Rock guitar has become an anachronism in todayâs musical landscape. St. Vincentâs music continues to get increasingly more electronic, and even Jack White toned down his histrionic fretwork in favor of more computerized sounds on his latest album, Boarding House Reach. Jenn Wasner, who earned acclaim for her guitar work on Wye Oakâs early albums, also seems to be positioning herself as more of a synth-pop chanteuseâa trend she and Wye Oakâs other half, drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack, solidify on their sixth album, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs.
Thereâs actually plenty of guitar throughout the album. The jagged opening riff on “The Instrument” contrasts boldly with the trackâs warmly gurgling synth pattern, while the squealing licks on the stormy “Symmetry” hit like lightning. But for the most part, Wasnerâs guitar work is a blended textural element among several at the groupâs disposal, from an array of synths to orchestral sounds. The Louder I Call is an album built mostly on jousting instrumental dynamics and sonic manipulation, set up by the opening 30-second instrumental, “(tuning),” in which a plinking piano butts up against robotic noises as it wavers between stately dryness and unearthly reverb.
This isnât the first time the duo has dabbled in electronica: Shriek, from 2014, was their first departure from traditional rock instrumentation, and Wasnerâs 2016 solo album as Flock of Dimes, If You See Me, Say Yes, followed in a similar vein. But in contrast to Flock of Dimesâs nostalgic dalliance in â80s pop styles, The Louder I Callâs electronic focus scans as distinctly modern. It isnât as sleek or hooky as If You See Me, but by design itâs a more atmospheric effort.
The album gets plenty noisy in places: on the propulsive title track, for one, and especially on “Symmetry,” with its pounding, skipping-CD chorus. But even with all the hyperactive synths and occasional moments of crunching heaviness, The Louder I Call plays like a dreamscapeâjust one set to danceable pop beats. Most of Wasnerâs vocals are cloaked in a wavery underwater effect, as if her voice is emerging straight from the cerebrospinal fluid. This is fitting for lyrics concerned with self-examination. On “It Was Not Natural,” Wasner manages to wring an entire song out of taking a walk in the woods and finding a strange object on the ground, while on the jaunty “Lifer,” she carefully ponders lifeâs entire arc: “I am not old but Iâve become/Afraid of things I never was/And stumbling on without a pause/Can only go so long.”
Ultimately, itâs the balance between the ethereal and the immediate that defines The Louder I Call. A fully formed, radio-ready slice of dramatic piano-pop like “It Was Not Natural” coexists seamlessly with dreamy reveries like the fully orchestrated vignette “My Signal” and the folky, Paul Simon-esque “Join.” It all manages to hang together thanks to the fact that, after some trial and error, Wasner and Stack have hit on a sound all their own.
Label: Merge Release Date: April 6, 2018 Buy: Amazon
Review: Sufjan Stevensâs The Ascension Aims for Great Heights but Often Gets Lost
The album is only partially successful at maintaining the singerâs impeccable songwriting.3
Sufjan Stevens has never shied away from big ideas. From 2005âs massive, baroque opus Illinois, to 2010âs bombastic Age of Adz, to 2015âs achingly personal Carrie and Lowell, the singer-songwriter never seems afraid to go all in on a sound or feeling. Throughout the last two decades, Stevens has churned out intermittent masterpieces, all of them taking on vastly different sonic sensibilities, and his ability to surprise in every conceivable mode has become, perhaps, his defining characteristic as an artist.
So, ironically, Stevensâs turn toward an almost entirely electronic-based approach with The Ascension, his first album in five years, doesnât come as a shock. Age of Adz, after all, incorporated programming and synthesizers into its explosions of impressionistic noise, but the expansive electronic soundscape that Stevens goes for here is a more complete transformation from his established sound. The album, however, is only partially successful at maintaining Stevensâs impeccable songwriting through this sharp transition.
A few too many of the songs on The Ascension get lost in the albumâs overwhelmingly dense production. Opening track âMake Me An Offer I Cannot Refuseâ starts off with a dark, thumping beat and sheer, foreboding synthesizers, while Stevensâs opening lines are chilling and silky, momentous and inscrutable: âMove me/Move like the waters I cannot drink/I have lost my patience/Make me an offer I cannot refuse.â He makes subtle manipulations to that line, hypnotically repeating the slippery melody as the song intermittently takes offâat one point, it literally sounds like a spaceship launchingâbefore then collapsing. While the first three minutes of are mystical and memorable, the song quickly begins to meander, sinking into repetitions of the title and, eventually, a pulsing, nonverbal coda.
As the album plays out, this feels less like a fluke and more like a trend; too often, the tracks stretch out far longer than seem necessary. The seven-and-a-half-minute âSugarâ spends its first half building tension with chilly atmospherics and a static beat, but it confuses the use of repetition for a great sense of immersion as Stevens slowly and dramatically unveils one pop bromideââCome on, baby, give me some sugarââad nauseam throughout the rest of the track. âDeath Starâ doesnât spend a lot of time getting to the point, but it similarly sacrifices a compelling structure for a repetitive hook and overstuffed kind of ambience.
While The Ascension, as a whole, falls short of Stevensâs best work, thereâs still plenty to like here. In fact, one of the albumâs flaws is that its most emotionally resonant tracksâlike the hazy devotional âRun Away with Meâ and the dreamy, starlit ballad âTell Me You Love Meââare frontloaded. âVideo Game,â Stevensâs take on a straight-up pop song, wonderfully melds his well-trodden examination of religious themes (âI donât want to be your personal Jesus,â he sings in a nod to the Depeche Mode song) with a strong melodic foundation. âLamentations,â meanwhile, is less straightforward and better for it, with an off-kilter beat that incorporates garbled vocal sounds, recalling the adventurousness of Age of Adz. These songs are sharper, more succinct representations of what The Ascension seems to be going forâa fully realized electronic reimagination of Stevensâs detailed and maximalist songwriting.
The albumâs 80-minute runtime makes some of Stevensâs lengthier explorations feel like more of a slog than they might have been out of context. Indeed, this album is so dense that it wouldnât be surprising if some of the less immediate tracks reveal their nuance as time goes on. Occasionally, stretching the limits of a song can do wonders, like on the mesmerizing closing track, âAmerica,â in which a repeated lineââDonât do to me what you did to Americaââcarries more weight with each utterance. But while Stevens often reaches great heights on The Ascension, he almost as often seems to get lost in his big ideas.
Label: Asthmatic Kitty Release Date: September 25, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Watch: Lady Gagaâs â911â Music Video Is a Surreal Death Dream
The video, directed by Tarsem, finds the singer awakening in a desert surrounded by pomegranates and a broken bicycle.
When Lady Gagaâs Chromatica saw its belated release in May, most of the attention was focused on its collaborative tracks with Ariana Grande, Blankpink, and Elton John. But the dramatic transition from the orchestral interlude âChromatica IIâ into the synth-pop dance tune â911â soon went viral on TikTok, making the latter the most-streamed solo cut from the album aside from lead single âStupid Love.â
Enthusiasm for â911â seems to stem mostly from the transition, but the song itself, which is reminiscent of past Gaga singles âLoveGameâ and âG.U.Y.,â touches on the timely topics of mental health and pharmaceuticals. The music video, directed by Tarsem and inspired by Armenian director Sergei Parajanovâs 1969 film The Color of Pomegranates, finds Gaga awakening in a desert surrounded by pomegranates and a broken bicycle. What follows is a surreal dreamscape featuring a bride adorned with a red cross symbol, a woman cradling a mummified body, and Gaga performing jerky choreography while dressed, of course, in a series of elaborate costumes.
The clip, which was shot at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, takes a turn for the heavy-handed when the music cuts out and Gaga begins to tearfully wail straight into the camera. Itâs quickly revealed that it was all a death dream, and the characters Gaga saw were, Ă la The Wizard of Oz, either victims or first responders to a fatal car accident that leaves Gaga on a stretcher and her produce scattered on the street.
Review: Alicia Keysâs Alicia Strikes a Careful Balance Between Hope and Despair
The album reveals the interconnectedness of the singerâs view of both the world and herself.3.5
Like the most effective political pop, Alicia Keysâs seventh album, Alicia, couches its socio-political observations in a personal context, unspooling to reveal the interconnectedness of its subjectâs view of both the world and herself. The albumâs de facto intro, âTruth Without Love,â sets the tone with a vaguely political lament about how the truth has become âelusive.â The focus then immediately pivots, on âTime Machine,â from our post-truth society to self-reflection, or âfear of whatâs in the mirror,â suggesting that we seek solace not in nostalgia for simpler times, but in a free mind.
At times, Keysâs optimism about the state of the world feels naĂŻve, like an echo from an era when âhope and changeâ felt attainable, as on the dreamy âAuthors of Forever,â with its persistent refrain of âitâs alright.â But that sense of displaced positivity is offset by the directness with which Keys sings about police violence on âPerfect Way to Dieâ and so-called âessential workersâ on âGood Job,â whose sense of hope is tinged by deep despair. Thatâs when you realize Keysâs optimism isnât just Pollyannaish, but the kind you muster when you simply donât know what else to do.
Still, those two closing tracksâ spare arrangements of piano and vocalâthough functionally effective at highlighting the lyrical contentâfeel too conservative for their chosen subject matter. And when Keysâs signature piano is traded for acoustic guitar, as it is on a trio of back-to-back songs in the albumâs middle stretch, the result is neo-soul formlessness that, generously, could be described as âmood music.â Keysâs voice, at least, pairs nicely with that of Miguel on âShow Me Loveâ and Khalid on âSo Doneâ (by contrast, itâs much too similar in tone and timbre to Swedish singer Snoh Aalegraâs on âYou Save Meâ).
The most interesting of Aliciaâs copious collaborations are the ones that diverge from Keysâs usual style. The dub-infused âWasted Energy,â featuring Tanzanian bongo flava artist Diamond Platnumz, inspires in Keys a blissed-out vocal performance reminiscent of Sade, and thereâs a matter-of-fact plainspokenness to her verses on âMe x 7âââI should push this three oâclock to no oâclock âcause I donât wanna disappearââthat complements Philly rapper Tierra Whackâs eclectic flow.
Alicia is aptly titled, as it largely returns to fundamentals following the loosely experimental Here. Like that album, this one lacks the powerful hooks of Keysâs earlier efforts, but she strikes a happy balance between the piano ballads that helped make her famous, the kick drum-driven R&B jams she so often gravitates toward, and her more recent inclination for less commercial fare. The Funkadelic-inspired âTime Machineâ is simultaneously retro and futuristic, alternately sexy and darkly atmospheric, while âUnderdogâ and âLove Looks Betterâ update the âNo Oneâ template with an island vibe and swooning synths, respectively. That Alicia is at once her most accessible and forward-minded album in years seems fitting for an artist who, until recently, has made a career out of playing things straight down the middle.
Label: RCA Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Cultsâs Host Explores the Seduction and Dissonance of Codependency
The album chronicles the euphoric highs and harrowing lows of a parasitic relationship.3.5
For nearly a decade, indie-pop band Cults has dealt in the mystique of contradiction. Brian Oblivionâs lush, bewitching instrumentation and Madeline Follinâs guileless vocals, sung in the style of a Phil Spector girl group, conjure the wish-fulfilling fantasy of teenage daydreams. The twist is that Follinâs lyrics tend to recount the ruins of humanity, from alienation and hopelessness to temptation and amorality. With their fourth album, Host, the duo deploys the same tonal contradiction between music and messaging, this time chronicling the euphoric highs and harrowing lows of a parasitic relationship.
With the detail-oriented obsession of hardboiled detectives, Oblivion and Follin study a romanceâs toxic dynamic from multiple angles across the albumâs 12 tracks. Buoyed by histrionic, â60s pop-style violin stabs, âTrialsâ sees Follin fretting that her lover is so invasive and consuming that he watches her even in her dreams. But she doesnât play the damsel in distress, Ă la the Shangri-Las, for too long. She unflinchingly wrestles with the dark and twisted particulars of desire, as on the sweeping âSpit You Out,â where she purges herself from her toxic partner: âLeech, held on,âI spit you out/Cleaned you from my tongue.â
Host is the first Cults album to be recorded primarily with live instruments, but the bandâs sound continues to be synth-driven. Showy horns give â8th Avenueâ a bluesy hue, while âMonolithicâ is bolstered by an imaginative, layered string arrangement. Oblivionâs electronic kinetics, however, are responsible for heightening the songsâ drama and suspense: âWorking It Overâ and âA Purgatoryâ both boast hooks that turn anthemic thanks to the application of dense, otherworldly synths. Producer Shane Stoneback resumes his role as the unofficial third member of the group, ensuring that Host, in spite of its dabbling in live instrumentation, springs from the same atmospheric vein as previous Cults albums.
The group toys with unexpected melody formulation throughout the albumâa gamble that doesnât always pay off. On âHonest Love,â Fullin whispers a bewildering, oscillating refrain that grates against the robotic backing vocal. The scattered melody on âNo Riskâ is similarly puzzling and makes the songâs brief two-and-a-half minutes feel like an eternity. Although the band earns points for risk-taking, their flirtation with dissonance is less inventive than it is jarring, producing songs that amount to Frankenstein-like composites.
The albumâs real allure is rooted in Cultsâs representation of Stockholm syndrome, that sickeningly insidious pathology responsible for a hostâs attachment to its parasite. The intoxicating âShoulders to Feetâ depicts attachment to a toxic partner as an almost spiritual devotion. During the soaring refrain, Fullin sings, full of conviction: âShoulders to my feet/Youâre everything I need.â Just as cult leaders are said to exploit faith, so do parasites with their victims, instilling in them the belief that all is for the greater good. Whereas faith represents salvation for most, Host suggests that it can just as easily be oneâs undoing.
Label: Sinderlyn Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Gus Dappertonâs Orca Feels Like the Musical Equivalent of Mystery Meat
These restless songs flit between lapses of focused meditation and fretful apprehension.3
Gus Dappertonâs most striking quality is his meticulous appearance, which consists of baggy, thrift-chic clothing, pristinely painted nails, and a sharp bowl cut. But like his scrupulous sense of style, the singer-songwriterâs music has felt too faithful to the inoffensive âgood vibesâ of bedroom pop. Dappertonâs 2019 debut, Where Polly People Go to Read, offered an attractive amalgamation of alternative pop and R&B but did little in the way of distinguishing him from his peers. Think of Dapperton as an edgier Rex Orange County or a less neo-soul-inclined Omar Apollo.
With his sophomore effort, Orca, Dapperton roughens up the edges of his music, trading in sleek synth-pop slow jams for unvarnished balladry and borrowing more heavily from indie rock. Gone are the tepid Casio keys and muted drum pads of Where Polly People Go to Read, replaced by feverish guitar and warm piano melodies. On his debutâs more sensual cuts, Dappertonâs crooning could veer into nasal; by comparison, he relies on a more emotive rasp here, a texture that pairs well with the albumâs downtempo rock. On âGrim,â his guttural screams and thrashing guitar comprise a tortured call and responseâa far cry from the icy aloofness with which he approached the torch songs on his last album.
As Dapperton analogizes on the Arcade Fire-esque âBottle Opener,â he intends to uncap formerly bottled-up feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. But his urge to probe these emotions to their depths is often obstructed by their cyclical nature and his misgivings about the future. âMedicine,â which sounds like a draft out of Ben Gibbardâs songbook, culminates with a collision of staccato piano and insistent acoustic guitar as Dapperton declares, âEvery time they try to fix me up/I get addicted to the medicine.â These restless songs flit between lapses of focused meditation and fretful apprehension. It makes sense, then, that they were crafted during short-lived moments of stillness in his life, stolen amid the highs and lows of the singerâs hectic touring over the past couple of years.
Dapperton delivers his stickiest hook to date on âPost Humorous,â a deceptively buoyant song about nihilism. Sun-soaked guitar strumming belies lyrics about losing touch with one of the few lifelines available to a pessimist: humor. Dapperton cloaks his messaging in cryptic imagery, casting self-destruction in a softer glow: âI repress the iridescence of a fireâŠI confess the incandescence of a dying light.â
Most of the songs on the album, however, lack the gravitational pull of âPost Humorous,â their spare, repetitive structures drifting aimlessly as if in free fall. Dappertonâs sister provides sweet-sounding vocal accompaniment on âAntidote,â but the songâs reverb-drowned verses donât leave much of an impression and its one-word hook quickly grows tiresome. The chorus of âMy Say So,â sung by Dapperton and Australian artist Chela, follows a scattered xylophone melody note by note, giving the track a maddening sing-songy feel.
Orcaâs heartfelt ballads improve on Dappertonâs numbed-out debut, but he faces the same quandary as many of his bedroom-pop cohorts: How do you avoid making nondescript, vaguely alternative songs like these sound like something more than the musical equivalent of mystery meat? Of course, thereâs an audience for the harmless niceties of bedroom popâas evidenced by the viral success of BENEEâs Dapperton-assisted âSupalonely,â a frothy ode to self-deprecation. But just like a fleeting Tik Tok video, Orca may be enjoyable in the moment, but it doesnât have staying power.
Label: AWAL Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Every Song on Taylor Swift’s Folklore Ranked
We’ve ranked all 17 songs from the singer-songwriter’s watershed eighth album.
Over the course of the four releases preceding Folklore, Taylor Swift developed a model of pop album that was seemingly machine-calibrated to please just about everyone. For each fan-favorite deep cut (âAll Too Well,â âNew Romanticsâ) there was an equal and opposite radio hit (â22,â âShake It Offâ). The conflict inherent in this structure came to a head on last yearâs Lover, which produced pop-centric, radio-friendly singles like âME!â and âYou Need to Calm Down,â as well as the rootsier title track and the lilting âAfterglow.â
Folklore, by contrast, finds Swift at her most masterful and consistent, which makes comparing its songs all the more challenging. None of these songs reach overtly for the theatrics or immediate pop appeal of earlier singles such as âLook What You Made Me Do.â Instead, Swift foregrounds her narrative sensibility and her eye for detail, reminding us ofâin case we somehow forgotâher voice-of-a-generation status. See below for our ranking of every song on the singerâs watershed eighth album.
Itâs commendable that Swift would take a moment on an otherwise introspective album to pay tribute to essential workers and to remind her listeners to wear a mask. The conciseness with which she draws a parallel between medical professionals and soldiers is persuasive, but the deviceâs neatness and sincerity can feel a bit simple. Still, on such a consistent album, last place isnât so much a slight as it is a credit to the rest of the albumâs songs.
For a song about a conventionally comfy piece of clothing, âCardiganâ is surprisingly slinky, its swaying melody and Swiftâs gasping vocals elaborating nicely on the dark pop of 2017âs Reputation. The songâs protracted central metaphor, fairy-tale imagery, and idealistic mentions of scars and tattoos risk being uncomplicatedly wide-eyed, but itâs Swiftâs established style to employ childlike concepts with a sense of irony. âCardiganâ avoids becoming saccharine when Swift allows it to be sensual, possibly name-dropping one of Rihannaâs steamiest singles (âKiss It Betterâ) to seal the whole thing with a kiss.
15. âMad Womanâ
Swiftâs most credible expressions of resentment are typically couched in a tangible conflict (âMeanâ) or balanced against self-examination (âInnocentâ), but âMad Womanâ is a declaration of anger justified mostly by an interrogation of gender norms. Its lyrics about the weaponization of internalized misogyny signal that Swift has grown since she wrote âYou Belong with Meâ and âBetter Than Revenge,â but her best songs are even more nuanced and tangible than this.
14. âThe Lakesâ
Folkloreâs tender, self-referential bonus track reveals an important element of the albumâs ethos, namely that Swift aims to be remembered as a poet. She seeks to do so here through meta-poetics, naming writerly forms (âIs it romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?â) and building puns around great writersâ names (âIâve come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze/Tell me what are my words worthâ). The song might skew capital-R romantic (âA red rose grew up out of ice-frozen ground/With no one around to tweet itâ), but itâs an affectionately detailed testament to the fact that readers can become writers, and writers can become icons.
13. âThis Is Me Tryingâ
This is one of a small handful of tracks on Folklore that feel less like distinct story beats and more like summations of the albumâs broader emotional arc. In fact, âThis Is Me Tryingâ is a fitting coda to Swiftâs entire discography, mining both her vulnerability and her ability to do harm on a serene mid-album respite from the lyrical density of âSevenâ and âAugust.â The image of a salt-rusted Swift downing a shot of whiskey between ruminations on her very public youth is jarring next to her self-titled debut, but it feels like an honest comedown from Loverâs shine.
12. âMy Tears Ricochetâ
Like âMad Woman,â âMy Tears Ricochetâ tells one of Folkloreâs most straightforwardly resentful stories, this time grounded narratively in the idea of a toxic lover showing up at their exâs funeral. Jack Antonoffâs production touches are stirring: The sharp beats of strings on the chorus recall the bridges of early-2010s Swift songs, and the warm echo of Swift âscreaming at the skyâ on the bridge evokes the thrill of âHe looks up, grinning like a devil.â
11. âThe 1â
As one of Folkloreâs peppiest tracks, âThe 1â is a fitting opener and a smooth transition from Loverâs effervescence. It tells us immediately that Swiftâs preoccupation with regret has lasted since Fearless and Speak Now, but sheâs got the age and experience to reassure her lover (and herself), that âitâs all right now.â Whereas heartbreak was fresh and monumental on âFifteen,â nowadays Swiftâs approach to love and dating is candid and matureâbut wistful enough to avoid being blasĂ©.
âPeaceâ is among Swiftâs most spacious and gorgeous songs, leaving the impression of pillow talk deepened by promisesâor threatsâof loyalty. While the song deflates somewhat from the predominance of lyrical clichĂ©s (âThe devilâs in the details, but you got a friend in me,â âIâd swing with you for the fences/Sit with you in the trenchesâ), Swift delivers every word with intimate urgency. Itâs a fitting summation of the tension between the thrill of love and the knowledge that itâs never truly promised, a conflict thatâs motivated much of Swiftâs music.
Every Britney Spears Album Ranked
We decided to reevaluate the singer’s discography and discovered that her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear.
Over two decades into her career, Britney Spears is less likely to make headlines for her music than her personal and legal battles, which have resulted in the #FreeBritney movement. So itâs easy to forget that, against all odds, the pop singer has amassed an impressive body of hitsâfrom her iconic debut, ââŠBaby One More Time,â to later earworms like âTill the World Endsâ (see our list of Britneyâs best singles here).
With the exception of cult favorite Blackout, Britney has never been considered an âalbum artist.â Thereâs nothing more satisfying, though, than someone who forces us to recalibrate our expectations, and Britney did just that with 2016âs Glory: By eschewing EDM and embracing subtler pop and R&B sounds, she made her most daring, mature album to date.
Earlier this year, fans launched another social media campaign, #JusticeForGlory, and the album was subsequently reissued, nearly four years after its initial release, with a new track, âMood Ring,â previously only available in Japan. We decided to reevaluate Britneyâs discography and discovered that, defying yet another expectation, her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear. See below for our ranking of all nine of Britneyâs studio albums.
9. Oops!…I Did It Again (2000)
âMy loneliness ainât killinâ me no more!â Britney belts on âStronger,â referencing a key phrase from her debut single, â…Baby One More Time.â The track is, in retrospect, a standout among Max Martinâs many teen-pop productions from the era, boasting an ABBA-esque hook, robust dance beat, and a menacing foghorn that announced a sexier, more sophisticated, and yes, stronger, Britney. But while the singerâs sophomore effort, the cheekily titled Oops!…I Did It Again, doubled down on the Swedish producerâs formula, it also magnified the worst of both teen-popâs ticks and Britneyâs vocal hiccups. A limp cover of the Rolling Stonesâs â(I Canât Get No) Satisfactionâ makes Samantha Foxâs 1987 rendition sound positively electric, while the molasses-slow âWhere Are You Nowâ and the treacly closing ballad âDear Diaryâ could rot the teeth right out of your skull. Sal Cinquemani
8. Britney Jean (2013)
Designed by committee, with up to six producers and nine songwriters per track, Britney Jean is sonically all over the place, stocked with a mix of the most garish presets from the EDM era and flaccid midtempo pop. The filtered synths featured throughout the album (courtesy of producers like will.i.am and David Guetta) are most forgivable on the catchy âTil Itâs Gone,â which is as close as Britney Jean gets to earworms like Femme Fataleâs âTill the World Endsâ and âHold It Against Me.â Lead single âWork Bitchâ is the aural equivalent of bath salts, a shrill and mechanical assault on the brain, while âTik Tik Boomâ is by far Britney Jean and companyâs most egregious lapse in judgment, with T.I. offering tripe like âShe like the way I eat her/Beat her, beat her/Treat her like an animal, somebody call PETA.â Uh, somebody call Tipâs probation officer. Cinquemani
7. âŠBaby One More Time (1999)
When Britney burst onto the scene with â…Baby One More Time,â her adenoidal, childlike vocals suggested an innocence belied by the image of the then-16-year-old on the albumâs cover, kneeling in a short denim skirt, her schoolgirl blouse unbuttoned, her head cocked to the side. Prior to 1998, teen pop had been an innocuous, perennial nuisance, but those big, pounding piano chords and processed squawks of âOh, bay-ba, bay-ba,â followed by the singerâs full-throated delivery of the songâs hookââMy loneliness is killing me!ââsignaled the christening of the genreâs very first Lolita. That the rest of âŠBaby One More Time plays like a glorified Kidz Bop album is neither surprising nor, frankly, inappropriate. The uptempo highlightsâthe hit â(You Drive Me) Crazyâ and the house-influenced âDeep in My Heartââfeel lyrically and sonically chaste compared to the title track, while the ballads alternate between inane (âEmail My Heartâ) and interminable (âFrom the Bottom of My Broken Heartâ). Cinquemani
6. Britney (2001)
Thereâs a learning curve in pop superstardom and Britneyâs development always seemed comparatively stunted, if only because she rush-released three albums in as many yearsâand all before the age of 20. The media generously, if inexplicably, dubbed Britney the next Madonna, but her interpretations of classics like âI Love Rock Nâ Roll,â from 2001âs Britney, lacked the irony and grit of a more seasoned and self-aware artist. The album, her best to date at the time, proved she owed much more to the likes of Paula Abdul and, especially, Janet Jackson than the Queen of Pop. The most successful songs here deviate from the Max Martin formula of Britneyâs early hits, including the saccharine disco bop âAnticipatingâ and the Neptunes-produced âIâm a Slave 4 U,â whose skittering synths and heavy breathing served as a preview of what would become Britneyâs career m.o. Cinquemani
5. Femme Fatale (2011)
In my review of 2011âs Femme Fatale, I lamented its lead singleâs âcheesy pickup linesâ and âgeneric Eurotrash beats and dated trance synths.â By the time the album dropped a couple of weeks later, though, âHold It Against Me,â in all its generic glory, had burrowed its way into my psyche like a brain-eating amoeba. Released at the height of the EDM explosion, Femme Fatale is, like that single, a gaudy, unrepentant attempt to cash in on a subgenre with a looming expiration date. So itâs no surprise that some of the albumâs most enduring tracks pivot back toward Britneyâs earlier hits, including the bubbly âHow I Rollâ and âTrip to Your Heart,â which finds frequent collaborators Bloodshy & Avant seamlessly applying their glitchy, pitch-incorrected synth-pop to the fad of the era. Cinquemani
4. Circus (2008)
With Circus, Britney dropped the richly self-referential posture she almost reluctantly adopted on Blackout in favor of a far more risky mode: self-actualization. Instead of wallowing in the great drama that was her train-wreck quarter-life crisis, Circus represents the rebirth of regression. Itâs a dozen-plus songs of blithe denialâone of which, âRadar,â is curiously recycled from the earlier albumâthat seems to be saying, âHey, Iâm still young enough to eat hard candy without it being a sad anachronism. So letâs get nekkid.â Biographical details are suppressed in favor of shopping lists (âLace and Leatherâ), while confessionals step aside and make way for lewd double-entendres (âIf U Seek Amyâ). Hell, actual lyrics are eschewed in favor of syllables. Because itâs Britney, however, it all seems to work: Ridiculousness comes naturally, and her cooing break, âOoh lolly, ooh papi,â on âMmm Papiâ is the nexus of cock-hungriness. If the album is a psychological step backward, well, you canât say Britney doesnât sound at home in the womb. Eric Henderson
3. In the Zone (2003)
Britneyâs fourth album, In the Zone, found the former pop tart coming of age with a bold mix of dance and hip-hop beats, wiping clean the last traces of her bubblegum past. Britneyâs unabashed devotion to dance-pop is, perhaps, the one thing that truly links her to Madonna, whoâlamentablyâappears on the opening track âMe Against the Music.â Britney beckons to an anonymous dance partner on âBreathe on Me,â exploring the eroticism of restraint: âWe donât need to touch/Just breathe on me.â After a night at the clubâand little actual physical contactâshe passes out on the couch in the âEarly Morninââ (produced by Moby) and finds some self-gratification on the Middle Eastern-hued ode to masturbation âTouch of My Hand.â Lest you start to believe that the girl who began her career by teasing her barely legal status is finally âin the zone,â âOutrageousâ finds her singing âmy sex driveâ and âmy shopping spreeâ with the same dripping gusto. Cinquemani
2. Blackout (2007)
One thing latter-day Britney doesnât lack is self-awareness. âIâm Mrs. âExtra! Extra! This just in!â/Iâm Mrs. âSheâs too big, now sheâs too thinâ,â she quips on âPiece of Me,â the second single from her 2007 album Blackout. Listening to it now, itâs easy to forget there was anything wrong in her starry world at the time. The album is remarkably cohesive, riding the Timbaland renaissance without the man himself (half the album was produced by Timbo cohort Danja). âGimme Moreâ and âGet Naked (I Got a Plan)â hold their own alongside the likes of Justin Timberlakeâs âSexyBackâ and Nelly Furtadoâs âPromiscuous.â But itâs Bloodshy & Avant who hog the spotlight here, ponying up the beats on the glitchy âPiece of Meââwhich sounds like robots hate-fuckingâand the spunky, Kylie-esque âToy Soldier.â âNo wonder thereâs panic in the industry. I mean, please,â Britney sneers on the former. Was that a sly comment on our misplaced gaze? Cinquemani
1. Glory (2016)
From Gloryâs opening âInvitationâ to its closer, âCoupure Electrique,â itâs no surprise that Britney stocks her latest album with expressions of uncontainable horniness. What is surprising is the degree to which her agency in the act is emphasized, and how sex here is rarely an act of exhibition. Songs like âPrivate Showâ and âDo You Wanna Come Over?â yearn for a specific intimacy, a moving expression from an artist whose public relationship with sexuality once seemed disturbingly out of her control. The albumâs key lyric comes from the single âSlumber Partyâ: âWe use our bodies to make our own videos.â Glory is an album-length reclamation of Britneyâs autonomy. Sam C. Mac
Review: With From King to God, Conway the Machine Reveals His Humanity
Though the rapper pontificates on his wealth and street cred, the albumâs biggest boast is his vulnerability.3.5
Hip-hop producer Daringer has been the principal architect behind Buffalo rap collective Griseldaâs sordid, soul sample-heavy world of coke-slanging and mafioso-style close shaves. But while his grim machinations positioned the crew as heirs to Mobb Deep and the Wu-Tang Clan, his minimal, hook-reluctant beats can at times feel repetitive and dreary. On From King to God, Griselda member Conway the Machineâthe groupâs self-proclaimed lyrical heartâbranches out from Daringerâs grimy style, featuring the producer on only two of the albumâs 12 songs. From King to God introduces a dark, understated sheen to Conwayâs hard-as-nails boom-bap, while conserving all its original grit.
Griseldaâs verses are often peppered with high-pitched, maniacal laughter and adlibs that mimic the sound of a machine gun, and their lyrics trace the rappersâ humble origins hustling on the streets of Buffalo. With From King to God, Conway returns to this familiar street sound but doesnât constrain himself to it. Throughout, the albumâs producers mold their sound to Conwayâs vision, not vice versa, their eerie synth lines and varied beats bolstering a sense of impending doom. Travis Scott collaborator Murda Beatz presides over âAnza,â an antsy, tempo-hopping track, while âFear of Godâ boasts production from Hit-Boy and a spine-chilling hook from Detroitâs baby-voiced Dej Loaf.
Conway tag-teams with Griselda cohorts Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher on âSpurs 3,â brazenly defending his creative turf: âAsk the homie Wayno and âem, theyâll confess/Lotta albums are suddenly startinâ to feel a lilâ more Griselda-esque.â The track belongs to a string of them that glorify Conway and the Griselda name. Yet Conway tackles more expansive matters, like on âFront Lines,â where he envisions himself overtaking the Minneapolis police station that was set ablaze by protestors in the days after George Floydâs murder.
Though Conway pontificates on his wealth and street cred to figure himself as a god, From King to Godâs biggest boast is his vulnerability. Conwayâs signature drawl isnât a stylistic choice, but the result of Bellâs palsy, a condition that paralyzed the right side of his face after a gunshot to the head in 2005. Mortality and loss haunt the album, which is interspersed with monologues from DJ Shay, a producer and mentor figure to Griselda who passed away just weeks ago. âShit was just starting to get beautiful/I wrote this while getting dressed for your funeral,â Conway reveals on âForever Droppin Tears.â On âSeen Everything but Jesus,â he eulogizes lost friends and family, including Chine Gun, Benny the Butcherâs half-brother.
Conwayâs flow is laidback and assured but occasionally seems too comfortableâtoo in the pocket of the beat. On âLemon,â heâs outstripped by Method Manâs elaborate multisyllabic rhyme scheme. But despite his moniker, penning bars straight from the heart is Conwayâs greatest strength. What the rapper lacks in flow experimentation and dexterous rhyme-craft, he makes up for with his knack for sincere storytelling.
Label: Griselda Release Date: September 11, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Flaming Lipsâs American Head Celebrates Humanityâs Resilience
The album combines childlike whimsy with sober realizations of all the sadness in the world.4
Despite what the Flaming Lipsâs kaleidoscopic, neo-psychedelic musical fantasies might suggest, Wayne Coyne spent much of his life deliberately avoiding drugs after witnessing his older siblingsâabsent access to healthier countercultural outlets in â60s and â70s Oklahoma Cityâfry their brains. He apparently conquered that fear around 2012, when he began going through what, from the outside, looked a lot like a midlife crisisâseparating from his longtime partner, partying with Miley Cyrus, and bragging about all the acid and molly he was doing. Over the next several years, his once comfortingly wide-eyed explorations of weighty philosophical themes turned distressingly bleak, while the Flaming Lipsâs timeless pop melodies and intricate orchestrations ceded to droney noise.
Refreshingly, then, the bandâs 16th album, American Head, builds on the return to form that last yearâs half-tossed-off Kingâs Mouth promised. And all it took was Coyne getting back in touch with the part of himself that grew up terrified of his brothers not waking up from their next binge. So while there are copious drug references throughout the albumâamong the song titles are âAt the Movies on Quaaludes,â âMother, Iâve Taken LSD,â and âYou n Me Sellinâ Weedââtheyâre all characterized with a sense of awed, even fearful detachment. The album features some of the most personal, slice-of-life lyrics that the fancifully minded singer has ever written: Nearly every song can be traced to a real story about Coyne or his âolder brothers and their drug-dealing biker friends,â as he puts it in the album press notes.
Even the silly âDinosaurs on the Mountainââwhich boasts lyrics like âI wish the dinosaurs/Were still here now/Itâd be fun to see them playing/On the mountainsââhas roots in a specific childhood memory, of gazing up at the mountains from the back of a station wagon. âYou n Me Sellinâ Weedâ directly references Coyneâs experience as a teenage pot dealer, a phase that may have made him feel âlike king of the worldâ but still left him wishing for âa spaceship coming for us/To take us away.â The raw human element to these stories is underscored by Coyneâs small, quavering alto, whichâsome Vocoder and pitch-shifting notwithstandingâis largely freed from the shrouds of the studio effects of recent releases.
This is the classic Flaming Lips formula: combining childlike whimsy with sober realizations of all the sadness in the world. The bandâs recent work has too often veered to one extreme (the dippy Kingâs Mouth) or another (the utterly grim The Terror). And though the current incarnation of the Flaming Lips has been together since 2014, and thus responsible for these various digressions, the band has undertaken a sonic overhaul here that matches the emotional, sentimental tenor of Coyne and Steven Drozdâs new compositions.
With a couple of exceptionsâlike the dark, driving âAssassins of Youthâ and the psychedelic âYou n Me Sellinâ Weedââthereâs essentially only one kind of song on American Head: the starry-eyed acoustic power ballad. The days when the band would alternate their sweeping, emotional ballads with fuzzed-out rockers and experimental pop songs may be gone, but this albumâs relatively clean mixesâpopulated with acoustic strumming, mellotrons, and melodic, Beatles-esque guitar linesâhearken explicitly and effectively back to the more meditative moments of the bandâs golden age in the early-to-mid â90s.
One exception is âMother, Please Donât Be Sad,â which belongs in the pantheon of classic Flaming Lips tearjerkers alongside âDo You Realize??â and âWaitinâ for a Superman.â The song is based on a story Coyne has told before, most memorably in the documentary Fearless Freaks. Decades ago, he was working as a fry cook at a Long John Silverâs when armed gunmen burst into the restaurant to rob the register. While lying on the ground, assuming this was the end, his thoughts turned to his mother. âItâs only me thatâs died tonight/Thereâs so much you still have,â he assures her on âMother, Please Donât Be Sad.â He reminds her to let the dogs out, to take comfort in the love of the still living. Itâs quintessential Coyne: a simultaneous reminder of humanityâs fragility and a celebration of its resilience.
Label: Warner Release Date: September 11, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Metallicaâs S&M2 Is at Once Rousing and Redundant
A collaboration between the band and the San Francisco Symphony, the live album plays on light and shade.3.5
Itâs been over 20 years since Metallica first collaborated with the San Francisco Symphony on their cheekily titled live album S&M. At the time, the pairing of a metal band with an orchestra was still something of a novel idea, and as mixed as its reception may have been, it arguably stands as one of the definitive symphonic rock albums of all time, alongside Deep Purpleâs Concerto for Group and Orchestra.
In the decades since S&Mâs release, the rock world has seen live symphonic offerings from Dream Theater, Kiss, the Scorpions, and Aerosmith, among others. As such, S&M2 feels, like many sequels, less essential than the original, but not just because the concept has run its course. Recorded during a concert in September of 2019, the albumâs setlist is similar to that of its predecessor, as are most of the orchestral arrangements. One canât help but wonder what string-laced versions of classics like âHarvester of Sorrow,â âCreeping Death,â âWelcome Home (Sanitarium),â and âFade to Blackâ might have sounded like.
Taken on its own merits, though, S&M2 is a largely thrilling experience. As live performers, the band is as tight as ever here, and frontman James Hetfield’s trademark grit-choked growl remains intact throughout the album, only occasionally veering into the tuneless yodel that marred many of the band’s gigs in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Heavy metal has always been about more than just raw aggression, and Metallicaâs best work plays on light and shade, sturm und drang. Admittedly, the orchestral parts on some of these songs are less imaginative during the faster, thrashier sections, which âoccasionally resemble chase music in an action film. But when Metallica scales back, opting for ominous slow burn as opposed to full-throttle attack, the strings and horns wash into the foreground, enveloping the drums and guitars with electrifying countermelodies.
Most of the songs here that didnât appear on the first S&Mâ are from the bandâs less impressive recent output, and though competently performed, they arenât necessarily the best suited to an orchestral backing, nor do they offer much in the way of interesting arrangements. Still, there are some surprises: a cover of early Soviet composer Alexander Mosolovâs âThe Iron Foundryâ; an acoustic take on the otherwise pummeling deep cut âAll Within My Handsâ; and the ballad âThe Unforgiven III,â which finds Hetfield backed by the orchestra alone.
Perhaps most enthralling, and most emblematic of the set, is a solo spot by symphony bassist Scott Pingel, who performs the late Cliff Burtonâs solo piece âAnesthesia (Pulling Teeth)â in its entirety, replete with layers of electric distortion. Burton was a classical music aficionado, and was said to have introduced elements like harmony and sophistication into Metallicaâs early no-frills thrash. S&M2 puts that influence on full display.
Label: Blackened Recordings Release Date: August 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon