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Review: Margo Price, All American Made

All American Made is a testament to singer-songwriter Margo Price’s fiery independent streak.

3.0

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Margo Price, All American Made

Anyone familiar with Margo Price’s hardscrabble backstory, much less her terrific debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, won’t be surprised that the songs on her sophomore effort, All American Made, don’t sound like they were made to be featured in Ford pickup truck commercials. Once again, Price’s stylistic eclecticism and withering beat-of-her-own-drum lyrical voice shame the cookie-cutter product coming out of the Nashville machine. Endowed with greater hype, and the recording budget that goes with it, however, Price appears to want to have it both ways. Though much of the writing on All American Made is a testament to her fiery independent streak, she and her band’s overly slick, humdrum delivery of many of these songs suggest she isn’t so far removed from the Nashville establishment as one might think.

Price has an ideal career model in Jack White, whose Third Man Records has released her two albums. White hasn’t only built an entrepreneurial juggernaut in Nashville that’s separate from the town’s country-music powers that Price disparaged on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’s “This Town Gets Around,” but he’s managed to steep himself in abiding reverence for his own musical lineage while remaining nothing if not stubbornly idiosyncratic. On All American Made, at least, Price doesn’t display enough musical personality to walk that line. This is especially apparent on her syrupy duet with Willie Nelson, “Learning to Lose.” She mainly hangs back in deference as Nelson weaves characteristically around the beat in his inimitable dusty-plains warble and bangs out yet another guitar solo. Her less-than-commanding presence helps render the song surprisingly unengaging, though the dragged-out runtime and hokey string section don’t help matters.

A similarly tentative approach mars even some of the album’s better compositions. Would-be barnburners like “Weakness” and “Wild Women” are catchy enough, but their delivery is pale and mannered, miles away from any sort of ragged barroom vibe that would be an actual antidote to mainstream country’s soulless glitz. And Price’s voice, pretty but thin, can’t carry the otherwise well-constructed Motown pastiche “A Little Pain.”

These songs are littered with allusions to Price’s difficult past as a broke, troubled magnet of misfortune with a late-blooming career, but they’re by and large so vague that they don’t have much of an emotional impact. “Maybe I’m to blame for the shape that I’m in/Maybe I’m insane, but I’m leaving you again,” she sings on “Nowhere Fast.” She may as well be talking about a casual breakup or a Twitter feud. On “Cocaine Cowboys,” she even falls prey to the eye-rollingly played-out country trope of disparaging Northern cityfolk as smarmy posers. “Well, the boys ’round here ain’t like the boys back home/They don’t plant the fields, they won’t work the farms.” The limp country-funk to which Price sets her unoriginal quips do little to convince that she’s got the soul she claims these Yankees lack.

What makes All American Made’s more personal songs seem especially lacking in substance, though, is how sharply they contrast with Price’s insightful, daring, and evocative topical songwriting. “Pay Gap” is especially inventive, featuring the singer spitting out a fiery gender-equality invective—“It’s been that way, with no equal pay/And I want to know when it will be fixed/Women do work and get treated like slaves since 1776”—over incongruently breezy Tex-Mex fare. Price certainly doesn’t pull any punches with her political writing, whether on the big bank-flaying anthem “Heart of America,” abetted by rustic, bluesy fingerpicking, or the high lonesome waltz “Loner,” a song about the struggle to maintain individuality in a world of overwhelming social and economic conformity: “And they put you through school/And tell you you’re grown/And put you to work to buy shit you don’t need.”

The album’s title track is undoubtedly the most ambitious country song of this or most other years. Not unlike how Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’s masterful “Hands of Time” offered a sweeping overview of Price’s own personal story, “All American Made” is a similarly cinematic statement about the fading American dream. But rather than try to fit everything in like she did with “Hands of Time,” Price uses an almost impressionistic approach here. She touches explicitly on politics, singing about Iran-Contra affair and “folks on welfare” as a sound collage of political speeches fades in and out of the mix. But the song is mostly an emotional portrait of how it feels to live in America today—in trying to maintain a romantic belief in a bygone era when we could still “go to California in a rusted pickup truck” on “that highway that stretches out of sight,” but then waking up and feeling “a heartache on the bottom and a headache on the top.” It’s proof positive that Price can be as dynamic a songwriter as anyone in Nashville if she wants to be.

Label: Third Man Release Date: October 20, 2017 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Lady Gaga’s Chromatica Is a Concept in Search of an Album

That the singer continues to mine the same territory, both musically and conceptually, suggests the empress truly has no clothes.

2.5

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Lady Gaga, Chromatica
Photo: Norbert Schoerner

“This is my dance floor I fought for,” Lady Gaga sings on “Free Woman,” from her sixth album, Chromatica. Following the success of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, the singer turned actress could have gone in any direction she wanted—at least musically. But having replaced the dance-pop that made her famous with roots-inspired pop-rock—and temporarily dispensing with the outlandish costumes, if only to replace them with Americana drag—it’s hard to believe that she’s been fighting for the dance floor. And even if she was, is “Free Woman,” a generic slab of Eurohouse that sounds like a Cher outtake from the EDM boom, really what she was fighting for?

Gaga displays only a superficial understanding of the music she seeks to emulate on Chromatica. There’s an effortlessness to Dua Lipa’s recent Future Nostalgia and Jessie Ware’s upcoming What’s Your Pleasure? that puts Gaga’s white-knuckled recreations of 1990s-era house-pop into stark relief. Of course, disco lends itself to a looseness that house music’s repetitive 4/4 beats typically prohibit. Instead, the genre relies heavily on vocalists to pick up the slack, whether it’s the commandingly soulful vocals of singers like Robin S. and Martha Wash or the loose swing of a Madonna or Cathy Dennis. Gaga and guest Ariana Grande’s voices complement each other on the album’s second single, “Rain on Me,” but while Grande instills her part with understated joy, Gaga powers through like she does every other genre she’s dabbled in. It’s all bluster and no soul.

When she isn’t adopting her usual faux-operatic bellow—which, as with Grande on “Rain on Me,” at least diverges from guest Blackpink’s girlish vocals—or affecting a bizarre continental accent on tracks like the empty-calorie “Sour Candy,” Gaga resurrects the vacant party girl of The Fame. “Who’s that girl, Malibu Gaga/Looks so sad, what is this saga?” she sings on “Plastic Doll,” an ostensible feminist statement. She rehashes her early sound again on “911” but this time with clearer purpose: Gaga has said that the song addresses her use of antipsychotic drugs, and the distorted vocals evoke the mental fog of depression, an effective contrast with the euphoric swoon of the track’s pre-chorus.

When it comes to the primary subject matter of The Fame, though, Gaga has seemingly lost her sense of humor. The only thing ironic about “Fun Tonight” is its title: “I feel like I’m in a prison hell/Stick my hands through the steel bars and yell,” she sings. On its face, Gaga’s complaints about the perils of celebrity aren’t believable in the way those of more intensely scrutinized superstars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and even Kanye West have been. “I’ve been hurting, stuck inside a cage/So hard my heart’s been in a rage,” she painstakingly enunciates on “1000 Doves.” (Aside from a piano demo of the song on Chromatica’s international version, the singer-songwriter facet of Gaga’s persona has been completely erased.)

Despite her high-art concepts, Gaga’s approach to pop music has always been less than innovative. The closest she gets to experimental here is a sudden drum n’ bass drop at the end of “Sine from Above”—a trick Björk pulled off to more dramatic effect on her 2011 single “Crystalline.” The vast majority of the songs on Chromatica clock in at under three minutes; the pure, if unwieldy, ambition of Born This Way has been replaced by SEA-boosting tactics that, fair game or not, chip away at the album’s few creative merits. Orchestral interludes similarly serve little purpose beyond breaking up the sonic monotony into a three-act structure. When strings begin to swirl around in the background of “Enigma,” you can imagine the symphonic electro-pop album that might have been.

Like 2013’s Artpop, Chromatica isn’t so much a collection of songs in search of a theme as it is a theme in search of an album. The placement of “Alice” at the start of the album suggests an attempt at a narrative thread, with Gaga’s pursuit of the titular utopia likened to Alice looking for Wonderland. “Where’s my body? I’m stuck in my mind,” she sings, hinting at existential exploration. But whether muddling the creation of the universe with both love and fame (“Sine from Above”) or teasing the theory of the world as a simulation (“Enigma”), these songs only scratch the surface of deeper ideas before falling back on the most basic of pop clichés.

In many ways, Gaga has come full circle: The Fame was released at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, making the album’s crass materialism—even if it was intended to be tongue-in-cheek—seem tone-deaf, while Chromatica ends with “Babylon,” a song in which she nonsensically conflates the evils of tabloid culture with a history lesson about ancient Mesopotamia. That Gaga continues to mine the same territory, musically and conceptually, a dozen years after her debut suggests that Chromatica’s empress truly has no clothes.

Label: Interscope Release Date: May 29, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The 1975’s Sprawling Notes on a Conditional Form Is a Sincere Ode to Rock

The album solidifies the band as the boldest purveyors of something resembling what we used to call rock.

3.5

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The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form
Photo: Interscope Records

The 1975 has always defied easy categorization as a “rock” band, even while dominating the rock charts. Singer, lyricist, and expert provocateur Matty Healy—frequently seen with tongue planted not firmly in cheek, but literally jutting out at his audience—is wholly unconcerned with genre distinctions. The band’s fourth album, the 22-track, 80-minute opus Notes on a Conditional Form, is sprawling in every sense, jarringly and unapologetically moving from activist monologue to orchestral swells to jittery dubstep to emo to ‘80s soft-rock pastiche and back again—which is its own rock-star fuck-you flex.

That the album works at all is a kind of miracle. While Healy has tended to hide behind an ironic postmodernist guise, he now lets his ambition and sincerity openly roam, sitting uncomfortably alongside more familiar sides of his personality. The customary self-titled opening track, which on previous albums has incorporated the same lyrics riffing on a blowjob, is here a platform for teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, a kindred spirit for Healy, if one with much more serious aims. It would be annoyingly didactic if her argument that mankind’s survival truly is a black-or-white question weren’t put in such forcible and moving terms, and if the band members didn’t wisely step away with only muted backing instruments.

The opener is followed by the whopping noise of “People,” a punk piss-take in which Healy can’t help cracking wise with his own state-of-the-world one-liner: “Well, my generation wanna fuck Barack Obama/Living in a sauna with legal marijuana,” which is both absurd and, at least if you’ve spent time around certain regulars at a sleek Los Angeles weed dispensary, not an untrue characterization of his peers. That kind of half-winking, half-serious satire is both what puts off some listeners and is vital to understanding what makes Healy so refreshing in a musical environment that has calcified into self-seriousness. Along with his sonic omnivorousness, it begs for comparisons to Damon Albarn, Healy’s clearest predecessor.

For all his antics, Healy can be disarmingly blunt, even sobering. “The Birthday Party” sees him amusingly coping with his ongoing addiction issues at a lame gathering where a group of girls suggest taking Adderall because it supposedly won’t lead to him cheating. On the brazenly titled “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” he duets with openly bisexual emo-folk singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers in a poignant exploration of closeted love. Elsewhere, the album’s stripped-down closer, “Guys,” is a sweet ode to his affection for his bandmates.

A quintessential 1975 song, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” packs all of Healy’s contradictory lyrical tics into a shimmering melodic powerhouse, suggesting a rewrite of a Hall & Oates song for the FaceTime generation. “I see you online…all the time,” Healy moans to a female crush before stripping off his clothes at the girl’s suggestion. (The vocals get an assist from FKA twigs, Healy’s rumored real-life girlfriend, for added self-awareness.) Is Healy parodying sax solo-spewing rock of the past or honoring it? Is he mocking his own romantic trials, or genuinely seeking a uniquely 21st-century love? The answer is a bit of everything—a maximalism that the 1975 pulls off like almost no one else.

Even a prankster like Albarn in his most aggressively divergent later work wouldn’t stuff a double album with as many interludes and sketches as this one. Its wide-open freedom is also its biggest weakness: The album’s first stretch is slowed down by pretty but redundant instrumentals. For one, “Yeah I Know” is a nonsensical electronic studio experiment (“Pick a card…hit that shit” are among its few words) that never really takes off.

More successful curveballs include the gospel-rap anthem “Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied” and the admirably off-kilter, if a bit confounding, “Shiny Collarbone,” which features dancehall artist Cutty Ranks. It might not live up to its lofty goals, but the sheer amount of daring on Notes on a Conditional Form solidifies the four guitar-wielding dudes of the 1975 as the biggest, boldest, and brashest purveyors of something resembling what we used to call rock n’ roll, which, as Healy knows well, was always at least as much a pose as a sound. He wears it well.

Label: Interscope Release Date: May 22, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande Drop “Rain on Me” Single and Video

The house-inflected dance-pop tune finds the two overzealous vocalists duking it out to see who can outsing the other.

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Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, Rain on Me
Photo: YouTube

Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain on Me” is arguably the most anticipated pop partnership since, well, Grande’s duet with Justin Bieber, “Stuck with U,” dropped last week. The second single from Lady Gaga’s forthcoming album, Chromatica, “Rain on Me” is a slick, French house-indebted dance song that finds the two overzealous vocalists duking it out to see who can out-sing the other over the course of the track’s three chart-maximizing minutes.

Despite a sizeable promo push, Chromatica’s lead single, “Stupid Love,” received a relatively lukewarm response from both fans and the general public, but Grande’s presence on “Rain on Me” is sure to have an amplifying effect. The song is reportedly about the singers’ shared public trauma, and while it’s unclear which of Gaga’s myriad traumas the track references, it ostensibly addresses the PTSD Grande is said to have suffered following the terror attack at her Manchester concert in 2017.

Gaga has called “Rain on Me” a “celebration of all the tears,” and claims in a new Apple Music interview that rain doubles as a metaphor for all the alcohol she’s consumed to numb her pain. “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive,” she sings throughout the song. Water, of course, is considered a source of purification and rebirth, but the metaphor is muddled here: “It’s coming down on me, water like misery.”

Created by a virtual army of seven songwriters and four producers, “Rain on Me” builds slowly from a stripped-down opening verse, followed by filter house bass and thundering percussion, while the hook—which, like the rest of the track, seems to be aiming for mid-‘90s house-pop—is composed almost entirely of a pitched-down vocal loop. It’s an improvement over “Stupid Love,” at least until a spoken bridge in which Gaga adopts a robotic affect a la 2013’s “Venus”: “Hands up to the sky/I’ll be your galaxy/I’m about to fly/Rain on me, tsunami.” As for that vocal battle, Gaga’s foghorn largely overpowers Grande’s signature warble, but they sound dissimilar enough that you can at least distinguish between the two.

Helmed by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who directed Gaga in 2013’s Machete Kills, the music video for “Rain on Me” finds the two pop stars serving as mirror reflections of each other in a rain-soaked urban landscape, with Gaga even donning Grande’s signature high pony tail. The clip evokes an apocalyptic rave, with the singers and their armies of dancers sporting some very-‘90s club gear, like platform boots and lots of PVC, that complement the track’s vintage aesthetic.

Watch below:

Chromatica will be released on May 29 on Interscope Records.

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Review: With How I’m Feeling Now, Charli XCX Taps Into Our Collective Nostalgia

The album speaks to our current circumstances without being exclusively tethered to them.

4

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Charli XCX, How I'm Feeling Now
Photo: Atlantic Records

Written and recorded in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now was shaped by the limited tools the singer-songwriter had access to at home. And Charli’s self-isolation imbues her fourth album, perhaps inevitably, with the confessional immediacy of bedroom-pop, even as the tracks reach for her signature brand of sonic maximalism. The result is a collection of songs that speaks to our current circumstances without being exclusively tethered to them.

The defining tension of How I’m Feeling Now is between the songs’ highly specific personal narratives and their big, sweeping backdrops. The sprightly verses of “Forever” eagerly build to a huge, swooning chorus as Charli fixates on a rare happy moment in a relationship that’s unlikely to ever work out. Whether she’s remembering the relationship or experiencing it in real time, the song’s lyrics—“I will always love you/I’ll love you forever”—bring into stark relief the gulf between her present joy and the promise of future heartache. Elsewhere, “Party 4 U” is lyrically slight, but the incessant repetition of the phrase “party on you” seems intentional, as both the line and a rapidly pulsing synth figure mirror the obsessiveness of checking one’s phone for a text message that never arrives.

Though she recorded the album in a home studio, Charli didn’t limit her ambition and, as a result, manages to surprise both musically and lyrically throughout. “Detonate” is the catchiest song here, though its poppy contours belie its lyrical darkness. The track opens with a glittery synth part before morphing into a complex glitch-pop song that, for Charli, feels surprising in its minimalism. The chorus is full of sharp wordplay and quick turns of phrase as she tries to warn a potential romantic partner that he should keep his distance, though the song makes clear she’s only interested in protecting herself from heartbreak.

On “Anthems,” Charli explicitly confronts her quarantine: “I’m so bored,” she sings atop a skittering synth, cataloguing a routine of now-familiar activities—sleeping in, trying to exercise and failing, watching TV, and so on. She succinctly sums up the mood of the moment (“Sometimes I feel okay, some days I’m so frightened”) before the song’s megawatt chorus explodes, her voice soaring plaintively: “I want anthems.”

Writing a club banger about how nobody can go to the club right now is a clever trick, but there’s more to it than simple wishcasting. One of the more surprising aspects of our lockdown life has been our collective nostalgia for mundane or outright unpleasant things. Charli captures this feeling when, after lamenting how hours alone make her “existential and so strange,” she sings about wanting to feel the rush of heat from being packed in a sea of bodies. “Anthems” is philosophical introspection delivered at a breakneck pace, an apocalyptic dance song in search of a party to crash, appealing to anyone who would do anything to elbow their way through a crowd in order to shell out eight bucks for a domestic beer right now.

Even that song’s hyper-immediate relevance doesn’t have to be read in terms of the unmitigated awfulness of our current state though. Someday the virus will likely be just another manageable inconvenience, but there will still be people who find themselves trapped and isolated from their friends and lives by other forces. Heartbreak and despondency will always have a place in pop music, whether inflicted by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic or the day-to-day vicissitudes of emotion. Though How I’m Feeling Now was born out of the former, it finds something interesting to say about the latter.

Label: Atlantic Release Date: May 15, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Every Mariah Carey Album Ranked

We’ve ranked all of the singer’s albums, from Mariah Carey to Caution.

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Mariah Carey
Photo: Sarah McColgan

On May 15, 1990, Mariah Carey quietly released her debut single, “Vision of Love,” a contemporary R&B ballad marked by its retro swing and, of course, that voice. Though it gave birth to a thousand singing competition contestants caterwauling their way to instant fame, the song is more restrained than you might remember. Yes, “Vision of Love” introduced the world to that famous whistle register like a stripper popping out of a cake, and Mariah seems to express an entire song’s worth of emotion in one final vocal run, but it also boasts an economy of language, both musical and otherwise, that she’s recaptured rarely over the years.

“Vision of Love” took its time to reach its sweet destiny—four weeks at #1 on the pop chart—setting the stage for a career with very long legs. If Mariah’s handlers—her then-husband, Sony Music president Tommy Mottola, among them—wanted her to be a crossover queen in the key of Whitney, the singer evidently had other ideas. By the end of the ‘90s, both Mariah’s wardrobe and voice—not to mention her album sales—began to shrink. But she’d become a far more interesting artist, savvily incorporating hip-hop elements into her work, which surely extended her commercial viability even as it limited her audience, and developing a singular, idiosyncratic voice as a lyricist.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Vision of Love,” and her self-titled debut—released in June of 1990—we’ve ranked all 13 of her non-holiday studio albums.



Charmbracelet

13. Charmbracelet (2002)

The sense that Charmbracelet was rushed out to try and control the damage left in Glitter’s wake is inextricably tied in with the album’s DNA. At the time, we admit to feeling admiration that she was at least giving off the impression of dusting it off and stepping back up to the plate…or the hoop, given that the most enduring takeaway from the whole project remains her momentary penchant for basketball jersey scootchie dresses. But in hindsight, the album’s place at the bottom of her discography is incontestable. Throughout, the sense that her genre interpolations reflect a piece of her campy-kitschy persona consistently takes a back seat to the realization that now was not the time to lean into idiosyncrasies, with the one possible semi-exception being the incongruously chipper G-funk detour “Irresistible (West Side Connection).” I mean, on what other Mariah album would a track entitled “Clown” sound like the zero-calorie AC version of Timbaland this one does? Eric Henderson



Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel

12. Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (2009)

Having then-It producers The-Dream and Tricky Stewart on the boards for all 17 tracks of 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel makes the album one of Mariah’s most sonically consistent, but it also sounds cheap and same-y, lacking the fullness of her best work. Mariah is in fine voice throughout, and there are several standout tracks, including the hard-edged “Standing O,” the simmering “H.A.T.E.U.,” and “Up Out My Face,” on which she achieves a whole new level of lyrical ridiculousness involving Legos and an allusion to Humpty Dumpty. Lyrically, Mariah dips into her back catalog to depths unheard since 2002’s Charmbracelet, and the album’s final stretch devolves into a mess of rehashes: “Languishing” is a lazy rewrite of—take your pick—“Petals,” “Twister,” or “Sunflowers for Alfred Roy,” while the requisite ‘80s cover song, of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” climaxes prematurely with a cacophony of screaming and gratuitous whistle notes. Cinquemani



Music Box

11. Music Box (1993)

Notable almost exclusively for its hit singles, Music Box is the album that, following the slightly less chart-domineering Emotions, made Mariah a bona fide superstar. One of those singles, “Hero,” was, tellingly, written for another artist before Tommy Mottola insisted she keep it for herself. One of Mariah’s signature ballads, the song trades in generic, often nonsensical platitudes and is surprisingly short on the kind of vocal histrionics that might overly stimulate listeners—the perfect combination for infinite rotation on multiple radio formats. By this point in her career, however, Mariah had devised a strategy to keep her label happy while stealing whatever bits of creative freedom she could. With its drum loop lifted from the Emotions by way of Big Daddy Kane, “Dreamlover” was her first foray into hip-hop (sorry, “Fantasy”), but it was David Morales’s dark, sultry house mix, along with David Cole and Robert Clivilles’s remix for another single, the gospel-infused “Anytime You Need a Friend,” that truly broke new ground for the singer. The album itself, though, is unchallenging and easy to swallow—everything Sony wanted Mariah to be. And 10 million people ate it up like Ovaltine. Cinquemani



E=MC2

10. E=MC² (2008)

The problem with having a winning formula is that, eventually, it’s going to boil down to just that: a formula. The irresistibly titled E=MC² stands shoulder to shoulder, at least according to my TI-85, with The Emancipation of Mimi in that I honestly prefer Mariah in the loopier, more freewheeling territory of Rainbow and Glitter, but I can’t deny the dogged efficiency in action. Even if I wasn’t exactly sure what the “E” was supposed to mean in the album’s title at first (emotion? Ear-splitting melisma? Surely not energy…oh, it stands for “emancipation,” duh), there’s little doubt that “MC” stands for our own master of ceremonies, and she even threw in a little nod to her own public schizophrenia for good measure. But those who were hoping for reinvention would, in addition to being radically unfamiliar with Mariah’s career trajectory, be dismayed that the “2” also stands for “Mimi, Part 2.” E=MC² doesn’t dawdle long enough for you to ever discern just how overly deliberate it is: It’s an album composed entirely of radio edits. There’s a big mathematical difference between pop instincts and pop manufacturing, and most of E=MC² demonstrates the latter. Henderson



Glitter

9. Glitter (2001)

Especially in light of a #JusticeForGlitter Twitter campaign that shot the soundtrack to the top of the iTunes chart 17 years after its release on September 11, 2001, it’s tempting to look back fondly at Glitter as an overlooked gem that simply suffered from a case of bad timing. Indeed, the album is dotted with authentically ‘80s-inspired treasures—the sensual Rick James-penned “All My Life,” the squelchy Eric Benet duet “Want You,” and a beat-for-beat recreation of Cherelle’s “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” among them. But Glitter is also marred by a series of misguided hip-hop excursions, in which Mariah serves as a mere hook girl, and a bunch of middle-of-the-road ballads that make Music Box’s adult contemporary slush sound radical by comparison. The real injustice of Glitter’s failure is the effective erasure from the singer’s canon of the camp-tastic “Loverboy”—the final piss take in Mariah’s series of sample-driven uptempo singles. Cinquemani



Rainbow

8. Rainbow (1999)

It’s funny to think that, chronologically, only two studio albums separate Mariah’s most lyrically and musically chaste effort, Music Box, with this, her most unbridled album to date. Butterfly gets all the credit for the singer’s personal and sexual liberation, but you won’t find Mariah dog-whistling herself to orgasm for nearly six minutes on that album as she does on “Bliss,” which suggests a cross between “Love to Love You Baby” and Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” as sung by Minnie Riperton. There’s a series of inferior rewrites here, including “Heartbreaker,” “After Tonight,” and “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme).” But the album also explores new adventures in frivolity, like the trend-chasing “X-Girlfriend” and the catty hip-hop nursery rhyme “Did I Do That?” But it’s “Crybaby,” featuring a tour-de-force vocal performance that finds Mariah exploiting the rough edges of her newly worn voice for the first time, that stands out amid all the slick commercial pop. On an album filled with artifice (just take a look at that cover), she never sounded so real as when she allowed herself to get ugly. Cinquemani

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Review: Katy Perry Bares All in “Daisies” Single and Music Video

The singles aims for euphoric, “Teenage Dream”-style heights but doesn’t quite reach them.

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Katy Perry, Daisies
Photo: Liza Voloshin

Following a series of standalone singles, including last year’s moderately successful “Never Really Over,” Katy Perry has finally dropped the lead single from her long-awaited fifth studio album, the follow-up to 2017’s Witness. Produced by the Monsters & Strangerz, “Daisies” is an atmospheric ballad that pairs acoustic guitars with textured synth programming and finds the pop singer reflecting on her rise to fame: “I guess you’re out of your mind until it actually happens.”

The track, which clocks in at under three minutes, aims for euphoric, “Teenage Dream”-style heights but doesn’t quite reach them, while its themes of self-empowerment and perseverance are juxtaposed by macabre undertones: “They tell me I’m crazy, but I’ll never let them change me/’Til they cover me in daisies.” Interestingly, “Daises” will be serviced to adult contemporary radio next week before going for mainstream pop adds in June, a sign that Perry—who, at 35, is pregnant with her first child—is shifting her focus to a more mature audience.

Directed by New York-based filmmaker Liza Voloshin, who previously worked with Perry on the vertical video for “Never Really Over,” the music video for “Daises” boasts a grainy, lo-fi aesthetic that matches the song’s dreamy vibe. The concept is simple—reportedly shot at a safe “social distance”—and features Perry frolicking in the woods before stripping off her white dress and bathing naked in a creek.

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Perry’s as-yet-untitled fifth album is due August 14th on Capitol Records.

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Review: The Magnetic Fields’s Quickies Is a Deft Collection of Mini-Character Studies

The songs on the album may be brief, but they more than make up for it with depth.

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The Magnetic Fields, Quickies
Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

In college, my best friend and I were trapped in my crummy dorm room one night while a roommate tried to impress a date in our common area. The Magnetic Fields’s 69 Love Songs played in the background as we drank cheap beer and played WarioWare. At some point, we started to argue over whether “Come Back from San Francisco” was an original or a semi-updated version of a cut from the Great American Songbook. From there, the debate escalated into a 10-dollar bet that eventually morphed into a full-on shouting match and ruined my roommate’s date. The loser of that bet still hasn’t paid up.

I bring this story up because it’s illustrative of what makes Stephin Merritt so singular. The term “standard” is a fitting label for Merritt’s music: His songs are so catchy and contain such precise lyrics that you only need to hear them once before they get stuck in your head. That’s not to say that Merritt writes songs whose interest is exhausted after one spin; they’re often well-crafted character studies, full of clever wordplay and moments of both side-splitting comedy and emotional devastation. It’s not surprising, then, that he’s worked so extensively in the theater, as his music is truly dramatic, in the most literal sense of the word.

The Magnetic Fields’s albums are often structured around some sort of organizing principle, whether it’s sonic similarities (as on 2008’s Distortion) or songs that begin with the same letter (2004’s i). The band’s 12th album, Quickies, is populated entirely by short songs—the longest is just over two and a half minutes, and the shortest is 17 seconds—and Merritt once again proves himself capable not just of conducting gimmicky experiments, but truly flourishing under the constraints he sets for himself.

The album’s shortest song, “Death Pact (Let’s Make A),” sketches out a comically codependent relationship in just four succinct lines, while “You’ve Got a Friend in Beelzebub” is a hilariously blasphemous anti-hymn on which a roster of demons get name-checked as pals and possible romantic partners. Of course, as the wink-wink, nudge-nudge title implies, Quickies is chockfull of songs about sex. “Bathroom Quickie,” featuring Shirley Simms on lead vocals, is an ode to public sex powered by some predictable but rewarding rhymes: quickie, hickey, sticky. A jangly Kinks-inspired rock song that tells the story of an ornithologist, “The Biggest Tits in History” is superficially more chaste than its title suggests, making some naughty hay out of the alternate meaning of the word “tit.”

Many of the album’s best songs are evocative characters sketches. The narrator of “The Best Cup of Coffee in Tennessee” has grand plans to marry a waitress—though it’s less clear if she’s aware of those plans—and “When the Brat Upstairs Got a Drum Kit” tells a tender story about a couple whose rapturous love insulates them from their neighbor’s new drumming hobby, even when their roof gives out. The title character of the album’s closing track, “I Wish I Were a Prostitute Again,” reminisces about all the degrading things a former client used to demand, paradoxically finding life before he inherited 10 million dollars from said client more fulfilling. Merritt’s dolorous deep voice and the song’s dirge-like pace evoke the character’s misery, even as he sings absurdities like “He paid me for my urine/He paid me for my poop.”

The album’s songs offer funny and poignant portraits of their subjects, but on a deeper level, they address broader philosophical questions: What makes someone attractive to us when others find them loathsome? Why does domestic life feel so confining, while danger excites us? Why do we look back on the darkest moments of our life so fondly? Merritt’s ability to blend comedy and heartache through finely observed character studies is one of his greatest strengths, and that skill in fine form throughout Quickies.

Label: Nonesuch Release Date: May 15, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 25 Greatest Neil Young Songs

These songs comprise a guide for the singer-songwriter’s signature brand of rock and mastery of poetic memoir.

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Neil Young
Photo: Gary Burden

For the last five-plus decades, Neil Young has been, along with Bob Dylan, one of North America’s most towering, influential rock figures. He’s that rare musical threat: a multifaceted songwriter, penning universally resonant acoustic ballads, crunchy electric stompers, and cryptic long-form epics; a virtuoso musician, pioneering novel proto-grunge and noise-rock textures and instrumental interplay; and an eternal maverick continually experimenting with sound and defying industry expectations, even at the expense of chart success.

Given the enormous shadow he casts on popular culture as well as a daunting discography (next month’s Homegrown, originally slated for a 1975 release, will be his 40th album), it’s difficult to know where to begin when exploring Young’s musical legacy. After leaving Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the man nicknamed “Shakey” has forged a solo career not only long and winding but also—as in 1982’s Krautrock- and new wave-inspired Trans and 1991’s live noise collage Arc—thorny and more than a little unusual.

Just as there is no definitive Neil Young album—not even 1972’s Harvest, his most successful solo effort—there is no definitive core of Neil Young songs, and any best-of list is bound to leave many dimensions of his musical personality unaccounted for. That said, these 25 songs comprise a guide for the singer-songwriter’s signature brand of rock (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Rockin’ in the Free World”), his mastery of poetic memoir (“Thrasher,” “Ambulance Blues”), and his adventures in bursting structural and stylistic boundaries (“Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Change Your Mind”). Michael Joshua Rowin


25. “Change Your Mind”

“Change Your Mind” is one of Young and Crazy Horse’s most epic compositions. Like “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Change Your Mind” possesses a basic verse-chorus framework broken up by extended jams, but this time Young’s solos are reflective and dreamy rather than propulsive and tense. That’s because “Change Your Mind” is about the redemptive power of love, and without being overly sentimental or naive. Indeed, the simple language Young uses to describe this power is often surprising, revelatory, and realistic: Love’s “magic touch” isn’t only “revealing,” “soothing,” and “restoring,” but also “destroying,” “distracting,” and “controlling,” proving it must be properly cared for and harnessed in order to truly, constructively “change your mind.” Rowin


24. “L.A.”

In 1972, on Harvest’s “Out on the Weekend,” Young was sweetly crooning about Los Angeles—his first home in the U.S.—as an idyllic locale where one could hope to “start a brand new day.” But just like the countless dreamers who have tried to “make it” there to no avail, it doesn’t take long for cynicism to set in. Just a year later, over a stinging blues-rock riff, Young was sneering about a “city in the smog” where “the freeways are crammed” and imagining the whole place collapsing into the ground. A standout cut from the once long out-of-print but captivatingly shambolic Time Fades Away, “L.A.” proves that Young at his nastiest was also often at his best. Jeremy Winograd


23. “Harvest”

The subtle title track of 1972’s Harvest has been undeservedly overshadowed by that album’s megahits: “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Strumming a lulling, melancholic rhythm on his acoustic guitar, Young spins a mysterious tale concerning himself, a woman, and her mother. Just as Young asks a series of questions to the woman, so do listeners come away from the song asking their own: Why is the mother “screamin’ in the rain”? Who might be the “black face” the woman understands? What is the “change of plan” referenced in the chorus? Even if he refuses firm answers, Young offers several possibilities for his relationship: “Will I see you give more than I can take?/Will I only harvest some?/As the days fly past, will we lose our grasp?/Or fuse it in the sun?” For all its obscure scenarios, the low-key drama of “Harvest” ultimately hinges on the narrator’s full acceptance of and gratitude for love. Rowin


22. “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)”

Only a heart of stone will remain unmoved by Young’s plea for emotional vulnerability in “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long),” one of two ballads on 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere that examine the isolating cost of hardened egoism. Built on achingly strummed acoustic guitar chords and a beautifully harmonized vocal by Young and Robin Lane, “Round & Round” shows that repeated failures to recognize and express one’s pain “weave a wall to hem us in” from true companionship. In the final verse, Young hints at a solution: “And you see your best friend/Looking over the end/And you turn to see why/And he looks in your eyes and he cries.” Whether you confront your pain or not, you’re going to experience grief, but in confronting yourself you can empathize and connect with the pain of others rather than suffering in solitude. Rowin


21. “Borrowed Tune”

If Young’s famous mid-‘70s “ditch trilogy” was a literal ditch, “Borrowed Tune” would be its very lowest point. Hunched alone over a piano, his voice sleepy and threadbare, and his “head in the clouds,” Young sounds so drunk and worn out that he’s not even able to conjure up an original melody to get his thoughts out (by his own admission, he’s singing a tune lifted from the Rolling Stones’s “Lady Jane”). The level of intimacy Young allows in such a dark moment is as uncomfortable as it is spellbinding. Winograd

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Review: Hayley Williams’s Petals for Armor Is a Quietly Confident Triumph

The album is a confident solo debut that suggests the singer has valences she’s just beginning to explore.

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Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor
Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

“Rage” is the first word that Hayley Williams sings on her solo debut, Petals for Armor, calling it “a quiet thing.” The line is direct and economical, reminiscent of Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Williams’s writing. And the song in question, “Simmer,” asks a pointed question that’s both timely and eternal: “How to draw the line between wrath and mercy?” Musically, the track feels more like a David Longstreth composition than anything Williams has done with her band, Paramore, her vocals layered so she sounds like an electric choir amid all the pulsing atmospherics. The song practically seethes, underscoring the visceral emotions excavated in the lyrics.

The overarching question facing many an artist with a well-established identity as the driving force behind a successful rock band is whether or not their solo work should resist comparison to the group’s output. You may wonder: What did Mick Jagger really feel he was free to do on She’s the Boss that he couldn’t accomplish under the banner of the Rolling Stones—besides avoid Keith Richards? This question is particularly pronounced for Williams, as Paramore has been followed by no small amount of personnel-related drama in which departing band members have charged that the project is merely a vehicle for Williams.

While their recent work draws more heavily on new wave and power-pop, Paramore remains a guitar band at heart. On Petals for Armor, though, Williams largely eschews guitar pop in favor of intricate songcraft influenced by artists as varied as Björk, Wilco, Dirty Projectors, even Phil Elverum. Though the album at times threatens to veer into banal adult contemporary, the highlights are among Williams’s most memorable and innovative work to date.

Paramore’s widescreen sonic palette and shout-along choruses have often obscured Williams’s lyrical sharpness, but Petals for Armor’s more subdued sound allows her words to take center stage. A finely observed examination of grief, “Leave It Alone” is carried by a snaky bassline and shuffling drums, with Williams’s voice, mixed to sound close and conversational, doing most of the storytelling. The song grapples with the difficulty of entering adulthood as the extreme emotions of youth give way to the realization that life is mostly made up of moments of loss: “If you know love/You best prepare to grieve/Let it enter your open heart/And then prepare to let it leave.” The line “Now that I finally wanna live/The ones I love are dyin’” feels especially prescient on a song that spins something universal out of small details.

“Sudden Desire,” a seductive R&B-inflected song about trying to suppress feelings of lust, works in a similar mode. The verses quietly recall a possibly illicit, or at least ill-advised, liaison—“We keep our distance now/I wanna feel his hands go down”—before the soaring chorus breaks through with Williams belting the titular line. She twice allows the word “desire” to catch in her throat and break off before completing it, as if she’s hoping her intellect can override her emotions. She repeats the line “I wanna feel his hands go down” throughout the song, always snapping it off like a thought she’s trying to force away. The track’s clever structure mirrors the way memory works, the hook blasting through the verses like a pleasurable but unwelcome recollection interrupting one’s train of thought.

“Dead Horse” is a new wave-inspired song that sounds the most like Williams’s previous output, while “Cinnamon” is a slow burner that seems meant to soundtrack the purchase of an expensive scone. By the time the song resolves into something propulsive, it’s almost over. But these hiccups are small compared to the moments of triumph throughout the album. Williams reaches into a deep bag of tricks to explore new musical textures and largely succeeds at setting the album apart from the straightforward pop-rock that Paramore has honed over the years. Though it might not have a karaoke jam like “Misery Business,” Petals for Armor is a confident solo debut that suggests Williams has valences she’s just beginning to explore.

Label: Atlantic Release Date: May 8, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Car Seat Headrest’s Making a Door Less Open Is Dizzyingly Uncategorizable

Overflowing with adventurous new ideas, the album opens up infinite new paths for the group to follow going forward.

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Car Seat Headrest, Making a Door Less Open
Photo: Carlos Cruz

Will Toledo may now be in his late 20s, but his smart-alecky deadpan ensures that he continues to sound like an adolescent. And like the precocious teenager he was when he first started releasing music under the Car Seat Headrest moniker, he’s maintained a voracious appetite for new influences, new experiences, and new aspects of himself—and for stuffing as many of those discoveries as he can into his music. Musically and lyrically, Making a Door Less Open, the band’s first album of entirely new material since 2016’s Teens of Denial, belies Toledo’s perpetual state of transformation and exploration, resulting in a set of dizzyingly creative and often uncategorizable songs.

The most obvious shift is the album’s clear debt to EDM and hip-hop music. Toledo has toyed with electronic elements in the past, but after signing with Matador Records in 2015, he’s employed a more guitar-heavy sound. In an artist statement released by the label, he explains the left turn as being influenced by 1 Trait Danger, a collaborative side project between Car Seat Headrest drummer Andrew Katz and Toledo’s new gas mask-clad alter ego, Trait.

The search for new identities runs throughout Making a Door Less Open, starting with the opening track, “Weightlifters.” “I woke up and felt like shit when I saw my ordinary face,” Toledo opines, necessitating a change: “I believe my thoughts can change my body.” It helps his case that Car Seat Headrest sounds completely transformed: “Weightlifters” is furiously grooving dance-rock, stylistically far afield from the band’s previous work but as adrenaline-inducing as anything they’ve ever done. The song epitomizes and justifies Toldeo’s unorthodox approach to recording the album, wherein the music is interpreted both electronically and more traditionally by the full band—including Toledo, Katz, guitarist Ethan Ives, and bassist Seth Dalby—before then being combined. Most of the time, it’s not possible to distinguish where the electronica ends and the rock n’ roll begins—which is as it was intended.

Toledo spends the rest of the album chasing new beginnings as he runs from demons of one kind or another, from performance anxiety to toxic relationships to self-doubt. On “Can’t Cool Me Down,” he chants a desperate, primal chorus that could have come from an old blues song, if not for all the samples and synths. He insists he’s “only made one mistake in my life,” pleading for redemption. He finds it On “Martin,” in a lover who inspires him to change his life: “Just when I think I’m gone/You change the track I’m on.”

“Change your mind/Night to night,” Toledo intones at the end of closing track “Famous,” perhaps the most euphoric song ever written about isolation and depression. And he seems to have taken his own advice, as he compiled three different versions of Making a Door Less Open for vinyl, CD, and digital platforms, all featuring slightly juggled tracklists and alternate versions of several songs. The experimental bent of some of these alternate versions can be jarring, but as Toledo puts it on “Life Worth Missing”: “Every path/Is a path worth following.”

Inspiration can apparently come from anywhere, even early-aughts rap-rock and Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” But not all of Toledo’s experiments are successful: The vinyl version of “Hymn,” which toys with modal harmonies over a distorted church organ drone, is a bold and sophisticated piece of music whose subtleties are completely erased on the electronic remix that appears on the digital version of the album. (The vinyl also features the best of three versions of “Deadlines”—a happy medium between the bland rock-oriented version and the overcooked EDM version, which both appear on the digital edition).

But the sheer amount of surprises on Making a Door Less Open makes up for a misstep or two. Even the most—and really only—prototypical slice of guitar pop on the album, “Martin,” boasts a busy arrangement that ping-pongs between acoustic and electric, topped off with pitch-shifted vocals and an unexpected Latin-inspired trumpet line. Overflowing with adventurous new ideas, the album has opened up seemingly infinite new paths for Toledo to follow going forward.

Label: Matador Release Date: May 1, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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