“We’re looking at strangers and suddenly we’re free,” sings Emma Pollock on “You’ll Come Around.” Easy for her to say. From 1999 to 2002, The Delgados—co-headed by Pollock and Alun Woodward—were arguably the finest band on the planet. I say this not out of contrarianism or perversity, but because, in my angsty, well-remembered 16-year-old heart of hearts, I know it to be true; I’m still in mourning for their dissolution. Their lack of popularity probably had to do with how quickly they shed their indie roots, debuting as a Pavement-fixated group with 1996’s Domestiques and, in one album’s time, acquiring the heaviness of metal (“Is this Metallica?” once grimaced a girl walking into my room) and the pristine arrangements of Sufjan Stevens. On 1999’s Peloton, 2000’s The Great Eastern and 2002’s Hate, they were the most depressing and musically complex band I’d ever heard. Keep The Smiths and Joy Division; I’ll settle for lush, boy-girl duets over bombastic arrangements.
Aside from maybe Tindersticks, I’m pretty sure The Delgados still remain the most unabashedly morose band on the planet, to a point that would approach self-parody if it weren’t so accomplished. Song titles like “The Weaker Argument Defeats The Stronger” and “Is This All That I Came For?” tell the premise; lyrics like “Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m going to give up breathing” and “Life isn’t precious and life isn’t special/sometimes relief only comes when you meet death” tell the rest.
The band dissolved in 2005 at the request of bassist Stewart Henderson, who quite reasonably protested putting “so much of my energy and time into something that never quite seemed to get the attention or respect I felt it deserved.” Fair enough; here’s Pollock’s solo debut two years later, and Henderson needn’t have bothered making such a pronouncement. Even before working with legendarily overblown producer Dave Fridmann (he of the epic Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev soundscapes), The Delgados had acquired a knack for figuring out exactly how many layers of backwards-looped children’s choirs, fuzzed-out string sections and glockenspiel a song could survive. Watch The Fireworks sticks to the normal rock band instruments, but they’re so heavily layered that they’re just as epic as what came before (the drums, as always, sound particularly unreal, booming all the way to the back of the empty stadium), and Pollock is typically unhappy, if frequently rhythmically upbeat. The cheery song titles this time include “If Silence Means That Much To You” and “This Rope’s Getting Tighter.”
It’s a Delgados album without Woodward songs; how much you like it will depend directly on how much you enjoy fussy, not-within-an-inch-of-spontaneous indie rock. On stand-out track “Acid Test,” Pollock tames David Byrne’s raucous “woah-oh-oh-oh” scream from “Psycho Killer,” neutering it in what I can only assume is a joke. Pollock is indie rock’s Tilda Swinton: obviously talented, alluring with her songwriting, and always at a chilly reserve (she’s Aimee Mann without the warmth). I enjoy this album way out of proportion to its merits, perhaps, but that’s what fandom is about; perhaps solo Pollock can gain the fame the Delgados never got. She deserves it.
Underrated on a whole other end of the charts are UGK, the legendary Southern-rap duo whose Underground Kingz dropped on August 7 at number one on the Billboard charts and has yet to go gold. To a whole generation of kids, myself included, UGK will always be remembered for their guest appearance on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’.” In the single most informative interview I’ve ever read with a rapper, Bun B—Pimp C’s better half—noted that “in the South, I’m regarded as the guy who, quote unquote, out-rapped Jay-Z. A lot of Southern rappers would say that. Not saying that I’m a better rapper than Jay-Z, but I was able to out-rap Jay-Z on a track.” Still, I missed out the first time round; I didn’t catch on to UGK’s influence until they went on hiatus: while Pimp C was in jail, Bun B went on a spree of guesting on pretty much every single major rap album out there. By the time Pimp C was out, they made a killer reunion appearance on T.I.’s “Front Back,” and I was hooked.
Underground Kingz is probably both the best and most unlistenable mainstream rap album of 2007. By unlistenable, I don’t mean that the lyrical content is particularly harsh or difficult, or that the music is deliberately abrasive; I mean it’s over two hours long, and for an album guy like me (and one without a car to spread an album over a day), that’s a hard sell. Whenever I put it on, it’s consistently awesome: musically rich, expertly treading over the same few lyrical modes (I’m a thug, I sell drugs, I like sex almost as much as my car, and occasionally I regret this life of sin). UGK are gracious party hosts, both for their inspirations (Scarface contributes an awesomely out-of-tune sing-along chorus on “Still Ridin’ Dirty,” the closest we’ve gotten to Biz Markie in years) and disciples (on stand-out track “Take Tha Hood Back,” Slim Thug—whose greatest appeal is a deep Southern drawl deeply indebted to Bun B—provides an appropriately menacing chorus). The samples are unadventurous, sticking to the urban charts: don’t look for Kanye’s appropriations of Can or Elton John here. But this patented southern-soul/funk/whatever rap sound creates a consistently groovy rap album with more wah-wah guitar than any in recent memory. If only I had the energy to listen to it more; highly recommended though, and easily accessible even if you don’t care what they’re saying.
Speaking of sprawl: another year, another 70-minute Fiery Furnaces album. Meh…no band I’m a fan of seems so invested in regularly testing my patience. Until now, I’ve dodged the major obstacles—ignoring both Matthew Friedberger’s poorly received solo double-disk and the widely reviled Rehearsing My Choir (although that album has a cult that won’t leave me alone until I listen; I’ll break down one day)—but Widow City, bizarrely, is getting some of the best reviews they’ve had in a while. It’s more accessible, apparently. Like hell it is. For my money, the Furnaces peaked on last year’s inexplicably slept on Bitter Tea. Combining the rewarding, long-form adventurousness of Blueberry Boat with the unusually sweet melodic directness of EP, Bitter Tea capped off its rewardingly spazzy explorations with the pared-down sweetness of “Benton Harbor Blues Again”: it may be a cop-out to call their least adventurous song their best, but it’s true.
Widow City may be their first recording where the sum is less than the parts: up until now, I’ve always thought of their albums as something to be absorbed all at once, with the occasional longeurs contributing something to the overall feel. But Widow City loses nothing when you trim the most annoying songs: it actually becomes much improved. “Restorative Beer” would sound a lot better if it weren’t preceded by “Right By Conquest”—a potentially decent song that goes haywire halfway through. In this it’s basically the album in miniature: the first five songs are as fun as could be, but it’s hard to remember that by the time the album crawls to “Widow City,” which spends a good minute-plus combining random piano chords and arpeggios with what sounds like a drunk New Orleans jazz band plugged in through a cheap synth (all this plus free jazz drumming and bass lines). Because the Furnaces have mastered and claimed as their own a particular studio sound (flat, clean and without a whole lot of depth, heavy on single distorted guitar lines and almost never playing normal rock guitar chords, privileging Eleanor Friedberger’s calmly declamatory vocals over all else), this potentially adventurous detour negates its unusual instrumentation: it sounds like every other seemingly directionless detour the Friedbergers take, except it actually *is* directionless. The back half of this album is a disaster.
What stops the Fiery Furnaces from tipping over into total self-parody is the fact that Friedberger writes way too much material not to come up with some good stuff. Aside from the solid opening third, listen to “Restorative Beer” out of context: ignoring its witty lyrics (probably plundered, like most of their catalogue, from some obscure flea market book or magazine or something), listen to how Matthew Friedberger constructs the song like an 18th-century aria, in its descending vocal line (an elaborate downward scale that normally would serve as a coloratura showcase for virtuosity, tamed here by Eleanor) and the way it introduces said vocal line in an instrumental (“orchestral,” if you want) opening before handing it off to her. Yet the song is never stifling in its antecedents: the guitar sounds glam-rock awesome, and there’s a minimalist Philip Glass keyboard interlude. There’s no one else writing songs like these—potentially disastrous exercises turned pop gems—and we need the Friedbergers around. Maybe next time they’ll stop spending so much time obsessing over weird drum sounds; it’s by far my least favorite Furnaces album heard start to finish. For the first time, the best songs sound better on their own.
On the classic album beat: I’ve been meaning to mine my long-neglected obsession with ‘90s indie guitar rock for a while, and I meant to write about Superchunk’s No Pocky For Kitty. I’ll get around to it (Q: why are Superchunk relatively neglected these days? Is it punishment for not being as obviously clever as Pavement?), but iTunes’ alphabetical arrangement got me to thinking about the perenially underrated Superdrag again. Generally pegged as a sub-Foo Fighters outfit, Superdrag are best remembered (if at all) for their minor MTV hit “Sucked Out,” as succinct a complaint about selling out to the man without getting famous as any: “Who sucked out the feeling,” screamed frontman John Davis, audibly shredding his vocal cords. “Would you go now that everybody knows that we did a couple shows out there? Look at me, I can write a melody but I can’t expect a soul to care.” Self-prophecy in action, but it’s a shame.
Part of the reason 1996’s Regretfully Yours got ignored, I suspect, is because the band (presumably still in thrall to their admitted Husker Du influence) went out of their way to turn off kids who just liked Weezer and wanted more of the same. For a rock album, it’s remarkably impenetrable the first time round: I remember not being able to tell where the first three songs started and ended. Banging around on the same chords, mixing everything into the same dynamic range, all the songs sound the same at first. Opener “Slot Machine” short-circuits itself after exactly one iteration of the would-be chorus. Davis remains an oddly uncharismatic frontman, at least on the record: whiny and forceful, without a hint of the charisma externally directed self-loathing can bring with it, he seemed deadly, maybe cripplingly serious. But Regretfully Yours is a terrific record, although those Foo Fighters comparisons weren’t totally off: meat-and-potatoes rock songs, many hovering under 3 minutes, recorded with a minimum of artifice, more scuzzily garage than all those tinny pseudo-cheap Strokes demos. The album’s got it all: one heartbreaking ballad of solipsistic despair (“Nothing Good Is Real”), a lot of ass-kicking rock pseudo-nihilism (the aptly titled “Cynicality,” which comes dangerously close to biting Radiohead: “make it happen, make it happen, nothing’s happening,” Davis whines), bitching about the music industry. “Destination Ursa Major,” the “Sucked Out” follow-up single rejected by fickle teen audiences, is pretty magical too. “What did I do? Nothing is true,” sings Davis. “Summer is over now.” Summer flings gone bad never sounded so good. True believers take note: the original line-up (with a now devoutly-evangelical Davis) is reuniting this fall for a few shows. Catch ’em before they disappear again.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Every Song on Taylor Swift’s Folklore Ranked
We’ve ranked all 17 songs from the singer-songwriter’s watershed eighth album.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.4
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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