Top 10 lists are an exercise in futility, scenester-ism and dick-measuring. But we do them anyway, because they give us (or me and millions of other stunted “adults”) a necessary framework for thinking about the year that passed. A disclaimer just in case: this is a subjective list. It’s my past year, and I’m sorry I didn’t ever get around to hearing the highly-acclaimed LCD Soundsystem record. It’s always something.
1. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky: This summer, I moved into the first adult apartment of my life, which was a major shock: I learned how to clean dishes before the landlord went nuts over filth, how to live with other people without wanting to kill them, and how to clean my room without going crazy. Through it all, I kept listening to Wilco obsessively, which both surprised me and made me feel guilty: how could a band standing for something I find, in principal, supremely irritating (humorless ‘70s rock) be so satisfying for the third time in a row? Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made sense as the perfect compromise point between Jeff Tweedy’s pop sweet spot and Jim O’Rourke’s noise-in-every-spare-corner production techniques; Summerteeth is a sugar overdose with suicidal lyrics. I love both dearly, but surely Wilco was just a band that got lucky an unusual number of times; Sky Blue Sky is nothing if not the trad-rock album they were always gesturing to. And yet: the more people kept pointing out that the album was uncomplainingly domestic—that Tweedy sounded more resigned to suburban marriage than ever (“Hate It Here” is a song made for minivan dads who find themselves doing the laundry as penance), or that this would play fine next to the Eagles—the more I liked it. Not as a reaction, but simply because I couldn’t see how those were real complaints. I’ve never listened to the Eagles, aside from 14 million involuntary listens to “Hotel California”; are they really this subtle about their instrumentation and unpredictable about their chord changes? How many music obsessives (and critics) are really living wild, Iggy Pop (or even cough syrup-addled Lester Bangs) lifestyles, and how many of them are closer to the resignation of this album than they’d like to admit?
Sky Blue Sky finds Tweedy, as always, in a state of Pynchon-esque lyrical paranoia: on Yankee, the big concern was “speakers speaking in code,” and here inanimate objects have gone one step further in their conspiracy: “The doorframe screams ’I hate you,’” Tweedy claims on “You Are My Face.” As morbid as ever, he tackles death head-on in closer “On And On And On” with less metaphorical/poetic distance than he’s ever (ab)used: “Please don’t cry/We’re designed to die.” That’s the bracingly unsentimental yet all-encompassing heart of this album: accepting without embracing the inevitable compromises of time. Maybe it’s a bad thing that I associate this album with doing dishes, but oh well.
One more thought, hastily acquired at the last minute: listen to how flat Tweedy’s vocals are on Summerteeth, and how open they are here to vocal trembling and imperfection. Being open to naturalness certainly isn’t an asset in and of itself, but to claim that this record is somehow hermetically sealed to frames of reference outside of ‘70s rock is nuts. Such naked singing would have been unthinkable.
2. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: I’m from Austin, so Spoon’s indie rock—perfectly calibrated for damn well near a decade now—is pretty much one of the sounds I could listen to being ripped off all day without it ever getting old; hometown pride forever. But it would’ve been one thing for me to have unreservedly loved this album (like I have everything Britt Daniel & Co. have done virtually since inception besides Gimme Fiction) and still felt like I was overrating it; it was another thing to watch it become the consensus album of the year. Consensus albums are, generally, dull things, immaculate songcraft everyone respects but no one feels wild about. So it was especially weird to look at Pitchfork and see some of the people who voted for it who really should’nt’ve: Andy Battaglia, who specializes in electronica, had it at #17; Tom Breihan, resident hip-hop advocate, had it at #21. Spoon was the indie-rock album for people who don’t like indie rock; proof that it wasn’t just my imagination that they’ve taken spare instrumentation, pared-down hooks, and oblique lyrical sentiments as far as anyone could. They really are the best people doing this prototypical thing with intelligence and something like innovation. Closer “Black Like Me” sums up every sincere, nostalgic, tentative sentiment Daniel’s let slip out the last few years: “I’ve been needing someone to take care of me tonight,” he announces unambiguously. It’s the perfect finale for a band that’s always been less austere than haters would claim.
3. Emma Pollock, Watch the Fireworks: If I had any balls, this would be my #1 for the year—I would’ve listened to it on infinite loop. But there are plenty of new favorites to meet, so Emma’s despairing, lovely album—the resurrection of The Delgados, for all practical purposes, and hence of one of my all-time favorite bands—will be trotted out sporadically and repeatedly for the next few years whenever I’m too lazy to listen to something new. She’s the new Elliott Smith or something.
4. The National, Boxer: Unexpected late-breaking triumph for The National, who crawled under my skin, to my great annoyance, with Alligator. At the time, I was convinced that they were too adolescently melodramatic and self-serious by half: “I feel just like Tennessee Williams” was a line that made me burst out laughing. It still does, but I’ve finally understood that their malaise may be kind of whiny and stupid, but it’s not adolescent—it’s mid-career/life despair, wondering why these people are your friends and you’re drinking so much all of a sudden. Which makes it a great quarter-life crisis too (mumblecore post-grad music drama?), in addition to them just being a rocking band, one of the tightest units out there so far.
5. Fountains of Wayne, Traffic and Weather: Whenever I mention my abiding love of Fountains of Wayne, my more tasteful friends immediately assume I’m being ironic or sarcastic—this despite near-universal acclaim for their last album, the constant enthusiastic support of Robert Christgau, etc. What’s it take, huh? I’ll keep repeating this argument over and over until people finally stop obsessing bitterly over the admittedly annoying market saturation status “Stacy’s Mom” had 4 FREAKIN’ YEARS AGO: catchy melodies, ripping off the Cars as necessary, and acute lyrics about suburban divorce pain (key line: “Ever since your dad walked out your mom could use a guy like me”) does not make a “novelty song.” Traffic And Weather finds the band at their most predictable, which is to say they’ve honed their sugary hooks and short-story-esque lyrics about disheartened corporate drones, stupid but endearing teenagers, and life in the strip-mall suburbs to a science. Lumping them in with the rest of the top 40 is just stupid.
6. Menomena, Friend and Foe: I didn’t hear Menomena’s first album when it came out, because their band name was cutesy and their album title was worse (I Am The Fun Blame Monster). Then I bought tickets for this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, started listening to bands just to figure out who to see live while waiting for Clipse, and discovered that these guys are really good. The Flaming Lips might’ve sounded like this if they’d never gotten a budget: epic drums shooting for uplift, oblique lyrics about wanting to be a robot, melodies that make all the recording instrumentation supremely accessible. Some people, however, seem to believe that Menomena are just another indie band (they’re not: they’re some of the most sophisticated musicians I’ve seen live in quite a while), and by some people I mean Torquil Campbell of Stars, who wins the prize for single most obnoxious statement made in an interview. “I really do think that people should probably lose their virginity before they start writing reviews for Pitchfork,” he announced to the Onion A.V. Club. “Because then you’d actually know something about life, as opposed to just being afraid of it and, you know, thinking Menomena are important.” Once more, people: the concept of Social Prominence does not automatically equal Importance. This album is here mostly because I really like it, but partly as a fuck-you to the thinking that really liking something which is semi-obscure is somehow willfully being obtuse and self-consciously “difficult.” I’m being sincere.
7. Rufus Wainwright, Release the Stars: Everyone missed the fucking boat on this album, and it annoys me. The general complaint seems to be that there’s so much orchestration that it’s hard to tell if they’re show tunes or pop songs. I don’t remember this accusation being thrown at the similarly top-heavy Mercury Rev or Flaming Lips, but whatever. This is the best album he’s done since Poses, and that’s saying a lot: the over-elaborate arrangement wankery of Want One is gone entirely. These songs are pared-down and definitely pop: if you can’t see that for the arrangements (which work in concert with the hooks, not against them), you’re totally missing the point. Look, you can even work out to it! “Do I Disappoint You?” Never, Rufus. Never. Yours, your only straight male fan.
8. The Good, The Bad & The Queen, The Good, The Bad & The Queen: Man, the tone of this list is getting kind of bitter and vengeful and score-settling, isn’t it? So let’s take a positive moment to celebrate the return of Damon Albarn to the world of live bands playing live music. I’m of the weird camp which believes that Blur’s last album, Think Tank, was one of the best things they ever did: Albarn is oddly sympatico with Spoon’s Britt Daniel, given his increasing obsession with paring songs to their essential elements. Minimalist but hooky, Albarn proves—in case Gorillaz made you forget—that he’s more than just a brilliant booking manager who brings unlikely people together. Which is to say, he does it again here—who ever thought Fela Kuti’s drummer would play with The Clash’s bassist?—but while harnessing everyone in favor of songs that aren’t catchy until you play them 5 times, and suddenly you can’t get them out of your head. “I don’t use choruses that much anymore,” Albarn said. Could’ve fooled me dude. In a way, this is actually the single most significant Britpop album of the ’00s: unlike the self-proclaimed zeitgeist flashpoints of the Libertines (who almost earned it) or the Arctic Monkeys (who really didn’t), this is an old-school master showing the kids how it’s done. Paul Weller would kill to age this well.
9. Justice, †: Aside from their annoyingly cutesy-illiterate title, Justice don’t make a single misstep on their bid to replace Daft Punk in the dance sweepstakes. Almost as much fun as Discovery and considerably shorter, it’s supremely friendly stuff: the one thing I really don’t understand is why people keep labeling this album as sonically “harsh.” The last time I checked, screeching synths and loud guitars were traits of good fun for rock bands: why can’t mindless dance-mongers do the same? This is downright sugary as far as I’m concerned. Is “D.A.N.C.E.” this year’s “Young Folks”? I hope so.
10. 1990s, Cookies: I just wrote about this in the last column. It’s awesome.
The Year’s Most Underrated Album:
Baby Teeth, The Simp: We have failed as a nation because we did not recognize how awesome this album was. Actually, it wasn’t us, it was Pitchfork. I’ll cut Pitchfork all the slack they need for being the most comprehensive 5-reviews-a-day wide selection of music coverage, but their not reviewing this super-awesome ‘70s pastiche—equal parts ELO strings and guitar solos, Queen multi-tracked vocals, and other things that should be godawful together but aren’t—just makes me cry in my beer.
Albums I Listened To To Hastily Cover My Listmaking Ass And In No Way Claim That These Are Good Judgments, Covered in Snide Blurbs:
Simian Mobile Disco, Attack Decay Sustain Release: These guys are like Fergie fronting Justice. Bleh.
Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter: A more muscular version of M. Ward. Very cool; may creep up into the 10 on further listens.
Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala: I don’t get it. Sub-Magnetic Fields lyrics + tinny samples = a really bad belated introduction for me to Scandinavia’s most important international export or whatever.
Jay-Z, American Gangster: Good but by no means great—long, patchy, and occasionally tedious. However, “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is) really is as good a single as he’s ever done.
Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals: Sorry, I liked TV On the Radio better the first time round.
Lil’ Wayne, Da Drought 3: This actually should probably be on the Top 10 instead of, say, 1990s. Now that I’ve finally listened to Weezy, I must confess that all the excitable hype was completely correct. To me, he’s the Stephen Malkmus of ’00s hip-hop: I have no idea how he so consistently does so many bizarre things with his voice and general pronounciation. There’s just a monstrous onslaught of stuff to deal with, and it’s going to take me too long.
Review: Ed Sheeran’s No.6 Collaborations Project Feels Like Playacting
The singer-songwriter opts to spend the entirety of the album strenuously avoiding his strengths.1.5
Broadly speaking, Ed Sheeran makes two types of songs. The first are his bread and butter: acoustic ballads expressive of some tender emotion, a la “The A Team” or “Photograph.” The second are attempts at marrying the lyrical swagger of hip-hop to a heavily produced pop sound, with his voice taking on a rap cadence. This second wave of songs took off with 2014’s “Don’t,” a diss track generally assumed to be targeted at Ellie Goulding, and peaked with “Shape of You,” which somehow manages to make sex sound stupid. Ultimately, Sheeran’s delivery on this type of track is too earnest and his demeanor is too goofy for the posture to be convincing. When he tries to play a badass, he always ends up sounding like a freshman saying, “Oh, she goes to another school.”
Unfortunately, the English singer-songwriter’s fourth album, No.6 Collaborations Project, which is composed of 15 tracks which all feature at least one guest artist, has way too many of the second kind of song. A few of these collaborations succeed thanks to their limited ambitions. “Best Part of Me,” a duet with West Memphis singer YEBBA, feels like a legitimate show of artistic expression on Sheeran’s part, rather than a bald-faced attempt at redefining his brand. Still, a few of the new songs broaden his musical palette successfully. Sheeran does a passable impression of Justin Timberlake on “Cross Me,” which is less tedious than the ham-fisted rapping he does elsewhere on the album. The song further benefits from a clever, evocative Chance the Rapper guest verse that the rapper delivers with particular brio: “Know she gonna slide anytime you bitches talk shit/Keep a lil’ blade in her fuckin’ lip gloss kit, ayy.”
Too often here, Sheeran feels like a supporting player, especially when he strays from his wheelhouse. For instance, if the singer wants to lean into rapping more, he’s not likely to benefit from doing so on the same track as Chance. And when Sheeran trots out his bad-boy routine, his music feels ersatz. It’s playacting of the worst kind. Lead single “I Don’t Care,” which boasts a peppy “ooh-ooh-ooh” hook, pairs Sheeran with Justin Bieber for a little woe-is-pop-stars commiserating before a bland chorus on the power of love. The preponderance of songs where he attempts to sound cool are a rainbow of embarrassing silliness. “Antisocial” has Sheeran try on misanthropy, sing-rapping over a chilly trap beat about how he doesn’t mind being a loner. This kind of works until the song’s second line, “When I touch down, keep it on the low-low,” which is delivered so straight-facedly that it sounds completely ridiculous.
On “Remember the Name,” Sheeran brags about the money he’s made while asserting that people will one day give him the respect he’s due. He tells us that he’s been told to “stick to singing, stop rappin’,” and assures listeners that he’s totally done drugs before: “My face is goin’ numb from the shit this stuff is mixed with.” Eminem’s guest verse sounds exactly like a dude doing a pretty good Eminem impression at a karaoke bar, with the rapper dropping finger-on-the-pulse references to his breakout single from 1999, “My Name Is.” 50 Cent pops up on the same track to name-drop a few luxury brands, and he and Sheeran insist that “it’s ‘bout time you remember the name,” as if anyone who engages with Western pop culture doesn’t know who Sheeran is. The song is basically one big strawman boast track.
Ultimately, these songs get about as far as each guest takes them. “South of the Border” once again raises the question of how Camila Cabello became the member of Fifth Harmony to successfully launch a solo career but does feature a fun Cardi B verse. The bonkers closing track, “Blow,” finds Sheeran teaming up with Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars for a sex jam backed by some wailin’ ‘80s hair-metal guitar. The lyrics make L.A. Guns seem like Nobel laureates, unless calling a woman a “red leather rocket” and grunting “Shoot my shot tonight/I’m coming baby” is your idea of clever poetry. The song encapsulates the problem with the album as a whole: For whatever reason, Sheeran opts to spend the entirety of No.6 Collaborations Project strenuously avoiding his strengths.
Label: Atlantic Release Date: July 12, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Sum 41’s Order in Decline Presents a Band in Total Control
The album’s pitch-perfect production and riotous bombast make for a hell of a fun ride.4
With their seventh album, Order in Decline, Sum 41 has wisely ditched the snotty, smart-aleck pop-punk that launched their career in the late 1990s and reset their equalizer to the full-throated, gravel-meets-bone howl of hardcore rock. Invigorated by the metal cred they gained on 2016’s 13 Voices, and emboldened by the permanent addition of Dave Baksh on guitar, Sum 41 leans into their new hard edge with an album that absorbs all the bravado of guzzling a case of Monster before leaping on stage.
From start to finish, Order in Decline exudes all the studded-jacket braggadocio of a band in total control. With frontman Deryck Whibley himself taking the helm of production, engineering, and mixing, every one of the album’s 10 tracks explode the full-bore rev of an engine. Gone is their stubborn dependence on fuzzy distortion and speedy tempos from the pop-punk playbook. In their place, the band has tightened the screws to extract a darker, burlier sound worthy of Bullet for My Valentine or Rise Against. Such metalcore references are deeply embedded into the structure and pacing of “The People Vs…” and the roaring breakdowns of the album’s first single, “Out for Blood.”
For all of its hat-tipping, however, the album’s crisp execution belongs not to Sum 41’s myriad musical influences, but to incredibly tight arrangements and well-designed movements that showcase the individual contributions of every band member. The meticulous attention to details and fine-tuned aggression brings a hard-won confidence and swagger to each track.
For all its newfound muscularity, the band doesn’t bother with any cocky posturing. As a primer for everything to come, the album’s opening track “Turning Away” gets right to the point, presenting a band that’s mastered the art of bottling its restraint and knowing when to smash it against the wall. Following a swell of reverb, Frank Zummo’s punishing drum work and Jason McCaslin’s pulsing bass set a foot-stomping rhythm for an ominously calm Whibley to slide into. Once Tom Thacker’s driving guitar breaks in, the song’s battery of teasing crescendos and high-octane build-ups finds pent-up relief in Baksh’s blistering guitar solo.
To keep up with the musical onslaught, Whibley’s vocals bite down harder and reach further than ever. “A Death in the Family” reels from his guttural screams, only to see him pivot into the soaring vulnerability of “Never There,” the album’s wistful, orchestra-backed letter to an estranged father. Whibley has stated that Order in Decline is the most personal of Sum 41’s albums, and “Catching Fire” poignantly expresses his attempt to deal with his shortcomings. But however personal this album may be for Whibley, it’s also Sum 41’s most unabashedly political. The band’s frustrations with the Trump administration, namely the sociocultural impact of its offenses, undergird almost every song here. In particular, “The New Sensation” and “A Death in the Family” are fist-pumping calls to arms, and “45 (A Matter of Time)” bristles with fury at the president whose name Whibley can’t even bring himself to say.
Clocking in at just over 35 minutes (not including two bonus acoustic tracks), Order in Decline mercifully sheds the filler that bogged down the band’s previous releases. Ten amped-up tracks provide just the right amount of time to savor but not tire of its focused intensity. And even if “The New Sensation” gallops along like a B-side from Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations, and “Catching Fire” comes off a bit too much like Green Day singing Yellowcard, the album’s pitch-perfect production and riotous bombast make for a hell of a fun ride.
Label: Hopeless Release Date: July 19, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Thom Yorke’s Anima Finds the Singer Raging Against the Apocalypse
The album’s juxtaposition of lyrical techno-dread with austere, ghostly electronic music is satisfyingly unsettling.4
Thom Yorke has spent the last 25-plus years giving expression to his technophobia. The belief that the bright, shiny gadgets that surround us might not actually present a net positive for humanity pervades his output both as the frontman of Radiohead and as a solo artist. Yorke continues to engage with themes of technological alienation and disenchantment with the modern world on his third album, Anima, and from the vantage point of 2019—when headlines about bot farms, climate change, and the like are ubiquitous—his apocalyptic musings aren’t as paranoid as they once may have seemed.
Both of Yorke’s previous solo efforts, 2006’s The Eraser and 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, lacked the musical and lyrical cohesion, not to mention the sonic punch, that has driven Radiohead’s best work. Like those albums, Anima largely eschews guitar altogether; only album closer “Runwayaway” features a discernible guitar sound, and even that’s heavily processed. But Anima still achieves a sonic and thematic through line. The album’s juxtaposition of lyrical techno-dread with austere, ghostly electronic music is satisfyingly unsettling. The lyrics are evocative in their economy, and rather than feel like guide tracks, the arrangements feel more fully realized than on Yorke’s past albums.
The opening track, “Traffic,” immediately sets a dystopic mood. Against pulsating synth sounds and a glitchy electronic beat, the first word we hear is “submit.” The chorus finds Yorke sneering “Show me the money” and “Crime pays, she stays,” which feels like a side-eyed reference to Theresa May’s increasingly benighted attempts to remain at 10 Downing Street. “Not the News” engages contemporary political turmoil in a similarly elliptical way with its titular reference to the trend toward calling unpalatable news “fake.” Yorke asks, “Who are these people?,” before deciding, “I’m not running/Enough of broken glass.”
The musician’s long-simmering mistrust of technology boils over in “The Axe.” Throughout, multi-tracked, distorted vocals drift like ghostly wails as a droning melody slowly emerges, resolving to an almost insectoid hum. Yorke sighs, “Goddamn machinery/Why don’t you speak to me?” And on the song’s chorus, he moans, “I thought we had a deal,” almost sounding as if he’s on the verge of tears. Though the song begins with Yorke swearing to “take an axe” to his addressee, his delivery is more paralyzed than enervated.
Anima’s title is drawn from the work of Carl Jung, whose theories mapped out much of our current understanding of dreams and the unconscious. Yorke has long had a fascination with dreams and the liminal state of consciousness. On “Last I Heard (He Was Circling the Drain),” he says he “woke up with a feeling I just could not take” and envisions “humans the size of rats.” Overall, the album feels like the soundtrack for a dance party on a melting glacier.
Which isn’t to say that Anima is all doom and gloom. The album’s digital release was accompanied by a short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson in which Yorke plays a nameless character in a dystopic world populated by uniformed quasi-automatons. On a train, he sees a woman (played by his partner, Italian actress Dajana Roncione) who seems to jolt him to life. Yorke’s performance, reminiscent of Buster Keaton, is quite bathetic; his voice has always been deeply expressive, and his physicality here is equally evocative. The clip juxtaposes “Dawn Chorus,” probably the album’s bleakest track, with a moment of unexpected grace and serenity. Even in the darkest of moments, the short suggests, restorative human connection is attainable. This might be the key to understanding Anima: Yorke may not be optimistic about humanity’s future, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it’s worth saving.
Label: XL Release Date: June 27, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Banks’s III Comes on Strong but Falls Short of Pushing the Limits
There’s no denying the album’s imposing maximalism, but its bells and whistles feel like sensory overload.2.5
Back in 2014, singer-songwriter Jillian Rose Banks’s fusion of downcast synth-pop and R&B provided an antidote to sugar shock like Pharrell’s “Happy” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” Her affinity for flashy electronic flourishes and moody ambience persists on her third album, the aptly titled III, but it scans as artlessly straightforward by 2019’s standards, where genre-bending is increasingly commonplace and eccentric dark pop by the likes of Billie Eilish sits comfortably at the top of the charts. III does little to push Banks’s own limits, much less the precedents set by her alt-pop contemporaries.
With the aid of producers like Buddy Ross and Hudson Mohawke, Banks wields her most heavy-duty arsenal of sounds to date here. Crammed full of walloping bass, spacious drum fills, and an endless array of pitched vocal samples, the album’s sonic palette is grandiose, verging on excessive. The synth frequencies on tracks like “Gimme” and “Stroke” are so blistering they sound like they’re frying your speakers. There’s no denying the album’s imposing maximalism, but its bells and whistles feel like sensory overload, a red herring that distracts from Banks’s boilerplate commentary on toxic relationships and self-empowerment.
While the electronic pyrotechnics of the album’s first half border on cacophonous, the arrangements on the latter half are comparably toned down and smartly edited. On the standout “Hawaiian Mazes,” threads of cascading harp and piano interweave with pitched-down vocals, forming a serene latticework that brings to mind the music of Jhené Aiko. “Alaska” features the album’s most interesting beat: a syncopated back and forth between off-kilter piano and bongo drums. Throughout these final tracks, electronic touches support rather than overpower the acoustic instrumentation.
Likewise, Banks delivers the album’s strongest vocal performance on “If We Were Made of Water,” delving into her head voice over subdued piano, synths, and strings. Her reedy vocals are better suited for lighter textures like these, as opposed to the suffocating backing tracks of the album’s first half. Her voice grates on “Till Now,” while her attempt at rapping on “The Fall” is nearly unintelligible, her voice so hoarse it resembles a screech.
On album closer “What About Love,” Banks’s outlook on love is optimistic (“What about the life that we could make?/We could grow older”), a deviation from the heartache and hubris that are usually her subject matters of choice. Although they’re empowering in their own right, the anthemic “Gimme” and “Stroke” veer into braggadocious theatricality: “And even though you wanted me sweet, you could call me savory,” she boasts on the latter. When you peel away III’s performative edginess, it’s difficult to form an idea of who the real Banks is.
Label: Harvest Release Date: July 12, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Decoding Madonna’s Disturbing “God Control” Video
The singer’s new video features a wealth of Easter eggs, hidden meanings, and cameos.
Violence has been a surprisingly consistent theme throughout Madonna’s music video canon, from “Like a Prayer” to “What It Feels like for a Girl” to, most recently, “Dark Ballet,” in which Mykki Blanco is burned at the stake. But the video for “God Control,” from her latest album, Madame X, is shockingly graphic in its depiction of gun violence.
The video, which premiered on Wednesday, was directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who also helmed the clip for 2003’s “American Life,” the original version of was scrapped in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Parallels between the two videos are inevitable: “American Life” is a satire of modern society’s consumption of war as popular entertainment, while “God Control” depicts the carnage weapons of war can wreak here at home. Like “American Life,” the new video features a wealth of Easter eggs, hidden meanings, and cameos.
The brunette Madonna (we’ll call her Madame X) has framed photos of Frida Kahlo, Simone de Beauvoir, and Patti Smith hanging on the walls around her desk. Also visible are portraits of choreographer Martha Graham—who, according to Madonna, christened her with the nickname “Madame X” in the late 1970s because she was constantly changing her appearance—and political activist Angela Davis, a quote from whom is a featured at the end of the video: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
The record Madame X listens to while writing is titled “We Need to Wake Up,” printed in a ‘70s-style typeface. The credits, unfortunately, are too small to make out:
Early in “God Control,” a statue of Christ is seen weeping blood, echoing a similar shot in Madonna’s video for “Like a Prayer,” in which a black saint cries tears of blood:
A brief close-up of Madame X’s typewriter pulls focus on the letters “D” and “C,” an obvious reference to Washington D.C.’s inaction:
Later in the clip, Madonna punches the “Power Return” button, an obvious allusion to the people reclaiming their power, which is followed by a montage of gun-control demonstrations:
Though the opening shot of “God Control” establishes New York City as the location of the story, the club scenes were filmed at downtown Los Angeles’s historic Globe Theatre, where the marquee reads “We Need To Wake Up”:
Blink and you’ll miss cameos from RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Monét X Change, YouTuber Gigi Gorgeous, and actress Sofia Boutella, who’s danced for Madonna on tour:
Surveillance footage featured throughout the video is dated “16/05/12,” which some fans have speculated refers to a passage from the New Testament:
In another possible reference to “Like a Prayer,” Madonna is thrown against a wall and attacked, similar to a scene in the 1989 video in which she witnesses a young woman being sexually assaulted by a group of men:
While Madonna gets ready for a night on the town, a poster in the background reads “Straight White Men Rule Everything Around Me”:
Theories abound over whether the two Madonnas featured in the video are the same person, if they’re neighbors, or if the blond Madonna is a fictional creation of Madame X. One clue could be right at our fingertips—or, rather, Madonna’s. Both characters appear to be wearing the same glittery nail polish:
What do you think the video is about? Share your theories in the comments below!
Review: Chris Brown’s Indigo Is a Bloated, Incoherent Personal Statement
The album’s lumbering pace and homogeneity overshadow even its few gems.1.5
On his ninth album, Indigo, Chris Brown goes to great lengths to make sure we know that he’s matured. He’s eager to share the lessons he’s learned about life and love on songs like the smooth “Back to Love” and “All on Me”: “All these wrongs that I’ve done, I’m just tryna make it right,” he bleats on the latter track. You can tell that the self-proclaimed King of R&B is enlightened because he talks about love, energy, and vibrations throughout the 32-track double album, but there’s no sense that he’s attempted to assemble these ideas into a coherent artistic or even personal statement.
Spirituality doesn’t preclude sexuality—“I just wanna realign your chakras,” Brown sings on “Emerald”—but the two are otherwise kept separate across Indigo’s distended two-hour runtime. It might make sense if each section of the album were devoted to a different aspect of Brown’s apparent multitudes, but there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the song sequencing here, shifting abruptly between tracks about self-improvement and sexual hubris.
A series of back-to-back songs in the first half of the album are nothing more than dick-measuring contests between Brown and guests like Tyga, Gunna, and Lil Wayne, with the singer going out of his way—just in case we doubted it—to make it clear just how much he likes “pussy.” From “Wobble Up” to “Just Like That,” he finds no shortage of ways to tell women how to sit on his dick. On “Sexy,” Brown and guest Trey Songz take R. Kelly-style smarm to puerile new depths: “Oh, I’m hard in my pants, give me a hand.”
Indigo is lean compared to 2017’s interminable 45-track Heartbreak on a Full Moon, but the album’s lumbering pace and homogeneity overshadow even its few gems, like the sax-infused “Sorry Enough” and the smooth, disco-inflected “Side Nigga.” And what memorable hooks there are can be credited to sampled songs from the 1990s, including Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile” on “Undecided” and Aaliyah’s “Back and Forth” on “Throw It Back.” A handful of two-part suites like “Natural Disaster/Aura” and “Trust Issues/Act In” at least bother with the pretense of ambition. Otherwise, Indigo fails to justify both its duration and existence.
Label: RCA Release Date: June 28, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Crumb’s Jinx Is a Psych-Rock Debut That’s Hard to Shake
The album often feels cerebral and off-kilter, and its dreamlike ambience at times turns nightmarish.4
In his 1973 essay “Approaches to What?,” French writer Georges Perec contemplates Western culture’s obsession with spectacle, urging us to ignore the distraction of the extraordinary and drink in the everyday, “infra-ordinary” details. “Question your teaspoons,” Perec challenges, before asking, “What is there under your wallpaper?”
Brooklyn-based psych-pop outfit Crumb’s debut, Jinx, operates in the same regard for the quotidian fabric of life. “Pressed my face up close against the glass I see the people/When they pass they move so automatic,” frontwoman and guitarist Lila Ramani sings on “Ghostride.” Though Crumb’s lyrics are imbued with a heightened awareness of routine and ritual, their music has an uncanny ability to immerse us deeply in reverb-soaked guitars and synths that float in like a fog. This is psychedelic rock that stops you dead in your tracks without calling flamboyant attention to itself, relying on artful touches like a low-key synth, a distant French horn, and a ghostly slide guitar to intensify the songs’ spellbinding nature.
Jinx often feels cerebral and off-kilter, and its dreamlike ambience at times turns nightmarish. The disorienting “And It Never Ends” captures the claustrophobia of city life, conveying a feeling of alienating paranoia reminiscent of Radiohead’s OK Computer. And though demons haunt Ramani on “The Letter,” what torments her most is the terrible vacuity of everyday life. On “Part III,” she’s hyperaware of the subtle yet mindless details of routine: “I waste my time in the morning and evening/Caught in a feeling/I lost my mind looking up at the ceiling.”
With Jinx, Crumb manages to distinguish themselves among the latest crop of promising alt-rock bands. The shape of their sound is clearly delineated: Ramani’s plainspoken vocal glides over the gossamer lightness of the band’s soundscapes, forging a distinctive musical identity for the band. Though their sonic palate is monochromatic, their music is both cogent and engrossing. Jinx feels like a hallucination that proves hard to shake.
Label: Crumb Buy: Amazon
Interview: Calexico and Iron & Wine Talk Years to Burn and Collaboration
Joey Burns and Sam Beam spoke with reverence about each other, revealing their multifaceted relationship.
From “Father Mountain,” which urges you to savor love in the face of life’s inevitabilities, to “In Your Own Time,” with its shadowy images flirting with the nightmarish, there’s a melancholy percolating beneath Years to Burn, the second collaborative album from Iron and Wine and Calexico. In a recent conversation with Iron and Wine, a.k.a. Sam Beam, and Calexico’s Joey Burns, the musicians spoke with reverence about each other, both personally and professionally, revealing their multifaceted relationship.
As elusive as the exact source of Years to Burn’s mellowness might be, the work on the project was, to hear Beam and Burns tell it, focused and grounded. The album grew, as Beam says, “out of a determination and a willingness to work together. After we made [2005’s In the Reins], that time we spent together promoting it, and just sort of playing together for so long, formed really strong bonds—familial bonds—and we just really enjoy each other’s company.”
The questions they faced were, according to Burns, “Well, where do you go next? Do you do begin where you last left off or do you just go somewhere totally different?” As it happened, they wouldn’t have too much of an opportunity to ruminate about that: Their time in the studio was limited to five days, and they limited the number of musicians they used, sticking with tried-and-true band members like John Convertino, Paul Niehaus, and Paul Valenzuela. Burns describes a fairly stoic regimen: “You show up at 10 o’clock, do some work, break for lunch, work up until dinner, finish up or just listen back, and then do it all over again. There’s really not much time for hanging out or doing anything else.”
These limitations ended up working to the album’s benefit. “Having a limited amount of time kind of forces you as an artist to make decisions,” Beam says. “You can get really hung up on what the right choices are, and that’s kind of an endless question. With this approach, I’m able to separate myself in a way where I say, well, this is the best choice that we’ve made on this day from this point in the snapshot of our best ideas at the moment. And to me that’s a freeing thing. You make decisions, and those decisions stick, and you live with them, and then you can move on to the next thing.”
Remarkably, Beam and Burns and the other musicians surrounding them found room to improvise and experiment within their constraints. The most evident sign of this, “Bittersweet,” is an entrancing mix of three songs. Burns says it started with his primary partner in Calexico, John Convertino, who suggested they do one song that was totally free of lyrics, chords, and rhythm. “I came up with a title for that, ‘Outside El Paso,’ sort of connecting us geographically,” Burns remembers. “And, of course, there we were in Nashville. And so Sam had a song called ‘Tennessee Train.’ And I thought, hey, what if we took just one chord and we just made a ‘70s groove? And we wound up putting some really great trumpet solos on that. We added some backing vocals. And since it was sort of linked with the song ‘Tennessee Train,’ we started bridging those together. And then I suggested that we take one of the verses and translate it into Spanish for Jacob [Valenzuela] to sing. And then that became sort of a medley. Everything fell together really naturally and quickly.”
Burns describes other moments of productive experimenting too: “We had John Convertino climb into this big old empty tall echo-chamber. It’s at the studio. And we had him record the drum intro [for ‘What Heaven’s Left’]. And he had to carry his floor tom inside there. It’s a very small opening. It’s like a tiny window. And basically what you do is you put a microphone at one end of this room, and then at the other end you put a speaker. And that’s how you get the natural reverb sound.”
Though Beam had clear ideas about how he wanted the album to proceed, he also welcomed and appreciated these gestures of spontaneity. “It’s what can potentially make music really exciting, recording music and also playing music,” he says. “It’s sort of losing the safety net and stretching out. And so I wanted to make sure that we incorporated that into what we were making this time. Last time, I don’t feel like we really did that, because I didn’t really understand that about them at the time.”
Time has made the two bands more effective collaborators. The way Burns sees it, time has changed them, but that’s inevitable: “We’re just different people. Different experiences have accumulated. And so there’s a different end result. And not only that, but if we were to record the same songs and do another album like this, a week or a month later, it probably would come out a lot differently. That’s the beauty of this—it just depends on the mood and the vibe and the place where you’re at, and where everyone is at internally or emotionally.”
Beam, similarly, takes time in stride but is also curious about the changes it could bring. “It was odd, you know, that almost 15 years had passed in between, kind of crazy to think of,” he says. “The first time we did it, we hadn’t worked together before, so I was just sort of bringing in songs without knowing what it would sound like or what the collaboration would end up being like. And this time, it was 15 years later, so I was looking over my memories, and memories can be not quite so trustworthy sometimes. But I was also working off those strengths, and then also trying some new things.”
And so what of the songs themselves? Many musical collaborations sound like they were were designed by committee. With Years to Burn, like collaborations ranging from that of Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong and reaching all the way back to Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, something just works. While you might hear traces of each individual performer in the mix, the sound created is unique.
Beam says collaboration drove everything here, starting with the track sequence: “There were thematic elements going on in the songs chosen for the album. I think we were all really intent on there being a lot of shared singing responsibilities. And so, in putting the sequence together I really wanted to feel like we kept sort of passing the baton around. When you’re putting those things together, you’re looking for a sort of sonic feel, flow, variety. You’re looking for different kinds of musical movements, and then also passing the baton around like a hot potato of singing responsibilities.”
And yet Beam’s process for writing the songs on the album (he wrote all but one of them) was fairly private and intuitive. “Writing songs is not a math problem,” he says. “There’s not a right or wrong answer. So you kind of do what you feel like at the moment. It’s a matter of what you’re trying to achieve with a song, any individual one. If you want to express an idea outside of your experience and live into that, songs and art are a great place to do that, to explore an ideal or fantasy. I don’t really do that. I just talk about my experience, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. But I guess that’s just where my mind is when I sit down to write. I get contemplative.” The album, indeed, is all about thoughts, and the emotions behind them, more than it’s about tangible things; these songs float just outside of what we might easily summarize. And yet the feelings and impressions being described in the songs are quite real, and recognizable, becoming more poignant with each listen.
Taylor Swift Drops Star-Studded, Pride-Themed “You Need to Calm Down” Video
The video takes the notion of visibility as a means of acceptance to the extreme.
After years of political agnosticism, Taylor Swift endorsed two Tennessee Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections, prompting a backlash from white supremacists and their dear leader, Donald Trump. In the span of less than a year, the singer went from being the Aryan goddess of the alt-right to being called out as an agent of sodomy in a sermon by a homophobic pastor and sheriff’s deputy in her home state.
Swift’s path to wokeness has been a long one, and while the launch of her new single, “You Need to Calm Down,” during LGBT Pride Month might feel like the equivalent of Google slapping a rainbow flag on their logo, her activism—which included a recent $113,000 donation to a Tennessee LGBT organization—seems like more than just a branding opportunity. “To be an ally is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting,” Swift posted on Tumblr after rumors circulated that she kisses former rival Katy Perry in the video for “You Need to Calm Down,” the second single from Swift’s seventh album, Lover.
The clip does, however, take the notion of visibility as a means of acceptance to the extreme, featuring cameos from RuPaul, Ellen DeGeneres, Adam Lambert, Adam Rippon, Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (whom she serenaded at a surprise performance at New York’s Stonewall Inn last week), and other queer celebrities, YouTube stars, and allies.
Directed by Swift and Drew Kirsch, the video opens with the pop singer waking up in a pastel-colored trailer home adorned with kitschy paintings and a framed Cher quote (“Mom, I am a rich man”). She makes herself a cotton-candy smoothie, takes a dip the cleanest above-ground pool you’ll ever see, and parades through the trailer park’s pride-themed festivities, which includes a “pop queen pageant” featuring drag versions of Swift, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Adele, Cardi B, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry.
The real Katy pops up for a heartfelt reunion with Swift that makes “You Need to Calm Down”—which seems to strive for, but falls short of, the campy eye candy that Perry has honed in her own videos over the years—feel like a bachelorette party at a gay bar. But just in case you question Swift’s allegiance to the cause, the video ends with a message urging viewers to sign her petition for Senate support of the Equality Act.
Swift’s album, Lover, is due August 23 via Republic Records.
Review: Yeasayer’s Erotic Reruns Is a Collection of Benign Love Songs
The album aims for an enthralling vision of infatuation, but the band’s message rings hollow.2
Yeasayer’s decade-plus-spanning discography is eclectic, purveying everything from world music (All Hour Cymbals) to austere electro (Fragrant World) to outlandish psych rock (Amen & Goodbye). As a relic of the bygone age of neo-hippie pantheism marshaled by the likes of Animal Collective and MGMT, the experimental rock outfit faces the quandary of evolving their sound for today’s indie landscape, which favors the low-key over the baroque. On Erotic Reruns, the band dives headfirst into flowery pop-rock, accomplishing yet another stylistic about-face and pruning away their most esoteric tendencies.
Throughout their fifth studio album, Yeasayer aims to transmit an enthralling vision of infatuation, but their message rings hollow. With its truncated verses and refrain, opener “People I Loved” seems hastily assembled, and its “na-na-na” hook quickly grows tiring. The band’s lyrics are often half-baked, making the rapture of falling in love on the plodding piano-driven “I’ll Kiss You Tonight” feel like a rather banal occurrence.
Even when Yeasayer is primed toward eliciting the longing and lust of infatuation, their sound is fettered by exaggeration. “Let Me Listen in on You” is chock-full of sweet nothings like “I can make your dreams come true,” and its florid strings give the chorus a sense of overdone theatricality. Elsewhere, a high-pitched vocal and carnival synth grant “Ecstatic Baby” a whimsy so overblown that one imagines the track would be deemed too cheesy for an Apple commercial. When Yeasayar does accomplish to tap into love’s exhilaration, they relay it with a heavy hand, making already sentimental concepts feel saccharine.
Erotic Reruns is a collection of ultimately benign love songs, as the eroticism proposed by the album’s title is glaringly absent across 29 scant minutes. Yeasayer are amiable, starry-eyed musicians whose sound, at its best, is inviting even as it overreaches. But while a concern for authenticity may not be pop music’s primary enterprise, among its virtues is its capacity to consistently excite and enchant. Try as they might, Yeasayer fail to attain either.
Label: Yeasayer Release Date: June 7, 2019 Buy: Amazon
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