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Review: Lady Gaga, Born This Way




Lady Gaga, Born This Way

Prophets of doom claim that this Saturday—May 21, 2011—will be the beginning of the Rapture and that God’s forsaken shall be left on Earth to be tormented for five months before the world comes to its final end. Satan, you can imagine these Christian fanatics saying, will be revealed in the form of a pop star, saturating radio airwaves with her malevolent message of equality for all, leading the damned to hell on the backs of grotesque motorcycle-human hybrids sporting hooker-red lipstick and branded with the definitive sign of the devil: a beveled and embossed logo. Of course, that’s just an allegory conceived to frighten us into subservience to pop music’s status quo. But Lady Gaga’s official sophomore long player, Born This Way, feels like it’s been hyped for almost as long—and certainly as fervently—as the End of Days. Which poses two distinct problems: the age of its songs and its stubborn obedience to said status.

M.I.A. is often cited as a counterpoint to Gaga, as an artist who, despite criticisms of commercializing political violence in the same way American rappers have packaged and sold the gangster lifestyle to suburbia, makes music that’s as challenging as her persona is hypocritical. Gaga’s flaw is almost exactly the inverse: She fancies herself a cultural revolutionary, employing subversive, if not always completely cogent, visual messages to promote self-love and civil rights, but fails to create music that similarly challenges pop-radio audiences. It’s a dilemma that faces any mainstream artist who wants to attain—and maintain—popularity, and thus reach the widest possible audience.

For the better part of two decades, the hip-hop community has applied a strict litmus test to any newcomer hoping to crack the upper echelons of rap: Street cred is essential. Rock has often had a similar requirement of authenticity, but almost anyone is accepted in the glittered halls of the pop pantheon. That is, unless the level of one’s dues-paying is deemed disproportionate to his or her success. Questions about Gaga’s Upper East Side upbringing and rise to fame have persisted since she became a household name, and with good reason: Her willful admission that everything she does is artifice, her on-stage declarations that she hates the truth, and her opportunistic transformation from vapid fame whore to protective mama monster with a message all point to her being, to paraphrase the performer in an early interview, the most impressive con artist pop music has ever seen.

Madonna has always been accused of appropriating the “other” for her professional gain, but it’s Gaga who’s taken that conceit to almost obscene levels, pandering to the gay community in particular in ways no other pop artist ever has, not by paralleling her oppression as a female to that of other minorities, as Madonna so frequently and shrewdly has, but by actually transforming herself into a “freak,” first with outlandish costumes and, more recently, with prosthetic body modification. These elements are all fascinating redefinitions of beauty, of what’s “normal,” and physical manifestations of the ugliness that Gaga may have once felt inside, but the girl who was, by many accounts, pretty popular in high school, has effectively fetishized the “other.”

The reason many have accepted this blatant co-opting, then, is because we want to believe that—again, like Madonna—Gaga’s motivations are pure, even if championing the cause of what she realizes is her core fanbase seems like the ultimate exploitation. Gaga’s near-pathological, around-the-clock commitment to the persona she’s created, to say nothing of her devotion to her fans, is about as “real” as it gets in the pop world. And, occasionally, she succeeds at convincing us that being a freak is a state of mind: The freakiest thing about her fantastic “Born This Way” video isn’t its ideas (the creation myth that opens the clip is really no different from the story of Adam and Eve or the war between matter and antimatter in the early universe), it’s Gaga herself—that 30-second span leading up to and through the final chorus where she unleashes her inner freak, grinding up against Rick Genest, whipping her Pink Ambition ponytail around, and rolling her eyes into the back of her head like she’s possessed.

For all the griping about “Born This Way” sounding too similar to “Express Yourself” (which it does), it’s also a retread of The Fame Monster’s “Dance in the Dark,” which shares the same producer, structure, and themes—only those themes aren’t pounded into submission with too-literal lyrics and a sound design that was ostensibly tinkered with nonstop since Gaga first sang the hook at the VMAs way back in September. “Born This Way” might have sounded good in a multimillion-dollar recording studio, but on today’s portable gadgets, its chorus is a busy, over-produced earsore.

In fact, choruses seem to be the problem with all of the album’s singles so far. And what’s a pop song without a good hook? The speed metal-meets-“Bad Romance” knock-off “Judas” is lyrically more interesting than “Born This Way,” but its Aqua-esque chorus is too sweet and poppy for a torch song dedicated to one of the Bible’s greatest villains. The electro-rock ballad—and accidental third single—“The Edge of Glory” isn’t retro so much as retrograde, starting off with some crafty Art of Noise synth tones before morphing into what sounds like the theme song to an early-‘90s sitcom, or an inspirational sports flick, as sung by Bonnie Tyler. And the promo single “Hair” is a derivative but perfectly serviceable club track about highlights that’s turned into a dumping ground for every bad idea Gaga’s had in the last 12 months: schmaltzy piano-woman melodies, overwrought choruses, inexplicable sax solos. Apparently she’s never heard of Hair—or the queen of all hair-as-self-actualization dance-pop anthems, RuPaul’s “Back to My Roots.”

Which is all to say that I had my claws out for this one, but I couldn’t stay mad at Gaga for very long—not with songs like “Marry the Night,” a more worthy successor to “Dance in the Dark” that channels post-disco Moroder, and the filthy-fabulous “Government Hooker,” which manages to make the oft-robbed bassline from New Order’s “Blue Monday” sound brand new. And not when the girl sells a lyric like “Dirty pony, I can’t wait to hose you down” in a faux-continental accent without cracking up on “Heavy Metal Lover.” (Typically flouted watersports-enthusiast community: You now have your very own anthem!) Gaga’s self-proclaimed status as a student of all things pop culture results in some largely exhilarating experiments in pastiche: “Electric Chapel” is like a song by the Cardigans as fronted by Debbie Harry, featuring Slash, and produced by John Carpenter, while “Unicorn Highway (Road 2 Love)” might be what it would have sounded like if the Lizard King’s heart had held out a few more years and he recorded a disco song.

References to other erstwhile ‘70s icons like ABBA (“Americano,” “Judas”) and Queen (“Yoü and I”) are a bit less imaginative, and Gaga gets in trouble when she allows her affinity for her fans to inform her songwriting, as she does on “Hair” and “Bad Kids” (for the record, it sounds like she’s singing “faggot” instead of “bad kid,” which, come to think of it, would have made for a much ballsier, albeit dicey, political statement), but it’s easy to forget that she was still only 24 when she composed most of these songs. She’s indeed on the edge of glory—that is, she isn’t quite there yet, but it’s fun to watch her try so devotedly.

Norman Mailer once said that, when writing fiction, one should draw from their own personal narrative at oblique angles rather than cutting straight through and using it wholesale; this way, a writer can use their personal experience over and over in different ways without ever exhausting it. To that point, Gaga has tapped the well of the Queen of Pop so often and so directly that it will become impossible for her to continue to do so without facing fierce criticism. Which is unfortunate since she’s most interesting, even most relevant, when striking that particular pose, as she does on “Scheiße,” a Dietrich-by-way-of-Madonna-on-steroids techno-feminist manifesto.

But as it stands, it appears Gaga’s most prominent muse throughout most of Born This Way is Lita Ford. When Gaga graduated to stadiums, her music clearly followed suit. There’s nothing small about this album, and Gaga sings the shit out of every single track. In many ways, Born This Way is akin to the Killers’ under-appreciated sophomore effort, Sam’s Town: bloated, self-important, proudly American, an exercise in extraordinary excess. There are lots of mentions of Jesus Christ throughout the Born This Way project, not to mention Judas, Mary M., and machine guns that shoot church bells. Which makes sense, since Born This Way will likely be playing on a loop in hell. And all the bad kids—and faggots—will be dancing to it for eternity.

Label: Interscope Release Date: May 23, 2011 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Weeknd’s After Hours Is a Triumphant Depiction of Heartbreak

The album explores new levels of sonic innovation, expanding on old themes while finding new shades of emotional maturity.



The Weeknd, After Hours
Photo: Anton Tammi

The Weeknd’s music has, to this point, focused on three major subjects: having sex, doing drugs, and having sex on drugs. Despite the ostensible physical pleasure of these activities, Abel Tesfaye’s vocal delivery and sonic landscapes have often felt anhedonic. He writes about chasing pleasure not for the thrill, but out of habit, like a dog chasing a car—best exemplified by his hit “Can’t Feel My Face,” a galactic love song about getting so high that your emotions shut down. The Weeknd’s fourth album, After Hours, is reportedly a chronicle of Tesfaye’s on-again, off-again relationship with model Bella Hadid, and he straight-facedly embraces vulnerability like never before, resulting is his most personal album to date.

Though his work is pop-oriented, Tesfaye has always been willing to chase wild hares. On After Hours, he collaborates with electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never, né Daniel Lopatin, who composed the score for the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, in which Tesfaye was featured. Lopatin worked on three tracks here, but his influence is palpable throughout the album, as Tesfaye embraces the type of crystalline electronica Oneohtrix Point Never is famous for.

On the standout “Hardest to Love,” Tesfaye delivers one of the most affecting vocal performances of his career over a glitchy pop soundscape. The song’s lyrics are direct: “I’ve been the hardest to love/You’re tryna let me go,” shouldering the blame for a relationship’s demise. The song’s catchiness belies its melancholy, a sophisticated combination that’s a testament to Tesfaye’s depiction of a relationship that results in a confusing morass of emotions that we seldom process them in a linear fashion: anger, sadness, gratitude, elation, loneliness. On this song and throughout After Hours, Tesfaye navigates these conflicting emotions in a way that captures the experience of being lost in that swirl.

Elsewhere, “Scared to Live” displays the grandeur of a pop ballad, with a swooning earworm of a chorus and lyrics that tenderly reflect on a past love, showing the type of maturity that comes only with hindsight. The song nearly edges into schmaltz, but it’s full of surprises, including a nod to Elton John’s “Your Song” that’s so well integrated into the chorus it’s easy to miss.

Of course, since this is an album that deals with a troubled relationship, not every song is a magnanimous, gentle reverie. “Save Your Tears” revels in spite, flaunting how over-it Tesfaye is in front of his ex while teasing the possibility of reconciliation. Tesfaye’s distinct brand of R&B consistently draws from other genres, but hearing him embrace a straight-up synth-rock sound here is an exciting change of pace. “Repeat After Me” is grimly comic, with Tesfaye repeating, “You don’t love him/You’re just fucking/It means nothing to me,” before later adding, “You’re thinking of me.” Lopatin’s spare production and the cyclical pattern of the lyrics make it clear that he’s trying to convince himself.

After Hours, the first Weeknd album to feature no guest vocalists, isn’t completely divorced from Tesfaye’s usual themes, as he turns to substances to assuage his feelings. Lead single “Heartless” is a dark fantasy about driving too fast and engaging in joyless sex while experiencing amphetamine-driven nausea, while the chilling “Faith” chronicles a codependent relationship that leads to a drug-fueled emotional collapse. The song’s centerpiece is a ghoulish fantasy of two people enabling their worst impulses: “If I O.D., I want you to O.D. right beside me.” Tesfaye sings the line in a tone that can best be described as disastrously triumphant, which is also a fitting description for the album as a whole.

Label: Republic Release Date: March 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia Is a Euphoric Escape Hatch to Pop’s Past

The album understands that the best diversions are as fleeting as they are exhilarating.




Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
Photo: Hugo Comte

When Dua Lipa decided to name her sophomore effort Future Nostalgia, she couldn’t have fathomed that the album would be released in the midst of a socially and economically devastating global pandemic. It’s unlikely that future generations will look back on 2020 with wistful nostalgia. Fortunately for us, Future Nostalgia leans into the latter half of its oxymoronic title, offering a well-timed escape hatch to pop music’s past.

A throaty mezzo, Lipa is capable of churning out an album full of the sort of power ballads that were liberally sprinkled throughout her self-titled debut. But like Mariah Carey before her, the grooves are just as important to the English pop singer’s success—though the closest Carey ever got to a full-fledged dance album was Glitter. Which is, perhaps, an apt point of comparison, since Carey’s 2001 movie soundtrack and Lipa’s Future Nostalgia—coincidentally both released during national crises—are doggedly devoted to ‘80s pastiche.

The album’s mix of past and present is best captured on two tracks that draw overtly from their sources: “Love Again” is a dizzying dance-floor filler that pairs lush orchestral swells with a sample of the canned strings from White Town’s 1997 single “Your Woman,” while the guitar hook from INXS’s “Need You Tonight” provides the melodic basis for “Break My Heart.” Both songs demonstrate Lipa’s knack for wringing pathos from everyday dating woes and pouring it into sublime dance-pop. It’s a role that once squarely belonged to Robyn, whose long sabbaticals Lipa seems more than willing to fill with kiss-offs like “New Rules,” “IDGAF,” and “Don’t Start Now,” the nu-disco slower burner that served as Future Nostalgia’s lead single.

The album’s second single, “Physical,” interpolates Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit of the same name but eschews that song’s loose R&B rhythm for the frenetic future-pop of Newton-John’s “Twist of Fate.” That makes Lipa’s song, with its admittedly robotic hook, a bit of a bait-and-switch, but the album is nothing if not surprising. Chic-indebted guitar licks, sleek mono synths, and judiciously appointed cowbell bump up against more contemporary pitch-modulated vocal effects on tracks like “Pretty Please” and “Levitating.” The latter is a feel-good earworm that, like the cheeky “Good in Bed,” conjures Lizzo-esque pop-funk.

Occasionally, the album’s commitment to juxtaposition feels strained. The title track, which soars when it unabashedly embraces early-‘80s electro and the ivory-soul stylings of Teena Marie, falls flat when Lipa attempts Kesha’s brand of talk-singing amid references to futurist architecture. And “Hallucinate,” Future Nostalgia’s most bald-faced gesture to clubland, is a Kylie Minogue-style house banger with a Lady Gaga-esque hook that, on a lesser album, would be a highlight but feels generic when sandwiched between the simmering “Pretty Please” and the euphoric “Love Again.”

Notably missing from the album are those aforementioned power ballads. The closest equivalent is the closing track, “Boys Will Be Boys,” a baroque-pop anthem that tackles gender politics and the media: “When will we stop saying things ‘cause they’re all listening/No, the kids ain’t all right/And they do what they see ‘cause it’s all on TV/Oh, the kids ain’t all right.” It’s theoretically an enervating way to end an album whose primary virtue is its sense of escapism, snapping us back to a reality where kids predictably emulate the bad behavior of our leaders and one ill-advised remark can send the stock market into a nosedive. At just 37 minutes, however, Future Nostalgia seems to understand that the best diversions are as fleeting as they are exhilarating, so we should enjoy them while we can.

Label: Warner Release Date: March 27, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 10 Best Albums of 1984

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



Photo: Warner 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 2020s, 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: Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime; R.E.M., Reckoning; Meat Puppets, Meat Puppets II; Madonna, Like a Virgin; U2, The Unforgettable Fire; Laurie Anderson, Mister Heartbreak; Chaka Khan, I Feel for You; Run-DMC, Run-DMC; The Bangles, All Over the Place; Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive?

Zen Arcade

10. Husker Du, Zen Arcade

With 1984’s Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü married their fast and furious brand of punk with swirling psychedelica, elaborate noise arrangements, and a newfound melodious side. Bob Mould’s cacophonous solos and treble-heavy riffing are raw and intense, while his sullen acoustic jams are gorgeous in their own melancholic way, and he even gets raise-your-fist anthemic with “Turn on the News.” With all this sonic shapeshifting, and an exhausting 70 minutes on the clock, Zen Arcade is something of an operatic frenzy, one where violent forays of rapid-fire punk are set to eccentric and elaborate structures. Huw Jones

Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise

9. Art of Noise, Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise

“In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born,” wrote Luigi Russolo in a letter to fellow Italian futurist composer Balilla Pretella. And in the late 20th century, avant-garde electronic-pop collective Art of Noise, who took their name from Russolo’s famous essay, was born, concocting cacophonous collages of digital beats and samples that would influence an entire generation of knob twirlers. The group’s 1984 debut opens with the proto-political “A Time for Fear (Who’s Afraid),” portions of broadcasts from the U.S. invasion of Grenada building to industrial beats and a minimalist sub-bass that informed the work of future pioneers like Björk and Tricky. Surprisingly, it’s the album’s least noisy track, the 10-minute instrumental chill-out “Moments In Love,” that truly veers off into some exhilaratingly strange, unexpected territory. Russolo would be proud. Cinquemani


8. Cocteau Twins, Treasure

No, you still can’t make out a damn thing that Elizabeth Frazer sings on Treasure. But you don’t need to: Her rolling, ululating syllables impart the kind of feelings that verbal communication is notoriously ill-suited for, and besides, when she swoops between the extremes of her range on a devastating number like “Lorelei,” you’ll swear you’re speaking her language. Robin Guthrie’s hypnotic guitar playing, by turns majestic and muscular, is everything that dream-pop guitar should be—if not for My Bloody Valentine, maybe all it ever would be. Critics sometimes protested that the Cocteau Twins shouldn’t really be considered a rock band at all, and that’s fine by me: When “Donimo” closes the album with operatic splendor, it’s clear that they’re something far more special. Matthew Cole

Private Dancer

7. Tina Turner, Private Dancer

Like another mega-successful pop monster, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Private Dancer is a staggering display of self-affirming artistry and vocal expression. For Turner, who was 45 when the album was released, it also represented a kind of vindication, with songs like the gritty, powerful “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and the sultry ultimatum “Better Be Good to Me” all but destroying the false pretense that she was somehow only fit to play second fiddle to Ike. Both a personal liberation and sonic redemption, Private Dancer established Turner not only as a genuine diva, but a bona fide force of nature. Kevin Liedel

Stop Making Sense

6. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense

Inseparable from Jonathan Demme’s concert doc of the same name, arguably the finest concert film ever made, and subject to endless hemming and hawing among Talking Heads’s diehards for the elisions made to said concert’s set list when the soundtrack was being produced, Stop Making Sense remains a divisive album. A 1999 reissue rectified many of the most common complaints about the original release, nearly doubling the length of the album and restoring some continuity to the band’s performance, but that takes nothing away from the fact that Stop Making Sense, even in its truncated original form, is a testament to one of the most compelling, forward-thinking bands of the rock era at the peak of their craft. Jonathan Keefe

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Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Vogue” Turns 30

From MTV to Madame X, the queen of pop’s ode to voguing continues to endure three decades later.



Madonna, Vogue
Photo: Warner Bros.

Released in March of 1990, Madonna’s “Vogue” wasn’t just a hit single—it was a cultural phenomenon. Ironically, no other song better exemplifies both the singer’s influence on pop culture and the accusations of appropriation that have been lobbed at her over the years. The track, produced by Shep Pettibone, is at once a musical map of disco, shamelessly ripping MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” and Salsoul Orchestra’s “Ooh, I Love It (Love Break),” and an enduring prototype of its own, spawning countless copycats and spoofs in the early ‘90s and inspiring covers by more contemporary acolytes like Britney Spears, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. The queen of pop herself has even paid homage to her own hit, erupting into the song’s refrain at the end of her 1992 single “Deeper and Deeper” and sampling elements of the track on 2015’s “Holy Water” and her most recent club hit, “I Don’t Search I Find.” Like the Harlem drag balls that inspired it, “Vogue” is about presentation, and unlike, say, “Like a Virgin,” the queen of reinvention has found little need to fuss with perfection. Sal Cinquemani

Music Video (1990)

Look closely when that butler brushes off the bannister. Nope, no dust there; the finger pulls clean. Those who objected to Madonna’s co-opting two vibrant New York scenes—ball culture and the house underground—had every reason to cast any available aspersions once the instant-classic music video for “Vogue” hit the airwaves. Directed with diamond-cut precision by David Fincher long before he became the fussiest of the A-list auteurs, the already plush song became a plummy fantasia of Old Hollywood luxury, and an actualization of the sort of glamour Paris Is Burning’s drag queens and dance-floor ninjas openly longed for. And it came with a steep price tag. “It makes no difference if you’re black or white,” goes the familiar refrain, but it’s unclear whether Madonna realized to what extent the clip’s flawless, monochromatic cinematography would underline the point. To some, the video (like New York’s ball scene) represented the ultimate democratization of beauty. To others, a presumptuously preemptive eradication of the racial question entirely. Eric Henderson

Blond Ambition Tour (1990)

Compared to the spectacles Madonna would go on to stage for the song over the next quarter century, the premier live performances of “Vogue” were surprisingly quaint. Stripped down to the bare basics (aside from the dancers’ headdresses, even the costumes consisted solely of simple black spandex), the Blond Ambition version of the song came closest to capturing the essence of the gay ballroom scene the lyrics were inspired by: presentational, preening, and all about the pose. Cinquemani

Rock the Vote (1990)

Along with “Vogue,” this year also marks the 30th anniversary of Rock the Vote, the nonprofit organization aimed at mobilizing and registering young voters. In 1990, the group made its national debut with a TV spot featuring Madonna and two of her Blond Ambition dancers harmonizing to a cheeky, revamped version of her then-recent smash. In what might seem tame by today’s standards, the sight of the world’s biggest pop star draped in the American flag, comparing freedom of speech to sex, threatening to give non-voters a “spanky,” and name-dropping Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., all while dressed in red lace lingerie, twisted more than a few panties among the Moral Majority. And that was before it was revealed she wasn’t even registered to vote. Cinquemani

MTV Video Music Awards (1990)

Indulging in a cheeky bit of dress-me-up make believe, Madonna’s performance at the 1990 VMAs gracefully elided politics altogether in favor of lace-front cosplay. Borrowing liberally from Dangerous Liaisons, specifically costume designer James Acheson’s cleavage-crushing bodice, Madonna and regalia flitted around a rec room, taunting a bevy of eligible suitors in short pants, punctuating every tease with an audible snap of fans that sounded more like trashcan lids. Sandwiched as the song was between “Like a Prayer” on one side and “Justify My Love” and Erotica on the other, it was nice to see at least one performance of the song that revels in the simple thrill of innocent ribaldry. Henderson

The Girlie Show Tour (1993)

Not by any stretch the most iconic performance of the tune, and in fact very likely the most rote of the bunch, especially when you consider its place in context with the surrounding Erotica-heavy content, against which “Vogue” can’t help but sound just a smidge “Let’s All Go to the Lobby.” The Mata Hari headdress promises subversion that never really materializes, which is hardly a surprise given Madonna—clad in a boy bra and chunky platform military boots—has probably never looked more rectangular. This marked the last time she would perform the song in concert for more than a decade, and the vague sense that an increasingly doom-obsessed Madonna was vaguely bored with the song’s escapism is palpable here. Henderson

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Review: Pearl Jam’s Gigaton Finds the Band Locked in a Holding Pattern

The more the band moves outside their comfort zone, the worthier they become of their apparent permanence.




Pearl Jam, Gigaton
Photo: Danny Clinch/Republic Records

“I changed by not changing at all,” Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder once solemnly intoned on 1993’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” That sentiment has become something of a guiding principle for a veteran rock band that, despite lacking Nirvana’s raw emotion and the Smashing Pumpkins’s sense of theatricality, has managed to outlast many of their alt-rock contemporaries. While Vedder has penned some indelible rock songs—“Yellow Ledbetter” is but one example—Pearl Jam has been locked in cruise control since the late ‘90s, and their latest, Gigaton, is largely more of the same.

The album’s opening track, “Who Ever Said,” comes out swinging with some growling, interlocking guitar riffs. Vedder’s voice is likewise in fine form (he’s beginning to sound a bit like Chris Cornell, who was always a better singer) and he delivers some clever wordplay: “‘It’s all in the delivery,’ said the messenger who is now dead.” The song’s hook—“Whoever said it’s all been said?”—seems to directly confront the notion that the band is out of ideas. And for a couple of minutes, Pearl Jam sounds determined to prove their naysayers wrong—until the song shifts into a meandering second movement and ultimately peters out. In that way, it serves as a microcosm of the album as a whole: a few good ideas and moments of experimentation alongside some baffling head-scratchers.

Most baffling is “Superblood Wolfmoon,” which boasts a two-step rhythm with skittering cymbal fills, giving it a nervous energy that’s matched by Vedder’s clipped delivery. But the kludgy guitars feel oddly out of sync with the song’s too-muchness, and the lyrics read like an attempt to confront political catastrophe through the prism of personal loss and weird fiction. Elsewhere, “Buckle Up” suffers from a lyrical fuzziness: “Firstly do no harm, then put your seatbelt on, buckle up!” Vedder seems to be trying to address the importance of self-care, but the song’s loping rhythm and his warbly delivery make the lyrics sound like a goofy P.S.A.

Occasionally, Vedder and company’s experimentation works. Despite its silly title, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” is a successful reworking of the band’s signature sound. The track’s elastic, funk-inspired rhythm section and unsettling synth riff are a good match for Vedder’s vocals, which sound alternately enraged and exhausted. “When the past is the present and the future’s no more/When every tomorrow’s no more,” he sings, sounding like a man who’s lived more lives than he can remember. In sharp contrast to that track’s maximalism, “Comes Then Goes” is a gentle, country-inflected ballad that showcases Vedder’s often under-appreciated vocal range. Reliability may be what’s made Pearl Jam such a powerful mainstay, but the more they move outside their comfort zone, and away from their longstanding identity (or lack thereof), the worthier they become of their apparent permanence.

Label: Republic Release Date: March 27, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Walking Proof Finds Lilly Hiatt in Full Command of Her Craft

The singer melds influences as disparate as backwoods country and garage punk into a cohesive signature sound.




Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof
Photo: David McClister

Lilly Hiatt’s songs are disarmingly personal and immensely endearing, even when she’s singing about fucking up—which is pretty often. There’s an almost parasocial element to Hiatt’s songwriting: Her voice is like that of an old friend who’s perpetually in various stages of getting her shit together. Her love life, in particular, always seems to be a mess, and she’s looking for a shoulder to lean on.

Hiatt’s fourth album, Walking Proof, forms something of a thematic trilogy with her last two: 2015’s Royal Blue, a portrait of a relationship in its death throes, and 2017’s harder, darker Trinity Lane, which depicted its immediate aftermath. Hiatt spent both albums seeking solace and guidance for her troubles everywhere she could, from family to her favorite records. On Walking Proof, she’s emerged wiser and more confident, ready even to dispense advice of her own. She also finds herself in full command of her broad stylistic palette, melding influences as disparate as backwoods country and garage punk into a cohesive signature sound.

Written for the singer’s sister, Georgia Rae Hiatt, the album’s opening track, “Rae,” offers a hint of Hiatt’s new, more positive outlook. It’s the kind of sweet, tender ode, built around a pretty tremolo rhythm guitar riff, that could have appeared on either of her previous two albums, but in the context of the songs that follow, the hook line sounds almost like an atonement: “I put so much on you, Rae.” She appears to have put some of her problems behind her, and that becomes clear on “P-Town,” ostensibly another Lilly Hiatt song about a failed relationship. This one, however, is electrifying and ebullient, sounding like a classic Loretta Lynn track amped up with huge, fuzzy guitars. “I don’t think I’m who we thought I was,” Hiatt suggests, perhaps taken aback by her newfound sense of defiance.

The rest of the album’s first half showcases Hiatt’s impressive musical range, shifting from the punk-tinged power-pop of “Little Believer” to the brittle guitar rock of “Some Kind of Drug” to the sweet balladry of “Candy Lunch.” Walking Proof hits an emotional apex at its midpoint with a pair of country songs. The title track is a gorgeous slice of electric guitar-infused mountain music that suits Hiatt’s high, keening voice perfectly, as if it’s wafting down from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her ethereal presence underscores the authority and experience behind her words: “I could tell you that it’s easy, but that wouldn’t be the truth/If you ever need to call me, well you know there’s walking proof.” She could well be singing to her past self as much as anyone else. The same goes for “Drawl,” a call to embrace one’s idiosyncracies rather than conform: “I’ve hid behind my hair too/Told myself I’m nothing new.”

There are a couple of lingering references to Hiatt’s past relationship problems. But when, in the hauntingly stark closer “Scream,” she claims, “I swear to God I’m done with him,” it’s convincing this time. That’s because she sounds so invigorated by her new beginnings, romantic and otherwise. “I got a man…He makes me feel real good/Yeah he treats me right,” she declares on the country anthem “Never Play Guitar.” On “Brightest Star,” she assures the new guy: “So don’t worry ‘bout that other guy/You just got the right tattoos/The brightest star in my whole sky is you.” These aren’t exactly the most poetic or complicated of romantic pledges, but given Hiatt’s history, they’re rather profound in their simplicity.

Label: New West Release Date: March 27, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 15 Best Björk Music Videos

One of pop music’s most forward-minded performers, Björk has always been at the forefront of the video medium.



Photo: YouTube

Though Björk had enjoyed minor cult fame as the lead singer of the prog-punk band the Sugarcubes, it only took one solo album to solidify the Icelandic artist as a viable pop iconoclast. The plainly titled Debut and its accompanying music videos showcased the endlessly fascinating sides to Björk’s offbeat persona, from sweater-clad explorer (“Human Behaviour”) to trailer-hitch improvisational performance artist (“Big Time Sensuality”). Subsequent eras found the singer delving deeper into surrealism (“Army of Me”), technology (“Hyperballad”), and, occasionally, raw performance (“Pagan Poetry” and “Black Lake”). One of pop music’s most forward-thinking performers, Björk has always been at the forefront of the video medium, a true multimedia pioneer whose influence can be seen in the work of Arca, FKA twigs, and countless others who have followed her wake.

15. “Army of Me”

Directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry, the video for “Army of Me,” the first single from 1995’s Post, is a surreal vision that complements the track’s call for self-sufficiency with a dreamlike, often nonsensical, narrative. On a mission to rescue a man from an art installation at a local museum, Björk drives a giant tank—a nod toward the film Tank Girl, in which the song is featured—through a cartoonish urban landscape, encountering a thieving gorilla-dentist who snatches a diamond from the singer’s mouth along the way. Sal Cinquemani

14. “Human Behaviour”

Björk’s very first music video as a solo artist was also the start of a fruitful professional relationship with frequent collaborator Michel Gondry. “Human Behaviour,” in which the singer is chased by a stuffed bear in a twisted nod to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, literally set the stage for both of the respective auteurs’ careers. Cinquemani

13. “Crystalline”

The eighth (and, to date, most recent) collaboration between Björk and Michel Gondry, 2011’s “Crystalline” boasts a charmingly and deceptively simple concept—Björk portrays a lunar goddess-cum-club-kid overseeing a meteor shower on the surface of the moon like a musical conductor—that nods to both A Trip to the Moon and early stop-motion animation. Cinquemani

12. “The Gate”

In the same sense that Stéphane Sednaoui’s interpretation of “Big Time Sensuality” stripped away everything extemporaneous to find more than enough in that essential Björkish energy, director Andrew Thomas Huang sees the spectrum of life itself within his muse and assigns it the only appropriate visual analogue. Dressed in a corrugated prism, Björk gets her groove back in a spasmic frenzy of pure, OLED fireworks. In “All Neon Like,” she promised to weave a “marvelous web of glow-in-the-dark threads,” and with “The Gate,” she’s delivered. Eric Henderson

11. “Mutual Core”

Eric Henderson calls this video “little tectonic plate of horrors.” The lyrics to “Mutual Core” sometimes feel like Björk is reading from a science textbook (“As fast as your fingernail grows/The Atlantic Ridge drifts”), but the video, a sort of sequel to the Gondry-directed 1997 clip for “Jóga,” brings the song to explosive life, with Björk, naturally, in the role of neglected Mother Nature. Cinquemani

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The 10 Best Albums of 1983

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



Tom Waits
Photo: Island 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 2020s, 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: Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This); Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Doppelganger; David Bowie, Let’s Dance; Malcolm McLaren, Duck Rock; The Pointer Sisters, Break Out; Minutemen, What Makes a Man Start Fires? ; Def Leppard, Pyromania; Paul Simon, Hearts and Bones; Cocteau Twins, Head Over Heels; Zazou/Bekaye/CY1, Noir et Blanc


10. The Police, Synchronicity

Their status as classic rock radio titans has made the Police seem like a much less weird band than they were. On paper, a fusion of jazz-reggae and world-punk with yowly, philosophically inflected lyrics might sound like abject torture. And yet, for a couple of years, they were pretty much the biggest band in the world. Like all Police albums, Synchronicity has a couple of clunkers—the Andy Summers-penned “Mother” is a howling nuisance, and the loping “Walking in Your Footsteps,” in which Sting asks dinosaurs for advice about nuclear disarmament, is less playful than it should be—but the heights are sublime. The band comes out with guns blazing on “Synchronicity I,” a head-spinning song that makes a forceful case for Stewart Copeland being the best drummer in rock history. “Synchronicity II” and “Miss Gradenko” are excellent Cold War-era time capsules into the growing disaffection with Western culture. At its heart, Synchronicity is a breakup album though. During recording, Sting was in the process of divorcing his first wife, and the band wouldn’t survive much longer. The triptych of “Every Breath You Take,” “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” depict all the messy ugliness, from obsession to miserable wallowing, that accompany the death of a failed relationship. After this album, Sting would dissolve the band so he could focus on making the type of music that fades into the background at a grocery store, but he’ll always be the king of pain. Seth Wilson


9. U2, War

The aptly titled War found U2 not only diving into the jagged terrain of British politics, but likewise, developing a harsher, needle-nosed sound. The album finds the band in attack mode, where on standout tracks like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” an instrument as refined as the violin takes turns playing electrical whip, wailing animal, and battle cry across the song’s marching protest beat. This is U2 at their angriest, each piece infused with a sense of dark urgency that reaches a frothy head on “New Year’s Day.” Bono’s resolution, “I will begin again,” is perhaps indicative of the spiritual introspection to come on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, but for War, the music is as immediate, violent, and striking as its subject matter. Kevin Liedel

Speaking in Tongues

8. Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues

If the title of the Talking Heads’ sixth album found them embracing their lyrical Dadaism with an almost religious zealotry, and if the title’s mission statement is more than fulfilled in the likes of “Moon Rocks” (“I ate a rock from the moon/Got shicked once, shocked twice”) and “Girlfriend Is Better” (where “Stop making sense” became a mantra), it’s also worth noting that the tunes were counterintuitively accessible like never before, no more so than “Burning Down the House,” which set fire to no wave and planted one of the many seeds for new wave. Eric Henderson


7. Eurythmics, Touch

If Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) proved that the Eurhythmics had mastered the new wave genre’s icy detachment and ironic distance better than just about anyone, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s follow-up, Touch, found them ready to move on to greater challenges. The album may not be as song-for-song consistent as Sweet Dreams, but it’s far more diverse in its style, leaning heavily on the soulfulness of Lennox’s performances to keep its synth-pop aesthetic grounded in palpably human emotions. To that end, standout cuts like “Who’s That Girl” and the defiant “Aqua” confirm Lennox’s status as one of pop music’s most gifted, singular vocalists. Jonathan Keefe


6. Madonna, Madonna

Few would deny that Madonna went on to pursue deeper goals than the simple pop perfection of Madonna. But any debut album that yields a “Holiday” and a “Lucky Star,” both released as singles in the span of two consecutive days (albeit an ocean apart), is still pretty untouchable. Wistful and eager to please, Madonna’s sparkling ditties aren’t so much “post-disco” as they are “disco ain’t going nowhere, so shut up and dance.” Like a heavenly body atop the surging underground currents of every synth-heavy dance subgenre that preceded her, Madonna’s cultural co-opting is nothing if not fervent. Henderson

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All 25 Justin Timberlake Singles Ranked

We’ve ranked all 25 of Justin Timberlake’s singles from worst to best.



Rock Your Body: Justin Timberlake’s Singles Ranked
Photo: RCA Records
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on January 14, 2018.

By the time the teen-pop bubble burst in 2001, Justin Timberlake had shrewdly positioned himself as the de-facto frontman of NSYNC, parlaying the short-lived boy band’s success into a lucrative career as a solo artist and producer, and even managing to convince the likes of David Fincher and Joel and Ethan Coen to cast him in their films. The singer’s foray into Hollywood resulted in years-long gaps between studio albums, but that hasn’t stopped him from racking up the hits. Last week saw the release of the soundtrack to Trolls World Tour, which was executive-produced by Timberlake and features the singles “The Other Side” and “Don’t Slack,” with SZA and Anderson Paak, respectively. To celebrate the release of his 25th single, we’ve ranked all of Timberlake’s hits—not including tracks on which he’s credited as a guest, like Timbaland’s “Give It to Me” and Madonna’s “4 Minutes”—from worst to best. Sal Cinquemani

25. “I’m Lovin’ It”

McDonald’s reportedly paid Timberlake $6 million to sing the jingle for what would become the fast-food chain’s longest running advertising campaign. The story behind the ad’s conception is long and twisty, but it began in Unterhaching, Germany, where an ad agency came up with the slogan “Ich Liebe Es,” which as a hook would have made the single’s existence only slightly more tolerable. Cinquemani

24. “Drink You Away”

A special edit of “Drink You Away” was serviced to country radio programmers in late 2015, setting the stage for Timberlake’s impending bearded woodsman persona. The Memphis soul-infused track is driven by strained, cliché metaphors. “Bottom of the bottle,” indeed. Cinquemani

23. “Supplies”

The second single from Timberlake’s Man of the Woods did little to assuage confusion over the discrepancy between the album’s musical content and the Americana imagery touted in the project’s promotional materials. The track, co-produced by the Neptunes, pairs a plodding trap beat with sitar flourishes, staccato interjections from Pharrell Williams, and lyrics that liken romantic commitment to surviving the apocalypse. Cinquemani

22. “TKO”

The one saving grace of this unsuccessful attempt to recreate the magnificent bad faith of “Cry Me a River” is, at least for those of us who are “Mirrors” skeptics, imagining it to be the inevitable outcome for the 2013 hit’s protagonist. Like Björk once sang, how extremely lazy to think she could replace the missing elements in him. Henderson

21. “Not a Bad Thing”

The least ambitious track on either installment of The 20/20 Experience, “Not a Bad Thing” isn’t a bad thing, per se, but its guitar-driven blue-eyed sorta-soul represents the watering down of the formula established by the previous year’s “Mirrors.” The track sounds more like an NSYNC castaway than a representative of Timberlake’s most challenging album to date. Cinquemani

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Review: Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud Is Grounded in a Sure Sense of Place

The album is marked by songs that are at once deeply intimate and broadly accessible.




Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
Photo: Molly Matalon

Katie Crutchfield’s songs are personal, openhearted, and earnest, displaying keen pop sensibilities that starkly contrast the lo-fi sound of her work as Waxahatchee. With Saint Cloud, Crutchfield has at last formulated an approach that provides the ideal outlet for both her poetically confessional lyrics and her billowing, marbly voice. Adopting a free and easy Americana style marked by both twangy guitars and dreamy keys, the songs here are at once deeply intimate and broadly accessible, like selections from an alternative universe where modern mainstream country radio isn’t all pandering, homogenized slop.

Saint Cloud opens with the lilting, sublime “Oxbow.” On top of a silky combination of plaintive, bittersweet piano chords, bleeping electronics, and crackling drums, Crutchfield cycles through a small handful of unexpectedly swaggering melodic phrases that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Lorde song. The song’s only flaw is that it drifts away far too quickly. The delicately funky “Fire” likewise owes at least some of its DNA to the minimalist pop of Billie Eilish, while “Lilacs” is a pretty country-folk song with subtle psychedelic touches and a strutting, radio-ready chorus.

Even when sliding into conventional roots fare, though, Crutchfield and her band—currently featuring members of Detroit band Bonny Doon, along with in-demand indie-rock instrumentalist Josh Kaufman—work up an irresistibly comfortable groove that perfectly suits the singer’s buoyantly direct songs. “Can’t Do Much” is a classic honky-tonk love song, barreling ahead with a friendly twang as Crutchfield slides effortlessly in and out of her upper register. The freewheeling “War” is even more fun, sounding like something Steve Earle could have written in one of his more jovial moods.

Lyrically, Crutchfield covers typical singer-songwriter territory like relationship strife and the mistakes of the past—she reportedly wrote the album after getting sober—but rarely succumbs to cliché. On “Lilacs,” she sings, “And the lilacs drank the water/And the lilacs died,” which is some kind of zen poetry. The album is full of similarly aesthetic lines that feel almost subversive in the context of usually more plainspoken country and folk songs. “The Eye” is a rumination on the intersection of creativity and romance, featuring a string of unconventional metaphors like “A scientific cryptogram lit up behind a sunbeam.” But like great country songwriters do, Crutchfield grounds her songs in a definite sense of place—from famous city streets to rural creeks—that keeps their true-life origins in perspective.

Label: Merge Release Date: March 27, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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