Sinfonia orchestra on the soundtrack for Esther Johnson’s film Asunder, a historical retelling of the war’s effects on a small English town.
Making a New World was born out of another WWI project, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. The initial inspiration for the songs here was an image from the museum’s collection that used “sound ranging” to capture vibrations of gunfire. Like a seismograph, this visual technique’s peaking lines artfully represent the bullet-filled sounds in the minute leading up to 11 a.m. on November 11th, 1918, and the moment of smoke-clearing silence after the war’s end.
Each of the album’s songs focuses on a different facet of WWI, unfolding in chronological order like a series of art-rock audio plays. “Coffee or Wine” sets the scene with a serviceman’s journey home to a post-war world, as its narrator stomps through off-kilter piano pop. “A Change of Heir” uses spooky slide guitars as an introduction to Dr. Harold Gillies, whose pioneering skin grafts for injured soldiers led to some of the world’s first gender reassignment surgeries. “Only in a Man’s World” is a feminist outcry against the taxation of sanitary pads, set to jittery disco in the tradition of Talking Heads, while the warped grooves of “Money Is a Memory” most closely recall late ‘70s oddballs Godley & Creme.
The album marks the first full-band release from Field Music since 2007’s Tones of Town and the quartet jumps between musical styles adeptly. The Brewis brothers’ vocals sound as effortless as always, delivered with a laidback breeziness belying the songs’ sophisticated melodies. They’ve clearly studied the music of their predecessors with the same enthusiasm as WWI textbooks, and never has a history lesson sounded so strangely funky.
Label: Memphis Industries Release Date: January 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon
The 100 Best Music Videos of the 2010s
In many ways, the rebirth of the music video set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly.
The 2010s saw the continued democratization of media: more content, more ways to access and consume it, and, as a result, a more diverse audience. In many ways, the rebirth of the music video, formerly the withering marketing tool of what Jack White might refer to as the “corporation,” set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly. Choose what you want to watch, when you want to watch, and how often. Even more so than film and TV, though, short-form videos have the potential to provide an almost real-time commentary on the politics, technologies, and even sexual mores of the times. Of course, MTV programmers have been replaced by YouTube algorithms, which, when they’re not sending you down a rabbit hole to white supremacist screeds and 9/11 conspiracy theories, force-feed us what’s already popular. The decade’s most viewed music video, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” has been streamed 6.5 billion times in two years. In fact, none of the clips in YouTube’s Top 10 came even close to cracking our list of the 100 best music videos of the 2010s. The more things change…. Sal Cinquemani
100. Disclosure featuring Lorde, “Magnets”
Lorde has never been anything less than uncomfortably mature for her age, but the music video for Disclosure’s “Magnets,” a standout cut from the U.K. garage duo’s Caracal, transforms the gawky teen into a bona-fide femme fatale. The clip, directed by Ryan Hope, finds Lorde cavorting with a married man while his meek, buttoned-up, and sometimes bruised wife cautiously prepares his morning coffee and stares blankly out the window of their L.A. manse. “Let’s embrace the point of no return,” Lorde urges as she zombie-struts in her usual way down a glass-encased hallway in a patent-leather trench coat and blood-red lipstick. She gives the wife a knowing glance and pushes the man, tied to a chair, into the pool. Then, of course, she sets the whole thing on fire. Cinquemani
99. Alex Cameron, “Miami Memory”
Having met while making a mockumentary-style video for the song “Marlon Brando,” Alex Cameron and Jemima Kirke continue their fruitful collaboration with “Miami Memory,” at once a Technicolor dreamscape and a fearlessly intimate exploration of their dynamic as a real-life couple. The first third of the video seems to cast Kirke as a beautiful object—Cameron films her receiving a massage, then watches her dance—but the remaining two-thirds reset the balance. Kirke matches his gaze with hers, taking the camera over for herself, directing him, taking her turn to watch him dance. Anna Richmond
98. Gwen Stefani, “Make Me Like You”
Target teamed up with Gwen Stefani for the first music video ever created on live TV, which aired during the Grammy Awards in 2016. The video, which opens with the No Doubt singer awakening after an ugly car crash and being primped for a first date, offers audiences the chance to bask in its creators’ virtuosity, as well as the thrill of watching them fall on their faces—figuratively and literally. In fact, Stefani and longtime collaborator Sophie Muller, who directed the clip, were clearly betting on the latter sensation. During the song’s vocal breakdown, Stefani’s glittery orange high heels are swapped for roller stakes by a stagehand whose fingers momentarily peek into frame, and Gwen is whisked off to an adjacent roller rink, where she’s cleverly swapped for a body double who takes a hard spill. It’s quickly revealed, of course, that Stefani is safe and sound in the center of the rink, preparing for the video’s impressive final aerial shot. Cinquemani
97. Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop”
If the surreal images in “We Can’t Stop” were simply a tribute to youthful hedonism, it would be among the decade’s most pupil-dilating eye candy, but deconstructed down to its macabre symbols—edible skulls, blow-up dolls, taxidermia—it’s one of the trippiest, scariest videos of the 2010s. Cinquemani
96. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild”
Though it was filmed in the Czech Republic, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s breathtakingly shot “No Church in the Wild” plays as a broader comment on the civil unrest that’s enveloped both the Middle East and director Romain Garvas’s native Greece, as well as the violent conflict that seems to be roiling beneath the surface in places as distant as Wall Street and Madison, Wisconsin. Cinquemani
95. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”
The lead single from Katy Perry’s fourth album is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan. Whether the song, co-written by Sia and produced by longtime Perry collaborator Max Martin, is an endorsement of self-care or a critique of escapism in times of political upheaval is up for interpretation. What is certain is that a track with a hook that implores listeners to “Come on, turn it up/Keep it on repeat” had better deliver the goods, and this one most definitely does. Cinquemani
94. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”
The ambitious “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Zachary Hoskins
93. Chairlift, “Met Before”
Jordan Fish’s video for Chairlift’s “Met Before” gives viewers the freedom to dabble in some alternate outcomes for a trio of uncertain science grads caught in a potential love triangle. In having users act as the powerbrokers for all sorts of subtle decisions, Fish has essentially constructed a Choose Your Own Adventure for the YouTube generation. Kevin Liedel
92. St. Vincent, “Los Ageless”
Annie Clark portrays Tinseltown as a vivid dystopia in “Los Ageless,” lampooning the superficiality of the showbiz capital as she endures a cosmetic procedure that pulls at flaps of excess facial skin, à la Brazil, or standing, Barbie-like, next to a shredder that destroys the word “No.” A woman’s legs stretch out through a TV screen and writhe before a quivering Clark; she swallows otherworldly, undulating organisms; the lime-green slime of a foot bath appears to gain sentience and climb her leg—all striking images that take to outlandish extremes the very real absurdity of adherence to oppressive beauty standards. Josh Goller
91. Grimes featuring Janelle Monáe, “Venus Fly”
Adorned in some sequences in regalia that appears paradoxically both indigenous and extraterrestrial, while dressed as a steampunk-meets-Soul-Train getup in others, Janelle Monáe joins Grimes, who feverishly hammers away on drums, dons black angel wings, and bathes in crude oil in this slow-motion-heavy video for “Venus Fly.” Both directed and edited by Grimes, the video subverts fairy-tale princess tropes with the two artists cast as fierce warriors who shatter mirrors, devour apples, stomp roses, rip apart pearl necklaces, and wield flaming swords. Goller
90. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “In Good Faith”
A simple song for dark times, “In Good Faith” is nothing short of a secular hymn. Will Oldham sings about small moments of grace and nature: rocks being shaped into diamonds, people helping one another through each day. The accompanying video is similarly gentle, with a documentary-style look at a group of people making their way through the world. We see them in homes, tending crops, generally filling their time with the tasks that constitute the bulk of life on Earth. The climax shows most of the characters singing in Sacred Harp choirs, joyfully joining voices to celebrate the possibility one finds in the sacred and infinite. At a time when religion divides people as much as any other force on the planet, the song and the video gesture to a world where our shared humanity joins us more than our ideas divide. You can’t go five minutes on the internet without seeing someone accused of lacking it, but “In Good Faith” celebrates the possibility that we might all make it out alive. Seth Wilson
89. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”
The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Alexa Camp
88. Scott Walker & Sunn O))), “Brando”
In her video for “Brando,” filmmaker Gisèle Vienne isolates a child’s glimpse of a disturbing image and lingers on it, suspended in perilous motion—a cinematic motif comparable to Scott Walker & Sunn O)))’s knack for stretching a single reverbed-out twang to a repetitive standstill. This is a story of trauma told with the fewest possible strokes, wherein the dew in the mountain air feels fresh even as you realize you’re witnessing a long-buried memory play out for what must be the hundredth time. Vienne closes with an isolated, insinuating close-up that silently tells you everything you need to know. Steve Macfarlane
87. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Chance the Rapper may have come up as the acid-addled suspended school kid, but at heart he’s the coolest nerd in the drama program. The homespun stage sets of “Sunday Candy” pair with daring juke choreography for a heartwarming performance of the endearingly welcoming song. The fact that it was all done in one take gives it the exhilarating thrill of a barely rehearsed school play, executed perfectly just in time for opening night. James Rainis
86. Destroyer, “Kaputt”
In capturing the playful spirit of Dan Bejar’s air-rock odyssey, director Dawn Garcia has rewritten the manual. Clearly, if you want to make a good music video nowadays, it needs to include soft erotica, greasy teenagers, false oases, and flying whales. Liedel
85. Earl Sweatshirt featuring Vince Staples & Casey Veggies, “Hive”
If Tyler, the Creator’s videos are all about overblown, colorful images in line with OFWGKTA’s Loiter Squad aesthetic, Earl’s “Hive” acts as a counterbalance, more in touch with the menacing Odd Future of a few years ago. The minimalistic, barely lit setting presents Earl and his crew as a hooded force lurking in the shadows, and suggests that Odd Future—and rap music—doesn’t have to be loud and abrasive to be threatening. Kyle Fowle
84. Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”
As if the threat of having a scathing pop song written about them weren’t enough to make the world’s eligible young bachelors think twice about shacking up with the country starlet turned pop star, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” portrays the singer-songwriter as, to quote the song’s lyrics, “a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” In the clip, directed by Joseph Kahn, Swift and model Sean O’Pry spend a romantic weekend at the former’s lavish mansion. When she suspects him of texting another woman, she flies into a mascara-streaked fit, taking a switchblade to his portrait, a torch to his clothes, and a golf club to his sports car. By the time Sean discovers a hallway lined with the defaced paintings of Swift’s former suitors, it’s obvious Swift has also taken a skewer to her (perhaps unjustified) reputation. Cinquemani
83. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”
Claire Boucher’s video for “Flesh Without Blood” doubles as an ambitious look-book, a compendium of Grimes’s many sides: blood-stained 19th-century socialite, brooding gamer goth, high-fashion lounge lizard. Boucher manages to look devastatingly badass in every getup, reflecting her gleeful ability to integrate disparate pieces into an alluring, unprecedented whole. Rainis
82. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
Director Chino Moya paints a vibrant but empty portrait of a techno dystopia filled with clean lines, monotone colors, and dull, repetitive tasks to complement Annie Clark’s ambivalent reflection on our digitally consumed lives. Donning a dress that pointedly resembles a straitjacket, Clark’s mindless drone warns of a future where TV replaces windows and, in turn, windows become mere objects over which to hang venetian blinds. Cinquemani
81. Tyler, the Creator, “Who Dat Boy”
Flower Boy may have been Tyler, the Creator’s “mature” album, but his self-directed music video for “Who Dat Boy” is proof that he still hasn’t lost his demented touch. Over the song’s horror-movie beat, Tyler disfigures himself in a mad-science experiment gone wrong, gets guest A$AP Rocky to “fix” him by replacing his face with white rapper Action Bronson’s, and hits the road. But as arresting as those visuals are, the cherry on top is the non-sequitur closing sequence, in which four multi-exposed Tylers show up to croon “911” like a one-man New Edition. The whole thing crackles with manic energy. Hoskins
The 100 Best Singles of the 2010s
The 2010s marked the end of what we’ve come to know as the “single,” which officially met its demise in the wild west of the streaming era.
The 2010s marked the end of what we’ve come to know as the “single,” which dates back to Billboard’s jukebox charts of the early 1940s and which officially met its demise in the wild west of the current streaming era. In the end, though, a single is just a song, and these 100 songs defined the decade that began in the throes of recovery from the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression and ended with the systematic dismantling of our democratic norms.
The crumbling of our institutions was accompanied by the euphoric beats of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” the former of which epitomized the increasing irrelevance of radio, the term “single,” and even the charts themselves. Hip-hop served as our cross-generational conscience, with veterans like A Tribe Called Quest and newcomers Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino reflecting and responding to the times. R&B and country, too, both staked a claim to the mantle of the decade’s most empowering songs, from Beyoncé’s “Formation” to Little Big Town’s “Little White Church.”
History will be the final arbiter of what we’ve done to the planet, to the country, and to each other over the last 10 years, but the songs that served as the soundtrack to this modern dystopia are already etched in time. Long live the single. Consider this list its epitaph. Sal Cinquemani
100. Clairo, “Bags”
With “Bags,” Clairo navigates the line between friend and lover with a crush who could be straight. Her approach pinpoints ephemeral moments with a wide-eyed recollection: the sensation of fingertips on her back, a mane of hair blowing in the wind of an open car window, a love interest standing in a doorway. You get the feeling that the experiences she recounts are firsts for her, so vivid and formative are her memories. Sophia Ordaz
99. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”
Most of the songs on Angel Olsen’s 2016 album, My Woman utilize the singer’s marvelously evocative voice for poignant purposes, bemoaning the loss of love in damaged, defensive terms. But the undertone of aggression that undergirds those imprecations bursts to the fore on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” an attempt to salvage a foundering relationship that finds Olsen embodying both traditionally male and female roles simultaneously, delivering soft and hard in equal measure. Backed by a surging tide of guitar and drums, she pushes from wounded desolation to commanding confidence and back, eventually settling for the latter. Along the way, the song pursues a swaying, woozy build-up that walks a fine line between heartbreak and renewal, while working as a strong showcase for the singer’s staggering musical chops. Jesse Cataldo
98. Taylor Swift, “Look What You Made Me Do”
The similarly themed “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” whose bouncy pop beat and comical overtones recall those of past hits like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off,” might have made a safer choice to introduce the world to the New Taylor than “Look What You Made Me Do.” Which is exactly why this droll single—with its deceptively lush strings, pulsing hip-hop beat, and Right Said Fred-aping non-hook—will likely go down in pop history as Swift’s first bona fide misstep. It’s also what makes the track the boldest and, quite frankly, most authentic thing she’s released to date. Cinquemani
97. Little Big Town, “Little White Church”
Country singers are generally too polite to come right out and ask, “Whose pussy is this?” the way, say, Nicki Minaj might, but that’s still the gist of Little Big Town’s ultimatum here. Karen Fairchild gives a throaty, lived-in performance that spells out exactly what her man stands to lose, lest he make an honest woman out of her. The blues guitar riff that drives the song dirties up the arrangement a bit, but it’s the handclaps-only B section and, as always, LBT’s impeccable four-part harmonies that really make “Little White Church” distinctive and seductive. Jonathan Keefe
96. Sia, “Chandelier”
As a songwriter, Sia has scored copious hits by channeling the voices of pop stars as varied as Rihanna and Celine Dion. On “Chandelier,” her heart- and lung-rending delivery of a song about addiction feels entirely her own, the kind of full-throttle catharsis that you can’t fake no matter how big the paycheck. From the reggae-inflected verse asserting that “party girls don’t get hurt” to the sky-high chorus declaring the singer’s intent to swing from ceiling fixtures while drinking her face off, “Chandelier” captures how denial can morph into jarring revelations about the extent of one’s self-destruction. The song, however, keeps that reckoning in abeyance, riding its thudding beat and reveling in those final moments of exhilaration before the hangover inevitably hits. Annie Galvin
95. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”
The lead single from Katy Perry’s fourth album is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan. Whether the song, co-written by Sia and produced by longtime Perry collaborator Max Martin, is an endorsement of self-care or a critique of escapism in times of political upheaval is up for interpretation. What is certain is that a track with a hook that implores listeners to “Come on, turn it up/Keep it on repeat” had better deliver the goods, and this one most definitely does. Cinquemani
94. Lana Del Rey, “National Anthem”
The fifth single from Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die doubles, much like the album, as a critique and a glorification of materialism and artifice, name-dropping “upper echelon” status symbols like the Hamptons, $2 million sports cars, and Page Six to paint a portrait of a girl looking for love in all the well-fixed places. Del Rey boasts of “blurring the lines between real and the fake” in the lyrics, and though she’s taken on various guises during her short run in the spotlight (“gangster Nancy Sinatra,” Ione Skye from Say Anything…, and, in the video for “National Anthem,” a 21st-century Jackie O), what makes the song feel authentic is the singer’s simple, robotic performance. She doesn’t try to affect a deeper, more “serious” tone the way she has on other songs, content to sing in her more natural higher register. “National Anthem” suggests what it might sound like if trip-hop had conquered hip-hop and Britney Spears actually had something to say. Cinquemani
93. The Weeknd featuring Daft Punk, “Starboy”
Few people would accuse Abel Tesfaye of being too modest. Yet, the artist known as the Weeknd has described “Starboy” as his manifestation of the “more braggadocious character that we all have inside us.” That heightened swagger finds Tesfaye looking down at the gaudier accoutrements of the celebrity lifestyle, blaming pop culture at large for creating his outsized persona in the first place (“Look what you’ve done/I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy”), all while signaling a transformation that’s portrayed literally in the single’s music video, where Tesfaye assassinates his former palm-tree-afroed self to announce the arrival of his shorn Starboy period, a not-so-subtle nod to David Bowie. By joining forces with Daft Punk, Tesfaye adds gloss to this smooth, bombastic sound, resulting in a song that sleekly and effortlessly thrums and sparkles like one of his beloved luxury cars driven under neon lights. Josh Goller
92. LCD Soundsystem, “I Can Change”
Self-interested, defeatist, and angry, James Murphy is practically a distillation of every obsessive character from a Jonathan Franzen novel. He is also, like them, open to change, even if it sounds as if it will take much prodding for him to even get halfway there. The silver lining in This Is Happening’s collection of downers, “I Can Change” boasts the album’s most succinct and vivid illustration of Murphy’s doubts and resentments as a lover. It’s woozy, glitchy synths are the sounds of a man wanting but resisting to give in to happiness, light beaming outward from a very dark void. Ed Gonzalez
91. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
There’s something about “Digital Witness” that hearkens back to a song by one of Annie Clark’s most obvious influences: David Bowie’s “TVC15” Both songs use herky-jerky vocal hooks to deliver sly existential horror about the prevalence of technology in the modern age, and almost 40 years after Bowie sang about a television swallowing Iggy Pop’s girlfriend, Clark sounds even more distressed: “Digital witnesses, what’s the point of even sleeping?/If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?” But the funky, chopped-up horn bleats that form the backbone of “Digital Witness” manage to place the tune squarely in the 21st century. Jeremy Winograd
90. Janet Jackson featuring J. Cole, “No Sleeep”
Giving precisely zero fucks after dispensing a string of albums and singles that were desperate for them, Janet Jackson trusted the soft sell when choosing the lead-off single from her Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced reunion album, Unbreakable. The downtempo “No Sleeep,” languorous (or “plush,” as she coos twice) in every respect but for those sharp, assertive echoing claps on the backbeat, isn’t so much sexy as it is something increasingly less easy to come by in pop: intimate. Which isn’t to say its replay value hasn’t proven tantric. Like making love with someone you truly know, “No Sleeep” somehow gets better the more times you lay it down. Eric Henderson
89. Luke James, “Drip”
With a falsetto vocal that goes from aching to ecstatic and a wah-wah guitar lead that channels vintage Ernie Isley, New Orleans singer-songwriter Luke James’s “Drip,” the first single from his forthcoming sophomore effort, sounds like it could have fallen out of heaven, or at least the early 1970s. The only real clue to its 2017 origins are the lyrics, which don’t even try to pretend that the title isn’t about what you think it’s about. At a time when contemporary R&B at large was blander and more samey-sounding than ever, “Drip” was a breath of Afro-Sheen-scented fresh air. If every neo-neo-soul track can be this good, then sign us up for the revival of the revival. Zachary Hoskins
88. Sky Ferreira, “You’re Not the One”
There’s nothing genuinely threatening or dangerous about Sky Ferreira, a former teen model who’s adopted a confrontational stance on her first album, Night Time, My Time, most clearly manifested in a revealing, forcefully unattractive cover photo and a faux-punk aesthetic. Yet these signifiers are useful in establishing the type of artist Ferreira wants to be: fearlessly self-possessed, sexual on her own terms, more focused on lacerating breakup songs than bubblegum love ballads. All these things come through on the intermittingly fierce, completely catchy “You’re Not the One,” its industrial drums and bittersweet vocals setting up another thick-skinned sendoff track from an artist intent on establishing her independence. Jesse Cataldo
87. Hot Chip, “One Life Stand”
The title track and lead single from Hot Chip’s latest album may be the sweetest and most genuine ode to monogamy that exists anywhere. Forget about dates, forget marriage; Alexis Taylor is interested in so much more, as he affirms “I only wanna be your one life stand” with his convivial everyman charm. It’s a lovely message, and serves as a splendid centrepiece for this single. The verses are accentuated by deformed Caribbean steel drums and laser sound effects, while the chorus boasts a barrage of warm, sonorous synths. This could be the most radio-friendly slab of upbeat pop we’ve heard from Taylor and company, but it struggled to chart significantly on either side of the Atlantic as the record-buying company parted with their money for messages of promiscuity and bad romances instead. Oh well. Their loss. Huw Jones
86. Azealia Banks, “1991”
So maybe it’s all a bit too on-the-nose as an homage, but it’s not like Azealia Banks is one for subtlety. She’s dialed back the inventive potty-mouthing that made “212” such an attention-grabber, but there’s so much going on in “1991” that Banks could never be accused of slacking off. She spits a rapid-fire 16-bar rhyme that’s a triumph of female sexual agency and makes it sound as effortless as snacking on a little pain au chocolat, and then she nimbly interweaves those rhymes into an onomatopoeic secondary vocal track before unraveling it all so she can do a spot-on impression of Ce Ce Peniston. Keefe
85. Jenny Lewis, “Just One of the Guys”
There are several very good songs with almost uncomfortably personal lyrics and poppy earworm hooks on erstwhile Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis’s third solo album, The Voyager, but “Just One of the Guys” is one of the few that had the benefit of not being produced by Ryan Adams, with his ‘80s AOR-rock fetish. Instead, the Beck-produced single possesses more of a late-‘70s singer-songwriter feel that suits Lewis’s voice and personality better. But it’s not the arrangement, or even the incredibly catchy see-sawing chorus that stands out the most; it’s Lewis’s daringly close-to-the-bone bridge: “There’s only one difference between you and me/When I look at myself all I can see/I’m just another lady without a baby.” Winograd
84. Disclosure featuring Lorde, “Magnets”
“Pretty girls don’t know the things that I know,” Lorde sings on “Magnets,” an understated offering from Disclosure’s sophomore effort, Caracal. The tropical house track, which features Indian rhythms, backward synth washes, and a patient, pulsating beat, succeeds—with a little help from its fiery music video, of course—at shifting the New Zealand pop singer’s profile ever so slightly from gawky teen to sultry chanteuse, her performance at once singular in its edgy hesitance and startling in its unexpected seductiveness. Cinquemani
83. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Jesus Alone”
The structure of “Jesus Alone” serves as an appropriate mirror for the emotional state its composer found himself in while formulating it. As the song begins, with a grumbling electronic groan and Nick Cave reciting vivid but obtuse imagery, the singer sounds despondent and detached, adrift in darkness and abstraction. But as the improvised track builds, its cold swirls of electronics, strings, and piano gradually coalesce into a grievingly reposeful refrain, as Cave comes to grips with his pain: “With my voice/I am calling you.” It’s a pretty chorus, but when considering that Cave is “calling” his dead son, it becomes far more devastating than the gloomier musical passages that precede it. Winograd
82. Kelela, “LMK”
Kicking off in the club and resolving in the gauzy ether of a potential meaningless hookup, Kelela’s “LMK” sounds both ominous and alluring, an aloof seduction condensed to three and a half minutes. In its delivery, the singer turns the standard come-hither suggestiveness of so much female-fronted pop on its head, abandoning intimations of virginal purity or masculine power transfer for cold transactional consumption, all cards immediately laid out on the table. By removing desire entirely from the equation, she reduces the procedural essence of the mating ritual to its barest elements, within a track that pulls off a similar musical process, stripped down to Jam City’s slim ambient production and the singer’s silky, expressive voice. Slinky and soothing despite its aggressive tone, blending plainspoken confidence with low-key virtuosity, “LMK” represents the finest qualities of Kelela’s sumptuous debut, concentrated into a sui generis amendment of pop sexual politics. Cataldo
81. La Roux, “Bulletproof”
There’s really no explaining how or why British synth-pop duo La Roux managed to sneak itself onto U.S. radio playlists while the likes of Robyn, Little Boots, and other Euro pop acts remained largely ignored. Not that “Bulletproof” is undeserving: It’s all video-game bleeps and stiff beats, with singer Elly Jackson fancying herself an impenetrable computer. But with a malfunctioning communication system (“I won’t let you in again/The messages I tried to send/My information’s just not going in”), Jackson’s declaration that “This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof” ultimately just sounds like wishful thinking. Cinquemani