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Review: Noam Pikelny, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail

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Noam Pikelny, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail

Thanks in no small part to the novelty of actor Steve Martin’s high-profile and legitimately great The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, the banjo is having something of a “moment,” which works out well for Noam Pikelny. As the lead banjoist for the phenomenal Punch Brothers and recipient of the first “Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass” in 2010, Pikelny has earned the clout to release the predominantly instrumental Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, his first solo album since 2004. The set not only highlights Pikelny’s unimpeachable technical skill, but also the breadth of possibilities for the use of the banjo as a lead instrument.

Though he’s joined by some of the finest contemporary musicians, including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Pikelny and producer Gabe Witcher keep the focus entirely on the banjo. His performances balance a remarkable degree of precision with an easy-going, effortless mastery of tone. To that end, standout tracks like “Boathouse on the Lullwater” and “Jim Thompson’s Horse” allow Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail to serve as a musician’s showcase for Pikelny.

What’s more impressive about the album is the growth that it captures in Pikelny’s compositions. The Punch Brothers’ two albums have been characterized by truly inspired, progressive compositions that push the boundaries of traditional acoustic music, and it’s clear that his tenure in that band has paid dividends for Pikelny. The melodic lines he’s written for “The Broken Drought” and the spectacularly named “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer” twist back on themselves and meander in unexpected directions, and the layering of different lines on “Day Down” and “All Git Out” gives those songs real depth. The arrangements that he and Witcher prepared for the traditional “Cluck Old Hen” and Henry Thomas’s “Bob McKinney” are both respectful of the source material but still forward-thinking and inspired.

That one of the album’s highlights is a vocal track in no way diminishes the value of Pikelny’s instrumental work, but the cover of Tom Waits’s “Fish and Bird” is just gorgeous. Pikelny plucks the most delicate of tones from his banjo, as Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan (whose timbre and pitch-perfect clarity, it’s worth mentioning, make her a dead ringer for Alison Krauss) delivers a sensitive, devastating vocal turn. It makes for a lovely standalone single, but it also speaks to Pikelny’s adventurous perspective about how the banjo can be used in modern music. Even more than his impressive chops, it’s that creativity that makes Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail an essential, if likeably unassuming, listen.

Label: Compass Release Date: October 25, 2011 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Howling Hex’s Knuckleball Express Is a Disarming Take on Blues Rock

The album may well be the most accessible entry in frontman Neil Hagerty’s vast catalogue.

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The Howling Hex, Knuckleball Express
Photo: Fat Possum

An unintentional reminder of baseball’s eerie absence from American life right now, the title of the Howling Hex’s Knuckleball Express references our national pastime’s weirdest, wackiest pitch, darting and dipping and befuddling hitters due to seemingly random movements resulting from its attenuated spinning motion. It’s also a fitting moniker for yet another surprising change of direction by Howling Hex mastermind Neil Hagerty, who’s sensibility has shifted from Pussy Galore’s brutal noise assault to Royal Trux’s trippy re-visitation of classic-rock decadence to the skeletal yet snaky arrangements of his solo work.

Compared to recent Howling Hex outings like the relentlessly demented carnival bop of 2013’s The Best of the Howling Hex and 2016’s Denver, Knuckleball Express is a comparatively straightforward take on blues rock. Opening track “Lies” sets the tone with an immediately catchy three-chord fuzz riff, retaining a looseness that makes its aphoristic refrain—“If you want to die, believe in lies”—less admonishing than matter of fact, as if Hagerty decided the best way to deliver his moral is to marry it to a propulsive ZZ Top-style groove.

The most dramatic change to the band’s sound comes from newly enlisted singer-guitarist Nicole Lawrence, previously a collaborator on projects with Mary Timony and King Tuff. It’s difficult to imagine Hagerty sharing vocal duties with a chanteuse other than Jennifer Herrema, his longtime battery-mate in Royal Trux (and one-time girlfriend), but Lawrence’s dulcet singing is so diametrically opposed to Herrema’s woozy drawl that it brings out a rarely glimpsed dimension of his songwriting: prettiness. “Mr. Chicken,” for instance, initially proceeds according to the Howling Hex playbook, with Hagerty’s scratchy voice buried under dueling bursts of distorted guitar, until the chorus drops everything but drums, keyboards, and Lawrence’s light and beautifully lilted phrasing. The effect is disarmingly joyous.

Lawrence also helps spotlight just how intimate Hagerty’s work can be. When Lawrence and Hagerty open “City in the Country” by repeating, “It’s just another addiction now, uh huh/And that’s why I won’t be seeing you around me,” their harmonizing expresses the melancholic acceptance of a romance undone by self-destruction while alluding more specifically to Hagerty and Herrema’s tumultuous personal history. The introduction to the following track, “Heavy Curtains,” also appears to make reference to that history, but here Lawrence alone delivers the commentary in a gentle coo over rudimentary keyboard plunks: “Last golden braid/Heavy curtains fall/No masquerade/No curtain call.” Whether or not the song refers to the recent disintegration of a briefly reunited Royal Trux, this newly revealed sweet side to the Howling Hex proves remarkably successful.

The second half of Knuckleball Express slightly disappoints with three short tracks that feel more like sketches than fully developed ideas. But the album ends with “North Aquarian,” which at nearly six minutes long provides Hagerty a shredding showcase while also giving drummer Kenneth Boykins a chance at a solo. Yet even “North Aquarian” could’ve been more than what it is, a would-be Hagerty epic in the vein of “Blue Is the Frequency” or “Trashcan Bahamas” that’s instead cut off at the legs by an abrupt and awkward fadeout. This approach is also detrimentally applied to “Words” and “City in the Country,” mitigating the album’s warts-and-all tack by reducing its presentation of deep improvisation and experimentation.

Still, along with Royal Trux’s Thank You and Hagery’s 2002 solo outing, Plays That Good Old Rock and Roll, Knuckleball Express may well be the most accessible entry in the musician’s vast catalogue. It’s not a compromise or sell-out, but rather a welcome implementation of his talents to the foundational rock that’s always undergirded his sound and sensibility.

Label: Fat Possum Release Date: April 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 10 Best Albums of 1986

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

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Beastie Boys
Photo: Columbia 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: The Bangles, Different Light; Afrika Bamabaataa & Soulsonic Force, Planet Rock: The Album; Metallica, Master of Puppets; Talk Talk, The Colour of Spring; New Order, Brotherhood; Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.; The Robert Cray Band, Strong Persuader; Throwing Muses, Throwing Muses; Randy Travis, Storms of Life; The Go-Betweens, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express



EVOL

10. Sonic Youth, EVOL

Jittery and eclectic, 1987’s EVOL stands far apart from the later, more cohesive Daydream Nation; it’s a difficult album that’s nonetheless one of the best latter-day invocations of no-wave chaos. Full of sustained bursts of cathartic noise, the album kicks off with the jagged squeal of “In the Kingdom #19,” which employs Minuteman bassist Mike Watt over a spoken-word account of a car crash, months after the death of bandmate D. Boon in similar circumstances. Lydia Lunch contributes vocals to the blown-out wasteland “Marilyn Moore,” adding to the weird collegial air of one of the group’s strangest albums. Jesse Cataldo



Skylarking

9. XTC, Skylarking

The story behind the recording of XTC’s Skylarking is that the band absolutely hated working with producer Todd Rundgren, whom they found overbearing and snide, but none of that behind-the-scenes tension translated into the finished product, as joyous and buoyant a pop album as has ever been recorded. The songwriting is balanced between Andy Partidge’s more twee impulses and Colin Moulding’s grounded, dry wit, while Rundgren’s on-point production splits the difference between the band’s Pet Sounds inspiration and new wave’s bounce. Even when the band explores headier themes, such as the working-class disaffect on standout “Earn Enough for Us” and the potent defense of atheism on minor-hit single “Dear God,” their melodies are outsized and sunny. Skylarking might not have been fun to record, but it’s still a blast to listen to. Jonathan Keefe



Raising Hell

8. Run-DMC, Raising Hell

It wasn’t the album that made hip-hop “safe” to white, middle American audiences (that didn’t come along until M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em), but Run-D.M.C.’s landmark Raising Hell was the album that truly gave a broader pop audience an entry point into hip-hop music. That Run-D.M.C. were able to break through on such a massive scale without sacrificing their aggressive sampling of harder-edged rock music or their inimitable lyrical flow speaks to the skill, unrivaled at the time, that they displayed on Raising Hell. Thanks to producers Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, the fans who were initially hooked by the group’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” discovered the depth of sound, purposeful use of samples, and razor-sharp wordplay that made the mid-’80s rap music’s golden age. Keefe



True Blue

7. Madonna, True Blue

Sure, some of the production choices on True Blue sound chintzy and dated in comparison to those on Madonna’s other ‘80s releases, but there’s no getting around the fact that five of the album’s nine tracks are among the strongest individual singles of her career. More importantly, though, True Blue was the album on which it became readily apparent that Madonna was more than just a flash-in-the-pan pop star. It’s when she began manipulating her image—and her audience—with a real sense of clarity and purpose and made sure she had quality songs to back up her world-dominating ambition. Keefe



Lifes Rich Pageant

6. R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant

In which the college (rock) kids graduate and head into the real world, ready to take over. And, in R.E.M.’s case, they came pretty close to doing just that. Lifes Rich Pageant stands as a nearly seamless transition between the band’s formative period and their commercial dominance. The ragged, frenetic energy of R.E.M.’s early work is captured on “Just a Touch” and “These Days,” while “Fall On Me” and their cover of the Clique’s “Superman” showcase a newfound emphasis on pop hooks. In striking that balance, Lifes Rich Pageant is a template for how the “alternative” music the band was largely responsible for originating would, less than a decade later, become the dominant narrative in the music industry. Keefe

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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.

3

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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.

4.5

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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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