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Review: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

The effort to canonize My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as one of hip-hop’s all-time high points is already underway.

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Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

“I fantasized about this back in Chicago” is the first thing that Kanye West says on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and it’s the only thing close to a context for the 13 tracks of delirious hip-hop decadence that follow. For the remainder of “Dark Fantasy,” he’s freely mixing the materialistic (“Mercy, mercy me, that Murcielago”) and the existential (“Hey teacher, teacher/Tell me how do you respond to the students?/And refresh the page and restart the memory?/And re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy?”). The track might not answer a lot of questions, but it’s a dynamite beginning to an audaciously complex rap masterpiece, on-point thematically and, even more so, musically, with Kanye mashing up G-funk and baroque pop while huge, anonymous voices pop in to ask, “Can we get much higher?” like a stoned soul take on a Greek chorus.

The effort to canonize My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as one of hip-hop’s all-time high points is already underway, and I’m confident that Kanye’s new album can weather the backlash that all potential classics must confront. That said, insisting, on whatever grounds, that Kanye has released one of rap’s great milestone’s doesn’t do the album justice, at least insofar as doing so invites impossible challenges (is it really better than Fear of a Black Planet or Illmatic? Who could definitively say?) without drawing due attention to the strengths on which the album might meet them. So let me offer the following, slightly less generous superlative: No rap album I’ve heard can boast better production than this one. The music is exhilarating, often abrasive, never predictable, at times stunningly gorgeous. These are the finest tracks that any group of rappers has yet to rhyme over, and if the album doesn’t make Kanye any more of a contender for the title of Greatest MC than he was two years ago, it handily confirms that he’s rap’s greatest producer.

Even when Kanye was working as an in-house beatsmith for Roc-a-Fella, he showed a savant-like knack for sample-based hip-hop. It turns out that was only the earliest manifestation of a much more encompassing talent. For Kanye, the internal logic of pop music must be nearly transparent: He doesn’t seem to get what makes every genre work, nor does he get all of them as well, but he has an intuitive sense of how to construct more kinds of songs than any other producer working today. He looks good in grimy hard rock on “Hell of a Life,” pulls off arena-sized pop pomp on “All of the Lights,” and still finds time, with the posse cuts “Monster” and “So Appalled,” to kick out the two hardest rap tracks of his career.

Even when Kanye looks back, the results can be stunning. On “Devil in a New Dress,” he perfects the sampling style he invented, manipulating the pitch and tempo of Smokey Robinson’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” until it crawls luxuriantly out of the speakers like wine poured in slow motion. It’s a gorgeous slow burner that turns tragic in its third act, as Kanye’s rhymes swap lust for heartache before distorted guitar lines and a muscular verse from Rick Ross close it out (that’s Kanye acting tough, but it’s clear he’s really hurting).

Wisely chosen as the album’s centerpiece, there’s no question that the following track, “Runaway,” is Kanye’s most arresting showcase as a songwriter. The self-lacerating lyrics, including a filthy first verse (“She find pictures in my email/I sent this bitch a picture of my dick”), are far too off-putting to count as anti-hero posturing, much less as self-pity. The sense of uncomfortable proximity, that maybe Kanye isn’t aware of just how much he’s oversharing here, is reinforced by his unpolished and sometimes tuneless singing. After three verses plus a chilling interlude from Clipse’s Pusha T, apparently as ruthless a boyfriend as he is a coke dealer, Kanye sounds drained.

The “Runaway” single ends there, but the album version undergoes a remarkable transformation, as the lonely piano figure that introduced the song is joined first by menacing cello and then, surprisingly, by an utterly weightless violin section. When Kanye returns, he’s singing through a vocoder, and where his voice strained and cracked before, it now becomes a purely melodic instrument capable of making its own joyous contribution to the track. Kanye sounds disembodied, as though “Run away from me, baby” wasn’t a directive to a mistreated lover, but the cry of a man trying to exit the black hole of his own implacable ego. The coda to “Runaway” is a fantasy of escape through pure catharsis, with the vocoder literalizing Kanye’s ability to transform his personal shortcomings into art.

Nearly as accomplished—and equally as obsessed with the vocoder—is “Lost in the World,” Kaney’s much-anticipated reworking of Bon Iver’s “Woods.” It’s astounding how he takes the strangest sample on the album and crafts it into a defiantly giddy dance number, complete with tribal drumming in the verses and group choruses that sound massive. It’s a mad stroke of brilliance to take Justin Vernon’s solitary ode to alienation and use it as the centerpiece of a catchy, communal reverie. It’s experimental, to be sure, but it’s also the closest the album comes to pure pop indulgence. All the more surprising, then, that the song is interrupted by a seething political missive from Gil Scott-Heron, his “Comment #1,” the sample of which eventually derails “Lost in the World” entirely and runs headlong into the album’s closing track.

By this point, Kanye has pimped on Mt. Olympus, married a porn star, and made love to the Angel of Death, and instead of wrapping up the album with its most joyous track, he tears back the curtain and leaves us staring at a grim and recognizable present. Heron’s words: “All I want is a good home and a wife and a children and some food to feed them every night…Who will survive in America?” The pop-star decadence is shown to conceal the familiar country of predatory lending, teen pregnancy, mandatory minimum sentencing, blighted inner cities, racial profiling—and the confounding question is what power fantasies like Kanye’s have to do with it. Perhaps they sustain the men and women who fight for survival even as they prop up the system that forces us to combat one another on its terms. And where this question applies to all forms of escapism, it seems especially appropriate for rap to confront, as it has aspired to give black America a voice, a soundtrack, a language, and an escape.

The truth is, like Jay-Z recently told Jon Stewart, rap is an art form. And I think that, like Stewart suggested in response, there are plenty of people who already recognize it as such. But vindicating rap—or, for that matter, comic books, video games, or music videos—as belonging to the ever-expanding family of acknowledged “art” is less important than rap’s defenders realize. On the other hand, it’s absolutely crucial that rappers and producers are actively exploiting whatever artistic potential rap does have. It matters that artists like Kanye are finding new frontiers in rap precisely because there are so many people interested in policing rap’s borders, making sure it doesn’t get too violent, or too queer, or too smart. And as long as they’re winning, it doesn’t matter if rap is blasted out of playground stereos or dissected in college English classes: Rap’s status as art is a matter of demonstration, not definition.

So as to avoid sounding conspiratorial, let me be clear about who is handicapping rap in the year 2010. It’s the easy-target A&R guys, sure. But it’s also, more powerfully and more frequently, the fans. It’s especially those fans who believe that realness is definitive of good rap and refuse to accept anything less than a one-to-one correspondence between life and lyrics. For the twentysomething black male to whom rap is most often marketed and by whom rap is most often performed, realness is as much a matter of asserting ownership as it is of relating to the music. Though, ironically, some of the people most invested in keeping rap tied to realness are middle-class white folks who like rap precisely because they don’t relate in any literal sense to its message, but rather because it provides the edgiest musical escapism on the market. Keep those groups in mind and you start to realize the subversive genius of Lil Wayne’s choice of protégés in Nicki Minaj and Drake: The first group finds nothing more threatening than a female rapper (except, as Nicki has pointed out herself, a gay rapper) and the second is just as threatened by a rapper who is unabashedly educated and privileged. Rap critics of many colors and income brackets also deserve some blame, for soft-pedaling paternalism when they praise rappers for “channeling raw experience” or for “unflinching realism,” which can amount to saying that the best rap is either autobiographical or journalistic, but never idiosyncratic, poetic, or performative. For 20 years, rap’s aesthetic has been monopolized by authenticity, and it’s high time it got a bit of competition from fantasy.

From that perspective, I see Kanye as nothing short of a hero, and I see virtually no danger of critics praising My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy too much. Kanye spent the last decade or so pushing himself and his fans to come to terms with a vision of hip-hop so wildly expansive that it could annex whole genres, swing to any mood, freely mix piety and pitch-black humor with snarkiness and swag. His unfailing ear for beats meant that, for three albums in a row, we were all too busy nodding our heads to see how powerfully the game was changing: It wasn’t until 808s & Heartbreak that anyone noticed, and only then because Kanye’s ego finally got the better of his musical talents (this was, after all, the record that introduced “solipsism” to the vocabulary of rap criticism). With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy complete, even that misstep finally looks purposive, as though Kanye first recorded an album as sonically and emotionally distant from his previous work as possible in anticipation of later finding a place for its instrumental digressions and painful candor.

But where 808s & Heartbreak’s stunted emotional arc expressed little more than an egomaniac’s bile for his ex-girl, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy allows Kanye a thematic palette broad enough to confront his pride and anguish. The album dwells on the surreal (“Dark Fantasy” imagines a shopping-mall séance and a sky eclipsed by herons) and the religious (next to Kanye himself, it’s Satan who gets the most name-drops here). It’s all in the service of an exhausting contest between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, Kanye embracing his singular pop-star/super-villain persona while struggling to connect with the creative potential that made him worth our attention to begin with. This much he confesses on “Power”: “I just needed time alone with my own thoughts/Got treasure in my mind, but couldn’t open up my own vault.” With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there’s no question that he’s found the key.

Label: Roc-a-Fella Release Date: November 22, 2010 Buy: Amazon

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The 10 Best Albums of 1980

We take a look back on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

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The 10 Best Albums of 1980
Epic Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2010s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: The Jam, Sound Affects; Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel; Young Marble Gods, Colossal Youth; Grace Jones, Warm Leatherette; Emmylou Harris, Roses in the Snow; Stevie Wonder, Hotter Than July; Devo, Freedom of Choice; Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; Public Image Ltd, Second Edition; Bruce Springsteen, The River



Diana

10. Diana Ross, diana

Diana Ross’s fifth (again, fifth) solo album to feature some part of her name in the title, this was the first one where the choice in nomenclature felt like an act of self-preservation. Because the album’s signature is unmistakably someone else’s, namely the Chic organization. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were brought aboard to help Miss Ross carry on the momentum she had at her back from the string disco hits including “Love Hangover,” “The Boss,” and “No One Gets the Prize.” What seemed like a cunning collaborative move quickly dimmed when disco became, almost overnight, passé. A panicked Ross and Motown snatched the album and remixed it to push it back toward the realm of pop, but even a side-by-side listen with the since-released original version only proves that, lucky for us all, Chic’s DNA is impermeable. Stacked with peppy, irresistible post-disco hits like “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” diana is without question the diva’s most satisfying LP. Eric Henderson



Los Angeles

9. X, Los Angeles

A punk-rock power duo making strong use of their male/female dynamic, Exene Cervenka and John Doe fronted X’s roaring songs with a vibrant vocal and lyrical approach, which helped make them the creative standard bearer of the nascent L.A. scene. Beefing up the usual punk attack with a sound hearkening back to several decades of rock, from Chuck Berry to Blondie, the band went beyond the usual three-chord dynamic, forming an album that’s both a paean to a fading city and an excoriation of its faults, all burning trash, clumped hair and Hollywood Boulevard sleaze, perfectly summed up by the burning logo of the album’s cover. Jesse Cataldo



Sandinista!

8. The Clash, Sandinista!

The succulent fat that drips from this spit-skewered, bloated pig of an album—36 tracks spanning two-and-a-half hours!—is fuel for a distinctive genre bonfire. The flames reach brashly, soulfully, sarcastically beyond punk, rock, pop, dance, ska, rockabilly, dub, calypso, and gospel, and its themes, as diverse as its sound, are the concerns of the world: consumerism, working-class disaffection, political antipathy, immigration, warfare. And drugs, the afterlife, Jesus Christ, sometimes all at once. Heavy stuff, yes, but this is the Clash, who will provide us with an address of Cold War relations but so from the floor of Studio 54. These cheeky blokes operate as spies, disguising grave matters with high-spirited musicality, hoping the powers that be won’t notice. Truly an album without borders. Ed Gonzalez



Get Happy!!

7. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Get Happy!!

In the saga of the punk-rock upstart who shocked critics by going all Lennon-McCartney on their asses, the blue-eyed soul of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!! is typically considered a genre detour, more like 1981’s country-themed Almost Blue than the classic pop triumvirate of Armed Forces, Trust, and Imperial Bedroom. But you need only compare it to Young Americans, Bowie’s misguided stab at R&B from five years earlier, to see how sincerely Costello inhabits the style’s past and present. Costello may have set out to show how much he knew about soul, but what he actually proved was how much he loves it. Matthew Cole


Pretenders” width=

6. Pretenders, Pretenders

The Pretenders’s debut is notable not only for the pitch-perfect execution of the band’s glam-meets-punk style, but also its delivery of unconventional sex appeal. Like Debbie Harry before her, Chrissie Hynde represented a feminization of the punk aesthetic, a street-smart girl who could outdrink, outperform, and ultimately outsmart her male counterparts. Rock feminism never sounded as good as it does here, particularly on tracks like the spunky “Brass in Pocket,” where Hynde has the power to be playful, tough, and even self-deprecating without sacrificing any of her throaty vocal presence. At its core, rock n’ roll is about charisma, and as tracks like “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Private Life” prove, the Pretenders not only had a cache of the stuff, but were well-versed in how to showcase it. Kevin Liedel

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Review: Grimes’s Miss Anthropocene Feels Both Deeply Personal and Communal

The album is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society.

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Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
Photo: Mac Boucher and Neil Hansen

Grimes, née Claire Boucher, furrowed brows when she described the concept of Miss Anthropocene as being centered around her desire “to make climate change fun.” She has since somewhat clarified the statement, explaining that, in rendering climate change as a villainous, comic book-esque character, she might be able to make our environmental crisis “easier to digest.” Not especially known for her easy digestibility as an artist—not least because, in many of her previous releases, Boucher’s vocals have been processed to the point of near-incomprehensibility—it seemed like a tough, if noble, objective.

Indeed, if Boucher’s goal really was to make the conversation around climate change more accessible with her fifth album, she isn’t particularly successful. Written, a press release says, “from the perspective of a pro-AI girl group propaganda machine who use song, dance, sex and fashion to promote goodwill towards artificial intelligence,” the deluxe edition’s “We Appreciate Power” was (misguidedly) criticized as glorifying fascism. There’s been a similar reaction, perhaps more understandably, to the album’s promotional billboards, which bear the words “Global Warming Is Good,” and instructions to deface them rendered in comparably tiny print. At best, the billboards are corny, and at worst, as evinced by the flurry of tweets like “but is she wrong tho?” they prompted, they’re a boon to those who, without knowledge of Boucher’s intention, simply see the ads as a vindication of their own beliefs.

Most confusingly, the marketing seems to be out of step with Miss Anthropocene’s actual content, a lot of which doesn’t discernibly reference the Earth or our climate. Boucher has said that the process of writing the album was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even Miss Anthropocene’s most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched “This is the sound of the end of the world” on “Before the Fever,” seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the world’s climate woes. Elsewhere, “Violence,” about an abusive relationship, is only understood as being sung by the actual Earth to the very crisis of climate change because the singer has told us that it is.

But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucher’s broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with nü-metal guitars on “So Heavy I Fell to the Earth” and four-to-the-floor trance with a Madonna-esque vocal melody on “Violence.” Elsewhere, on “Darkseid,” deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum n’ bass on “4ÆM.” But Boucher’s most surprising pivot, as well as her loveliest, comes on “Delete Forever,” a song about America’s devastating opioid crisis and on which her delicate vocals float over an acoustic guitar, joined later by a banjo.

On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together, more than the topic of climate change or its creator’s personal relationships, is Boucher’s wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. At the very least, her dominant thematic angle has provided her with a means of inventing new characters to inhabit and new worlds to explore. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society.

Label: 4AD Release Date: February 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Caribou’s Suddenly Is an Inviting Dive Into Familial Waters

The album takes family as its central theme with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.

4.5

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Caribou, Suddenly
Photo: Thomas Neukum

The narrative arc of Dan Snaith’s career as Caribou (and Manitoba before it) has been one of increasing devotion to humanity. His earlier work was chilly enough that the Shakespeare-referencing title of 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness could be read as tongue-in-cheek. But starting with 2007’s Andorra, Snaith began delving deeper into human emotions. Our Love, from 2014, was a tender examination of, well, love, while his latest, Suddenly, takes family as its central theme—the title comes from his daughter’s obsession with the word—with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.

Snaith builds his songs with a cool, measured precision, as one might expect from someone who holds a doctorate in mathematics, and one of the fun games to play with this album is unpacking its myriad references and samples. “Lime,” for instance, boasts the peppiness of a Röyksopp song filtered through the muzak setting on a Casio synthesizer. “Never Come Back” possesses the propulsive beat of a ‘90s dance-floor filler. “Like I Love You” is built on the bones of what sounds like an early-aughts R&B track. The album rewards this type of reference-spotting, and it’s a treat to listen to the way such a masterful musician mines his own record collection for inspiration.

What makes the album so spectacular, though, is Snaith’s voice. This is the first Caribou effort on which he sings on every track, and his vocals are mixed higher than they have been in the past. Throughout, his mesmerizing vocals elevate songs that might otherwise scan as banal. “Like I Love You” trades in a fairly well-trod sentiment, with Snaith rhapsodizing about an ex-lover, but he wrings every last drop of emotional possibility out of lines like “Does he love you like I used to do?/Do you ever miss me like I miss you?” Elsewhere, “Magpie” finds Snaith employing his vocals to maximum impact. The first half of the song, which features a lovely, McCartney-esque melody, is buried under compression that makes it sound like it’s playing from the busted speakers of an old cathode-ray TV set. That distortion falls away halfway through, as Snaith sings, “And now the world is catching up to you,” and the song blossoms, capturing the feeling of being in the first flush of love. This shift is but one among many moments of striking revelation throughout the album.

The brief “Sister” is a gentle, affecting lullaby about the responsibilities of love. Amid a whirl of rich, warm synth notes, Snaith sings softly, “Sister, I promise you I’m changing/You’ve had broken promises I know/If you want to change it you must break it/Rip it up and something new will grow.” At the end of the line, a burst of static introduces a sample taken from an old tape of Snaith’s mother singing his sister a lullaby. The political overtones of the lines are obvious, but the personal nature of the sample gives the song a weight that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. What he’s addressing isn’t as important as how he does it.

Label: Merge Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 25 Best Guided by Voices Songs

We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in the band’s dauntingly huge catalogue.

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Guided by Voices
Photo: Tony Nelson

Since reforming in 2012, Guided by Voices has seemed to be on a mission to record more long-players than they did during the entirety of their original run, a 17-year stretch that began with 1987’s charming, self-produced Devil Between My Toes and ended 15 albums later in 2004 with the muscular, mature Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Conventional wisdom says the band peaked with Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the last album featuring the “classic” lineup featuring Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell, but anyone who continued to pay attention after the band fell out of indie-snob favor knows that any permutation of the group only has one essential member: lead singer and world-class songwriter Robert Pollard. His mastery has never ceased for creating two-minute post-punk anthems that make singing along at maximum volume seem like the greatest pastime in the world.

We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in Guided by Voices’s dauntingly huge catalogue. It’s a list cut down from an initial group of 60, any one of which could’ve been included here. So if you don’t see one of your personal favorites, know that I probably wrestled over whether to include it. With that caveat out of the way, here are the 25 tracks that most proudly represent a group that’s not just one of the very best indie-rock bands, but on the short list of the greatest rock n’ roll bands in history.

25. “Space Gun”

The title track from Guided by Voices’s 2018 album is, like the album itself, one of the true highlights of the band’s reformation and resurgence in the last decade. With production pitched between the spiky compression of their 4-track beginnings and the cleaner big-rock noise of their post-Alien Lanes run in the 2000s, it’s a four-minute glam-prog stomper built around a glittering guitar line that sounds like “I Am a Tree” took the brown acid. And with lyrics which name-check John Philip Sousa, it isn’t difficult to imagine “Space Gun” as the future fight song for a gang of besotted galactic raiders.

24. “An Unmarketed Product”

At various times in the band’s storied career, Robert Pollard has abandoned his normal lyrical template of beguiling cosmic Dadaism to provide meta commentary on the band’s legacy as mischievous outsiders playing on the margins of the corporate rock game. The lyrics caution, “I can give you credit/Suitable and custom tailored/And if you have any luck/You’ll get ahead/Before you’re dead,” as this 69-second piss-take anthem mines sugary post-punk for a single-finger salute to the KROQ dreams that should’ve been the band’s birthright.

23. “Man Called Aerodynamics”

When Bee Thousand first conquered the ‘90s indie-rock landscape, rock criticism’s elder guard bemoaned the melodic ADD of their songs, with their manic rush to hooks and choruses an alleged affront to classic-rock formalism. What, then, would they have made of this roaring track from Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, seeming to begin midstream, at the very moment where its ‘60s and ‘70s forebears would already be at the minute mark? Sharing with “Space Gun” a sound that could be described as “Pete Townsend destroying his Gibson in a wind tunnel,” “Man Called Aerodynamics” is as mammoth as anything lo-fi indie rock has ever produced.

22. “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox”

“G-B-V! G-B-V! G-B-V!” chants the raucous crowd at the beginning of the nearly six-minute epic that kicks off the band’s transitional 1992 album Propeller. As we’d discover later, the “crowd” was the band themselves using echo and a little striving wish fulfillment to imagine the kind of frenzied excitement that would greet the band a few years later. The track itself is like many of the group’s forays into prog-rock: blazing mini-songs (technically two, if the title is to be trusted, though three by structure) strung together like a “Stars on 45” for the British invasion (non-Beatles edition), starting restless and rough, turning bright and hopeful, and then concluding in a cascade of reverbing choral tranquility.

21. “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”

Because almost everything Bob and the boys do is like a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of rock n’ roll, when it comes to lighter-waving power ballads, their ne-plus-ultra entry stops right when everyone else’s is just reaching the chorus. Built on a bed of keys from a piano that one imagines stained with tears, whiskey and spit, “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” is both melancholy and majestic—Leonard Cohen via “Champagne Supernova”—and the spectral production is so perfect that when And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead covered it years later with 10 times the budget, the dollars couldn’t add a thing beyond surface shine.

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Review: Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory Is Bound by a Sense of Maturity

The album explores darker, weightier subject matter than its predecessor.

3.5

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Soccer Mommy, Color Theory
Photo: Brian Ziff

With 2018’s Clean, Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison emerged on the scene sounding a lot like a moody indie rock incarnation of Taylor Swift. That album’s “Your Dog” and “Cool” are effortless anthems that possess the same instantly anthemic quality as many of Swift’s mega-hits. But the main connection between the two is a pseudo-adolescent outlook wherein their dating lives and associated travails are elevated to matters of life and death. Just 20 at the time of Clean’s release, Allison was consumed by thoughts like “She’s so pretty/Even more than me.”

With Color Theory, Allison raises the stakes. Slicker than Clean, and beefed up by her touring band, the album’s sparkling guitars and restrained studio sheen bring her sound closer to, if not Swift, then familiar ‘90s alt-rock touchstones like Built to Spill and Sebadoh. Allison’s progression as a songwriter is more acutely evident in the album’s darker, weightier subject matter: Continuing to draw on personal experience, she largely eschews songs about her love life, instead confronting her issues with mental health and abandonment.

Color Theory rarely progresses beyond the admittedly rich template established in its opening track, “Bloodstream.” Here, Allison offers frank and poetic ruminations on her history of depression and self-harm as rhythm guitars thrum behind her. Her visceral lyrics—“Now a river runs red from my knuckles into the sink”—are partially obscured by a deceptively cheery chord progression, just like she once “covered up the wounds with my long sleeves.”

In its subject matter, chords, rhythm, and tempo, “Circle the Drain” bears a strong resemblance to “Bloodstream.” But the song’s most lasting impression is its hook, a sing-song “Round and around” refrain that’s deafening in its obviousness—not because it’s uncreative, but because it’s a wonder no one else thought of it sooner. Indeed, Allison’s best melodic hooks—like the overlapping guitar lines on “Crawling in My Skin”—are often simple but indelible.

Even as Allison delves deep into heavy subject matter, she usually sounds more angsty than haunted. Which is fine when she delivers that angst with such melodic verve (the album’s dourest-sounding songs, especially the final two, are easily the weakest, as they lack melodies strong enough to buoy Allison’s disaffected musings). Her still-youthful perspective means that the charmingly tongue-in-cheek “Royal Screw Up,” on which she imagines herself as an emotionally damaged waifu (“My dungeon of fire, I’m the princess of screwing up/And you wear your armor and you save pretty girls like me”), isn’t totally out of place here.

Still, a sense of maturity binds the album’s best moments. “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes” lazily unfolds over seven-plus minutes, but as with “Bloodstream,” there’s pain hidden beneath the pleasant vibes. Dogged by memories of her terminally ill mother, Allison laments that even her daydreams of happier times are tainted by the knowledge of what’s to come: “Loving you isn’t enough/You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done.”

Color Theory’s lynchpin is “Lucy,” which makes clear just how much Allison has grown as a songwriter since Clean. Allison is having trouble with a boy, and there’s another girl involved who’s complicating matters. But this time, the boy isn’t just a mean boyfriend; he’s “the root of all evil,” intent on dragging her to hell, perhaps literally so. And the other girl isn’t a prettier or cooler rival; she seems to be a part of Allison’s own psyche, constantly tormenting her. “Oh Lucy please/Quit taunting me,” Allison pleads over and over, a refrain as menacing as it is catchy. Though some deeper and darker has taken root in this indie rock wunderkind, her melodic grip remains the backbone of her music.

Label: Loma Vista Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Justin Bieber’s Changes Represents a Marked Shift in the Singer’s Perspective

The album finds the singer trying to usher in a new era characterized in large part by asking for help.

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Justin Bieber, Changes
Photo: Outside Organisation

In 2017, after over 250 tour dates across six continents, Justin Bieber canceled what remained of his Purpose World Tour, citing extreme exhaustion. The decision is touched on in the first episode of his YouTube docu-series Justin Bieber: Seasons, a not totally uncynical and yet undeniably humanizing snapshot of a troubled performer whose youthful mistakes were augmented by incredible wealth, increasing isolation, and a public whose gaze has been made all the more searing by the rapid growth of social media.

Taken together, Seasons and Changes, the singer’s fifth album, find Bieber trying to usher in a new era in his life and career characterized in large part by asking for and receiving help. Along with medical professionals who are helping him to manage his recently diagnosed Lyme disease and Epstein Barr, in addition to his chronic anxiety, his new wife, Hailey Baldwin, seems also to have had a calming effect on his music. Where Bieber’s previous albums have often felt engineered almost exclusively for the purpose of stimulating audience response, Changes seems focused instead on the tenderness and comfort of his newlywed bubble.

Seasons makes much of his perfectionism, showing him cut vocal tracks line by line, singing on a loop until he hits each note just right. But it’s that attention to detail, along with the use of vocal effects that coat his voice in a plastic sheen, that holds Bieber at an unfortunate remove from us. In leaning into a more subdued palette of R&B, Changes creates a space for Bieber’s voice to take a central role. But for an album that focuses so strongly on human connection, there’s a certain lack of emotion that might have come from a looser recording process. That distance is counteracted in large part by a certain lyrical openheartedness, and though Bieber often veers into cliché—“When your battery gets low/I’ll be the one to charge you up,” he sings on “Take It Out on Me”—there’s a real charm to the songs that rest so deeply not just on love or sex, but trust and commitment.

Although the tonal fluidity of Changes errs, from time to time, toward homogeneity, there’s a weightlessness to it that seems to signify the slipping of a long-held burden from Bieber’s shoulders. His most personal offering to date, the album feels like a reflection of actual experience as opposed to a projection of a fantasy. Putting aside the album’s lead single, “Yummy,” a Tik-Tok-baiting affront to both sex and music in equal measure, this is an album that feels very much like the documentation of a very specific moment in time in the singer’s life and an accompanying marked shift in his perspective.

Label: Def Jam Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Yacht Rock Revue’s Hot Dads in Tight Jeans Is More Parody Than Tribute

The album seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year.

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Yacht Rock Revue, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans
Photo: Please Rock

Yacht Rock Revue’s Hot Dads in Tight Jeans seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year. It’s the work of an affable group of guys who travel the country playing the kind of ‘70s and ‘80s light rock that gives their band its name. Over the past decade, Yacht Rock Revue has built something of a soft-rock empire, playing in major venues across the country and hosting an annual festival in Atlanta where they’re often joined on stage by the musicians they’ve made their bones covering. Now, having established themselves as the premier purveyors of yesteryear’s smoothest hits, the band is releasing their first album of original material. But while Yacht Rock Revue is a stellar live band, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans often fails to show what makes them special in the first place.

Having made music as a cover band for so long, Yacht Rock Revue seems tempted to play “spot the reference” with their original material rather than engaging with the songs on their own merits. Some of the tracks, of course, wear their influences on their sleeves: “House in the Clouds” is built around a Matthew Wilder/Thomas Dolby synth riff, while “Change of Scene” apes Stevie Wonder. The album’s palette isn’t exclusively limited to the ‘70s—“You’re Welcome Baby” sounds uncannily like Kishi Bashi’s brand of indie-pop—but it’s easy to get distracted wondering who the band might be trying to sound like in any given song.

The album’s larger issue is exemplified by opening track “The Doobie Bounce,” the title of which is a winking reference to the jaunty rhythm perfected by the Doobie Brothers that JD Ryznar has held up as a hallmark of the genre on his podcast Yacht or Nyacht. The song itself is about the pleasures of getting stoned and listening to records, referencing the Doobie Brothers, Sade, and, perhaps surprisingly, OutKast, and it has one good laugh line: “I used to sleep on couches/Now I sleep on nicer couches.” Yacht rock has a reputation for skimming the surface of emotions, but that stereotype isn’t totally fair: Daryl Hall is a clever songwriter, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are among the sharpest and most acidic satirists in rock. These songs, though, are disappointingly obvious. “House in the Clouds” is about living in a house above the clouds, and “Another Song About California” is, well, I’ll let you guess.

The band’s tendency toward obviousness comes to a head on “Bad Tequila,” a party anthem that revises the old chesnut about turning lemons into lemonade into a joke about turning tequila into margaritas. It’s certainly catchy, and pure escapism certainly has a proud tradition in pop, but it’s also, at five minutes long, frustratingly repetitive.

Say what you will about the genre, but most AOR bands were tight musicians, and Yacht Rock Revue has likewise honed their craft to a razor’s edge. The appeal of their live shows lies in the way they treat their music with utmost reverence, even as they perform dressed in costume to crows of people crushing daiquiris and wearing captain’s hats. From its jokey title and cover art to the somewhat undercooked songs, however, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans feels more like a parody than a tribute to the genre Yacht Rock Revue so clearly love.

Label: Please Rock Release Date: February 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guided by Voices’s Surrender Your Poppy Field Serves Power Pop with a Twist

Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop.

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Guided by Voices, Surrender Your Poppy Field
Photo: Tony Nelson

Nearly 40 years into his career, Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop, like a magician forever pulling rabbits out of a hat. Ever since Pollard assembled a new Guided by Voices lineup for 2017’s August by Cake, the band has showcased a different facet of their sound with each outing, and that diversification continues on Surrender Your Poppy Field. The album weaves the unusual time signatures, song lengths, and baroque-prog structures of last year’s Sweating the Plague with the tight melodicism that’s made some of Pollard’s best solo albums so memorable.

In comparison to their longer counterparts on Sweating the Plague, almost every song here runs through several moods and styles rapidly—but without ever sounding rushed or contrived. “Cul-de-Sac Kids” alternates between gentle acoustic strumming and brief full-band bashing before launching into an underdogs-win-the-day chorus—“Cul-de-sac kids throw the best parties!”—bolstered by the album’s most driving riff. It’s the most complex and exhilarating track on the album, all in just a little over two-and-a-half minutes.

The album’s lead single, “Volcano,” is a Pixies-esque ballad buoyed by Mark Shue’s muted bass runs. What makes the song both uniquely strange and beautiful in the Guided by Voices catalog is the inclusion of atmospheric keyboard phrases that play over verses containing some of the prettiest lyrics Pollard has written: “True is the time when I see you/Blue from the blinds that I see through.” The explosion of the chorus into a wall of power chords provides Pollard’s life-affirming exhortation—“On the trail of lovers/Never failing with their loving eyes around you to prove your rage isn’t true”—with the perfect euphoric accompaniment.

The album’s biggest surprise is that several tracks—“Arthur Has Business Elsewhere,” “Steely Dodgers,” and “Andre the Hawk”—utilize waltz time to evoke the kind of carnival-esque stomps that comprised some of Guided By Voices’s earliest recordings, including 1987’s Sandbox and 1989’s Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia. These songs offer a compelling contrast to more straightforward rock tracks like “Stone Cold Moron,” which features a double electric guitar attack from Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. that’s pure arena-rock euphoria.

Indeed, waltzes aside, Surrender Your Poppy Field may be the most consistently hard-edged and rocking Guided by Voices effort since 2018’s Space Gun. “Queen Parking Lot” and “Man Called Blunder” waste no time as rousing, unfussy riffs barrel into verse-chorus-verse sing-alongs. It all leads to a stunning conclusion, as “Next Sea Level” transforms an eerie demo-quality recording of chime-like guitar strums into a majestic full-band and orchestra-accompanied crescendo. The song’s title and chants of “rising” suggest a climate change apocalypse, but since that would be far too on the nose, the ever-oblique Pollard ends with something mysteriously hopeful: “To hear you/To touch you/To know you’re coming around/Still coming around.” Beyond the Tommy reference, “Next Sea Level” proves that Pollard can foster worlds of thought and feeling out of sparse yet strategic gestures.

“Next Sea Level” also represents the welcome maturity of the current incarnation of Guided by Voices, whose only Achilles’ heel is an exhausting deluge of content. Some have lamented Pollard’s prolific songwriting for diluting the quality of his output, but at this stage of his career Surrender Your Poppy Field proves he’s deepening rather than merely proliferating his music, continuing to grow up instead of growing old.

Label: GbV Release Date: February 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Billie Eilish Drops Lush James Bond Theme Song “No Time to Die”

The lush, darkly cinematic track feature an orchestral arrangement courtesy of Hans Zimmer and guitar from Johnny Marr.

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Billie Eilish, No Time to Die
Photo: Interscope Records

On the heels of her historic Grammy wins, singer-songwriter Billie Eilish has unveiled “No Time to Die,” the theme song from the upcoming James Bond film of the same name. The song was produced by her brother and frequent collaborator, Finneas, and veteran knob-twirler Stephen Lipson. The lush, darkly cinematic track falls in line with past 007 themes, with an orchestral arrangement courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Matt Dunkley, and featuring guitar from Johnny Marr of the Smiths.

The 18-year-old Eilish, the youngest person and first woman to win the four main Grammy categories in the same year, is now the youngest artist to both write and record a Bond theme. She will perform the song live for the first time at The Brit Awards on February 18.

No Time to Die hits U.S. theaters on April 10 through MGM/United Artists Releasing.

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Review: The Men’s Mercy Finds a Mercurial Band Settling Into Their Sound

The album boasts a few moments of exploration but seems more staid in its ambitions.

3.5

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The Men
Photo: Sacred Bones

The Men is a mercurial band, having moved with remarkable swiftness from the punishing noise-punk of their early albums to the more radio-friendly rock of their more recent output. The Brooklyn band’s eighth album, Mercy, continues to challenge the boundaries of genre, with psych-folk sitting alongside twangy alt-country and rave-up hardcore. The album’s variety displays a commendable commitment to sonic adventurousness, though the band isn’t quite pushing boundaries like it once did.

Mercy is the Men’s third consecutive album with the same roster, and this relative stability has allowed them to settle into their sound. The album was recorded mostly live with minimal overdubbing, a testament to just how in sync the current lineup has become as a unit. The penultimate track, “Breeze,” is a fuzztone ripper with a throat-searing vocal that moves at a breakneck pace, while lead single “Children All Over the World” pairs serpentine guitar licks with singer Nick Chiericozzi’s sinister whisper and a dark, delightfully ‘80s-inspired synth riff. The song builds to a blistering solo almost reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen, rendering it simultaneously familiar but fresh—at least for the Men.

The country-rock sound that the band began exploring on 2012’s Open Your Heart was a radical departure from their earlier style, and here these genre excursions prove to be some of the album’s strongest. “Cool Water” is a loose, Laurel Canyon-esque rocker, while the title track is a folky deathbed sigh, with Chiericozzi coolly pleading, “I need mercy at the hour of my death.” And though its title nods to Sleater-Kinney, “Call the Dr.” isn’t a spiky punk song, but rather a chooglin’ country romp with a first-person murder narrative in the vein of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso.” The song’s narrator tells a story about getting gunned down after a heist, dying atop his ill-gotten goods. The lyrics display a powerful sense of economy, sketching out just enough details to make the story vivid without becoming overwrought. The finger-picked guitar fills and Chiericozzi’s raspy vocals give the track a sort of dusty, western verisimilitude.

The album’s centerpiece, “Wading in Dirty Water,” is a 10-minute psychedelic jam with an unsettling but catchy synth hook; the guitar solo sounds like vintage Nels Cline, though it drags on for at least a couple of minutes too long. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the spare piano ballad “Fallin’ Thru” veers into crooner territory, with vocals that are mixed almost like an ASMR video. The song seems to be aiming for a quiet menace reminiscent of Tom Waits or Nick Cave, but the overall effect is somewhere between soporific and goofy.

Overall, Mercy doesn’t quite measure up to the band’s stellar triptych of albums released between 2012 and 2014, on which they stretched to expand their repertoire, challenging themselves to explore various sounds from throughout the history of rock while refining their chops and chasing wild hares. Mercy boasts a few moments of exploration but seems more staid in its ambitions.

Label: Sacred Bones Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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