âWho lives, who dies, who tells your story?â Thatâs the hook from the last song in Hamilton, but it could just as easily be a line from Jay-Zâs 4:44. This is an album concerned with legacyâabout what we leave behind, about how weâre remembered. Itâs about atoning for our shortcomings and shining a light for those who follow after us. Itâs a reckoning with Jayâs own legacy but also as a prescription for black excellence, a rewriting of black Americaâs story.
Jay-Z made 4:44 with producer No I.D., whose beats luxuriate in burnished soul and jazz samples; combined with the relatively light feature roster and the short running time, this makes for the most focused Jay-Z album since The Blueprint. Itâs not surprising that, with legacy on his mind, Jay-Z would return to the sound of one of his defining albums, but what is surprising is how much fight heâs got in him. Itâs been at least a decade since he sounded this engaged, delivering punchlines with gusto, allowing his voice to creak during moments of confession, varying his flow like the old pro that he is.
The albumâs thematic concern with legacy is set with âKill Jay-Z,â which finds the MC strangling his ego, pledging to forget Jay-Z the brand and to just get real and raw for a few minutes. And he goes right for the hard stuff too, not only responding to the allegations of infidelity that BeyoncĂ© shot his way on Lemonade, but fessing up to them. The backing track has a siren looping through it, and Jay-Z is on red alert: He could have lost everything, and he knows it. In an inversion of the typical hip-hop bravado, he reckons that heâs âgotta get softer,â and his cadence is appropriately cracked and weary.
The next track, âThe Story of O.J.â loops a few bars from Nina Simoneâs âFour Womenâ and strikes an altogether different tone. Jay-Z is more feisty and playful here, considering the downfall of famous black men even as he counts his money and swears to do better by his family. âO.J. like, âIâm not black, Iâm O.J.,ââ he raps, and thereâs a pause where you can almost hear him rolling his eyes. âOkay,â he shrugs, and moves on. Later in the song, he admits that his collection of finer things may strike some as bourgeoisie, but all he cares about is passing them down to his kids. Framed by 4:44âs legacy obsession, itâs his most convincing conflation of wealth with black excellence to date.
Speaking of which, another reference to black excellence shows up in the albumâs final song, a triumphal, brass-filled anthem called, of course, âLegacy.â Thatâs where everything comes together: Jay-Zâs done bad things, and heâs sorry; all heâs ever wanted to do was hustle a better life for his kids, his family, his people. That broad brushstroke is supported by individual songs that make the rapperâs points with surgical precision. âFamily Feudâ traces his entrepreneurial swagger from cocaine to âblack-owned champagne,â a familiar Jay-Z conceit thatâs seldom been presented with greater power or economy. And âMarcy Me,â one of his smoothest and toughest flows in ages, looks back to his roots in the Marcy projects as a benchmark for how far heâs come.
Thereâs not a wasted moment on this rare Jay-Z album thatâs too taut and focused for crossover singles or distractions from its central thesis. He takes 4:44 seriously but doesnât forget to have fun along on the wayâand really, thereâs no other way to describe his cheerful, crackling energy. It adds up to an album that builds on the themes that heâs pursued his whole life, all while finding new depth within them. Itâs one to remember him by.
Label: Roc Nation Release Date: June 30, 2017 Buy: Amazon
The 12 Worst Christmas Songs of All Time
Here are 12 of our least favorite holiday songs, one for each day it took the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus.
Itâs that time of the year again. Black Friday sales. Last-minute treks to the gym to absolve your guilt over that third slice of pecan pie. And Mariah Carey playing on every radio station and in every shopping mall for the next 26 days. Unfortunately, weâll also have to endure a litany of ill-conceived and poorly executed Christmas songs that are inexplicably resurrected every year, and will likely be until time immemorial. Here are 12 of our least favorites, one for each day that it took for the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus after he was born.
Editorâs Note: This article was originally published on November 28, 2011.
12. Jimmy Boyd, âI Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clausâ
This Saks Fifth Avenue potboiler from 1952 about a child catching his mother being sexually assaulted by an elderly home invader only becomes even creepier when you realize the kidâs mom isnât cheating on his dad, but that Mommy and Daddy have a Santa fetish.
11. Sia, âPuppies Are Foreverâ
A track from Siaâs 2017 collection of holiday originals, Everyday Is Christmas, âPuppies Are Foreverâ is a reggae-vibed public service announcement about, well, how puppies are not forever: âTheyâre so cute and fluffy with shiny coats/But will you love âem when theyâre old and slow?â The repetitive wannabe-earworm is, at best, an admirable message about the responsibilities of pet ownership. And it comes complete with the sound of barking dogs. (Earplugs not included.)
10. Lou Monte, âDominick the Donkeyâ
Lou Monteâs 1960 holiday jingle about Saint Nicola outsourcing his Christmas present deliveries in the Italian mountainside to a dim-witted donkey feels more prescient than ever. But that doesnât make it any less irritating.
9. Dan Fogelberg, âSame Old Lang Syneâ
The concept is touching enough: Fogelberg runs into an old flame at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and they grab a drink and reminisce. But melodramatic lyrics (âShe went to hug me and she spilled her purse/And we laughed until we criedâ) and gratuitous details (âWe took her groceries to the checkout stand/The food was totalled up and baggedâ) make âSame Old Lang Syneâ a cloying annual annoyance.
8. Neil Diamond, âCherry Cherry Christmasâ
In this addition to the schmaltzy, nonsensical holiday song canon, Neil Diamond wishes you âa very, merry, cherry, cherry, holly-holy, rockinâ-rolly Christmas,â before idiotically exclaiming, âCherry Christmas, everyone!â at songâs end.
7. Cyndi Lauper, âChristmas Congaâ
Holiday cheer has always been all-inclusive. Hell, even the Jewish Neil Diamond has released three Christmas albums. But Iâm going to go out on a limb and say a Latin house anthem with lyrics like âBonga, bonga, bonga, do the Christmas conga!â probably wasnât necessary. But we still love you, Cyn.
The 25 Greatest Beck Songs, Ranked
For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments.
Beckâs breakout hit, âLoser,â represented the sound of the nationâs youth wearing their slackerdom as a badge of honor. Itâs a rather dubious fate for the workmanlike track, considering that if Gen X ever âhadâ a sound, it was the slow, snarling grunge roiling out of the Pacific Northwest, a genre far too self-possessed and clumsily aggressive to match the decidedly goofy appeal of Beckâs patchwork style. If anything, âLoserâ was a middle finger to the self-serious headbangers, Beckâs own shrug at the angsty masses before ignoring them altogether and staking his career on offbeat lonerism.
The lonesomeness that results from possessing such an individualist streak is explored rather profoundly on albums like Sea Change and Morning Phase, but regardless of the personal costs, heâs become a folk hero, having built his legacy on championing near-forgotten strains of Americana at every turn. Constructing a list of his best tracks can thus be likened to assembling a mosaic pieced together from several generations of music. The songs themselves arenât simply attention-starved amalgams strung together randomly though: For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments, empathetic to the point where his creations often cease to be facsimiles at all, but heartfelt creations born from the same cultural conscious that inspired them. You canât write if you canât relate, indeed. Kevin Liedel
Editorâs Note: Listen to our Beck playlist on Spotify.
Midnite Vultures exists largely as satire, but it also serves as an opportunity for the usually cryptic Beck to let his freak flag fly. On the epic, cheesy âDebra,â he hoists it way, way up, further establishing the absurdity of the albumâs seedy narcissism by attempting to pick up sisters. The greatest moment here, however, is the supreme elasticity of Beckâs voice, sprinting from husky whispers to erotic falsettos with the kind of joie de vivre worthy of Prince. Liedel
24. âSoul Suckinâ Jerkâ
Beckâs sense of humor has always been prevalent in his music, but whatâs less well-established is how his absurd, juvenile setups often dissolve into black-hearted non sequiturs. âSoul Suckinâ Jerkâ is one such reversal, a slacker tale that traces Beckâs working stiff from the food court into the edges of civilization just as its verse descends from quiet basslines into raucous drum stomps. âFor 14 days Iâve been sleeping in a barn,â Beckâs suburban drone-cum-backwoods anarchist observes, right before a guttural, bottom-heavy font of distortion hammers home the desperation in his wisecracks. Liedel
23. âHollywood Freaksâ
Beck lays claim to legitimate skills on the mic, and theyâve never been stronger or more precise than on âHollywood Freaks.â Of course, this being Beck, the rhymes come with a twist, delivered in a lisping, nasal drone thatâs part Truman Capote and part Sylvester the Cat. All the better for it, considering the slick, springy track boasts the weirdest combination of allusions Beckâs ever concocted: Ripple, No Doz, Norman Schwarzkopf, tricked-out Hyundais, and the songâs ubiquitous, drunken tagline, âHeâs my nun!â Liedel
Given Beckâs recent lavish productions, itâs easy to forget that in the early- to mid-â90s he was a lo-fi master. This is nowhere more evident than on 1994âs One Foot in the Grave, a barebones album steeped in folk and blues. Its centerpiece is âForcefield,â a song built on three simple yet haunting acoustic guitar notes and intertwining vocals by Beck and Sam Jayne of the sadly unheralded post-hardcore band Lync. The lyrics are largely enigmatic, but the chorus poignantly summarizes the necessity of a metaphorical forcefield: âDonât let it get too near you/Donât let it get too close/Donât let it turn you into/The things you hate the most.â Michael Joshua Rowin
âRowboat,â from 1994âs Stereopathetic Soulmanure, is a gently strummed, classically constructed ballad of rejection and loneliness that features Beckâs early penchant for lyrics that alternate between deadpan melancholy (âRowboat, row me to the shore/She donât wanna be my friend no moreâ) and humorous non sequitur (âDog food on the floor/And Iâve been like this beforeâ). Late Nashville legend Leo Blancâs stunning steel pedal work provides just the right amount of additional sorrow, and, as if to give it the country stamp of approval, Johnny Cash covered the song in 1996. Rowin
Review: Beckâs Hyperspace Is As Lyrically Vague As It Is Sonically Minimal
Most of the albumâs songs blend into each other so nebulously that they become collectively anonymous.2.5
Throughout his varied and unpredictable career, Beck has achieved constancy in one respect: an almost unrelentingly bleak worldview, a portrayal of pre- and post-millennium America as a Bosch-like inferno of indignities. It was there early on, in his adherence to the folk and blues tradition of biblical prophesying (âThere must be some blueprint, some creed of the devil inscribed in our minds,â he sang on 1998âs Mutations), and itâs in his more recent work, darkening avant-pop efforts like 2008âs Modern Guilt and adding a global sense of sadness to ostensibly more introspective albums like 2014âs Morning Phase.
Which is why 2017âs Colors was so surprising: Aside from one or two tracks, it was Beckâs first unabashed, unironic feel-good party album. But if Colors was a million-dollar bash, then Beckâs follow-up, Hyperspace, is the comedown. While similarly heavy on beats and electronics, the album lacks its predecessorâs bounce and exuberance. This trade-in would initially appear welcome since, unlike Beckâs past genre experiments, which always contained an unmistakable personal touch, Colorsâs glossy, airbrushed fun bordered on inhuman. By comparison, Hyperspace represents something at least relatively thoughtful, its skeletal beats and somber synth washesâa result of Beck working with co-producer Pharrell Williamsâsuggesting a period of midlife self-examination against a backdrop of perpetual twilight.
For a few moments early on in the album, Beck follows through on this premise. Opener âHyperlifeâ acts as a brief prologue by announcing the albumâs core theme of melancholic and disconnected excess, the phrase âcrushing lifeâ qualifying a desire for âmore and more beauty, lightâ amid several interweaving synth textures. This leads into âUneventful Days,â with deep keyboard washes and effervescent twinkles playing over a modest trap beat as Beck continues the theme with a lovely melodic vocal: âNever-ending days, never-ending nights/Everything I say, I know I canât get right.â The mood is dreamy, numbed, and yet somehow hopeful.
But tracks like the albumâs lead single, âSaw Lightening,â return both to the forced enthusiasm of Colors and to the hybridization of blues and hip-hop that Beck explored with far more wit on early hits like Odelayâs âHotwax.â As one of the only âupâ songs on Hyperspace, its forward momentum is undermined by a conventionally programmed drum track, popcorning keyboard blips, an annoying Pharrell verse, and faux-gospel background yelps that transform a lyric about the end of the world into what sounds like soundtrack music for an action movie.
What follows is a series of slight midtempo electro-pop ballads: âDie Waitingâ sways with a brightness augmented by acoustic guitar strums, âSee Throughâ emphasizes bubbling electronic percussion, and âStarâ uses video game-esque bloops and a gently pulsing bassline as a nest for Beckâs falsetto vocals. Itâs all in the chillwave vein and, while not oppressive like Colors, itâs also all extremely soporific. Aside from the ascendant airiness of âChemical,â the gospel grandeur of âEverlasting Nothing,â and a few interweaving vocal lines that call back to the aural density of Midnite Vultures, most of the tracks blend into each other so nebulously that they become collectively anonymous. When something stands out itâs usually for an ugly reason: The title trackâs rap breakdown is exceedingly cornball, and a few songs fade out so abruptly and awkwardly it seems like theyâre embarrassed at their own meagerness.
Beck might have redeemed Hyperspace with his underappreciated lyrical genius, and he could have gone in two different directions in doing so: a return to the pared-down confessional songwriting that made 2002âs vulnerable Sea Change so universally resonant, or else the absurdist wordplay, apocalyptic imagery, and pop-cultural detritus that typically fill Beckâs songs to the bursting point with vivid portraiture and singular turns of phrase. (Even Colors achieved some, well, color with lines like âI want to see you with the pharaohâs curse/The apple flower doggerel, the batteries burst.â) But thereâs little of either throughout Hyperspace, which is as lyrically vague as it is musically minimal.
Instead of creating a unique world of characters, Beck populates too many songs with first-persona clichĂ©s (âI donât care what I have to do/You know that Iâm gonna wait on youâ), and, elsewhere, his metaphors are rote and obvious (love is a drug on âChemical,â disorientation becomes the directionless heavens on âStratosphereâ). By the time Beck finally gets to an original, gut-punching metaphor in âEverlasting NothingâââAnd I washed up on the shoreline/Everyone was waiting there for me/Like a standing ovation for the funeral of the sunââitâs too late to make up for an albumâs worth of platitudes.
Beckâs 2006 album The Information is a better example of his unrivaled funhouse approach to style and tone: By blending techno, folk, punk, hip-hop, Krautrock, blues, ambient, and groove-oriented rock, that album is by turns strange, aggressive, hilarious, disturbing, eerie, and fun, all while expressing wry dismay over our current cyber-Armageddon. In comparison, and for all its apparent now-ness, Hyperspace feels inconsequential and incomplete.
Label: Capitol Release Date: November 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon
The 20 Best Rihanna Singles
We took a look back through the singer’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.
Like Madonna before her, Rihanna possesses a shrewd ability to sniff out percolating trends and a willingness to zig when sheâs expected to zag. âRussian Roulette,â âDiamonds,â and âFour Five Secondsâ were all surprising moves for an artist who could have safely preserved the status quo. The Barbadian singerâs wild success, which includes 11 solo #1 hits in the U.S., can also be attributed to her seemingly steadfast work ethic, yielding seven albums in just the first eight years of her career. That streak ended with 2012âs Unapologetic, and sheâs only dropped one album since then, 2016âs ANTI. While we wait out another dry spell in one of contemporary popâs most unexpectedly enduring careers, we took a look back through Rihannaâs catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.
Editorâs Note: Listen to our Rihanna playlist onÂ Spotify.
20. âFour Five Secondsâ
The reverberations of a âella-ellaâ or âna-naâ now feel something like a big bang: There would be no âWe Canât Stop,â no âCome & Get It,â without the syllabic tongue games Rihanna used to galvanize pop in the latter half of the aughts. Of course, hashtagging your way through vocals only gets a career so far, and if âStayâ saw RiRi try to demonstrate greater range through familiar forms, âFour Five Secondsâ does so the way she knows best: by inventing her own. Paired with Kanye West in his rough crooner mode, the two bleat bluesy woes over Paul McCartneyâs best Lindsey Buckingham impression. Itâs an oddly affecting formula thatâs unlikely to prove quite so imitableâthough Miley and Selena are welcome to try. Sam C. Mac
To say the world wasnât exactly thrilled to hear Rihanna, after just having bared her soul in Rated R about (among other things) âthat incident,â singing about how much chains and whips excite her would be a gross understatement. Career momentum, and a little assist from Britney Spears on the remix, thrust âS&Mâ to the top of the charts anyway, but youâd be hard-pressed to find many admitting that they, too, like the smell of sex in the air. But screw it, weâll say it. âS&Mâ might be the boldest of all Rihanna house jams, the moment when she truly found her Janet Jackson-circa-âThrobâ stride. Eric Henderson
18. âLove on the Brainâ
No one would ever confuse Rihanna with Amy Winehouse, but the doo-wop-inspired fourth single from 2016âs ANTI channels the late singerâs brand of throwback pop with its juxtaposition of retro instrumentation and, one might say, retrograde lyrics: âIt beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good that I canât get enough.â Rihanna shows off her vocal versatility throughout the track, at turns cooing in falsetto and dropping to a growl, as she unabashedly puts her heartâand her brainâon her sleeve. Sal Cinquemani
17. âMan Downâ
Rihannaâs follow-up to ANTI will reportedly be more reggae-influenced than any of her previous efforts. Of course, the singer has already paid homage to her roots countless times over the course of her career. One highlight is âMan Down,â about a woman who shoots a man in the public square, putting a feminine twist on Bob Marleyâs âI Shot the Sheriff.â Rihannaâs vocals are surprisingly agile, and âMan Downâ is one of her most confident performances to date. Alexa Camp
If âUmbrellaâ was a good girlâs gesture of generosity, âRehabâ is her reeling from the abuse of a bad man who squandered it. âIâll never give myself to another the way I gave it to youâ is one of the saddest Rihanna lyrics, but a blow blunted by the singerâs signature resigned delivery, deployed here as a coping mechanism. What might be a typical lovelorn ballad becomes tough and resilient, a tone well complemented by Timbaland snapping percussion and dramatic strings, and the anonymity Rihanna had been criticized for suddenly matures into a mode of vocalizing repressed emotion that sheâd never before explored. It only took a crummy metaphor to get her there. Mac
Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Like a Virgin” at 35
Weâre taking a look back at the song the Queen of Pop has perpetually made shiny and new.
Confession: Iâve never cared much for âLike a Virgin.â Madonnaâs 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but itâs a trifleâa novelty, reallyâwith its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-âBillie Jeanâ bassline, and the singerâs helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from âExpress Yourselfâ to âDonât Tell Me,â Madonna has proven sheâs capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on âLike a Virginâ were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonnaâs voice more childlike and âvirginal.â (Itâs a trick sheâs lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.)
Iâm in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself arenât particularly fond of âLike a Virginâ either, and sheâs chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time sheâs performed it. The single was released on Halloween in 1984, and this week also marks the 35th anniversary of the album of the same name. To commemorate this milestone, weâre taking a look back at three and a half decades of a song Madonna has mercifully, perpetually made shiny and new by sheer force of will and ingenuity.
MTV Video Music Awards (1984)
Feminists angered by Madonnaâs choice of a belt buckle during her performance at the MTV VMAs in 1984 seemed to miss the fact that her groom was a mannequin and that she chose instead to consummate her vows with her wedding veil. By the time sheâd descended her giant wedding cake, hit the floor, and rolled around on the stage, showing her knickers to the world, there was no confusion about what the M stood for in the giant MTV logo towering above her.
Music Video (1984)
Shot largely in St. Marksâs Square in Venice, Italy, the music video for âLike a Virginâ found Madonna playing Beauty to a man dressed as a Beast, specifically a lion (which not coincidentally happens to be the symbol of Mark the Evangelist). The singer is depicted as both virginal brideâsauntering impatiently through the basilica, undressing the furnitureâand street harlot, hungrily prowling the bridges and canals of the Floating City.
Blond Ambition Tour (1990)
Ostensibly growing weary of her biggest hit, Madonna reinterpreted âLike a Virginâ with a Middle Eastern-inspired arrangement for her Blond Ambition Tour, casting herself as harem girl (the other âgirlsâ being male dancers, natch, dressed in conical bras designed by Jean Paul Gautier). Having long shed her âBoy Toyâ image for a more empowering, self-reliant brand of post-feminism, the Queen of Pop once again made it clear that âLike a Virginâ is first and foremost a paean to self-love.
The Girlie Show (1993)
The story goes that Madonna looked up Gene Kelly in 1993 to ask him to give her notes on her Girlie Show Tour, the sets and choreography of which were inspired by Hollywood musicals from the 1950s like Kellyâs Singinâ in the Rain. âLike a Virginâ was originally intended to be sung by a man, and Madge had been toying with the idea of paying homage to Marlene Dietrich and French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier by dressing in drag for a slapstick-and-vaudeville version of âLike a Wirgin.â Kelly, then in his 80s, gave his stamp of approval, and the rest is, as they say, history.
MTV Video Music Awards (2003)
After putting the song into retirement for a decade, Madonna dusted âLike a Virginâ off for the 20th annual VMAs, this time playing the groom to Britney Spears and Christina Aguileraâs not-so-blushing brides in yet another gender-bending performance of her iconic hit.
Confessions Tour (2006)
In 2005, Madonna was thrown from her horse while riding at her country estate outside London, breaking her hand, three ribs, and her collarbone. The accident served as inspiration for her Confessions Tour the following year, which opened with an equestrian-themed segment. A knowing wink to the suggestion that there was nothing left of the pop star to reveal of herself, x-rays of her cracked bones were projected onto giant screens as she mounted a carousel horse, stroking the giant pole, and performing near-acrobatic moves to the beat of a discofied revamp of âLike a Virgin.â Back in the saddle, indeed.
MDNA Tour (2012)
Madonna ended up back on the floor for this striking, unexpectedly poignant rendition of âLike a Virginâ for 2012âs MDNA Tour. The delicate piano waltz was juxtaposed with the singer flashing her lady parts, defying those whoâd for years squawked that the fiftysomething performer should put on her clothes and take a bow. Asking fans who likely paid a pretty penny for their front-row seats to throw money at her like a stripper might seem crass, but then this tour-de-force segues into MDNAâs âLove Spent,â a song about the dissolution of the so-called Material Girlâs marriage to Guy Ritchie, who reportedly got millions in a divorce settlement.
Rebel Heart Tour (2015)
After more than three decades performing the hit that made her a household name, Madonna took things back to basics for her Rebel Heart Tour, delivering a somewhat faithful rendition of âLike a Virginâ for fans around the globe. She didnât roll on the floor and show the world her underwear, but she did hump the stage in homage to her infamous VMA performance and at one point stripped off her shirt.
See where âLike a Virginâ landed on our list of Every Madonna Single Ranked.
Review: Celine Dionâs Courage Digs Deep But Largely Comes Up Empty
In terms of both length and theme, the singerâs 12th English-language album can feel exhausting.2.5
In recent years, Celine Dion has been less likely to generate headlines for her music than for her eccentric fashion choices and personal developments (her husband of over two decades, RenĂ© AngĂ©lil, died in 2016). And the French-Canadian singerâs first English-language effort in six years, Courage, is unlikely to change that. The album opens with the club hit âFlying on My Own,â a rousing house anthem thatâs a bit of a red herring. With the exception of âLovers Never Dieâ and âNobodyâs Watchingââwhich deliver just enough peripheral urban-leaning pop and funk, respectively, to not offend Dionâs core audienceâthe rest of the albumâs 70-minute runtime is filled with boilerplate balladry.
Though Dion doesnât write her own material, much of Courage features lyrical references to loss and mourning. âI would be lying if I said Iâm fine/I think of you at least a hundred times,â she sings on the title track, a heart-wrenching piano ballad whose lovely versesââI talk to you like I did then/In conversations that will never endââare put into stark relief by its schmaltzy hook. Co-penned by Sam Smith, âFor the Lover That I Lostâ is expectedly mopey, though itâs less so in Dionâs hands, her vocals erring on the side of understatement. Sheâs in fine voice throughout the album, though signs of wear are obvious (and welcome) in her scratchy belt on âChange My Mindâ and the husky lower register she employs on âLook at Us Now.â
Co-written by Sia and David Guetta, the string-laden âLying Downâ feels both modern and classic, while âBest of Allâ comes closest to recapturing the timeless quality of Dionâs peak output. Perhaps intentionally, itâs not until the albumâs last third that true joy breaks through, on the soulful, doo-wop-inspired âHow Did You Get Hereâ and the gospel-infused closing track, âThe Hard Way.â In terms of both its length and themes, the 20-track Courage can feel exhausting, alternating between platitudes about grief and self-empowerment that, with only a few exceptions, make what should feel cathartic sound empty and even anonymous.
Label: Columbia Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: DJ Shadowâs Our Pathetic Age Paints a Grim Picture of Modern Life
The double album speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.3.5
Imagine a magician. He walks on stage and wordlessly holds up a canister of gasoline, which he then drinks from. He then places a stick of dynamite in his mouth and lights it like a cigar. The fuse burns down and the magician explodes, blowing a huge hole in the stage and soaking the audience with blood and viscera. As everyone is shocked and terrified, their ears ringing, the magician appears on a nearby balcony. Ta-da! You might ask how he did it. But a better question is: What does he do to equal if not to top himself?
Such is the problem thatâs faced DJ Shadow since 1996âs EndtroducingâŠ, which was genre- and era-defining in a way that few other electronic albums have ever been. His later output simply hasnât been as innovative or exciting, destined to be read in the context of that triumphant debut. Perhaps thatâs why Shadowâs sixth album, Our Pathetic Age, announces in its very title that his concerns are immediate. The cover, rendered in Pop Art style, shows a woman in semi-profile gasping as she looks at a smartphone. The cover art and title, taken in tandem, suggests that this double album is a stinging critique of our age of technological proliferation. Despite this, Shadow has said that he doesnât intend his latest to be an indictment of modern life as much as a comment on it, one that speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.
Our Pathetic Ageâs first half showcases Shadowâs renowned ability to build songs entirely out of samples. The best of these evoke clear referents through their soundscapes: âIntersectionalityâ layers synths on top of an icy, spare beat until it builds to a neon-lit climax that might make you wish you were riding in a spinner from Blade Runner, while âSlingbladeâ matches glitch-poppy drum programming to a fluttery, Koji Kondo-esque synth melody.
More compact than its sprawling title suggests, âBeauty Power Motion Life Work Chaos Lawâ shows Shadowâs continued ability to wring humor out of his work. The track starts with a funky synth figure that morphs into something more jazz-inspired, with jittery piano on top of splash-heavy drumming. Everything except for the drums drops out as the song comes to its conclusion, and Shadow delivers the punchline with a voice telling the drummer to âshut the fuck upâ against a polite smattering of applause.
On the albumâs second half, Shadow takes a back seat and welcomes an all-star cast of guests to bring their own identity to bear on the songs. De La Soul infuses the catchy, high-energy party anthem âRocket Fuelâ with their trademark infectiousness, while Nas and Pharaohe Monch trade furious verses on âDrone Warfare,â the most explicitly political track on Our Pathetic Age. The rappers address mass surveillance, economic inequality, corporate malfeasance, and racial injustice over an explosive, take-no-prisoners beat.
Ghostface Killah, Inspektah Deck, and Raekwon contribute verses to âRain on Snow,â which starts with a tired Game of Thrones reference but recovers by showcasing the trioâs dexterous lyricism. Shadow lays their vocals over a ghostly hook (âRain on snow makes it melt awayâ) and the juxtaposition makes their lines pop even more. âKings and Queensâ gives Run the Jewels another chance to make the case that theyâre one of the best rap duos in history, and the gospel choir chorus tethers the song to the groupâs Dirty South roots.
The title track and closer is a four-on-the-floor disco jam that makes excellent use of Future Islandsâs Samuel T. Herring, whose delivery splits the difference between Tom Waits and Bill Withers and settles perfectly into the groove. His lyrics paint a picture of a relationship recalled through the haze of time, his memories framed by years of emotional decay. Balanced against the propulsive music, the song is as effecting as anything Shadow has ever done.
Less successful is âC.O.N.F.O.R.M.,â which is peppered with boilerplate carping about Twitter and social media from Gift of Gab, Infamous Taz, and Lateef the Truth Speaker, while âSmall Colleges (Stay with Me),â featuring Wiki and Paul Banks, feels like something youâd hear in a grocery store. As is frequently the case with double albums padded with filler, Out Pathetic Ageâs biggest problem is that too much of it feels disposable, anodyne, or tossed off. But Shadow still manages to get some strong work out of both himself and his guests, and he deserves credit for not trying to merely recreate the same trick over and over.
Label: Mass Appeal Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: I Made a Place Finds Bonnie âPrinceâ Billy at His Most Existential
The album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life.4.5
âYou need to knock this one out of the park,â Will Oldham sings on âNew Memory Box,â the rollicking opening track of I Made a Place, his first album of original material in six years. If it sounds like heâs suffering from diminished confidence, donât be fooled: Oldhamâs albums as Bonnie âPrinceâ Billy always achieve a cohesiveness that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and I Made a Place is no exception.
The 13 songs here feature straightforward folk arrangements of guitar, drum, bass, fiddle, strings, horns, and the odd synth part. This is a song cycle with cosmic concerns in mind, and the simplicity of the music renders Oldhamâs voice (and lyrics) that much clearer. âLook Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Pastâ is made up of a gently strummed acoustic guitar and the singerâs indelible yowl. The lyrics tell a story about a man named Richard who undergoes a transfiguration as his materialistic worldview is reshaped both by quantum physics and spiritual renewal. Itâs weighty stuff, but Oldham sings the song with the playful shimmy of a George Jones tune. His ability to be profound and uproarious at the same time is on full display: âGet your sense of self from a hydrogen blast.â
The word âapocalypticâ is frequently applied to Oldhamâs work, and with good reason: His worldview has been haunted by some unnameable or just unnamed cataclysm, from the recent past or lurking over the horizon. I Made a Place finds his fascination with catastrophe and collapse alive and well, though the subject is addressed more elliptically than on past albums. Instead of a dystopian depiction of civilizationâs collapse, though, the album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life. Oldham is, for all his oddity, a deeply human songwriter, and throughout I Made a Place his tone is alternately celebratory and comforting.
Images of darkness, shadow, and fire pervadeâthough itâs unclear whether that fire is a conflagration or merely the worldâs sole remaining light source. Yet the tone is rather ruminative. âThis Is Far from Overâ finds Oldham contemplating âshorelines gone and maps destroyed, livelihoods dissolved and void,â but he reassures us that ânew wild creatures will be bornâ because âthe whole worldâs far from over.â Oldhamâs gentle warble is set to a softly plucked acoustic guitar, and a flute solo closes things on a hopeful note.
Throughout, Oldham serves as our Virgil, shepherding us through the shadowy worlds he builds. Sometimes heâs funny and sometimes heâs sad, but heâs always there to keep the listener safe. âSquid Eyeâ delights in some Seussian wordplay and features the albumâs funniest lyricsââIâll drive right in as if I were Aquamanâs kidââset to a Bob Wills-esque swinging bluegrass song, while âThe Glow Pt. 3,â the title of which nods to Phil Elverum, wrestles with love, impermanence, and dread from the vantage of the bottom of a bottle.
Some artists seem to have an uncanny ability to gesture to the infinite, to wring out from their chosen medium a staggering amount of profundity. Oldham is one such artist, having created an archive of songs that conjure the entire spectrum of human experience: hilarity and terror, joy and desolation, birth and death, and everything in between. I Made a Place is an apt title, as Oldham has carved out a niche for himself thatâs not quite like any of his contemporaries. He unpacks the darkest and brightest parts of life with an unblinking candor. On the title track, the singer speaks about creating a home in a world you didnât ask for. His thesis is simple: âI donât know why I was born, but I have made a place.â In that one, softly delivered lyric, Oldham resolves a philosophy seminarâs worth of existential crisis.
Label: Drag City Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Nirvanaâs MTV Unplugged in New York Remains a Timeless Musical Document
Much of the power of this set is in the bandâs intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety.4.5
Upon its television debut in December of 1993, Nirvanaâs MTV Unplugged in New York session was already monumentalâintensely intimate and unique among prior episodes of Unplugged, which usually operated as greatest-hits showcases. In the wake of Kurt Cobainâs suicide in 1994, however, the bandâs performance assumed near-mythical status, airing around the clock in the weeks following the singerâs death and serving several roles for a shocked, grieving fanbase: a portent, memento, and elegy all at once.
Had they never appeared on Unplugged, itâs likely that Nirvana might be perceived in a significantly different light today. They were a ferocious and often unpredictable live act, capable of wreaking mayhem on their instruments and each other while delivering their searing yet melodic brand of punk. The release of MTV Unplugged in New York in November of 1994 provided a full window onto the kinder, gentler Nirvana only hinted at on the bandâs three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for â90s alternative musicâs ascendance to Important Art just before its descent into self-parodic commerce.
Of course, commerce is alive and well in the 25th anniversary edition of MTV Unplugged in New York, which may be viewed with understandable suspicion by fans long inundated with special editions and live-show unearthings that have effectively wrung Nirvanaâs catalog dry. (This year alone has already seen the release of Live at the Paramount and Live and Loud.) But considering MTV Unplugged in New Yorkâs titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the bandâs performance that were previously only available on the showâs DVD release.
Over the years myths have grown around MTV Unplugged in New York, a major one claiming that the band was in shambles leading up to the taping of their performance at Sony Music Studios. While the new tracks donât rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story thatâs largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohlâs heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like âCome As You Areâ and a cover of David Bowieâs âThe Man Who Sold the World,â where his trashing instincts almost overwhelm the rest of the band. Thankfully, Grohl reined in his thundering style after he was offered quieter brush and Hot Rod sticks by Unplugged producer Alex Coletti just before the official performance.
While none of the five new tracks on this reissue are unlistenable, theyâre expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobainâs vocals sound strained on âCome As You Are,â while on a cover of the Meat Puppetsâs âPlateau,â several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwoodâwho, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songsâare off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of âPennyroyal Tea,â Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993âs In Utero. In rehearsal, âPennyroyal Teaâ is undone by Pat Smearâs distracting backup vocals and a guitar played a turgid step lower than the one on the studio recording.
Beyond the fly-on-the-wall rehearsal tracks, the rest of MTV Unplugged in New York remains as itâs always been. The album hasnât been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison dâĂȘtre. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvanaâs delivery, but especially Cobainâs. Itâs also in the mesmerizing spell of the groupâs intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety and cast light on their own artistic worldview with several unusual yet impassioned covers, including their towering, chilling take on Leadbellyâs âWhere Did You Sleep Last Night.â MTV Unplugged in New York is simply a timeless performance, one all the more impressive for having come together through reserves of musical acumen and sheer guts.
Label: Geffen Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: FKA twigsâs Magdalene Is a Knotty Meditation on Self-Possession
A distinct feminine energy pulses through the singer-songwriter’s shimmering sophomore effort.4.5
A distinct feminine energy pulses through FKA twigsâs shimmering sophomore effort, Magdalene. Coming off the back of a major public breakup with actor Robert Pattinson and a period of ill-health which left her creatively and physically depleted, twigs made it her missionâboth in the writing of this follow-up to 2014âs LP1 and in the extraordinary wushu and pole training she undertook for her Magdalene tourâto embrace her pain.
Despite twigsâs vocal precision, thereâs always been an element of unpredictability to her music, as the production on her albums is prone to spareness one moment and cacophony the next. And on Magdalene, she leans even further into that volatility, her crystalline, Kate Bush-esque falsetto shape-shifting into something richer and thicker on âHoly Terrain,â angrier and rueful on âFallen Alien,â and sweeping on the transcendent âSad Day.â
At times, twigs seems caught between personas. On âHome with You,â her raspy delivery of âThe more you have the more that people want from youâ gives way to a soaring melody in the chorus, in which she counters, âI didnât know that you were lonely/If youâd have just told me Iâd be home with you.â Anger and acceptance coexist here, one growing out of the other.
twigs has a knack for spinning mystical imagery out of everyday experience, and on the album she explores the shifting power dynamics at play in her life. The prying, judgmental gaze of the paparazzi can be easily imagined as a many-eyed monster in âThousand Eyes.â Elsewhere, she calls upon religious references to subvert ideas of her own power. A lyric like âI lie naked and pure with intentions to cleanse you and take youâ on âSad Dayâ suggests both submission and dominance; the act of cleansing recalls Mary Magdalene washing Jesusâs feet, yet the phrase âtake youâ suggests that the object of her affections has no choice but to submit to her. Another often misrepresented biblical figure, Eve, comes to mind when twigs invites her lover to âtaste the fruit of meâ on the same song, but itâs not an act of temptation, itâs a plea.
For all the strength and self-possession twigs demands from herself and her lovers, she also provides space for the necessary grief that comes with saying goodbye to someone who wasnât able to meet her there. And for all the spiritual power sheâs filled with to âcleanseâ and âhealâ on âSad Day,â she also acknowledges the periods when she can barely move on the cyclical âDaybed.â Thereâs little sense on Magdalene that twigs believes thereâs an ideal way to be; all she can do is learn how to accept her own contradictions as a necessary part of growth. The album is a knotty meditation on the process of separating self-perception from public perception, and of twigsâs reclamation of her body and work as hers and hers alone.
Label: Young Turks Release Date: November 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon
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