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Review: Mariah Carey’s The Rarities Offers Too Few Peeks Behind the Curtain

Removed from the fog of nostalgia, it’s clear just how middle-of-the-road the singer’s early-‘90s output was.

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Mariah Carey, The Rarities
Photo: Legacy

In Mariah Carey’s new memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, the singer reveals that she secretly recorded an “alternative” album in 1995 under the moniker Chick. Mariah’s vocals on the album, layered with those of her friend Clarissa Dane, boast a distinctive lilt reminiscent of Courtney Love’s—no surprise given that Mariah was reportedly a big fan of Hole’s breakthrough album, Live Through This, and even performed a spot-on impersonation of Love during a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone.

Mariah’s itch to experiment—whether with hip-hop or, apparently, grunge—was infamously stifled by Columbia Records under the direction of her then-husband, Tommy Mottola. So it’s disappointing that The Rarities, the quasi-soundtrack to Mariah’s memoir, gives us few peeks inside her brain. A trio of tracks from the Music Box era—two of which, the slick “Do You Think of Me” and the dramatic “Everything Fades Away,” were previously released as B-sides—embrace R&B and new jack swing more overtly than anything on the album itself, but removed from the fog of nostalgia, it becomes clear just how steered toward the middle of the road Mariah’s early-‘90s output was.

The album’s bouncy, Motown-inspired opening track, “Here We Go Around Again,” an unreleased song from Mariah’s demo tape, and “Can You Hear Me,” a Whitney-esque piano ballad from the Emotions sessions, find her in fine voice but offer little insight into Mariah the burgeoning artist. By contrast, a live rendition of the jazz standard “Lullaby of Birdland,” recorded during her 2014 tour, allows Mariah to fully exploit the imperfections of her voice, lending the performance a lived-in authenticity often missing from the earlier tracks. It also puts into stark relief the thinness of her vocals on the album’s new cuts, “Save the Day” and an acoustic rendition of the Butterfly deep cut “Close My Eyes.”

The eccentricities we’ve grown accustomed to from Mariah start to emerge during the album’s back half. “Do the coat,” she quips on the playful “Cool on You” in a seeming reference to The Devil Wears Prada, released the previous year. The unexpected highlight of The Rarities, though, is the previously unheard original version of 2001’s “Loverboy,” reworked after Jennifer Lopez dropped a song using an identical sample of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1979 hit “Firecracker.” While there’s no denying the campy splendor of the official Glitter track, the original mix slaps hard à la 1997’s “Honey.” A melodic nod to “Loverboy” can be found on 2012’s “Mesmerized,” on which Mariah cracks, “I’m testing the microphone because the regular folk went home,” a sentiment that’s unfortunately reflected in too few of the selections here.

Label: Legacy Release Date: October 2, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You Is More Homecoming Than Retread

The album has all the familiar hallmarks of the E Street Band’s signature sound.

3.5

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Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You
Photo: Danny Clinch

Celebrated memoirist Bruce Springsteen’s latest nostalgia trick: reconvening a little rock n’ roll group he used to play with called the E Street Band. Letter to You isn’t exactly classic Springsteen, and it isn’t even the best studio album he’s made in the last decade—though I know most don’t share my affinity for 2012’s Wrecking Ball. But it may be the first album he’s made since Born in the U.S.A. on which he’s fully embraced the E Street Band’s signature sound for longer than a few intermittent stretches at a time.

Recorded live in the studio, sans overdubs, over just a few days in late 2019, Letter to You has all the familiar hallmarks of the iconic E Street Band’s signature sound: Roy Bittan’s roaming piano, bombastic shout-along choruses, creaky harmonies from Patti Scialfa and Steven Van Zandt, and gut-busting sax solos (Jake Clemons fills in ably for his late uncle, Clarence). Springsteen deserves credit for resisting the crowd-pleasing tug of this kind of album for so long that it feels like a warm homecoming rather than a retread.

It’s only when Springsteen leans on the nostalgia with explicitly backward-facing lyrics that the album gets a bit too self-aware. Springsteen has never made an album this personal, filled with paeans to felled bandmates, fans, and rose-colored memories of days and nights gone by. Both his recent autobiography, Born to Run, and his hit Broadway show have demonstrated that Springsteen in a self-reflective mode can be highly effective and deeply moving. Which is why some of the songs on Letter to You are disappointingly mushy by comparison. Album bookends “One Minute You’re Here” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” are cliché-ridden ruminations on life’s impermanence, while songs like “House of a Thousand Guitars” are packed with smug self-mythologizing about the life-changing majesty of rock n’ roll.

On the rousing “Ghosts,” the E Street Band’s thunderous power does far more to convince of the transcendent nature of their music than Springsteen’s lyrics—penned for the late George Theiss, the singer in his first band, the Castilles. All slashing guitars and shouted-to-the-rafters refrains, the song has all the makings of a classic E Street anthem. Even if Springsteen has employed them sparingly in the studio in recent years, the band remains a tight outfit from frequent touring. Max Weinberg in particular continues to be a force behind the drum kit, and he’s the focal point of the lilting title track. Springsteen himself turns back the clock with a howling vocal and searing guitar solos on the propulsive “Burnin’ Train,” which could easily pass for an outtake from Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River.

Barnburning new recordings of a trio of songs that Springsteen wrote in the early 1970s, before the formation of the E Street Band in 1972, provide Letter to You’s most fascinating links to the past. With their epic multi-verse structures, Old West imagery, and country-rock inflections, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans” join “Ballad of Jesse James”—a similar 1972 outtake released on the 2016 compilation Chapter and Verse—in providing an intriguing window into an alternate history. In this timeline, Springsteen never gravitated toward the rock n’ roll soul-circus style of the E Street Band and instead leaned hard into the “New Dylan” hype that surrounded him at the time.

It’s no surprise that the guy who wrote the songs featured on Letter to You became one of rock’s most celebrated storytellers once he discovered his own individual voice. That guy is also fortunate to have found his ideal compatriots. Whether playing 50-year-old songs or brand new ones, the E Street Band proves that when they’re in their element—as they are on this album—they can elevate the Boss to his best.

Label: Columbia Release Date: October 23, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Mountain Goats’s Getting Into Knives Is Overproduced and Under-Thought

The band’s uniquely existential and observational approach to rock is, for the first time, beginning to wear thin.

2.5

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The Mountain Goats, Getting Into Knives
Photo: Jade Wilson

Over the course of two decades, the Mountain Goats have maintained a near-peerless level of quality even as they’ve evolved their distinct folk-rock sound in unexpected directions. But on the North Carolina-based band’s 19th album, Getting Into Knives, their work to feel simultaneously overproduced and under-thought.

The songs on the album focus primarily on aging and those irretrievable things taken by time, with seasoned, older narrators imparting wisdom to less experienced counterparts. “Everything becomes a blur from six feet away/Get used to this,” singer-songwriter John Darneille warns on “Tidal Wave,” repeating “Get used to this” throughout the rest of the track. For every elegantly forlorn lyric on Getting Into Knives, though, there’s a clichéd platitude or overdetermined metaphor. Compared to the incisive and quick-witted nature of typical Mountain Goats lyrics, a line like “It’s not the destination that makes the difference/It’s the freight” feels like a rather lazy observation.

At its best, the album foregrounds the interplay between warmth and darkness, as on the title track, in which the middle-aged Darnielle sings about taking up a new hobby over delicately strummed acoustic guitar and Jon Wurster’s hand-drummed percussion. Darnielle emotes with just the right amount of knowing distance, and humorously doesn’t elaborate on why “getting into knives” will be a fulfilling new activity or alternative to his current habits, while also promising its worthwhileness through softly yet convincingly performed vocals.

On much of the rest of the album, this tonal bifurcation leans too far in one direction or the other. “Get Famous,” which finds Darnielle wishing celebrity on someone who’s more suited to constant attention and exposure (read: someone with less integrity than him), feels overwrought, smothered by obvious production choices like the insertion of crowd cheers after the line “listen to the people applaud,” as well as by its own suffocating irony. Elsewhere, “The Last Place I Saw You Alive,” a ballad dedicated to a late friend, and “Harbor Me,” about asking for shelter from a companion, are too tender and bald-faced, taking the band’s capacity for rendering human frailty and turning it into sentimental mush.

Though the Mountain Goats’s music still operates firmly within the folk-rock tradition, a few songs here display a jazz influence, such as the light-handed tapping of tom-toms that weaves throughout “The Great Gold Sheep,” the featherweight percussive scene-setting at the beginning of “Bell Swamp Connection,” and Matt Douglas’s noodling saxophone on “The Last Place I Saw You Alive” and “Get Famous.” You can also hear a jazz sensibility in the band’s penchant for finding grooves and then departing from the structures at different intervals. At the other end of the spectrum, the bouncy panache of “Rat Queen” hews closer to the conceptual theatricality of the band’s last few albums, yet the track comes off as little more than a B-side from the group’s 2019 rock opera In League with Dragons.

Getting Into Knives does bear the distinction of being perhaps the most electric guitar-dominated Mountain Goats album to date. Despite the continued centrality of acoustic instruments within their sound, the growl of electric guitar is pronounced and expressive, especially on “Bell Swamp Connection,” where it’s slow and smeary, assisted with a pedal and married with piano. Of course, one wishes Darnielle didn’t feel the need to underline its prominence on “As Many Candles as Possible,” when a rumbling guitar prompts a redundant “There’s plenty of distortion and it’s not real clear…he howls in the night,” which is followed by a screeching strum. Such literalness is unusual for the Mountain Goats, whose uniquely existential and observational approach to rock is, for the first time, beginning to wear thin.

Label: Merge Release Date: October 23, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 15 Best Smashing Pumpkins Songs

The Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.

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Smashing Pumpkins
Photo: Virgin Records

As Greg Kot of Guitar World once quipped, “the [Smashing] Pumpkins remain an island unto themselves.” That was in 2001, when the band had spent a decade carving out an impressive art-rock niche, and long after a shortsighted music press had once smacked them with unenviable and laughably off-base label of “the next Nirvana.” But even to this day, the two bands are often clumped together as vanguards of the scathing, grungy brand of alternative rock that defined the early ‘90s. And yet, there’s little doubt that the group is much more than some also-ran grunge outfit chasing Kurt Cobain’s shadow. Indeed, with 11 studio albums and dozens of EPs, compilations, and soundtrack contributions, Billy Corgan and company have proved to be expert evocateurs, stitching together their melodic pastiche from a diverse litany of musical, literary, and visual sources. Armed with a mosaic sound that includes hat-tips to glam rock, art nouveau, psychedelia, goth, vaudeville, new wave, and Victorian romanticism, the Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on July 21, 2013.

15. “Knights of Malta”

The sweeping opening track of 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun bears the hallmarks of vintage Pumpkins: Bill Corgan’s melodic whine, Jimmy Chamberlin’s formidable drumming, and the intricate layers of guitar courtesy of Corgan, original guitarist James Iha, and Iha’s one-time replacement Jeff Schroeder. Everything about the song feels grand and triumphal—right down to the lyrics, in which Corgan sings, “I’m gonna fly forever/We’re gonna ride the rainbow,” as if he’s approaching the gates of rock n’ roll Valhalla.

14. “Set the Ray to Jerry”

As complex as the band’s arrangements and conceits often are, the Pumpkins frequently hit paydirt when relying on Corgan’s ear for crafting simple melodies. “Set the Ray to Jerry” is that principle in practice, as a two-note guitar riff and constantly rumbling snares come together with Corgan’s plain, passionate declaratives (“I want you” and “I need you”) to form a lucid, seductive nighttime jam.

13. “For Martha”

Corgan’s mother inspired plenty of animus throughout the Pumpkins’ catalogue, but none quite as conflicted and harrowing as the kind that fills the song sharing her name. Inspired by her passing, “For Martha” is an eight-minute dirge of gothic piano that bursts into a wave of crying, razor-edged guitars at its halfway point. At the height of it all, Corgan finally delivers his raw, teary-eyed eulogy: “Long horses we are born/Creatures more than torn/Mourning our way home.”

12. “Tristessa”

The riffs on “Tristessa” are some of the most efficient the Pumpkins have ever crafted. With four simple notes, Corgan and fellow guitarist James Iha lay down a bouncing, whiplash guitar hook that’s strong enough to carry the song through its shattering conclusion, proving along the way that the band had two other weapons in their arsenal besides panache: power and rhythm.

11. “Eye”

Serving as a kind of thematic unifier for David Lynch’s Lost Highway soundtrack, “Eye” was Pumpkins fans’ first taste of the band’s post-alternative offerings, where the remnants of their baroque, neo-Victorian rock tastes met Corgan’s new obsession with Pro Tools. While that formula would meet with mixed success on the subsequent Adore, “Eye” remains a sublime slice of electro-goth, pairing Corgan’s understated performance with a litany of chilling instrumentation—not to mention the wonderful angularity of that crisp drumline.

10. “Today”

In which the Pumpkins conclusively prove that great art comes from great pain. Purportedly on the verge of suicide, a desperate, perhaps somewhat deranged Corgan penned “Today,” a facetious, goodbye-cruel-world lullaby that, when draped in the band’s trademark cloak of mellow fuzz, becomes a triumphant middle finger to the crippling effects of depression.

9. “Snail”

There are many points on their 1991 debut, Gish, where the Pumpkins seem caught between their early metal influences (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) and the art-rock band they ultimately aspired to be, but “Snail” isn’t one of them. The track is perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing of the ambitious plans Corgan had for his group: sweeping, unapologetically romantic, and cinematically paced, its verse, bridge, and chorus structured in such a way so that the ultimate catharsis—in this case, a climbing sub-melody full of unbridled optimism—comes bursting through quite dramatically in its final minute.

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Review: Laura Veirs’s My Echo Is a Divorce Album That Trades Misery for Escapism

Against a backdrop of hopelessness brought about by personal heartbreak and global disasters, the album is an act of self-preservation.

3.5

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Laura Veirs, My Echo
Photo: Shelby Brakken

On the “divorce album” spectrum from Vulnicura to Utopia, Laura Veirs’s My Echo falls closer to the latter. At just under 30 minutes long, the Portland-based singer-songwriter’s 11th album is more concise than it is confessional, but Veirs imbues her lyrics with vivid imagery and gentle humor that trade misery for escapism. This lightness is by design, as she wrote these songs while she was straining to maintain her relationship with Tucker Martine, her collaborator and then-husband. In the album’s press notes, Veirs claims, “my songs knew I was getting divorced before I did.”

The impulse to leave things unsaid motivates My Echo’s sound, which often involves a contrast between acoustic folk instrumentation and electronic flourishes—in other words, between Veirs’s need to stay grounded and her tendency to drift off. It also informs her lyrics, which originated as poems she wrote for a “secret poetry group,” a fact that’s most apparent when she commits to describing her natural surroundings—leaves and rivers and trees—in depth. While Veirs’s lyrics are consistently unsettled and sometimes apocalyptic, they largely sidestep concrete problems in her marriage beyond rare whisperings of infidelity and alienation. Perhaps any lurid drama would have undermined Veirs’s escapist intentions.

Accordingly, when Veirs makes pivotal emotional realizations, they come from outside herself. On “Memaloose Island,” she visits the tomb of Victor Trevitt, where a disembodied voice tells her, “Life is the exception/Don’t you forget it.” The voice, of course, is her own, implicitly acknowledging the negative space around the comfort of marriage or any other source of stability. She spoils this reveal, though, on the album’s opening track, “Freedom Feeling,” when she discovers that the liberation she sought in love was within herself all along.

In fact, Veirs spends a fair amount of time on the album explaining herself, keeping little beneath the surface. On “End Times,” she compares her ill-fated relationship to Armageddon. On “Burn Too Bright,” she asks, “Who were you running from?” and quickly answers, as expected, “yourself.” Veirs gives us little work to do to exhume meaning from her images; she’s experienced the struggle of sorting out her feelings, so she aims to spare us of that emotional labor. On the gorgeous “Vapor Trails,” she reminds us that vapor trails, like people, disappear.

Veirs makes elegant use of her detachment on “I Sing to the Tall Man,” opening the song by reducing her husband to objective descriptors—“the tall man in the red kitchen”—before admitting that his “dark eyes and scarred chin remind [her] we are living.” She lets us in, pointing to the weight of her love and, as on “Memaloose Island,” the love’s interconnectedness with her faith in life itself. “I Sing to the Tall Man” neatly complements “Turquoise Walls,” another song about confinement that contains some of the album’s most immediate lyrics: “I could not sleep, thinking you were keeping someone else’s pillow warm.” These moments of candidness are welcome, especially when they’re funny (“Have you considered maybe his phone just died?” she quips on “Turquoise Walls”).

While many breakup albums explore the distance between the euphoria of love and the devastation of it ending, My Echo mostly sits somewhere in the middle. The album’s opening lines—“I don’t know where I am going/But I got you by my side”—are bittersweet, tinged by Veirs’s sly sense of dramatic irony. Soon after, plaintive strings emerge, setting the tone for a mournful, grandiose album that never materializes. Instead, track two, “Another Space and Time,” is a sonic outlier, embellishing bossa nova with glitchy electronics and lyrics about ditching the internet for “peace of mind.” It’s a diversion, a vacation to a California that isn’t on fire (one of the album’s many eerily portentous details—though any album about loneliness and destruction could be said to have predicted the events of 2020).

Veirs looks to paintings and sculptures for guidance and solace at key points on My Echo. She also displays a similar relationship to music on “Burn Too Bright,” which is about the death of musician Richard Swift, and on the dirge-like “Brick Layer,” which mentions the late Jason Molina. On the standout “All the Things,” Veirs announces that she’s a poet and, on a chorus that could be her artist’s statement, says, “All the things I cannot hold/I cannot save.” To Veirs, artmaking is a means of preserving memories of loves, people, and moments lost. While these things fade, her art doesn’t. Against a backdrop of hopelessness brought about by personal heartbreak and global disasters, My Echo is an act of self-preservation.

Label: Raven Marching Band Release Date: October 23, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Matt Berninger’s Serpentine Prison Is an Easily Digestible Solo Debut

The album is an enjoyable, if predictable, outing from an effortlessly reliable songwriter.

3

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Matt Berninger, Serpentine Prison
Photo: Chantal Anderson

The National spent the 2010s pushing the boundaries of their music, allowing for nervier, more impressionistic sounds and experimentations with song structure. Many of these evolutions are indebted to the far-reaching influence of members Aaron and Bryce Dessner on the stalwart indie band’s songwriting. But something about the National’s subtle brand of rock, lead singer Matt Berninger’s buttoned-up baritone, and the band’s sardonic lyrical ennui has prompted certain critics to label their music as “boring.”

Serpentine Prison, Berninger’s solo debut, is likely to spark a similar debate. The album distills the singer-songwriter’s work with the National down to its barest form, as it mostly revolves around an acoustic guitar or piano and Berninger’s signature vocal style. The result is a pleasant, if undemanding, album that diverges from the National’s more experimental recent releases, 2017’s Sleep Well Beast and last year’s I Am Easy to Find. But while nothing here is as exciting or memorable as anything the National has released in the last 15 years, Serpentine Prison is an enjoyable outing from an effortlessly reliable songwriter.

Berninger seems to thrive under these lower stakes, as many of the album’s songs evoke a wistfulness missing from his work with the National. The sentimental “Distant Axis” finds his usually biting lyrical deadpan replaced with a certain kind of longing: “I feel like I’m as far as I can get from you,” he sleepily sings on the track. And on “Oh Dearie,” Berninger shows off his penchant for richly drawn downtrodden narrators. His hushed final lines—“I don’t see no brightness, kinda starting to like this”—stand in contrast to the song’s acoustic lullaby quality, an understated but welcome variation of his standard form.

Booker T. Jones’s production brings ornate dimensions to these songs. This isn’t a particularly orchestral album, but the way that judicially placed drums and softly struck keys ring against Berninger’s deep vocals makes it sound like the songs are reverberating throughout a theater full of rapt listeners. When the songs take on added flourishes, like the lush brass arrangement that appears halfway through “Take Me Out of Town” or the string solos that punctuate key moments in “Collar of Your Shirt,” they swell organically with the rest of the arrangements.

These moments of indulgence are helpful in diversifying Serpentine Prison’s tracklisting, which often falls into a monochromatic haze of slow, easily digestible sounds. Another such indulgence comes in the form of a duet on the album’s best track, the bluesy “Silver Springs,” featuring Gail Ann Dorsey in a beautiful back-and-forth with Berninger. Dorsey, who was previously featured in the National’s triumphant “You Had Your Soul With You,” steps in to interrupt what otherwise would have been the album’s loneliest song, the track’s chanting hook enlightening a straightforward, almost juvenile kind of isolation: “They’ll never understand you anyway in Silver Springs,” Berninger and Dorsey sing in unison.

Much of the rest of Serpentine Prison fails to engage the listener as effectively as “Silver Springs” does. These songs easily fade into the background, not unlike those found on so many adult contemporary-influenced singer-songwriter albums. But while Serpentine Prison may invoke familiar accusations of dullness, it’s refreshing to hear Berninger’s disaffected songwriting style take on a more grown-up perspective.

Label: Concord Release Date: October 16, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Annie’s Dark Hearts Dives Into the Past with Both Regret and Wonder

The album sounds like the soundtrack to an imaginary teen drama co-directed by John Hughes and David Lynch.

3.5

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Annie, Dark Hearts
Photo: Hildegunn Wærness

Norwegian pop singer Annie’s Dark Hearts is, per the artist herself, “a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.” Throughout the album, her first in over a decade, Annie paints nostalgic, richly detailed narratives filled with road trips, fairgrounds, and idealistic young love—all set to jangly, atmospheric soundscapes that feel like they were lifted from some imaginary teen drama co-directed by John Hughes and David Lynch.

Annie broke out in the mid aughts with cheeky, indelible dance-pop like “Chewing Gum” and “Heartbeat,” but Dark Hearts luxuriates in an unapologetically moodier palette. The closest the album gets to a dance-floor filler is “The Bomb,” whose anxious mantra of “S.O.S.” and samples from the 1988 apocalyptic thriller Miracle Mile are backed by a shuffling breakbeat and Angelo Badalamenti-style synth washes. “They’re dropping the bomb/So put a beat on,” Annie sings, resigned to a fate of partying until the end of days.

The rest of Dark Hearts is decidedly more wistful, as Annie reflects on lost loves, family cycles of dysfunction, and her hometown of Bergen, Norway. Film references abound throughout, including more of those cool, cinematic synths on “The Untold Story,” in which Annie’s ethereal but detached vocal evokes that of Lynch muse Julee Cruise, and David Cronenberg’s Crash, which serves as the basis for “American Cars.” The latter details the hazards of a directionless romance, suggesting what it might sound like if Lana Del Rey dropped her indie beat-poet shtick and leaned fully into synth-pop.

Producer Stefan Storm outfits Annie’s bittersweet reveries with big, bellowing drums and textures derived from pitch-affected vocals. On “Mermaids Dreams,” Annie’s voice is bent and distorted, beckoning like a siren from beneath waves of reverb, and her recollections of fleeting physical ecstasy on “In Heaven” are accompanied by mournful, tentatively plucked guitars. The songs leap from genre to genre, sonically tied together by their connections to the past: “The Streets Where I Belong” suggests the small-town tributes of Springsteen as sung by an anonymous dream-pop chanteuse, while the poetic “Corridors of Time” and the deceptively jovial “It’s Finally Over” channel classic pop modes like doo-wop and ‘50s girl groups.

Stripped of these thematic threads or Storm’s inventive studio tricks, Annie’s wisp of a voice can easily float away from the listener. “Forever ‘92” falls flat in its attempts to summon the spirit of the titular era, and the drifting, Sade-esque rhythm of “Stay Tomorrow” isn’t robust enough to anchor the song’s theme of “sailing away.” That’s partly why 2004’s Anniemal, with its innovative production and impeccably crafted hooks, remains such an enduring and satisfying pop debut. In these dystopian times, it’s easy to long for the infectious dance-pop of that album or Annie’s other past releases, but Dark Hearts opts for a different kind of escape. Ten years on from her last full-length album, the singer is reckoning with the present by diving headlong into her past with equal parts regret and wonder.

Label: Annie Melody Release Date: October 16, 2020

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Review: 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s Savage Mode II Is a Dark, Robust Sequel

The album is a ratification of “bigger and better,” an example of steady improvement through impeccable craft.

4

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21 Savage, Savage Mode II
Photo: John Canon/Epic Records

“Are things better or worse the second time around? Can we really do anything more than once?” intones actor Morgan Freeman early on in Savage Mode II. The album answers affirmatively, in the form of a robust and deeply enjoyable sequel to the 2016 collaboration between rapper 21 Savage and producer Metro Boomin. Freeman’s contributions, especially a delightful rejoinder on the midpoint interlude “Snitches & Rats,” are performed with a mock gravitas that 21 Savage and Metro Boomin frame with equal parts levity and seriousness.

The principal focus of Savage Mode II is Metro Boomin’s production. As a teenager, the knob-twirling wunderkind ditched school to revolutionize trap music, providing stellar beats for Atlanta eccentrics-cum-marquee stars Future and Young Thug, refining the excesses and strange outlier sounds of Southern hip-hop into his own tasteful brand. “Rich Nigga Shit” has the feel of a live band, with peppy synths and fiddle intermingling with exciting freshness while a subtle but dynamic bassline mimics an analog instrument, recalling the sinewy work of both Thundercat and the Internet. The dazzling “Glock in My Lap,” co-produced by Southside and Honorable C.N.O.T.E., boasts a host of moving parts, including squealing violins, the rattle of a tiny cowbell, something resembling a kazoo, and the low rumble of shredded bass.

21 is more often than not the stabilizing force around which Metro paints and creates elaborate designs. As he frequently reminds us, the 27-year-old Atlanta MC has a real claim to legitimacy in his gangsta raps. “I grew up ‘round drugs, sex, and violence,” he tosses off on “Slidin.” (He’s suffered a number of untimely losses of people close to him, often in his presence, including brother Taylor “Tayman” and close friend and associate known simply as Larry, both of whom are eulogized on Savage Mode II’s ornate album art.) 21’s dark, foreboding presence and tone are borne of an early acceptance of death’s omnipresence and randomness; he lays down spiky bars with a sneering swagger but also a pointed humbleness.

In places on Savage Mode II, the rapper succeeds in breaking out of his typical stable of themes and narratives around gunplay, drug deals, smoking weed, and sexual trysts. On “My Dawg,” he reflects on the tragedies that have dotted his lifetime, including a 2019 ICE arrest in which his birthplace and visa were contested. He’s heavy-hearted and thoughtful, a register he’s confidently grown into since arriving on the scene as primarily a horrorcore rapper. His flows aren’t remarkably diverse, but he always spits with precision, and his speed of delivery on “Many Men” and “Brand New Draco” is impressive.

It’s Metro, though, who elevates 21’s stories to something approaching greatness. The producer samples very carefully, using a snippet of Diana Ross’s “I Thought It Took a Little Time (But Today I’m In Love)” on “Runnin,” the wisps of the vintage cut nudging each line forward. He has a finesse for texture and atmosphere, employing the sound of a scratchy vinyl on “Runnin” and “Said N Done,” a static-y beat on “RIP Luv,” and the solemn piano riffs that were the driving instrument on the more minimalist Savage Mode. This sequel is a ratification of “bigger and better,” an example of steady improvement through impeccable craft.

Label: Epic Release Date: October 2, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Music

Review: Blackpink’s The Album Feels More Like an Appetizer Than a Main Course

The album feels stuck looking back to tried and true trends in both K-pop and Western pop music.

3

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Blackpink, The Album
Photo: Interscope Records

As the standard bearers of K-pop’s “girl crush” style, Blackpink eschews schoolgirl innocence and embraces a harder, femme-fatale edge. Pioneered by their predecessors and labelmates 2NE1, this dark streak—the “black” referenced by the group’s name—manifests itself in the quartet’s hard-hitting choreography, edgy fashion, and braggadocious verses. With a scant 13 songs to their name over the course of four years, however, Blackpink’s approach has been at odds with K-pop’s prolific comeback-centered business model, as the group’s slim output attests to their prioritization of production quality over quantity.

True to the hype, Blackpink’s The Album features big-name producers from all over the world, crafting a catchy mix of pop, EDM, and trap. But at a spare eight tracks, and in light of the years-long wait, it seems more like an appetizer than a main course. The track “Pretty Savage” serves as The Album’s thesis, uniting all the essential elements of Blackpink’s empowering brand of K-pop: an addictive melodic motif; a powerful, arena-ready chorus; and an onomatopoetic refrain that transcends language barriers. It follows the Blackpink blueprint to a tee, though its loyalty to it feels predictable.

The “pink” of Blackpink’s performance ethos peddles sweet, light-hearted songs that sidestep the stifling cuteness that many Korean girl groups lean into, but these sugary offerings lack verve. With its thinly veiled innuendos, the playful, Selena Gomez-assisted “Ice Cream” attempts to channel Red Velvet’s oddball exuberance, but the song’s reluctance to expand on its three-note hook quickly becomes tedious. On “Bet You Wanna,” Rosé’s belts distinguish her as the group’s most gifted vocalist, but the song sounds like it was unearthed from the world of 2010s pop, reminiscent of something from Katy Perry’s Prism. And Cardi B’s appearance on the track feels canned, a conspicuous attempt to appeal to American audiences.

Blackpink’s greatest talent, for better or worse, is making toxic love sound glamorous. An addictive Balkan whistle and an explosive trap coda infuse “Crazy Over You” with the bombast of YG labelmates Big Bang. Lisa exudes so much swagger that she’s able to pull off clumsy lines like “Never the regular degular/Would clean my mess up/But I rather mess up.” And when the four women gleefully chant, “We are born to be alone,” on “Lovesick Girls,” solipsism and singlehood have never sounded like such a good time.

Still, these odes to love’s highs and lows ring hollow when compared with Blackpink’s image of unshakeable composure. The K-pop industry aims to groom idols like flawless demigods, leagues away from the mere mortals who consume their music. But the catalogs of artists like Jonghyun, BTS, and late-era 2NE1 prove that shows of vulnerability are quite possible, even refreshing, amid K-pop’s manicured perfection. “You Never Know” sees Rosé, Jisoo, Lisa, and Jennie grappling with feelings of sadness and inadequacy—if, admittedly, with lyrics that were penned by other YG songwriters. Such authenticity is an anomaly on the album. Crammed chockfull of crowd-pleasing EDM pyrotechnics and cheeky one-liners, The Album is undeniably a product of a well-oiled, state-of-the-art pop machine, but it feels stuck looking back to tried and true trends in both K-pop and Western pop music.

Label: Interscope Release Date: October 2, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Music

Review: Shamir’s Shamir Charts the Conflict Between Isolation and Belonging

The album embraces a balance between composure and restless dissatisfaction.

3.5

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Shamir, Shamir
Photo: Shamir

On his 2017 song “Blooming,” singer-songwriter Shamir declared, “I’m too strong to just lay down and die.” Such a sentiment, highlighting his frailty but also his self-empowerment, is at the root of his strengths as an artist, particularly his singing. The non-binary Shamir, who broke out with the club-centric Ratchet before self-releasing a string of noisy garage-rock albums, has a singular vocal style, a mix of wailing croons and quavering falsetto. His voice is alluringly androgynous and demonstrates a wide range that anchors each of his songs, allowing it to crack and falter delicately in key moments.

Vocally, Shamir reaches transcendent heights on “In This Hole,” a track from his self-titled seventh album. He begins in a broken, openhearted cadence that’s gruff and bedraggled, marked by strange intonations. Shamir embraces this balance between composure and restless dissatisfaction throughout. He sounds hopeful on songs like “Running” and “Other Side,” while the furious din of guitars that was inescapable on his past few releases takes a reprieve.

Shamir vividly captures a Gen Z-specific angst and stewing inner conflict: “Smoke all the weed so I can cover my anxiety,” he confesses on “Paranoia.” Indeed, some of the best moments on the album explore the contradictions of the self and the paradoxical relationship between thoughts and behaviors. On lead single “On My Own,” Shamir expresses his comfort at being alone while simultaneously teasing out a sneaking suspicion that “maybe I can find the one/The more I rid myself/Of thinking I can’t love anyone.” It’s a prototypical 21st-century concern: the draw of self-sustaining isolation countered by nagging societal belonging.

Despite the demo-quality sound of almost all of the tracks on the album, Shamir is surprisingly skilled at fleshing out narratives that richly describe the perspectives of various narrators. On “Paranoia,” he casts the titular emotion as a character itself, referring to it as an unwanted best friend he desperately tries to evade.

Stylistically, Shamir is a hodgepodge of the different approaches the artist has employed in the past, synthesized into a mostly satisfying pop-rock sound. There are striking touches, like the almost country-western jaunt of “Other Side,” and the way 808s kick in and then speed up with menacing effect on “I Wonder.” But the combination of scuzzy guitars butting up against cleaner strumming and less distortion and reverb than on Shamir’s past releases lend tracks like “Diet” a palatability that doesn’t jibe with his conflicted subject matter.

Still, Shamir’s penchant for melody and introspection have proved adaptable to any genre that he fancies at any given moment, characterizing even his most lo-fi work with a pleading humanity. No matter how roomy or tight the mix is, or whether he’s caught in a moment of self-doubt or soaring confidence, he brings a sweet buoyancy to his music that carries Shamir, while also peeking into the torment of being inside his own head.

Label: Accidental Popstar Release Date: October 2, 2020

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Features

Every Kanye West Album Ranked

Looking back at the emotional exhibitionism that defines the rapper’s work, it’s starkly clear how much of himself he’s put into it.

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Kanye West
Photo: Def Jam

Kanye West has come back from the precipice of what feels like certain career suicide more than just about any other popular music artist. But his tendency toward self-feat—on full display during our cruel summer, which saw him pursuing a dubious presidential bid, announcing another new album that never materialized, and waging “war” against record labels that led to him tweeting out his entire contract with Universal Music Group—is an essential part of the divisive, frequently infuriating, and resolutely genius work that he’s amassed over the last 15-plus years. West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, would only have half a title if things were otherwise; the Black Power lingua franca of Yeezus wouldn’t be nearly as galvanizing without the juxtaposition of base carnality that shocks its politics into a realm of raw human expression; and The Life of Pablo, West’s most uninhibited and soul-baring album, reaches its highs through knotting grace and grotesquery into a mercurial self-portrait that’s rarely flattering but always magnetic.

The path from “Jesus Walks” to Jesus Is King has been a willfully discursive one, a journey from hip-hop’s hard beats to gliding electro-rap, from 808s & Heartbreak’s Auto-Tune croon to the industrial rave soundtrack of Yeezus to, ugh, the #MAGA hat. And in recent years, ever since West’s bipolar diagnosis became public knowledge, every volatile career move that he makes is necessarily met with an earnest concern for the man’s mental health. That concern has steadily been occupying more and more real estate in fans’ minds this summer, especially without any artistic output to counterbalance it. And maybe that’s a good thing: Looking back at the emotional exhibitionism that defines West’s incredible work, it’s starkly clear how much of himself he’s put into his art, but less clear how much more he can afford to give. Sam C. Mac



Ye

10. Ye (2018)

Ye’s emotional claustrophobia is at times effective: As a chronicle of living with mental illness, this is Kanye’s most unsparing work to date. “Sometimes I think really bad things,” he confesses on the stark, harrowing opener “I Thought About Killing You,” his voice dipping into an artificial chopped-and-screwed baritone. “Really, really, really bad things.” But when he departs from quasi-unfiltered monologues to structured verses, the results are uninspired. “If I pull up with a Kerry Washington, that’s gon’ be an enormous scandal,” from “All Mine,” is a clunker of a line, even coming from the guy who struck internet-meme gold by rhyming “croissant” with “French-ass restaurant.” Since Yeezus, Kanye has trafficked in minimalism, paring back his once-grandiose arrangements until the seams are visible and selling the results as raw unfiltered honesty, but Ye’s slapdash construction feels less like an artistic choice and more like a cry for help. Zachary Hoskins



Jesus Is King

9. Jesus Is King (2019)

The music on Jesus Is King is as impeccably produced as that of just about any Kanye release to date, but the shift toward gospel, while occasionally captivating and even convincing, more often proves that it’s more difficult for Kanye to apply his particular narrativizing gifts to faith than it is to the exploits of outsized celebrity caricatures, or the episodes of his own tabloid-baiting life. The album’s prevailing mood is braggadocio, ever Ye’s true north, and the greatest basis for his boastfulness is, familiarly, the resilience with which he’s carried himself on the path to commercial and personal success. The particulars of this message run counter to the ostensible thesis of Jesus Is King. Kanye doesn’t seem to have quite figured out how to translate his spiritual awakening to his music as confidently as he has nearly every other experience in his life on previous albums. Mac



Yandhi

7. Yandhi (2019, unreleased)

Like Prince’s Black Album, Yandhi was pulled from release at the very last minute and shelved because its creator felt that its content was too explicit. (Apparently couplets like “New ass, new tits/New bitch, who this?” didn’t jibe with his newly rediscovered Christianity.) Thankfully for fans, all of the songs from the album’s original tracklist have leaked (either as demos or finished but unmastered tracks) along with others from the sessions, and have been configured into various bootleg compilations. If that sounds way too outside the realm of canonization, consider that Kanye burned that bridge sometime around the sixth “update” delivered to streaming services of his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, or when he replaced an entire beat on 2018’s Ye days after its release. In short, thinking of latter-day Kanye West albums as fluid is more than appropriate. Yandhi is also far from Ye’s worst album, thanks to the indelible earworm “New Body”—which features a salacious and table-turning verse from a prime-form Nicki Minaj and a beat by Ronny J that sounds like a tin whistle—along with “Hurricane” and “City in the Sky,” which both do more interesting things with their gospel influences than just about anything on Jesus Is King. Mac



Graduation

7. Graduation (2007)

Kanye’s sampling choices remained basically citational on Graduation, even as his production adopted a beefy, synth-glam sheen. “Stronger” is one of the more galvanizing moments of contrast to the filtered soul of “Through the Wire” and “Touch the Sky.” Instead of trying to placate his oft-mentioned elders with Curtis Mayfield and Chaka Khan, the menacing Vocoder samples of Daft Punk cut through the hazard tape of “Stronger” and, if nothing else, form a much more appropriate match for Kanye’s blustering hubris. Still, you couldn’t find a campus library cavernous enough to annotate “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” in which Kanye attempts to satirically undercut his supposedly self-deprecating biographical exorcism and ends up in a deep confusion, or the swooping drama queenery of “Flashing Lights,” in which he compares his media experience to what it must’ve felt like to be “Katrina with no FEMA.” Eric Henderson



808s & Heartbreak

6. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

After a series of micro-evolutions, 808s & Heartbreak marked Kanye’s first hard pivot away from his soul-sample-heavy brand of hip-hop. The album’s narrow aesthetic boundaries—including minimalist keyboards, steely string passages, and, of course, tribal 808s—highlight Kanye’s limitations as a vocalist. But while Auto-Tune might be the worst thing to happen to popular music since Kanye’s ego, it makes his pitiful crooning sound like that of a despondent robot. And that ego, like the singing rapper’s heart, isn’t so much broken as it is deflated like the balloon on the album’s cover, making for purposeful (mis)use of the pitch-correction software as a symptom of said heart defect. Sal Cinquemani



The College Dropout

5. The College Dropout (2004)

Who says rap can’t be insecure and hopelessly neurotic? Kanye proved the possibility of this kind of finicky introspection without losing a hint of swagger, hopping from big issues to self-involved bluster, always with one eye on the mirror, second-guessing himself all the way to the top. Before the ego-infused outbursts, before the anti-academic motifs became hopelessly stale, The College Dropout found Kanye as a relatively blank slate, as well as the first rapper to score a hit single with his jaw wired shut. Jesse Cataldo



The Life of Pablo

4. The Life of Pablo (2016)

“We don’t want no devils in the house,” squeaks a sampled Christ-worshipping pipsqueak in the first seconds of The Life of Pablo, and unsurprisingly her words go unheeded: After the benedictory blessing of “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye is back to his sinning ways. The Kanye of this album is the least likable one yet, and even more repelling for his apparent proximity to the real Kanye: Unlike those of the “monster” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the “god” on Yeezus, there’s always a sense that the narratives here—the one about Taylor Swift, the shot at Ray J, etc.—are his own. But the thing is, amplification is Kanye’s art: Sounds are always getting bigger and sharper, production progressively more expansive and diverse, and emotional honesty is taken to the most vivid of extremes. The Life of Pablo is a masterwork because it pairs Kanye’s best executed musical ideas with the most revealing expression of his character. Mac



Yeezus

3. Yeezus (2013)

As raw and straightforward as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is sparkling and expansive, Yeezus is another self-deifying shrine to an artist so much more sensitive than his stature should allow, turning everything he releases into a messy blend of the personal and the political. Never has this been clearer than on stellar songs like “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves,” which conflate personal and historical traumas into one chaotic mixture, communicating both the insidious, lingering effects of a racist culture and the unmistakable imprint of an artist who refuses to be quieted by his own insecurities. Cataldo



Late Registration

2. Late Registration (2005)

Though his public appearances and constant blogging demonstrated an ego run so amuck it headed right into South Park fish-in-a-barrel territory, signing up to co-produce a rap record with Jon Brion was a pretty genius move. Brion’s strings and general sense of kooky bombast make for a consistently challenging album that never forgets that it’s still a pop record. Despite a tinge of melancholy on tracks like “Hey Mama” and “Roses,” or the outrage of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Late Registration mostly captures the joy that can only be found in creative invention. Jimmy Newlin



My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Insisting, on whatever grounds, that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of rap’s great milestone’s doesn’t do the album justice, at least insofar as doing so invites impossible challenges (is it really better than Fear of a Black Planet or Illmatic? Who could definitively say?) without drawing due attention to the strengths on which the album might meet them. So let me offer the following, slightly less generous superlative: No rap album I’ve heard can boast better production than this one. The music is exhilarating, often abrasive, never predictable, at times stunningly gorgeous. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy allows Kanye a thematic palette broad enough to confront his pride and anguish. The album dwells on the surreal (“Dark Fantasy” imagines a shopping-mall séance and a sky eclipsed by herons) and the religious (next to Kanye himself, it’s Satan who gets the most name-drops here). It’s all in the service of an exhausting contest between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, Kanye embracing his singular pop-star/super-villain persona while struggling to connect with the creative potential that made him worth our attention to begin with. Matthew Cole

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