Of thrash metal’s Big Four, Megadeth has always been the one with the flashiest guitars. When marshalled to the crackerjack songwriting of 1990’s Rust in Peace and 2009’s Endgame, bandleader Dave Mustaine’s guitar heroics act as ecstatic elaborations; when not, they overcompensate. After the miscalculated radio-rock pandering of 2013’s Super Collider, though, Dystopia’s sustained virtuosity, with riffs sprouting like fractals, feels like a form of reparation: Mustaine’s breathless promise that he’ll never let Super Collider’s Crossfit-ready dad metal happen ever again.
Dystopia follows another of many lineup changes, and the band is as fleet-footed and barrel-chested as Mustaine’s aggressive arrangements demand. Founding member David Ellefson and Lamb of God’s Chris Adler combine elephantine basslines and double-stroke kick drums, respectively, to give groove-metal heft to “Bullet to the Brain” and “Poisonous Shadows,” while Mustaine and power-metal guitarist Kiko Loureiro, trading lead and rhythm duties, play off each other nicely on the twin lead harmonies of “Bullet to the Brain” and “Death from Within.”
But Mustaine’s songwriting undersells his personnel. Dystopia is in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal-inflected mode of Megadeth’s last decade (Super Collider excepted), which has meant a greater emphasis on melodicism and grandeur, and diminished interest in progressive structures, albeit not to the extent of their late-‘90s AOR turn. On the epic title track and vampy “Bullet to the Brain,” the approach yields sturdy tunes. Elsewhere, Dystopia is marred by repetitive phrasing and turgid hooks; the riffs here are high volume, low value.
The main attraction on any Megadeth album is high-velocity technical bravura, and Dystopia makes a good first impression: Opening with the heartrate-spiking gallop of “The Threat Is Real,” the album yields often to the intricate roulette curves of Mustaine’s soloing. But after kicking up a lot of arpeggiated dust, the solos rarely leave much of a mark. For someone so famously disdainful of whammy overuse, Mustaine leans hard on transitory dazzle.
If age has spared Mustaine’s fingers, it’s ravaged his voice, which has never sounded so guttural or monotone. Worse still are his words: He was one of thrash’s more literate lyricists, but you wouldn’t know it from, say, the hilariously awful “The Emperor,” which borrows the chorus from the Spice Girls’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” and culminates in a certain cliché about a monarch wearing invisible garments. On Dystopia, Mustaine, who titled Endgame after an Alex Jones documentary, treads familiar apocalyptic terrain to nigh reactionary ends.
It’s hard not to think of Mustaine’s comments from 1988 about erecting “a great wall along the Mexican border” in “The Threat Is Real,” which describes an authoritarian state at once led by a “messiah or mass murderer,” and indifferent to “who comes through the door”; said intruders are wisely unidentified, but unambiguously compared to lepers. “Post American World” calls for class solidarity, only to ask, “Why cower to all those who oppose the American world?” The first line of “Lying in State,” meanwhile, leaves little to the imagination: “What we are witnessing is the decline of Western Civilization.” Considering two covers are already included (Fear’s “Foreign Policy,” and Budgie’s “Melt the Ice Away” on the Spotify edition), a Skrewdriver song could’ve fit right in.
There’s always room for classicism in metal, whose elders enjoy rather unusual longevity and reverence for popular music. And to be sure, it’s no overstatement that every metal subgenre in existence was borne of thrash’s crosspollination of heavy metal’s brutal technique and hardcore punk’s speed and working-class politics. A small but vital cabal of young bands continue to find inspiration in thrash’s template. Dystopia, on the other hand, illustrates a trajectory uncomfortably true to its name: Metal’s premier conspiracy theorist grows up to be metal’s resident Republican, confusing xenophobia for meaningful dissent, and stasis for devotion to tradition.
Label: Tradecraft Release Date: January 22, 2016 Buy: Amazon
Review: Sufjan Stevens’s The Ascension Aims for Great Heights but Often Gets Lost
The album is only partially successful at maintaining the singer’s impeccable songwriting.3
Sufjan Stevens has never shied away from big ideas. From 2005’s massive, baroque opus Illinois, to 2010’s bombastic Age of Adz, to 2015’s achingly personal Carrie and Lowell, the singer-songwriter never seems afraid to go all in on a sound or feeling. Throughout the last two decades, Stevens has churned out intermittent masterpieces, all of them taking on vastly different sonic sensibilities, and his ability to surprise in every conceivable mode has become, perhaps, his defining characteristic as an artist.
So, ironically, Stevens’s turn toward an almost entirely electronic-based approach with The Ascension, his first album in five years, doesn’t come as a shock. Age of Adz, after all, incorporated programming and synthesizers into its explosions of impressionistic noise, but the expansive electronic soundscape that Stevens goes for here is a more complete transformation from his established sound. The album, however, is only partially successful at maintaining Stevens’s impeccable songwriting through this sharp transition.
A few too many of the songs on The Ascension get lost in the album’s overwhelmingly dense production. Opening track “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” starts off with a dark, thumping beat and sheer, foreboding synthesizers, while Stevens’s opening lines are chilling and silky, momentous and inscrutable: “Move me/Move like the waters I cannot drink/I have lost my patience/Make me an offer I cannot refuse.” He makes subtle manipulations to that line, hypnotically repeating the slippery melody as the song intermittently takes off—at one point, it literally sounds like a spaceship launching—before then collapsing. While the first three minutes of are mystical and memorable, the song quickly begins to meander, sinking into repetitions of the title and, eventually, a pulsing, nonverbal coda.
As the album plays out, this feels less like a fluke and more like a trend; too often, the tracks stretch out far longer than seem necessary. The seven-and-a-half-minute “Sugar” spends its first half building tension with chilly atmospherics and a static beat, but it confuses the use of repetition for a great sense of immersion as Stevens slowly and dramatically unveils one pop bromide—“Come on, baby, give me some sugar”—ad nauseam throughout the rest of the track. “Death Star” doesn’t spend a lot of time getting to the point, but it similarly sacrifices a compelling structure for a repetitive hook and overstuffed kind of ambience.
While The Ascension, as a whole, falls short of Stevens’s best work, there’s still plenty to like here. In fact, one of the album’s flaws is that its most emotionally resonant tracks—like the hazy devotional “Run Away with Me” and the dreamy, starlit ballad “Tell Me You Love Me”—are frontloaded. “Video Game,” Stevens’s take on a straight-up pop song, wonderfully melds his well-trodden examination of religious themes (“I don’t want to be your personal Jesus,” he sings in a nod to the Depeche Mode song) with a strong melodic foundation. “Lamentations,” meanwhile, is less straightforward and better for it, with an off-kilter beat that incorporates garbled vocal sounds, recalling the adventurousness of Age of Adz. These songs are sharper, more succinct representations of what The Ascension seems to be going for—a fully realized electronic reimagination of Stevens’s detailed and maximalist songwriting.
The album’s 80-minute runtime makes some of Stevens’s lengthier explorations feel like more of a slog than they might have been out of context. Indeed, this album is so dense that it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the less immediate tracks reveal their nuance as time goes on. Occasionally, stretching the limits of a song can do wonders, like on the mesmerizing closing track, “America,” in which a repeated line—“Don’t do to me what you did to America”—carries more weight with each utterance. But while Stevens often reaches great heights on The Ascension, he almost as often seems to get lost in his big ideas.
Label: Asthmatic Kitty Release Date: September 25, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Watch: Lady Gaga’s “911” Music Video Is a Surreal Death Dream
The video, directed by Tarsem, finds the singer awakening in a desert surrounded by pomegranates and a broken bicycle.
When Lady Gaga’s Chromatica saw its belated release in May, most of the attention was focused on its collaborative tracks with Ariana Grande, Blankpink, and Elton John. But the dramatic transition from the orchestral interlude “Chromatica II” into the synth-pop dance tune “911” soon went viral on TikTok, making the latter the most-streamed solo cut from the album aside from lead single “Stupid Love.”
Enthusiasm for “911” seems to stem mostly from the transition, but the song itself, which is reminiscent of past Gaga singles “LoveGame” and “G.U.Y.,” touches on the timely topics of mental health and pharmaceuticals. The music video, directed by Tarsem and inspired by Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film The Color of Pomegranates, finds Gaga awakening in a desert surrounded by pomegranates and a broken bicycle. What follows is a surreal dreamscape featuring a bride adorned with a red cross symbol, a woman cradling a mummified body, and Gaga performing jerky choreography while dressed, of course, in a series of elaborate costumes.
The clip, which was shot at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, takes a turn for the heavy-handed when the music cuts out and Gaga begins to tearfully wail straight into the camera. It’s quickly revealed that it was all a death dream, and the characters Gaga saw were, à la The Wizard of Oz, either victims or first responders to a fatal car accident that leaves Gaga on a stretcher and her produce scattered on the street.
Review: Alicia Keys’s Alicia Strikes a Careful Balance Between Hope and Despair
The album reveals the interconnectedness of the singer’s view of both the world and herself.3.5
Like the most effective political pop, Alicia Keys’s seventh album, Alicia, couches its socio-political observations in a personal context, unspooling to reveal the interconnectedness of its subject’s view of both the world and herself. The album’s de facto intro, “Truth Without Love,” sets the tone with a vaguely political lament about how the truth has become “elusive.” The focus then immediately pivots, on “Time Machine,” from our post-truth society to self-reflection, or “fear of what’s in the mirror,” suggesting that we seek solace not in nostalgia for simpler times, but in a free mind.
At times, Keys’s optimism about the state of the world feels naïve, like an echo from an era when “hope and change” felt attainable, as on the dreamy “Authors of Forever,” with its persistent refrain of “it’s alright.” But that sense of displaced positivity is offset by the directness with which Keys sings about police violence on “Perfect Way to Die” and so-called “essential workers” on “Good Job,” whose sense of hope is tinged by deep despair. That’s when you realize Keys’s optimism isn’t just Pollyannaish, but the kind you muster when you simply don’t know what else to do.
Still, those two closing tracks’ spare arrangements of piano and vocal—though functionally effective at highlighting the lyrical content—feel too conservative for their chosen subject matter. And when Keys’s signature piano is traded for acoustic guitar, as it is on a trio of back-to-back songs in the album’s middle stretch, the result is neo-soul formlessness that, generously, could be described as “mood music.” Keys’s voice, at least, pairs nicely with that of Miguel on “Show Me Love” and Khalid on “So Done” (by contrast, it’s much too similar in tone and timbre to Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra’s on “You Save Me”).
The most interesting of Alicia’s copious collaborations are the ones that diverge from Keys’s usual style. The dub-infused “Wasted Energy,” featuring Tanzanian bongo flava artist Diamond Platnumz, inspires in Keys a blissed-out vocal performance reminiscent of Sade, and there’s a matter-of-fact plainspokenness to her verses on “Me x 7”—“I should push this three o’clock to no o’clock ‘cause I don’t wanna disappear”—that complements Philly rapper Tierra Whack’s eclectic flow.
Alicia is aptly titled, as it largely returns to fundamentals following the loosely experimental Here. Like that album, this one lacks the powerful hooks of Keys’s earlier efforts, but she strikes a happy balance between the piano ballads that helped make her famous, the kick drum-driven R&B jams she so often gravitates toward, and her more recent inclination for less commercial fare. The Funkadelic-inspired “Time Machine” is simultaneously retro and futuristic, alternately sexy and darkly atmospheric, while “Underdog” and “Love Looks Better” update the “No One” template with an island vibe and swooning synths, respectively. That Alicia is at once her most accessible and forward-minded album in years seems fitting for an artist who, until recently, has made a career out of playing things straight down the middle.
Label: RCA Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Cults’s Host Explores the Seduction and Dissonance of Codependency
The album chronicles the euphoric highs and harrowing lows of a parasitic relationship.3.5
For nearly a decade, indie-pop band Cults has dealt in the mystique of contradiction. Brian Oblivion’s lush, bewitching instrumentation and Madeline Follin’s guileless vocals, sung in the style of a Phil Spector girl group, conjure the wish-fulfilling fantasy of teenage daydreams. The twist is that Follin’s lyrics tend to recount the ruins of humanity, from alienation and hopelessness to temptation and amorality. With their fourth album, Host, the duo deploys the same tonal contradiction between music and messaging, this time chronicling the euphoric highs and harrowing lows of a parasitic relationship.
With the detail-oriented obsession of hardboiled detectives, Oblivion and Follin study a romance’s toxic dynamic from multiple angles across the album’s 12 tracks. Buoyed by histrionic, ‘60s pop-style violin stabs, “Trials” sees Follin fretting that her lover is so invasive and consuming that he watches her even in her dreams. But she doesn’t play the damsel in distress, à la the Shangri-Las, for too long. She unflinchingly wrestles with the dark and twisted particulars of desire, as on the sweeping “Spit You Out,” where she purges herself from her toxic partner: “Leech, held on, I spit you out/Cleaned you from my tongue.”
Host is the first Cults album to be recorded primarily with live instruments, but the band’s sound continues to be synth-driven. Showy horns give “8th Avenue” a bluesy hue, while “Monolithic” is bolstered by an imaginative, layered string arrangement. Oblivion’s electronic kinetics, however, are responsible for heightening the songs’ drama and suspense: “Working It Over” and “A Purgatory” both boast hooks that turn anthemic thanks to the application of dense, otherworldly synths. Producer Shane Stoneback resumes his role as the unofficial third member of the group, ensuring that Host, in spite of its dabbling in live instrumentation, springs from the same atmospheric vein as previous Cults albums.
The group toys with unexpected melody formulation throughout the album—a gamble that doesn’t always pay off. On “Honest Love,” Fullin whispers a bewildering, oscillating refrain that grates against the robotic backing vocal. The scattered melody on “No Risk” is similarly puzzling and makes the song’s brief two-and-a-half minutes feel like an eternity. Although the band earns points for risk-taking, their flirtation with dissonance is less inventive than it is jarring, producing songs that amount to Frankenstein-like composites.
The album’s real allure is rooted in Cults’s representation of Stockholm syndrome, that sickeningly insidious pathology responsible for a host’s attachment to its parasite. The intoxicating “Shoulders to Feet” depicts attachment to a toxic partner as an almost spiritual devotion. During the soaring refrain, Fullin sings, full of conviction: “Shoulders to my feet/You’re everything I need.” Just as cult leaders are said to exploit faith, so do parasites with their victims, instilling in them the belief that all is for the greater good. Whereas faith represents salvation for most, Host suggests that it can just as easily be one’s undoing.
Label: Sinderlyn Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Gus Dapperton’s Orca Feels Like the Musical Equivalent of Mystery Meat
These restless songs flit between lapses of focused meditation and fretful apprehension.3
Gus Dapperton’s most striking quality is his meticulous appearance, which consists of baggy, thrift-chic clothing, pristinely painted nails, and a sharp bowl cut. But like his scrupulous sense of style, the singer-songwriter’s music has felt too faithful to the inoffensive “good vibes” of bedroom pop. Dapperton’s 2019 debut, Where Polly People Go to Read, offered an attractive amalgamation of alternative pop and R&B but did little in the way of distinguishing him from his peers. Think of Dapperton as an edgier Rex Orange County or a less neo-soul-inclined Omar Apollo.
With his sophomore effort, Orca, Dapperton roughens up the edges of his music, trading in sleek synth-pop slow jams for unvarnished balladry and borrowing more heavily from indie rock. Gone are the tepid Casio keys and muted drum pads of Where Polly People Go to Read, replaced by feverish guitar and warm piano melodies. On his debut’s more sensual cuts, Dapperton’s crooning could veer into nasal; by comparison, he relies on a more emotive rasp here, a texture that pairs well with the album’s downtempo rock. On “Grim,” his guttural screams and thrashing guitar comprise a tortured call and response—a far cry from the icy aloofness with which he approached the torch songs on his last album.
As Dapperton analogizes on the Arcade Fire-esque “Bottle Opener,” he intends to uncap formerly bottled-up feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. But his urge to probe these emotions to their depths is often obstructed by their cyclical nature and his misgivings about the future. “Medicine,” which sounds like a draft out of Ben Gibbard’s songbook, culminates with a collision of staccato piano and insistent acoustic guitar as Dapperton declares, “Every time they try to fix me up/I get addicted to the medicine.” These restless songs flit between lapses of focused meditation and fretful apprehension. It makes sense, then, that they were crafted during short-lived moments of stillness in his life, stolen amid the highs and lows of the singer’s hectic touring over the past couple of years.
Dapperton delivers his stickiest hook to date on “Post Humorous,” a deceptively buoyant song about nihilism. Sun-soaked guitar strumming belies lyrics about losing touch with one of the few lifelines available to a pessimist: humor. Dapperton cloaks his messaging in cryptic imagery, casting self-destruction in a softer glow: “I repress the iridescence of a fire…I confess the incandescence of a dying light.”
Most of the songs on the album, however, lack the gravitational pull of “Post Humorous,” their spare, repetitive structures drifting aimlessly as if in free fall. Dapperton’s sister provides sweet-sounding vocal accompaniment on “Antidote,” but the song’s reverb-drowned verses don’t leave much of an impression and its one-word hook quickly grows tiresome. The chorus of “My Say So,” sung by Dapperton and Australian artist Chela, follows a scattered xylophone melody note by note, giving the track a maddening sing-songy feel.
Orca’s heartfelt ballads improve on Dapperton’s numbed-out debut, but he faces the same quandary as many of his bedroom-pop cohorts: How do you avoid making nondescript, vaguely alternative songs like these sound like something more than the musical equivalent of mystery meat? Of course, there’s an audience for the harmless niceties of bedroom pop—as evidenced by the viral success of BENEE’s Dapperton-assisted “Supalonely,” a frothy ode to self-deprecation. But just like a fleeting Tik Tok video, Orca may be enjoyable in the moment, but it doesn’t have staying power.
Label: AWAL Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Every Song on Taylor Swift’s Folklore Ranked
We’ve ranked all 17 songs from the singer-songwriter’s watershed eighth album.
Over the course of the four releases preceding Folklore, Taylor Swift developed a model of pop album that was seemingly machine-calibrated to please just about everyone. For each fan-favorite deep cut (“All Too Well,” “New Romantics”) there was an equal and opposite radio hit (“22,” “Shake It Off”). The conflict inherent in this structure came to a head on last year’s Lover, which produced pop-centric, radio-friendly singles like “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” as well as the rootsier title track and the lilting “Afterglow.”
Folklore, by contrast, finds Swift at her most masterful and consistent, which makes comparing its songs all the more challenging. None of these songs reach overtly for the theatrics or immediate pop appeal of earlier singles such as “Look What You Made Me Do.” Instead, Swift foregrounds her narrative sensibility and her eye for detail, reminding us of—in case we somehow forgot—her voice-of-a-generation status. See below for our ranking of every song on the singer’s watershed eighth album.
It’s commendable that Swift would take a moment on an otherwise introspective album to pay tribute to essential workers and to remind her listeners to wear a mask. The conciseness with which she draws a parallel between medical professionals and soldiers is persuasive, but the device’s neatness and sincerity can feel a bit simple. Still, on such a consistent album, last place isn’t so much a slight as it is a credit to the rest of the album’s songs.
For a song about a conventionally comfy piece of clothing, “Cardigan” is surprisingly slinky, its swaying melody and Swift’s gasping vocals elaborating nicely on the dark pop of 2017’s Reputation. The song’s protracted central metaphor, fairy-tale imagery, and idealistic mentions of scars and tattoos risk being uncomplicatedly wide-eyed, but it’s Swift’s established style to employ childlike concepts with a sense of irony. “Cardigan” avoids becoming saccharine when Swift allows it to be sensual, possibly name-dropping one of Rihanna’s steamiest singles (“Kiss It Better”) to seal the whole thing with a kiss.
15. “Mad Woman”
Swift’s most credible expressions of resentment are typically couched in a tangible conflict (“Mean”) or balanced against self-examination (“Innocent”), but “Mad Woman” is a declaration of anger justified mostly by an interrogation of gender norms. Its lyrics about the weaponization of internalized misogyny signal that Swift has grown since she wrote “You Belong with Me” and “Better Than Revenge,” but her best songs are even more nuanced and tangible than this.
14. “The Lakes”
Folklore’s tender, self-referential bonus track reveals an important element of the album’s ethos, namely that Swift aims to be remembered as a poet. She seeks to do so here through meta-poetics, naming writerly forms (“Is it romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?”) and building puns around great writers’ names (“I’ve come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze/Tell me what are my words worth”). The song might skew capital-R romantic (“A red rose grew up out of ice-frozen ground/With no one around to tweet it”), but it’s an affectionately detailed testament to the fact that readers can become writers, and writers can become icons.
13. “This Is Me Trying”
This is one of a small handful of tracks on Folklore that feel less like distinct story beats and more like summations of the album’s broader emotional arc. In fact, “This Is Me Trying” is a fitting coda to Swift’s entire discography, mining both her vulnerability and her ability to do harm on a serene mid-album respite from the lyrical density of “Seven” and “August.” The image of a salt-rusted Swift downing a shot of whiskey between ruminations on her very public youth is jarring next to her self-titled debut, but it feels like an honest comedown from Lover’s shine.
12. “My Tears Ricochet”
Like “Mad Woman,” “My Tears Ricochet” tells one of Folklore’s most straightforwardly resentful stories, this time grounded narratively in the idea of a toxic lover showing up at their ex’s funeral. Jack Antonoff’s production touches are stirring: The sharp beats of strings on the chorus recall the bridges of early-2010s Swift songs, and the warm echo of Swift “screaming at the sky” on the bridge evokes the thrill of “He looks up, grinning like a devil.”
11. “The 1”
As one of Folklore’s peppiest tracks, “The 1” is a fitting opener and a smooth transition from Lover’s effervescence. It tells us immediately that Swift’s preoccupation with regret has lasted since Fearless and Speak Now, but she’s got the age and experience to reassure her lover (and herself), that “it’s all right now.” Whereas heartbreak was fresh and monumental on “Fifteen,” nowadays Swift’s approach to love and dating is candid and mature—but wistful enough to avoid being blasé.
“Peace” is among Swift’s most spacious and gorgeous songs, leaving the impression of pillow talk deepened by promises—or threats—of loyalty. While the song deflates somewhat from the predominance of lyrical clichés (“The devil’s in the details, but you got a friend in me,” “I’d swing with you for the fences/Sit with you in the trenches”), Swift delivers every word with intimate urgency. It’s a fitting summation of the tension between the thrill of love and the knowledge that it’s never truly promised, a conflict that’s motivated much of Swift’s music.
Every Britney Spears Album Ranked
We decided to reevaluate the singer’s discography and discovered that her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear.
Over two decades into her career, Britney Spears is less likely to make headlines for her music than her personal and legal battles, which have resulted in the #FreeBritney movement. So it’s easy to forget that, against all odds, the pop singer has amassed an impressive body of hits—from her iconic debut, “…Baby One More Time,” to later earworms like “Till the World Ends” (see our list of Britney’s best singles here).
With the exception of cult favorite Blackout, Britney has never been considered an “album artist.” There’s nothing more satisfying, though, than someone who forces us to recalibrate our expectations, and Britney did just that with 2016’s Glory: By eschewing EDM and embracing subtler pop and R&B sounds, she made her most daring, mature album to date.
Earlier this year, fans launched another social media campaign, #JusticeForGlory, and the album was subsequently reissued, nearly four years after its initial release, with a new track, “Mood Ring,” previously only available in Japan. We decided to reevaluate Britney’s discography and discovered that, defying yet another expectation, her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear. See below for our ranking of all nine of Britney’s studio albums.
9. Oops!…I Did It Again (2000)
“My loneliness ain’t killin’ me no more!” Britney belts on “Stronger,” referencing a key phrase from her debut single, “…Baby One More Time.” The track is, in retrospect, a standout among Max Martin’s many teen-pop productions from the era, boasting an ABBA-esque hook, robust dance beat, and a menacing foghorn that announced a sexier, more sophisticated, and yes, stronger, Britney. But while the singer’s sophomore effort, the cheekily titled Oops!…I Did It Again, doubled down on the Swedish producer’s formula, it also magnified the worst of both teen-pop’s ticks and Britney’s vocal hiccups. A limp cover of the Rolling Stones’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” makes Samantha Fox’s 1987 rendition sound positively electric, while the molasses-slow “Where Are You Now” and the treacly closing ballad “Dear Diary” could rot the teeth right out of your skull. Sal Cinquemani
8. Britney Jean (2013)
Designed by committee, with up to six producers and nine songwriters per track, Britney Jean is sonically all over the place, stocked with a mix of the most garish presets from the EDM era and flaccid midtempo pop. The filtered synths featured throughout the album (courtesy of producers like will.i.am and David Guetta) are most forgivable on the catchy “Til It’s Gone,” which is as close as Britney Jean gets to earworms like Femme Fatale’s “Till the World Ends” and “Hold It Against Me.” Lead single “Work Bitch” is the aural equivalent of bath salts, a shrill and mechanical assault on the brain, while “Tik Tik Boom” is by far Britney Jean and company’s most egregious lapse in judgment, with T.I. offering tripe like “She like the way I eat her/Beat her, beat her/Treat her like an animal, somebody call PETA.” Uh, somebody call Tip’s probation officer. Cinquemani
7. …Baby One More Time (1999)
When Britney burst onto the scene with “…Baby One More Time,” her adenoidal, childlike vocals suggested an innocence belied by the image of the then-16-year-old on the album’s cover, kneeling in a short denim skirt, her schoolgirl blouse unbuttoned, her head cocked to the side. Prior to 1998, teen pop had been an innocuous, perennial nuisance, but those big, pounding piano chords and processed squawks of “Oh, bay-ba, bay-ba,” followed by the singer’s full-throated delivery of the song’s hook—“My loneliness is killing me!”—signaled the christening of the genre’s very first Lolita. That the rest of …Baby One More Time plays like a glorified Kidz Bop album is neither surprising nor, frankly, inappropriate. The uptempo highlights—the hit “(You Drive Me) Crazy” and the house-influenced “Deep in My Heart”—feel lyrically and sonically chaste compared to the title track, while the ballads alternate between inane (“Email My Heart”) and interminable (“From the Bottom of My Broken Heart”). Cinquemani
6. Britney (2001)
There’s a learning curve in pop superstardom and Britney’s development always seemed comparatively stunted, if only because she rush-released three albums in as many years—and all before the age of 20. The media generously, if inexplicably, dubbed Britney the next Madonna, but her interpretations of classics like “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” from 2001’s Britney, lacked the irony and grit of a more seasoned and self-aware artist. The album, her best to date at the time, proved she owed much more to the likes of Paula Abdul and, especially, Janet Jackson than the Queen of Pop. The most successful songs here deviate from the Max Martin formula of Britney’s early hits, including the saccharine disco bop “Anticipating” and the Neptunes-produced “I’m a Slave 4 U,” whose skittering synths and heavy breathing served as a preview of what would become Britney’s career m.o. Cinquemani
5. Femme Fatale (2011)
In my review of 2011’s Femme Fatale, I lamented its lead single’s “cheesy pickup lines” and “generic Eurotrash beats and dated trance synths.” By the time the album dropped a couple of weeks later, though, “Hold It Against Me,” in all its generic glory, had burrowed its way into my psyche like a brain-eating amoeba. Released at the height of the EDM explosion, Femme Fatale is, like that single, a gaudy, unrepentant attempt to cash in on a subgenre with a looming expiration date. So it’s no surprise that some of the album’s most enduring tracks pivot back toward Britney’s earlier hits, including the bubbly “How I Roll” and “Trip to Your Heart,” which finds frequent collaborators Bloodshy & Avant seamlessly applying their glitchy, pitch-incorrected synth-pop to the fad of the era. Cinquemani
4. Circus (2008)
With Circus, Britney dropped the richly self-referential posture she almost reluctantly adopted on Blackout in favor of a far more risky mode: self-actualization. Instead of wallowing in the great drama that was her train-wreck quarter-life crisis, Circus represents the rebirth of regression. It’s a dozen-plus songs of blithe denial—one of which, “Radar,” is curiously recycled from the earlier album—that seems to be saying, “Hey, I’m still young enough to eat hard candy without it being a sad anachronism. So let’s get nekkid.” Biographical details are suppressed in favor of shopping lists (“Lace and Leather”), while confessionals step aside and make way for lewd double-entendres (“If U Seek Amy”). Hell, actual lyrics are eschewed in favor of syllables. Because it’s Britney, however, it all seems to work: Ridiculousness comes naturally, and her cooing break, “Ooh lolly, ooh papi,” on “Mmm Papi” is the nexus of cock-hungriness. If the album is a psychological step backward, well, you can’t say Britney doesn’t sound at home in the womb. Eric Henderson
3. In the Zone (2003)
Britney’s fourth album, In the Zone, found the former pop tart coming of age with a bold mix of dance and hip-hop beats, wiping clean the last traces of her bubblegum past. Britney’s unabashed devotion to dance-pop is, perhaps, the one thing that truly links her to Madonna, who—lamentably—appears on the opening track “Me Against the Music.” Britney beckons to an anonymous dance partner on “Breathe on Me,” exploring the eroticism of restraint: “We don’t need to touch/Just breathe on me.” After a night at the club—and little actual physical contact—she passes out on the couch in the “Early Mornin’” (produced by Moby) and finds some self-gratification on the Middle Eastern-hued ode to masturbation “Touch of My Hand.” Lest you start to believe that the girl who began her career by teasing her barely legal status is finally “in the zone,” “Outrageous” finds her singing “my sex drive” and “my shopping spree” with the same dripping gusto. Cinquemani
2. Blackout (2007)
One thing latter-day Britney doesn’t lack is self-awareness. “I’m Mrs. ‘Extra! Extra! This just in!’/I’m Mrs. ‘She’s too big, now she’s too thin’,” she quips on “Piece of Me,” the second single from her 2007 album Blackout. Listening to it now, it’s easy to forget there was anything wrong in her starry world at the time. The album is remarkably cohesive, riding the Timbaland renaissance without the man himself (half the album was produced by Timbo cohort Danja). “Gimme More” and “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” hold their own alongside the likes of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous.” But it’s Bloodshy & Avant who hog the spotlight here, ponying up the beats on the glitchy “Piece of Me”—which sounds like robots hate-fucking—and the spunky, Kylie-esque “Toy Soldier.” “No wonder there’s panic in the industry. I mean, please,” Britney sneers on the former. Was that a sly comment on our misplaced gaze? Cinquemani
1. Glory (2016)
From Glory’s opening “Invitation” to its closer, “Coupure Electrique,” it’s no surprise that Britney stocks her latest album with expressions of uncontainable horniness. What is surprising is the degree to which her agency in the act is emphasized, and how sex here is rarely an act of exhibition. Songs like “Private Show” and “Do You Wanna Come Over?” yearn for a specific intimacy, a moving expression from an artist whose public relationship with sexuality once seemed disturbingly out of her control. The album’s key lyric comes from the single “Slumber Party”: “We use our bodies to make our own videos.” Glory is an album-length reclamation of Britney’s autonomy. Sam C. Mac
Review: With From King to God, Conway the Machine Reveals His Humanity
Though the rapper pontificates on his wealth and street cred, the album’s biggest boast is his vulnerability.3.5
Hip-hop producer Daringer has been the principal architect behind Buffalo rap collective Griselda’s sordid, soul sample-heavy world of coke-slanging and mafioso-style close shaves. But while his grim machinations positioned the crew as heirs to Mobb Deep and the Wu-Tang Clan, his minimal, hook-reluctant beats can at times feel repetitive and dreary. On From King to God, Griselda member Conway the Machine—the group’s self-proclaimed lyrical heart—branches out from Daringer’s grimy style, featuring the producer on only two of the album’s 12 songs. From King to God introduces a dark, understated sheen to Conway’s hard-as-nails boom-bap, while conserving all its original grit.
Griselda’s verses are often peppered with high-pitched, maniacal laughter and adlibs that mimic the sound of a machine gun, and their lyrics trace the rappers’ humble origins hustling on the streets of Buffalo. With From King to God, Conway returns to this familiar street sound but doesn’t constrain himself to it. Throughout, the album’s producers mold their sound to Conway’s vision, not vice versa, their eerie synth lines and varied beats bolstering a sense of impending doom. Travis Scott collaborator Murda Beatz presides over “Anza,” an antsy, tempo-hopping track, while “Fear of God” boasts production from Hit-Boy and a spine-chilling hook from Detroit’s baby-voiced Dej Loaf.
Conway tag-teams with Griselda cohorts Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher on “Spurs 3,” brazenly defending his creative turf: “Ask the homie Wayno and ‘em, they’ll confess/Lotta albums are suddenly startin’ to feel a lil’ more Griselda-esque.” The track belongs to a string of them that glorify Conway and the Griselda name. Yet Conway tackles more expansive matters, like on “Front Lines,” where he envisions himself overtaking the Minneapolis police station that was set ablaze by protestors in the days after George Floyd’s murder.
Though Conway pontificates on his wealth and street cred to figure himself as a god, From King to God’s biggest boast is his vulnerability. Conway’s signature drawl isn’t a stylistic choice, but the result of Bell’s palsy, a condition that paralyzed the right side of his face after a gunshot to the head in 2005. Mortality and loss haunt the album, which is interspersed with monologues from DJ Shay, a producer and mentor figure to Griselda who passed away just weeks ago. “Shit was just starting to get beautiful/I wrote this while getting dressed for your funeral,” Conway reveals on “Forever Droppin Tears.” On “Seen Everything but Jesus,” he eulogizes lost friends and family, including Chine Gun, Benny the Butcher’s half-brother.
Conway’s flow is laidback and assured but occasionally seems too comfortable—too in the pocket of the beat. On “Lemon,” he’s outstripped by Method Man’s elaborate multisyllabic rhyme scheme. But despite his moniker, penning bars straight from the heart is Conway’s greatest strength. What the rapper lacks in flow experimentation and dexterous rhyme-craft, he makes up for with his knack for sincere storytelling.
Label: Griselda Release Date: September 11, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Flaming Lips’s American Head Celebrates Humanity’s Resilience
The album combines childlike whimsy with sober realizations of all the sadness in the world.4
Despite what the Flaming Lips’s kaleidoscopic, neo-psychedelic musical fantasies might suggest, Wayne Coyne spent much of his life deliberately avoiding drugs after witnessing his older siblings—absent access to healthier countercultural outlets in ‘60s and ‘70s Oklahoma City—fry their brains. He apparently conquered that fear around 2012, when he began going through what, from the outside, looked a lot like a midlife crisis—separating from his longtime partner, partying with Miley Cyrus, and bragging about all the acid and molly he was doing. Over the next several years, his once comfortingly wide-eyed explorations of weighty philosophical themes turned distressingly bleak, while the Flaming Lips’s timeless pop melodies and intricate orchestrations ceded to droney noise.
Refreshingly, then, the band’s 16th album, American Head, builds on the return to form that last year’s half-tossed-off King’s Mouth promised. And all it took was Coyne getting back in touch with the part of himself that grew up terrified of his brothers not waking up from their next binge. So while there are copious drug references throughout the album—among the song titles are “At the Movies on Quaaludes,” “Mother, I’ve Taken LSD,” and “You n Me Sellin’ Weed”—they’re all characterized with a sense of awed, even fearful detachment. The album features some of the most personal, slice-of-life lyrics that the fancifully minded singer has ever written: Nearly every song can be traced to a real story about Coyne or his “older brothers and their drug-dealing biker friends,” as he puts it in the album press notes.
Even the silly “Dinosaurs on the Mountain”—which boasts lyrics like “I wish the dinosaurs/Were still here now/It’d be fun to see them playing/On the mountains”—has roots in a specific childhood memory, of gazing up at the mountains from the back of a station wagon. “You n Me Sellin’ Weed” directly references Coyne’s experience as a teenage pot dealer, a phase that may have made him feel “like king of the world” but still left him wishing for “a spaceship coming for us/To take us away.” The raw human element to these stories is underscored by Coyne’s small, quavering alto, which—some Vocoder and pitch-shifting notwithstanding—is largely freed from the shrouds of the studio effects of recent releases.
This is the classic Flaming Lips formula: combining childlike whimsy with sober realizations of all the sadness in the world. The band’s recent work has too often veered to one extreme (the dippy King’s Mouth) or another (the utterly grim The Terror). And though the current incarnation of the Flaming Lips has been together since 2014, and thus responsible for these various digressions, the band has undertaken a sonic overhaul here that matches the emotional, sentimental tenor of Coyne and Steven Drozd’s new compositions.
With a couple of exceptions—like the dark, driving “Assassins of Youth” and the psychedelic “You n Me Sellin’ Weed”—there’s essentially only one kind of song on American Head: the starry-eyed acoustic power ballad. The days when the band would alternate their sweeping, emotional ballads with fuzzed-out rockers and experimental pop songs may be gone, but this album’s relatively clean mixes—populated with acoustic strumming, mellotrons, and melodic, Beatles-esque guitar lines—hearken explicitly and effectively back to the more meditative moments of the band’s golden age in the early-to-mid ‘90s.
One exception is “Mother, Please Don’t Be Sad,” which belongs in the pantheon of classic Flaming Lips tearjerkers alongside “Do You Realize??” and “Waitin’ for a Superman.” The song is based on a story Coyne has told before, most memorably in the documentary Fearless Freaks. Decades ago, he was working as a fry cook at a Long John Silver’s when armed gunmen burst into the restaurant to rob the register. While lying on the ground, assuming this was the end, his thoughts turned to his mother. “It’s only me that’s died tonight/There’s so much you still have,” he assures her on “Mother, Please Don’t Be Sad.” He reminds her to let the dogs out, to take comfort in the love of the still living. It’s quintessential Coyne: a simultaneous reminder of humanity’s fragility and a celebration of its resilience.
Label: Warner Release Date: September 11, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Metallica’s S&M2 Is at Once Rousing and Redundant
A collaboration between the band and the San Francisco Symphony, the live album plays on light and shade.3.5
It’s been over 20 years since Metallica first collaborated with the San Francisco Symphony on their cheekily titled live album S&M. At the time, the pairing of a metal band with an orchestra was still something of a novel idea, and as mixed as its reception may have been, it arguably stands as one of the definitive symphonic rock albums of all time, alongside Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra.
In the decades since S&M’s release, the rock world has seen live symphonic offerings from Dream Theater, Kiss, the Scorpions, and Aerosmith, among others. As such, S&M2 feels, like many sequels, less essential than the original, but not just because the concept has run its course. Recorded during a concert in September of 2019, the album’s setlist is similar to that of its predecessor, as are most of the orchestral arrangements. One can’t help but wonder what string-laced versions of classics like “Harvester of Sorrow,” “Creeping Death,” “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” and “Fade to Black” might have sounded like.
Taken on its own merits, though, S&M2 is a largely thrilling experience. As live performers, the band is as tight as ever here, and frontman James Hetfield’s trademark grit-choked growl remains intact throughout the album, only occasionally veering into the tuneless yodel that marred many of the band’s gigs in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Heavy metal has always been about more than just raw aggression, and Metallica’s best work plays on light and shade, sturm und drang. Admittedly, the orchestral parts on some of these songs are less imaginative during the faster, thrashier sections, which occasionally resemble chase music in an action film. But when Metallica scales back, opting for ominous slow burn as opposed to full-throttle attack, the strings and horns wash into the foreground, enveloping the drums and guitars with electrifying countermelodies.
Most of the songs here that didn’t appear on the first S&M are from the band’s less impressive recent output, and though competently performed, they aren’t necessarily the best suited to an orchestral backing, nor do they offer much in the way of interesting arrangements. Still, there are some surprises: a cover of early Soviet composer Alexander Mosolov’s “The Iron Foundry”; an acoustic take on the otherwise pummeling deep cut “All Within My Hands”; and the ballad “The Unforgiven III,” which finds Hetfield backed by the orchestra alone.
Perhaps most enthralling, and most emblematic of the set, is a solo spot by symphony bassist Scott Pingel, who performs the late Cliff Burton’s solo piece “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” in its entirety, replete with layers of electric distortion. Burton was a classical music aficionado, and was said to have introduced elements like harmony and sophistication into Metallica’s early no-frills thrash. S&M2 puts that influence on full display.
Label: Blackened Recordings Release Date: August 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon
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