Jewelâs 0304 has been touted as the singerâs Ray of Light. It may be a stretch, but like Madonnaâs benchmark opus, 0304 reinvents its subject and jumpstarts a career on the wane. Like Ray of Light, the album breaks little musical ground and is, in fact, more pop than electronica, but it also presents one of the most startlingâyet oddly fittingâtransformations in pop history. In many ways, Jewel is simply fulfilling her destiny; sheâs become the pop tart her critics have accused her of being from the very start. But just one look at the cheeky music video for “Intuition,” the albumâs first single, and itâs clear sheâs in on the joke. “Jewelâs music sounds much better now that sheâs dancing!” reads a fake TRL crawl. Whatâs more, if youâre going to sell out (and for fans of the singerâs more earnest, more organic work, thatâs exactly what Jewel is doing), at least do it with an infectious pop song like “Intuition.” She urges us to follow our hearts but then taunts, “Sell your sin/Just cash in.” (Itâs not all tongue-in-cheek, though: you can currently hear the French accordion of “Intuition” in a commercial for a razor of the same name.) Like Madonnaâs own American Life, Jewel takes a few shots at the American dream on the sugary “Stand” and “America,” a track the singer claims her record label made her change out of “fear of litigation.” (What remains are swipes at Bush, the Osbournes and self-tanner, as well as a shout-out to banished director Roman Polanski.) A few tracks on the album successfully capture the essence of “folktronica”ânamely the thumping “Run 2 U” and jazzy, trip-poppy “Leave the Lights On”âbut songs like the retro, new wavy “Yes U Can” and the catchy “U & Me = Love” wouldnât sound out of place on a No Doubt record. In fact, 0304 is less Ray of Light than it is Rock Steady. You can take the guitar out of the girlâs hands but you canât expect her to stop rocking.
Label: Atlantic Release Date: June 6, 2003 Buy: Amazon
Every Janet Jackson Album Ranked
We took a look back at the icon’s catalog and ranked all 11 studio albums from worst to best.
Janet Jacksonâs music career can be easily partitioned into three eras, with her commercial peak (from 1986âs Control through 2001âs All for You) bookended by her early, pre-breakthrough period on one side and the years following her infamous Super Bowl performance in 2004 on the other. Thereâs perhaps no better testament to the power of Janetâs breakthrough album, Control, as a quintessential statement on personal and artistic self-actualization than the still pervasive misconception that itâs her debut, with 1982âs Janet Jackson and 1984âs Dream Street relegated to the singerâs âprehistory.â But while it should surprise absolutely no one that the quartet of albums that Janet released during her imperial phase handily top this list, her most recent effort, 2015âs Unbreakable, was an understated return to form, reuniting the artist with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Janetâs follow-up, Black Diamond, was scheduled for release this year before the Covid-19 pandemic dashed those plans. While we await word on the fate of Janetâs 12th studio albumâand accompanying concert tourâweâve decided to look back at her catalog and rank all 11 albums from worst to best.
11. Dream Street (1984)
Before Janet struck multi-platinum with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she briefly partnered with another famous production pair, Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte. With the exception of the title track, though, the legendary disco duoâs contributions to Janetâs sophomore effort, Dream Street, fell far short of their iconic work with the likes of Donna Summer. Janetâs least successful album isnât without its pleasures though: Produced by brother Marlon, âAll My Love to Youâ successfully apes Off the Wall-era Michael, while the sexy, nearly seven-minute âPretty Boyââcourtesy of Jesse Johnson, who, along with Jam and Lewis, was part of the Timeâprovided a glimpse of things to come in Janetâs own oeuvre. Sal Cinquemani
10. 20 Y.O. (2006)
20 Y.O. was the first Janet album that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced (this time only in part) after moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. As a result, their ice-cold beats melted into a lugubrious, lukewarm pudding (at under an hour, it still feels almost twice as long as janet. and The Velvet Rope). I donât know what co-producer and Janetâs then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri thought he meant when he said he wanted 20 Y.O. to sound like an old Human League record, but Iâll readily admit that the evidence on display suggests he was the only one with the foresight to come up with some new old ideas, even if none of them work to Janetâs advantage. The albumâs desperation is that of a dance icon who once sent one hot track after another to the top of the charts and is now deciding she liked the idea of being at the top of the singles charts better than creating immortal dance music. The grindcore âThis Bodyâ brings the fugly with surprising abandon, throwing hissing industrial clatter atop an admirably tuneless dirge (you hardly realize itâs a way-late bid in the chopped nâ screwed sweepstakes until the 16 RPM guest rap drops in). âEnjoyâ is a seamlessly smooth step groove aboard R. Kellyâs âStep in the Name of Loveâ boat, but its presence here only makes the likes of âGet It Out Meâ and âRoll Witchuâ seem all the more opportunistic. Eric Henderson
9. Janet Jackson (1982)
If on its own terms Janetâs self-titled debut has nothing on what was to follow, itâs nonetheless a pretty solid snapshot of the post-disco boogie sound. At least, that is, for the duration of side one, where singer-songwriters RenĂ© & Angela (best known for their steamy funk workout âIâll Be Goodâ) serve Janet with three equally perky-cute dance-pop ditties, and one halfway decent ballad. Janet was clearly still finding her voice, but the snappy backing track of âSay You Doâ could easily have slotted into the Jacksonsâs 1980 album Triumph, and âYoung Loveâ has the confident pristineness of a Patrice Rushen jam. Things get pretty generic on side two, but two or three deep cuts from an artist who came out of the gate only half-formed ainât half bad. Henderson
8. Discipline (2008)
The title of Discipline was encouraging for those who prefer Janet taking control and cracking the whip (both as leader of her rhythm nation and the boss of her bedroom) over the vapid, single-girl come-ons of her previous three albums. Disappointingly, though, the title track doesnât hark back to the self-empowerment of Control, but rather the S&M of The Velvet Rope. Lyrics like âDaddy, I disobeyed ya/Now I want you to come punish meâ invite all kinds of psychoanalysis that only grow more disturbing when you remember who her daddy really is, which would be fascinating if she hadnât already written the sexier (and less creepy) âRope Burn.â If one were to try to identify some kind of evolution in Janetâs latest bout of dirty talk, it might be sex with robots. Throughout the album, she talks to and interacts with a rather compassionate computer DJ named Kyoko, and her voice is robotic and synthetic on tracks like âFeedbackâ and the Daft Punk-sampling âSo Much Bettaâânot necessarily such a bad thing for an artist whose vocals often consist of unintelligible murmuring. Cinquemani
7. Damita Jo (2004)
At some point during the afterglow of adolescent sexual discovery, most people realize that there are more important things in life than getting off. Like Marvin Gaye, Janet got it backward, spending most of her post-Rhythm Nation career searching for, publicly relishing, reflecting on, and then lamenting one giant, decade-long orgasm. The singerâs eighth album, Damita Jo, features a slew of the gooey, structureless sex ballads that had become her staple, including âWarmth,â three-and-a-half minutes dedicated to describing how Ms. Jackson If Youâre Nasty gives a blowjob (and yes, sheâs a method actress, whispering sweet nothings with her mouth full). Even the dance numbers donât stray from her topic of choice. Janetâs infamous wardrobe malfunction is commonly cited for her careerâs precipitous decline, but her inability to evolve beyond her sex kitten persona is more judiciously to blame. Cinquemani
Review: Beabadoobeeâs Fake It Flowers Evokes Nostalgia Like a Childhood Bedroom
Over 12 tracks, the singer-songwriter is haunted by older versions of herself and captivated by wishful daydreams.4
Twenty-year-old Bea Kristi is the first to admit that her music owes a great deal to â90s alternative rock, not so slyly hinting as much on last yearâs âI Wish I Was Steven Malkmus.â But her output under the moniker Beabadoobee doesnât come down to mere derivation. Unlike Greta Van Fleet, the zoomer band notorious for aping their own revivalist referent, Led Zeppelin, Kristi molds the earnest, fuzzed-out yearning of the Cranberries and Veruca Salt for her own purposes. The Filipino-British songwriter speaks to the challenges unique to 21st-century adolescence, a tricky period in which emotions are impersonally mediated through screens and exes are only an impulsive text away.
Beabadoobeeâs debut LP, Fake It Flowers, inhabits nostalgia like a childhood bedroom cluttered with toys, outgrown clothing, and wall posters that serve as relics of innocence and fantasy. Over 12 tracks, Kristi is haunted by older versions of herself and captivated by wishful daydreams. (Appropriately, she wrote the album hunkered down in her childhood bedroom in her London family home, where she also rode out a bout of Covid-19.) She gives voice to statements one would be remiss to utter outside the privacy of their inner sanctum. On âDye It Red,â she hurls out venomous lines with matter-of-factness: âKiss my ass, you don’t know jack/And if you say you understand, you donât.â Throughout, momentous choruses and distorted guitars turn Kristiâs sweetly sung barbs from the stuff of scribbled journal musings into booming anthems, fit for the soundtrack of a Y2K coming-of-age film.
Across the album, Kristi negotiates the tumultuous fallout of her mistakes, only to relapse, clinging to harmful vices. On the melodic, misty-eyed âWorth It,â she confronts her own infidelity, unflinchingly aware of her wrongdoing but still unrepentant. âTogetherâ sees her draw a parallel between crashing her car for the umpteenth time and getting back together with someone sheâs wounded one too many times. At several points during the tracklist, the specter of self-harm emerges as a response to guilt, like a self-inflicted retribution. On âCharlie Brown,â which sounds like an homage to Hole and just as taxing on the lungs, Kristi spills about falling into âold habits that no one knows about.â
Thereâs a playfulness and imagination to Kristiâs songwriting that brings levity to Fake It Flowers. The singer opens âYoshimi, Forest, Magdeleneâ by joking that an unidentified noise âsounds like a fartâ before pivoting to the fanciful affirmation that sheâs so head over heels for a significant other that she canât help but chant the names of their three future children. Curlicues of piano and acoustic guitar give way to swooning strings on the tender âHoren Sarrison,â an ode to Kristiâs real-life beau. This romance isnât found in the familiarity of a well-worn routine, but in the adrenaline rush of charged chemistry: âAnd I want you to know that Iâm in love/But I donât want youâtoâfeel comfortable.â Kristiâs vision of affection may be distorted by the impossible-to-replicate headiness of a first love, but itâs an enthralling representation of its ephemeral beauty.
Kristi seems aware of societyâs history of ridiculing and undermining women for expressing their grievances in ways deemed too passionate or outspoken. While she pointedly entertains the pejorative âemoâ in the title of the introspective ballad âEmo Song,â she nonetheless refuses to understate the origins of her trust issues: âYou call me up, and lie again/Like all the men I used to trust.â Throughout the album, Kristi leans into her emotions, unconcerned about whether or not they might make her seem fragile or melodramatic. Songs like the Smashing Pumpkins-esque âSorryâ convey her fragility, buttressed by symphonic string arrangements and pounding drums.
Detractors may believe that alt-rock revivalism is more interested in merely serving up a â90s bricolage than breaking new ground. While this may be true to an extent, the songs on Fake It Flowers are far from superfluous. Rather, itâs evident that Kristi revives the soundâwhich was predominantly represented by straight white menâin order to infuse it with her own life and experience as a Catholic school dropout and daughter of immigrants.
Label: Dirty Hit Release Date: October 16, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Bruce Springsteenâs Letter to You Is More Homecoming Than Retread
The album has all the familiar hallmarks of the E Street Bandâs signature sound.3.5
Celebrated memoirist Bruce Springsteenâs latest nostalgia trick: reconvening a little rock nâ roll group he used to play with called the E Street Band. Letter to You isnât exactly classic Springsteen, and it isnât even the best studio album heâs made in the last decadeâthough I know most donât share my affinity for 2012âs Wrecking Ball. But it may be the first album heâs made since Born in the U.S.A. on which heâs fully embraced the E Street Bandâs signature sound for longer than a few intermittent stretches at a time.
Recorded live in the studio, sans overdubs, over just a few days in late 2019, Letter to You has all the familiar hallmarks of the iconic E Street Bandâs signature sound: Roy Bittanâs roaming piano, bombastic shout-along choruses, creaky harmonies from Patti Scialfa and Steven Van Zandt, and gut-busting sax solos (Jake Clemons fills in ably for his late uncle, Clarence). Springsteen deserves credit for resisting the crowd-pleasing tug of this kind of album for so long that it feels like a warm homecoming rather than a retread.
Itâs only when Springsteen leans on the nostalgia with explicitly backward-facing lyrics that the album gets a bit too self-aware. Springsteen has never made an album this personal, filled with paeans to felled bandmates, fans, and rose-colored memories of days and nights gone by. Both his recent autobiography, Born to Run, and his hit Broadway show have demonstrated that Springsteen in a self-reflective mode can be highly effective and deeply moving. Which is why some of the songs on Letter to You are disappointingly mushy by comparison. Album bookends âOne Minute Youâre Hereâ and âIâll See You in My Dreamsâ are clichĂ©-ridden ruminations on lifeâs impermanence, while songs like âHouse of a Thousand Guitarsâ are packed with smug self-mythologizing about the life-changing majesty of rock nâ roll.
On the rousing âGhosts,â the E Street Bandâs thunderous power does far more to convince of the transcendent nature of their music than Springsteenâs lyricsâpenned for the late George Theiss, the singer in his first band, the Castilles. All slashing guitars and shouted-to-the-rafters refrains, the song has all the makings of a classic E Street anthem. Even if Springsteen has employed them sparingly in the studio in recent years, the band remains a tight outfit from frequent touring. Max Weinberg in particular continues to be a force behind the drum kit, and heâs the focal point of the lilting title track. Springsteen himself turns back the clock with a howling vocal and searing guitar solos on the propulsive âBurninâ Train,â which could easily pass for an outtake from Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River.
Barnburning new recordings of a trio of songs that Springsteen wrote in the early 1970s, before the formation of the E Street Band in 1972, provide Letter to Youâs most fascinating links to the past. With their epic multi-verse structures, Old West imagery, and country-rock inflections, âJaney Needs a Shooter,â âIf I Was the Priest,â and âSong for Orphansâ join âBallad of Jesse Jamesââa similar 1972 outtake released on the 2016 compilation Chapter and Verseâin providing an intriguing window into an alternate history. In this timeline, Springsteen never gravitated toward the rock nâ roll soul-circus style of the E Street Band and instead leaned hard into the âNew Dylanâ hype that surrounded him at the time.
Itâs no surprise that the guy who wrote the songs featured on Letter to You became one of rockâs most celebrated storytellers once he discovered his own individual voice. That guy is also fortunate to have found his ideal compatriots. Whether playing 50-year-old songs or brand new ones, the E Street Band proves that when theyâre in their elementâas they are on this albumâthey can elevate the Boss to his best.
Label: Columbia Release Date: October 23, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Mountain Goatsâs Getting Into Knives Is Overproduced and Under-Thought
The bandâs uniquely existential and observational approach to rock is, for the first time, beginning to wear thin.2.5
Over the course of two decades, the Mountain Goats have maintained a near-peerless level of quality even as theyâve evolved their distinct folk-rock sound in unexpected directions. But on the North Carolina-based bandâs 19th album, Getting Into Knives, their work manages to feel simultaneously overproduced and under-thought.
The songs on the album focus primarily on aging and those irretrievable things taken by time, with seasoned, older narrators imparting wisdom to less experienced counterparts. âEverything becomes a blur from six feet away/Get used to this,â singer-songwriter John Darneille warns on âTidal Wave,â repeating âGet used to thisâ throughout the rest of the track. For every elegantly forlorn lyric on Getting Into Knives, though, thereâs a clichĂ©d platitude or overdetermined metaphor. Compared to the incisive and quick-witted nature of typical Mountain Goats lyrics, a line like âItâs not the destination that makes the difference/Itâs the freightâ feels like a rather lazy observation.
At their best, the band foregrounds an interplay between warmth and darkness, as on âGetting Into Knives,â in which the middle-aged Darnielle sings about taking up a new hobby over delicately strummed acoustic guitar and Jon Wursterâs hand-drummed percussion. Darnielle emotes with just the right amount of knowing distance, and humorously doesnât elaborate on why âgetting into knivesâ will be a fulfilling new activity or alternative to his current habits, while also promising its worthwhileness through softly yet convincingly performed vocals.
On much of the rest of the album, this tonal bifurcation leans too far in one direction or the other. âGet Famous,â which finds Darnielle wishing celebrity on someone whoâs more suited to constant attention and exposure (read: someone with less integrity than him), feels overwrought, smothered by obvious production choices like the insertion of crowd cheers after the line âlisten to the people applaud,â as well as by its own suffocating irony. Elsewhere, âThe Last Place I Saw You Alive,â a ballad dedicated to a late friend, and âHarbor Me,â about asking for shelter from a companion, are too tender and bald-faced, taking the bandâs capacity for rendering human frailty and turning it into sentimental mush.
Though the Mountain Goatsâs music still operates firmly within the folk-rock tradition, a few songs here display a jazz influence, such as the light-handed tapping of tom-toms that weaves throughout âThe Great Gold Sheep,â the featherweight percussive scene-setting at the beginning of âBell Swamp Connection,â and Matt Douglasâs noodling saxophone on âThe Last Place I Saw You Aliveâ and âGet Famous.â You can also hear a jazz sensibility in the bandâs penchant for finding grooves and then departing from the structures at different intervals. At the other end of the spectrum, the bouncy panache of âRat Queenâ hews closer to the conceptual theatricality of the bandâs last few albums, yet the track comes off as little more than a B-side from the groupâs 2019 rock opera In League with Dragons.
Getting Into Knives does bear the distinction of being perhaps the most electric guitar-dominated Mountain Goats album to date. Despite the continued centrality of acoustic instruments within their sound, the growl of electric guitar is pronounced and expressive, especially on âBell Swamp Connection,â where itâs slow and smeary, assisted with a pedal and married with piano. Of course, one wishes Darnielle didnât feel the need to underline its prominence on âAs Many Candles as Possible,â when a rumbling guitar prompts a redundant âThereâs plenty of distortion and itâs not real clearâŠhe howls in the night,â which is followed by a screeching strum. Such literalness is unusual for the Mountain Goats, whose uniquely existential and observational approach to rock is, for the first time, beginning to wear thin.
Label: Merge Release Date: October 23, 2020 Buy: Amazon
The 15 Best Smashing Pumpkins Songs
The Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.
As Greg Kot of Guitar World once quipped, âthe [Smashing] Pumpkins remain an island unto themselves.â That was in 2001, when the band had spent a decade carving out an impressive art-rock niche, and long after a shortsighted music press had once smacked them with unenviable and laughably off-base label of âthe next Nirvana.â But even to this day, the two bands are often clumped together as vanguards of the scathing, grungy brand of alternative rock that defined the early â90s. And yet, thereâs little doubt that the group is much more than some also-ran grunge outfit chasing Kurt Cobainâs shadow. Indeed, with 11 studio albums and dozens of EPs, compilations, and soundtrack contributions, Billy Corgan and company have proved to be expert evocateurs, stitching together their melodic pastiche from a diverse litany of musical, literary, and visual sources. Armed with a mosaic sound that includes hat-tips to glam rock, art nouveau, psychedelia, goth, vaudeville, new wave, and Victorian romanticism, the Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.
Editorâs Note: An earlier version of this article was published on July 21, 2013.
15. âKnights of Maltaâ
The sweeping opening track of 2018âs Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun bears the hallmarks of vintage Pumpkins: Bill Corganâs melodic whine, Jimmy Chamberlinâs formidable drumming, and the intricate layers of guitar courtesy of Corgan, original guitarist James Iha, and Ihaâs one-time replacement Jeff Schroeder. Everything about the song feels grand and triumphalâright down to the lyrics, in which Corgan sings, âIâm gonna fly forever/Weâre gonna ride the rainbow,â as if heâs approaching the gates of rock nâ roll Valhalla.
14. âSet the Ray to Jerryâ
As complex as the bandâs arrangements and conceits often are, the Pumpkins frequently hit paydirt when relying on Corganâs ear for crafting simple melodies. âSet the Ray to Jerryâ is that principle in practice, as a two-note guitar riff and constantly rumbling snares come together with Corganâs plain, passionate declaratives (âI want youâ and âI need youâ) to form a lucid, seductive nighttime jam.
13. âFor Marthaâ
Corganâs mother inspired plenty of animus throughout the Pumpkinsâ catalogue, but none quite as conflicted and harrowing as the kind that fills the song sharing her name. Inspired by her passing, âFor Marthaâ is an eight-minute dirge of gothic piano that bursts into a wave of crying, razor-edged guitars at its halfway point. At the height of it all, Corgan finally delivers his raw, teary-eyed eulogy: âLong horses we are born/Creatures more than torn/Mourning our way home.â
The riffs on âTristessaâ are some of the most efficient the Pumpkins have ever crafted. With four simple notes, Corgan and fellow guitarist James Iha lay down a bouncing, whiplash guitar hook thatâs strong enough to carry the song through its shattering conclusion, proving along the way that the band had two other weapons in their arsenal besides panache: power and rhythm.
Serving as a kind of thematic unifier for David Lynchâs Lost Highway soundtrack, âEyeâ was Pumpkins fansâ first taste of the bandâs post-alternative offerings, where the remnants of their baroque, neo-Victorian rock tastes met Corganâs new obsession with Pro Tools. While that formula would meet with mixed success on the subsequent Adore, âEyeâ remains a sublime slice of electro-goth, pairing Corganâs understated performance with a litany of chilling instrumentationânot to mention the wonderful angularity of that crisp drumline.
In which the Pumpkins conclusively prove that great art comes from great pain. Purportedly on the verge of suicide, a desperate, perhaps somewhat deranged Corgan penned âToday,â a facetious, goodbye-cruel-world lullaby that, when draped in the bandâs trademark cloak of mellow fuzz, becomes a triumphant middle finger to the crippling effects of depression.
There are many points on their 1991 debut, Gish, where the Pumpkins seem caught between their early metal influences (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) and the art-rock band they ultimately aspired to be, but âSnailâ isnât one of them. The track is perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing of the ambitious plans Corgan had for his group: sweeping, unapologetically romantic, and cinematically paced, its verse, bridge, and chorus structured in such a way so that the ultimate catharsisâin this case, a climbing sub-melody full of unbridled optimismâcomes bursting through quite dramatically in its final minute.
Review: Laura Veirsâs My Echo Is a Divorce Album That Trades Misery for Escapism
Against a backdrop of hopelessness brought about by personal heartbreak and global disasters, the album is an act of self-preservation.3.5
On the âdivorce albumâ spectrum from Vulnicura to Utopia, Laura Veirsâs My Echo falls closer to the latter. At just under 30 minutes long, the Portland-based singer-songwriterâs 11th album is more concise than it is confessional, but Veirs imbues her lyrics with vivid imagery and gentle humor that trade misery for escapism. This lightness is by design, as she wrote these songs while she was straining to maintain her relationship with Tucker Martine, her collaborator and then-husband. In the albumâs press notes, Veirs claims, âmy songs knew I was getting divorced before I did.â
The impulse to leave things unsaid motivates My Echoâs sound, which often involves a contrast between acoustic folk instrumentation and electronic flourishesâin other words, between Veirsâs need to stay grounded and her tendency to drift off. It also informs her lyrics, which originated as poems she wrote for a âsecret poetry group,â a fact thatâs most apparent when she commits to describing her natural surroundingsâleaves and rivers and treesâin depth. While Veirsâs lyrics are consistently unsettled and sometimes apocalyptic, they largely sidestep concrete problems in her marriage beyond rare whisperings of infidelity and alienation. Perhaps any lurid drama would have undermined Veirsâs escapist intentions.
Accordingly, when Veirs makes pivotal emotional realizations, they come from outside herself. On âMemaloose Island,â she visits the tomb of Victor Trevitt, where a disembodied voice tells her, âLife is the exception/Donât you forget it.â The voice, of course, is her own, implicitly acknowledging the negative space around the comfort of marriage or any other source of stability. She spoils this reveal, though, on the albumâs opening track, âFreedom Feeling,â when she discovers that the liberation she sought in love was within herself all along.
In fact, Veirs spends a fair amount of time on the album explaining herself, keeping little beneath the surface. On âEnd Times,â she compares her ill-fated relationship to Armageddon. On âBurn Too Bright,â she asks, âWho were you running from?â and quickly answers, as expected, âyourself.â Veirs gives us little work to do to exhume meaning from her images; sheâs experienced the struggle of sorting out her feelings, so she aims to spare us of that emotional labor. On the gorgeous âVapor Trails,â she reminds us that vapor trails, like people, disappear.
Veirs makes elegant use of her detachment on âI Sing to the Tall Man,â opening the song by reducing her husband to objective descriptorsââthe tall man in the red kitchenââbefore admitting that his âdark eyes and scarred chin remind [her] we are living.â She lets us in, pointing to the weight of her love and, as on âMemaloose Island,â the loveâs interconnectedness with her faith in life itself. âI Sing to the Tall Manâ neatly complements âTurquoise Walls,â another song about confinement that contains some of the albumâs most immediate lyrics: âI could not sleep, thinking you were keeping someone elseâs pillow warm.â These moments of candidness are welcome, especially when theyâre funny (âHave you considered maybe his phone just died?â she quips on âTurquoise Wallsâ).
While many breakup albums explore the distance between the euphoria of love and the devastation of it ending, My Echo mostly sits somewhere in the middle. The albumâs opening linesââI donât know where I am going/But I got you by my sideââare bittersweet, tinged by Veirsâs sly sense of dramatic irony. Soon after, plaintive strings emerge, setting the tone for a mournful, grandiose album that never materializes. Instead, track two, âAnother Space and Time,â is a sonic outlier, embellishing bossa nova with glitchy electronics and lyrics about ditching the internet for âpeace of mind.â Itâs a diversion, a vacation to a California that isnât on fire (one of the albumâs many eerily portentous detailsâthough any album about loneliness and destruction could be said to have predicted the events of 2020).
Veirs looks to paintings and sculptures for guidance and solace at key points on My Echo. She also displays a similar relationship to music on âBurn Too Bright,â which is about the death of musician Richard Swift, and on the dirge-like âBrick Layer,â which mentions the late Jason Molina. On the standout âAll the Things,â Veirs announces that sheâs a poet and, on a chorus that could be her artistâs statement, says, âAll the things I cannot hold/I cannot save.â To Veirs, artmaking is a means of preserving memories of loves, people, and moments lost. While these things fade, her art doesnât. Against a backdrop of hopelessness brought about by personal heartbreak and global disasters, My Echo is an act of self-preservation.
Label: Raven Marching Band Release Date: October 23, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Matt Berningerâs Serpentine Prison Is an Easily Digestible Solo Debut
The album is an enjoyable, if predictable, outing from an effortlessly reliable songwriter.3
The National spent the 2010s pushing the boundaries of their music, allowing for nervier, more impressionistic sounds and experimentations with song structure. Many of these evolutions are indebted to the far-reaching influence of members Aaron and Bryce Dessner on the stalwart indie bandâs songwriting. But something about the Nationalâs subtle brand of rock, lead singer Matt Berningerâs buttoned-up baritone, and the bandâs sardonic lyrical ennui has prompted certain critics to label their music as âboring.â
Serpentine Prison, Berningerâs solo debut, is likely to spark a similar debate. The album distills the singer-songwriterâs work with the National down to its barest form, as it mostly revolves around an acoustic guitar or piano and Berningerâs signature vocal style. The result is a pleasant, if undemanding, album that diverges from the Nationalâs more experimental recent releases, 2017âs Sleep Well Beast and last yearâs I Am Easy to Find. But while nothing here is as exciting or memorable as anything the National has released in the last 15 years, Serpentine Prison is an enjoyable outing from an effortlessly reliable songwriter.
Berninger seems to thrive under these lower stakes, as many of the albumâs songs evoke a wistfulness missing from his work with the National. The sentimental âDistant Axisâ finds his usually biting lyrical deadpan replaced with a certain kind of longing: âI feel like Iâm as far as I can get from you,â he sleepily sings on the track. And on âOh Dearie,â Berninger shows off his penchant for richly drawn downtrodden narrators. His hushed final linesââI donât see no brightness, kinda starting to like thisââstand in contrast to the songâs acoustic lullaby quality, an understated but welcome variation of his standard form.
Booker T. Jonesâs production brings ornate dimensions to these songs. This isnât a particularly orchestral album, but the way that judicially placed drums and softly struck keys ring against Berningerâs deep vocals makes it sound like the songs are reverberating throughout a theater full of rapt listeners. When the songs take on added flourishes, like the lush brass arrangement that appears halfway through âTake Me Out of Townâ or the string solos that punctuate key moments in âCollar of Your Shirt,â they swell organically with the rest of the arrangements.
These moments of indulgence are helpful in diversifying Serpentine Prisonâs tracklisting, which often falls into a monochromatic haze of slow, easily digestible sounds. Another such indulgence comes in the form of a duet on the albumâs best track, the bluesy âSilver Springs,â featuring Gail Ann Dorsey in a beautiful back-and-forth with Berninger. Dorsey, who was previously featured in the Nationalâs triumphant âYou Had Your Soul With You,â steps in to interrupt what otherwise would have been the albumâs loneliest song, the trackâs chanting hook enlightening a straightforward, almost juvenile kind of isolation: âTheyâll never understand you anyway in Silver Springs,â Berninger and Dorsey sing in unison.
Much of the rest of Serpentine Prison fails to engage the listener as effectively as âSilver Springsâ does. These songs easily fade into the background, not unlike those found on so many adult contemporary-influenced singer-songwriter albums. But while Serpentine Prison may invoke familiar accusations of dullness, itâs refreshing to hear Berningerâs disaffected songwriting style take on a more grown-up perspective.
Label: Concord Release Date: October 16, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Annieâs Dark Hearts Dives Into the Past with Both Regret and Wonder
The album sounds like the soundtrack to an imaginary teen drama co-directed by John Hughes and David Lynch.3.5
Norwegian pop singer Annieâs Dark Hearts is, per the artist herself, âa soundtrack to a film that doesnât exist.â Throughout the album, her first in over a decade, Annie paints nostalgic, richly detailed narratives filled with road trips, fairgrounds, and idealistic young loveâall set to jangly, atmospheric soundscapes that feel like they were lifted from some imaginary teen drama co-directed by John Hughes and David Lynch.
Annie broke out in the mid aughts with cheeky, indelible dance-pop like âChewing Gumâ and âHeartbeat,â but Dark Hearts luxuriates in an unapologetically moodier palette. The closest the album gets to a dance-floor filler is âThe Bomb,â whose anxious mantra of âS.O.S.â and samples from the 1988 apocalyptic thriller Miracle Mile are backed by a shuffling breakbeat and Angelo Badalamenti-style synth washes. âTheyâre dropping the bomb/So put a beat on,â Annie sings, resigned to a fate of partying until the end of days.
The rest of Dark Hearts is decidedly more wistful, as Annie reflects on lost loves, family cycles of dysfunction, and her hometown of Bergen, Norway. Film references abound throughout, including more of those cool, cinematic synths on âThe Untold Story,â in which Annieâs ethereal but detached vocal evokes that of Lynch muse Julee Cruise, and David Cronenbergâs Crash, which serves as the basis for âAmerican Cars.â The latter details the hazards of a directionless romance, suggesting what it might sound like if Lana Del Rey dropped her indie beat-poet shtick and leaned fully into synth-pop.
Producer Stefan Storm outfits Annieâs bittersweet reveries with big, bellowing drums and textures derived from pitch-affected vocals. On âMermaids Dreams,â Annieâs voice is bent and distorted, beckoning like a siren from beneath waves of reverb, and her recollections of fleeting physical ecstasy on âIn Heavenâ are accompanied by mournful, tentatively plucked guitars. The songs leap from genre to genre, sonically tied together by their connections to the past: âThe Streets Where I Belongâ suggests the small-town tributes of Springsteen as sung by an anonymous dream-pop chanteuse, while the poetic âCorridors of Timeâ and the deceptively jovial âItâs Finally Overâ channel classic pop modes like doo-wop and â50s girl groups.
Stripped of these thematic threads or Stormâs inventive studio tricks, Annieâs wisp of a voice can easily float away from the listener. âForever â92â falls flat in its attempts to summon the spirit of the titular era, and the drifting, Sade-esque rhythm of âStay Tomorrowâ isnât robust enough to anchor the songâs theme of âsailing away.â Thatâs partly why 2004âs Anniemal, with its innovative production and impeccably crafted hooks, remains such an enduring and satisfying pop debut. In these dystopian times, itâs easy to long for the infectious dance-pop of that album or Annieâs other past releases, but Dark Hearts opts for a different kind of escape. Ten years on from her last full-length album, the singer is reckoning with the present by diving headlong into her past with equal parts regret and wonder.
Label: Annie Melody Release Date: October 16, 2020
Review: 21 Savage and Metro Boominâs Savage Mode II Is a Dark, Robust Sequel
The album is a ratification of âbigger and better,â an example of steady improvement through impeccable craft.4
“Are things better or worse the second time around? Can we really do anything more than once?â intones actor Morgan Freeman early on in Savage Mode II. The album answers affirmatively, in the form of a robust and deeply enjoyable sequel to the 2016 collaboration between rapper 21 Savage and producer Metro Boomin. Freemanâs contributions, especially a delightful rejoinder on the midpoint interlude âSnitches & Rats,â are performed with a mock gravitas that 21 Savage and Metro Boomin frame with equal parts levity and seriousness.
The principal focus of Savage Mode II is Metro Boominâs production. As a teenager, the knob-twirling wunderkind ditched school to revolutionize trap music, providing stellar beats for Atlanta eccentrics-cum-marquee stars Future and Young Thug, refining the excesses and strange outlier sounds of Southern hip-hop into his own tasteful brand. âRich Nigga Shitâ has the feel of a live band, with peppy synths and fiddle intermingling with exciting freshness while a subtle but dynamic bassline mimics an analog instrument, recalling the sinewy work of both Thundercat and the Internet. The dazzling âGlock in My Lap,â co-produced by Southside and Honorable C.N.O.T.E., boasts a host of moving parts, including squealing violins, the rattle of a tiny cowbell, something resembling a kazoo, and the low rumble of shredded bass.
21 is more often than not the stabilizing force around which Metro paints and creates elaborate designs. As he frequently reminds us, the 27-year-old Atlanta MC has a real claim to legitimacy in his gangsta raps. âI grew up âround drugs, sex, and violence,â he tosses off on âSlidin.â (Heâs suffered a number of untimely losses of people close to him, often in his presence, including brother Taylor âTaymanâ and close friend and associate known simply as Larry, both of whom are eulogized on Savage Mode IIâs ornate album art.) 21âs dark, foreboding presence and tone are borne of an early acceptance of deathâs omnipresence and randomness; he lays down spiky bars with a sneering swagger but also a pointed humbleness.
In places on Savage Mode II, the rapper succeeds in breaking out of his typical stable of themes and narratives around gunplay, drug deals, smoking weed, and sexual trysts. On âMy Dawg,â he reflects on the tragedies that have dotted his lifetime, including a 2019 ICE arrest in which his birthplace and visa were contested. Heâs heavy-hearted and thoughtful, a register heâs confidently grown into since arriving on the scene as primarily a horrorcore rapper. His flows arenât remarkably diverse, but he always spits with precision, and his speed of delivery on âMany Menâ and âBrand New Dracoâ is impressive.
Itâs Metro, though, who elevates 21âs stories to something approaching greatness. The producer samples very carefully, using a snippet of Diana Rossâs âI Thought It Took a Little Time (But Today Iâm In Love)â on âRunnin,â the wisps of the vintage cut nudging each line forward. He has a finesse for texture and atmosphere, employing the sound of a scratchy vinyl on âRunninâ and âSaid N Done,â a static-y beat on âRIP Luv,â and the solemn piano riffs that were the driving instrument on the more minimalist Savage Mode. This sequel is a ratification of âbigger and better,â an example of steady improvement through impeccable craft.
Label: Epic Release Date: October 2, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Blackpinkâs The Album Feels More Like an Appetizer Than a Main Course
The album feels stuck looking back to tried and true trends in both K-pop and Western pop music.3
As the standard bearers of K-popâs âgirl crushâ style, Blackpink eschews schoolgirl innocence and embraces a harder, femme-fatale edge. Pioneered by their predecessors and labelmates 2NE1, this dark streakâthe âblackâ referenced by the groupâs nameâmanifests itself in the quartetâs hard-hitting choreography, edgy fashion, and braggadocious verses. With a scant 13 songs to their name over the course of four years, however, Blackpinkâs approach has been at odds with K-popâs prolific comeback-centered business model, as the groupâs slim output attests to their prioritization of production quality over quantity.
True to the hype, Blackpinkâs The Album features big-name producers from all over the world, crafting a catchy mix of pop, EDM, and trap. But at a spare eight tracks, and in light of the years-long wait, it seems more like an appetizer than a main course. The track âPretty Savageâ serves as The Albumâs thesis, uniting all the essential elements of Blackpinkâs empowering brand of K-pop: an addictive melodic motif; a powerful, arena-ready chorus; and an onomatopoetic refrain that transcends language barriers. It follows the Blackpink blueprint to a tee, though its loyalty to it feels predictable.
The âpinkâ of Blackpinkâs performance ethos peddles sweet, light-hearted songs that sidestep the stifling cuteness that many Korean girl groups lean into, but these sugary offerings lack verve. With its thinly veiled innuendos, the playful, Selena Gomez-assisted âIce Creamâ attempts to channel Red Velvetâs oddball exuberance, but the songâs reluctance to expand on its three-note hook quickly becomes tedious. On âBet You Wanna,â RosĂ©âs belts distinguish her as the groupâs most gifted vocalist, but the song sounds like it was unearthed from the world of 2010s pop, reminiscent of something from Katy Perryâs Prism. And Cardi Bâs appearance on the track feels canned, a conspicuous attempt to appeal to American audiences.
Blackpinkâs greatest talent, for better or worse, is making toxic love sound glamorous. An addictive Balkan whistle and an explosive trap coda infuse âCrazy Over Youâ with the bombast of YG labelmates Big Bang. Lisa exudes so much swagger that sheâs able to pull off clumsy lines like âNever the regular degular/Would clean my mess up/But I rather mess up.â And when the four women gleefully chant, âWe are born to be alone,â on âLovesick Girls,â solipsism and singlehood have never sounded like such a good time.
Still, these odes to loveâs highs and lows ring hollow when compared with Blackpinkâs image of unshakeable composure. The K-pop industry aims to groom idols like flawless demigods, leagues away from the mere mortals who consume their music. But the catalogs of artists like Jonghyun, BTS, and late-era 2NE1 prove that shows of vulnerability are quite possible, even refreshing, amid K-popâs manicured perfection. âYou Never Knowâ sees RosĂ©, Jisoo, Lisa, and Jennie grappling with feelings of sadness and inadequacyâif, admittedly, with lyrics that were penned by other YG songwriters. Such authenticity is an anomaly on the album. Crammed chockfull of crowd-pleasing EDM pyrotechnics and cheeky one-liners, The Album is undeniably a product of a well-oiled, state-of-the-art pop machine, but it feels stuck looking back to tried and true trends in both K-pop and Western pop music.
Label: Interscope Release Date: October 2, 2020 Buy: Amazon
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