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Review: Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

The bulk of what’s been written about Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend leading up to its hotly anticipated release has focused on how the tone of her marketing has changed of late, attempting to position her as country music’s resident bad girl. That impulse to label is a fairly easy one to understand, as it perpetuates a straightforward image for Lambert, an artist of impossibly broad talent whose path to success (from a third-place finish on Nashville Star to a co-starring role in the failed Piper Perabo vehicle Slap Her…She’s French to a platinum-selling debut album, 2005’s Kerosene, that sold big with negligible support from country radio) hasn’t made a whole of sense.

Particularly when considering the positive attention that Kerosene’s incendiary title track received—it’s her lone Top 20 hit, landed her a surprise Grammy nomination, and is one of the rare country singles to rank in the Top 40 of the Pazz & Jop poll—and the fact that most everyone, quite rightly, seems to have come to their senses regarding country music’s prior resident bad girl, Gretchen Wilson, there’s certainly a case to be made that Lambert’s attitude and her timing are both right for her to adopt that role. And there’s no denying that some of the personal details that she’s discussed in interviews—she has a concealed-carry license, she spent her short break from touring on a hunting trip, and her parents were Pis involved in the investigation of the Bill Clinton/Paula Jones hoo-ha—lend an authenticity to her tales of firearms, infidelity, and hard living. Honestly, when so many country “artists” mistake audience pandering (i.e. putting Illinois native Wilson in a Confederate flag shirt on her homepage, or the current dead-end trend of using other artists’ names as the titles of singles) for authenticity, it’s more than a little bit refreshing that Lambert has a point of view that’s bound to make some people uncomfortable.

That said, all of the focus on image ultimately does a disservice to Lambert and to what she’s accomplished on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, because it makes it too easy to overlook or misinterpret the sophistication of her songwriting, the full range of intense emotional experiences that inform her writing, her ongoing development into a singer of remarkable depth of expression, and the extent to which she understands the critical difference between a marketing ploy and an aesthetic. Kerosene was country music’s strongest major label debut since The Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend works in almost exactly the same way as did the Chicks’ stellar sophomore album, Fly: She’s made a dead-on accurate assessment of what worked best about her debut, and enhanced those elements with greater confidence and an artistic persona that’s distinctive, and combined all of it into a record of thematic coherence and heft. Perhaps the most fully-realized mainstream country album released so far this decade, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an album that alternately embraces and challenges genre conventions in ways that would be entirely lost on many of country’s biggest radio acts.

The album opens with the literal bang of “Gunpowder And Lead,” on which Lambert plans her revenge on an abusive man. The production on the track is structurally perfect, using little more than an ominous acoustic guitar figure in the verses (where Lambert, playing up the most girlish tones of her voice, refers to herself as “little ol’ me”) before the song explodes into the chorus as she goes home to wait by the door with a lit cigarette and a loaded shotgun. One of Lambert’s many strengths as a songwriter, and something that draws a parallel to the writings of genre legends like Kris Kristofferson and Dolly Parton, is the way she varies her rhyme schemes to emphasize a point; in the last lines of the song’s chorus, for instance (“Slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll/Now don’t that sound like a real man/I’m gonna show him what a little girl’s made of/Gunpowder and lead”), the use of blank rhyme gives the song a real sense of finality. It’s that degree of skill and attention to detail that elevates Lambert above her contemporaries, and most every song on the album has either a surprising trick or an unexpected turn-of-phrase that speaks to the unique brand of poetry in the best country songwriting.

But what makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend such a step up from its predecessor is how Lambert has expanded that attention to detail to include an entire song cycle. This isn’t a concept album in the vein of, say, Allison Moorer’s The Duel, but it nonetheless impresses for its coherence. With the lone exception of the admittedly fun “Dry Town” (one of just three cover tunes on the record, and one written by no less than David Rawlings and Gillian Welch), the emotions conveyed in every song are clearly reflected elsewhere on the album. On “Gunpowder And Lead,” for example, when Lambert snarls, “And he ain’t seen me crazy yet,” that’s a promise she carries over into the title track (which is the country equivalent of Beyoncé‘s “Ring The Alarm” in most every possible way) and, later, the stirring admonition of “Down,” when she warns any would-be suitor, “When the storm hits you won’t have a prayer” before practically begging them to stay away altogether.

That’s just another thing that the hellraiser image tends to overlook; there’s a palpable rage to many of these songs, sure, but it’s tempered by a keen self-awareness and a clear recognition of the difficult consequences of such fiery emotions. Perhaps the most telling line on the album comes on the devastating “More Like Her.” Watching as her ex returns to the arms of a former lover, she sings, “She don’t have too much to say when she gets mad/I guess I should’ve been more like that.” The loss itself stings, but it’s the reasons for it that cut, and Lambert sings it with a heady mix of regret, jealousy, and bruised pride.

In that regard, Lambert has developed into a singer of exceptional range. While she may not have the pure technical gifts of certain other beautiful, young, blond, former talent-show contestants, the two exceptionally well-chosen cover songs that close the album showcase what a superlative interpretive singer she’s become. Rather than attempting to one-up Patty Griffin’s furious version of “Getting Ready” from Children Running Through, and having already gone the angry route earlier in the record, Lambert sings the song with a smirk, transforming it from an anthem of self-empowerment into a kiss-off of vicious, bitter wit. Even better, though, is her version of “Easy From Now On,” a song co-written by Susana Clark and the criminally underappreciated Carlene Carter and popularized by the incomparable Emmylou Harris. While Harris’s version emphasizes the glimmer of optimism that comes from ending a bad relationship, Lambert sounds as though she’s trying to convince herself of something she doesn’t believe to be true. There’s still a definite bitterness here (the key lines of the refrain are, “It’s gonna be easy to fill/The heart of a thirsty woman/And harder to kill the ghost of a no-good man”), and an overwhelming sense that her past may have finally caught up with her. It’s an extraordinary song on its own, made all the more effective because it gives the album a fascinating, loaded conclusion that speaks to what’s come before and hints at a new direction.

Country music has traditionally been a singles-oriented genre. Among its legends, it’s often difficult to find an entire proper studio album to recommend as an essential listen, and few of the current A-list stars have released full albums that are more than three surefire hit singles and a glut of soundalike filler. So an album like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is exceedingly rare for its genre, even at a time when a small group of major label artists have released work (like Gary Allan’s Tough All Over or Julie Roberts’s Men & Mascara, or even Big & Rich’s two deeply-flawed albums) that shows greater vision and ambition. The album’s few flaws—the inclusion of “Dry Town,” the gunshot sound effect at the end of “Gunpowder And Lead,” and the not up-to-snuff chorus of “Down”—are of little consequence when compared to its real mettle. Hell, there’s probably a good 5,000 words to be written just on the way these songs fly in the face of the genre’s historically and presently conservative gender politics. Brash, insightful, wry, and, above all else, smart, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend confirms that Miranda Lambert is far more than just the latest in a long line of bad girls: She’s a country music legend in the making, and the most vital artist Music Row has produced in a generation.

Label: Sony Nashville Release Date: May 7, 2007 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Sam Hunt’s Southside Is a Shallow Attempt at Genre Pastiche

The album boasts some genuine earworms, but its lyrical content is sophomoric.

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Southside
Photo: Connor Dwyer/MCA Nashville

Sam Hunt’s sophomore effort, Southside, has an ingratiating charm, boasting some genuine earworms, but its lyrical content is puerile and its attempts at genre pastiche feel shallow. Released back in 2017, the album’s first single, “Body Like a Back Road,” features a catchy hook that recalls a nursery rhyme and an extended simile that draws a tired comparison between sex and driving. The second single, “Downtown’s Dead,” is more broadly thematic—about how the whole world can lose its luster when your heart is broken—but the music isn’t particularly memorable, driven by heavy drums and a repetitive, dull shuffle.

The disjunction between those two tracks is emblematic of Southside as a whole. Hunt spends most of the album playing a game of musical whack-a-mole: Sometimes his lyrics rise above the level of trite barroom poetry, and occasionally the melodies are infectious, but seldom at the same time. Hunt’s music is unquestionably bro-country in its lyrical concerns, but he incorporates some elements of hip-hop, a fusion that only occasionally bears fruit. “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s” is a goofy bit of half-sung, rose-colored nostalgia and the midtempo “Kinfolks” is a moderately sweet song about introducing your partner to your family.

More often, the album’s approach to blurring the lines between genres falls flat. “Hard to Forget,” a song about a woman who drives Hunt crazy, opens with a chopped-n’-screwed sample of Webb Pierce’s tear-in-my-beer country classic “There Stands the Glass,” but Hunt’s sentiment doesn’t gel with the beer-soaked miserablism of Pierce’s song. It feels more like Hunt is trying to steal some cred by showing he knows who Pierce is than actually trying to establish some sort of intertextual relationship.

Southside reaches its nadir with “That Ain’t Beautiful,” retrograde dreck in which he mansplains to a woman about how her life choices “ain’t beautiful.” The reductive lyrics feature a series of clichéd images of a past-her-prime party girl that feel ripped straight from Bill Simmons’s drafts folder. Hunt assiduously eschews any attempt at rhyme or wordplay, which makes the song feel overly self-serious. The lyrics are also oddly plagued by specificity, with Hunt tsk-tsking his subject for spending too much on an airplane ticket for the wedding of a person she’s known for less than a year. Hunt isn’t charmless as a performer, but the song is plodding and maudlin, and his delivery has a distinctly drunken karaoke feel to it.

There are worse purveyors of bro-country spiced up with hip-hop (here’s looking at you, Florida Georgia Line), and Hunt has an ear for melody, but his reliance on lyrical clichés and hit-you-over-the-head genre fusion makes Southside worth little more than a shrug.

Label: MCA Nashville Release Date: April 3, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 10 Best Albums of 1985

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

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Kate Bush
Photo: Rhino

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: LL Cool J, Radio; Talking Heads, Little Creatures; John Cougar Mellencamp, Scarecrow; Lizzy Mercier Descloux, One for the Soul; The Velvet Underground, VU; Husker Du, New Day Rising; Grace Jones, Slave to the Rhythm; Various Artists, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto; The Smiths, Meat Is Murder; The Mekons, Fear and Whiskey



Fables of the Reconstruction

10. R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction

Thematically, Fables of the Reconstruction is one of R.E.M.’s most cohesive albums, drawing heavily from Southern iconography and folklore. Bands like Drive-By Truckers have, in recent years, taken up the cause of reconstructing and deconstructing the mythology of the modern South, but R.E.M.’s take on the subject is, unsurprisingly, far less literal. Southern myths are often preoccupied with mysterious, hermit-like older men, and many such characters serve either as protagonists or sources of inspiration on the album. “Life and How to Live It” was famously inspired by the life story of Brev Mekis, a schizophrenic man from the band’s native Athens, GA, who bifurcated his home into two completely distinct dwellings. “Maps and Legends” is a complex tribute to Reverend Howard Finster, one of the most famous figures in the “outsider art” movement. What makes Fables of the Reconstruction such a rich, deeply rewarding work is that it isn’t simply a retelling of these myths or a hagiography for these men, it’s that the album is a pointed, thoughtful consideration of what these stories mean and, specifically, of how the band perceives them. Jonathan Keefe



Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

9. The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

Landing chronologically and stylistically in the Pogues’s discography between the extremely drunken revelry of Red Roses for Me and the extremely drunken but more refined If I Should Fall from Grace from God, the also extremely drunken Rum Sodomy & the Lash may well be the quintessential Pogues experience. These rowdy drinking songs, both traditional and original, are of course tremendous fun. But it’s the album’s (relatively) sober laments—“The Old Main Drag,” the historical ballad “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” featuring lovely gender-bending vocals by Cait O’Riordan—that proved the band’s Celtic folk-punk wasn’t just a novelty, but a rich and inventive new form. Jeremy Winograd



Low-Life

8. New Order, Low-Life

If Movement was the funeral and Power, Corruption, and Lies was the haunting, then Low-Life was the exorcism, the moment when New Order fully freed themselves from the ghost of Ian Curtis and set in motion their second life as the U.K.’s finest purveyor of electro-pop dance-floor fillers. Even the song that’s about Curtis, the funereal “Elegia,” isn’t overly indebted to the band’s post-punk roots. From the galloping opener “Love Vigilantes” to the glitchy “Face Up,” Low-Life is the product of a band whose members are deeply in sync and pushing each other in new directions. Bernard Sumner is still finding his voice here—lyrics were often New Order’s Achilles’ heel, and this album features some cringey turns of phrase—but the band’s musicianship has been honed to a razor’s edge. Bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris are locked in with each other, and Gillian Gilbert’s synths pair dramatically with Sumner’s spare guitar lines. The highlight is “The Perfect Kiss”: When that keyboard part picks up, Thatcher is in 10 Downing Street and it’s midnight on the Hacienda’s dance floor. Seth Wilson



The Head on the Door

7. The Cure, The Head on the Door

The Cure’s The Head on the Door is a cheery pop album as envisioned by a goth-rock master. And weirdly, it works perfectly. Monster hooks flow effortlessly out of Robert Smith, and notably, none of them sound much alike. The speedily strummed “In Between Days” is easily the album’s catchiest song, but nearly every other track is of the same melodic caliber. The joy of The Head on the Door is the dizzying array of different styles Smith manages to cram into easily digestible pop packages. From the high-drama guitar riffs of “Push” and the driving flamenco rhythms and Arabic accents of “The Blood,” to the plinky atmospherics of “Kyoto Song” and the hopped-up minimalism of “Close to Me,” each new element is as surprising as it is hummable. The Head on the Door isn’t as sprawling as some of the Cure’s other beloved albums, but that’s exactly why it’s one of their most essential: It cuts right to the gooey melodic center at the heart of Smith’s songwriting. Winograd



Songs from the Big Chair

6. Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair

In which an attempted primal scream ends up coming out as an incredibly pitch-perfect crying jag. (Boy, am I glad the word “emo” wasn’t around in 1985, though Richard Kelly’s use of the dreamy “Head Over Heels” in his frowny sci-fi teen-angst epic Donnie Darko paid back that particular favor with interest.) British synth-pop act Tears for Fears’ follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Hurting may have seemed a sellout at the time, but heard anew today, the cathartic, shuffling hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” seems like one of the great indictments of the materialism and false triumphalism of the decade. Eric Henderson

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

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

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The Weeknd, After Hours
Photo: Anton Tammi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
Photo: Hugo Comte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 10 Best Albums of 1984

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

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Prince
Photo: Warner Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

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



Zen Arcade

10. Husker Du, Zen Arcade

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



Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise

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

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



Treasure

8. Cocteau Twins, Treasure

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



Private Dancer

7. Tina Turner, Private Dancer

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



Stop Making Sense

6. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense

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

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

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

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Madonna, Vogue
Photo: Warner Bros.

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


Music Video (1990)

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


Blond Ambition Tour (1990)

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


Rock the Vote (1990)

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


MTV Video Music Awards (1990)

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


The Girlie Show Tour (1993)

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

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

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

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Pearl Jam, Gigaton
Photo: Danny Clinch/Republic Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof
Photo: David McClister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 15 Best Björk Music Videos

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

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Björk
Photo: YouTube

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


15. “Army of Me”

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


14. “Human Behaviour”

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


13. “Crystalline”

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


12. “The Gate”

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


11. “Mutual Core”

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

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The 10 Best Albums of 1983

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

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Tom Waits
Photo: Island Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

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



Synchronicity

10. The Police, Synchronicity

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



War

9. U2, War

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



Speaking in Tongues

8. Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues

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



Touch

7. Eurythmics, Touch

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



Madonna

6. Madonna, Madonna

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

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