No Cities to Love, the album that formally establishes Sleater-Kinneyâs return after an eight-year hiatus, has a reputation to live up to. The band recognizes this: âWeâre trying to push through, so desperately, to something bigger,â drummer Janet Weiss recently told NPR. And while desperation isnât always a good look, this is a band thatâs often, and pointedly, made even love sound like the most cataclysmic of efforts.
Despite its resigned-sounding title, No Cities to Love is all about tryingâstriving to best a catalogue without peer, and sounding, minute-to-minute, like its makers mightâve done it. But while it could never be said that Sleater-Kinneyâs sense of levity has been integral to their sound, that soundâs also never been quite so void of it. Songs like âYouâre No Rock & Roll Funâ and âWords and Guitarâ exuded an approachable playfulness, even in their ironic stance, that No Cities to Love seems a bit too concerned with reasserting their bona fides, both in terms of craft and cultural awareness, to bother with. Thatâs because itâs an album rife with targets. Often these become the disillusion of held assumptions about the bandâs reunion (âPrice Tagâ) or the genre to which they belong (âNew Waveâ). Markswomen that Weiss, Carrie Brownstein, and Corin Tucker are, they never miss, even when the subject is more opaque, but the sheer heavy sense of obligation that sinks into these 10 manifestos can get a bit wearying.
Accept the slight strain of portentousness to this album, though, and youâll find a world-class rock band in as fine form as ever. The opening run of âPrice Tag,â âFanglessâ (with its super-melodic tuned-down guitar solo), and âSurface Envyâ is a ferocious assault of high-flying riffs and sky-scraping vocals, distinctly Sleater-Kinney in that they never fail to deliver on the hook. âSurface Envyâ in particular is a stunner, ground zero for the winningly off-kilter guitar tunings that become this albumâs loose musical motif, and nearly as hurricane-cacophonous as The Woodsâs power-keg standout âThe Fox.â
Itâs the guitars that consistently attract the most attention here, even if that seems a bit unfair to Weissâs eclectic kit work (notably, the dance-punk beat of âFanglessâ). Itâs not only the tuning either; itâs the effects (the grungy lead and tremelo-affected bridge of the title track, the choked power-chord fuzz of âNo Anthemsâ), the dexterity (prog-metal change-ups on âFadeâ), and the always-great tag-team work between Brownstein and Tucker. The latter in particular displays an admirable group ethic, dialing back when necessary to allow for clearer solos and leads from her innovative bandmate than were possible in the dense thicket of The Woodsâs crowded mix, which tends to make for a more focused attack.
Still, a certain poptimism is missed. Less abstractly, this album conforms a bit too much to a limited Sleater-Kinney narrative: that they do one thing really, really well. Fans of the band know this to be false, that their sound encompasses not just punk-rock glories, but the full scope of mid-to-late-â90s female-centric rock; bittersweet bedroom confessionals and woozy, soft-spoken ballads (All Hands on the Bad Oneâs âLeave You Behindâ and âThe Swimmer,â respectively) worthy of Liz Phairâs Exile in Guyville contribute to their make-up. And while thereâs a clear logic to stepping back from these less celebrated contours of their music, should No Cities to Love end up as not a reboot to the bandâs operations, but merely a belated parting shot, then The Woods would probably have been a more fitting finale.
Label: Sub Pop Release Date: January 20, 2015 Buy: Amazon
The 20 Best Rihanna Singles
We took a look back through the singer’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.
Like Madonna before her, Rihanna possesses a shrewd ability to sniff out percolating trends and a willingness to zig when sheâs expected to zag. âRussian Roulette,â âDiamonds,â and âFour Five Secondsâ were all surprising moves for an artist who could have safely preserved the status quo. The Barbadian singerâs wild success, which includes 11 solo #1 hits in the U.S., can also be attributed to her seemingly steadfast work ethic, yielding seven albums in just the first eight years of her career. That streak ended with 2012âs Unapologetic, and sheâs only dropped one album since then, 2016âs ANTI. While we wait out another dry spell in one of contemporary popâs most unexpectedly enduring careers, we took a look back through Rihannaâs catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.
Editorâs Note: Listen to our Rihanna playlist onÂ Spotify.
20. âFour Five Secondsâ
The reverberations of a âella-ellaâ or âna-naâ now feel something like a big bang: There would be no âWe Canât Stop,â no âCome & Get It,â without the syllabic tongue games Rihanna used to galvanize pop in the latter half of the aughts. Of course, hashtagging your way through vocals only gets a career so far, and if âStayâ saw RiRi try to demonstrate greater range through familiar forms, âFour Five Secondsâ does so the way she knows best: by inventing her own. Paired with Kanye West in his rough crooner mode, the two bleat bluesy woes over Paul McCartneyâs best Lindsey Buckingham impression. Itâs an oddly affecting formula thatâs unlikely to prove quite so imitableâthough Miley and Selena are welcome to try. Sam C. Mac
To say the world wasnât exactly thrilled to hear Rihanna, after just having bared her soul in Rated R about (among other things) âthat incident,â singing about how much chains and whips excite her would be a gross understatement. Career momentum, and a little assist from Britney Spears on the remix, thrust âS&Mâ to the top of the charts anyway, but youâd be hard-pressed to find many admitting that they, too, like the smell of sex in the air. But screw it, weâll say it. âS&Mâ might be the boldest of all Rihanna house jams, the moment when she truly found her Janet Jackson-circa-âThrobâ stride. Eric Henderson
18. âLove on the Brainâ
No one would ever confuse Rihanna with Amy Winehouse, but the doo-wop-inspired fourth single from 2016âs ANTI channels the late singerâs brand of throwback pop with its juxtaposition of retro instrumentation and, one might say, retrograde lyrics: âIt beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good that I canât get enough.â Rihanna shows off her vocal versatility throughout the track, at turns cooing in falsetto and dropping to a growl, as she unabashedly puts her heartâand her brainâon her sleeve. Sal Cinquemani
17. âMan Downâ
Rihannaâs follow-up to ANTI will reportedly be more reggae-influenced than any of her previous efforts. Of course, the singer has already paid homage to her roots countless times over the course of her career. One highlight is âMan Down,â about a woman who shoots a man in the public square, putting a feminine twist on Bob Marleyâs âI Shot the Sheriff.â Rihannaâs vocals are surprisingly agile, and âMan Downâ is one of her most confident performances to date. Alexa Camp
If âUmbrellaâ was a good girlâs gesture of generosity, âRehabâ is her reeling from the abuse of a bad man who squandered it. âIâll never give myself to another the way I gave it to youâ is one of the saddest Rihanna lyrics, but a blow blunted by the singerâs signature resigned delivery, deployed here as a coping mechanism. What might be a typical lovelorn ballad becomes tough and resilient, a tone well complemented by Timbaland snapping percussion and dramatic strings, and the anonymity Rihanna had been criticized for suddenly matures into a mode of vocalizing repressed emotion that sheâd never before explored. It only took a crummy metaphor to get her there. Mac
Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Like a Virgin” at 35
Weâre taking a look back at the song the Queen of Pop has perpetually made shiny and new.
Confession: Iâve never cared much for âLike a Virgin.â Madonnaâs 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but itâs a trifleâa novelty, reallyâwith its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-âBillie Jeanâ bassline, and the singerâs helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from âExpress Yourselfâ to âDonât Tell Me,â Madonna has proven sheâs capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on âLike a Virginâ were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonnaâs voice more childlike and âvirginal.â (Itâs a trick sheâs lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.)
Iâm in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself arenât particularly fond of âLike a Virginâ either, and sheâs chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time sheâs performed it. The single was released on Halloween in 1984, and this week also marks the 35th anniversary of the album of the same name. To commemorate this milestone, weâre taking a look back at three and a half decades of a song Madonna has mercifully, perpetually made shiny and new by sheer force of will and ingenuity.
MTV Video Music Awards (1984)
Feminists angered by Madonnaâs choice of a belt buckle during her performance at the MTV VMAs in 1984 seemed to miss the fact that her groom was a mannequin and that she chose instead to consummate her vows with her wedding veil. By the time sheâd descended her giant wedding cake, hit the floor, and rolled around on the stage, showing her knickers to the world, there was no confusion about what the M stood for in the giant MTV logo towering above her.
Music Video (1984)
Shot largely in St. Marksâs Square in Venice, Italy, the music video for âLike a Virginâ found Madonna playing Beauty to a man dressed as a Beast, specifically a lion (which not coincidentally happens to be the symbol of Mark the Evangelist). The singer is depicted as both virginal brideâsauntering impatiently through the basilica, undressing the furnitureâand street harlot, hungrily prowling the bridges and canals of the Floating City.
Blond Ambition Tour (1990)
Ostensibly growing weary of her biggest hit, Madonna reinterpreted âLike a Virginâ with a Middle Eastern-inspired arrangement for her Blond Ambition Tour, casting herself as harem girl (the other âgirlsâ being male dancers, natch, dressed in conical bras designed by Jean Paul Gautier). Having long shed her âBoy Toyâ image for a more empowering, self-reliant brand of post-feminism, the Queen of Pop once again made it clear that âLike a Virginâ is first and foremost a paean to self-love.
The Girlie Show (1993)
The story goes that Madonna looked up Gene Kelly in 1993 to ask him to give her notes on her Girlie Show Tour, the sets and choreography of which were inspired by Hollywood musicals from the 1950s like Kellyâs Singinâ in the Rain. âLike a Virginâ was originally intended to be sung by a man, and Madge had been toying with the idea of paying homage to Marlene Dietrich and French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier by dressing in drag for a slapstick-and-vaudeville version of âLike a Wirgin.â Kelly, then in his 80s, gave his stamp of approval, and the rest is, as they say, history.
MTV Video Music Awards (2003)
After putting the song into retirement for a decade, Madonna dusted âLike a Virginâ off for the 20th annual VMAs, this time playing the groom to Britney Spears and Christina Aguileraâs not-so-blushing brides in yet another gender-bending performance of her iconic hit.
Confessions Tour (2006)
In 2005, Madonna was thrown from her horse while riding at her country estate outside London, breaking her hand, three ribs, and her collarbone. The accident served as inspiration for her Confessions Tour the following year, which opened with an equestrian-themed segment. A knowing wink to the suggestion that there was nothing left of the pop star to reveal of herself, x-rays of her cracked bones were projected onto giant screens as she mounted a carousel horse, stroking the giant pole, and performing near-acrobatic moves to the beat of a discofied revamp of âLike a Virgin.â Back in the saddle, indeed.
MDNA Tour (2012)
Madonna ended up back on the floor for this striking, unexpectedly poignant rendition of âLike a Virginâ for 2012âs MDNA Tour. The delicate piano waltz was juxtaposed with the singer flashing her lady parts, defying those whoâd for years squawked that the fiftysomething performer should put on her clothes and take a bow. Asking fans who likely paid a pretty penny for their front-row seats to throw money at her like a stripper might seem crass, but then this tour-de-force segues into MDNAâs âLove Spent,â a song about the dissolution of the so-called Material Girlâs marriage to Guy Ritchie, who reportedly got millions in a divorce settlement.
Rebel Heart Tour (2015)
After more than three decades performing the hit that made her a household name, Madonna took things back to basics for her Rebel Heart Tour, delivering a somewhat faithful rendition of âLike a Virginâ for fans around the globe. She didnât roll on the floor and show the world her underwear, but she did hump the stage in homage to her infamous VMA performance and at one point stripped off her shirt.
See where âLike a Virginâ landed on our list of Every Madonna Single Ranked.
Review: Celine Dionâs Courage Digs Deep But Largely Comes Up Empty
In terms of both length and theme, the singerâs 12th English-language album can feel exhausting.2.5
In recent years, Celine Dion has been less likely to generate headlines for her music than for her eccentric fashion choices and personal developments (her husband of over two decades, RenĂ© AngĂ©lil, died in 2016). And the French-Canadian singerâs first English-language effort in six years, Courage, is unlikely to change that. The album opens with the club hit âFlying on My Own,â a rousing house anthem thatâs a bit of a red herring. With the exception of âLovers Never Dieâ and âNobodyâs Watchingââwhich deliver just enough peripheral urban-leaning pop and funk, respectively, to not offend Dionâs core audienceâthe rest of the albumâs 70-minute runtime is filled with boilerplate balladry.
Though Dion doesnât write her own material, much of Courage features lyrical references to loss and mourning. âI would be lying if I said Iâm fine/I think of you at least a hundred times,â she sings on the title track, a heart-wrenching piano ballad whose lovely versesââI talk to you like I did then/In conversations that will never endââare put into stark relief by its schmaltzy hook. Co-penned by Sam Smith, âFor the Lover That I Lostâ is expectedly mopey, though itâs less so in Dionâs hands, her vocals erring on the side of understatement. Sheâs in fine voice throughout the album, though signs of wear are obvious (and welcome) in her scratchy belt on âChange My Mindâ and the husky lower register she employs on âLook at Us Now.â
Co-written by Sia and David Guetta, the string-laden âLying Downâ feels both modern and classic, while âBest of Allâ comes closest to recapturing the timeless quality of Dionâs peak output. Perhaps intentionally, itâs not until the albumâs last third that true joy breaks through, on the soulful, doo-wop-inspired âHow Did You Get Hereâ and the gospel-infused closing track, âThe Hard Way.â In terms of both its length and themes, the 20-track Courage can feel exhausting, alternating between platitudes about grief and self-empowerment that, with only a few exceptions, make what should feel cathartic sound empty and even anonymous.
Label: Columbia Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: DJ Shadowâs Our Pathetic Age Paints a Grim Picture of Modern Life
The double album speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.3.5
Imagine a magician. He walks on stage and wordlessly holds up a canister of gasoline, which he then drinks from. He then places a stick of dynamite in his mouth and lights it like a cigar. The fuse burns down and the magician explodes, blowing a huge hole in the stage and soaking the audience with blood and viscera. As everyone is shocked and terrified, their ears ringing, the magician appears on a nearby balcony. Ta-da! You might ask how he did it. But a better question is: What does he do to equal if not to top himself?
Such is the problem thatâs faced DJ Shadow since 1996âs EndtroducingâŠ, which was genre- and era-defining in a way that few other electronic albums have ever been. His later output simply hasnât been as innovative or exciting, destined to be read in the context of that triumphant debut. Perhaps thatâs why Shadowâs sixth album, Our Pathetic Age, announces in its very title that his concerns are immediate. The cover, rendered in Pop Art style, shows a woman in semi-profile gasping as she looks at a smartphone. The cover art and title, taken in tandem, suggests that this double album is a stinging critique of our age of technological proliferation. Despite this, Shadow has said that he doesnât intend his latest to be an indictment of modern life as much as a comment on it, one that speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.
Our Pathetic Ageâs first half showcases Shadowâs renowned ability to build songs entirely out of samples. The best of these evoke clear referents through their soundscapes: âIntersectionalityâ layers synths on top of an icy, spare beat until it builds to a neon-lit climax that might make you wish you were riding in a spinner from Blade Runner, while âSlingbladeâ matches glitch-poppy drum programming to a fluttery, Koji Kondo-esque synth melody.
More compact than its sprawling title suggests, âBeauty Power Motion Life Work Chaos Lawâ shows Shadowâs continued ability to wring humor out of his work. The track starts with a funky synth figure that morphs into something more jazz-inspired, with jittery piano on top of splash-heavy drumming. Everything except for the drums drops out as the song comes to its conclusion, and Shadow delivers the punchline with a voice telling the drummer to âshut the fuck upâ against a polite smattering of applause.
On the albumâs second half, Shadow takes a back seat and welcomes an all-star cast of guests to bring their own identity to bear on the songs. De La Soul infuses the catchy, high-energy party anthem âRocket Fuelâ with their trademark infectiousness, while Nas and Pharaohe Monch trade furious verses on âDrone Warfare,â the most explicitly political track on Our Pathetic Age. The rappers address mass surveillance, economic inequality, corporate malfeasance, and racial injustice over an explosive, take-no-prisoners beat.
Ghostface Killah, Inspektah Deck, and Raekwon contribute verses to âRain on Snow,â which starts with a tired Game of Thrones reference but recovers by showcasing the trioâs dexterous lyricism. Shadow lays their vocals over a ghostly hook (âRain on snow makes it melt awayâ) and the juxtaposition makes their lines pop even more. âKings and Queensâ gives Run the Jewels another chance to make the case that theyâre one of the best rap duos in history, and the gospel choir chorus tethers the song to the groupâs Dirty South roots.
The title track and closer is a four-on-the-floor disco jam that makes excellent use of Future Islandsâs Samuel T. Herring, whose delivery splits the difference between Tom Waits and Bill Withers and settles perfectly into the groove. His lyrics paint a picture of a relationship recalled through the haze of time, his memories framed by years of emotional decay. Balanced against the propulsive music, the song is as effecting as anything Shadow has ever done.
Less successful is âC.O.N.F.O.R.M.,â which is peppered with boilerplate carping about Twitter and social media from Gift of Gab, Infamous Taz, and Lateef the Truth Speaker, while âSmall Colleges (Stay with Me),â featuring Wiki and Paul Banks, feels like something youâd hear in a grocery store. As is frequently the case with double albums padded with filler, Out Pathetic Ageâs biggest problem is that too much of it feels disposable, anodyne, or tossed off. But Shadow still manages to get some strong work out of both himself and his guests, and he deserves credit for not trying to merely recreate the same trick over and over.
Label: Mass Appeal Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: I Made a Place Finds Bonnie âPrinceâ Billy at His Most Existential
The album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life.4.5
âYou need to knock this one out of the park,â Will Oldham sings on âNew Memory Box,â the rollicking opening track of I Made a Place, his first album of original material in six years. If it sounds like heâs suffering from diminished confidence, donât be fooled: Oldhamâs albums as Bonnie âPrinceâ Billy always achieve a cohesiveness that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and I Made a Place is no exception.
The 13 songs here feature straightforward folk arrangements of guitar, drum, bass, fiddle, strings, horns, and the odd synth part. This is a song cycle with cosmic concerns in mind, and the simplicity of the music renders Oldhamâs voice (and lyrics) that much clearer. âLook Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Pastâ is made up of a gently strummed acoustic guitar and the singerâs indelible yowl. The lyrics tell a story about a man named Richard who undergoes a transfiguration as his materialistic worldview is reshaped both by quantum physics and spiritual renewal. Itâs weighty stuff, but Oldham sings the song with the playful shimmy of a George Jones tune. His ability to be profound and uproarious at the same time is on full display: âGet your sense of self from a hydrogen blast.â
The word âapocalypticâ is frequently applied to Oldhamâs work, and with good reason: His worldview has been haunted by some unnameable or just unnamed cataclysm, from the recent past or lurking over the horizon. I Made a Place finds his fascination with catastrophe and collapse alive and well, though the subject is addressed more elliptically than on past albums. Instead of a dystopian depiction of civilizationâs collapse, though, the album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life. Oldham is, for all his oddity, a deeply human songwriter, and throughout I Made a Place his tone is alternately celebratory and comforting.
Images of darkness, shadow, and fire pervadeâthough itâs unclear whether that fire is a conflagration or merely the worldâs sole remaining light source. Yet the tone is rather ruminative. âThis Is Far from Overâ finds Oldham contemplating âshorelines gone and maps destroyed, livelihoods dissolved and void,â but he reassures us that ânew wild creatures will be bornâ because âthe whole worldâs far from over.â Oldhamâs gentle warble is set to a softly plucked acoustic guitar, and a flute solo closes things on a hopeful note.
Throughout, Oldham serves as our Virgil, shepherding us through the shadowy worlds he builds. Sometimes heâs funny and sometimes heâs sad, but heâs always there to keep the listener safe. âSquid Eyeâ delights in some Seussian wordplay and features the albumâs funniest lyricsââIâll drive right in as if I were Aquamanâs kidââset to a Bob Wills-esque swinging bluegrass song, while âThe Glow Pt. 3,â the title of which nods to Phil Elverum, wrestles with love, impermanence, and dread from the vantage of the bottom of a bottle.
Some artists seem to have an uncanny ability to gesture to the infinite, to wring out from their chosen medium a staggering amount of profundity. Oldham is one such artist, having created an archive of songs that conjure the entire spectrum of human experience: hilarity and terror, joy and desolation, birth and death, and everything in between. I Made a Place is an apt title, as Oldham has carved out a niche for himself thatâs not quite like any of his contemporaries. He unpacks the darkest and brightest parts of life with an unblinking candor. On the title track, the singer speaks about creating a home in a world you didnât ask for. His thesis is simple: âI donât know why I was born, but I have made a place.â In that one, softly delivered lyric, Oldham resolves a philosophy seminarâs worth of existential crisis.
Label: Drag City Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Nirvanaâs MTV Unplugged in New York Remains a Timeless Musical Document
Much of the power of this set is in the bandâs intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety.4.5
Upon its television debut in December of 1993, Nirvanaâs MTV Unplugged in New York session was already monumentalâintensely intimate and unique among prior episodes of Unplugged, which usually operated as greatest-hits showcases. In the wake of Kurt Cobainâs suicide in 1994, however, the bandâs performance assumed near-mythical status, airing around the clock in the weeks following the singerâs death and serving several roles for a shocked, grieving fanbase: a portent, memento, and elegy all at once.
Had they never appeared on Unplugged, itâs 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 bandâs three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for â90s alternative musicâs 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 Nirvanaâs 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 Yorkâs titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the bandâs performance that were previously only available on the showâs 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 donât rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story thatâs largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohlâs heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like âCome As You Areâ and a cover of David Bowieâs âThe Man Who Sold the World,â 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, theyâre expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobainâs vocals sound strained on âCome As You Are,â while on a cover of the Meat Puppetsâs âPlateau,â several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwoodâwho, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songsâare off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of âPennyroyal Tea,â Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993âs In Utero. In rehearsal, âPennyroyal Teaâ is undone by Pat Smearâs 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 itâs always been. The album hasnât been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison dâĂȘtre. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvanaâs delivery, but especially Cobainâs. Itâs also in the mesmerizing spell of the groupâs 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 Leadbellyâs âWhere Did You Sleep Last Night.â 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
Review: FKA twigsâs Magdalene Is a Knotty Meditation on Self-Possession
A distinct feminine energy pulses through the singer-songwriter’s shimmering sophomore effort.4.5
A distinct feminine energy pulses through FKA twigsâs shimmering sophomore effort, Magdalene. Coming off the back of a major public breakup with actor Robert Pattinson and a period of ill-health which left her creatively and physically depleted, twigs made it her missionâboth in the writing of this follow-up to 2014âs LP1 and in the extraordinary wushu and pole training she undertook for her Magdalene tourâto embrace her pain.
Despite twigsâs vocal precision, thereâs always been an element of unpredictability to her music, as the production on her albums is prone to spareness one moment and cacophony the next. And on Magdalene, she leans even further into that volatility, her crystalline, Kate Bush-esque falsetto shape-shifting into something richer and thicker on âHoly Terrain,â angrier and rueful on âFallen Alien,â and sweeping on the transcendent âSad Day.â
At times, twigs seems caught between personas. On âHome with You,â her raspy delivery of âThe more you have the more that people want from youâ gives way to a soaring melody in the chorus, in which she counters, âI didnât know that you were lonely/If youâd have just told me Iâd be home with you.â Anger and acceptance coexist here, one growing out of the other.
twigs has a knack for spinning mystical imagery out of everyday experience, and on the album she explores the shifting power dynamics at play in her life. The prying, judgmental gaze of the paparazzi can be easily imagined as a many-eyed monster in âThousand Eyes.â Elsewhere, she calls upon religious references to subvert ideas of her own power. A lyric like âI lie naked and pure with intentions to cleanse you and take youâ on âSad Dayâ suggests both submission and dominance; the act of cleansing recalls Mary Magdalene washing Jesusâs feet, yet the phrase âtake youâ suggests that the object of her affections has no choice but to submit to her. Another often misrepresented biblical figure, Eve, comes to mind when twigs invites her lover to âtaste the fruit of meâ on the same song, but itâs not an act of temptation, itâs a plea.
For all the strength and self-possession twigs demands from herself and her lovers, she also provides space for the necessary grief that comes with saying goodbye to someone who wasnât able to meet her there. And for all the spiritual power sheâs filled with to âcleanseâ and âhealâ on âSad Day,â she also acknowledges the periods when she can barely move on the cyclical âDaybed.â Thereâs little sense on Magdalene that twigs believes thereâs an ideal way to be; all she can do is learn how to accept her own contradictions as a necessary part of growth. The album is a knotty meditation on the process of separating self-perception from public perception, and of twigsâs reclamation of her body and work as hers and hers alone.
Label: Young Turks Release Date: November 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Miranda Lambertâs Wildcard Lowers the Stakes to Diminishing Returns
The album lowers the emotional stakes but still manages to dole out plenty of country-rock bombast.3
In a recent New York Times profile, Miranda Lambert called her seventh album, Wildcard, âstraight down the middle Miranda Lambert.â Indeed, the album is a decided shift away from the somber reflection of 2016âs 24-track The Weight of These Wings, which was largely informed by the singerâs split from fellow country superstar Blake Shelton.
In many ways, Wildcard follows in the musical footsteps of last yearâs Interstate Gospel, the third effort from the Pistol Annies, Lambertâs supergroup with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. The first half of Wildcard tips its 10-gallon hat toward that groupâs style, which is typified by its brazen humor. Opening track âWhite Trashâ is a country-rock earworm that sets the albumâs tone with a fuzzed-out beat and rollicking banjo riff as Lambert proudly declares thatâdespite her 401k, treasures in her closet, and fancy houseâshe just canât keep her âwhite trash off the lawn.â Itâs not a confession so much as a flag-waving anthem.
Itâs this type of outlaw energy that catapulted Lambert to stardom on 2007âs Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and itâs still present in fits and starts on tracks like âWay Too Pretty for Prisonâ and âLocomotive.â The albumâs lead single, âIt All Comes Out in the Wash,â finds her rattling off an embarrassing laundry list of character flaws with a knowing wink. The songâs vignettes range from getting âfrisky with your boss at the coffee machineâ and âknocked up in a truck at the 7-Elevenâ to pouring âa merlot to go,â all delivered with nonchalant coolness.
The albumâs second half loses a bit of its impact when the tempo downshifts. Songs like âBluebirdâ and âHow Dare You Loveâ harken back to some of the shimmery pop of 2009âs Revolution, and Lambert lets the gloom in on the drinking ballads âDark Barsâ and âTequila Does.â On the midtempo âPretty Bitchinâ,â she rotely employs various uses of the word âprettyâ with diminishing returns, describing the pretty things she owns, how pretty she looks from the front and back, and a general feeling of her life being âpretty bitchinâ,â all things considered.
And while the latter half of Wildcard constitutes a bit of a shuffled deck of genres, thereâs enough of a kick to the album as a whole to warrant its title, and Lambert certainly has the chops to sell it. Though she lowers the emotional stakes (and tracklist count) here, she still manages to deal out plenty of country-rock bombast, even if sheâs traversed these genre paths before. At the very least, itâs nice to see Lambert kicking up her heels and having fun again.
Label: RCA Nashville Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Kanye Westâs Jesus Is King Is a Compelling But Veiled Act of Self-Worship
The album is impeccably produced but finds Kanye barely shifting his musical approach.3
Kanye West has all but solidified his position as popular musicâs most innovative high-profile producer, with every shift in his aesthetic focus over the last 10-plus years serving to found a whole new subgenre or micro-culture within hip-hop. That is, when those shifts arenât merely bringing already extant ones a greater level of attention. Kanye has also consistently come up with compelling ways of giving voice to the various narratives that heâs built his music around. That latter point is likely to be a bit more controversial than the first, but consider this: Even when listeners balked early on at the size of the ego on a Chi-town upstart who thought he could spit as well as he could produce beats for Jay-Z, or later when they took umbrage with the Kanye who spun unapologetic tales of dark, twisted celebrity demigods, or when they rebuked him only after his decadence started to fuel more explicitly autobiographical material, all of the resulting albums have been met with intense amounts of interest from both pro- and anti-Kanye camps alike.
With Jesus Is King, that reliable metric for gaging the success of a Kanye album suggests a less positive result. The music here 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 itâs 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 big problem is how Kanye addresses the shift itselfâin that Jesus Is King finds him barely shifting his musical approach.
The albumâs prevailing mood is braggadocio, ever Yeâs true north, and the greatest basis for his boastfulness is, familiarly, the resilience with which heâs carried himself on the path to commercial and personal success: his defiance in the face of a press he sees as persecuting him, his resistance to the temptations of social media, his income figures overcoming his debt. The particulars of this message run counter to the ostensible thesis of Jesus Is King, the lineâtaken from this albumâs âClosed on Sundayââthat resonates most with the message that a âborn againâ Kanye has stressed for most of this year: âMy life is His, Iâm no longer my own.â
Kanyeâs own take on Kanye is still very much the focus hereâand that becomes immensely frustrating when you consider âGod Is,â the counter-example that the album provides. The track is Jesus Is Kingâs undeniable highlight, a fleeting glimpse of what a Kanye gospel album could sound like. His voice more cracked and vulnerable than heâs ever committed to record (no AutoTune, imperfections left undoctored), and over a looped sample of gospel godhead James Clevelandâs song of the same name, Kanye sings, or rather tunefully sermonizes, about his absolute dedication to his faith, and to this chapter of transformation in his life.
âGod Isâ is impactful, but more importantly, it shows the grace with which Kanye can deliver the sentiments of religious thought (âAll the things He has in store/From the rich to the poor/All are welcomed through the doorâ) and the power of plainspoken prayer (âI know God is the force who lifted me up/I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cupâ). The song, almost disarmingly, contains only one genuine bragââSunday service on a roll!ââ and otherwise gives itself over entirely to âa mission, not a show.â Agnostics and believers alike may be moved by Kanyeâs words, or, more specifically, by how he emotes through them: âGod Isâ comes up against the physical limits of Kanyeâs voice at the same time that the artist arrives at an open-hearted acceptance of things beyond his control.
Contrast those sentiments with âClosed on Sunday,â which references Chick-fil-A in its chorus. Thereâs a schism that threatens the foundation of Jesus Is King, and itâs not one that should prevent Kanye from being both reverent and funny; itâs that his willingness toward blasphemy is so tempered to the point that it comes off as innocuous. âWhen I thought the book of Job was a job/The devil had my soul, I canât lie,â Kanye raps leadenly on âOn God,â a track that goes on to credit the Almighty with the production of the Yeezy Boost 350 sneakers but nebulously unloads blame elsewhere for the cut that the I.R.S. takes of their sales. Worse are the lyrics of âHands On,â in particular the dopey outro, thanklessly sung by gospel lifer (and frequent Ye collaborator) Fred Hammond: âTo praise His name, you ask what Iâm smoking.â
Jesus Is Kingâs saving grace, then, is its predictably sharp production: from the Yeezy-less salvo of âEvery Hour,â which features wall-of-sound vocals from the Sunday Service choirâwho rip through an impassioned song that already sounds like a canonized gospel standardâto the triumphant, brassy fanfare of the much-too-short closer âJesus Is Lord,â maybe Yeâs most baroque production since all of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The in-the-pocket production of songs like âFollow Godâ and âGod Isâ find him returning to one of his favorite formulas: A vintage soul sample first plays out relatively unabated, then is chopped and looped until itâs put in lockstep with a hard, galvanizing beat. âFollow Godâ takes as its foundation the Whole Truthâs âCan You Lose by Following Godâ and grinds a choice selection of bleating church organ and wailing vocal ad-libs against a pummeling bassline, providing the rhythmic bounce for Kanyeâs elastic flow. The Sunday Service choir is again on hand to elevate âSelah,â essentially a rousing chant of âhallelujahâ thatâs augmented by dynamic leaps in octave and by Yeâs colossal bursts of percussive, scraping-metal sound effects.
Thereâs an issue here too, though, and itâs that some of the music on Jesus Is King may sound awfully familiar to Kanye devotees in the wake of what now probably amounts to the most significant leak of his career. Back in April, tracks from Yandhi, the album that Kanye was promoting until he indefinitely delayed it, made their way online, and included several songs that have been reshaped for Jesus Is King. Leaks can provide all sorts of complications when it comes to the experience of an artistâs finished product, even under normal circumstances, but itâs vexing that many of the Yandhi tracks have been carried over appear to have been tweaked specifically for the purpose of better aligning with Kanyeâs embrace of his Christian faith. And the process of that revision has left many casualties, including the ingratiating âNew Bodyâ (and its snarling Nicki Minaj feature), which didnât fit the God-fearing theme here but which also hasnât been replaced by anything thatâs nearly as tuneful or exciting.
The absence of quite a bit of material that would have otherwise been fit for release is especially glaring in light of Jesus Is Kingâs skimpy, 27-minute runtime. It also points to another problem, which is that Kanye doesnât 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. All this amounts to Kanyeâs least substantial album to date, which is certainly a blow to the faithful, who continue to walk the finest of lines, putting up with Kanyeâs erratic career moves as a cost, with the reward being the reward of the music itself.
But Jesus Is King isnât the work of a has-been either; there are flashes of genius throughout, moments that insinuate where Kanye could go next with his music. In a sense, the albumâs modest pleasures play to its (intended) message, which is supposed to be one of human fallibility and the prospect of improving oneself. But Kanye is eventually going to have to confront the serious limitations that his faith is putting on the range of his artâs expression.
Label: Def Jam Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Brooke Candyâs Sexorcism Is Torpedoed by Humorless Innuendo
The rapper-singerâs long-awaited debut album proves to be disappointingly one-note.2.5
Following the visually arresting video for Brooke Candyâs 2014 single âOpulence,â RCA Records reportedly pushed the L.A. rapper-singer in a more mainstream direction, resulting in a series of watered-down pop songs that clashed wildly with her eccentric personality. With the possible exception of 2016âs âHappy Days,â Candy seemingly struggled to reconcile her avant-garde instincts with her desire to deliver a messageâin this case about mental health and substance abuseâto a wider audience.
Since parting ways with RCA in 2017, Candy has been free to let her freak flag fly, but her long-awaited debut studio album, Sexorcism, is disappointingly one-note. The daughter of a former executive at Hustler magazine, Candy has always been outspoken about her sexuality, and she expounds on the power of âpussyâ on nearly every song here. âWhen I ride the D, I make it wetâŠCum so hard, I wet the bed,â she raps over a spare trap beat on âXXXTC,â which all but wastes a feature from pop doyenne Charli XCX.
Candy has cited Madonnaâs Erotica as an influence on tracks like âRim,â a campy, formless tribute to analingus featuring RuPaulâs Drag Race alumni Aquaria and Violet Chachki. But Candy seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the enduring power behind the queen of popâs 1992 opus. Unlike Sexorcism, the majority of Erotica isnât about the physical act of sex, and even at its most explicit, both the pop craft and lyrical content of Madonnaâs album are smartly layered. Candyâs lyrics, on the other hand, boast a simplistic notion of BDSM: âTell me where it hurts and Iâll make it hurt better,â she proclaims on âFMU.â
When the album does stray from the topic of sex, as it does on âFreak Like Me,â Candy peddles boilerplate declarations of nonconformityââIâm not Americaâs sweetheart, Iâm more like Jeffrey Dahm[er]/Rather be hated for what I am than what Iâm notââin a polished pop package that likely would have pleased RCA. Only rarely does Sexorcism strike a balance between Candyâs rival inclinations: With its talk-box hook, opening track âNymphâ is both weird and catchy, while âFMUâ is propelled by an infectious sample from Lords of Acidâs âI Sit on Acid.â
Another â90s throwback, âCum,â finds guest Iggy Azalea spitting deliciously stupid couplets like âMurder the pussy, then plead your case/Fuck me good, then feed me grapes.â Unfortunately, the rest of the album is bogged down by humorless assertions of sexual prowess set to repetitive, narcotic beats (the inclusion of last yearâs âOomphâ would have provided a welcome change of pace). After nearly half a decade in record label purgatory, surely Candy has something more to say than âeat my ass.â
Label: NUXXE Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon