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Review: Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy

Flower Boy is easily Tyler, the Creator’s most emotionally risky, and rewarding, work to date.




Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy

Few artists in recent memory have resisted interpretation, or courted controversy, as devoutly as Tyler, the Creator. The 26-year-old rapper-producer has spent his career shrouding meanings and motives in Gen-Y irony, served with the shit-eating grin of a 4chan troll. So, when early reports about his new album, Flower Boy, suggested that Tyler was coming out as gay, the reaction on social media was telling. Five years ago, a similar confession from Tyler’s off-and-on collaborator Frank Ocean had prompted widespread praise and acceptance. Tyler, though, has been met with confusion, laced with a lingering suspicion that this was all just another meaningless, mean-spirited jest.

Tyler’s detractors had reason to be suspicious. His now-defunct blog-rap collective, Odd Future, was better known in some circles for their surfeit of rape lyrics and homophobic slurs than the fact that their ranks included two of the highest-profile queer artists in contemporary hip-hop: Ocean and Syd, frontwoman of alt-R&B combo the Internet. Now, in the aftermath of a presidential election determined as much by nihilistic meme wars as by conventional politics, the edgelord antics of Tyler’s 2009 mixtape Bastard and 2011’s Goblin feel less genuinely transgressive than outmoded. It’s thus fair for listeners who outgrew Odd Future sometime in Obama’s first term to question whether their former ringleader still has anything to say.

Tyler hasn’t exactly transformed into Kendrick Lamar. His reference to the Black Lives Matter movement on Flower Boy’s opening track, “Foreword,” is just that—a passing reference, not necessarily a sign of emerging political consciousness. But on “Where This Flower Blooms,” he does position himself as a kind of role model, promising to “tell these black kids they could be who they are.” And for much of the album’s 46 minutes, he does just that: presenting a disarming assortment of seemingly sincere, heartfelt confessions, paired with some of his richest and most cohesive beats to date.

Of course, the confessions that have received the most attention since Flower Boy’s release last week are the possible references to homosexuality, the most convincing of which is “Garden Shed,” a woozy trapped-in-the-closet metaphor featuring erstwhile British songstress Estelle. More compelling than the specifics of Tyler’s sexual orientation, however, are his broader revelations of vulnerability. He’s been rhyming frankly about depression and alienation since the Odd Future days, but never has he let his guard down quite like this: adopting a Pharrell falsetto on the lush love joint “See You Again”; pining for someone to “loiter in parking lots” with on “Boredom”; or worrying about suicide on “911”—as opposed to playing it for ghoulish shock value, like he did in the infamous “Yonkers” video.

Even Flower Boy’s brasher moments are riddled with self-doubt. The title of lead single “Who Dat Boy,” a prowling A$AP Rocky feature in the vein of Kanye West’s “Freestyle 4,” shows up again in the introspective “November” when Tyler asks himself if the question is “rhetorical and this shit is over.” This self-interrogation flows directly into what’s perhaps the album’s most touching moment: “Glitter,” another startlingly open proclamation of love framed as a voicemail message to its unnamed—and, yes, ungendered—subject. The song’s ending, a canned voice telling Tyler that his message wasn’t recorded, is typically deflating anti-humor but with an odd and welcome sweetness.

To call a Tyler, the Creator album “mature” is to damn it with faint praise. Indeed, Flower Boy’s sole weakness is that it lacks some of the musical recklessness of its predecessor, 2015’s scattershot, hyperactive Cherry Bomb—that it is, in other words, a little too mature. It’s a more polished and cohesive effort, but there’s nothing here quite as endearingly bonkers as Cherry Bomb’s epic Kanye/Lil Wayne feature “Smuckers”—a point Flower Boy proves when Weezy shows up again, on “Droppin’ Seeds,” to diminished effect.

If “maturity” isn’t quite the word for Flower Boy, however, the album is nevertheless a significant milestone. This is easily Tyler’s most emotionally risky, and rewarding, work to date—and, in its own way, more transgressive than anything from Odd Future’s punk-rap peak.

Label: Columbia Release Date: July 21, 2017 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.




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.




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.




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.




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.”



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.




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.



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.




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.




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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The 100 Best Music Videos of the 2010s

In many ways, the rebirth of the music video set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly.



FKA twigs
Photo: YouTube

The 2010s saw the continued democratization of media: more content, more ways to access and consume it, and, as a result, a more diverse audience. In many ways, the rebirth of the music video, formerly the withering marketing tool of what Jack White might refer to as the “corporation,” set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly. Choose what you want to watch, when you want to watch, and how often. Even more so than film and TV, though, short-form videos have the potential to provide an almost real-time commentary on the politics, technologies, and even sexual mores of the times. Of course, MTV programmers have been replaced by YouTube algorithms, which, when they’re not sending you down a rabbit hole to white supremacist screeds and 9/11 conspiracy theories, force-feed us what’s already popular. The decade’s most viewed music video, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” has been streamed 6.5 billion times in two years. In fact, none of the clips in YouTube’s Top 10 came even close to cracking our list of the 100 best music videos of the 2010s. The more things change…. Sal Cinquemani

100. Disclosure featuring Lorde, “Magnets”

Lorde has never been anything less than uncomfortably mature for her age, but the music video for Disclosure’s “Magnets,” a standout cut from the U.K. garage duo’s Caracal, transforms the gawky teen into a bona-fide femme fatale. The clip, directed by Ryan Hope, finds Lorde cavorting with a married man while his meek, buttoned-up, and sometimes bruised wife cautiously prepares his morning coffee and stares blankly out the window of their L.A. manse. “Let’s embrace the point of no return,” Lorde urges as she zombie-struts in her usual way down a glass-encased hallway in a patent-leather trench coat and blood-red lipstick. She gives the wife a knowing glance and pushes the man, tied to a chair, into the pool. Then, of course, she sets the whole thing on fire. Cinquemani

99. Alex Cameron, “Miami Memory”

Having met while making a mockumentary-style video for the song “Marlon Brando,” Alex Cameron and Jemima Kirke continue their fruitful collaboration with “Miami Memory,” at once a Technicolor dreamscape and a fearlessly intimate exploration of their dynamic as a real-life couple. The first third of the video seems to cast Kirke as a beautiful object—Cameron films her receiving a massage, then watches her dance—but the remaining two-thirds reset the balance. Kirke matches his gaze with hers, taking the camera over for herself, directing him, taking her turn to watch him dance. Anna Richmond

98. Gwen Stefani, “Make Me Like You”

Target teamed up with Gwen Stefani for the first music video ever created on live TV, which aired during the Grammy Awards in 2016. The video, which opens with the No Doubt singer awakening after an ugly car crash and being primped for a first date, offers audiences the chance to bask in its creators’ virtuosity, as well as the thrill of watching them fall on their faces—figuratively and literally. In fact, Stefani and longtime collaborator Sophie Muller, who directed the clip, were clearly betting on the latter sensation. During the song’s vocal breakdown, Stefani’s glittery orange high heels are swapped for roller stakes by a stagehand whose fingers momentarily peek into frame, and Gwen is whisked off to an adjacent roller rink, where she’s cleverly swapped for a body double who takes a hard spill. It’s quickly revealed, of course, that Stefani is safe and sound in the center of the rink, preparing for the video’s impressive final aerial shot. Cinquemani

97. Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop”

If the surreal images in “We Can’t Stop” were simply a tribute to youthful hedonism, it would be among the decade’s most pupil-dilating eye candy, but deconstructed down to its macabre symbols—edible skulls, blow-up dolls, taxidermia—it’s one of the trippiest, scariest videos of the 2010s. Cinquemani

96. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild”

Though it was filmed in the Czech Republic, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s breathtakingly shot “No Church in the Wild” plays as a broader comment on the civil unrest that’s enveloped both the Middle East and director Romain Garvas’s native Greece, as well as the violent conflict that seems to be roiling beneath the surface in places as distant as Wall Street and Madison, Wisconsin. Cinquemani

95. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”

The lead single from Katy Perry’s fourth album is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan. Whether the song, co-written by Sia and produced by longtime Perry collaborator Max Martin, is an endorsement of self-care or a critique of escapism in times of political upheaval is up for interpretation. What is certain is that a track with a hook that implores listeners to “Come on, turn it up/Keep it on repeat” had better deliver the goods, and this one most definitely does. Cinquemani

94. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”

The ambitious “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Zachary Hoskins

93. Chairlift, “Met Before”

Jordan Fish’s video for Chairlift’s “Met Before” gives viewers the freedom to dabble in some alternate outcomes for a trio of uncertain science grads caught in a potential love triangle. In having users act as the powerbrokers for all sorts of subtle decisions, Fish has essentially constructed a Choose Your Own Adventure for the YouTube generation. Kevin Liedel

92. St. Vincent, “Los Ageless”

Annie Clark portrays Tinseltown as a vivid dystopia in “Los Ageless,” lampooning the superficiality of the showbiz capital as she endures a cosmetic procedure that pulls at flaps of excess facial skin, à la Brazil, or standing, Barbie-like, next to a shredder that destroys the word “No.” A woman’s legs stretch out through a TV screen and writhe before a quivering Clark; she swallows otherworldly, undulating organisms; the lime-green slime of a foot bath appears to gain sentience and climb her leg—all striking images that take to outlandish extremes the very real absurdity of adherence to oppressive beauty standards. Josh Goller

91. Grimes featuring Janelle Monáe, “Venus Fly”

Adorned in some sequences in regalia that appears paradoxically both indigenous and extraterrestrial, while dressed as a steampunk-meets-Soul-Train getup in others, Janelle Monáe joins Grimes, who feverishly hammers away on drums, dons black angel wings, and bathes in crude oil in this slow-motion-heavy video for “Venus Fly.” Both directed and edited by Grimes, the video subverts fairy-tale princess tropes with the two artists cast as fierce warriors who shatter mirrors, devour apples, stomp roses, rip apart pearl necklaces, and wield flaming swords. Goller

90. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “In Good Faith”

A simple song for dark times, “In Good Faith” is nothing short of a secular hymn. Will Oldham sings about small moments of grace and nature: rocks being shaped into diamonds, people helping one another through each day. The accompanying video is similarly gentle, with a documentary-style look at a group of people making their way through the world. We see them in homes, tending crops, generally filling their time with the tasks that constitute the bulk of life on Earth. The climax shows most of the characters singing in Sacred Harp choirs, joyfully joining voices to celebrate the possibility one finds in the sacred and infinite. At a time when religion divides people as much as any other force on the planet, the song and the video gesture to a world where our shared humanity joins us more than our ideas divide. You can’t go five minutes on the internet without seeing someone accused of lacking it, but “In Good Faith” celebrates the possibility that we might all make it out alive. Seth Wilson

89. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”

The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Alexa Camp

88. Scott Walker & Sunn O))), “Brando”

In her video for “Brando,” filmmaker Gisèle Vienne isolates a child’s glimpse of a disturbing image and lingers on it, suspended in perilous motion—a cinematic motif comparable to Scott Walker & Sunn O)))’s knack for stretching a single reverbed-out twang to a repetitive standstill. This is a story of trauma told with the fewest possible strokes, wherein the dew in the mountain air feels fresh even as you realize you’re witnessing a long-buried memory play out for what must be the hundredth time. Vienne closes with an isolated, insinuating close-up that silently tells you everything you need to know. Steve Macfarlane

87. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”

Chance the Rapper may have come up as the acid-addled suspended school kid, but at heart he’s the coolest nerd in the drama program. The homespun stage sets of “Sunday Candy” pair with daring juke choreography for a heartwarming performance of the endearingly welcoming song. The fact that it was all done in one take gives it the exhilarating thrill of a barely rehearsed school play, executed perfectly just in time for opening night. James Rainis

86. Destroyer, “Kaputt”

In capturing the playful spirit of Dan Bejar’s air-rock odyssey, director Dawn Garcia has rewritten the manual. Clearly, if you want to make a good music video nowadays, it needs to include soft erotica, greasy teenagers, false oases, and flying whales. Liedel

85. Earl Sweatshirt featuring Vince Staples & Casey Veggies, “Hive”

If Tyler, the Creator’s videos are all about overblown, colorful images in line with OFWGKTA’s Loiter Squad aesthetic, Earl’s “Hive” acts as a counterbalance, more in touch with the menacing Odd Future of a few years ago. The minimalistic, barely lit setting presents Earl and his crew as a hooded force lurking in the shadows, and suggests that Odd Future—and rap music—doesn’t have to be loud and abrasive to be threatening. Kyle Fowle

84. Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”

As if the threat of having a scathing pop song written about them weren’t enough to make the world’s eligible young bachelors think twice about shacking up with the country starlet turned pop star, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” portrays the singer-songwriter as, to quote the song’s lyrics, “a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” In the clip, directed by Joseph Kahn, Swift and model Sean O’Pry spend a romantic weekend at the former’s lavish mansion. When she suspects him of texting another woman, she flies into a mascara-streaked fit, taking a switchblade to his portrait, a torch to his clothes, and a golf club to his sports car. By the time Sean discovers a hallway lined with the defaced paintings of Swift’s former suitors, it’s obvious Swift has also taken a skewer to her (perhaps unjustified) reputation. Cinquemani

83. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”

Claire Boucher’s video for “Flesh Without Blood” doubles as an ambitious look-book, a compendium of Grimes’s many sides: blood-stained 19th-century socialite, brooding gamer goth, high-fashion lounge lizard. Boucher manages to look devastatingly badass in every getup, reflecting her gleeful ability to integrate disparate pieces into an alluring, unprecedented whole. Rainis

82. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”

Director Chino Moya paints a vibrant but empty portrait of a techno dystopia filled with clean lines, monotone colors, and dull, repetitive tasks to complement Annie Clark’s ambivalent reflection on our digitally consumed lives. Donning a dress that pointedly resembles a straitjacket, Clark’s mindless drone warns of a future where TV replaces windows and, in turn, windows become mere objects over which to hang venetian blinds. Cinquemani

81. Tyler, the Creator, “Who Dat Boy”

Flower Boy may have been Tyler, the Creator’s “mature” album, but his self-directed music video for “Who Dat Boy” is proof that he still hasn’t lost his demented touch. Over the song’s horror-movie beat, Tyler disfigures himself in a mad-science experiment gone wrong, gets guest A$AP Rocky to “fix” him by replacing his face with white rapper Action Bronson’s, and hits the road. But as arresting as those visuals are, the cherry on top is the non-sequitur closing sequence, in which four multi-exposed Tylers show up to croon “911” like a one-man New Edition. The whole thing crackles with manic energy. Hoskins

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