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Review: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York Remains a Timeless Musical Document

Much of the power of this set is in the band’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety.

4.5

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Nirvana
Upon its television debut in December of 1993, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York session was already monumental—intensely intimate and unique among prior episodes of Unplugged, which usually operated as greatest-hits showcases. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, however, the band’s performance assumed near-mythical status, airing around the clock in the weeks following the singer’s death and serving several roles for a shocked, grieving fanbase: a portent, memento, and elegy all at once.

Had they never appeared on Unplugged, it’s likely that Nirvana might be perceived in a significantly different light today. They were a ferocious and often unpredictable live act, capable of wreaking mayhem on their instruments and each other while delivering their searing yet melodic brand of punk. The release of MTV Unplugged in New York in November of 1994 provided a full window onto the kinder, gentler Nirvana only hinted at on the band’s three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for ‘90s alternative music’s ascendance to Important Art just before its descent into self-parodic commerce.

Of course, commerce is alive and well in the 25th anniversary edition of MTV Unplugged in New York, which may be viewed with understandable suspicion by fans long inundated with special editions and live-show unearthings that have effectively wrung Nirvana’s catalog dry. (This year alone has already seen the release of Live at the Paramount and Live and Loud.) But considering MTV Unplugged in New York’s titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the band’s performance that were previously only available on the show’s DVD release.

Over the years myths have grown around MTV Unplugged in New York, a major one claiming that the band was in shambles leading up to the taping of their performance at Sony Music Studios. While the new tracks don’t rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story that’s largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohl’s heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like “Come As You Are” and a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” where his trashing instincts almost overwhelm the rest of the band. Thankfully, Grohl reined in his thundering style after he was offered quieter brush and Hot Rod sticks by Unplugged producer Alex Coletti just before the official performance.

While none of the five new tracks on this reissue are unlistenable, they’re expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobain’s vocals sound strained on “Come As You Are,” while on a cover of the Meat Puppets’s “Plateau,” several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwood—who, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songs—are off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993’s In Utero. In rehearsal, “Pennyroyal Tea” is undone by Pat Smear’s distracting backup vocals and a guitar played a turgid step lower than the one on the studio recording.

Beyond the fly-on-the-wall rehearsal tracks, the rest of MTV Unplugged in New York remains as it’s always been. The album hasn’t been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison d’être. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvana’s delivery, but especially Cobain’s. It’s also in the mesmerizing spell of the group’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety and cast light on their own artistic worldview with several unusual yet impassioned covers, including their towering, chilling take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” MTV Unplugged in New York is simply a timeless performance, one all the more impressive for having come together through reserves of musical acumen and sheer guts.

Label: Geffen Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Pet Shop Boys’s Hotspot Points to Potential Joy Amid a Backdrop of Dread

If the world is burning, the album asserts, you might as well enjoy the bonfire.

4

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Pet Shop Boys
Photo: Phil Fisk

Reportedly the last in a trilogy of collaborations with producer Stuart Price, Hotspot is stuffed with instantly infectious melodies and lyrics that flaunt the Pet Shop Boys’s fierce intellect. Eternally sly postmodernists Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are at their funniest here, embedding bouncy synths with barbs directed at failing political institutions across the globe (their own kind of hotspot), social hypocrisies, and even themselves.

The bleeping synth hook of the opening track, “Will-o-the-Wisp,” is the sonic equivalent of mainlining sucrose, and only Tennant would think to use the song’s chorus as an occasion to reference the Vienna U-Bahn metro system. But he’s after something less esoteric and much knottier. A kind of sequel to 1993’s groundbreaking “Can You Forgive Her?,” a song about repressed homosexuality, “Will-o-the-Wisp” finds the narrator running into an old flame on a train and wondering what’s become of him and whether the two will even acknowledge each other. “But maybe you’ve gone respectable/With a wife and job and all that,” Tennant deadpans in a tone of hilarious disdain that suggests no fate could be more horrifying, before delivering the come-on: “Give me a smile for old time’s sake/Before you run away.”

Hotspot consistently points to potential joy amid a backdrop of dread. Over the euphoric house keyboards of “Happy People,” Tennant’s nimble rapped verses (lest we forget that this is the group that launched their career with “West End Girls”) allude to “The sense of so much missing/When the world gets in the way.” Lead single “Dreamland”—featuring Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, whose own work is indebted to the Pet Shop Boys—might scan at first as romantic four-on-the-floor club filler, but the famously progressive and unflinching Tennant employs the title’s fantastical metaphor to eviscerate the very real leaders who’ve abdicated their countries’ responsibility to take in refugees. “You don’t need a visa,” he sings of an imagined destination. “You can come and go and still be here.”

Not all is (quite) so grim. “You Are the One,” with its sweet yearnings and sticky percussion, ranks among the Pet Shop Boys’s most straightforward love songs, and they’ve rarely sounded more convincing. While they’ve long knocked rock music (Tennant recently joked that the acoustic guitar “should be banned”), “Burning the Heather” adopts the rock textures of 2002’s Release with, um, an acoustic guitar. Autobiographical lyrics describe a fading troubadour who sits in a bar alone insisting that he’s fine before, finally, reaching out for company.

Tennant’s satire can, however, sometimes tend toward glibness, as on “Monkey Business,” in which he vaguely targets a traveler who just wants to get wasted on margaritas and wine. But the track is saved by the irresistible disco production and the darker implications of the unchecked hedonist at its center looking for “a party where we all cross the line.” If the world is burning, the album asserts, you might as well enjoy the bonfire.

The Pet Shop Boys are pranksters to the end, in this case literally. Non-fans would be forgiven for finding closer “Wedding in Berlin” confusing or just grating. But its tragicomic vision of marriage represents a statement of defiance. Church organs interrupt the aggressive EDM beat more like a nightmare than a reprieve. Tennant clearly takes vows less than seriously, reducing them to an act of bourgeois convenience: “A lot of people do it/Don’t matter if they’re straight or gay.” It’s a happily stinging finish to an album that proves no one is safe in the hands of Tennant and Lowe, and that pop can be anything but pedestrian.

Label: x2 Release Date: January 24, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Drive-By Truckers’s The Unraveling Is a Bleak Reflection of the Times

The band’s 12th album is constructed on the premise that the personal is political.

4

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Drive-By Truckers
Photo: ATO Records

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

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Review: With High Road, Kesha Finds a Comfortable Middle Ground

The album sets out to prove that people are complicated creatures, capable of being more than one thing.

3.5

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Kesha
Photo: Shore Fire Media

The opening track of Kesha’s fourth album, High Road, begins with a piano melody in the key of Cheers, followed by a life-affirming refrain about “the best night of our lives.” But, then, “Tonight” abruptly pivots to a flurry of 808s and Kesha’s half-rapped, half-slurred admission that she can’t find her phone. If that sounds awfully familiar, that’s precisely the point. “Woke up this morning, feeling myself/Hungover as hell like 2012,” she quips on the following track, “My Own Dance,” an obvious nod to her breakout hit “Tik Tok.”

If 2017’s Rainbow proved that Kesha didn’t need producer-cum-svengali Dr. Luke to create compelling pop music, High Road is an attempt to show those who lamented her shift away from party anthems that people are messy, complicated creatures, capable of being more than one thing at the same time. The album’s first single, “Raising Hell,” is a gospel-tinged rave-up that provides a bridge between Kesha’s breakout sound and the more reflective, roots-inspired Rainbow. It’s admittedly hard not to long for Dr. Luke’s euphoric EDM hooks, but the album’s ferocious opening salvo makes clear that even when she wasn’t the one navigating, Kesha has always been in the driver’s seat.

By the album’s midpoint, she returns to the heart-on-her-sleeve introspection of songs like “Praying,” even making melodic reference to that momentous single during the coda of the midtempo “Shadow.” The next track, “Cowboy Blues,” is a meditative acoustic ballad that finds the singer examining the ways in which loneliness can cloud one’s instincts (“They say you’ll know when you know/What do you do when you don’t?”), while the country-inflected “Resentment” transcends the genre’s typical narrative of a woman scorned (“I don’t hate you, babe, it’s worse than that”).

From Brian Wilson to Sturgill Simpson to Big Freedia, the guest artists featured throughout High Road are as disparate as the songs themselves. “The Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)” is a silly, vaudevillian rejection of grown-up things, while “Birthday Suit” is pure retro pop, complete with glitchy sound effects inspired by Super Mario Bros. And despite “Ke$ha” receiving a guest credit on “Kinky,” the track is more of a throwback to early ‘90s R&B than to the Auto-Tuned electro-pop of the early 2010s.

Those mottled sounds make High Road Kesha’s least consistent album to date, at least sonically. But there’s a clear emotional through line from the joyous, unapologetic bombast of the album’s first third to the naked vulnerability of “Father Daughter Dance,” in which Kesha deliberates on the absence of a formative relationship in her life (“The worst part of this is I’m not even sad/How do I miss something I never had?”), and the rapture of the gospel-infused closing track, “Chasing Thunder.” With High Road, Kesha has found a way to double back and carve out a comfortable, if not happy, middle ground.

Label: RCA Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Destroyer’s Have We Met Is As Strangely Vexing As It Is Familiar

The album both calls attention to its artifice and proves it can still hold a broad emotional range.

4

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Destroyer
Photo: Ted Bois

Dan Bejar insists there’s no deeper meaning to the name Destroyer. In 2016, he told NPR he chose it because “It’s got three syllables, which is good, but it’s still one word, that’s also cool.” And yet, Destroyer figuratively destroys itself every few years: abandoning guitars for electronics, or veering from big-band dramatics to adventures in solitude.

Bejar began Destroyer as a solo project, tracking songs by himself on a basic four-track cassette recorder. His touring band has grown its ranks since then—peaking with the current eight-piece art-rock orchestra—but in the studio, Bejar has occasionally opted to return to the DIY spirit of his earliest work, as he did on 2004’s Your Blues, which was performed almost entirely on MIDI instruments. Destroyer’s 13th album, Have We Met, was constructed similarly, with electronic elements layered on top of Bejar’s basic demos. Not unlike his lyrics—which are the most layered and entertaining they’ve been in years, both dark and funny—the resulting music is as vexing and strange as it is comforting and familiar.

Unlike Your Blues, though, Have We Met features real electric bass and guitar, and the synths are slicker and fuller, landing very far from the chintzy, fake-sounding tones Bejar employed on that album. And the drums on Have We Met are heavier and funkier than on any previous Destroyer album. On “Kinda Dark” and “Cue Synthesizer,” they lock into a dirty stutter, crossing over into hip-hop-like territory and cleverly contrasting Bejar’s relaxed delivery.

Have We Met is perhaps closer in timbre to 2011’s Kaputt, with its angular guitar work, dreamy synthscapes, and Bejar’s detached, lackadaisical vocals. But while the synths on Kaputt are cold and dreary, and distinctly retro, here they’re warm, inviting, and modern, establishing an entirely distinct emotional tone. Swaying reveries like “University Hill” and “foolssong,” which Bejar first played live in 2009, are much sweeter-sounding than any other recent Destroyer songs. “It Just Doesn’t Happen” plays up a similar late-night, neon-lit atmosphere as Kaputt, but the synths here are more evocative of a video game arcade than a discotheque. Even as Bejar calls attention to the artifice of his musical surroundings on “Cue Synthesizer”—“Did you realize it was hollow?” he asks before listing off the culprits of this “idiot dissonant roar”—he proves that artifice can still hold a broad emotional range.

Credit for this should go largely to longtime producer and bassist John Collins, who mostly pieced together the final tracks himself on top of Bejar’s home demos. (The only personnel on Have We Met are Collins, Bejar, and guitarist Nic Bragg, whose distinctively wobbly playing has been perhaps the sole consistent element in Destroyer’s ever-shifting sound since he joined the band in 2002.) To Collins’s credit, the album certainly sounds more like the work of a full band than that of someone seated alone at a keyboard, iPad in hand. Still, the arrangements are inevitably more utilitarian and less focused on band dynamics than any of Destroyer’s post-Kaputt efforts. This is vital, because for the first time in too long, those arrangements sound like they’re built to follow Bejar’s voice and lyrics rather than the other way around.

Bejar the enigmatic, drunken poet has for several Destroyer albums now taken a back seat to Bejar the singer and bandleader. And while the singing on Have We Met remains tastefully restrained, lyrically there are glimpses of the younger, brasher Bejar here. He makes himself known a verse into opener “Crimson Tide,” the sort of rambling stream-of-consciousness epic that used to constitute almost the entirety of Destroyer albums. It’s a quintessential Bejar track, largely for its liberal use of comfortingly well-worn lyrical tropes: the direct juxtaposition of the poetic with the flippant and coarse; conscious contradictions like “I was like the laziest river/A vulture predisposed to eating off floors/No wait, I take that back”; direct references to other songs, both those of others and his own, including allusions to, of all things, “The Gambler,” as well as at least two other Destroyer tracks.

The rush of catharsis “Crimson Tide” provides is rivaled a few songs later by “The Raven,” which opens with its own slippery couplet—“Just look at the world around you/Actually no, don’t look”—and proceeds to careen through delightfully idiosyncratic territory, from a “city of dying the embers” to a “petite terror train” and “the Grand Ole Opry of Death.” Despite the apocalyptic imagery, the tone is invigorating. “It feels so good to be drunk on the field again,” Bejar intones, his voice quivering with the kind of ardor that he rarely draws for his singing anymore. Like most of his lyrics, if there’s a literal meaning to the line, it’s impossible to parse, but the implication is clear enough: Bejar is feeling the groove again.

Label: Merge Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: With Manic, Halsey Fearlessly Inhabits Her Myriad Parts

The singer’s refusal to pick a lane is what makes the album her most compelling effort to date.

4

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Halsey
Photo: Aidan Cullen

In a recent interview, Halsey, née Ashley Frangipane, lamented the confusion with which her music and public persona are sometimes met in the press. “Like, how fucking immune are you to the human experience?” she scoffed, incredulous at the implication that she has—or indeed is even able—to choose just one version of herself. Certainly, at least over the past year, her music has defied easy categorization; from the trap-influenced “Without Me,” to the punky “Nightmare,” to her guest appearance on K-pop group BTS’s vibrant “Boy with Luv,” she’s slipped from genre to genre effortlessly. It’s this refusal to pick a lane that’s precisely what makes Halsey’s third album, Manic, her most compelling effort to date.

The album’s shifting production style allows Halsey the space to inhabit different parts of her personality and even invite them into conversation with one another. Opening track “Ashley” gets the album off to a confessional start: “I told you I spilled my guts, I left you to clean it up,” she sings, and it’s hard not to feel like that should be in the present tense, so affected is her open-throated, emo-inflected delivery. “Clementine” is no less raw, but here she creates a subtler atmosphere, though no less disquieting as a cyclical piano line rings out like the melody of a music box as she breezily delivers the lyric “I don’t need anyone/I just need everyone and then some” and her more distraught backing vocal echoes the sentiment.

Rarely does Halsey let herself off the hook across the album’s 16 tracks, confronting even the most damaged parts of herself head on. But she doesn’t let the men who did the damage off scot-free either. “I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you/’Cause you can’t love nothing unless there’s something in it for you,” she sneers on the country-inflected “You Should Be Sad,” and there’s no shortage of derision on “Without Me”: “And then I got you off your knees/Put you right back on your feet/Just so you can take advantage of me.”

The most arresting moments on Manic come via openhearted storytelling, as on the gorgeous closing track, “929,” which is composed of a series of vignettes as Halsey recounts the precise time of her birth, her teenage years in a “cheap apartment,” the most exploitative moments of her career, and the hope that her father will finally pick up the phone. It’s a welcome moment of quiet reflection after 15 tracks of shifting perspective, tone, and genre, as it sees Halsey expose herself with precision and purpose. Bearing your soul publicly is fraught with complications—“I should be living the dream/But I’m livin’ with a security team,” she sings ruefully on “Still Learning”—but it does seem, for Halsey, to be a truly productive way of figuring out what makes her complicated in the first place, and how to embrace those complexities without fear.

Label: Capitol Release Date: January 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Eminem Drops Surprise Album and Anti-Gun Violence Video for “Darkness”

Music to Be Murdered By was released unexpectedly, accompanied by a music video for the track “Darkness.”

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Eminem
Photo: YouTube

Less than 17 months after his last album, Kamikaze, swooped in out of nowhere, Detroit rapper Eminem, né Marshall Mathers, has dropped another surprise album. Music to Be Murdered By was released unexpectedly tonight, accompanied by a music video for the track “Darkness.”

Directed by James Larese, the clip was seemingly inspired by the 2017 Las Vegas gun massacre, as Eminem narrates the disturbing inner thoughts of an isolated, mentally ill mass shooter. The video ends with the message, “When will this end? When enough people care” and a call to register to vote.

The 20-track album features collaborations with Ed Sheeran, Juice WRLD, Q-Tip, Anderson .Paak, and more. It also includes a song called “Stepdad,” about the rapper’s abusive stepfather.

Music to Be Murdered By is out now on Shady/Aftermath/Interscope Records.

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Review: Selena Gomez’s Rare Is Spotty in Its Attempts at Authenticity

Despite glimmers of authenticity throughout the album, it’s hard to discern who Gomez is, musically or otherwise.

3

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Selena Gomez
Photo: Sophie Muller

Selena Gomez is no stranger to reinvention. After making the tricky transition to maturity with a starring role in Harmony Korine’s drug-fueled 2013 film Spring Breakers, the former Disney sweetheart stepped out as a bona fide solo pop star with Revival, an album chockablock with R&B and dance-pop gems.

On her long-awaited follow-up, Rare, Gomez attempts another about-face, shedding the empowerment anthems and EDM-infused bangers of Revival and aiming for a quirkier brand of pop and, purportedly, a new sense of candor. But even though this is the closest she’s invited us into her headspace, it still feels like we’re being held at arm’s length. Despite glimmers of authenticity, it’s hard to discern who Gomez is, musically or otherwise.

Notably, it seems like Gomez is finally making music she can fully get behind. The album’s four-and-a-half-year germination seems to have heartened the singer to incorporate more vulnerability into her songs. Whereas on Revival, Gomez tiptoed around emotional rawness, there are moments throughout Rare in which she fully inhabits it. On the stirring lead single, “Lose You to Love Me,” the most evocative vocal performance on the album, she dons the clarity of hindsight, which yields uncompromising truths: “I needed to hate you to love me.”

Elsewhere, attempts at emotional authenticity miss the mark. The platitude-ridden “People You Know” suffers from distracting Auto-Tune, which produces a distancing effect as Gomez offers up such banalities as, “People can go from people you know to people you don’t.” More insightful is “Cut You Off,” a midtempo meditation on protecting oneself from a toxic relationship; the chorus’s ascending melody are redolent of Taylor Swift’s best pop incursions, but the track is sanitized to the point of being forgettable.

Rare continually teases intriguing forays into leftfield pop, but so many of the album’s experiments come off as just that, without ever crystallizing with memorable hooks. Gomez’s breathy vocal on “Crowded Room,” assisted by a melodic verse from rapper 6lack, lands on just the right side of fragile, but the track’s innocuousness lets the singer float away completely. The pulsing bass of “Fun” calls to mind her excellent, one-off 2017 single “Bad Liar” (included on some deluxe versions of this album), but the chorus rests on a scant four words—“You look like fun”—and a flimsy guitar riff. On the title track, Gomez makes it known to a distant lover why she’s rare and deserving of attention, but based on her performances throughout Rare, it’s dubious as to whether she’s convinced of that or not.

Label: Interscopes Release Date: January 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs

We count down Janet’s 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites.

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The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs

Nothing summarizes Janet Jackson’s contributions to pop music any clearer than the interlude that serves as the transition between Rhythm Nation’s opening trio of socially conscious tracks and the largely feel-good love songs that follow: “Get the point? Good, let’s dance.” She’s gone through many phases (industrial trainee, man-conquering vamp, spiritual gardener, 20-year-old), but span her entire career and those stages seem less clearly delineated than most comparable icons’ respective chapters, with symmetrically uniform peaks and surprisingly rare valleys. With Janet, the pleasure principle has always served as her musical conscience, and it’s guided her through a career near unparalleled in its ability to serve unfussy pop confections. Unlike that of big brother Michael or her rival on the ‘80s and ‘90s dance charts, Madonna, there ain’t no acid in Janet’s delivery, just bubblegum. The nasty boys of Slant have decided once and for all to count down her 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2015.


25. “Feedback”

Technology is the thrust of 2008’s infectious and ridiculously weird single “Feedback.” With it, Jan got her 4/4 back, equating her vagina to a subwoofer (and, notably, her clit to guitar strings) and her swagger to a heavy-flow day. The beats are spare but oppressive, the synths scratchy and impatient, the perfect accompaniment for the singer’s libidinous frustration. Sal Cinquemani


24. “All for You”

Hard to tell which was bigger: this comeback disco anthem (which sat atop the Billboard charts for a lusty seven weeks in 2001) or the size of the impressive basket the guy who caught Janet’s eye apparently had (and upon which, according to the lyrics, she later sat atop). What was striking about “All for You” at the time wasn’t its unabashed frankness (the entire song is Jackson basically knocking the listener upside the head with the promise that she’s not hard to get), but the atmosphere of airless frivolity around it. It’s a sex jam that sounds like a carnival ride. Henderson


23. “Funky Big Band”

Realness, as anyone who’s seen Paris Is Burning knows, presumes aspirational designs among those who espouse it. “Funky Big Band” grasps that harshly glamorous concept right from its opening interlude, “The Lounge,” which drops listeners into the illicit milieu of a password-only speakeasy before reminding them, “You’ve got to be real/If you want to hear the funky big band.” From its tangy clavinet doodles to its roaring Lionel Hampton-sampled jazz loops (producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had clearly spun Soho once or twice), “Funk Big Band” is the militant bastard stepchild of the zoot-suit antics of “Alright.” Henderson


22. “Velvet Rope”

A song about self-empowerment, featuring a children’s choir and violin solo to boot, smacks of inevitable mawkishness. But with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s thoughtful production, Janet’s unpretentious delivery of even lyrics like “One love’s the answer,” and violinist Vanessa Mae’s edgy solo, this potential schmaltz-fest became a thoughtful theme-establishing introduction to Janet’s most personal album to date. Cinquemani


21. “Lonely”

Throughout Janet’s imperial phase, the template called for each of her albums to close out with a suite of love ballads. Skippable as any of them may have seemed when all you wanted to do was follow Janet’s own mantra “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” the best of them—like this sultry, intimate invitation from one isolated soul to another—expose themselves at the most unexpected moments. Just like sex. Henderson

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Review: Poppy’s I Disagree Obliterates the Niceties of Genre Convention

The album tosses the singer’s pop aesthetic into the shredder with heavy metal and industrial rock.

3.5

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Poppy
Photo: Jesse Draxler

In many ways, Poppy was an inevitability: a YouTube personality turned pop singer, portrayed by Moriah Rose Pereira as a cyborg controlled by “them”—referring, presumably, to co-creator Titanic Sinclair and the duo’s actual or imagined corporate overlords. From Alice Cooper to Lana Del Rey, there’s a storied history of musicians concocting personae for public consumption, but Pereira has taken the gimmick to absurd, if predictable, lengths, conducting entire interviews as a soft-spoken, obedient automaton that seems culled directly from a straight male fantasy. Poppy’s early YouTube videos were glorified ASMR porn, featuring the singer sensually licking cotton candy from a stick and blankly answering a disconnected rotary phone, an ominous male voice—presumably Sinclair’s—occasionally posing questions to her like a sexual predator might to a captive.

For Pereira and Sinclair, with whom the former recently cut ties, Poppy is a commentary on social media and a satire of how we use the internet more broadly. But Pereira’s decision to finally break character during an interview with NME last year represented a more intriguing development, conveniently doubling as an extension of the Poppy narrative, wherein she becomes sentient, and a reflection of Pereira’s ostensible real-life struggles as a female artist.

Though Poppy’s third album, I Disagree, was largely co-written by Sinclair, it’s littered with allusions that telegraph Pereira’s creative and personal emancipation from him. “Godspeed to the radio star/Stop the beat when they take it too far,” she delicately warns on “Sit/Stay.” Opening track “Concrete” is about the killing of one’s former self—“Bury me six feet deep and just cover me in concrete, please/Turn me into a street”—while “Nothing I Need” and the title track find her reevaluating her own values and those of others, respectively. “If only all of you could see the world I see,” she sings on “I Disagree.”

The album also marks a sonic rebirth for Pereira. Poppy’s first two efforts were defined by bubble-gum pop filtered through the lens of J- and K-pop, which, in turn, are influenced by American music, resulting in a re-translated sound that felt at once familiar and alien. I Disagree is decidedly “post-genre,” tossing Poppy’s pop aesthetic into the shredder with heavy metal and industrial rock, previously only hinted at on the tail end of 2018’s Am I a Girl? “Concrete” shifts abruptly between tempos and genres, between commercial jingles and Beatles-esque chamber-pop, all shot through with roaring electric guitar riffs. That might sound incoherent, but it serves as a bold, deftly executed mission statement.

Inspired by a quote by British writer Alan Watts, “Bite Your Teeth” boasts I Disagree’s starkest contrast between thrashing verses and harmonious hooks, with a dreamy, almost ‘70s AM radio-style bridge and a moody synth-string coda. The glitchy “BLOODMONEY,” which takes no prisoners in its skewering of religious hypocrisy, likewise juxtaposes abrasive noise-pop with sugary melodies, punctuated by blood-curdling screams.

These individual elements aren’t new to pop music—the album at turns evokes Rammstein, Sleigh Bells, and Lady Gaga—but it’s regurgitated and repackaged in a way that manages to escape derivativeness. Where Poppy does sound overtly imitative is on “Anything Like Me,” which hews extremely close to Billie Eilish’s brand of avant-pop—ironic given that the song is a response to an artist with whom Pereira and Sinclair have been engaged in a contentious copyright battle. The track, though, is more sonically expansive than Eilish’s work, an exhilarating guitar solo bumping up against the softly strummed acoustic guitar of the bridge, during which Pereira generously offers, “Love is never-ending in me.”

I Disagree’s final two tracks present a more promising direction forward for Poppy as she, presumably, continues to shed the artifice of her persona. Thematically, “Sick of the Sun” and the two-part “Don’t Go Outside” share a distinct sense of despondency: The former details the singer’s self-isolation, her unexpectedly emotive vocals couched in hazy, reverb-soaked guitars, while the latter shifts the focus to the world outside (“The TV says we’re out of time/Suck the fear in through your eyes”). The second half of “Don’t Go Outside” reprises several songs from earlier in the album, including the Marilyn Manson-indebted “Fill the Crown,” the sole track on I Disagree that veers into caricature. A lyric from that song—“You can be anyone you want to be”—takes on more potent significance when repeated here, the dream-pop approach charting a middle ground between the sugary dance-pop of Poppy’s earlier efforts and her nascent metal shtick.

Label: Sumerian Release Date: January 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Field Music’s Making a New World Plays Like a Strangely Funky History Lesson

The band’s latest is an ambitious concept album about the aftermath of World War I.

3.5

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Field Music
Photo: Sebastian Matthes

David and Peter Brewis of Field Music have carved a unique niche for themselves in the U.K. music world, outlasting many of their buzzy British peers. Their music has always stood out from the post-punk revival of the mid-2000s thanks to an intellectual underpinning and less emphasis on massive shout-along choruses. That tack continues on Making a New World, an ambitious concept album about the aftermath of World War I. Even if you don’t feel the need to follow along with their historical lyrics, these 19 short songs are an entertaining, unpredictable listen.

This isn’t the first time Field Music has delved into the past or current events: Previous projects have included a soundtrack for John Grierson’s 1929 silent documentary Drifters, following a day in the life of a fishing fleet, while their last album, Open Here, was inspired by their hometown of Sunderland becoming the first city to declare its vote in favor of Brexit. The band’s interest in WWI dates back to 2016, when they collaborated with electro-pop duo Warm Digits and the Northern Sinfonia orchestra on the soundtrack for Esther Johnson’s film Asunder, a historical retelling of the war’s effects on a small English town.

Making a New World was born out of another WWI project, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. The initial inspiration for the songs here was an image from the museum’s collection that used “sound ranging” to capture vibrations of gunfire. Like a seismograph, this visual technique’s peaking lines artfully represent the bullet-filled sounds in the minute leading up to 11 a.m. on November 11th, 1918, and the moment of smoke-clearing silence after the war’s end.

Each of the album’s songs focuses on a different facet of WWI, unfolding in chronological order like a series of art-rock audio plays. “Coffee or Wine” sets the scene with a serviceman’s journey home to a post-war world, as its narrator stomps through off-kilter piano pop. “A Change of Heir” uses spooky slide guitars as an introduction to Dr. Harold Gillies, whose pioneering skin grafts for injured soldiers led to some of the world’s first gender reassignment surgeries. “Only in a Man’s World” is a feminist outcry against the taxation of sanitary pads, set to jittery disco in the tradition of Talking Heads, while the warped grooves of “Money Is a Memory” most closely recall late ‘70s oddballs Godley & Creme.

The album marks the first full-band release from Field Music since 2007’s Tones of Town and the quartet jumps between musical styles adeptly. The Brewis brothers’ vocals sound as effortless as always, delivered with a laidback breeziness belying the songs’ sophisticated melodies. They’ve clearly studied the music of their predecessors with the same enthusiasm as WWI textbooks, and never has a history lesson sounded so strangely funky.

Label: Memphis Industries Release Date: January 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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