Drive-By Truckers’s American Band was released a month before the 2016 presidential election—seemingly an eternity ago both in terms of the political landscape and the time between albums for the typically prolific band. American Band was supposed to be their final word on all that, but according to Patterson Hood’s notes for their 12th studio effort, The Unraveling, “writing silly love songs just seemed the height of privilege.”
This is a dark, uncompromising album about such topics as gun violence, white nationalism, the opioid crisis, and putting children in cages. But despite similar subject matter, it isn’t a sequel to American Band. Never mind that there are no individual tracks quite as immediate as “Surrender Under Protest” or “Guns of Umpqua.” But whereas the previous album was composed largely of the narrative history lessons that have been the Truckers’s stock in trade for over 20 years, The Unraveling is constructed on the premise that the personal is political.
Hood frames multiple songs around either trying to explain daily horrors to his two young kids, or hoping they will one day make things better. “When my children’s eyes look at me and they ask me to explain/It hurts me that I have to look away,” he sings on “Thoughts and Prayers,” a plainspoken accounting of the onslaught of gun violence in America. He repeats the sentiment on the pointedly titled “Babies in Cages”: “I’m sorry to my children/I’m sorry what they see/I’m sorry for the world that they’ll inherit from me.” All Hood can do in “21st Century USA” is “hope and pray that they can conjure up a better day.”
This is heavy stuff, with only the wishful catharsis of the soaring “Thoughts and Prayers” offering much respite. Other flashes of optimism are fleeting: Lead single “Armageddon’s Back in Town” is an uptempo travelogue with a blazoning classic rock riff, but Hood sings about broken-down buses, standing in the rain, and his “responsibility for the darkness and the pain.” It’s not until the song’s frenzied instrumental coda—a thrilling showcase for the band’s usually unassuming drummer, Brad Morgan—that the adrenaline really kicks in.
Mike Cooley, a sort of redneck Confucius who seems to never run out of sardonic one-liners, only wrote two songs here, and one of them, “Grievance Merchants”—a trenchant breakdown of the alt-right pipeline—is one of the most lyrically serious-minded, musically dramatic songs he’s ever written. Delivered in Cooley’s uniquely conversational style, it’s an arresting effort; hearing him sound so scared out of his wits that he can’t even muster a single quip is genuinely chilling. His other contribution, “Slow Ride Argument,” is much more fun, with its overlapping vocal hooks and cheeky advice for cooling down after a heated debate, political or otherwise by, basically, going for a drive, possibly after downing a couple of tall boy beers (“not one, not three,” Cooley advises). A driving, minor-key rocker that stylistically lands somewhere between Blue Oyster Cult and early R.E.M., it’s yet more evidence that Drive-By Truckers transcend the Southern rock label they inexplicably still get pigeonholed into.
Where The Unraveling really distances itself from its predecessor, and all of the band’s prior work, is its sonic complexity. Former Sugar bassist David Barbe has produced every Drive-by Truckers album since 2001, and to his credit, not one of them sounds alike. But armed with the vintage analog toys at his disposal, and accompanied by engineer Matt Ross-Spang, Barbe has helped the band craft its first true piece of sonic art. A wisp of a song like “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun” is transformed into something captivating by the sheer depth of the mix: the subtle tremolo guitar accents, the snaky violin/viola accompaniment, the delicate mingling of Hood’s vocal and the natural reverb off the piano. From reliable tricks (old school slapback on Cooley’s vocals) to new ones (running a washboard through a guitar amp, wah pedal, and delay to add an otherworldly effect to “Babies in Cages”), there’s no shortage of ear candy here.
The album ends with the eight-minute-plus “Awaiting Resurrection,” which, with its unrelenting bleakness and all the air between Morgan’s minimalist drums and Hood and Cooley’s cobweb-like guitars, is the closest the band has ever come to post-rock. “I hold my family close/Trying to find the balance/Between the bad shit going down/And the beauty that this life can keep injecting,” Hood intones in a ghostly growl, returning once again to the same theme of many of the preceding songs. Hood and Cooley dwell more on the bad shit than the beauty throughout The Unraveling. It’s perhaps their most confrontational, challenging effort to date, an intricate work that’s more a reflection of than an antidote to the darkness.
Label: ATO Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Miley Cyrus’s Plastic Hearts Is an Obvious but Unapologetic Genre Exercise
The album uses its glam-rock aspirations to underscore another blast of ne’er-do-well energy from the singer.3
Miley Cyrus’s preoccupation with trying on different personas and exploring new musical subcultures continues on her seventh album, the arena rock-influenced Plastic Hearts. At first, Cyrus’s latest genre exercise feels stiff, with obvious quotations like the iconic bongo drums and yelps from “Sympathy for the Devil” on the title track and nods to Bruce Springsteen on lead single “Midnight Sky.” But even as it feels sometimes strained, Plastic Hearts succeeds on the resilience of Cyrus’s skills as a vocalist.
Through Cyrus’s flirtations with country, pop, hip-hop, and psych-rock, the singer’s husky mezzo-soprano has anchored even her soppiest and most tepid of pastiches, but she falls prey to a number of unnecessary affectations here. The Pink-style opener “WTF Do I Know” introduces a forced yelp that thankfully only takes the lead in a handful of places on the rest of Plastic Hearts. Several tracks, including “Night Crawling,” curiously bury her vocals, which should be a driving force. On spirited midtempo numbers “Angels Like You” and “Hate Me,” however, she convincingly inhabits a Dylan-esque reptilian croak, and both “High” and “Never Be Me” provide unfussy platforms for her to belt.
With its canned guitar solos and production that mixes melancholy with menace, Plastic Hearts uses its glam-rock aspirations to underscore another blast of ne’er-do-well energy from Cyrus. “I’ve always picked a giver ‘cuz I’ve always been the taker,” she growls alongside guest Joan Jett on “Bad Karma,” and implores a seeming stranger to “just give me what I want or I’ll give it to myself” on “Give Me What I Want.” It’s not the first time she’s asserted her status as a boundaries-averse badass, and she pulls it off well, as evidenced by the playful moans of satisfaction that punctuate the ends of the verses on “Bad Karma.”
Cyrus makes hay of her recklessness on the album’s slower songs, like “Angels Like You” and “Never Be Me,” on which she movingly welcomes self-acceptance and acknowledgement of the parts of herself that won’t change. “Angels like you can’t fly down here with me,” she sings on the former, positioning her narrator as the incorrigibly compromised soul to a former partner’s saintliness, and the wide-open country arrangement invites Cyrus to sing with aplomb.
Would that the album’s musical choices didn’t insist on themselves quite so much. Cyrus’s habit of enlisting high-profile artists from the upper echelon of a given genre continues here with appearances by Jett, Billy Idol, and Stevie Nicks, who all adequately do their thing. As usual, though, Cyrus is most indelible when her own voice takes center stage and the music mingles with and amplifies her messages of self-empowerment and emotional culpability. If nothing else, Plastic Hearts gives her license to unapologetically rock out.
Label: RCA Release Date: November 27, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Smashing Pumpkins’s Sprawling CYR Is Marred by Unchecked Ambition
The album vastly improves on its stagnant predecessor, but its 20-song tracklist is invariably bloated.3
On the heels of the 25th anniversary of their seminal Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins offer up another ambitious album, CYR, crafted with the dystopian nature of the 21st century in mind. Founding members James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlain reassume their positions on guitar and drums, respectively, as Billy Corgan unburdens his anxieties with the modern age’s spiritual drought. In a decisive pivot away from their signature aesthetic, the Pumpkins forgo massive multi-tracked guitar walls for synth experiments that flirt with darkwave. But while CYR vastly improves on its stagnant predecessor, Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun., the album’s 20-song tracklist is invariably bloated, a symptom of Corgan’s unchecked ambition.
Though the Pumpkins have periodically incorporated synths into their music since 1998’s Adore, CYR marks the first time they serve as the center of the band’s sonic universe. On “Save Your Tears,” latticed synth arpeggios replicate the overpowering sensation of layered guitar harmonies while maintaining the impossible lightness that the Pumpkins impart through distorted sound. Chamberlin’s propulsive kick drum backs a M83-esque synth patch on “Adrennalynne,” a pandemic-era paean to the thrill of performing that finds Corgan basking in the adoration of a crowd. Though typically relegated to second fiddle elsewhere on the album, a devilish guitar lick offsets the softer synth work on the darkly alluring “Wyttch.”
Throughout, Corgan’s foreboding images of the occult conjure a hazily apocalyptic portrait of the world. In the album’s accompanying five-part animated series, In Ashes, three cyberpunk friends challenge the proverbial Man, a cloaked figure who forces the trio to sing and dance along with the masses. On “CYR,” Corgan is defiant (“Stare down your masters”), but elsewhere his messaging is more murky and hopeless, as on “Haunted”: “If this be life, our evening’s prayer/Or death’s denouement…Then father, I’m nowhere/I’m no closer to your throne.” He refrains from providing answers for his vague warnings and calls to action, resulting in labyrinthine lyrics that ultimately lead to narrative dead ends.
By the album’s midpoint, the songs become more sluggish and their elements increasingly familiar: drum-and-bass interplay that teeters on sinister and seductive; pillowy female vocals, courtesy of Katie Cole and Sierra Swan, to back Corgan’s ageless whine; and those brooding analog ‘80s synths. As a result, CYR’s last stretch of songs predictably bleed into one another. “The Hidden Sun” and “Schaudenfraude,” for instance, echo each other with booming refrains that are more reminiscent of Simple Minds than Joy Division.
CYR is a sequel to Shiny and Oh So Bright, and Corgan has teased a separate 33-song rock opera to serve as a follow-up to Melon Collie and the Machina series. The singer’s m.o. has long been to cram each project with every creative idea he has—an approach that, though effective during the Pumpkins’s heyday, now largely results in diminishing returns. It would be time better spent fleshing out songs that are too often merely shadows of ideas.
Label: Sumerian Release Date: November 27, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: BTS’s Be Vies for Simplicity but Proves Too Insular
The album trades overstimulating spectacle for low-key introspection, but it’s therapeutic as a cup of tea.3
K-pop boy band BTS’s fifth album, Be, represents a departure from their ostentatious, globalized blend of pop, trap, disco, and funk. Unlike on their previous efforts, which made cryptic, needlessly extensive allusions to Herman Hesse and Carl Jung, the group trims the psychoanalytic fat and adopts a message that’s quite universal: 2020 has categorically sucked. As its title may suggest, Be vies for simplicity, even lucidity, during these chaotic times, trading in overstimulating spectacle for low-key introspection.
The album’s ruminative lead single, “Life Goes On,” dresses the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic’s seemingly world-stopping force and the group’s hopes for the future in acoustic guitar-based alt-hip-hop that nods to South Korean staples Verbal Jint and Geeks. After the aural adrenaline rushes of last year’s “Boy with Luv” and “Idol,” this stripping back feels palate-cleansing and brings to mind pre-“DNA” BTS’s understated hip-hop explorations like “Just One Day.” Still, the Covid-centered “Life Goes On” is as therapeutic as a cup of tea.
For better or worse, Be’s sights are trained on BTS fans, meaning the album is too insular for broader appeal. The music video for “Life Goes On” captures the pajama-clad, quarantined Bangtan Boys lounging in bed, before transitioning to the seven members singing in an empty arena, with light sticks occupying the seats where the audience should be. It’s a gesture fans will appreciate (BTS canceled their 2020 world tour, and light sticks are a requisite K-pop concert accessory), but artists risk diluting their impact when they rely too heavily on fan service, especially if a song’s hook fails to completely stick, as it does on “Life Goes On.”
Following the pretty balladry of “Blue & Grey,” a skit discloses BTS’s reaction to scoring their first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper with “Dynamite” in August. You can sense the group’s surprise and excitement in their impassioned words—the sort of behind-the-scenes transparency that earned them their diehard fanbase. At odds with the immaculate artificiality engrained in K-pop idols from years in the trainee system, BTS’s candor when it comes to their struggles with depression, anxiety, and imposter syndrome is partly responsible for their international appeal. But whereas fans will relish the thrill of this intimate moment, for the casual listener, the skit is a skippable intermission before the album’s short-lived final stretch.
These last songs play out like a testament to the K-pop industry’s love affair with pastiche. Informed by the musical cornucopia extended by the internet age and globalization, K-pop songwriters survey the earworms of the past and present, mixing and matching trends to arrive at sui generis soundscapes that don’t belong to a single time or place. The Bruno Mars-inspired “Telepathy” and the sedate, distinctly early-2010s-era club-pop of “Stay” don’t leave lasting impressions, but the hip-hop-infused “Dis-ease” is a fine offering to this eccentric canon. The song unfolds with spare jazz guitar, before launching into a chopped-n’-screwed drum breakdown and culminating with grandiose trumpets.
“Dynamite,” the album’s bubbly nü-disco coda, is BTS’s first English-language song, now well-known from steady radio play and the group’s stateside TV performances of the song. In spite of their immense fanbase and record-breaking streaming numbers, BTS’s prior Korean-language singles have received scant airplay in the U.S., so the success of “Dynamite” raises the question: If the group wishes to continue topping American charts—or getting Grammy nods—will they have to make the leap to English-language releases? BTS may follow in the footsteps of international artists with English-language crossover appeal like Shakira or Enrique Iglesias, but slight, self-referential releases like the pleasantly lukewarm Be won’t be enough for them to maintain a lasting foothold stateside or outside of their devoted fanbase.
Label: Big Hit Release Date: November 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: With Good News, Megan Thee Stallion Boldly Authors Her Own Narrative
The album is a heavy-hitting rejoinder that rearticulates the headlines of a year fraught by global and personal trauma.3.5
From the petty gatekeeping of anime bros to the dismissive remarks that she only raps about sex, the vitriol leveled against Megan Thee Stallion since her recent rise to fame has been relentless, exposing the minefield of double standards that female rappers are forced to navigate. And that animus reached a nadir of some kind when rapper Torey Lanez shot Megan in the foot last July—an incident of domestic violence that was met with accusations of Meg having lied and snitched. She sets the record straight on Good News, a high-octane, heavy-hitting rejoinder that rearticulates the headlines of a year fraught by global and personal trauma for the Houston rapper.
Megan wastes no time going for the jugular on the album’s opening track, “Shots Fired.” Over a sample of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya?,” she skewers Lanez for offering witnesses hush money about the shooting. Her use of the famous Biggie track turns a hip-hop script on its head: Whereas the late rap icon reveled in the aggression of pulling the trigger, Megan imbues defiance and dignity to her role as victim, proving that her morale is bulletproof and vowing not to take the higher ground next time. “Kick me while I’m down bad, I remember all that/Next nigga send a shot, I’ma send it right back,” she warns.
Megan underpins her attack with commentary on the violence perpetrated against black women and the way hip-hop and the justice system condone that violence: “Now here we are, 2020, eight months later/And we still ain’t got no fuckin’ justice for Breonna Taylor.” Here the diss track merges into a condemnation of the deep-seated prejudice and violence that black women face on all fronts, from white supremacy, systemic racism, and black men.
Once the smoke clears from “Shots Fired,” Megan posits the album’s thesis: that sex is power just as much as it is a source of pleasure. Within her framework, sexual prowess is the means of production and intercourse more often than not zeroes out to economic influence over a man. But Megan doesn’t break a sweat over earning her own coin, as she puts it on “Movie”: “I’m a boss, I could buy the same thing my man bought.” She isn’t flexing about getting money from men, but about the thrill of having that power over them.
To describe these sorts of obsequious men, she introduces a new archetype to her cast of characters: the crybaby, a needy, would-be suitor who’ll get in his feelings over a read receipt and still dish out cash after. “Invest in this pussy, boy, support black business,” Meg snarls on “Sugar Baby,” before firing witty, withering one-liners like “He said, ‘Let’s make a movie,’ and nutted so quick, we made a story.” Megan subverts the misogynistic lyrics of Southern rap giants like Three 6 Mafia and UGK, aiming their objectifying language at men and venerating herself as is the gloriously self-aggrandizing custom of hip-hop.
Still, one would be remiss to make Good News out to be some grand consciously feminist manifesto. To emasculate men, Meg often likens them to women, reinforcing stereotypes and gender roles that belittle women in the process. Her Spotify Storyline annotation for “Sugar Baby” outright declares, “The worst type of man is one that’s emotional like a woman.” She encounters a conundrum other female rappers have tripped over time and time again: While subverting the baked-in misogyny of hip-hop, how do you avoid perpetuating the harmful beliefs that keep women down? What’s more, how do you fully participate in a tradition that denigrates you without channeling that subjugation back on yourself and other women?
The solution to this complicated caveat is out there, but it’s unfair to thrust the responsibility solely on Megan’s shoulders, given that she’s never postured at being a mouthpiece for the disparate, far-flung movement that is contemporary feminism. From day one, she’s made clear that she makes music for women to feel like bad bitches. To that end, she masterfully succeeds with enthrallingly nasty anthems like “Body” and the SZA-assisted “Freaky Girls.”
The latter entries of the album consist of a mixed bag of sensual, more melodic cuts. On the lewd dancehall escapade “Intercourse,” Megan effortlessly falls in step with guest Popcaan, remaining grounded in the Dirty South (“Treat my body like some oxtails, lick your fingers”) and proffering some particularly pearl-clutching innuendos (“Let you put your hook in my bumper like a repo”). On “Work That,” which lifts the hook from Juvenile’s “Rodeo,” Megan’s rap-singing radiates sweetness and Southern twang. But her heavily Auto-Tuned vocals on “Don’t Rock Me to Sleep” come off as rudimentary, the track’s sing-song refrain like something out of a nursery rhyme—“Blah, blah, blah, la-la-la/If you wanna leave, then bye, bye, bye”—and its saccharine synth-pop strays too far from her riveting club-ready beats.
But while Megan is still figuring herself out stylistically, she’s undeniably in touch with herself. Throughout Good News, Megan doesn’t spend all that much time referencing her beloved alter egos: the pimp persona of Tina Snow, the lustful Hot Girl, and the relatable Suga. Rather, she coalesces qualities of each in her lyricism and delivery, suggesting that the mask is off and she’s being wholly, 100% herself. She’s a bundle of apparent contradictions throughout: an advocate for black women and a sex-positive vamp, a college student and a chart-topping rapper. Sadly, women in hip-hop are subject to small-minded efforts that would limit and categorize them as either serious MCs or “strippers turned rappers.” With Good News, Megan says to hell with all the scrutiny and authors her own narrative.
Label: 300 Entertainment Release Date: November 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Dirty Projectors’s 5EPs Highlights the Band’s Strengths as a Collective
The collection is a satisfying showcase for the group’s range while making plain their core appeal with refreshing directness.3.5
Dirty Projectors’s latest project is a series of EPs that have been released over the course of 2020, now bundled together as an anthology, 5EPs. Fittingly, given the band’s fondness for arpeggios, the collection breaks down their considerable breadth of genre variations into separate parts, providing a satisfying showcase for the group’s range while also making plain their core appeal with refreshing directness.
The EPs Windows Open and Super João deal in straightforward folk, while Earth Crisis winds through solemn art rock and Ring Road, the culminating chapter, embraces Dirty Projectors’s most popular register as progenitors of Talking Heads’s brand of post-punk and funk. Most excitingly, Flight Tower employs hip-hop-influenced instrumentation, from the emphatic metronomic thump of “Empty Vessel” to the jangling low-end bass redolent of ‘90s acts like Mobb Deep and A Tribe Called Quest on “Self Design.”
With a couple exceptions, the songs across all five chapters are pared-down distillations of the band’s best ideas. This choice also connects to the lyrical content, which has a feeling throughout of wanting to get to the point of life’s meaning even as it questions if one will ever truly figure it all out. In doing so, the lyrics focus on roads and journeys, often physicalizing emotional and existential processes. On “Search for Life,” Maia Friedman sings, “She goes to other heights/She wades dunes, sands, and lime/In search for life.” On “Self Design,” there appears to be a clarity reached, but then Felicia Douglass’s narrator doubles back in self-doubt: “What once was a mystery’s visible/I finally feel I can see…closer, closer I come…burrowed into the endless night/And I’ll never find.” Past Dirty Projectors albums, especially 2009’s Bitte Orca and 2018’s Lamp Lit Prose were built upon ascensions to ecstatic epiphanies, and these songs feel simultaneously closer than ever to reaching such breakthroughs while also intelligently, movingly deflating such an idea in the first place.
“Switch up the perspective,” Douglass declares on one of the anthology’s standout tracks, “Lose Your Love,” a telling moment because this project is the most egalitarian in terms of vocals that the band has released to date. Frontman Dave Longstreth, who produced each song and has been the one consistent member across the group’s different permutations over the years, doesn’t sing on three of the five EPs, lending his tremulous falsetto only to Super João and Ring Road. Instead, Douglass, Friedman, and Kristin Slipp are handed the reins for the other three installments. It’s a move that parallels the National’s decentering of Matt Berninger on their 2019 album I Am Easy to Find to make space for several guest vocalists. The approach mostly works on 5EPs, and Slipp in particular is allowed to shine, though there’s a perhaps not coincidental similarity between the trio’s vocals and the honey-like choral gushing of former band members Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian.
5EPs feels like the output of a true collective, borne out by group hallmarks like handclaps, vocal harmonies, indelible combinations of violin and hand-plucked acoustic guitar on songs like “Overlord,” and new touches like interlocking drums and clarinet, each cleverly modulated in speed, on “Bird’s Eye.” There are also candid explorations of relationships that make room for the push and pull of opposing viewpoints: “I wanna eat all the ice cream/I don’t wanna go to bed/let’s stay up late, watch a movie/Or catch up on Billions instead,” Longstreth pleads on “Porque No,” to which one of the other bandmates counters a repeated “Wanna save the rest for later?” Taken together, the EPs function as a grab bag of Dirty Projectors’s collaborative strengths and interests, affirming their indie bona fides in a new form.
Label: Domino Release Date: November 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Billie Eilish Playfully Torches Her Detractors on New Single “Therefore I Am”
The singer employs a conversational tone throughout the song to punctuate her ambivalence.
Pop phenom Billie Eilish’s new single, “Therefore I Am,” is a stark contrast to her two previous releases, February’s dour “No Time to Die” and July’s surprisingly spry “My Future.” Sonically, the new track can be more directly traced to Eilish’s breakthrough “Bad Guy,” with its plodding kick drum and disaffected vocal performance.
“Stop. What the hell are you talkin’ about?/Fuck. Get my pretty name outta your mouth,” Eilish sneers at detractors, opportunists, and the media. She effortlessly slips in and out of her trademark sing-rapping and angelic, distorted harmonies, employing a conversational tone to punctuate her ambivalence: “Did you have fun?/I really couldn’t care less.” A playful synth hook repeats throughout, suggesting it’s not all that serious.
Directed by Eilish, the music video for “Therefore I Am” finds the singer playing a pandemic-era mall rat, prancing around a deserted shopping center while dressed in shorts, a chunky sweater, and high-tops, helping herself to soft pretzels and lemonade before being ejected by a security guard.
Review: Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over Is a Heartfelt, If Derivative, Album
The album’s unvarnished style generally works, but there’s nowhere to hide when the singer drifts into the saccharine.3
Dave Cobb has become one of Nashville’s most influential tastemakers, with more and more artists favoring his rootsy production style. This is due in large part to the wild success of Chris Stapleton’s 2015 debut, Traveller, which Cobb co-produced. Stapleton is the most commercially palatable of Cobb’s regular collaborators, and while there’s no aspect of the Kentucky crooner’s work that’s especially challenging, his powerful, indelibly soulful rasp can make even the most shopworn turns of phrase sound like emotional revelation.
The singer’s fourth album, Starting Over, plays to the strengths of both Stapleton and Cobb. The stripped-down, unfussy arrangements place the focus squarely where it should be—on the raw beauty of Stapleton’s voice—and keeps his retro-revivalist tendencies somewhat in check. The opening title track is a lilting acoustic shuffle that locates the same bittersweet, golden-hour magic as Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers,” underscored by the presence of the Heartbreakers’s Benmont Tench on Hammond B-3 organ. The album’s most plaintive tracks, like “You Should Probably Leave” and the brooding “Hillbilly Blood,” similarly stand out as highlights here.
While that unvarnished style generally works, though, it also means there’s nowhere to hide when Stapleton drifts into the saccharine, as he does on “Maggie’s Song,” a eulogy for a beloved pup, and a cover of John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life.” The presence of the singer’s wife, Morgane Stapleton, who coos honey-sweet harmonies on many of the songs here, at least confirms the authenticity of his sentimentality, even as his lyrics frequently succumb to cliché: “And I can be your lucky penny/You can be my four-leaf clover,” he sings on “Starting Over.”
The album balances these syrupy moments with a batch of harder-edged tracks that showcase Stapleton’s biting electric guitar riffing but don’t do much to elevate his lyrics. Predictably, he just shifts his focus from love and tenderness to mild hedonism. Indeed, for Stapleton, the devil is real, but it seems his evil works are largely limited to making folks go a bit too hard at the bar every now and then. Except, that is, on “Watch You Burn,” wherein Satan can be found roasting Stephen Paddock, the shooter who slaughtered 60 concertgoers in Las Vegas in 2017. Co-written with and featuring guitar by another legendary Tom Petty sideman, Mike Campbell, “Watch You Burn” is the album’s only remotely topical song, and while Stapleton’s invective may not be especially piercing, the howling anger in his voice is undeniable.
The track’s call-and-response gospel choir and familiar bluesy melody highlights how one of Starting Over’s strengths is also one of its limitations. Namely that Stapleton and his touring band’s effortlessly authentic conjuring of retro styles renders even the album’s best tunes clearly derivative. Stapleton is content to bellow out a bunch of banal woman-done-me-wrong lines on the mawkish “Cold,” amid a preponderance of obvious Philly-soul tropes. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a second Campbell guitar duel, “Arkansas,” a full-on boogie-down Skynyrdian Southern rock song that crackles with energy. Equally effective is “When I’m with You,” which is reminiscent of Waylon Jennings’s “Amanda,” another wistful ballad about taking comfort in a steadfast partner while approaching middle age with trepidation. “But when I’m with you/I feel like a dreamer that’s had all his dreams come true,” Stapleton drawls. It ain’t poetry, or very original, but it’s nothing if not genuine.
Label: Mercury Nashville Release Date: November 13, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Every Kylie Minogue Album Ranked
To celebrate the release of Disco, we’ve ranked all 14 of the Aussie pop singer’s albums.
In the three decades since Kylie Minogue’s debut, the Australian soap actress turned international pop star has released 15 albums and racked up an impressive 34 Top 10 hits in the U.K., though her career trajectory wasn’t always assured. After her initial breakout success on both sides of the Atlantic, with a cover of Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” Minogue struggled to maintain interest among U.S. audiences. By the mid-1990s, she was eager to shake off her bubblegum-pop image, collaborating with the likes of Nick Cave and Towa Tei, and taking more creative control with the experimental Impossible Princess. The album flopped, but a turn-of-the-century renaissance found the singer embracing her dance-pop roots and cementing her status as a gay icon.
After a brief foray into country music with 2018’s Golden, Minogue makes a triumph, perhaps preordained, return to the dance floor with the pointedly titled Disco. To celebrate, we’ve ranked all 14 of the artist’s non-holiday albums.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on April 5, 2018.
14. Kylie (1988)
Then famous in her native Australia as Charlene in the soap opera Neighbours, Minogue became an unlikely pop star when her cover of the 1962 hit “The Loco-Motion” became an unexpected international smash. The 19-year-old was plopped onto English production trio Stock Aitken Waterman’s assembly line, where it sounds like she was forced to suck down a lungful of helium and sing along to their patented house blend of hi-NRG beats, Italo-disco synths, and Motown melodies. The resulting album, Kylie, is as lightweight and unsatisfying as cotton candy—and goes down just as easy.
13. Enjoy Yourself (1989)
There isn’t a whole lot to differentiate Minogue’s sophomore effort from its predecessor, right down to the oversized hat on the album’s cover. Released just over a year after the singer’s debut, Enjoy Yourself repeats the first album’s sonic template almost verbatim, including a cover of a classic pop song (in this case, the 1958 doo-wop hit “Tears on My Pillow”). Slight but much-welcomed diversions include the string-laden torch song “Tell Tale Signs” and the baroque-pop “My Secret Heart.” Notably, Minogue would later transform the album’s tonally incongruent lead single, “Hand on Your Heart,” into a poignant acoustic ballad on 2012’s The Abbey Road Sessions.
12. Let’s Get to It (1991)
On her final album for PWL Records, Minogue continued to peel herself away from the SAW hit factory that helped make her a star. New jack swing, hip-hop, and house are more prominently featured, though none particularly successfully. Produced by the first and last thirds of Stock Aitken Waterman, tracks like “Word Is Out,” “Too Much of a Good Thing,” and “I Guess I Like It Like That” feel like inferior facsimiles of the distinctly American sound being created by the likes of Clivillés and Cole, Jam and Lewis, Full Force, and others.
11. Kiss Me Once (2014)
Minogue’s first album not to spawn a U.K. Top 10 hit since 1997’s Impossible Princess, Kiss Me Once lacks a distinct sonic point of view, incorporating pop-rock, disco, dubstep, and R&B in equal measure. If there’s an overarching theme to the album, it’s sex and its various consequences: Minogue fantasizes about it on “Sexy Love,” she sweats about it on “Sexercize,” she struggles to define it on “Les Sex.” The sleek bonus track “Sleeping with the Enemy” seems to pay homage to Massive Attack’s sublime “Unfinished Sympathy,” while the Pharrell-produced “I Was Gonna Cancel” makes one wonder what an entire Kylie album of disco-funk might have sounded like. As it stands, Kiss Me Once is the most scattershot of Minogue’s latter-day efforts.
10. Rhythm of Love (1990)
From the disco-infused “Step Back in Time” to the techno-pop “Shocked,” the potency of Rhythm of Love’s singles alone makes it the strongest of Minogue’s PWL albums. With “Better the Devil You Know,” the singer had begun to shed her girl-next-door image, but the album also saw producers Stock Aitken Waterman developing their signature sound, which, by the end of the ‘80s, had reached peak saturation on both sides of the pond. The addition of outside producers, including frequent Madonna collaborator Stephen Bray, further expanded Minogue’s repertoire to include new jack swing and hip-hop, putting the artist somewhere near, if not in, the same league as her female chart rivals for the first time.
9. Kylie Minogue (1994)
After churning out four albums in as many years with Stock Aitken Waterman, Minogue parted ways with the production team’s label in 1993 and signed with Deconstruction Records. The pop star’s first album with the label resulted in a creative rebirth that’s reflected in the eponymous album’s title and embrace of club music. (Perhaps emulating classic 12” house records, a handful of songs—“Where Is the Feeling,” “Where Has the Love Gone,” and “Falling”—all run about two minutes too long.) But Kylie Minogue’s biggest surprise is its midtempo material. Minogue doesn’t have the vocal prowess to carry some of these songs—“Surrender” is a less sultry rendition of a song recorded by Tia Carrere a year earlier—but she admirably pushes her voice to its limits on the string-laden “Dangerous Game” and “Automatic Love.” The cautionary “Confide in Me,” with its hypnotic hook, Middle Eastern strings, and ominous guitar riff, calls for a sensual and understated performance—and Minogue delivers.
8. Golden (2018)
The Nashville-inspired Golden, whose title commemorates Minogue’s impending 50th birthday, is the singer’s most personal album since Impossible Princess. Both her anxiety about and joyful resistance to her mortality is apparent in songs like “Dancing,” “Live a Little,” and the title track. “Sincerely Yours” is a “love letter” most likely directed at tour audiences—“This is not the end, I’ll come back again/You’ll still see me, you’ll still hear me”—but it’s hard not to imagine Minogue singing it as penance to fans eagerly awaiting her return to dance music. While country signifiers abound, from foot-stomping to fiddling, the songs on Golden also smartly juxtapose contemporary pop elements like soaring synth hooks and pitched-up vocals. If nothing else, Golden further bolsters Minogue’s reputation for taking risks—and artfully sets the stage for her inevitable disco comeback.
Review: Kylie Minogue’s Disco Is a Sugar Rush Worth the Hangover
The Aussie pop singer’s 15th album is content to bask unapologetically in nostalgia.3.5
In my review of Kylie Minogue’s 2018 album Golden, I not-so-boldly predicted that the country-influenced set would set the stage for the Aussie pop singer’s inevitable disco comeback. It wouldn’t be the first time she pirouetted away from the dance floor only to make a triumphant return to it. In fact, Minogue seems to have made a decennial tradition of it, having previously re-embraced dance music on 2000’s Light Years and 2010’s Aphrodite.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Minogue’s follow-up to Golden is titled Disco. In a way, such genre-targeted albums free her from opting into current pop trends—though, it should be noted, 2020 has already seen its share of disco revivalism. But if Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? represent a deep dive into the admittedly diverse genre, Disco is content to mine its more superficial virtues.
The first song released from Disco, “Say Something,” made for a deceptive introduction to the album: A midtempo synth-pop sleeper in the vein of past lead singles “All the Lovers” and “Into the Blue,” the track, with its wobbly bassline and funk guitar licks, works better as a momentary respite among Disco’s otherwise frenetic middle stretch. Dance anthems like the bass-driven “Supernova” and the unrelentingly catchy “Last Chance” are Minogue’s most unabashedly aggressive in years.
Nothing here reaches the high camp of Minogue’s 2001 single “Your Disco Needs You,” but the infectious “Monday Blues,” which boasts intertwining strands of disco DNA from both Chic and Kool & the Gang, makes a valiant attempt. Occasionally, Disco ventures into parody, with on-the-nose references to Studio 54, “I Will Survive,” and Earth, Wind & Fire, among others, scattered throughout. But while the album might be a purely derivative work, its period arrangements—all sweeping disco strings, Nile Rodgers-esque guitar licks, and indiscriminately deployed cowbell—are executed with aplomb.
Disco’s opening track, “Magic,” sweetens its mix of squelchy bass synth and staccato horn stabs with just a dollop of schmaltz: “Do ya, do ya, do ya/Do ya believe in magic?” The album’s lyrics are generic and vaguely uplifting enough to project onto any personal or global disaster: “Oh, we all got wanderlust in the darkest place,” Minogue sings on “Say Something.” Vocally, her voice sounds tinny throughout, a mixing deficiency that similarly plagued her last few albums, but the singer effortlessly slips into her head voice on “Magic,” heightening the song’s buoyancy, while talk-box effects and digital editing add some sonic interest to “Real Groove” and “Dance Floor Darling.”
Minogue has made a version of this album before. The filter disco of “Miss a Thing” and “I Love It,” co-written and co-produced by longtime collaborator Richard “Biff” Stannard, would fit comfortably on 2000’s Light Years or 2001’s Fever. For better or worse, though, Disco doesn’t attempt to adapt the classic titular sound in a contemporary context like those albums did, instead content to bask in unapologetic homage. In the end, it’s a sugar rush worth the hangover.
Label: Darenote Release Date: November 6, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Ariana Grande’s Positions Too Often Defaults to a Familiar Pose
It might be time for pop’s reigning vocal acrobat to more fully commit to some new positions.3
If Ariana Grande’s Sweetener found the singer exorcising her trauma through music, and Thank U, Next was a bolt of inspiration she couldn’t wait to share with the world, her follow-up, Positions, feels more like an obligation or a product of pandemic fatigue. On the opening track, “Shut Up,” Grande admits that “All the demons help me see shit differently,” but Positions has less to say about the realities of life in 2020 than other albums written and recorded during Covid-19, such as Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now.
Sex is, notably, a recurring theme on Positions. “Just give me them babies,” Grande quips on “34+35,” while “Nasty” sounds like a Janet Jackson sex jam as sung by Mariah Carey—that is, a lot of empty pillow talk and plentiful dog whistles. Grande is known for her witty turns of phrase, and there’s no shortage throughout Positions, the title of which is itself a cheeky double entendre. But clever lines like “Are you down like six thirty?” are too often wasted on wan, repetitive hooks.
“Shut Up” finds Grande venturing into chamber pop, her cascading vocal lines propped up by plucky strings and orchestral flourishes, but the song sputters out soon after it reaches its swirling, cinematic climax. Similarly, the full-bodied “My Hair” nudges Grande into neo-soul terrain only to quickly fade out. The songs are almost all exceedingly brief and seemingly half-realized, including the two-minute “West Side,” which barely registers as a song at all. The sole exception is “Off the Table,” which stretches out to four whole minutes thanks to its molasses-slow pace.
Given the dearth of uptempo tracks on Grande’s last album, the microhouse “Motive,” featuring Doja Cat, and the breathless, disco-inflected “Love Language” are a welcome change of pace. Too many of the songs on Positions, however, rely on the same midtempo trap-pop that populated Grande’s previous two efforts, particularly Thank U, Next. What once seemed refreshing in its minimalism is quickly starting to feel insubstantial. It might be time for contemporary pop’s reigning vocal acrobat to more fully commit to some new positions.
Label: Republic Release Date: October 30, 2020 Buy: Amazon