Timing is everything

The Weeknd on SNL

How long should an album rollout last? This is the question buried in almost every review of The Weeknd’s After Hours, from Micah Peters at The Ringer to Tom Breihan at Stereogum. Both highlight The Weeknd’s exquisite, and now anachronistic, performances on Saturday Night Live, the former by starting his article saying that the night of March 7 “belongs to an entirely different era of human life,” the latter, “[i]t happened 12 days ago, and it belongs to a different age.” Most album rollouts aren’t going to get interrupted by a global pandemic, but every artist brave and unfortunate enough to release new music this month, from Adam Lambert, to 5 Seconds of Summer, to Dua Lipa, has seen their work sliced in half: the hope, joy, and careful anticipation that preceded the full set, and the mid-pandemic full-lengths brought into a world where everyone is reading the news more than ever, and listening to music less. You would think the sudden anxiety and fear gripping the world would have people turning to music as a palliative, a reassuring, escapist activity with the power to distract, but Rolling Stone confirms that “[d]uring the week of March 13th through March 19th — the week restaurants and bars across the nation closed and more Americans self-quarantined — streams dropped 7.6 percent. […] [and p]hysical sales plummeted 27.6 percent last week, while digital album sales dropped 12.4 percent.” According to Billboard, only 1.52 million records (combining CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, and digital) were sold in the last full week of March, with physical sales suffering the most at a 36% drop.

For many, if not most, people, music is a social activity, the sound that passes between bodies crammed into bars, movie theaters, festivals, sporting events, arenas, car trips, house parties, and senior proms. With all of these effectively verboten as social distancing measures are implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the soundtracks pumped out by the music industry explicitly to facilitate and cushion these moments, have gone with it. Nothing has illustrated better what an outlier people who listen to music on their own — whether seriously, critically, or just because — actually are. One is not inherently better, or more valuable, than the other, but it’s an important distinction when we’re facing a near-future of further cancellations and postponements. Lady Gaga, whose big sound has always relied on the acoustics of stadiums with sprawling blue sky, has already pushed back the release of Chromatica, her highly-awaited comeback album that, as of this writing, is still scheduled to be promoted with the six-show Chromatica Ball tour.

There are two sides to this: while some major labels with banner-artists like Gaga are forced to postpone to a more lucrative time when people are, perhaps, more readily willing to lose their bodies and wallets to dance, in an effort to recoup the massive amount of money invested in these projects, other artists are either reluctantly rolling with the circumstances (The Weeknd, Adam Lambert, 5 Seconds of Summer), or taking the optimistic route of sharing the music in hopes of applying a sort of balm to the circumstances (Dua Lipa). With the exception of Lady Gaga, all of these artists campaigned long and hard on their albums, albums totally unmoored from what now seems a borderline-excessive promotional blitz: Lambert already released an EP with half of VELVET titled VELVET: Side A back in September of last year, complete with all of the glamour and glitter that usually accompanies his eras, 5 Seconds of Summer started releasing singles a year ago with the grungy, self-indulgent “Easier,” The Weeknd’s “Heartless” first dropped in November 2019, and Dua Lipa began what was (and make no mistake, is) her imperial phase with the disco-pop maximalist “Don’t Start Now” in November of 2019, followed by the brilliant “Physical” two months ago.

You can’t help wondering if all of these albums, obviously through no fault of their own, would have been better served if released in 2019 or early 2020, their buzz build-ups cut in half. The K-pop model is one extreme alternative: a comeback trailer is teased on a Monday morning and the album or mini-album usually drops anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks later. Short, sweet, simple. Of course we are dealing with a totally different business model in an industry that is explicitly designed to cycle through talent and songs as quickly as possible. What’s the point of keeping a singer busy promoting a mini-album for longer than two months when they can get more exposure and coin appearing on talk shows, dramas, and red carpets? The music can often be only one small portion of a K-pop celebrity’s overall revenue, the term “artist” a relative, loose term. Instead the West seems to be increasingly adapting Japanese business tactics: from releasing a number of singles before an album drops over a lengthy period of time, rather than after, to releasing multiple collectible versions to capitalize on the number of sales from hardcore fans. Taken as a whole, the Western paradigm we see in these luxurious rollouts are a testament to the game-plans for those who have their eyes on the long-term prizes of both critical and popular acclaim. And the prize, as illustrated by these recent albums, are worth fighting for.

The Weeknd’s After Hours is everything we’ve come to expect from Abel Tesfaye: slick and cool, the songs slide from self-indulgent R&B missives to the Max Martin-helmed, synthwave-heavy beats of “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes,” all pummeled into line by Tesfaye’s magnificent, soaring vocals. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia is the Kylie Minogue-comeback we’ve all been waiting for since Kiss Me Once, all credit to Lipa and her team who have wedded the sound of Latin freestyle to late 90’s/early 00’s pop, evoking both the titular nostalgia and a future that now hinges more than ever on our present response and action, the capacity to which Future Nostalgia offers a bit of emotional respite and hope, the tantalizing promise of a return to the things we might once have lamented and now long for: Normalcy. Ennui. A news cycle so slow that lifestyle pieces about Goop candles serve as national conversation. And for many people, the opportunity to put on their most expensive dress, uncomfortable shoes, and heaviest eye liner, step outside, and share less than a six-foot space with a beautiful stranger.

Spring and early summer are typically the months when big-name albums like these, hoping to cash in on all the warm-weather activities, begin their early chart climbs: claiming Song of the Summer is one of the most coveted, if not revered, music traditions in any country, and the climb can be a slow-burning one, best started early and accompanied by a touring schedule that supports enormous gatherings of young people looking to fill hot, empty vacation hours (it wasn’t until last week that The Weeknd and Dua Lipa finally hit #2 and #3 on the Hot 100 respectively). The extraordinary run of releases we’re looking at today just happened to fall in the middle and back-end of March, the same time, as Random J Pop says, Miss Corona set out on her own Contamination world tour. What kind of changes the long-term effects of an industry set to lose a lot of money and cachet in the months to come will wreak on our long-held musical traditions, if any, from physical releases to time-frames remains to be seen, though recent history can offer some hope.

In March of 2011, Japan suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami that took and changed the lives of thousands of people, and understandably, the music industry was quick to step back during a time of national upheaval and mourning. Most music releases were postponed for weeks and some forced to make quick changes: Yasutaka Nakata’s group capsule was set to release its newest album, titled — and you want to talk about poor timing — KILLER WAVE (the album was quickly and generically re-titled WORLD OF FANTASY and new copies shipped, though you can still find old promo copies floating around on Ebay with the original title). But the country did find a way to heal and move forward, the albums were eventually released, and things returned to normal for many, many people, especially the many not directly effected. Perhaps it’s too optimistic to compare and hope the same of a disaster set to effect millions of more people around the entire world, whether on a psychological or economic level, but it does offer some semblance of light at the end of this dark tunnel.

As for what will happen to these albums, all phenomenal and now tragic in their own way, that is even more uncertain (some are even making quick changes a la capsule like Sam Smith, who is re-titling their new album originally called To Die For). What will happen to Chromatica or Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III isn’t any less certain, now looking to be welcomed in a post-pandemic world that in the present seems like it may never come, and will certainly feel fundamentally altered from the world we took for granted, the world we knew before, the one more amenable to leisurely, decadent rollouts that made eight months of anticipation feel exquisite, rather than pointless. As for the rest of us, the ones sitting in bedrooms and basements and kitchens alone, and who maybe always have, this music is a comfort that won’t soon be forgotten.

Selena Gomez’s Rare: Watch her go

In many ways, Selena Gomez is a textbook pop star: she has been trained for celebrity and stardom since childhood, has had a slew of mega-famous boyfriends and personal drama that has kept her in the public eye and the tabloids, is beautiful in a way normal people are not, and despite not possessing spectacular vocal ability, has a talented team producing amazing, trendy pop music behind the scenes of her career that expertly minimizes flaws and maximizes strengths. We got a glimpse of it in her first solo, non-Hollywood Records release, Revival, back in 2015, and now we finally get Rare.

Rare feels different, not just because fans have been teased with Selena Gomez collabs and feats for years, but because the singer’s statements regarding gossip-heavy story lines involving her love life, re: Justin Bieber, mostly, but also The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, feel more personal than ever. There’s no hidden message or subtext behind songs like  “Lose You to Love Me,” or “Look at Her Now,” and even in “Dance Again” and “Rare,” she’s not shy, lyrically, about claiming her own “narrative,” a casual word she tossed out on Jimmy Fallon, but a loaded buzz-word among her and fellow entertainer/close friend Taylor Swift. But they’re also a genuinely skillful set of hooks, programmed to keep the ear worms coming. It’s the album we were going to get from Camila Cabello’s Romance, until it most definitely wasn’t, and done only the way Gomez can do. As Chris DeVille wrote in his The Week in Pop column for January 9, it is the song writers and producers like veterans Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels (even Bebe Rexha has a cred on “Crowded Room,” though I was disappointed not to see a single mention of Max Martin — you can’t win them all) who are the heroes here, with  the “writing and production […] smartly catered to the subtle, breathy vocals that best serve her voice.”

Musically, it doesn’t feel as thematically on point as the lyrics, but the tension and slower pacing of the majority of the songs (“Vulnerable,” for example, and “People You Know,” the song nobody seems to like but me) make up for some of the weaker tracks like “Ring” and “Kinda Crazy.” The Target-exclusive edition comes with an additional five tracks, mainly all the feats and collabs mentioned earlier released over the last few years in the run-up to Rare, like “It Ain’t Me” and “Bad Liar.” They’re inessential and don’t belong on the album proper, so it feels right to tack them on optionally as bonus content; the “narrative” feels here and now, while the older tracks feel like shed skin, a form and size that no longer fit. Instead, Rare is both a telling and re-telling, a study and a re-examination, of fresh pain on old wounds. Scabs over scar tissue. It feels honest, but most importantly for a pop star like Gomez who is playing in the Grande leagues, it feels authentic, a collection of hits you can bop to and empathize with.

Rare is a strong opening to 2020 and it’s doubly appreciated to have it during a week and month that usually sees very little consequential work being released in any genre. And like any really good pop album, it should have the strength to at least get us through, what? The rest of this month?

Love. Angel. Music. Baby. 15th anniversary

I was a senior in high school when Gwen Stefani released Love. Angel. Music. Baby., and as clueless as I could be at that age, there was immediately something about the album that bothered me when it first came out: the blatant exploitation of Japanese culture on this album. Japanese street-fashion was having an international moment in the early 00s, with publications like FRUiTS gaining some worldwide recognition, while in the same year L.A.M.B. was released, Tyra Banks’s reality-television show America’s Next Top Model spent its international destination in Japan, committing one embarrassing faux-pas after another, flubbing Lolita-inspired looks, and being on the receiving end of many awkward, bewildered, but painfully polite interactions. If it wasn’t for the painful “Harajuku Girls” track, a perfect example of mythologizing a people as if they were magical creatures from another planet, it was the way Stefani paraded around every red carpet with a team of silent, dolled-up Asian women, as inconsequential as a handbag or other accessory to her “look.” Rather than a genuine appreciation of these women or the fashion culture, it was used as a way to enhance the exotic, cool appeal of Gwen Stefani herself. It’s not like they ever got to speak for themselves.

On top of it, the heavy throwback to 80’s synth-pop and italo disco was hailed as being innovative, when someone like Tommy february6, an actual Japanese woman, had already been doing it for almost half a decade. In fact, Tommy had already released her most iconic album, Tommy airline, and she didn’t have to borrow another country’s pop culture to make it interesting (she did use American cheerleaders in some of her promotional material, but this wasn’t exclusive — they were featured interchangeably with Japanese cheerleaders, too). But perhaps what annoyed me above all was how much I still couldn’t help loving some of the songs on the album. How do you reconcile appropriation and a general uneasy atmosphere with the music itself?

This album wasn’t original or smart, but it was catchy. I still skipped over the biggest hits like “Hollaback Girl” and “Rich Girl,” gravitating instead toward “Cool,” “Serious,” and “Danger Zone.” There were also some amazing remixes released for the single “What You Waiting For?” by Stuart Price (under Jacques Lu Cont) that introduced me to the prolific producer. The 80’s-influenced tracks on this album sound as zippy as ever, perhaps because they were meant to sound dated to begin with. The fizzy cartoon synths on tracks like “Crash,” and deep, hazy New Order guitars on “The Real Thing” are as sublime as the day they were recorded. I can’t say the same for all of the tracks.

I feel much the same now about the above-mentioned problematic elements, the easy use and discard of culture for the purposes of selling music albums: it has serious, long-term consequences that effect real people, and it’s a decision that has only aged worse over time. Nor can I say much for Stefani’s garbled reminiscences about the tracks, where re: “Harajuku Girls,” she says, “When it first came out, I think people understood that it was an artistic and literal bow down to a culture that I was a superfan of,” which is about as fantasy-inspired a belief as anything on this album. She continues, “I get a little defensive when people [call it culture appropriation], because if we didn’t allow each other to share our cultures, what would we be?” which just goes to show how deep of a misunderstanding people have of the term itself. There’s no easy way around it: it can’t be erased by denial or the omission of the track altogether. The two can’t ever be divorced. It has to coexist forever as a monument to doing better, to genuine recognition and sincere accountability.

The 15th anniversary remaster itself seems like an afterthought — it arrives one week after it’s official release date, and only digitally. I’m not sure technology has shifted so drastically in the last 15 years as to make a digital-only remaster necessary. Most people will stream it, and how big of a difference will you be able to tell streaming it on Spotify through $15 ear buds? Probably not much. Go big with a deluxe box set that includes bonus tracks, remixes, outtakes, and demos, or go home.

The baddest female: The rise and fall of CL

There are only a few K-pop groups that have the ability to say they’ve been there since the beginning. 2NE1 was not one of them, but they did usher in the second generation, and lay the groundwork for BTS and the rest of the third wave we’re all currently riding. Among them were groups like Girls’ Generation (SNSD), BigBang, Super Junior, Kara, 2PM, Wonder Girls, Brown Eyed Girls… There were a lot of amazing groups in that generation, many of them only now brought up on the break-up, scandal, or contract-ending news cycle beats, but 2NE1 was one of the best. They were YG’s answer to SM’s hyper-cute and feminine Girls’ Generation: they were there to sell a street-savvy, hip-hop, “ugly” image in a country where there was no historical precedent for genuine hip-hop. In this way, even though they were marketed as “real,” they sold a fantasy world just as much as SNSD did. And they did it so well.

Unlike many of the interchangeable members of K-pop groups, each member of 2NE1 was given a distinct personality: a hook that could appeal to many different audience members across the spectrum, but especially any one looking to be a bit more bad-ass than they were in real life, which is pretty much everyone. While this did initially reduce the women down to types, it never took over any more than any performer’s carefully-crafted image. Perhaps we loved them all the more for this image they presented, and the way their odd-shaped pieces just seemed to fit together so well. There was Bom Park, the classy, quiet siren of song. There was Minzy, the youngest and the one with the sickest dance moves. There was Dara, the bubbly effervescent hype-girl that exuded light like a bonfire. And then there was CL, the undisputed center to which all spotlights gravitated, the one you knew would claw her way out of a box-shaped girl group to do what she was meant to do: take over the world.

The group released a number of hit singles beginning exactly ten years ago, starting with the tepid “Fire,” through the blazing “Nal Ddara Haebwayo (Try to Follow Me),” all the way to the inferno that was “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best).” That last one is the one that gained traction overseas years after its initial popularity had already propelled it to iconic status in its home country. One night, I sat in a movie theater and heard it play over an advertisement, bemused and surprised but also thinking, Yes, of course.

It was around this time, that I began predicting 2NE1 would be the K-pop group to make it huge (so I guess blame me because I am notorious for getting it wrong, every single time). English-language publications began to pick at the “Hallyu wave,” publishing think pieces about and decrying the idol “factory” system. Pitchfork published their first K-pop feature, To Anyone: The Rise of Korean Wave, by James Brooks, featuring screen shots from “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best),” where he says, “the group grabs you by the throat and demands [your attention]. Firing AK-47s at the camera, smashing their own records with baseball bats, and brandishing a WWE Championship Belt, 2NE1’s four members each exude the manic, larger-than-life charisma of peak-efficiency Nicki Minaj.” Many writers were still falling back on the compare-it-to-a-well-known-Western-figure/phenomenon, (especially Beatlemania, if you can, please) to give those new to the scene a foothold, but it was enough to get people talking. Now that Pitchfork was a bandwagon-jumper themselves, it was merely seconds before they upped their coverage with companion K-pop editorials and adjacent East-Asian music coverage.

Unfortunately, this seemed to be the sole purpose of 2NE1, and once they completed their mission of grabbing attention, and the novelty of “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best)” finally expired well past its due date, they fell rapidly off the radar. YG Entertainment fumbled at this point, denying the girls any worthy follow-up, while other agencies began preparing for international domination. Instead, they continued to focus on the Japanese market, releasing petty-good songs like “SCREAM” and “Crush.” Their last really great song was 2012’s “I Love You.” It was also at this time that members began to leverage popularity by releasing solo material.

In predicted fashion, CL’s was the most hotly-anticipated. Her debut single was “Nappeun Gijibae (The Baddest Female),” (known for the infamous line “Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good, you know?”) and it was spectacularly fine, with a typically overwhelming music video that was at turns breathtaking, ironic, fun, and problematic. It was classic YG, but it lacked a strong hook. That was okay, though, because it did the important work of getting her noticed by some important names overseas, namely Scooter Braun (you’ve probably heard a lot about him this week – he’s the reason Taylor Swift is floating rumors about re-recording her entire back catalog and can’t perform her old material at the AMAs now). We all held our breath; this was it. It was only a matter of time before an Asian artist became an international household name in music, and as CL bode her time making minor appearances on tracks from Skrillez, et al., hopes and spirits were high. She had paid her dues in 2NE1 and spent years in a musical limbo that seemed to prevent her from releasing anything of worth, but if anyone was going to crossover successfully, it would be her. She seemed to have the support and pull from the industry, not to mention the quadruple threats of voice, beauty, stage presence, and the kind of fearless energy you just can’t teach.

But her big debut, “Hello Bitches” hit with all the force of a flat tire, leaving fans bewildered and bummed out. To be blunt, it was kind of a mess. The track lacked any real substance, relying instead on a video with the superstar power of CL’s performance and heavy inclusion of Parris Goebel’s choreography and crew, who were riding off the high of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video. CL was astounding in the video, a kinetic energy who sold every second of those insane three minutes, but naturally the song, an in media res mix of an extreme personality, bereft of a proper introduction or context, for its target audience, did not chart well and was largely forgotten as soon as one month later when year-end lists starting coming out. Looking back, this song isn’t as bad as I remember, and I can see the magic struggling underneath it, but it hasn’t had any longevity, and I know critics who will argue that CL’s best solo was still “Menbung” off of CRUSH. That seemed to be her one big chance, and the label having set all their chips on one square, gave up. The big lackluster follow-up, “Lifted,” though it set a record for a female Asian artist, only made it as high as 94 on the Billboard Hot 100. No one can argue that was a great song.

CL was pushed onto increasingly C-level collabs as low as the My Little Pony franchise before it started to become clear that there were other, more lucrative K-pop stars to begin investing in, namely, boy bands. YG themselves started over again with 2NE1-clones BLACKPINK, who carried the torch all the way to Time Magazine and other decent Western coverage. CL got the ultimate consolation prize when she performed at  the 2018 Winter Olympics closing ceremony at Pyeongchang with EXO, a fitting, but sad, farewell to a female performer with more solo potential than 95% of current girl-group members (it doesn’t help that the performance itself was…not great). Furthermore, there was no where to return: like many of their second-generation peers, 2NE1 began losing members, became plagued by scandal, and officially disbanded in 2016. CL was stuck signed to a company that suddenly stopped supporting her work and gave her no opportunities for growth.

The news everyone expected dropped on November 8, 2019, a decade after 2NE1’s debut: CL was no longer with YG Entertainment. What once would have been horrifying news resounding with a sudden, disturbing crash, has fallen in a deserted forest, being mostly met with ambivalence and shrugs from the fans of this third-wave of K-pop for whom CL barely registers. This is the unfortunate and natural result of a pop machine that is ever-moving, filling and re-fitting trainees into the cog of dance practice, vocal lessons, and media handling, of huge sums of money being spent, being invested, being blown, being dried up. Of the next young shiny thing coming down the stairs after you, willing to kick harder and sing louder. Of the only thing separating you from them being the unpredictable sliver of luck inherent in timing, places, and connections. Quite frankly, CL deserved better. It was a drawn-out, bitter end to a decade of passionate effort, relentless work, and enormous talent. Quintessentially, it’s the story of K-pop, and it’s coming for them all, one by one.

Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2018

Pop music in 2018 wasn’t one for the history books, but it has delivered its fair share of healthy distractions, and in the current political and cultural climate, sometimes that’s all anyone is looking for. Below are ten of the best English-language and/or Western pop and electronic albums of the year — ten albums, in no particular order, that made the year just a bit less unbearable and proved there is no end to the styles and content that can be mined from such rich and broad genres across continents.

Ariana Grande: Sweetener
Ariana Grande has spent this year conducting herself with a poise and dignity beyond most pop stars’ capabilities. As proof, Sweetener showcases a notable maturation of Grande’s sound: the album trades most of the Max Martin tent-pole hits for slower, groovier numbers like “The Light is Coming” and “Everytime.” Fans of the pop-maestro need not worry, as commercial demands necessitate the inclusion of some of the album’s best tracks for radio singles, like the effervescent “God is a Woman” and “Breathin’.” But unlike past albums stitched together with equal parts Martin and Grande, Grande alone carries Sweetener with her singular vocal talent, a voice that blends a dizzying assortment of soars and coos and reverb, curated for maximum effect.

Allie X: Super Sunset
It has been a pleasure and a pain to watch Allie X grow as a pop star only to be denied widespread recognition. While it’s easy to write off the artist with a glance at her very Lady Gaga-like visuals, the content of her compositions belies any sense of mere copycat. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of music that is released each week, with Spotify and Bandcamp and YouTube all making grabs for ever-decreasing attention spans, though it does make it all the more magical when something brilliant like “Science” cues up, all twinkling synths and epic chorus breaking through the routine of sonic wallpaper. It’s both story and song, a 4D experience you can touch and feel, the wind hitting your face from top to bottom in degrees as Allie punctuates and draws out the win. dows. ro-o-o-o-o-o-lling down. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and it eschews half-measures for the big win; it’s the kind of serious pop music we haven’t heard in years outside of last year’s CollXtion II.

Charlie Puth: Voicenotes
One year ago, anyone would have laughed at the idea of Puth being a viable contender for that elusive gap in our charts: the male pop star. Certainly no one is counting on Justin Timberlake or Nick Jonas any longer. Yes, Post Malone and Drake have massive chart presence where Puth has almost none, having taken grave missteps with his poor debut album and Meghan Trainor collabs, but Voicenotes portends a welcome change. Gone is a reliance on the retro, doo-wop of a youthful Michael Buble, the sort of music that passed through the ears of listeners quicker than a passing siren. Voicenotes shows Puth a bit older, a bit wiser, and most importantly, a bit more honest. Puth finally sounds like a real human being, a person with insecurities and skeletons finally spilling out of a closet previously packed tight with crisp shirts and shiny shoes, and it is only by finally revealing and owning his truths, with a dash of inspired Hall & Oates, that he can finally find a place among the cheesiest of pop stars and their fans, all just as uncool as the rest of us.

Dance with the Dead: Loved to Death
Just like your favorite mass market paperbacks, you can tell just by looking at some covers exactly what the contents will be like. Perhaps it’s the famous clinch, or the back of a shadowy, running figure, or even a a cover taken up entirely by the enormous font of an author’s name. Some of the best genre paperbacks were designed in the 70s and 80s for horror fiction, lovingly chronicled by super-fan Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. Any one of these tales, from the one about Nazi Leprechauns, to Satanic nuns, to children with kinetic abilities look like they could be accompanied by one of Dance with the Dead’s albums. Their aesthetic, like the look of all darkwave, looks ripped from the pages of a Stephen King novel, and their latest, Loved to Death similarly leans in hard. Justin Pointer and Tony Kim, the duo behind these morbidly fun 80’s synth-horror tracks, expertly weave in all of their influences, from Justice to John Carpenter to Metallica to create instrumental sonic treats that brim with crunchy energy, like “Salem” and “Oracle,” and guitars, especially on tracks like “Into the Shadows.” Highly danceable, playfully creepy, and always entertaining, Dance with the Dead will fit in nicely with your Stranger Things viewing party next summer.

Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer
Sometimes an artist’s greatest album isn’t a personal favorite: certainly, Monae’s previous album The Electric Lady contained just as many, if not more, attention-grabbing songs and as much style. In fact, Dirty Computer seems a touch less effortless, maybe a bit too glossy, a tad obvious. But it is hyper-stylized for a reason: it’s the logical conclusion of experience, and of time spent in the presence of luminous mentors and the trenches of viral Internet warfare. Slapping a concept film on this album does little to enhance what is already Monae’s winning hand: ability, ambition, and personality. Natural talent puts all of these to work and an appreciative audience hungry for the gospel allows this star to finally come into her own — part cyborg, part human, all American.

5 Seconds of Summer: Youngblood
If you’ve spent five seconds in the electronics department of a Target, you’ve heard 5 Seconds of Summer, who’ve blared from the giant monitors every time I’ve set foot in one over the course of the summer. This relentless repetition makes it easy to forget how fun Youngblood is. Look, it’s hard out there for an English-speaking boy band. Just ask Why Don’t We. The boy band mini-revival rose and set in the shadows of One Direction, and its future is now being pulled into question. In response, 5SOS have released one of their most musically accessible albums, a triumph of synths and enormous pop hooks. Their third studio album sounds like a group that has finally embraced their place in the pop pantheon and taken it to its biggest, most obvious conclusion, whether it’s the lyrical staples of “Want You Back,” “Better Man,” and “Why Won’t You Love Me,” or blissful, windows-down jams like “Talk Fast” and “More.” Part of the ability to appreciate this album will hinge on how much someone is willing to concede that the world hates teenage girls and everything they touch, but once a person can come to terms with the idea that the things girls like and things that are great are not exclusive, we can all evolve as a species together.

Sarah Reeves: Easy Never Needed You
Contemporary Christian, Christian pop, “inspirational music,” or whatever you want to call it, has been mostly segregated to the outskirts of the mainstream. It’s a tough genre to define when it can sound just like anything else on the radio, but you’re not quite sure if it’s about a significant other, or actually Jesus. It’s a tough call to make, and Easy Never Needed You has a good time playing around with those perceptions and doubts. Sarah Reeve’s voice, as soft and pillowy as Ellie Goulding’s, also seems to be taking inspiration from the artist’s music, with fast-paced Top-40 pop like “Something About You” and “Right Where You Want Me.” The album’s more obvious references to faith, like “Nowhere,” and “Faithful,” never feel as preachy as they could; it’s a true crossover album, the kind that blurs the distinction between holy and secular, and when is the latter ever devoid of the former, in a non-religious sense? Music only ever means what you believe it does, and any proscribed interpretations are always presumptive. To whit, Sarah Reeves won’t be making any converts any time soon, but she has made one hell of a pop album.

Rita Ora: Phoenix
Rita Ora is a jack-of-all-trades: it’s been six years since she released an album, but in that time she’s managed to find time to act in mega-blockbusters, shill for major corporations like Skullcandy and DKNY, design clothes, and host reality television shows like America’s Next Top Model. It’s all in a day’s work for today’s young celebrities, but one thing you can’t say is that Ora hasn’t worked hard hitting up every medium, besides, like, podcasts, to remain as relevant as possible. Spreading oneself so thin usually results in poor work, a sign of scattered focus rather than deep dives into true passion projects, but Phoenix, its title a reference to Ora’s trouble with past record label Roc Nation, soars as high as any big-budget pop album in its class. Opener “Anywhere” sets the tone for the record’s trendy EDM hooks and functions as both a statement of intent and a litmus test: non-interested parties are invited to disembark immediately at the next stop. Ora doesn’t have the most versatile pipes, but she’s the perfect fit for an album that would have made more sense released in the summer, perfect for windows-down, volume-high cruising. This is not the type of album that can move mountains, but it can get you out of your chair, and that’s a lot more useful in the day-to-day banality of the average person’s life.

Neon Nox: Syndicate Shadow
What happens when you have the capabilities of a sonic storyteller, but no contract with a film studio? Johnny Jewel and his label mates over at Italians Do It Better are sure to steer you in the right direction, but there is no shortage of artists outside that particular milieu who have their own original Drives and Blade Runners to score. If Dead Can Dance’s specialty is horror, than Neon Nox’s is the 80’s action flick — except few 80’s action flicks in the U.S. were heavy on these particular massive synths, culled from all the best glittering gems on the italo-disco circuit, like Vincenzo Salvia on steroids. There is no shortage of these kinds of synthwave artists (many featured on this list!), and a quick visit to NewRetroWave’s page gives you an assorted menu from appetizers to these kinds of full courses that do everything but hand you a script. Rather, the opening track recalls TRON: Legacy‘s “The Grid” in setting the scene and then inviting you to use the song titles as prompts and the limits of your own imagination, like a sonic storybook. The unique perspective each person will bring to “the score” in the interactive nature of the genre  is part of what makes this particular sub genre so compelling, and Syndicate Shadow so fun.

Troye Sivan: Bloom
Troye Sivan has had a whirlwind year, least of which is collaborating with Charli XCX on one of the year’s most fun singles, “1999.” Like Rita Ora, when he’s not discoursing upon Justin Timberlake’s “inspiring” ‘N Sync ‘do, he’s working on any number of side hustles, including acting (no big deal, just critically acclaimed flicks like Boy Erased). This year also saw the follow-up to his debut album, Blue Neighbourhood, and like “1999,” it’s a bit of a throwaway, with playful tributes to the dawning of 90’s teen-pop, down to that Michael Jackson and Naomi Campbell 2-tone vibe in single “My My My,” haunting each catchy, hook-laden corner. It’s never more apparent than on the stand-out titular track “Bloom,” and “Lucky Strike,” which meld funky tempos with finger-snapping beats. While I’m not entirely sold on the album’s more introspective moments, when Sivan is at his most confessional, it proves the album is more than just surface: a deep heart beats beneath Sivan, a dual nature that captures life’s black and white, its good, its bad, its highs, its lows, and the beautiful moments in between.

Honorable Mentions

Robert Parker: End of the Night
Kimbra: Primal Heart
Midnight Danger: Malignant Force
Wild Moccasins: Look Together
Annalisa: Bye Bye

Time Has Come: Namie Amuro to retire in 2018

With the world on fire, it seems self-indulgent to grieve over the announcement that a pop star is retiring. But then, since it’s our beloved Namie Amuro, allow me to indulge a bit.

After years spent commuting long distances to train at the famed Okinawa Actors Studio, Namie Amuro debuted in 1992 with the group SUPER MONKEYS. A natural star, the group’s name was shortly changed to highlight their strongest player to Amuro Namie with SUPER MONKEYS. Their debut single, “Koi no CUTE BEAT,” was a tribute to the growing popularity of European techno, a subgenre that would eventually gain fame in Japan as “para para,” or Avex’s trademarked “super eurobeat.” Both Amuro and her back-up dancers, now re-christened MAX, signed with Avex Trax and went their separate ways. While MAX sustained a modest career pursuing the eurobeat line, Amuro was taken under the wing of an already well-known prolific music producer, former TM Network-keyboardist and current trf-producer Tetsuya Komuro. “Body Feels EXIT” was released in 1995, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the 1990s, the Japanese pop music industry was changing rapidly, with Komuro at the helm. The bubble had burst, the Golden Age of Idols was a long-gone idyll, and consumers, especially women, were no longer content to settle for less. Putting on a cute dress and swaying back and forth, warbling off-key to 4/4 treacle, was no longer enough. While being cute might have been enough in the 1980s to delay adulthood and escape the expectations of growing up and getting married, Hiroshi Aoyagi in Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan (2005) notes that it “gradually lost its appeal as a form of rebellion. Moreover, there was an emergent perception that “cutesy” embraced fragile femininity, which continued to become objectified by adult men.” (98) A flurry of new fashion trends emerged to replace kawaii, styes that “conjured up the figure of an assertive, self-centered young woman who is in no hurry to marry and who maintains a stable of boyfriends to serve her different needs (Robertson 1998: 65).” (98) Among these styles, Aoyagi sites gyaru and all their sub types, including “Amuraa.” Amuraa was a style adopted by Amuro’s fans in 1995 and 1996, a whole movement that helped change women’s fashion and attitude, one pair of short pants and long boots at a time.

Because by the the mid-90s, Japanese pop culture was ready for their Madonna, for their Mariah Carey, for their Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. They were ready for true artists, female solo singers not afraid to nurture their skills and show off real talent. The hours put into dancing, singing, and cultivating personal style, was just the minimum amount of effort necessary for the type of profession that required effortless grace, fearless confidence, and unapologetic ambition. Once, we had more than one of these women, firing simultaneously at the peak of their careers, changing perceptions of what it meant to be a woman living in modern Japan. But Namie Amuro was one of the first, and she made it look criminally easy.

With her modern, forward-thinking dance music, a style that eventually evolved into R&B, soul, hip-pop, and then back to dance, Amuro’s debut solo album, SWEET 19 BLUES was a landmark J-pop album that hinted at the iconic pop gems to come: “Chase the Chance,” “a walk in the park,” “CAN YOU CELEBRATE?“. It’s certainly not the strongest album of hers to date, but it cemented her central role as the new face of contemporary J-pop, the successful paragon of what producing and marketing a woman based on artistic ability and talent was capable of achieving. Whatever his faults (and there are many), Tetsuya Komuro’s business style at Avex Trax was critical in giving Amuro the platform to be more than an idol. Writing in Nippon Pop, Steve McClure quotes Komuro as saying, “The artist should come first. I always say so in interviews like this, in the hope that the Japanese music production system will change.” (87) Despite Komuro’s insistence that his protegees were still idols, they were to be “quality” idols (to be fair, his use of the term is dubious; he calls Michael and Janet Jackson both idols, which in terms of Japanese media culture, is an incorrect use of the term).

Amuro’s career since then was an exhilaration, a row of toppling dominoes sending stereotypes, prejudices, and the expectations of female performers tumbling. Seiko Matsuda struggled with criticism after continuing her career post-marriage and children in the 1980s, and as late as 1988, Agnes Chan was defending her choice to bring her son with her on national television, sparking a fierce debate over show-business etiquette and a woman’s role in politely, and humbly, mediating images of “good” women who didn’t date, marry, or have children publicly. Exactly one decade later, Amuro was passed the torch, announcing a marriage and pregnancy, defying any and all judgments of her choice. When she returned to show business, she was sorry-not-sorry, fighting to overcome the shock of her “scandalous” sabbatical and win her rightful place back in the entertainment industry with a more aggressive look and sound. She inked up, stripped down, and held on tight for the next 19 years, bringing J-pop into the 21st century alongside her labelsisters while the resurgence of hyper-kawaii idols and their countless imitators swept the charts and fought to set it back two decades, back to dependence and helplessness and exploitation.

Later, set amidst those same sisters, most losing popularity from releasing unpopular album or facing personal setbacks, Amuro released a succession of brilliant singles, her albums getting sharper and more polished over time, her discipline and professionalism astounding even the most jaded and cynical while working the media to her advantage by abstaining from a strong social media presence and remaining coy about her personal life. And then, on September 20, 2017, amid of flurry of promotions for a documentary series set to debut on Hulu on October 1 and celebrations for the 25th anniversary of her debut, Amuro announced that she would be retiring on September 16, 2018. She promised to leave her fans one final album and a series of concert performances.

The announcement follows a legal battle to secure the rights to release music under her own record label, Dimension Point (still a sub label of Avex Trax), leaving many fans speculating as to whether or not she will continue working in the music industry after her retirement in a different role, perhaps paying it forward as a producer. It would be selfish to deny someone a break after the years she put in sharing incredible music and illustrating what it means to be real, genuine people whose lives sometimes get messy, but don’t have to get dirty. For more than two decades, she showed us how to deal with setbacks, pick ourselves up, and keep moving forward without losing a sense of self-worth. So despite any sense of anger or misfortune, despite the urge to linger over our own loss in the deal, the appropriate answer is: thank you.

Whether she chooses to relax, or to keep up her enviable work ethic, I know Namie Amuro will be able to pull off whatever she sets her mind to. There are 25 years that prove it.

The half-way point: a few overlooked albums of 2017

We’re now a little more than halfway through 2017, and rather than my usual mid-year report, I’d like to share a few albums I’ve enjoyed that I haven’t noticed getting much widespread discussion/love.

Ai Shinozaki: LOVE/HATE Still quite surprised at this one myself: since 2015’s “A-G-A-I-N,” Shinozaki has put out a consistent string of lovely little singles, with last year’s “TRUE LOVE” single/EP a notable highlight. My only contention with LOVE/HATE is that there is room for so much more. Will we ever get a full-length album from Shinozaki? Short answer: hopefully, now that she’s on a major label. And also: I imagine some hesitation to give her due credit is wrapped up in the fact that Shinozaki is a gravure model/idol. This has never stopped idols from gaining popularity in the past, but she’s also not an adolescent either (I know, people born in the 90s can be in their mid-20s now?), nor is she dabbling in the conventional bubbly idol/anime-pop that younger kids are being forced to peddle. It’s a more sophisticated strain of pop that manages to trap a certain atmosphere of lightness without sacrificing its maturity. I can only hope this is the beginning of so much more.

Asako Toki: PINK This one kind of hit me out of nowhere with its understated cover art and that Rhythm Zone label gracing the spine. Toki has been releasing albums for more than a decade now, but PINK was my introduction, one I’ve been happily impressed by. While I wouldn’t say this is in the running for any year-end lists (probably?), its a humble respite from the 48 groups clogging the Oricon chart with its jazzy electronica and smooth, airy synths. It doesn’t lead me back to rest of her discography or make me reconsider my critical devotion to J-pop in all its fits and forms, 48s included, rather, it makes me appreciate Avex Trax more and more for their willingness to release something on a smaller scale like this, even while they chase the almighty idol dream across the street.

Erika Nishi: penetration This EP has nothing on 2015’s LISTEN UP, but if you are looking for that lost new jack swing/vaguely-TK, 90’s-J-pop sound that TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE used to provide on the reg, Nishi is the suitable alternative.

Sayonara PONYTAIL: Yumemiru Wakusei Even while the number of 48 groups has increased over time, I’ll concede that the top 20 of the Oricon chart has a little more in the way of variety over the last couple of years. And as it happens, a lot of that music is coming from alternative idol groups, groups frantic to secure a niche outside of that trademark sound. It’s not a question of bad versus good, as exploring why these groups are so popular, the minute differences, the broader contexts, and even enjoying music that can often sound like the same recycled chords and lyrical themes, is to an extent part of what makes J-pop so fascinating and fun. As it turns out, some seiyuu-pop isn’t instantly horrendous (Luna Haruna’s LUNARIUM, MACHICHO’s SOL)! As I’ve learned over the years, the basic structure of an idol group isn’t reason enough to ignore it — I proclaim this confidently, even after listening to 260+ new albums in the first half of 2017, 95% of which were J-pop/rock, and well over half of which I would estimate is typical idol/anime-pop that I would have outright dismissed several years ago. Most of it was indeed mediocre or average, but part of the passion is the pursuit itself, of the magical moment when something stands out from the one that came before. This is a long way of saying that Yumemiru Wakusei is in fact, very interesting. I find myself returning to this album, wondering what continues to draw me in, even while the songs never stick around in my head long enough for me to remember why I like them in the first place. Their more acoustic, scant approaches are peppered with moments that are irredeemably dull. And yet. The cover art is a bold, if somewhat eerie, statement, and the rock-influenced songs that are good have an irresistible melancholy (“Houkago TELEPORT,” “Niji”) that make them surprisingly playful, giving off serious echoes of an indie rock band like New Navy. I look forward to seeing where this is going.

predia’s “Kindan no MASQUERADE”

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It’s hard to compete with E-girls, who are one of the best J-pop groups we have right now (that the biggest influence on E.G. CRAZY/”E.G. COOL” is 1990’s Janet Jackson, makes it all the better), but I’m slowly warming to predia. They’re striving to have the same kind of edge without the benefit of distinctive and well-known individuals in their group — and the word individual is important here; we can instantly pick out faces and personalities like Ami, Reina Washio, and YURINO (or at least, personalities as they’ve been sold to us), but does a casual fan know any of the members of predia? The latter functions more like a collective unit than E-girls does, and its telling that an inability to connect with the group on any level other than superficial is mostly because none of the members stands out as more talented, or particularly interesting, than any other. I’m sure more enthusiastic fans beg to differ. Furthermore, because predia doesn’t have the advantage of sub units, like E-girls’s conjoining of dream, Happiness, Flower, etc., there’s less chance to see different sides of any of the members in other iterations.

Still, predia functions along much of the same ideology: a tougher, more-than–just-idols group (Avex would call them a “dance group,” I guess) that is built to increasingly appeal to female fans rather than male ones. It’s part of what I like about them so much. The other part is their music, which in a bid to compete against a group like E-girls, increases the chances that they’ll come out with something I like. Their new single “Kindan no MASQUERADE” is a great example of the type of aggressive pop that has become their hallmark. It’s nowhere in the realm of the funky-dance and cool that a group like E-girls now pulls off backwards and in heels, but there’s a studied skill and sharp attention to detail in the choreography, and the absence of a make-believe coyness, the sugar-coma levels of cute of a group and song like, say, Country Girls’ new “Peanut Butter Jelly Love.” They’re essentially incomparable, is what I’m saying, an instant plus.

I doubt that any one member of predia will eventually make inroads like former label-mates PASSPO☆ did, but it’s an appreciated alternative, and if their producers can break through the business-as-usual pop songs to release something that transcends their niche among the more mature sounds of groups like Da-iCE (say, a “Pink Champagne” or “E.G. Anthem“), they might prove some staying power beyond what anyone could easily estimate as their shelf-life. And hey, E-girls aren’t perfect either: they could take some tips on ways to fit all the girls on a jacket sleeve without resorting to terrible Photoshop templates.