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Review: J贸nsi, Go

Go鈥檚 biggest surprise鈥攖hat shouldn鈥檛 really be a surprise鈥攊s J贸nsi鈥檚 remarkable vocal performances.

4.5

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J贸nsi, Go

The amount of angst I felt as I cued up J贸nsi鈥檚 Go for the first time was, in retrospect, totally inappropriate. But I imagine I鈥檓 not the only Sigur R贸s fan to approach the album with anxiety, maybe even a little resentment. Wasn鈥檛 it good enough for J贸nsi to front one of the most beloved and bizarrely successful rock acts of the last decade? Has 鈥渋ndefinite hiatus鈥 ever meant anything other than a slow-motion breakup? Had Iceland鈥檚 art-rock champions somehow been Yoko-Ono鈥檇 by J贸nsi鈥檚 boyfriend/collaborator, Alex Somers?

All conspiratorial bitterness aside, it feels important to acknowledge the high likelihood that, with Go, the mighty Sigur R贸s has been laid to rest for good. But J贸nsi has given us something better than a consolation prize. Go is a splendid, vibrant, and ultimately necessary record鈥攏ecessary because it gives J贸nsi the chance to channel Sigur R贸s鈥檚 strengths (shifting layers of diverse instruments, dynamic composition, and a meticulous appreciation for detail) in blissful new directions. While it鈥檚 not difficult to draw a line from the poppier numbers on Me冒 Su冒 铆 Eyrum Vi冒 Spilum Endalaust (鈥淕obbledigook鈥 and 鈥淚nn铆 m茅r syngur vitleysingur鈥 are this album鈥檚 closest predicates), Go is simply too bright a record to have ever belonged in the Sigur R贸s discography; the rushing strings and woodwinds on 鈥淎round Us鈥 and 鈥淎nimal Arithmetic鈥 are so radiant that they would have melted the band鈥檚 glacial soundscapes on contact. Where Sigur R贸s鈥檚 albums often glowered, Go simply glows.

For me, it was only two minutes in, when J贸nsi melts into the breathtaking chorus of 鈥淕o Do,鈥 that any residual bitterness over the Sigur R贸s bust-up was completely dissolved. But there鈥檚 plenty here for the less easily converted, and besides, longtime fans who can stomach J贸nsi鈥檚 newly sugary demeanor will find that he hasn鈥檛 left them wholly stranded; Go may eschew the cinematic heft of vintage Sigur R贸s, but that doesn鈥檛 mean it鈥檚 all Saturday morning cartoons either. 鈥淭ornado鈥 and 鈥淪inking Friendships鈥 slowly swell toward their climaxes like and Takk鈥-era ballads rendered in miniature, and atmospheric cuts like 鈥淜olni冒ur鈥 and 鈥淕row Til Tall鈥 add welcome sonic and emotional complexity. Nine tracks of unabashed gushing would have been hard to take, and J贸nsi鈥檚 Technicolor sunshine sounds better when it has some dark clouds to break through.

That said, the record does end on a disappointingly dour note. 鈥淗engil谩s鈥 is a spare and moody sendoff that feels wrong for such an ebullient album. And in its uncanny resemblance to 脕g忙tis Byrjun鈥檚 closer, 鈥淎valon,鈥 it鈥檚 the only track that seems like a calculated pander to Sigur R贸s diehards.

But Go鈥檚 biggest surprise鈥攖hat shouldn鈥檛 really be a surprise鈥攊s J贸nsi鈥檚 remarkable vocal performances. Capable of holding it鈥檚 own against 脕g忙tis Byrjun鈥檚 dense guitar drone and Takk鈥鈥檚 lush orchestral movements, his evocative falsetto proved time and again to be Sigur R贸s鈥檚 most compelling instrument. But something very nearly revelatory about hearing that voice leap nimbly from hook to hook on 鈥淏oy Lilikoi鈥 or layered against itself on 鈥淎nimal Arithmetic.鈥 J贸nsi rarely resorts to the howls and held notes that used to be his calling card; across the album, he sounds energized as he races Nico Muhly鈥檚 lively arrangements and his own brisk, percussive backdrops. For a talented artist striking out in a new direction, energized is exactly the right way to sound. Even if the era of Sigur R贸s is indeed over, J贸nsi鈥檚 solo career contains all the exhilarating promise that a new beginning should.

Label: XL Release Date: April 6, 2010 Buy: Amazon

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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.

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Worst Christmas Songs
Photo: Atlantic Records

It鈥檚 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, we鈥檒l 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.

Editor鈥檚 Note: This article was originally published on November 28, 2011.

12. Jimmy Boyd, 鈥淚 Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus鈥

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 kid鈥檚 mom isn鈥檛 cheating on his dad, but that Mommy and Daddy have a Santa fetish.

11. Sia, 鈥淧uppies Are Forever鈥

A track from Sia鈥檚 2017 collection of holiday originals, Everyday Is Christmas, 鈥淧uppies Are Forever鈥 is a reggae-vibed public service announcement about, well, how puppies are not forever: 鈥淭hey鈥檙e so cute and fluffy with shiny coats/But will you love 鈥榚m when they鈥檙e old and slow?鈥 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, 鈥淒ominick the Donkey鈥

Lou Monte鈥檚 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 doesn鈥檛 make it any less irritating.

9. Dan Fogelberg, 鈥淪ame Old Lang Syne鈥

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 (鈥淪he went to hug me and she spilled her purse/And we laughed until we cried鈥) and gratuitous details (鈥淲e took her groceries to the checkout stand/The food was totalled up and bagged鈥) make 鈥淪ame Old Lang Syne鈥 a cloying annual annoyance.

8. Neil Diamond, 鈥淐herry Cherry Christmas鈥

In this addition to the schmaltzy, nonsensical holiday song canon, Neil Diamond wishes you 鈥渁 very, merry, cherry, cherry, holly-holy, rockin鈥-rolly Christmas,鈥 before idiotically exclaiming, 鈥淐herry Christmas, everyone!鈥 at song鈥檚 end.

7. Cyndi Lauper, 鈥淐hristmas Conga鈥

Holiday cheer has always been all-inclusive. Hell, even the Jewish Neil Diamond has released three Christmas albums. But I鈥檓 going to go out on a limb and say a Latin house anthem with lyrics like 鈥淏onga, bonga, bonga, do the Christmas conga!鈥 probably wasn鈥檛 necessary. But we still love you, Cyn.

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The 25 Greatest Beck Songs, Ranked

For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments.

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Beck
Photo: Citizen Kane Wayne

Beck鈥檚 breakout hit, 鈥淟oser,鈥 represented the sound of the nation鈥檚 youth wearing their slackerdom as a badge of honor. It鈥檚 a rather dubious fate for the workmanlike track, considering that if Gen X ever 鈥渉ad鈥 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 Beck鈥檚 patchwork style. If anything, 鈥淟oser鈥 was a middle finger to the self-serious headbangers, Beck鈥檚 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, he鈥檚 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 aren鈥檛 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 can鈥檛 write if you can鈥檛 relate, indeed. Kevin Liedel

Editor鈥檚 Note: Listen to our Beck playlist on Spotify.


25. 鈥淒ebra鈥

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 鈥淒ebra,鈥 he hoists it way, way up, further establishing the absurdity of the album鈥檚 seedy narcissism by attempting to pick up sisters. The greatest moment here, however, is the supreme elasticity of Beck鈥檚 voice, sprinting from husky whispers to erotic falsettos with the kind of joie de vivre worthy of Prince. Liedel


24. 鈥淪oul Suckin鈥 Jerk鈥

Beck鈥檚 sense of humor has always been prevalent in his music, but what鈥檚 less well-established is how his absurd, juvenile setups often dissolve into black-hearted non sequiturs. 鈥淪oul Suckin鈥 Jerk鈥 is one such reversal, a slacker tale that traces Beck鈥檚 working stiff from the food court into the edges of civilization just as its verse descends from quiet basslines into raucous drum stomps. 鈥淔or 14 days I鈥檝e been sleeping in a barn,鈥 Beck鈥檚 suburban drone-cum-backwoods anarchist observes, right before a guttural, bottom-heavy font of distortion hammers home the desperation in his wisecracks. Liedel


23. 鈥淗ollywood Freaks鈥

Beck lays claim to legitimate skills on the mic, and they鈥檝e never been stronger or more precise than on 鈥淗ollywood Freaks.鈥 Of course, this being Beck, the rhymes come with a twist, delivered in a lisping, nasal drone that鈥檚 part Truman Capote and part Sylvester the Cat. All the better for it, considering the slick, springy track boasts the weirdest combination of allusions Beck鈥檚 ever concocted: Ripple, No Doz, Norman Schwarzkopf, tricked-out Hyundais, and the song鈥檚 ubiquitous, drunken tagline, 鈥淗e鈥檚 my nun!鈥 Liedel


22. 鈥淔orcefield鈥

Given Beck鈥檚 recent lavish productions, it鈥檚 easy to forget that in the early- to mid-鈥90s he was a lo-fi master. This is nowhere more evident than on 1994鈥檚 One Foot in the Grave, a barebones album steeped in folk and blues. Its centerpiece is 鈥淔orcefield,鈥 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: 鈥淒on鈥檛 let it get too near you/Don鈥檛 let it get too close/Don鈥檛 let it turn you into/The things you hate the most.鈥 Michael Joshua Rowin


21. 鈥淩owboat鈥

鈥淩owboat,鈥 from 1994鈥檚 Stereopathetic Soulmanure, is a gently strummed, classically constructed ballad of rejection and loneliness that features Beck鈥檚 early penchant for lyrics that alternate between deadpan melancholy (鈥淩owboat, row me to the shore/She don鈥檛 wanna be my friend no more鈥) and humorous non sequitur (鈥淒og food on the floor/And I鈥檝e been like this before鈥). Late Nashville legend Leo Blanc鈥檚 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

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Review: Beck鈥檚 Hyperspace Is As Lyrically Vague As It Is Sonically Minimal

Most of the album鈥檚 songs blend into each other so nebulously that they become collectively anonymous.

2.5

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Beck
Photo: Peter Hapak

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 (鈥淭here must be some blueprint, some creed of the devil inscribed in our minds,鈥 he sang on 1998鈥檚 Mutations), and it鈥檚 in his more recent work, darkening avant-pop efforts like 2008鈥檚 Modern Guilt and adding a global sense of sadness to ostensibly more introspective albums like 2014鈥檚 Morning Phase.

Which is why 2017鈥檚 Colors was so surprising: Aside from one or two tracks, it was Beck鈥檚 first unabashed, unironic feel-good party album. But if Colors was a million-dollar bash, then Beck鈥檚 follow-up, Hyperspace, is the comedown. While similarly heavy on beats and electronics, the album lacks its predecessor鈥檚 bounce and exuberance. This trade-in would initially appear welcome since, unlike Beck鈥檚 past genre experiments, which always contained an unmistakable personal touch, Colors鈥檚 glossy, airbrushed fun bordered on inhuman. By comparison, Hyperspace represents something at least relatively thoughtful, its skeletal beats and somber synth washes鈥攁 result of Beck working with co-producer Pharrell Williams鈥攕uggesting 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 鈥淗yperlife鈥 acts as a brief prologue by announcing the album鈥檚 core theme of melancholic and disconnected excess, the phrase 鈥渃rushing life鈥 qualifying a desire for 鈥渕ore and more beauty, light鈥 amid several interweaving synth textures. This leads into 鈥淯neventful Days,鈥 with deep keyboard washes and effervescent twinkles playing over a modest trap beat as Beck continues the theme with a lovely melodic vocal: 鈥淣ever-ending days, never-ending nights/Everything I say, I know I can鈥檛 get right.鈥 The mood is dreamy, numbed, and yet somehow hopeful.

But tracks like the album鈥檚 lead single, 鈥淪aw Lightening,鈥 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 Odelay鈥檚 鈥淗otwax.鈥 As one of the only 鈥渦p鈥 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: 鈥淒ie Waiting鈥 sways with a brightness augmented by acoustic guitar strums, 鈥淪ee Through鈥 emphasizes bubbling electronic percussion, and 鈥淪tar鈥 uses video game-esque bloops and a gently pulsing bassline as a nest for Beck鈥檚 falsetto vocals. It鈥檚 all in the chillwave vein and, while not oppressive like Colors, it鈥檚 also all extremely soporific. Aside from the ascendant airiness of 鈥淐hemical,鈥 the gospel grandeur of 鈥淓verlasting Nothing,鈥 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 it鈥檚 usually for an ugly reason: The title track鈥檚 rap breakdown is exceedingly cornball, and a few songs fade out so abruptly and awkwardly it seems like they鈥檙e 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 2002鈥檚 vulnerable Sea Change so universally resonant, or else the absurdist wordplay, apocalyptic imagery, and pop-cultural detritus that typically fill Beck鈥檚 songs to the bursting point with vivid portraiture and singular turns of phrase. (Even Colors achieved some, well, color with lines like 鈥淚 want to see you with the pharaoh鈥檚 curse/The apple flower doggerel, the batteries burst.鈥) But there鈥檚 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 clich茅s (鈥淚 don鈥檛 care what I have to do/You know that I鈥檓 gonna wait on you鈥), and, elsewhere, his metaphors are rote and obvious (love is a drug on 鈥淐hemical,鈥 disorientation becomes the directionless heavens on 鈥淪tratosphere鈥). By the time Beck finally gets to an original, gut-punching metaphor in 鈥淓verlasting Nothing鈥濃斺淎nd I washed up on the shoreline/Everyone was waiting there for me/Like a standing ovation for the funeral of the sun鈥濃攊t鈥檚 too late to make up for an album鈥檚 worth of platitudes.

Beck鈥檚 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

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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.

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Rihanna
Photo: Roc Nation

Like Madonna before her, Rihanna possesses a shrewd ability to sniff out percolating trends and a willingness to zig when she鈥檚 expected to zag. 鈥淩ussian Roulette,鈥 鈥淒iamonds,鈥 and 鈥淔our Five Seconds鈥 were all surprising moves for an artist who could have safely preserved the status quo. The Barbadian singer鈥檚 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 2012鈥檚 Unapologetic, and she鈥檚 only dropped one album since then, 2016鈥檚 ANTI. While we wait out another dry spell in one of contemporary pop鈥檚 most unexpectedly enduring careers, we took a look back through Rihanna鈥檚 catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.

Editor鈥檚 Note: Listen to our Rihanna playlist on聽Spotify.


20. 鈥淔our Five Seconds鈥

The reverberations of a 鈥渆lla-ella鈥 or 鈥渘a-na鈥 now feel something like a big bang: There would be no 鈥淲e Can鈥檛 Stop,鈥 no 鈥淐ome & Get It,鈥 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 鈥淪tay鈥 saw RiRi try to demonstrate greater range through familiar forms, 鈥淔our Five Seconds鈥 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 McCartney鈥檚 best Lindsey Buckingham impression. It鈥檚 an oddly affecting formula that鈥檚 unlikely to prove quite so imitable鈥攖hough Miley and Selena are welcome to try. Sam C. Mac


19. 鈥淪&M鈥

To say the world wasn鈥檛 exactly thrilled to hear Rihanna, after just having bared her soul in Rated R about (among other things) 鈥渢hat incident,鈥 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 鈥淪&M鈥 to the top of the charts anyway, but you鈥檇 be hard-pressed to find many admitting that they, too, like the smell of sex in the air. But screw it, we鈥檒l say it. 鈥淪&M鈥 might be the boldest of all Rihanna house jams, the moment when she truly found her Janet Jackson-circa-鈥淭hrob鈥 stride. Eric Henderson


18. 鈥淟ove on the Brain鈥

No one would ever confuse Rihanna with Amy Winehouse, but the doo-wop-inspired fourth single from 2016鈥檚 ANTI channels the late singer鈥檚 brand of throwback pop with its juxtaposition of retro instrumentation and, one might say, retrograde lyrics: 鈥淚t beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good that I can鈥檛 get enough.鈥 Rihanna shows off her vocal versatility throughout the track, at turns cooing in falsetto and dropping to a growl, as she unabashedly puts her heart鈥攁nd her brain鈥攐n her sleeve. Sal Cinquemani


17. 鈥淢an Down鈥

Rihanna鈥檚 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 鈥淢an Down,鈥 about a woman who shoots a man in the public square, putting a feminine twist on Bob Marley鈥檚 鈥淚 Shot the Sheriff.鈥 Rihanna鈥檚 vocals are surprisingly agile, and 鈥淢an Down鈥 is one of her most confident performances to date. Alexa Camp


16. 鈥淩ehab鈥

If 鈥淯mbrella鈥 was a good girl鈥檚 gesture of generosity, 鈥淩ehab鈥 is her reeling from the abuse of a bad man who squandered it. 鈥淚鈥檒l never give myself to another the way I gave it to you鈥 is one of the saddest Rihanna lyrics, but a blow blunted by the singer鈥檚 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 she鈥檇 never before explored. It only took a crummy metaphor to get her there. Mac

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Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Like a Virgin” at 35

We鈥檙e taking a look back at the song the Queen of Pop has perpetually made shiny and new.

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Like a Virgin

Confession: I鈥檝e never cared much for 鈥淟ike a Virgin.鈥 Madonna鈥檚 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but it鈥檚 a trifle鈥攁 novelty, really鈥攚ith its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-鈥淏illie Jean鈥 bassline, and the singer鈥檚 helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from 鈥淓xpress Yourself鈥 to 鈥淒on鈥檛 Tell Me,鈥 Madonna has proven she鈥檚 capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonna鈥檚 voice more childlike and 鈥渧irginal.鈥 (It鈥檚 a trick she鈥檚 lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.)

I鈥檓 in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself aren鈥檛 particularly fond of 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 either, and she鈥檚 chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time she鈥檚 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, we鈥檙e 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 Madonna鈥檚 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 she鈥檇 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. Marks鈥檚 Square in Venice, Italy, the music video for 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 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 bride鈥攕auntering impatiently through the basilica, undressing the furniture鈥攁nd 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 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 with a Middle Eastern-inspired arrangement for her Blond Ambition Tour, casting herself as harem girl (the other 鈥済irls鈥 being male dancers, natch, dressed in conical bras designed by Jean Paul Gautier). Having long shed her 鈥淏oy Toy鈥 image for a more empowering, self-reliant brand of post-feminism, the Queen of Pop once again made it clear that 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 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 Kelly鈥檚 Singin鈥 in the Rain. 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 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 鈥淟ike a Wirgin.鈥 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 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 off for the 20th annual VMAs, this time playing the groom to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera鈥檚 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 鈥淟ike a Virgin.鈥 Back in the saddle, indeed.


MDNA Tour (2012)

Madonna ended up back on the floor for this striking, unexpectedly poignant rendition of 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 for 2012鈥檚 MDNA Tour. The delicate piano waltz was juxtaposed with the singer flashing her lady parts, defying those who鈥檇 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 MDNA鈥檚 鈥淟ove Spent,鈥 a song about the dissolution of the so-called Material Girl鈥檚 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 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 for fans around the globe. She didn鈥檛 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 鈥淟ike a Virgin鈥 landed on our list of Every Madonna Single Ranked.

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Review: Celine Dion鈥檚 Courage Digs Deep But Largely Comes Up Empty

In terms of both length and theme, the singer鈥檚 12th English-language album can feel exhausting.

2.5

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Celine Dion
Photo: Columbia Records

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, Ren茅 Ang茅lil, died in 2016). And the French-Canadian singer鈥檚 first English-language effort in six years, Courage, is unlikely to change that. The album opens with the club hit 鈥淔lying on My Own,鈥 a rousing house anthem that鈥檚 a bit of a red herring. With the exception of 鈥淟overs Never Die鈥 and 鈥淣obody鈥檚 Watching鈥濃攚hich deliver just enough peripheral urban-leaning pop and funk, respectively, to not offend Dion鈥檚 core audience鈥攖he rest of the album鈥檚 70-minute runtime is filled with boilerplate balladry.

Though Dion doesn鈥檛 write her own material, much of Courage features lyrical references to loss and mourning. 鈥淚 would be lying if I said I鈥檓 fine/I think of you at least a hundred times,鈥 she sings on the title track, a heart-wrenching piano ballad whose lovely verses鈥斺淚 talk to you like I did then/In conversations that will never end鈥濃攁re put into stark relief by its schmaltzy hook. Co-penned by Sam Smith, 鈥淔or the Lover That I Lost鈥 is expectedly mopey, though it鈥檚 less so in Dion鈥檚 hands, her vocals erring on the side of understatement. She鈥檚 in fine voice throughout the album, though signs of wear are obvious (and welcome) in her scratchy belt on 鈥淐hange My Mind鈥 and the husky lower register she employs on 鈥淟ook at Us Now.鈥

Co-written by Sia and David Guetta, the string-laden 鈥淟ying Down鈥 feels both modern and classic, while 鈥淏est of All鈥 comes closest to recapturing the timeless quality of Dion鈥檚 peak output. Perhaps intentionally, it鈥檚 not until the album鈥檚 last third that true joy breaks through, on the soulful, doo-wop-inspired 鈥淗ow Did You Get Here鈥 and the gospel-infused closing track, 鈥淭he Hard Way.鈥 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

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Review: DJ Shadow鈥檚 Our Pathetic Age Paints a Grim Picture of Modern Life

The double album speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.

3.5

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Photo: Derick Daily

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 that鈥檚 faced DJ Shadow since 1996鈥檚 Endtroducing鈥, which was genre- and era-defining in a way that few other electronic albums have ever been. His later output simply hasn鈥檛 been as innovative or exciting, destined to be read in the context of that triumphant debut. Perhaps that鈥檚 why Shadow鈥檚 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 doesn鈥檛 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 Age鈥檚 first half showcases Shadow鈥檚 renowned ability to build songs entirely out of samples. The best of these evoke clear referents through their soundscapes: 鈥淚ntersectionality鈥 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 鈥淪lingblade鈥 matches glitch-poppy drum programming to a fluttery, Koji Kondo-esque synth melody.

More compact than its sprawling title suggests, 鈥淏eauty Power Motion Life Work Chaos Law鈥 shows Shadow鈥檚 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 鈥渟hut the fuck up鈥 against a polite smattering of applause.

On the album鈥檚 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 鈥淩ocket Fuel鈥 with their trademark infectiousness, while Nas and Pharaohe Monch trade furious verses on 鈥淒rone Warfare,鈥 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 鈥淩ain on Snow,鈥 which starts with a tired Game of Thrones reference but recovers by showcasing the trio鈥檚 dexterous lyricism. Shadow lays their vocals over a ghostly hook (鈥淩ain on snow makes it melt away鈥) and the juxtaposition makes their lines pop even more. 鈥淜ings and Queens鈥 gives Run the Jewels another chance to make the case that they鈥檙e one of the best rap duos in history, and the gospel choir chorus tethers the song to the group鈥檚 Dirty South roots.

The title track and closer is a four-on-the-floor disco jam that makes excellent use of Future Islands鈥檚 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 鈥淐.O.N.F.O.R.M.,鈥 which is peppered with boilerplate carping about Twitter and social media from Gift of Gab, Infamous Taz, and Lateef the Truth Speaker, while 鈥淪mall Colleges (Stay with Me),鈥 featuring Wiki and Paul Banks, feels like something you鈥檇 hear in a grocery store. As is frequently the case with double albums padded with filler, Out Pathetic Age鈥檚 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

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Review: I Made a Place Finds Bonnie 鈥淧rince鈥 Billy at His Most Existential

The album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life.

4.5

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Mickie Winters
Photo: Mickie Winters/Drag City

鈥淵ou need to knock this one out of the park,鈥 Will Oldham sings on 鈥淣ew Memory Box,鈥 the rollicking opening track of I Made a Place, his first album of original material in six years. If it sounds like he鈥檚 suffering from diminished confidence, don鈥檛 be fooled: Oldham鈥檚 albums as Bonnie 鈥淧rince鈥 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 Oldham鈥檚 voice (and lyrics) that much clearer. 鈥淟ook Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past鈥 is made up of a gently strummed acoustic guitar and the singer鈥檚 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. It鈥檚 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: 鈥淕et your sense of self from a hydrogen blast.鈥

The word 鈥渁pocalyptic鈥 is frequently applied to Oldham鈥檚 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 civilization鈥檚 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 pervade鈥攖hough it鈥檚 unclear whether that fire is a conflagration or merely the world鈥檚 sole remaining light source. Yet the tone is rather ruminative. 鈥淭his Is Far from Over鈥 finds Oldham contemplating 鈥渟horelines gone and maps destroyed, livelihoods dissolved and void,鈥 but he reassures us that 鈥渘ew wild creatures will be born鈥 because 鈥渢he whole world鈥檚 far from over.鈥 Oldham鈥檚 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 he鈥檚 funny and sometimes he鈥檚 sad, but he鈥檚 always there to keep the listener safe. 鈥淪quid Eye鈥 delights in some Seussian wordplay and features the album鈥檚 funniest lyrics鈥斺淚鈥檒l drive right in as if I were Aquaman鈥檚 kid鈥濃攕et to a Bob Wills-esque swinging bluegrass song, while 鈥淭he Glow Pt. 3,鈥 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 that鈥檚 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 didn鈥檛 ask for. His thesis is simple: 鈥淚 don鈥檛 know why I was born, but I have made a place.鈥 In that one, softly delivered lyric, Oldham resolves a philosophy seminar鈥檚 worth of existential crisis.

Label: Drag City Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Nirvana鈥檚 MTV Unplugged in New York Remains a Timeless Musical Document

Much of the power of this set is in the band鈥檚 intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety.

4.5

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Nirvana
Upon its television debut in December of 1993, Nirvana鈥檚 MTV Unplugged in New York session was already monumental鈥攊ntensely intimate and unique among prior episodes of Unplugged, which usually operated as greatest-hits showcases. In the wake of Kurt Cobain鈥檚 suicide in 1994, however, the band鈥檚 performance assumed near-mythical status, airing around the clock in the weeks following the singer鈥檚 death and serving several roles for a shocked, grieving fanbase: a portent, memento, and elegy all at once.

Had they never appeared on Unplugged, it鈥檚 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 band鈥檚 three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for 鈥90s alternative music鈥檚 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 Nirvana鈥檚 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 York鈥檚 titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the band鈥檚 performance that were previously only available on the show鈥檚 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 don鈥檛 rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story that鈥檚 largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohl鈥檚 heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like 鈥淐ome As You Are鈥 and a cover of David Bowie鈥檚 鈥淭he Man Who Sold the World,鈥 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, they鈥檙e expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobain鈥檚 vocals sound strained on 鈥淐ome As You Are,鈥 while on a cover of the Meat Puppets鈥檚 鈥淧lateau,鈥 several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwood鈥攚ho, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songs鈥攁re off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of 鈥淧ennyroyal Tea,鈥 Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993鈥檚 In Utero. In rehearsal, 鈥淧ennyroyal Tea鈥 is undone by Pat Smear鈥檚 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 it鈥檚 always been. The album hasn鈥檛 been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison d鈥櫭猼re. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvana鈥檚 delivery, but especially Cobain鈥檚. It鈥檚 also in the mesmerizing spell of the group鈥檚 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 Leadbelly鈥檚 鈥淲here Did You Sleep Last Night.鈥 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

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Review: FKA twigs鈥檚 Magdalene Is a Knotty Meditation on Self-Possession

A distinct feminine energy pulses through the singer-songwriter’s shimmering sophomore effort.

4.5

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FKA twigs
Photo: Matthew Stone

A distinct feminine energy pulses through FKA twigs鈥檚 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 mission鈥攂oth in the writing of this follow-up to 2014鈥檚 LP1 and in the extraordinary wushu and pole training she undertook for her Magdalene tour鈥攖o embrace her pain.

Despite twigs鈥檚 vocal precision, there鈥檚 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 鈥淗oly Terrain,鈥 angrier and rueful on 鈥淔allen Alien,鈥 and sweeping on the transcendent 鈥淪ad Day.鈥

At times, twigs seems caught between personas. On 鈥淗ome with You,鈥 her raspy delivery of 鈥淭he more you have the more that people want from you鈥 gives way to a soaring melody in the chorus, in which she counters, 鈥淚 didn鈥檛 know that you were lonely/If you鈥檇 have just told me I鈥檇 be home with you.鈥 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 鈥淭housand Eyes.鈥 Elsewhere, she calls upon religious references to subvert ideas of her own power. A lyric like 鈥淚 lie naked and pure with intentions to cleanse you and take you鈥 on 鈥淪ad Day鈥 suggests both submission and dominance; the act of cleansing recalls Mary Magdalene washing Jesus鈥檚 feet, yet the phrase 鈥渢ake you鈥 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 鈥渢aste the fruit of me鈥 on the same song, but it鈥檚 not an act of temptation, it鈥檚 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 wasn鈥檛 able to meet her there. And for all the spiritual power she鈥檚 filled with to 鈥渃leanse鈥 and 鈥渉eal鈥 on 鈥淪ad Day,鈥 she also acknowledges the periods when she can barely move on the cyclical 鈥淒aybed.鈥 There鈥檚 little sense on Magdalene that twigs believes there鈥檚 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 twigs鈥檚 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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