August 2020: Highlights

The glaring drawback to writing monthly highlights is the lack of time spent with each new release, with mere days in the case of a few. With new releases piling up in the queue every week, it can seem self-indulgent to go back for more than a couple of repeat listens – but how else do you know if an album is terrible, a grower, or ephemeral? This column allows little space for that, and so I’ve been treating it more like footnotes to initial impressions. I’ve always been spotty with criticism itself, preferring history and context to straight musical analysis, and I keep in mind something Jill Lepore wrote in her introduction to These Truths: A History of the United States every time I sit down to write: “The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth” (xix). So once again, for your consideration, some notes on the journey to uncovering those truths.

Kenshi Yonezu: STRAY SHEEP
(2020.08.05)

Kenshi Yonezu’s music is the type the Oricon chart loves: absolute mid-brow J-pop, its mid-tempo, soft rock-heavy tones and nasal male vocals weaving back through a historical J-pop tunnel that includes the likes of Gen Hoshino, Official HigeDANDism, Mr. Children, and Southern All Stars. To start! As a distillation of the very precise, average mean of J-pop itself, you would think it would be hard not to like a little, like the gradual sponge-soaking of AKB48’s discography, now so saturated into the consciousness of any J-pop fan alive enough to count to two, that it’s hard to find it completely deplorable, or to realize the extent to which its sound is, essentially, the “J-pop sound” today. But where they really excel is in how much they have influenced other producers to steal the basic formula and inject it with style and substance, something lacking in the carbon copy prints of Kenshi Yonezu’s music. None of this is to say that STRAY SHEEP is a terrible album — how can any of it be terrible, when it is so unobjectionable, so safe, so ready to please the majority of a music-listening population who just want something that fits snugly into a pair of AirPods at the office? Something mellow enough to overlay, without having too much distracting personality or emotion, over opening credits and closing credits, and advertisements for flavored sugar water? Its big central themes of depression and overcoming struggle are universal, hard-wired to be relatable. Hey, I get depressed, too! It’s a kind of alchemy that seems destined to fall at the wayside of exceptional, original, and ultimately material matter, a surprise only if you aren’t aware how most people aren’t really looking for anything more than a reflection of their known reality in a safe, comforting package. For these people, an album that contains the hits “Uma to Shika,” “Lemon,” and “PAPRIKA” is the perfect bathwater, another entry in a long list of J-pop music that is more symbolic than it is artistic. As of this post, STRAY SHEEP has been #1 on the chart for the past four unbelievably consecutive weeks, which more than solidifies it as the most popular Japanese album of the year, a designation that is unlikely to get topped by any other album this year (surprise me!). Congratulations Kenshi, you’ve done it. Welcome to the hallowed, tepid halls of J-pop’s absolute middle.

Miley Cyrus: “Midnight Sky”
(2020.08.14)

Drag queens used to imitate celebrities, but with the sheer fun, originality, and mainstreaming of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it seems inevitable, in hindsight, that celebrities would now be imitating drag queens. Par for the course that Miley Cyrus would pick up the torch, since she has been imitating others throughout her whole career — country stars, pop stars, rap stars. I hope one day Miley finds out just exactly who she is, and though I’m certain this is just another re-invention on the road to that discovery, it’s one of the better ones. “Midnight Sky” is a song about walking out the door and not turning around now, masquerading as an innocuous pop song. “Free Woman” it is not, but it reaches for the same stars. Miley has worked in this 80’s disco-pop style before, notably with Mark Ronson, himself no stranger to vintage influences, though it seems to have taken a small team to assemble this seemingly straight-forward single. More exciting is the news that she worked with Max Martin for tracks on her upcoming album, which she promised to release when it’s safe to promote on tour. So is she really going to make us wait til 2024? I predict a backtrack on that: if it’s anything like “Midnight Sky,” it’s too irresponsible, and cruel, to hold out that long.

Unleash the Archers: Abyss
(2020.08.21)

It’s been so long since I’ve heard a metal album that I really, really like, that I am considering foregoing a top hard rock/metal list for this year’s annual year-end countdown. Not only have I been hard-pressed to find anything worth returning to in the genre, but I’ve been finding it near impossible to discover any new artists that make for a lazy Saturday spent surfing a back catalog. It’s now August, and Unleash the Archers is the very first. I have no qualms sharing that one of my favorite sub-genres of metal is power metal, the more a review contains the words “explosive,” “emotional,” and “epic,” the better. Cheese a plus. Abyss has all of that, including “incendiary” guitar solos, “soaring” female-fronted vocals, and a pace that never flags. Its at-times goofy fun and throwback riffs are welcome words and sounds this year, and I love forward to spending time with this band’s previous work whenever one of those Saturdays pop up, which seems to be more of a mythical optimism this year.

Hans Zimmer: “Themyscira”
(2020.08.22)

Wonder Woman was the first first female superhero to star in her own movie in either of the two shared universes from rivals DC and Marvel. The movie also had the distinction of being directed by a woman, one who vowed to hire as many women as she could for the crew, so it’s a bit of a head scratcher why she couldn’t make an impact by hiring a woman to compose and direct the score. Female composers are so scarce, that the industry is falling all over themselves to heap praise on Hildur Guðnadóttir. Guðnadóttir deserves every bit of the acclaim she received for her work on Joker, but there actually are other women in the industry, and they could all use a little exposure to help them get the recognition their talent deserves in a heavily male-dominated industry. I mean, was Pinar Toprak busy or something? I feel a bit guilty saying that because Rupert Gregson-Williams did a phenomenal job with the original score: his Wonder Woman is action-packed, thrilling, and hits all the right punches, and knowing a sequel is coming down the slide makes me think it will be hard to top “Action Reaction” or “Lightening Strikes.” But also…was Pinar Toprak busy again? I suppose Wonder Woman‘s success now merits the prestige direction of Hans Zimmer, and I really do feel if anyone can come close or top the original, it might be him. Then again, his superhero work is really hit or miss for me, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting the Wonder Woman 1984 score, and then waiting, and then waiting some more, as every movie release has been pushed back, and then pushed back again. Finally, the unheard offering of a cue “single” has been released as an olive branch. The track is “Themyscira,” and it hints at what we can expect from the full score: orchestral grandeur, with a bit of choral flair. It’s hard not to compare this piece to Zimmer’s main theme for Gladiator, and I expect that’s a nod to the scene this piece will show up in, a rather deliberate one-note delivery of the composer’s idea of arenas and ancient games. I don’t hate it, but it’s hardly original. I know Zimmer composed the original WW “theme” in (very loose use of that term here) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that Gregson-Williams cited, but I hope that Zimmer returns the favor and drops subtle hints to the original score. Wonder Woman 1984 — and presumably the score — is now set to drop October 2. If we’re lucky, we’ll get some more teaser tracks before the date gets pushed back again.

(By the way, in case you’re wondering what Pinar Toprak has been up to, her score for the smaller-screen superhero Stargirl was released this month. No, this is not Wonder Woman-level work, but it’s solid, and better, I think, then her work last year on Captain Marvel. Every year she seems to expand as an artist, and I look forward to seeing her get her big-screen due in time, not just because she is a woman, though that is certainly noteworthy for the industry, but because her level of skill demands it.)

Katy Perry: Smile
(2020.08.28)

It’s fortunate for Katy Perry that Teenage Dream did so phenomenally well, as it’s the kind of success that’s allowed her to coast long after she had anything original or noteworthy to share, and well, well past the time anyone else would have been hunted down by cancel culture before a single apology could be performed on a kind of please-let-me-keep-my-career world tour posing as genuine understanding, glossed over with virtue-signalling self-enlightenment. Katy Perry knows how to play to the people, is what I’m saying. She’s the type of person intent on ticking off all the boxes required to keep the public’s attention, any number of which has included ditching religion, kissing girls, shooting whipped cream from her chest, making highly inappropriate comments about other cultures, engaging in trendy, Twitter-worthy beefs with high-profile celebrities, cashing in on those beefs by copping the opponent’s successful playbook of trendy celebrity cameos, and jumping on bandwagons from music styles, to dances, to feat. guests. Katy Perry is not the first celebrity to stoop to desperate tactics (there’s at least one other in this month’s highlights), and even your unproblematic faves have employed some of these measures over the course of their careers, but only a few have done it as recklessly, as guilelessly, and as obviously, all the while hopscotching across a series of increasingly mediocre albums. The newest batch of Perry singles, in particular, has left me perplexed, the type of toothless nosedive as disappointing as Gwen Stefani’s trajectory. Is it something about mega-popular talent programs that force people to dilute anything even remotely interesting about themselves? All this meandering dither is just to say, Smile is okay, but the world deserves a lot better from someone trying so hard, from someone who released a Teenage Dream and yet still gets all the same hype despite failing to produce a single album as great. Max Martin is notably absent on this set, replaced by a lively circus of producers (many fellow Swedes, but many not), creating a kind of charcuterie board of leftovers that has been sitting out just a bit too long to be wholly palatable. The songs range from high-octane decent (“Cry About It Later,” “Not the End of the World“) to mid-paced meh (“Champagne Problems,” “Tucked“). The album is also marked by the exclusion of her best single, post-Witness‘s “365,” although I guess some deluxe editions include the other duds not worthy enough to make the album proper. It’s been a whole lot of build-up for something so conservative, and in a sea of solo albums from Selena Gomez (yes, that was actually this year), Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Jessie Ware, this is surely the most tone-deaf. As a side note, the concept art is a baffling overreach, and last-minute additional cover art hints to the rush in which this was clearly put together. Perhaps more thought into anything Perry does would help, as years of scrambling continues to work against her.

Selena Gomez & BLACKPINK: “iCE Cream”
(2020.08.28)

At the pace at which K-pop moves, it’s hard to believe that 2NE1 will only be celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first full-length studio album this month. It might as well be two times that number considering how quickly the group has fallen out of memory, and how the widespread popularity of boy bands like BTS have created an entirely new generation of K-pop fans, one for whom 2NE1 never existed and might as well serve as nothing more than a historical footnote to the massive ascendancy of BLACKPINK. It’s sad, but not surprising: groups like Super Junior and Girls’ Generation and 2NE1 were themselves replacements for groups like H.O.T. and Baby V.O.X and in five years, another YG group will replace BLACKPINK. It’s a dizzying pace of constant recycling that requires little more than a basic understanding of the pace at which fashion and style move.

So I can’t help but wonder if fans of S.E.S. felt as bewildered by “Naega Jeil Jal Naga” as I currently do by BLACKPINK. Aside from a global popularity that rests almost entirely on three or four songs, they’ve also managed to strike up collaborations with artists as high-profile as Lady Gaga (on this year’s “Sour Candy“) and now, Selena Gomez with “iCE Cream.” It’s all brilliant marketing, I suppose, splashy neon colors, and shiny backdrops, and trendy choreography working its butt off to make the group look a lot better than singles that are wholly self-contained in the first five seconds actually are. Three minutes later and you’re still waiting for a proper chorus. The collaboration aspect isn’t as important as the message itself, which is that BLACKPINK and Gomez are at a stage where both parties, with their astronomical social media numbers, can mutually benefit from the other. The medium, YouTube, is perfect, because it provides the ideal mode in which to place beautiful women in highly-stylized fantasy settings, doing beautiful, fantastical things, like pretending they’re allowed to eat sweets. Tale as old as time, really, but it only succeeds if the music has any sort of substance, which “iCE Cream” does not. Not to mention that “iCE Cream” is already the fourth or fifth high-profile K-pop song about frozen junk food, and just as far down on the list compared to, just off the top of my head, f(x), Hyuna, and Red Velvet. I want to like BLACKPINK, and I already like Selena Gomez, but this single is another in a long-line of empty hits from the group that make me feel older with each passing day. Am I out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong.

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