STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga—Joanne (2016)

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Bleh. What a waste.

(No, I’m not reviewing Cheek to Cheek. Sod off.)

If this album proves one thing, it’s that I was wrong to suspect that Gaga’s reservoir of raw melodic talent had emptied entirely. Naw, she’s still got it, and it’s actually present on this album in abundance. I dunno where it went on Artpop, but it’s back now, and most of the songs on this album centre around at least one pretty memorable tune. So, that’s a good thing, right? All is not lost?

Mmmm… nah. Gaga’s talent for writing catchy melodies is most certainly back, but it’s been misapplied. All those dense, clever tunes she used to write, with their lovely development and evolving structure, are gone, and what we’ve got here instead is a big ol’ pile of vast, soaring arena music. Just about every hook on here is huge, slow, ponderous and spacey, and it’s all delivered with so much uncontrolled vocal power that it often starts to become a little grating after a while. Take the opener, for example: a perfectly competent, entirely decent piece of soft faux-indie arena pop-rock sung as if it were some sort of U2 ballad about Martin Luther King, developing as predictably as anything you can imagine from its plaintive verses to its big ol’ drawn-out-syllables hook. It’s perfectly enjoyable if you’re in the mood, but it’s rather tragically typical, sounding like just the sort of dime-a-dozen landfill indie that’s been filling middle class nerdy-white-girl playlists since the turn of the decade. I kinda like the sheer melodrama of the bridge, I guess, but I could see it coming from a mile away. I like Gaga best when she keeps me guessing, and there ain’t a single moment of that on this album.

If anything, the most baffling thing about this album is the general consensus among the uninformed that it can be considered “country”, presumably something to do with all the acoustic guitars and that big pink hat on the cover. There’s nothing country about it at all, of course, with the possible exception of “Sinner’s Prayer”, which at least has some vague ghost of the twangy warmth one can usually find in the best country. The fingerpicked guitar style is still more folk, though, and the actual songwriting is mostly just the same as the rest of the acoustic tracks on this album: ballad-pop, genreless and formless except in the most general possible sense, the sort of music recorded just as easily by Adele or Keane as by Lady Antebellum. It’s a little better than most of that dreck, ‘cos Gaga is still a better melodist than most, but the melodies just aren’t interesting anymore, you know? Like, nobody could deny that “Million Reasons” is extremely catchy, but it’s just so much dumber than her catchy songs used to be. The hook is vast, soaring, huge, sweeping, etc. etc., and impossible to forget the moment you first hear it – but it’s not clever. It’s the sound of a supremely talented melodist operating on autopilot, defaulting to the path of least resistence and creating the only song in her entire career I’d be willing to call completely generic.

The sentiments get pretty generic, too. Gaga’s never been a good lyricist, but the first verse on “Come to Mama” may be the most offensive thing she’s ever written, dipping far below her usual levels and dragging us to the dread realms of white savior-pop. “Everybody’s got to love each other/ Stop throwin’ stones at your sisters and your brothers/ Man, it wasn’t that long ago we were all living in the jungle/ So why do we gotta put each other down/ When there’s more than enough love to g-g-go around?”, she simpers, doing her best to ruin what little goodwill may be conferred by the perfunctory funk brass-band arrangements one finds elsewhere in the song. “Hey Girl” is a duet with eternal wailer Florence, fresh from The Machine, and it’s a meeting of two such unstoppable freight-train voices that it’s actually almost likeable until you hit the dimestore feminism lyrics. “Angel Down”, meanwhile, closes the album out on perhaps the most trite note possible, with Gaga donning her – gulp – political hat, letting loose with a string of such rancid clichés that I nearly vomit every time I hear it. “I’m a believer, it’s chaos/ Where are our leaders? Oh, oh, oh!” she sings pathetically, doing her very best Whitney Houston impression in the worst possible way. All these songs have incredibly, ridiculously catchy arena-pop hooks that I can easily imagine anybody singing along to at a live show, but they’re all basically the same as each other and none of them have an ounce of intelligence anywhere in their bodies. The only little acoustic ballad on the whole album I properly like is the title track, which drops all the lyrical pretense in favour of a simple lament for one of Gaga’s long-dead relations and does nothing to ruin the fairly pleasant melody and fingerpicking that accompany it. It’s quite lovely, but it’s not exactly one of her best tracks, and she’s hardly the best to ever do this kind of music. Still, at least she’s better at it than Mumford & Sons, eh?

The other songs on this record – and we’ve blown through more than half of them already – have various ideas that set them apart from this grey mess, but not all of them are good ones. “Dancin’ in Circles” is, once again, catchy as anything, but it’s also very much a superficial imitation of the absolute most basic possible surface traits of reggae or ska music, lacking any sort of groove or funk to match its lyrics (“Tap down those boots while I beat around/Let’s funk downtown”). “Perfect Illusion” is this weird, ridiculously oversung glam rock pastiche, saddled with the absolute dumbest verse melody on the album (which is seriously saying a lot) and laden with a totally, hilariously unearned key change that brings to mind the worst excesses of Eurovision idiot-pop. I can, in the right frame of mind, just about enjoy most of the tracks on this album on some base level, but “Perfect Illusion” really is total shit, and I can’t recall a single moment where I ever enjoyed any of it. Gaga’s made a lot of bad songs, but this seriously might be her worst. And it was the lead single! See what I mean about bad ideas?

The remaining two songs are the only ones that come close to displaying the level of talent I know Gaga is capable of, and it’s really only a dim reflection. “A-YO” is classified as “country-pop” by the idiots over on Wikipedia, but it’s really more of an indie pop song with perhaps vague, ill-defined influences from a nebulously distant era of American popular music, sounding not really much like country, rock ‘n’ roll or r’n’b but kind of like someone heard all those styles described to them by a millennial who’d read about them on George Starostin’s old page and decided to make a song based on that information. It’s dancey, catchy and fun, even if Gaga’s oversinging gets grating, and I can’t deny that the end result of this pastiche is something kinda unique among the pop radio hits of the day. “John Wayne”, meanwhile, is the closest thing you’ll find to Gaga’s old bop style on the album, and it might be one of the better tracks on Artpop if you just replaced all the live instruments with expensive synths. The rock influence is vague enough to, once again, accidentally create something a little unique, not quite rock enough to be called pop-rock but with enough ghosts of rock attitude to make the whole thing sound a little more hard-edged than usual. It’s still not perfect – the hook feels a little lazy, what with those little wordless, distorted vocals taking the place of Gaga’s usual well-developed melodies – but it’s at least kind of a successful banger with a nice build in the prechorus, which is a trick one might almost have thought Gaga had forgotten entirely if one judged by the other tracks on the album.

And, uh… that’s it. Man, what a disappointment, huh? I can’t rate this too low, ‘cos every song on here really is very catchy, but this is an album that feels very much as if Gaga is suppressing herself in pursuit of some great social ideal she has no business pursuing. The idea that acoustic ballads are the definition of authenticity is, of course, a silly one, and I’d actually say this feels like possibly the least authentic Gaga record yet, save maybe for the lowest nadirs on The Fame. Trying to slot any of these tracks onto best-of-Gaga playlists is a bizarrely futile endeavor, not just because the instrumentation is so different from her usual but because the melodic style seems almost like that of another artist, moonlighting under the Gaga name but not really representing her soul. The cover, at least, is great – probably the best Gaga album cover ever, actually, at least so far – but, alas, that’s the only hyperbole I can heap upon this album, which isn’t even interesting enough to claim the coveted title of worst Gaga album. Man, is there anything more depressing than the sight of an interesting artist making an uninteresting album? Well, I dunno, maybe

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STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga–Artpop (2013)

220px-artpop_coverWell, I guess it couldn’t last forever. After two straight albums of seemingly endless melodic inspiration, it was bound to happen that she’d screech to a halt eventually. I’ve been known to theorize that talent is more like a finite resource than an innate trait, bound to run out eventually if you mine it for long enough, and this point in Gaga’s career gives me some worrisome evidence in support of this hypothesis. This album’s got a whole lot of faults, but the most powerful and important, and the one that ultimately sours it most of all, is that Gaga appears, at least temporarily, to have gotten near the bottom of her vein of outstanding melodies. The stuff she’s dredging up here is mostly passable at best, fool’s gold more than the real thing, and it’s a tragic thing to hear.

It’s a problem she seems to recognise on at least some subconscious level, because there’s a lot of superfluous shit here that seems specifically made to distract from the lacklustre tunes. The first track is especially instructive; it’s a ridiculous hodgepodge of all sorts of ideas shoved brutally together into a single misshapen package, bursting at the seams and falling apart as it struggles to present a coherent facade of musical creativity. There’s a bit of spaghetti western-style acoustic guitar in the intro, a lot of ridiculous pop-EDM synths and buildups, some English-accented spoken word shit, and a whole host of distinct, loosely-structured musical segments that ultimately serve only to distract from the fact that there really isn’t all that much melodic content present outside of the hook. The hook melody itself is pretty promising, but it’s backed up by some very confused synths that build up to the verses as if they’re the song’s real climax – only for the verses themselves to start over and try and build up energy again. There’s never a satisfactory resolution to all that building energy, and it leaves you feeling rather disappointed and dissatisfied, ending on an abrupt note that takes you right into one of the worst songs Gaga ever made.

Remember how “LoveGame” felt like Gaga was very much going for camp over quality? Well, this isn’t quite as bad as “LoveGame”, but it’s very close, and that’s largely because it commits the same dreadful sin. Right from the opening lyric – “Rocket number nine, take off to the planet… Venus!” – it’s clear that this is a song far more concerned with being as silly as possible than it is with actually being any good, and it successfully achieves a level of silly awfulness I find absolutely intolerable. The verses are only melodic in the most technical sense, and neither the production nor the lyrics are good enough to provide any alternative point of interest. The whole thing is structured in much the same way as one of those pop-EDM tracks that was popular on the radio at the time, with a big rhythmic buildup to a dumb, dramatic drop serving as a hook, and the melodies Gaga lays over the top aren’t good enough to salvage the song from sounding uncomfortably mawkish. The spoken word bridge, meanwhile, may be the absolute nadir of any such Gaga bridge, consisting of almost nothing but a “Uranus” joke so bad it may have ruined all such jokes for me forevermore. See what you’ve done, Gaga? You’ve only gone and murdered my inner child!

The pop-EDM era to which much of this album’s production belongs lasted, I dunno, maybe four years at most, and in retrospect its influence on this album is a little too big to justify. “Swine” is the track most victimized by this issue, but it’s hard to feel any sympathy for it, since it’s not like it ever had much potential anyway. The prechorus has some decent melodic content, but for the most part the song’s a big, forgettable, overblown mess that all serves as a buildup to a big ol’ generic EDM drop of the type one can almost imagine the late Avicii creating, and that, loath as I generally am to speak ill of the recently deceased, is not a good thing. It’s rather grotesque to see such a singular artist so nakedly pandering to such momentary pop trends, especially on an album conceived and marketed as her craziest, most exploratory artistic period. Barely four years removed from the glory days of DJ Snake, and this stuff already sounds uncomfortable in the same “what the fuck were we thinking?” way as hair metal. It should have passed us by without infecting any of our major artists, but alas, it ensnared Gaga, and we’re forced to put up with shit like this and “Fashion!”.

“Fashion!” is some sickening shit, man. Strip away all that fashion plating – disco guitars and basslines, expensive synths – and you’re left with a hook that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Imagine Dragons’ most nauseating anthems melded with a bridge that doubles as a horrid EDM buildup-and-drop, adding nothing to the song except a vaguely irritating sense that it’s somehow managing to be both over and underambitious at the same time. Listening to it gets me really down, but not quite as much as the immediately preceding “Donatella”, another moment of ridiculous overcampensation that seeks to replace melodic invention with exuberance. “I am so fab“, she proclaims as the song opens, presumably trying, in some way, to imitate the titular Ms. Versace and doing a great disservice to all involved. The hook here is nothing but a pathetic, underwritten anticlimax, and the perfunctory trancey synths that inhabit the treble end of this song’s range really get on my nerves. If these two songs aren’t enough to convince you to ban the entire field of high fashion and exterminate all its practitioners, you may be a lost cause.

When Gaga’s neither burying herself in camp nor pretending to be David Guetta, she’s writing songs so boring I find it difficult to say anything about them at all. “MANiCURE” is the sort of song title that should belong to RiFF RAFF more than Gaga, and that’s about the most interesting insight I have to offer on the song, which is so bland and unremarkable that I can’t really remember anything about it beyond the presence of some token guitars. The title track is so listless and lazily written that it feels almost like it was abandoned halfway through the writing process, as if she wrote a prechorus and then decided she couldn’t be bothered to write the actual hook. “Do What U Want” is the most competent of these three, and the propulsive synth production is actually quite nice, but it’s still a little nondescript and is also host to the rather icky spectacle of Gaga, empowering female symbol, happily telling noted serial child predator R. Kelly to, ahem, “do what you want with my body”. Seriously – I try to separate art from artist, but this song goes out of its way to make it difficult for me, you know?

There are some good ideas on this album, but they’re often underdeveloped. “Sexxx Dreams” comes very dangerously close to sounding like a Jenna Maroney single, but the prechorus melody is actually kind of amazing, all lilting and druggy and drowned under effects, conveying a lovelorn, substance-addled longing that the sugary hook ends up ruining. “Dope” has one of the only effective, memorable hooks on the album, but it’s present on a ballad so overdriven and ridiculous it makes Adele sound like Taku Sugimoto, sung so passionately the melody almost disappears under the uncontrolled vocal power. It’s sort of admirable, really, that Gaga utterly belts this song as if she truly believes it were one of the greatest ballads ever written, but that gives rise to the terrifying corollary that she might actually believe that shit, and that gives me existential quivers.

In my humble opinion, there are exactly five good songs out of the fifteen on this album, and most of them have at least one flaw. The prechorus melody on “Gypsy” is truly, utterly gorgeous, and honestly one of my favourite tunes Gaga ever wrote – and she recognises she’s onto something, too, because she isolates and repeats that melody as much as she can within the pop song structure. I ain’t complaining, especially since that prechorus goes a long way towards making the annoying EDM structure more tolerable on this song than anywhere else on the album, and if one doesn’t look too closely one can almost miss that the chorus is maybe just a tad underwritten. “Mary Jane Holland” is a bafflingly little-known deep cut that almost certainly has the best hook melody on the album, full of just the sort of longing and regret that makes all her best hooks so memorable. It contrasts beautifully with the roaring, growling synths that underlie it and build up to it in the verses, and it’s all almost enough to make one forgive the bridge, which sounds like the worst showtune from the worst off-broadway show ever made. And then there’s “Applause”, which is well-structured, well-produced and well-sung enough that one may be willing to overlook the intense arrogance present in the lyrics of the second verse. “Pop culture wasn’t art, now art’s in pop culture in me”, sneers Gaga, causing my head to spin and making me contemplate suicide as I wonder if this woman has ever actually listened to the Bowie records she claims to love so much. I mean, come on – half the singing on this very song sounds like you’re directly imitating him! Show some respect to the original, ya dingus!

There are only two songs here I return to as regularly as the highlights from previous records. One of them is “Jewels N’ Drugs”, which I truly believe accidentally slipped into this reality through a crack in spacetime from bizarro world or some similarly strange universe. It’s a deeply surreal experience, right from the moment that vast, Lex Luger-type trap beat comes in and we are made to confront the spectacle of T.I brazenly announcing the presence of “HUSTLE GANG!” on a fucking Lady Gaga song. After his verse – which I can’t recall a single lyric from, not that it matters next to his charisma – we are forced to further confront the surreality of Gaga singing one of her sweetest, most tender melodies over the top of this giant, booming trap glamsplosion, crooning as softly as an angel atop the sort of music that should really be accommodating a murderously aggressive Waka Flocka Flame. The song’s oddities go deeper than that, though – the fact that Gaga sings the verse and then, uh, raps the initial hooks is bizarre enough, but the song also hosts two distinct beat changes and, perhaps most weirdly, two entirely distinct, repeated hooks, one for the first half of the song and one for the second. It’s a totally unhinged mess of a song, and I simply do not know how it can possibly exist, but I gotta admit I actually totally love it. Its eccentricities don’t actively conflict with another like they usually do on this album, and in fact they end up putting a big ol’ smile on my face for just about the song’s entire, deceptively brief runtime. Should I feel guilty about loving it so much? I mean, maybe, but I don’t. Besides, how can anyone hate Twista’s verse? That guy’s a verbal machine gun!

So, finally, we come to the best song on here, and the only song on the album that really ranks up there with Gaga’s best contributions to the state of pop music in the 2010s. “G.U.Y” is still a little disappointing compared to former best-songs-on-the-album, I guess, and it’s got nothing on “The Edge of Glory” or “Paparazzi”, but I’ve still listened to it countless times without ever getting bored, and it’s a thoroughly great, energetic dance bop with the most badass synth riff Gaga ever sang over and a properly structured build from verse through prechorus to hook that feels just as natural and cathartic as it should. The chorus melody always reminds me just a tad of Lana Del Rey, with the way she builds up and then just drops everything in the last syllable, as if the drugs have suddenly hit and slowed her to a sudden crawl. It picks up a lot of power from those bright, sizzling synths, though, flowering up around her as she sings and carrying her up to heaven even as the melody descends. It’s a great song, for sure, and if the rest of the album had lived up to its level I might be able to defy the consensus once again. But, alas, the album largely sucks just as much as people say it does, and that’s a real shame.

See, the narrative around Gaga is all wrong. This isn’t the experimental, overambitious one – that’s Born This Way! This one has some madcap moments, for sure (refer, once again, to “Jewels N’ Drugs”), but for the most part it’s actually kind of boring, and a clear artistic regression from her previous realms. It’s nakedly bowing to pop trends in a way Born This Way absolutely never did, and it’s doing so while abandoning most of the fantastic melodicism that used to make even her most misguided moments so tolerable. It’s a big step backwards, in other words, and it actually kinda pisses me off. I mean, those lyrics on “Applause” really are insulting when surrounded by this dreck, y’know? Did she really think this was her art album? Did she think is brave to incorporate all these EDM drops? Did she think she was rebelling?

Well, whatever the answer to that, this ain’t a good album. As for her next one, well – I can’t really remember. We’ll see. Next time might be a surprise, folks! (Probably not.)

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga—Born This Way (2011)

81s2bi2hv-el-_sl1500_I wanna get this out of the way as quickly as possible: Born This Way has the second-worst cover art ever attached to a mainstream pop album, right behind Girls Aloud’s Tangled Up. I can’t think of a better argument against capitalism than the idea that someone might have actually gotten paid to create that thing. Special mention must go to the font choice, which I’d have felt embarrassed to use in my year 8 PowerPoint presentations. I’m sure a lot of people feel that it’s a perfectly fair representation of the album, but I can’t agree. For one thing, the album art looks profoundly cheap, and for all this album’s maddening faults I gotta admit that there ain’t a single thing on here that sounds cheap.

Nah, this is a big, expensive mess of an album, designed chiefly as a vast monument to the suddenly-towering ego of its auteur. That’s evident from the moment the first vocals hit you on “Marry the Night”, tracing the sort of portentous, self-important vocal melody one might well expect to find on a mid-period Muse track about governments or aliens or whatnot. I mean, it’s a fair bit better than most Muse melodies, of course – because Gaga’s melodies, even at their most self-important, are just on another fuckin’ level – and I’m not gonna say I don’t like the song, but man, it sure does test me, y’know? The pulsing synth production is a little disappointingly basic and one-dimensional after The Fame Monster, leaving it pretty much entirely up to the melody to do all the heavy lifting. That melody is intelligently written and well-developed enough to save the song from the grating, insufferable pathos that sort of songwriting usually evokes, and I do end up quite enjoying the song, but it starts the album on something of a worrisome note. The outro is awesome, though – leave it to Gaga, of all pop artists, to make the final minute of her song into a sudden climactic buildup that ends up being the most important part of the song!

That self-importance is detectable everywhere across this album, whether in the melodies or elsewhere. The immediately following title track, of course, is quite possibly and infamously the most self-important pop song ever made, save perhaps for those godawful We Are The World-type savior songs that crop up a few times a decade. My thoughts on it have, weirdly, almost reversed since my last review. I now think the melody and hook are both pretty much classic Gaga greatness, but all those clashing, conflicting synths firing off in every direction do them a disservice, especially when compared with the other songs on this album that pull similarly abrasive, less confused production tricks. Throwing all these nonsensical sounds together over the top of this perfectly good hook is a child’s idea of artistic experimentation, and it reflects a profoundly misplaced artistic ego with only a superficial understanding of what it means to push boundaries. It’s an important song for the history books, of course – a veritable LGBT anthem – but I could do without it doing so much to rub it in my face, you know?

It’s a shame, because there are some genuinely weird moments on this album. Some of them, indeed, are among my favourite things Gaga has ever done. “Judas” might be one of the most sonically abrasive songs ever put out by a major pop artist, and it’s certainly one of the weirdest charting hits in recent memory. It’s electro-dancepop taken to its most aggressive possible extreme, with the usual thumping drums, glaring synths and punchy bass made into instruments of raw physical force, crushing all in their path as Gaga recites lyrics in a dread monotone over the top, presiding over the destruction like some vengeful witch-queen. She emits some glorious descending wails in the prechorus, rending through the cacophony like a knife, and then out of nowhere one of the best damn hooks of the century explodes forth from the gloom and makes it fully clear why this hit the top ten. It’s got that same beautiful blend of regret and soaring power that made all the best hooks on The Fame Monster work, and it adds enough extra context to the roaring anger of the verses that they end up elevating rather than contradicting each other. It’s also got just about the only spoken-word Gaga bridge I actually like, partly because it’s attached to a pretty neat breakdown and partly because she produces and presents the spoken vocals properly, emotively whispering and multi-tracking them enough to create an atmosphere and maybe – just maybe – even a little bit of an emotional impact. It’s a great song in many regards, and I’ve listened to it countless times while writing this very paragraph. People are usually correct to say that Gaga’s music never matched the carefully-managed weirdness she projected with her public image at the time, but this song was an exception – and it wasn’t the only one.

You’ve also got “Government Hooker”, which I’ve shifted opinions on more times than I can count and which certainly lives up to whatever you might be expecting from the title. A brief, vaguely faux-operatic intro leads into the sort of dark, bleepy pop-industrial synth that wouldn’t sound overly out of place on a mid-period Nine Inch Nails album, complete with malfunctioning electronic crunches and riffs that sound like they came out of the darker underbelly of the 80s. Of course, much like mid-period Nine Inch Nails, I’m not at all sure how good it is; it’s kinda lacking in the really memorable vocal melodies Gaga was usually so good at, and the hook, as intriguing and abrasive as her accusatory wails of “HOOOOOOOKER!” are, isn’t as complete or well-developed as Gaga hooks usually are. Still, the structure is kinda subtly weird in that classic Gaga way, and I can’t deny that it has a certain irresistible magnetism once you get past how utterly corny the lyrics are (hah – another Nine Inch Nails parallel!). I’ll chalk this one up as good and encourage it to leave before I change my mind.

The industrial side of the 80s isn’t the only side present on this album, either. “Bloody Mary” is one of my favourite Gaga deep cuts, and while it does borrow a little from industrial – those synths in the verses sound rather like monstrous cybernetic beasts rumbling and growling from a black pit below – it mostly feels like a great big tribute to the new wave and synthpop that defined so much of that era’s popular music. The bassline in the steadily building prechorus is a new romantic delight, and the hook wouldn’t sound at all out of place on a Martin Gore-sung Depeche Mode song from the close of the decade. The spacey, vocal-imitating synths in the bridge also rather recall Depeche Mode, but it doesn’t feel like an imitation so much as a respectful acknowledgement of the ground paved by masters of past eras, and the melodies are all just delightful. And lest we forget, of course, the soft, harp-based post-chorus closes out with a totally unexpected, perfectly-produced echoing scream that’d make any metalhead proud. This song presaged the synthpop revival by a fair few years, but it got closer to the core of what made synthpop work than most of those new guys ever could.

That’s the sort of talent that makes Gaga so deeply frustrating. On the one hand, of the current crop of stars, only she could have made a song that indicated so deep an understanding of the strengths of synthpop while maintaining an identity of its own; on the other hand, only she could ever make a song that so completely captures all the things that made 80s hair-rock so insufferable as she does on “Bad Kids”. I give her respect for correctly capturing the essences of both the two powerhouses of 80s popular music, I guess, and I suppose it’s is undeniably far better than most of the faux-rebellious guitarshit that ruled the latter end of that decade, but the riff is irritating and far too cleanly produced, the melody is on the lower end of Gaga melodies (which is to say, pretty good but not good enough to redeem the surrounding production) and the hook, while fine on its own terms, doesn’t blend at all with its surroundings. It’s a song that ends up rather worse than the sum of its parts, not at all helped by some of the most moronic lyrics she ever wrote. “I’m a twit, degenerate young rebel and I’m proud of it/ Pump your fist if you would rather mess up than put up with this/ I’m a nerd, I chew gum and smoke in your face, I’m absurd”… man, is this Axl Rose or have we descended ten years downhill to Fred Durst by accident? It’s not a disaster of a song, all told, but it’s not a good one either, and I’m not sure why it had to exist.

Poorly-applied influences are responsible for a good many of the worst songs on this album, and there are a few of those. “Americano” is such a ridiculously superficial, pantomime-tier application of Latin influences to electropop that it pretty much loops round, and I can rarely restrain myself from at least chuckling a little when I hear it. I mean, come on – that chorus is so offensive it’s nearly racist! It’s incredibly catchy, of course, because it’s still a Gaga chorus, but it feels like the Latino equivalent of blackface. I can’t help but get the impression this song is based more on stereotypes about Latin music than real experience with it, though I run the risk of hypocrisy there since I’m far from an expert on Latin pop myself. Maybe the real problem is that it’s too overblown and over-the-top, even for Gaga, to sound capable of seriously delivering any actual emotion whatsoever except unintentional comedy, and it’s certainly not alone in that flaw. “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” pretty much exactly lives down to its ridiculous title, sounding rather like the electropop version of the sort of shitty power metal that resides at the toxic bottom of all the world’s musical wells, simply too vast to not collapse under its own excessive weight. “Hair” alternates between saccharine power ballad, pounding electropop banger and stupid arena pomp, burying what should, melodically, be a reasonably triumphant, decently developed hook under so many loudly exuberant instruments it becomes difficult to even make it out. The terribly-played saxophone deserves special mention, though it’s mercifully difficult to make out from the general idiotic cacophony it contributes to.

Nah, Gaga is at her best when she streamlines her influences a little better, like she does on “Scheiße”. Putting aside how weird it is that a tribute to European techno music exists on the same album as so many tributes to American hair metal, it’s a good song because it’s so simple and unpretentious in its application of this influence. It just shoves a rumbly, dark techno beat into a pop song structure, throws some of Gaga’s trademark great vocal melodies over the top, adds some of Gaga’s also-trademark silly spoken word stuff as a refrain (a bunch of completely fake German, amusing enough to avoid being annoying) and then lets it climax with one of Gaga’s also-also-trademark soaring-but-also-kinda-deeply-sad hooks. There’s a brief house-y moment of super clean, spacey synths in the prechorus that widens the scope just enough to add the sort of epic touch Gaga loves without feeling ridiculous or tacked-on, and it all adds up to a song I’ve absolutely no complaints with. It’s something of a crime that it was never officially released as a single, and evidently the buying public agreed – it charted in at least five countries anyway.

Those hair metal tributes I mentioned do get a little grating, though. “Electric Chapel” quietly contains one of the loveliest vocal melodies and hooks on the album, sung beautifully by Gaga in full soft-velvet-angel mode, but those 80s guitars do their best to ruin it whenever they reappear, playing the sort of dullard riff I’m sure Richie Sambora would be proud to have come up with. “Heavy Metal Lover”, meanwhile, doesn’t have much to do musically with any kind of metal, but it seems the mere presence of metal in Gaga’s mindset as she wrote it ruined it – the song isn’t so much underwritten as mostly not written at all, without anything in the way of a verse melody or memorable instrumental riff. The hook does contain a really lovely, quiet and reflective millennial whoop (millennial hum?) that rather recalls the one on “Alejandro” and which I’ve caught humming to myself more times than I can count, and a similarly lovely (if VERY brief) bridge, but it’s not enough to salvage a song that feels like it was bashed out in about five minutes. Who’d want a metalhead for a lover, anyway? Do those fuckin’ nerds seem like they know anything about pleasing a woman? Oh, bah, I can’t talk…

There’s one song here, though, which should embody everything I hate most about Gaga’s love for hair metal and yet somehow doesn’t. “Yoü and I” is laden with big dumb hair metal guitars, big dumb drums (cribbed directly from Queen, no less) and big dumb lyrical references to Bruce Springsteen, but it’s all forgivable because its primary driving force is one of the absolute loveliest, prettiest and most affecting vocal melodies Gaga ever wrote in her life. Strip away all the stupid production and what you’ve got isn’t a power ballad – it’s a slow, quiet, contemplative normal ballad that’d fit just perfectly on a lone acoustic guitar or piano, save perhaps for the big anthemic bridge and its accompanying guitar solo (contributed by Brian May himself, no less!). The hook refuses to build any power or invite any singing along – if anything, it’s the softest part of the song, a firm retreat into the deepest recesses of her heart. It’s very pretty indeed, and the guitars don’t sound quite clean or irritating enough to distract. One of the unlikeliest success stories on the album, for sure, but I love it.

That all brings us to the album’s closing track. And oh, man… what a closing track, man. “The Edge of Glory” is ridiculous, overblown, pompous, arrogant, arena-ready, and simply one of the best damn pop songs of the last thirty-odd years, and I won’t hear a damn word against it except to criticise that stupid bloody saxophone solo that tries its best to ruin it. It doesn’t manage it, though, because it’s impossible to ruin a collection of melodies and hooks this completely efficient, dense, sweeping and cathartic. The verse melodies here are the cleanest and most perfectly-constructed she’s written since “Just Dance”, packing so much catchy melodic content into each second that it’s impossible to forget any of it, and the refrains spliced in between – “Toniiight, yeah, baby!” – are perfect mini-hooks, grabbing and forcing your attention and not letting you leave until you’ve taken the whole thing in, filling you with melodic purity like an elixir. The hook, meanwhile, from the start of the prechorus to the end of the chorus itself, is among the most perfect examples of buildup and catharsis I’ve ever encountered in a pop song, pacing itself absolutely perfectly as it steadily rises to the orgasmic climax. That last climb – “the edge, the edge, the eeeeeeeeeeeedge!” – is absolutely ecstatic, and one of the very truest moments of pure energetic catharsis anywhere in my music collection. Sax solo aside, it may very well be Gaga’s finest five minutes, and its mere presence on this album raises this album’s score by 0.5. I can listen to this song four times in a row and it’ll give me goosebumps every time. If you wanna make a ridiculously overblown, over-the-top arena song, take notes, cos this is exactly how you do it.

So, man – is this a good record? Well, hmm… depends on my mood for the day. About seven of the songs are outright good, and seven of them are on various levels below that. Logically that should be a dreaded Five Out Of Ten score, but even the bad songs are mostly very catchy in a way that doesn’t usually feel obnoxious, so that wouldn’t be fair. There’s also the fact that all this album’s flaws are, at least, interesting – there isn’t a single dull moment on the entire album, and it’s certainly packed full to the brim with ideas, even if a lot of them aren’t very good. Certainly, if you’re gonna erect a towering edifice to your own musical ego, I’d much rather you do it this way – throwing things in all directions to see what sticks – rather than, say, making an 80-minute rock opera on which half the songs sound the bloody same. (Heh.)

Could this album have been much better? Oh, of course. If Gaga had shaved about twenty minutes off this album, cut off a few of the more horrid guitar riffs and filled out a few of the synth productions a little more, she might have been able to create one of the best pop albums of all time. But she didn’t, and in the end I’m just gonna have to settle for a maddeningly inconsistent album on which the worst songs are nonetheless not nearly as bad as the best songs are good. Man, I love reviewing Gaga, you know that? Consistent artists can be so monotonous to review, but Gaga, man, she keeps me fuckin’ guessing. The more flaws I discover, the more I love her. What the fuck are perfect places, anyway?

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga — The Fame Monster (2009)

71pu0evk6el-_sy355_Well, this is a fuckin’ quantum leap, isn’t it? Diving into this right after The Fame feels rather like the exact reverse of that Deep Space Nine episode where they go back in time to the Original Series era. It’s part of the same musical universe, for sure, but it’s far more advanced, way more focused and much clearer in its artistic intent than the preceding album. Much shorter, too, which always feels like a bit of a risk from an artist this big. You’ve gotta be very confident in your product to release so very little of it to the pop-consuming public, and if there were even one real dud here it’d feel like a crucial mistake. Fortunately, there isn’t, and the end result is thirty-four minutes of nearly perfect pop music marred only by the occasional momentary lapse in taste.

If The Fame contained exactly one truly fantastic pop masterpiece, then The Fame Monster contains at least three – maybe four or even five, depending on my mood. “Bad Romance”, of course, is so universally known and widely beloved that discussing it almost feels redundant, but I guess I may as well go ahead and try anyway. As a statement of intent, it’s immediately powerful and instructive. Gone are the cheap, thin synths of “Just Dance”, and replacing them is a lush, fulsome production full of immersive fuzz, dark foggy pulsations and vast, thudding drums that sound as if they’re beating on the edge of the universe from the great black beyond. Mix in a few well-placed small details – little percussion rattles, barely-audible whistly backing synths – and you have the sort of production it’s easy to get entirely lost in, as relaxing in its omnipresence as it is propulsive in its rhythmic power. From this dark sea of synthetic glitter emerges a hook so overwhelming and undeniable in its power that it initially threatens to crush everything else on the album into irrelevance, soaring atop the towering synths as if they were thermals and immediately forming a perfect, permanent impression in one’s memory. I’d wager that every white millennial of a certain age, save perhaps for the most tragically unsalvageable metalheads, could sing you this hook word-for-word by memory. It’s such a fantastic hook, in fact, that I’m willing to pretty much totally overlook the fact that the bridge and prechorus in this thing are lazy garbage. I mean, shit, why should I care? I scarcely notice them anyway, not next to that.

See, the thing that makes the best Gaga hooks so exquisite is that she knows how to present them. The prechorus on “Bad Romance” may indeed suck, but the post-chorus – in itself a strange, rare feature that Gaga had an unusual, and welcome, fondness for – is absolutely essential, providing the dark, punchy yin to the chorus’ bright, soaring yang, creating an essential contrast between the two that renders them both equally memorable and equally important as components of the hook. “Telephone” uses a similar technique to achieve similarly stratospheric results; the hook there isn’t anthemic, but it is highly energetic, and that’s because the song is structured in such a way as to neither truly peak nor really come down. Instead, it just keeps going and going, zipping and zooming about like a rollercoaster, occasionally hitting brief highs or troughs before shooting right out of them again and keeping your adrenaline rushing. The song’s first verse – accompanied only by that lovely harp – quickly breaks out into the second, making no room for the huge chorus one might expect from a Gaga song before the pulsating synths hit and carry us firmly and irresistibly into banger territory. The transition into the chorus is an escalation, but a measured, seamless one, and the energy is transferred just as seamlessly into the post-chorus and then kept lightly floating along by the refrain (“Can call if you want, but there’s no-one home/ And you’re not gonna reach my telephone!”) before it returns in full force with Beyoncé’s verse. The ever-so-brief lull in the verse that follows is more a quick fakeout than anything else, and after that the song just keeps on building up and up until the synths and vocals explode into a delightful gushing crescendo at the finish. It’s all quite unusual for a dancepop banger, but it’s ultimately in service to the almighty concept of The Bop, and it feels like a revalatory innovation in the field.

That flowing, seamless transition style is also what makes “Speechless” so lovely. It’s a big ol’ piano power ballad that kinda takes after Queen, and that includes in the relative looseness of the song structure. The first two iterations of the hook are adorned with their own distinct, dissimilar prechoruses, and the journey from the second hook to the third feels as if it simply ignores the usual verse/bridge/refrain strictures and progresses as naturally and loosely as a stream downhill. Of course, it also brings that classic Queen bombast, which in turn brings that classic Queen problem – it’s difficult to feel much emotional connection to this big ol’ showtune, though it’s clearly going for tender regret (more on that in a second) – but it’s still a great song, and a perfectly-placed stylistic break in between the electropop bangers.

It’s also one of the few songs free from any of Gaga’s trademark spoken word interlude sections, which I’ve never found as endearing as some do. They strike me as more a crutch than a legitimate stylistic oddity, as if she’s leaning on her campy public image to cover moments where she can’t come up with proper songwriting to fill the gaps. The prechorus on “Alejandro”, much like on “Bad Romance”, smacks of this, and it’s an unfortunate blemish on what is otherwise a beautiful song. The subtle little millennial whoop that follows the introduction of the synths is one of the most quietly, irresistibly catchy moments on the entire album, and the hook is laden with far more tender pathos and regret than the silly set of lyrics really deserves. It elevates them, though, and coupled with the sweet verse melody it ends up quite undeniably lovely.

What’s really fascinating is that the aforementioned tender regret is the album’s overriding emotional mode, at least in terms of what the melodies are evoking. This is, by and large, a dance-pop album, but isolate the melodies and you’ll find most of them could just as easily serve on downbeat acoustic ballads. “Monster” is the weakest song here, mostly due to some heavily vocoded backing vocals that have aged like hot shit, but the melody makes it sound almost as if Gaga is lamenting the carnal diversion she’s found. “That boy is a moooonsteeeer“, she sings, as if it were a tragedy, and it’s the first clue that this song is not really so much about carnal satisfaction as the profound lack of it. When you read the lyrics, you notice they’re actually quite terrifyingly bleak; at no point does she express any actual desire whatsoever for the man she’s describing, and if anything she seems afraid of him, trying to rebuff him and eventually lamenting: “I wanna just dance, but he took me home instead/ Uh-oh, there was a monster in my bed/ We french kissed on a subway train/ He tore my clothes right off/ He ate my heart, and then he ate my brain”. If it wasn’t for that downbeat, bitterly regretful vocal melody, I’d not have noticed that the song is describing the sort of horrid, night-ruining sexual encounter every woman dreads having after a night out. Those big dance-party drums don’t sound so inviting now, eh?

Dysfunctional or problematic sexual psychology is actually the subject of at least half of the songs on the album. Even “Alejandro”, a mostly silly song, throws a nod towards abusive and controlling boyfriend behaviour, and that’s also the subject of one of the very best songs on the album. “Dance In The Dark” has the biggest, best synth riff this side of Depeche Mode, which rises like a gorgeous beam of light from the foggy muck of the buzzing, industrial synth intro, and it’s the centrepiece of the one Lady Gaga song I’d ever be ready to call emotionally complex. The lyrics aren’t the product of a particularly skilled poet, but they fuse well enough with the beautiful melody to make the hook really hard-hitting. It’s at once soaring and downbeat, ascendant and reserved, conveying an emotional duality one doesn’t often find in pop. It is, according to the lyrics, the sound of a girl who finds solace from her emotionally abusive boyfriend by having sex with him in the dark, enjoying the orgasm without having to fear his insults or criticisms of her body, taking the only pleasure she can find in the very architect of her misery. The melody really has to do the heavy lifting here, since Gaga just isn’t a good lyricist, but it pulls it off; this song is a perfect tragedy, hitting stratospheric emotional highs and deep lows at precisely the same time, and there are times when it is my favourite song Gaga ever wrote. Yeah, the bridge is more boring spoken-word about Princess Diana or some shit, but who cares? At this point, I find it just about impossible to even notice.

“So Happy I Could Die” is similarly bleak, though not as complex. Lyrics aside, the title is rendered immediately and clearly ironic the first time the gorgeous verse melody – possibly my favourite verse melody on the album, actually – rises up out of the gleaming, glitzy synths, and when combined with the hook it’s perhaps the most obviously, deeply sad and regretful tune on the album. “I am as vain as I allow”, she sings plaintively; “I do my hair, I gloss my eyes/ I touch myself all through the night.” It’s a bit of an obvious metaphor, but I gotta give credit where it’s due: it works, and the emptiness of her endless, meaningless drunken lusts and the pointless vanity that goes along with them is as clear as the not-so-subtle mortal terror she carries with her into her attempts at escape. “Happy in the club, with a bottle of red wine/ Stars in our eyes, ’cause we’re having a good time/ Eh-eh, eh-eh; So happy I could die”, she sings, and it’s clear as day that the emphasis is far more on “die” than it ever could be on “happy”. It’s here that the denseness of those huge, crushing synths and that endless, pounding drumbeat starts to sound more claustrophobic than liberating, and the whole apparatus starts to sound like a great gilded prison. It’s probably my favourite Gaga deep cut, and one of her very best songs.

That leaves us with “Teeth”, which is another stylistic experiment untethered from Gaga’s usual synths and drum machines. I’m not quite sure what I’d call it, honestly – Wikipedia thinks of it as an r&b song, and at least one critic called it “part country”, which isn’t quite as ridiculous as it first sounds. This isn’t a million miles removed from country, I guess, even if it is far more rhythmic than any country song made in the last sixty years or so. The guitars, horns, synths, bells and drums all play pretty much the exact same syncopated rhythm, leaving Gaga’s vocals as the only melodic instrument at play as she sings passionately about what sounds like a healthy sadomasochistic relationship. That is, it sounds healthy until you pay attention to her spoken backing vocals, which are as dry and emotionless a contrast as possible to the lead. “My religion is you”, she intones without feeling several times in a row, and it leaves me wondering whether character here is genuinely enjoying herself or just bored with it all. I guess one could describe it as an ambiguously functional relationship, which places it ahead of half the interactions depicted on this record. Either way, it’s a great and thoroughly unusual song, and secretly one of Gaga’s most unique creations.

I’m tempted to give this album a perfect score, in spite of the flaws, but I can’t quite; some of the flaws here, small as they are, do bother me. The couple of bad bridges and constant spoken word interludes are annoying, and if I’m not in the right mood they occasionally do grab me and briefly drag me out of the experience. But there’s a lot of really, truly great stuff on this record, and it’s absolutely, unquestionably the best complete project Gaga ever turned out. It’s got enough emotional depth that one may almost be willing to forget that Gaga isn’t a very good lyricist, and it displays some subtly brilliant songwriting chops of the sort that are always welcome in pop music. And I suppose I might have forgotten to mention it until now, but her voice is absolutely gorgeous the whole way through, shimmering bright and angelic while also carrying just enough human flaws to stay relatable. She really was, in theory, the complete package – an excellent songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist with ambition and intelligence, and she should, by all rights, have ended up putting out even better work than this. But let’s not focus on the negatives for now – let’s just focus on this nearly perfect pop album and enjoy it for what it is. Electropop doesn’t get much better than this.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)

Review By: Michael Strait

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Full of failures, and not yet the fun kind.

After reviewing a couple of consistently good/great artists in a row, I decided to try something a little different. Reviewing good music gets boring after a while, but I didn’t just wanna review some horrible shit right away. Now, how about an artist with a lot of raw talent who often messes it up with terrible artistic choices, who seems determined to compensate for her incredible, preternatural sense of melody with the worst taste imaginable? Ah, now we’re talking.  Continue reading “STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)”

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Michael’s Bitesize Reviews: Vol. 3

Written by: Michael Strait

More singles! Once again, no theme here at all – just stuff I am interested in and felt inspired to write about. I should mention that if any of y’all have any singles you want me to review, feel free to suggest ‘em and I’ll try and include ‘em in the next list.

On with the show!

Lana Del Rey – Video Games (2011)

As far as I’m concerned, this is the only Lana Del Rey song. The first time I heard it, I was skeptical, and I still think the songwriting is underdeveloped. The verse melody is very basic, after all, and the whole thing feels a bit disjointed – there’s no prechorus and no bridge, and the end result is that each song segment kinda feels like it’s floating on an island by itself, lacking that seamless connection that makes the best pop songs so sublime. 

But by god, guys, the production on this thing. Those little flowering harp strokes; the strings, played with enough poise and patient reserve to keep them from seeming corny or melodramatic like strings in pop songs so often do; that quiet, deep bass drum, rolling in like some distant beast’s sleeping heartbeat. And I gotta admit that Lana herself is utterly captivating here, too; the way she delicately drops the last line in the chorus is legitimately goosebump-inducing, and she manages to sound fragile and vulnerable without coming off like some pathetic simp. Her lyrics aren’t particularly great, but I get the impression she means every one of them, and it’s that firm emotional grounding that keeps the production from sounding excessively airy or fantastical. To be honest, in my weaker moments this song leaves me feeling kinda depressed, ‘cos I’ve never experienced anything close to the life-affirming, soul-enriching love this song conjures and I don’t know if I ever will. If the world really does feel this gorgeous when you’re in love, then I’m missing out; all I can do is let this song wash over me and experience its glory secondhand. Beautiful song.

Also: very possibly the best music video of the decade. That’s exactly how ya do an aesthetic without making it overbearing; pity I can’t say the same of her other videos.

SahBabii – Pull up Wit Ah Stick (2016)

God, how weird is it that the streets are listening to this stuff? It’s a light, soft r&b ballad sung in a tender, feathery vocal tone through a thin layer of autotune, with some clean synths brightening up the background and a pleasantly wholesome set of lyrics about murder and armed robbery. This isn’t even weird for the trap scene anymore, that’s what gets me – it’s entirely normal these days to find hard street gangbangers bumping this sorta melodic croony shit, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over how surreal that is. ‘Course, the melodicism here isn’t actually particularly good – it’s basically just one little tune repeated over and over again – but I kinda like the vaguely hazy, druggy feel, and I can’t deny that it’s been stuck in my head for days. Looking back on this kind of music in twenty years is gonna be even more surreal than living through it, but as of right now I quite like it, and I’m sure I’ll continue to like it when the inevitable Drake remix makes it inescapable.

Coldplay – Hypnotised (2017)

Other people seem to be enjoying this, but personally I find it impossible to take seriously. The chiming keyboards and slide guitars sound kinda nice, I guess, and it’s certainly a tremendous step up from Adventure Of A Lifetime or whatever bullshit from their previous, but the double-tracked vocals fall somewhere between ugly and mawkish, and I’m not convinced the acoustic guitars belong here. All those major chords mean the entire thing ends up sounding kinda like the sort of stuff you’d hear in the background to a YouTube slideshow of pretty nature photos, and appropriately enough that’s pretty much exactly what the lyrics video is. It’s so corny that it actually made me chuckle the first time I heard it – I heard the introductory piano notes and assumed it must be an advert before I realised it was the actual song. Mediocre, in other words, like most of the stuff they’ve done since the turn of the decade. Ignore this.

Lorde – Green Light (2017)

I’ve listened to this song countless times in the last couple of hours, and it really holds up under scrutiny. Her husky voice is as utterly gorgeous as it ever was, of course, but there’s a newfound vindictiveness to it – she sounds like she’s spitting the words out with fury, even when she’s singing those higher-pitched harmonies in the refrain. The sonics, too, are good – not remarkably good, and they don’t do anything to distract from the excellent songwriting, but nonetheless they absolutely do the trick, and I particularly like the way the instruments go all distorted towards the end, fuzzing out like lite noisepop guitars as the song retreats from its emotional climax. But the real draw here is sheer catharsis of the hook, which has that wonderful pre-chorus buildup that develops more and more energy until those dark synths finally swoop right up underneath her, letting her ride them higher and higher as she desperately yells and purges all the black muck that has built up in her soul. It’s all very intelligently tuneful, too, and each new melodic development feels like a perfectly natural and satisfying progression. Her lyrics aren’t quite as immediately, impressively excellent as they often are, but that might actually be a sign of maturity, signalling that she’s lost the desire to prove herself as a poet and is now content with writing just the sort of well-constructed, intelligently simple lyrics that pop music these days could really do with. “Did it frighten you/ How we kissed when we danced on the light up floor?” may not be as evocative as some of the stuff on, say, “Team”, but it efficiently places a very complete emotional & physical picture in my head, and I think that’s just as valid a success. 


Man, I am so glad she’s back. I can’t fuckin’ wait for the album.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011)

I wanna be very clear about this: this song is only enjoyable by total accident, and on its own terms it is an absolute failure. The clean synths in the verses are cheap and corny, the lyrics are trite nonsense and the melody is just kind of a waste. The chorus is kinda catchy, I guess, but it’s a pop song – you don’t get a pat on the back for that! 

Nah, I like this song ‘cos it’s cacophonous. Honestly, I can scarcely fathom how this song became a hit while Skinny Puppy languish in obscurity, because that massive, discoloured wave of lurching synths in the chorus is as abrasive as anything they ever did. That roaring mechanical whirr, pulsing in rhythm with those bludgeoning kick drums; that little falling treble sound, cascading through the cracks; the grating, popping little textures bubbling up from underneath every time the big synths fade away… I mean, fuckin’ hell, does the average person seriously enjoy this? I thought I was alone in my appreciation of discordant, assaultive electronic noise, but now I’m thinking that maybe my friends will be open to harsh noise & industrial music after all! Next time I get invited to a dance party I’ll throw some Guilty Connector on the playlist. It’ll work like a charm, I’m sure!

Blur – Parklife (1994)

Alright, so this is literally just a novelty song where the novelty is that it’s British, but I think it’s quite funny! The chorus is indeed just another part of the pastiche (designed specifically to evoke the 60s pop style for which Britain will always be famous, of course) but it’s also legitimately catchy, and those cheeky horns push it fully over the edge into the realm of pure cartoonish silliness. I also like how the guitars still retain just a touch of that angular, hard edge inherited from punk rock, though of course not enough to dent its popularity in the slightest. I know many despise this song for being among the most ridiculous excesses of Britpop nationalism, but I’m sure the self-parodic nature is intentional and I love it. Plus, I catch myself randomly muttering the words “Park-life!” all the time – though thankfully I’ve yet to do it in earshot of anyone else. Good song.

Lil Reese – Us (2012)

I can’t decide if Lil Reese is the apex of Chicago drill nihilism or its nadir. I guess he’s both; a true nihilist, after all, has no values whatsoever, and Reese’s valueless cynicism runs so deep that he can’t even be bothered to turn in anything that might be said to even slightly resemble a good verse. The hook has an air of foreboding, paranoid menace about it, I guess, but even then I’m pretty sure it’d be nothing without that beat.

And make no mistake: that beat is the only reason I’m rating this thing as high as I am. ‘Cos that beat is easily, easily one of the best trap beats ever made, and as perfect a summary of drill music’s appeal as I can imagine. Those gold-plated, percussive notes in the verses, and the machinegun hi-hats burrowing through and around them; those filthy organ strokes rubbing themselves all over the edge, leaving nearly audible dirt marks; that squelching, groaning synth riff in the chorus, squirming around like a malfunctioning mouse droid as additional synths and drums crash in all around it, collapsing the gilded walls and burying it under misery… heaven help me, it’s insane. That perfect, seamless fusion of opulent grandiosity with abrasive grit is exactly what makes the best trap & drill music so fascinating, and I guess that’s because it feels like a perfect musical expression of the conflicting and contradictory themes that have defined rap music for so long. That contrast between violent, grimy poverty and vain, capitalistic excess has been an inescapable dichotomy in rap music since at least Ready To Die, and in trap music it finally found a fitting musical reflection. There are, of course, many rappers who can do far better justice to this music than Lil Reese, but there are few producers who can capture its essence quite as perfectly as Young Chop. As far as I’m concerned, this song should be attributed to him; sometimes I forget Reese is even on this thing.

 

Nicki Minaj & G Herbo – Chi-Raq (2014)

A million remixes later, and I still think my favourite verse that’s ever been delivered over this beat is G Herbo’s right here. Nicki’s verse is great, of course, but I gotta admit it loses some of its impact after Herbo; lyrics like “Smack bitches, no smack cam/ Closed fists, no back hands” kinda lose any power to intimidate next to stuff like “Run up on a nigga with the llamas flyin’/ leave his loved ones all traumatized”. Still, she tones down all her corniest impulses here, and it’s definitely one of the best verses she’s ever delivered – those first four lines (“Ain’t yellin’ cut when it’s shootin’ time/ Sign up, it’s recruitin’ time/ Big wigs with a suit and tie/ And them big things got two inside”) are just the sort of clever, memorable opening a great verse wants, and her reserved flow melds to that malevolent beat like they were born together. 

But man, Herbo is just exhilarating. That guy’s in serious contention for the title of best rapper going right now, and this verse is one of his very best. Reading the genius page for this song is really fascinating, actually, because the contrast between the two verses is so clear – you have Nicki’s, positively drowning in similes, puns and cultural references, and then you have Herbo’s dispassionate list of facts, statements and ultraviolent threats. His verse is built like a concrete housing estate – monochromatic, utterly utilitarian, knucklebreakingly hard and covered in grimy stains from countless ill-fated endeavours, ‘cept these ones are more likely to be blood than vomit. His flow is highly aggressive, but it’s not an aggression borne of passion or anger so much as of territorial defensiveness and survivalist posturing. And he really does understand how rapping works, too – just listen to the way he places emphasis in the middle of the verse; “I’m in Hollywood, came from Kingston Food/ Shorties standing in the streets with tools/ Where I’m from, we don’t play no games/ Ain’t no April fools, you will make the news” – skipping the rhyme on that penultimate line was such a subtly brilliant move, ‘cos when he finally, cruelly twists the word news out of his mouth it comes with an inescapable fatal emphasis, really ramming home the naked, plain brutality of what he’s saying. Unladen with metaphor, unadorned with exaggeration, unencumbered by any moral scruples – there’s nothing here in the streets of Chiraq but death, and Herbo is its angel. This verse is everything drill music has ever aspired to be in a minute and a half; it’s incredible, and it blows me away every time I hear it. Straight brilliance.

Aside: an entire beef was conducted in remixes of this song! Not one, not two, but three tracks were exchanged – all using this beat. All great, too! That’s gotta be a record, surely?

Tempa T – Next Hype (2009)

Man, is this thing even a song? It feels more like a force of nature, or perhaps a sonic manifestation of raw potential energy. There’s almost nothing here except a synth riff and the vocals, but the synth voice sounds like it’s made of raw pig-iron and the vocals are so full of primal, overwhelming force that listening to it feels rather like placing oneself in the path of an oncoming train. Usually, when I encounter a five-star single, I’ll be able to come up with a bunch of pseudo-profundities to spout about its importance or the deftness of its construction, but I really can’t do that here. This song could shatter bricks; listening to it feels like tapping into an arcane vein of universal energy. Sometimes, when I’m blasting this on headphones, I accidentally touch a wall and feel momentarily surprised that the energy transference didn’t blast a hole through it.

Mariah Carey – Fantasy (1995)

In which Mariah Carey and Dave Hall take a really great Tom Tom Club song and give it the stratospheric commercial success it always so richly deserved.


Actually, I’m being a little unfair – this song is even better than the original. The new age synth intro is pretty wack, sure, but it doesn’t last long enough for me to deduct any points, especially not when the rest is this gorgeous. Most perfect pop songs take at least a couple of listens for me to confirm their perfection, but I knew this song was perfect the moment I heard it, and it’s still perfect now. Part of that perfection certainly does come down to that incredible weirdo-disco groove the Tom Toms came up with, but on the original it just existed for its own sake; here it’s the foundation for what feels like a whole rich, luscious universe of angelic light and otherworldly beauty. At least, that’s what hear when I listen to that first verse, which has the most utterly divine, joyous, totally contented and profoundly happy melody I’ve ever heard in my life. Shit, maybe it’s just the way she sings it, but the good vibes that wash all over and through me when I hear that tune are nearly indescribable, and the effortless way it transitions into that fluttering, floating, brightly glowing chorus just straight-up takes me into another plane of existence. No problems exist in this world when I’m listening to this song; the entire concept of imperfection becomes foreign to me. That sassy little G-funk synth, descending in that sweet little whistle past all the singing angels; that bridge, where Mariah’s voice echoes in from the distance, bearing sleepy impressions of absolute joy and perfect, contented wonderment… sweet Jesus, is this even music or is it essence dripped from heaven itself? This is transcendent. The love I feel for this song is overwhelming; it is one of the best songs in pop history. Absolute perfection.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Michael’s Bitesize Reviews: Vol. 2

Written by: Michael Strait

Mostly gonna be more positive this time. Here, have a bunch of songs I like – and one I don’t.

Azealia Banks – The Big Big Beat (2016)

Y’know, I’m convinced there will never be a more soulful sound in the world than the house groove. It’s an inherently, overwhelmingly gorgeous fucking thing: an ethereal synth bassline, a bouncing, all-encompassing set of electronic drums and, most importantly, the sampling! A good chopped-up, stuttering vocal sample, integrated well into a song, fills my soul up with love like nothing else in this universe. UK Garage and its various offshoots are best for this, with their twisted and swirling female soul samples, but American house is no slouch either. All those elements, combined, end up creating a sound that is gorgeous mostly because of how tonally complex it is – it’s fuckin’ groovy, and it makes you dance, but it also doesn’t feel grounded on this Earth; the bass synth tones always sound just a bit too heavenly, the melodic (well, usually more like textural) lead synth accompaniment too shimmering and shiny, and the vocal samples too distant and nostalgic, like elements of songs you used to know in your youth that now soundtrack your dreams in misshapen fragments. It’s deeply human, but also feels like it’s in connection with something greater; it’s dance music as meditation music, the physical as the religious.

Anyway, what does all this have tae do with lil Azealia Banks here? Well, part of me kinda wants to hate her for songs like this, considering how closely tied house music has always been with the LGBT community she seems to hate, but I can’t quite bring myself to. This, see, is a great house song – not a great house beat (though certainly a good one, with all the elements that make house music so divine) but a great dance song sandwiched quite nicely into a pop song structure. Another reviewer on RateYourMusic has already noted the way they let the tension rise and build before finally introducing that big, big beat, and it’s surely a great moment, but the greatest moment – to my ears – comes at exactly 1:18, where she unexpectedly launches from that quietly confrontational rapping into a tender, super pretty vocal melody completely outta nowhere. It’s inspired, especially considering that it didn’t even need to exist – Azealia’s easily got the strength as a rapper to carry an entire song on the back of her verses, and I’m sure nobody’ve complained if the song was just three and a half minutes of her spitting that venom in her pleasingly deep voice, but the hook adds a welcome softness that goes nicely with those synths. So, what we’ve got here is a pop song that understands how house music works and knows how to mine from it without just cluelessly appropriating it – it’s a gem, in other words. And it ain’t even one of her best! Of course, it ain’t one of the best house songs ever, either, so I don’t really know why I made it the recipient of my love letter to house music, but it proves that Azealia has retained a frustrating level of talent even as her mental health seems to have spiraled down the drain. Great singer, great rapper, great taste in beats – now if only she wasn’t a fuckin’ Trump supporter…

The Chainsmokers & Coldplay – Something Just Like This (2017)

The Chainsmokers make music, I guess, but it’s the lowest and most debased form of music I can imagine. Most bad music at least leaves me something to say about it, but the Chainsmokers usually don’t; their music is not just bad but boring, and those who know me know well that this makes my blood boil far hotter than the most ridiculous pile of overambitious failure ever could. The guy from Coldplay’s on this, I guess, but I don’t care; with the Chainsmokers, all guest vocalists are melted down and poured into the same vat of nondescript, ineffectual dullness. There is absolutely nothing worth saying about the Chainsmokers and I have no idea why I’ve already said so much. Though I do suppose it’s worth noting here that the drop on this song is almost exactly the same as the one they used on their prior single “Roses”, which was always perhaps their only tolerable song; not content with merely figuratively making the same song over and over, they now appear to be doing it literally! Give these hacks no quarter.

Charli XCX – Vroom Vroom (2016)

Bubblegum Bass” my ass. There is nothing bubblegum about this; this is twisted, malicious, paranoid and discordant, and one of the most thoroughly noncommercial things put out by a popstar in the last few years. Charli’s always been a terrible lyricist, and that’s as true here as it ever were (“Ice cubes on our tongues because we like to keep it freezy” – aaargh), but for the most part here she actually works as a sort of pointed parody version of the Instagram generation; she’s proudly vain and bellicose, gluttonous for attention and seemingly incapable of fidelity. “All my life, I’ve been waiting for a good time,” she sings, and it looks like she’s gonna have to wait a bit longer – this track most definitely does not represent a good time. I sure as hell have a good time when I’m listening to it, though.

 

French Montana & Kodak BlackLockjaw (2016)

I’ll tell you what Kodak is – he’s a texture. His lyrics are nothing, his flow no better, but his voice is one of the most legitimately fascinating and unusual things I’ve heard in rap recently. It’s like his throat is made of sandpaper, his words coming out all scratched and crumbly, falling apart by the time they exit his mouth so one can barely make them out at all. “It be hard to understand because my jaw keep lockin‘”, he says, and I’m skeptical, but at least he acknowledges it.

I love his voice, personally, but it does render him a kind of one-trick pony. Aside from that voice, after all, there’s nothing to his music except the beats. Fortunately, the beat here is absolutely fantastic. This’d fit right in on an early A$AP Rocky or Lil B mixtape, this would – it’s prime-tier cloud rap, atmospheric without forgetting the importance of melody and without feeling corny or cheap. This smooth, gleaming backdrop really emphasises Kodak’s jagged knife of a voice, and French Montana’s contributions ain’t all that bad either. He’s still a forgettable bloke, but his vocal tone really ain’t bad and he rides this beat like a professional. I tell ya, if you’d told me a track by French Montana and Kodak Black was gonna be one of the smoothest and nicest things of the year I’d have looked at you funny, but here we are.

Calvin Harris – Slide (2017)

Starin‘ at my diamonds while I’m hoppin‘ out the spaceship!”

This song is lovely, and I hope I hear it all over the radio this summer. That synth riff isn’t particularly memorable, but it’s not meant to be – it’s more a texture than anything else, sliding in between the various vocals to add to the general sense of warmth and wellbeing laid out by that confident, breezy bassline and those glowy pianos. Frank’s an absolute star, of course, but that’s no surprise; the guy’s voice has always sounded rather like a nice, warm blanket, and his melody here is so obviously perfect for the song’s mood and atmosphere that I’m having difficulty coming up with any sort of way to describe it. I guess “relaxed” will do; this melody perfectly captures the feeling of laying back in a car as the wind blows through your hair and the midsummer sun beams down on your face, not quite hot enough to be uncomfortable but warm enough to keep the windows rolled all the way down all the same.

As for the two Migos that bothered to show up, well – they’re not here for very long, but Quavo’s just as good a melodist as usual and Offset’s sense of humour fits this track like a glove. They know well enough to tone down their more abrasive street rap tendencies for this track, and there’s certainly nothing in their lyrics that contradicts the overriding mood here. This is a song for sweet summer days, and as much as I hate the Florida summer I can imagine this track making it a little bit more bearable. Nicely done, guys.

Lady Gaga – Million Reasons (2016)

Look, I can’t really defend this song.

The melody in the verses is, well, tiny! Almost underwritten, in fact! The lyrics are repetitive at best, trite at worst! It sounds like a million other ballads on the radio!

But I love it!

I can’t help it – I really do love it. Her voice is searing – it just powers through all the noise and interference, cutting a great hole through which the light of that gigantic, huge, fucking gorgeous chorus can shine and burn away my ability to really appreciate all this song’s many flaws. It’s absolutely mawkish, totally lacking in any sort of nuance, maybe even clichéd – but it’s a sincere and unpretentious cliché, and I believe she means every word. If you hate this song, I can’t blame you; if you want to sing a lament for the direction Gaga’s career has taken, I’ll fully understand. But don’t involve me, ‘cos I’m on board with this shit. I’ll never fully outgrow my teenage love for soaring, sky-high arena-pop hooks, and this fulfills a need I didn’t know I still had in my life. Thanks, Gaga.

Little Mix – Black Magic (2015)

Yeah, so I can’t tell any of them apart and I don’t give two shits. The tunes are gorgeous, the drums are big, the groove is smooth and the mood is… erm… lewd? Aw, fergit it with that rhyme scheme…

Anyway, yeah, I really love this song. When a pop song’s been blessed with a hook this good it almost doesn’t need anything else, but actually this song has everything else a pop song could ever possibly need, from those proudly, naively life-affirming teenage lovesong lyrics to the wonderful and intelligent way each melody resolves itself. They’re all good singers, too – they’re all maybe trying a little too hard to imbue each syllable with verve and charisma, but there are four of ‘em, so you never have time to get tired of any one of them in particular. The guitar groove has drawn some comparisons to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and I can totally hear it in the chorus, but for the most part this is more nostalgic for the nineties than the eighties. I’m okay with that, actually – the nineties were pop music’s dark age, but if this sort of revisionism is how people wanna remember it I can’t complain. I’m gonna be humming this tune till the day I die, my dudes – don’t let anyone tell you it’s not a great song.

Katy Perry – Chained to the Rhythm (2017)

I like the soft, velvety production on the pianos. The melody is catchy and sweeping, but it’s not obnoxious and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to insult me. The lyrics do, though – but what did you expect? This is Katy fuckin’ Perry, the worst pop lyricist of our generation; exactly why she ended up being the first popstar to go political in the wake of The Trumpening is beyond me, but I guess I can’t complain about the sentiment. I will certainly complain about the lyric “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”, though! “We think we’re free”!? Shut the fuck up, you rich airhead!

Shame, too, ‘cos aside from those lyrics the hook is actually pretty good. Like the rest of the melodies on this song, it’s surprisingly and pleasantly understated, avoiding the arena-pop clichés Katy’s never been sincere enough to pull off while carrying a fair amount of danceable energy. The bass is good, too, at least sonically if not compositionally. And Skip Marley’s part doesn’t really bother me as much as it probably should – the lyrics are more trite middle-class faux-rebel nonsense, of course, but melodically it fits right in and his voice actually provides a fairly nice and natural contrast to Katy’s. So, yeah – musically intelligent, lyrically dumb; not a bad song, all told.

Playboi CartiBroke Boi (2015)

I’unno if we should be thanking Lil B or Chief Keef (probably both!), but rap’s punk revolution has been in full swing this decade and this song is an excellent summary of its ideology. It can’t really be compared to punk rock, of course, because it’s utterly materialistic and proudly self-centred (what could be more American than that?), but it rejects technicality and perfection in favour of absolute simplicity and brutalism. Rap has always been inherently boastful and combative, after all, and this new generation is just boiling away the fat. Older heads may complain that these lyrics lack nuance or artisanship, but the core message is the same. “Why should I keep juggin‘ all these broke boys?” is, roughly speaking, a sentiment you can find expressed in rap music from just about any era; this song just eschews wordplay as a needless indulgence and gets right to the point. Traditional conceptions about rapping – the point of it, the basic reasons for doing it – go out the window; the new wave challenges and disdains them all. This song explores the contours and limits of the human voice, not used in a traditionally musical fashion but simply the cadences, textures and cracks associated with speaking in rhythm, and the physical and spiritual impact this can have when combined with floating synths and rolling, smooth bass. And if it sounds ridiculous to talk about the “spiritual impact” of such a profoundly materialistic song, well, you probably place the spirit on too lofty a pedestal anyway – in my experience most spirits really just want to relax. So lay back in the sun with this blasting from your speakers, or bounce to it in the backseat of your mate’s car – your spirit’ll be at peace either way.

Rihanna – SOS (2006)

The pulsating groove on this song is taken from a Soft Cell song, yes – but it’s better here. It sounds more muscular and, if ye can believe it, darker too. With that loud percussion punctuating it, it sounds downright aggressive and dangerous – and then so does Rihanna, except she drops the “dangerous” and replaces it with “sexual”, ending up in exactly the right place between roaring, drunken cornered tiger and whispering lynx. And the melody teases and undulates while those squelching computer bleeps echo in from the distance, and bam – I’m in another world entirely, albeit one a little bit too twilight-y for my poor human eyes to make out in full.


Trent Reznor has spent nearly his entire career trying to make this song. Naturally, he hasn’t managed it.