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Review: Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

For a musician who can be as withholding as Williams, the generosity of Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is a welcome change.

 

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Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

There’s poetry in music, but it’s never found in words alone. Perhaps no living artist exemplifies this better than Lucinda Williams: She isn’t a poet, and her lyrics are often sparse almost to the point of cliché, but she enlivens them with the specificity of her vocal delivery. Her range is limited, but she uses her voice’s eccentricities to maximum emotional effect. When she sings, “I take off my watch and my earrings,” on the opening track of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, she conveys not only a woman’s precise movements, but all the longing and emptiness they imply.

Williams’s new double album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, starts with words from one of her father Miller Williams’s poems. “Compassion” urges treating others with concern even when it’s not wanted: “You do not know what wars are going on/Down there where the spirit meets the bone,” Williams sings, accompanied only by acoustic guitar. It’s a grim line on a grim-sounding track, but the sentiment is a tonic in the current media landscape. In an ever more connected world, it’s paradoxically easier to extricate oneself from the complicated, everyday realities of others. Compassion, in its most basic form, is more vital than ever.

The rest of the album sounds very little like “Compassion,” but its moral imperative drives everything. Williams grapples with hardships and our ability to heal ourselves and each other, or at least to try. Though it was written and recorded before the Ferguson, Missouri shooting and subsequent protests, “East Side of Town” could very well have been inspired by those events. Williams takes the perspective of a segregated neighborhood whose daily suffering is hijacked by politicians and media for a conversation of “ideas.” “You say you sympathize/You look but you don’t listen/There’s no empathy in your eyes,” she says to the unnamed powers that be. Likewise, the bluesy “West Memphis,” inspired by the West Memphis Three, tells the story of a man wrongly convicted of murder in part because “They didn’t like the music I listened to, they didn’t like the way I dressed.” Williams indicts America’s broken criminal justice system with a simple line: “That’s the way we do things.” At a time when the protest song has nearly faded into nonexistence, it’s an urgent call for change.

For decades, Williams has blurred the lines between country, blues, rock, and folk in ways that have upset the status quo, long before Americana became a massive radio category. (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road won the 1999 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album despite the fact that it’s one of her least folky albums.) Country remains a touchstone on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, though it stretches far beyond that pat label. There’s quite a bit of guitar noodling, including searing electric solos on “Burning Bridges” and “Foolishness” that evoke ‘70s classic rock. Guttural yells on the former recall Patti Smith, an unusual reference point for the usually placid Williams. In other words, should Williams be nominated next year, expect the Grammys to once again have no idea what to do with her.

Williams has assembled many guest musicians this time around, but despite all the disparate talent, the album is a tight, coherent work that never devolves into self-indulgent jamming, even at an epic 103 minutes. Which isn’t to say it couldn’t have used a little more editing. Williams is slightly less convincing in the fire-and-brimstone mode of “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” even if the melody is fetching enough to lodge its way into your brain for a full week, and “When I Look at the World” and “Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)” offer similar carpe diem truisms, only the latter is more precious about it. As always, Williams is most at home in finely wrought realistic narratives like “Wrong Number,” about a man who’s skipped town and may be in danger.

For a musician who can be as withholding as Williams (she tends to wait several years between relatively short albums), the generosity of Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is a welcome change. “There are only so many things you can write about, love, sex, death, redemption,” she says in the press notes. She’s packed them all into this album, which could’ve easily come off as didactic, but instead seems sincere and wise, perhaps because Williams has accumulated the experience to effectively pull off such a multidimensional project. Though some songs no doubt touch on personal ground, including the kind of kiss-offs to bad men for which she’s known (“Cold Day in Hell,” “Big Mess”), she speaks in broader terms, exposing the falsest sides of human nature while at the same time affirming a universal humanity underneath it all.

The album ends with a love song, a 10-minute cover of JJ Cale’s “Magnolia.” Bright guitars and drums ebb and flow from near-silence into a gorgeous, overwhelming cacophony, while Williams stretches the vowels of the song’s title in a kind of hymn for the “baby I left down in New Orleans.” In its ability to engender the most powerful feelings of companionship, it rivals nothing less than Stanley Kunitz’s masterful verse in “Touch Me.” Maybe Lucinda Williams is a poet after all.

Label: Highway 20 Release Date: September 30, 2014 Buy: Amazon

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The 50 Best Songs of 2019

If there’s one unifying theme of the best songs of 2019, it’s a genre-less sense of exploration.

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FKA twigs
Photo: Matthew Stone

Where a song comes from, and how it becomes a hit, is more muddled than ever. In 2019, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-trap novelty built out of a Nine Inch Nails sample by an erstwhile Nicki Minaj stan, became a TikTok meme and then the biggest and most surprising smash of the year.

Or was it so surprising after all? As the world careens in wilder and wilder directions and the music industry’s rules have long since been abandoned, a hip-hop/Nashville crossover No. 1 by a young gay black man in Atlanta boasting about the “Wrangler on my booty” seems somehow natural. And, in its own absurd way, liberating.

Defining what we used to call singles, much less ranking them, doesn’t make much sense now. For the first time ever, Slant has ranked the best songs of the year, from radio darlings and streaming juggernauts to gorgeous deep cuts. So, Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish (the other commercial breakout no one could shut up about) sit comfortably alongside a quieter Taylor Swift, Bat for Lashes’s mind-melting atmospherics, the drifting grief of Nick Cave’s latest work, and the weirdest shit Madonna has ever put out. FKA twigs’s electronic-pop ballads and Lana Del Rey’s revisionist take on ‘70s singer-songwriter material, complete with nods to Sublime and Kanye West, are practically programming categories of their own.

If there’s one unifying theme in this set of tracks, it’s a genre-less sense of exploration. These self-possessed artists have decided to push against old formulas in search of something more transparently reflective of who they are and what’s happening inside their brains during a remarkably chaotic time. The masses, or at least fiendish cult audiences, are listening. Paul Schrodt


50. Bat for Lashes, “Peach Sky”

Natasha Khan’s latest album, Lost Girls, conjures an all-woman biker gang riding around some hazy, menacing version of Los Angeles. Although “Peach Sky” isn’t nearly as blood-thirsty as all that, its warm ‘80s-style synths evoke the magic of driving through darkness with the volume cranked to 10. Bathed in the glow of passing headlights, Khan’s vocals heave with longing: “Oh, you and I know/I know it ain’t right/So, so I/want a long goodnight.” Anna Richmond


49. DJ Shadow featuring De La Soul, “Rocket Fuel”

The first time I heard “Rocket Fuel,” it sounded so warm and familiar that I assumed it had to be sampling something ubiquitous but anonymous. It turns out that the only well-worn sample was taken from Neil Armstrong’s moon landing speech. DJ Shadow and De La Soul have crafted an instant classic, the type of jam that should be central to every summertime block party from now until the apocalypse. “Rocket Fuel” seems destined for pump-up soundtracks and highlight reels, the kind of song that gets you ready for 12 rounds in the ring. Seth Wilson


48. The National, “I Am Easy to Find”

Seemingly standard-issue songs on the National’s I Am Easy to Find are made more rewarding by the guest singers’ eye-opening interpretations. Best of all, they occasionally empower the band to do something completely new, most notably on the stunningly beautiful title track, with its male-female harmonizing and atypically delicate vocal cadences. It’s one of the most uncharacteristic, and finest, songs the National has recorded to date. Jeremy Winograd


47. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Julien”

Carly Rae Jepsen has a knack for casting the pangs of love in a glamorous light, a far cry from mopey, post-breakup ice cream binging. With “Julien,” she goes a step further, making her reminiscences of a fling she can’t shake off seem enjoyable and exhilarating over a fusion of throwback disco and slick synth-pop. “More than just lovers, I/I’m forever haunted by our time,” she breathily coos over heavy-hitting synths that bleed into sun-soaked guitar. Sophia Ordaz


46. Jenny Hval, “Ashes to Ashes”

It’s not every day that a song about a dream about a song about a burial should compel its listener to dance. On “Ashes to Ashes,” abundant synth strings and a hypnotic bassline cohere with singer-songwriter Jenny Hval’s honey-sweet voice into a kind of beautiful Trojan horse for a meditation on innocence and experience, sex and death. Richmond


45. Sofi Tukker and ZHU, “Mi Rumba”

From the epic “Swing” to the quirky “Purple Hat,” there was no shortage of Sofi Tukker bops to choose from this year. But it’s the New York-based jungle-pop duo’s collaboration with EDM artist ZHU, “Mi Rumba,” that ekes out a spot on our list, thanks to the track’s mix of dark funk and unapologetic sexuality. Trading the group’s usual Brazilian influences for a more Cuban flavor, punctuated by distorted horns and a fleet-footed bassline, the track captures the paradoxical nature of sexual freedom in just one sadomasochistic line: “You can put me in a bind ‘cause I’m already free.” Sal Cinquemani


44. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Ghosteen”

By typical pop music standards, “Ghosteen” is a preposterously structured song. It’s 12 minutes long, and 11 of those minutes are Nick Cave murmuring abstract musings on the nature of love over a quiet synthy drone. But compositionally, “Ghosteen” is much more classical than pop, with a three-part structure that tells a story of its own. The first movement is exotic and tense, as it builds to the second—a spectacular, swirling burst of radiant beauty that seems to come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. And it seems to take everything out of Cave: The minimalist final movement sounds like the singer retreating into a long, much-needed sleep. Winograd


43. Mark Ronson featuring Miley Cyrus, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”

Beneath sweeping strings, a cyclical acoustic guitar line recalls the looping pattern of “Jolene,” but where the object of Dolly Parton’s pain was singular, Miley Cyrus’s is more universal: “This world can hurt you/It cuts you deep and leaves a scar.” This is producer Mark Ronson at his most lushly cinematic, and Cyrus in the best voice she’s been in for years.
Richmond


42. Broods, “Everytime You Go”

An unassuming deep cut from New Zealand duo Broods’s third album, Don’t Feed the Pop Monster, “Everytime You Go” is a textured synth-pop ballad in the form of a dance song. The track’s 4/4 pulse, electric synth stabs, clattering percussion, and delicate piano flourishes gradually build in service of singer Georgia Josiena Nott’s simmering anxiety. The frenzy in her voice slowly increases as she reaches the bridge, laying out in stark terms the most universal of fears: “Is it good enough to know it’s enough?/’Cause I need to know that you need my love.” Cinquemani


41. Kanye West, “Use This Gospel”

While it’s fair and useful to question Kanye West’s motives in suddenly declaring himself a servant to God, there’s no denying the sincerity of “Use This Gospel,” a maximalist, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-worthy swirl that incorporates Clipse and a Kenny G sax solo that, if there is a God, will certainly be admitted into heaven. Schrodt

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The 12 Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

Here are 12 of our least favorite holiday songs, one for each day it took the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus.

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Worst Christmas Songs
Photo: Atlantic Records

It’s that time of the year again. Black Friday sales. Last-minute treks to the gym to absolve your guilt over that third slice of pecan pie. And Mariah Carey playing on every radio station and in every shopping mall for the next 26 days. Unfortunately, we’ll also have to endure a litany of ill-conceived and poorly executed Christmas songs that are inexplicably resurrected every year, and will likely be until time immemorial. Here are 12 of our least favorites, one for each day that it took for the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus after he was born.

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

12. Jimmy Boyd, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”

This Saks Fifth Avenue potboiler from 1952 about a child catching his mother being sexually assaulted by an elderly home invader only becomes even creepier when you realize the kid’s mom isn’t cheating on his dad, but that Mommy and Daddy have a Santa fetish.

11. Sia, “Puppies Are Forever”

A track from Sia’s 2017 collection of holiday originals, Everyday Is Christmas, “Puppies Are Forever” is a reggae-vibed public service announcement about, well, how puppies are not forever: “They’re so cute and fluffy with shiny coats/But will you love ‘em when they’re old and slow?” The repetitive wannabe-earworm is, at best, an admirable message about the responsibilities of pet ownership. And it comes complete with the sound of barking dogs. (Earplugs not included.)

10. Lou Monte, “Dominick the Donkey”

Lou Monte’s 1960 holiday jingle about Saint Nicola outsourcing his Christmas present deliveries in the Italian mountainside to a dim-witted donkey feels more prescient than ever. But that doesn’t make it any less irritating.

9. Dan Fogelberg, “Same Old Lang Syne”

The concept is touching enough: Fogelberg runs into an old flame at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and they grab a drink and reminisce. But melodramatic lyrics (“She went to hug me and she spilled her purse/And we laughed until we cried”) and gratuitous details (“We took her groceries to the checkout stand/The food was totalled up and bagged”) make “Same Old Lang Syne” a cloying annual annoyance.

8. Neil Diamond, “Cherry Cherry Christmas”

In this addition to the schmaltzy, nonsensical holiday song canon, Neil Diamond wishes you “a very, merry, cherry, cherry, holly-holy, rockin’-rolly Christmas,” before idiotically exclaiming, “Cherry Christmas, everyone!” at song’s end.

7. Cyndi Lauper, “Christmas Conga”

Holiday cheer has always been all-inclusive. Hell, even the Jewish Neil Diamond has released three Christmas albums. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say a Latin house anthem with lyrics like “Bonga, bonga, bonga, do the Christmas conga!” probably wasn’t necessary. But we still love you, Cyn.

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The 25 Greatest Beck Songs, Ranked

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

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Beck
Photo: Citizen Kane Wayne

Beck’s breakout hit, “Loser,” represented the sound of the nation’s youth wearing their slackerdom as a badge of honor. It’s a rather dubious fate for the workmanlike track, considering that if Gen X ever “had” a sound, it was the slow, snarling grunge roiling out of the Pacific Northwest, a genre far too self-possessed and clumsily aggressive to match the decidedly goofy appeal of Beck’s patchwork style. If anything, “Loser” was a middle finger to the self-serious headbangers, Beck’s own shrug at the angsty masses before ignoring them altogether and staking his career on offbeat lonerism.

The lonesomeness that results from possessing such an individualist streak is explored rather profoundly on albums like Sea Change and Morning Phase, but regardless of the personal costs, he’s become a folk hero, having built his legacy on championing near-forgotten strains of Americana at every turn. Constructing a list of his best tracks can thus be likened to assembling a mosaic pieced together from several generations of music. The songs themselves aren’t simply attention-starved amalgams strung together randomly though: For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments, empathetic to the point where his creations often cease to be facsimiles at all, but heartfelt creations born from the same cultural conscious that inspired them. You can’t write if you can’t relate, indeed. Kevin Liedel

Editor’s Note: Listen to our Beck playlist on Spotify.


25. “Debra”

Midnite Vultures exists largely as satire, but it also serves as an opportunity for the usually cryptic Beck to let his freak flag fly. On the epic, cheesy “Debra,” he hoists it way, way up, further establishing the absurdity of the album’s seedy narcissism by attempting to pick up sisters. The greatest moment here, however, is the supreme elasticity of Beck’s voice, sprinting from husky whispers to erotic falsettos with the kind of joie de vivre worthy of Prince. Liedel


24. “Soul Suckin’ Jerk”

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


23. “Hollywood Freaks”

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


22. “Forcefield”

Given Beck’s recent lavish productions, it’s easy to forget that in the early- to mid-‘90s he was a lo-fi master. This is nowhere more evident than on 1994’s One Foot in the Grave, a barebones album steeped in folk and blues. Its centerpiece is “Forcefield,” a song built on three simple yet haunting acoustic guitar notes and intertwining vocals by Beck and Sam Jayne of the sadly unheralded post-hardcore band Lync. The lyrics are largely enigmatic, but the chorus poignantly summarizes the necessity of a metaphorical forcefield: “Don’t let it get too near you/Don’t let it get too close/Don’t let it turn you into/The things you hate the most.” Michael Joshua Rowin


21. “Rowboat”

“Rowboat,” from 1994’s Stereopathetic Soulmanure, is a gently strummed, classically constructed ballad of rejection and loneliness that features Beck’s early penchant for lyrics that alternate between deadpan melancholy (“Rowboat, row me to the shore/She don’t wanna be my friend no more”) and humorous non sequitur (“Dog food on the floor/And I’ve been like this before”). Late Nashville legend Leo Blanc’s stunning steel pedal work provides just the right amount of additional sorrow, and, as if to give it the country stamp of approval, Johnny Cash covered the song in 1996. Rowin

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Review: Beck’s Hyperspace Is As Lyrically Vague As It Is Sonically Minimal

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

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Beck
Photo: Peter Hapak

Throughout his varied and unpredictable career, Beck has achieved constancy in one respect: an almost unrelentingly bleak worldview, a portrayal of pre- and post-millennium America as a Bosch-like inferno of indignities. It was there early on, in his adherence to the folk and blues tradition of biblical prophesying (“There must be some blueprint, some creed of the devil inscribed in our minds,” he sang on 1998’s Mutations), and it’s in his more recent work, darkening avant-pop efforts like 2008’s Modern Guilt and adding a global sense of sadness to ostensibly more introspective albums like 2014’s Morning Phase.

Which is why 2017’s Colors was so surprising: Aside from one or two tracks, it was Beck’s first unabashed, unironic feel-good party album. But if Colors was a million-dollar bash, then Beck’s follow-up, Hyperspace, is the comedown. While similarly heavy on beats and electronics, the album lacks its predecessor’s bounce and exuberance. This trade-in would initially appear welcome since, unlike Beck’s past genre experiments, which always contained an unmistakable personal touch, Colors’s glossy, airbrushed fun bordered on inhuman. By comparison, Hyperspace represents something at least relatively thoughtful, its skeletal beats and somber synth washes—a result of Beck working with co-producer Pharrell Williams—suggesting a period of midlife self-examination against a backdrop of perpetual twilight.

For a few moments early on in the album, Beck follows through on this premise. Opener “Hyperlife” acts as a brief prologue by announcing the album’s core theme of melancholic and disconnected excess, the phrase “crushing life” qualifying a desire for “more and more beauty, light” amid several interweaving synth textures. This leads into “Uneventful Days,” with deep keyboard washes and effervescent twinkles playing over a modest trap beat as Beck continues the theme with a lovely melodic vocal: “Never-ending days, never-ending nights/Everything I say, I know I can’t get right.” The mood is dreamy, numbed, and yet somehow hopeful.

But tracks like the album’s lead single, “Saw Lightening,” return both to the forced enthusiasm of Colors and to the hybridization of blues and hip-hop that Beck explored with far more wit on early hits like Odelay’s “Hotwax.” As one of the only “up” songs on Hyperspace, its forward momentum is undermined by a conventionally programmed drum track, popcorning keyboard blips, an annoying Pharrell verse, and faux-gospel background yelps that transform a lyric about the end of the world into what sounds like soundtrack music for an action movie.

What follows is a series of slight midtempo electro-pop ballads: “Die Waiting” sways with a brightness augmented by acoustic guitar strums, “See Through” emphasizes bubbling electronic percussion, and “Star” uses video game-esque bloops and a gently pulsing bassline as a nest for Beck’s falsetto vocals. It’s all in the chillwave vein and, while not oppressive like Colors, it’s also all extremely soporific. Aside from the ascendant airiness of “Chemical,” the gospel grandeur of “Everlasting Nothing,” and a few interweaving vocal lines that call back to the aural density of Midnite Vultures, most of the tracks blend into each other so nebulously that they become collectively anonymous. When something stands out it’s usually for an ugly reason: The title track’s rap breakdown is exceedingly cornball, and a few songs fade out so abruptly and awkwardly it seems like they’re embarrassed at their own meagerness.

Beck might have redeemed Hyperspace with his underappreciated lyrical genius, and he could have gone in two different directions in doing so: a return to the pared-down confessional songwriting that made 2002’s vulnerable Sea Change so universally resonant, or else the absurdist wordplay, apocalyptic imagery, and pop-cultural detritus that typically fill Beck’s songs to the bursting point with vivid portraiture and singular turns of phrase. (Even Colors achieved some, well, color with lines like “I want to see you with the pharaoh’s curse/The apple flower doggerel, the batteries burst.”) But there’s little of either throughout Hyperspace, which is as lyrically vague as it is musically minimal.

Instead of creating a unique world of characters, Beck populates too many songs with first-persona clichés (“I don’t care what I have to do/You know that I’m gonna wait on you”), and, elsewhere, his metaphors are rote and obvious (love is a drug on “Chemical,” disorientation becomes the directionless heavens on “Stratosphere”). By the time Beck finally gets to an original, gut-punching metaphor in “Everlasting Nothing”—“And I washed up on the shoreline/Everyone was waiting there for me/Like a standing ovation for the funeral of the sun”—it’s too late to make up for an album’s worth of platitudes.

Beck’s 2006 album The Information is a better example of his unrivaled funhouse approach to style and tone: By blending techno, folk, punk, hip-hop, Krautrock, blues, ambient, and groove-oriented rock, that album is by turns strange, aggressive, hilarious, disturbing, eerie, and fun, all while expressing wry dismay over our current cyber-Armageddon. In comparison, and for all its apparent now-ness, Hyperspace feels inconsequential and incomplete.

Label: Capitol Release Date: November 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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The 20 Best Rihanna Singles

We took a look back through the singer’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.

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Rihanna
Photo: Roc Nation

Like Madonna before her, Rihanna possesses a shrewd ability to sniff out percolating trends and a willingness to zig when she’s expected to zag. “Russian Roulette,” “Diamonds,” and “Four Five Seconds” were all surprising moves for an artist who could have safely preserved the status quo. The Barbadian singer’s wild success, which includes 11 solo #1 hits in the U.S., can also be attributed to her seemingly steadfast work ethic, yielding seven albums in just the first eight years of her career. That streak ended with 2012’s Unapologetic, and she’s only dropped one album since then, 2016’s ANTI. While we wait out another dry spell in one of contemporary pop’s most unexpectedly enduring careers, we took a look back through Rihanna’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.

Editor’s Note: Listen to our Rihanna playlist on Spotify.


20. “Four Five Seconds”

The reverberations of a “ella-ella” or “na-na” now feel something like a big bang: There would be no “We Can’t Stop,” no “Come & Get It,” without the syllabic tongue games Rihanna used to galvanize pop in the latter half of the aughts. Of course, hashtagging your way through vocals only gets a career so far, and if “Stay” saw RiRi try to demonstrate greater range through familiar forms, “Four Five Seconds” does so the way she knows best: by inventing her own. Paired with Kanye West in his rough crooner mode, the two bleat bluesy woes over Paul McCartney’s best Lindsey Buckingham impression. It’s an oddly affecting formula that’s unlikely to prove quite so imitable—though Miley and Selena are welcome to try. Sam C. Mac


19. “S&M”

To say the world wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear Rihanna, after just having bared her soul in Rated R about (among other things) “that incident,” singing about how much chains and whips excite her would be a gross understatement. Career momentum, and a little assist from Britney Spears on the remix, thrust “S&M” to the top of the charts anyway, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many admitting that they, too, like the smell of sex in the air. But screw it, we’ll say it. “S&M” might be the boldest of all Rihanna house jams, the moment when she truly found her Janet Jackson-circa-“Throb” stride. Eric Henderson


18. “Love on the Brain”

No one would ever confuse Rihanna with Amy Winehouse, but the doo-wop-inspired fourth single from 2016’s ANTI channels the late singer’s brand of throwback pop with its juxtaposition of retro instrumentation and, one might say, retrograde lyrics: “It beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good that I can’t get enough.” Rihanna shows off her vocal versatility throughout the track, at turns cooing in falsetto and dropping to a growl, as she unabashedly puts her heart—and her brain—on her sleeve. Sal Cinquemani


17. “Man Down”

Rihanna’s follow-up to ANTI will reportedly be more reggae-influenced than any of her previous efforts. Of course, the singer has already paid homage to her roots countless times over the course of her career. One highlight is “Man Down,” about a woman who shoots a man in the public square, putting a feminine twist on Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Rihanna’s vocals are surprisingly agile, and “Man Down” is one of her most confident performances to date. Alexa Camp


16. “Rehab”

If “Umbrella” was a good girl’s gesture of generosity, “Rehab” is her reeling from the abuse of a bad man who squandered it. “I’ll never give myself to another the way I gave it to you” is one of the saddest Rihanna lyrics, but a blow blunted by the singer’s signature resigned delivery, deployed here as a coping mechanism. What might be a typical lovelorn ballad becomes tough and resilient, a tone well complemented by Timbaland snapping percussion and dramatic strings, and the anonymity Rihanna had been criticized for suddenly matures into a mode of vocalizing repressed emotion that she’d never before explored. It only took a crummy metaphor to get her there. Mac

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

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

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Like a Virgin

Confession: I’ve never cared much for “Like a Virgin.” Madonna’s 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but it’s a trifle—a novelty, really—with its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-“Billie Jean” bassline, and the singer’s helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from “Express Yourself” to “Don’t Tell Me,” Madonna has proven she’s capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on “Like a Virgin” were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonna’s voice more childlike and “virginal.” (It’s a trick she’s lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.)

I’m in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself aren’t particularly fond of “Like a Virgin” either, and she’s chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time she’s performed it. The single was released on Halloween in 1984, and this week also marks the 35th anniversary of the album of the same name. To commemorate this milestone, we’re taking a look back at three and a half decades of a song Madonna has mercifully, perpetually made shiny and new by sheer force of will and ingenuity.


MTV Video Music Awards (1984)

Feminists angered by Madonna’s choice of a belt buckle during her performance at the MTV VMAs in 1984 seemed to miss the fact that her groom was a mannequin and that she chose instead to consummate her vows with her wedding veil. By the time she’d descended her giant wedding cake, hit the floor, and rolled around on the stage, showing her knickers to the world, there was no confusion about what the M stood for in the giant MTV logo towering above her.


Music Video (1984)

Shot largely in St. Marks’s Square in Venice, Italy, the music video for “Like a Virgin” found Madonna playing Beauty to a man dressed as a Beast, specifically a lion (which not coincidentally happens to be the symbol of Mark the Evangelist). The singer is depicted as both virginal bride—sauntering impatiently through the basilica, undressing the furniture—and street harlot, hungrily prowling the bridges and canals of the Floating City.


Blond Ambition Tour (1990)

Ostensibly growing weary of her biggest hit, Madonna reinterpreted “Like a Virgin” with a Middle Eastern-inspired arrangement for her Blond Ambition Tour, casting herself as harem girl (the other “girls” being male dancers, natch, dressed in conical bras designed by Jean Paul Gautier). Having long shed her “Boy Toy” image for a more empowering, self-reliant brand of post-feminism, the Queen of Pop once again made it clear that “Like a Virgin” is first and foremost a paean to self-love.


The Girlie Show (1993)

The story goes that Madonna looked up Gene Kelly in 1993 to ask him to give her notes on her Girlie Show Tour, the sets and choreography of which were inspired by Hollywood musicals from the 1950s like Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. “Like a Virgin” was originally intended to be sung by a man, and Madge had been toying with the idea of paying homage to Marlene Dietrich and French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier by dressing in drag for a slapstick-and-vaudeville version of “Like a Wirgin.” Kelly, then in his 80s, gave his stamp of approval, and the rest is, as they say, history.


MTV Video Music Awards (2003)

After putting the song into retirement for a decade, Madonna dusted “Like a Virgin” off for the 20th annual VMAs, this time playing the groom to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera’s not-so-blushing brides in yet another gender-bending performance of her iconic hit.


Confessions Tour (2006)

In 2005, Madonna was thrown from her horse while riding at her country estate outside London, breaking her hand, three ribs, and her collarbone. The accident served as inspiration for her Confessions Tour the following year, which opened with an equestrian-themed segment. A knowing wink to the suggestion that there was nothing left of the pop star to reveal of herself, x-rays of her cracked bones were projected onto giant screens as she mounted a carousel horse, stroking the giant pole, and performing near-acrobatic moves to the beat of a discofied revamp of “Like a Virgin.” Back in the saddle, indeed.


MDNA Tour (2012)

Madonna ended up back on the floor for this striking, unexpectedly poignant rendition of “Like a Virgin” for 2012’s MDNA Tour. The delicate piano waltz was juxtaposed with the singer flashing her lady parts, defying those who’d for years squawked that the fiftysomething performer should put on her clothes and take a bow. Asking fans who likely paid a pretty penny for their front-row seats to throw money at her like a stripper might seem crass, but then this tour-de-force segues into MDNA’s “Love Spent,” a song about the dissolution of the so-called Material Girl’s marriage to Guy Ritchie, who reportedly got millions in a divorce settlement.


Rebel Heart Tour (2015)

After more than three decades performing the hit that made her a household name, Madonna took things back to basics for her Rebel Heart Tour, delivering a somewhat faithful rendition of “Like a Virgin” for fans around the globe. She didn’t roll on the floor and show the world her underwear, but she did hump the stage in homage to her infamous VMA performance and at one point stripped off her shirt.

See where “Like a Virgin” landed on our list of Every Madonna Single Ranked.

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

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

2.5

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Celine Dion
Photo: Columbia Records

In recent years, Celine Dion has been less likely to generate headlines for her music than for her eccentric fashion choices and personal developments (her husband of over two decades, René Angélil, died in 2016). And the French-Canadian singer’s first English-language effort in six years, Courage, is unlikely to change that. The album opens with the club hit “Flying on My Own,” a rousing house anthem that’s a bit of a red herring. With the exception of “Lovers Never Die” and “Nobody’s Watching”—which deliver just enough peripheral urban-leaning pop and funk, respectively, to not offend Dion’s core audience—the rest of the album’s 70-minute runtime is filled with boilerplate balladry.

Though Dion doesn’t write her own material, much of Courage features lyrical references to loss and mourning. “I would be lying if I said I’m fine/I think of you at least a hundred times,” she sings on the title track, a heart-wrenching piano ballad whose lovely verses—“I talk to you like I did then/In conversations that will never end”—are put into stark relief by its schmaltzy hook. Co-penned by Sam Smith, “For the Lover That I Lost” is expectedly mopey, though it’s less so in Dion’s hands, her vocals erring on the side of understatement. She’s in fine voice throughout the album, though signs of wear are obvious (and welcome) in her scratchy belt on “Change My Mind” and the husky lower register she employs on “Look at Us Now.”

Co-written by Sia and David Guetta, the string-laden “Lying Down” feels both modern and classic, while “Best of All” comes closest to recapturing the timeless quality of Dion’s peak output. Perhaps intentionally, it’s not until the album’s last third that true joy breaks through, on the soulful, doo-wop-inspired “How Did You Get Here” and the gospel-infused closing track, “The Hard Way.” In terms of both its length and themes, the 20-track Courage can feel exhausting, alternating between platitudes about grief and self-empowerment that, with only a few exceptions, make what should feel cathartic sound empty and even anonymous.

Label: Columbia Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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

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

3.5

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Photo: Derick Daily

Imagine a magician. He walks on stage and wordlessly holds up a canister of gasoline, which he then drinks from. He then places a stick of dynamite in his mouth and lights it like a cigar. The fuse burns down and the magician explodes, blowing a huge hole in the stage and soaking the audience with blood and viscera. As everyone is shocked and terrified, their ears ringing, the magician appears on a nearby balcony. Ta-da! You might ask how he did it. But a better question is: What does he do to equal if not to top himself?

Such is the problem that’s faced DJ Shadow since 1996’s Endtroducing…, which was genre- and era-defining in a way that few other electronic albums have ever been. His later output simply hasn’t been as innovative or exciting, destined to be read in the context of that triumphant debut. Perhaps that’s why Shadow’s sixth album, Our Pathetic Age, announces in its very title that his concerns are immediate. The cover, rendered in Pop Art style, shows a woman in semi-profile gasping as she looks at a smartphone. The cover art and title, taken in tandem, suggests that this double album is a stinging critique of our age of technological proliferation. Despite this, Shadow has said that he doesn’t intend his latest to be an indictment of modern life as much as a comment on it, one that speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.

Our Pathetic Age’s first half showcases Shadow’s renowned ability to build songs entirely out of samples. The best of these evoke clear referents through their soundscapes: “Intersectionality” layers synths on top of an icy, spare beat until it builds to a neon-lit climax that might make you wish you were riding in a spinner from Blade Runner, while “Slingblade” matches glitch-poppy drum programming to a fluttery, Koji Kondo-esque synth melody.

More compact than its sprawling title suggests, “Beauty Power Motion Life Work Chaos Law” shows Shadow’s continued ability to wring humor out of his work. The track starts with a funky synth figure that morphs into something more jazz-inspired, with jittery piano on top of splash-heavy drumming. Everything except for the drums drops out as the song comes to its conclusion, and Shadow delivers the punchline with a voice telling the drummer to “shut the fuck up” against a polite smattering of applause.

On the album’s second half, Shadow takes a back seat and welcomes an all-star cast of guests to bring their own identity to bear on the songs. De La Soul infuses the catchy, high-energy party anthem “Rocket Fuel” with their trademark infectiousness, while Nas and Pharaohe Monch trade furious verses on “Drone Warfare,” the most explicitly political track on Our Pathetic Age. The rappers address mass surveillance, economic inequality, corporate malfeasance, and racial injustice over an explosive, take-no-prisoners beat.

Ghostface Killah, Inspektah Deck, and Raekwon contribute verses to “Rain on Snow,” which starts with a tired Game of Thrones reference but recovers by showcasing the trio’s dexterous lyricism. Shadow lays their vocals over a ghostly hook (“Rain on snow makes it melt away”) and the juxtaposition makes their lines pop even more. “Kings and Queens” gives Run the Jewels another chance to make the case that they’re one of the best rap duos in history, and the gospel choir chorus tethers the song to the group’s Dirty South roots.

The title track and closer is a four-on-the-floor disco jam that makes excellent use of Future Islands’s Samuel T. Herring, whose delivery splits the difference between Tom Waits and Bill Withers and settles perfectly into the groove. His lyrics paint a picture of a relationship recalled through the haze of time, his memories framed by years of emotional decay. Balanced against the propulsive music, the song is as effecting as anything Shadow has ever done.

Less successful is “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.,” which is peppered with boilerplate carping about Twitter and social media from Gift of Gab, Infamous Taz, and Lateef the Truth Speaker, while “Small Colleges (Stay with Me),” featuring Wiki and Paul Banks, feels like something you’d hear in a grocery store. As is frequently the case with double albums padded with filler, Out Pathetic Age’s biggest problem is that too much of it feels disposable, anodyne, or tossed off. But Shadow still manages to get some strong work out of both himself and his guests, and he deserves credit for not trying to merely recreate the same trick over and over.

Label: Mass Appeal Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: I Made a Place Finds Bonnie “Prince” Billy at His Most Existential

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

4.5

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Mickie Winters
Photo: Mickie Winters/Drag City

“You need to knock this one out of the park,” Will Oldham sings on “New Memory Box,” the rollicking opening track of I Made a Place, his first album of original material in six years. If it sounds like he’s suffering from diminished confidence, don’t be fooled: Oldham’s albums as Bonnie “Prince” Billy always achieve a cohesiveness that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and I Made a Place is no exception.

The 13 songs here feature straightforward folk arrangements of guitar, drum, bass, fiddle, strings, horns, and the odd synth part. This is a song cycle with cosmic concerns in mind, and the simplicity of the music renders Oldham’s voice (and lyrics) that much clearer. “Look Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past” is made up of a gently strummed acoustic guitar and the singer’s indelible yowl. The lyrics tell a story about a man named Richard who undergoes a transfiguration as his materialistic worldview is reshaped both by quantum physics and spiritual renewal. It’s weighty stuff, but Oldham sings the song with the playful shimmy of a George Jones tune. His ability to be profound and uproarious at the same time is on full display: “Get your sense of self from a hydrogen blast.”

The word “apocalyptic” is frequently applied to Oldham’s work, and with good reason: His worldview has been haunted by some unnameable or just unnamed cataclysm, from the recent past or lurking over the horizon. I Made a Place finds his fascination with catastrophe and collapse alive and well, though the subject is addressed more elliptically than on past albums. Instead of a dystopian depiction of civilization’s collapse, though, the album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life. Oldham is, for all his oddity, a deeply human songwriter, and throughout I Made a Place his tone is alternately celebratory and comforting.

Images of darkness, shadow, and fire pervade—though it’s unclear whether that fire is a conflagration or merely the world’s sole remaining light source. Yet the tone is rather ruminative. “This Is Far from Over” finds Oldham contemplating “shorelines gone and maps destroyed, livelihoods dissolved and void,” but he reassures us that “new wild creatures will be born” because “the whole world’s far from over.” Oldham’s gentle warble is set to a softly plucked acoustic guitar, and a flute solo closes things on a hopeful note.

Throughout, Oldham serves as our Virgil, shepherding us through the shadowy worlds he builds. Sometimes he’s funny and sometimes he’s sad, but he’s always there to keep the listener safe. “Squid Eye” delights in some Seussian wordplay and features the album’s funniest lyrics—“I’ll drive right in as if I were Aquaman’s kid”—set to a Bob Wills-esque swinging bluegrass song, while “The Glow Pt. 3,” the title of which nods to Phil Elverum, wrestles with love, impermanence, and dread from the vantage of the bottom of a bottle.

Some artists seem to have an uncanny ability to gesture to the infinite, to wring out from their chosen medium a staggering amount of profundity. Oldham is one such artist, having created an archive of songs that conjure the entire spectrum of human experience: hilarity and terror, joy and desolation, birth and death, and everything in between. I Made a Place is an apt title, as Oldham has carved out a niche for himself that’s not quite like any of his contemporaries. He unpacks the darkest and brightest parts of life with an unblinking candor. On the title track, the singer speaks about creating a home in a world you didn’t ask for. His thesis is simple: “I don’t know why I was born, but I have made a place.” In that one, softly delivered lyric, Oldham resolves a philosophy seminar’s worth of existential crisis.

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

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

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

4.5

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

Had they never appeared on Unplugged, it’s likely that Nirvana might be perceived in a significantly different light today. They were a ferocious and often unpredictable live act, capable of wreaking mayhem on their instruments and each other while delivering their searing yet melodic brand of punk. The release of MTV Unplugged in New York in November of 1994 provided a full window onto the kinder, gentler Nirvana only hinted at on the band’s three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for ‘90s alternative music’s ascendance to Important Art just before its descent into self-parodic commerce.

Of course, commerce is alive and well in the 25th anniversary edition of MTV Unplugged in New York, which may be viewed with understandable suspicion by fans long inundated with special editions and live-show unearthings that have effectively wrung Nirvana’s catalog dry. (This year alone has already seen the release of Live at the Paramount and Live and Loud.) But considering MTV Unplugged in New York’s titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the band’s performance that were previously only available on the show’s DVD release.

Over the years myths have grown around MTV Unplugged in New York, a major one claiming that the band was in shambles leading up to the taping of their performance at Sony Music Studios. While the new tracks don’t rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story that’s largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohl’s heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like “Come As You Are” and a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” where his trashing instincts almost overwhelm the rest of the band. Thankfully, Grohl reined in his thundering style after he was offered quieter brush and Hot Rod sticks by Unplugged producer Alex Coletti just before the official performance.

While none of the five new tracks on this reissue are unlistenable, they’re expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobain’s vocals sound strained on “Come As You Are,” while on a cover of the Meat Puppets’s “Plateau,” several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwood—who, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songs—are off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993’s In Utero. In rehearsal, “Pennyroyal Tea” is undone by Pat Smear’s distracting backup vocals and a guitar played a turgid step lower than the one on the studio recording.

Beyond the fly-on-the-wall rehearsal tracks, the rest of MTV Unplugged in New York remains as it’s always been. The album hasn’t been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison d’être. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvana’s delivery, but especially Cobain’s. It’s also in the mesmerizing spell of the group’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety and cast light on their own artistic worldview with several unusual yet impassioned covers, including their towering, chilling take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” MTV Unplugged in New York is simply a timeless performance, one all the more impressive for having come together through reserves of musical acumen and sheer guts.

Label: Geffen Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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