Picture of the 90s band The Cardigans

“My Favourite Game” – The Cardigans

Despite being a 90s kid and a fan of music from that era, The Cardigans somehow flew completely under my radar. Besides that one hit that I thought was a No Doubt song until I was well into my 20s, I couldn’t have told you who they were. That’s probably because they were Swedish and didn’t make much of a splash on the US charts.

Before hearing “My Favourite Game” pop up on a playlist, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what it was called. But there’s something so familiar about it. I went searching online for where else I might have heard that hook, maybe sampled somewhere. But I couldn’t find any evidence. The lyrics don’t conjure up any memories, but the riff is infectious and lights up the nostalgic part of my brain.

It doesn’t matter where it’s from though because this is another 90s pop-rock treasure. The melody is catchy; the vocalist, Nina Persson, has a nondescript singing voice that works as a perfect vehicle for the song; the vibe is sort of whimsical and happy.

I honestly don’t care what the song is about, and I won’t bother with the lyrics. The song is a perfect way to encapsulate songs from the 90s. This wasn’t a “serious” rock song. It wasn’t trying to say something with the lyrics, like some from other genres. It was just a fun pop song.

We have those today. We’ve always had them, really. There’s nothing remarkable or incredibly special about this song. But it’s nostalgic, and that’s enough to bring it to your attention so that we don’t forget The Cardigans’ other contribution to our musical history.

Album cover art featuring Miley Cyrus decked out in chunky jewlery, leather gloves, and heavy eye makeup. Plastic Hearts album cover.

First Impressions: Plastic Hearts by Miley Cyrus

First Impressions is a segment where I give my first, minimally edited thoughts on an album that’s new (or new to me), without research, multiple listens, or the benefit of letting it “percolate”. It’s a way to get out my thoughts much faster than the time and effort I would put into real album reviews, thoughts, and track rankings.

I’ve never been a Miley Cyrus fan. I’m not saying that to be better than you. I like Nickelback, okay? I’m not better than anyone. There’s something about her persona and musical style that has always seemed fake and forced. She’s a little obnoxious, has no real musical identity, and seems to do most things for attention. I guess that’s just what pop stars do (and teenagers/young adults), but I’ve never connected with any of her music. However, as Ashley O for “Black Mirror”? I’m all in on that.

So why am I doing a First Impressions about her? I heard that this album was more in her wheelhouse as far as her vocal talents go, and really, she does have a nice voice–she’s just never paired it with a song I would call “good”. Let’s see what Plastic Hearts has to offer.

Overall impression: There’s a lot to like here, but it feels like Miley is just cashing in on the retro, 80s synthpop sound that was trendy in 2020. I love that we’re going back to that corner of the 80s, but this feels like she’s trying on the genre the way she’s “tried on” rap and hip-hop. On my first listen, I thought it was a cheap imitation of new wave with some great moments. On my second listen, I thought it held up much better. I don’t think Miley will be a synthwave Queen going forward though. This is just another experimentation for her. Isn’t that pop stars, though? Maybe I’m being too hard on her because 1) experimentation is her thing, and 2) it’s ALL pop singers’ thing!

That being said, her voice is definitely suited to this type of pop music–passionate, yelling, everything sounding purposeful. In general, it was a pretty likeable album with a lot of fun moments and a lot of earnest moments. Her voice really makes me yearn for a country/roots album, or something more bluesy, even. My heart can dare to dream. Maybe when she’s experimented with every other genre she’ll get bored and go back to what she grew up on–because everything she’s done so far seems like a rebellion against country and roots-style music.

After her SHE IS COMING EP, which I definitely didn’t just look up and listen to after hearing Plastic Hearts, maybe the themes and sound of the new album shouldn’t be such a surprise or a change in direction. She didn’t even give up on rap music like I thought! That’s to say nothing of the weird Dead Petz album that was all over the place and gave us that very weird video of her in a diaper. With these two, uh, musical releases in mind, Plastic Hearts hits a lot different–and is MUCH tamer and palatable.

Miley strikes me on Plastic Hearts as an evolving and growing artist, who learned about some cool 80s icons. She’s retained a lot of her “it’s our party, so we’ll do what we want to” vibe. I guess that’s okay. It just looks like dumb fun when you’re in your early 20s, albeit a little immature, but when you’re *checks notes* 28– She’s 28? Jesus Christ. Okay, I guess as you get older, the whole “We Can’t Stop” thing is just who you are. In fact, it’s considered rather punk rock to not care what others think of you.

I can’t help but admire people who don’t care what others think and like to “stick it to the man”, but newsflash, Miley: the punk rockers and new wave alternative icons you wanted to imitate on this record actually rebelled against things that mattered. It wasn’t just about getting high, getting drunk, and fucking everyone. It was about rebelling against an archaic, unmalleable society–AND it was about getting high, getting drunk, and fucking everyone.

Still, it’s the best thing she’s ever released in my opinion, and I’m kind of here for it.

Favorite Song: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I had trouble deciding between like 4 songs. I’m going with “Bad Karma”. “High” is up there, too, as well as “WTF Do I Know”, “Never Be Me” and definitely, “Gimme What I Want”. Hmm, that’s 5!

Least Favorite song: “Golden G String”. She tried to do something heartfelt and sincere here. But her and her producers paired it with the worst possible music.

Grade based on my arbitrary rubric that’s entirely subjective and mostly based on my feelings: 85/100 B

While partly arbitrary because I “go with my gut”, my general rules are that S-rated albums or songs are perfect and could not be improved upon; “A” grades are fantastic and nearly perfect, with just some minor, nitpicky problems; “B” grades show a lot of promise and good material, but have a few subpar or unpleasant elements; “C” is the opposite of B, in that it has a few good bits, but it is mostly subpar or unpleasant; “D” means you barely tried; “F” means the F were you thinking.

If you want to see how the sausage was made, here were my real-time thoughts (mostly) for each track as I listened:

WTF Do I Know – Is this…is this rock and roll Miley? Sort of? It’s the Miley attitude we’ve all grown indifferent to, but with more likeable music behind it. I like that she sounds aggressive on this track. I don’t know many of her other songs, but they’ve always rubbed me the wrong way. This one does a good job to reverse that.

Plastic Hearts – another boppy song with a juicy bassline. She does have a nice voice for this style. It’s very good, great even, until after the first chorus. I can’t help but think this song wanted to be a modern version of Hall and Oates’ “Maneater”. We already have “Maneater”; do your own thing.

Angels Like You – a ballad, sort of. It’s okay. Later songs will prove she does this slower style much better.

Prisoner – This is a pretty good pop song, but it feels like it’s lacking something. Dua Lipa didn’t help much. I forgot it right after, both times I listened to it.

Gimme What I Want – What in the 90s boyband shit is this? I love it. Very short, but I really dig the sound.

Night Crawling – You thought putting Billy Idol on here would give you some credit? It does. I’m actually really impressed. The song could use a little bit more of that punk/rebellious punch that Idol’s songs had. It’s still a danceable song, but it’s lacking in personality.

Midnight Sky: I’m somewhat familiar with this song, but had never heard it all the way. I don’t know what the hell this song is about or why it’s called Midnight Sky. Like many songs on here, the’y have snippets of interesting or cool-sounding lyrics that are ultimately meaningless when you piece them all together. Who cares? The synth and bass are just absolutely fantastic. But like with “Plastic Hearts, this reminds me of a far superior song: Edge of Seventeen. In this case though, I think they pull off being influenced without sounding like just a cheap discount of it. –Oh, there’s a remix with Edge of Seventeen at the end of the album. That’s…something.

High – Okay, this makes me feel something. It’s not just her raspy voice struggling to hit the notes that feel a little high for her. This is the first song that sounds like it’s really her trying to be herself and not shoved into the mold of today’s trends. I am telling you. Miley needs to do a real country album. Not country pop. Not hiding behind other styles. Just straight country and roots. But the whole point is for her to do a style that resonates with her, and I don’t know what her style actually is. This is still really good though.

Hate Me – Another track that diverges from the 80s synth, but it still retains that raspy growl and the belting high notes that she’s been fond of on this album. This is another song also that alludes to something that I still associate her with: getting drunk and high. So maybe she’s not trying to shed her old image after all. She’s just trying to repurpose it a little. This song isn’t too bad, but she can’t pull off the waling punk vocals as well as she thinks she can. It’s grown on me quite a lot with a second listen though.

Bad Karma – Oh, I was stoked for this when I saw Joan Jett is on it. If there’s any doubt that Miley’s embracing the attitude, as well as the sound, of the 80s alternative/new wave scene, this should erase it. Maybe she’s just trying on new sounds, but keeping the old attitude she had, which was “fuck everyone else”. I have to say, I respect it more and more through the album. She’s not necessarily trying to be something she’s not, though I don’t know if synthpop is her thing (or anyone’s after this phase dies out). But she’s wearing it well. This almost wants to have a country vibe to it. Yes, I know. I desperately want her to do country. So this is maybe as close as we’ll get, but it’s shrouded in those background vocal moans and the minimalist riff in the background so that everyone can be happy.

Never Be Me – This is another one that has made me feel things. It’s really beautiful. Instead of belting it and pushing her voice, she goes for a softer tone and staying in her register. It’s no less impactful than the yelling she does on other tracks. This is also one of the only ones that make me think the lyrics are actually about something.

Golden G String – Oh god. Is this…Miley trying to give us her version of “Sorry” by Justin Bieber? She’s explaining her past a little bit, but make us sympathize with her and feel sorry for her. It kind of works. But the song is dull and has no real melody or discernable tune.

album cover art for Tracy Bonham's The Burdens of Being Upright. Shows her holding up a stack of bricks on her shoulders.

“Mother, Mother” Tracy Bonham

This one is new to me, even though it’s Tracy Bonham’s most famous song and it’s from 1996. I’m a fan of 90s music, especially alt rock, so I’m surprised I never came across this. But I’m glad I did, thanks to a Spotify playlist full of female rock artists.

Bonham mixes soft, acoustic guitar verses with a raging chorus that builds to her screaming, “Everything’s fine”. Something makes me think she’s not fine. Coupled with her deft songwriting that contrasts what she tells her mother about her life with what is actually happening, “Mother Mother” is a nuanced and layered song both musically and lyrically.

I really feel her struggle as an adult who maybe doesn’t feel like an adult when talking to her parents. It also highlights how we make small talk, tell our parents what they want to hear, but face a different reality. I’m always going to connect with good songwriting. It helps though that the song kicks ass and melds the acoustic and louder rock together in one song.

I really do miss the alt rock and adult contemporary singer/songwriter combos of the 90s. We could use a revival of this type of music on today’s charts. The modern iteration of “adult contemporary” is basically just regular pop music. It’s not that we don’t have artists who emphasize writing and create minimalist songs; it’s just that those people don’t have their own category or genre, besides maybe indie or folk.

Thank God for streaming services.

Gary Clark Jr, playing guitar, alongside Tom Morello, who also is playing guitar on stage

“Can’t Stop the Bleeding” – Tom Morello, Gary Clark Jr, Gramatik

Why aren’t you listening to this song right now? It’s awesome.

Oh, did you want more than that to go on? Okay. Well, it’s on my “Hyped Up/Workout Motivation” playlist on Spotify because it’s good for both getting you psyched up to work out or to just punch the air wildly in your kitchen, while you yell, “Fuck yeah”. It’s impossible to listen to this song and not headbang, even just a tiny little bit.

How do I describe this song? Let’s see… if you know Tom Morello, you know he can make a guitar sound like it’s not a guitar. However, it’s hard to tell what his influence is in that sphere exactly, when Gramatik is there doing Gramatik things. Which, according to his website I just linked, is being a music producer and DJ of electronic music.

If you know Gary Clark Jr, you know he’s a modern blues and rock guitarist who dabbles in a little soul and pop, too. He does a little bit of everything, but my favorites of his are the blues-iest or rock-iest. This one relies heavily on his rock prowess, both on guitar and on vocals. Don’t think I didn’t notice how they tried to sneak in some little blues licks in there in between bars. I’m no fool. Well, I am, but my ears still work.

If you know this blog, you know that I’m not one for being musically educated or knowing actual terms for things. I just know this song = good. It mixes rock and roll with electronica. As a fan of both, I thought it was well-mixed. Sometimes crossover genres like this try to do too much. This is a proper approach, with the guitars and vocals being very forefront in the mix. The EDM aspect is very understated until the bridge, adding mostly just a percussive element. The bridge brings in some dubstep hallmarks, which may be offputting to some.

Like I said though, I’m either working out when I listen to this, or I’m vibing in my kitchen or jamming along to it in the car. Dubstep don’t bother me none.

My Two Anthems of 2020

I am still reflecting on 2020 and the best way to do that, for me, is musically. These two songs in two different genres with opposite intentions somehow summed up my 2020 perfectly. Both with the name “Sunday Best”. I love this contrast and how it helps comprise a full picture of 2020 for me.

Neither of these songs are directly about dealing with the mental effects of the pandemic. Not directly, but you might be able to draw some implications. I think these two songs could apply to my life regardless of that though. I don’t want to imply I wasn’t affected by the pandemic. Far from that. But these two songs stuck out above all else and transcended the pandemic to help me through all the ups and downs of 2020.

If you skip to the end, you’ll get a glimpse at the song I heard at the end of 2020 that I think could easily sum up last year, as well. But I didn’t hear it until late in the year and I think it would be equally suited as a “recovering and surviving” vibe that I hope 2021 is about.

Sunday Best – Surfaces

I’m no snob; I enjoy lots of pop songs, especially in 2020, my God (“Blinding Lights”, every Dua Lipa song, “Stupid Love”, “Supalonely”, I could go on and on). And this song pop song is no stranger to the Top 40. This one stuck out to me because of the infectious beat, gospel-tinged piano, and positive lyrics. The song is about having a good attitude, no matter circumstances, aka wearing your Sunday Best.

I’ve been in need of a good vibe a time or two, and this song has been my pick-me-up many times. I try my best to handle bad situations and unfortunate circumstances, but so much is out of my control. This is true even in years without a massive, deadly virus sweeping the globe. The only thing we can focus on is our responses, our behaviors. Our feelings might be valid, but our reactions aren’t always appropriate. So I’m learning to process my feelings, however negative, in an effective way.

This song speaks to me about making the best of things, inspiring me not to give up and be defeated. In a world full of so many bad things happening, both internationally and right in our own homes, we would do well to hold on to the moments that make our lives a little brighter. This song is one of them.

If I were reviewing the song for some reason, I’d point out that the vocals are uninspired and monotone and the lyrics aren’t winning any songwriting awards, despite their positivity. I’m well aware of these traits of the song. But since this is about 2020 anthems and what they mean to me, I’m not going to hold that against “Sunday Best”. It’s a 2020 anthem because of the message behind it: doing your best, overcoming challenges, living your best life no matter what. I want more of that in my life.

Here are the verses and chorus to Surfaces’ take on “Sunday Best”:

Everyday can be a better day despite the challenge
All you gotta do is leave it better than you found it
It’s gonna get difficult to stand but hold your balance
I just say whatever ’cause there is no way around it’

Everyone falls down sometimes
But you just gotta know it’ll all be fine
It’s okay
It’s okay, it’s okay

Feeling good, like I should
Went and took a walk around the neighbourhood
Feeling blessed, never stressed
Got that sunshine on my Sunday best

Somedays you wake up
And nothing works, you feel surrounded
Gotta give your feet some gravity to get you grounded
Keep good things inside your ears
Just like the waves and sound did
And just say whatever ’cause there is no way around it

Even though it’s a mere 2:39, Surfaces’ “Sunday Best” has had a big impact on me in 2020.

Sunday Best – Lainey Wilson

On the other side is the roots-y and blues-y Lainey Wilson take on what “Sunday Best” means. This one packs a punch lyrically and musically. I actually completely misunderstood the meaning to be about a morally conflicted person who feels like they’re broken and “bad”, juxtaposed with going to church and being a “good person”.

However, it’s actually about getting cheated on and wanting to pull up to the church for revenge…possibly? Or perhaps just wanting a refuge after getting your heart broken but being too hungover and not wanting to run into your ex. It’s definitely very different than Surfaces’ version of “Sunday Best”, but I love to acknowledge that life is not always sunshine and rainbows. Bad stuff happens, too. This song isn’t about making the best of it. It’s about how things just kind of suck. You can still see my original interpretation though of looking good on the outside, but feeling like you’re “bad”.

Here are the lyrics to Lainey Wilson’s “Sunday Best”:

I pulled up
to that Church of Christ
With a broken heart and bloodshot eyes

Too hungover to go inside
So I hung my head
And drove on by

I don’t feel like Hallelujah
With this aching in my chest
So here I sit on some backroad with a paper sack and Marlboro reds
Drinking in my Sunday Best

Thought I really
Really knew him well
He was the one, far as I could tell
But last night I caught him with somebody else
And that preacher’s son can go to hell

I know that I’ll get over him in time
But right now forgiveness ain’t something I can find

It’s a really well-composed song that has great guitar pickin’ and good vocals from Lainey. While it’s structurally and musically a great song, that’s not why it’s here–it’s on the 2020 anthems list because I relate to the original message of feeling not good enough, of feeling like you don’t fit in. That might not be the core message of the song, but the contrast of smoking and drinking in your Sunday best clothing is a metaphor that I’m sure many of us can relate to. It’s a concept I’ve related to my whole life.

My early contender for 2021’s song is “Making Do” by Lake Street Dive. I heard this song late last year, but it might be on repeat quite a lot this year. I’ll save my breakdown of it for a year later, if it ends up being my anthem of 2021. Either way, it deserves its own post at some point.

Stay safe, my fellow students of music. Go put on your Sunday Best!

The cover art for Foo Fighters' In Your Honor - the crest of an eagle on top of two blue banners, with old school looking font

Let’s Remember Foo Fighters’ “In Your Honor” for What It Was

I’m a simple gal. I like simple things like good, ole fashioned rock and roll. While I do enjoy a wide variety of genres and styles (like most people), my favorites tend to skew pretty main stream. What I mean by that is my favorite artists aren’t going to be underground artists you’ve never heard of.

One of those favorites has been, and always will be, the Foo Fighters. Their songs, and often times entire albums, have been the soundtrack to personal experiences and tragedies in my life. Dave Grohl is my personal Jesus. They’re rock gods to me. Their MO is to just keep evolving, putting out good tunes, and being the absolute coolest dudes to get a beer with.

One day I’m sure I’ll write about my favorite album, Wasting Light. Before that came out in 2011, One by One was firmly in the number one spot since I had been a fan. But, as you can tell from the title, this article isn’t about either of those albums. Why not?

Because on a road trip recently, I got a song stuck in my head that I had to look up. It was “No Way Back”. So I listened to the whole double album for In Your Honor, reminiscing, rocking out, and pondering.

Made after their 2004 tour in support of One by One, the double album was born out of Dave Grohl’s desire to not censor himself, and instead make acoustic songs and rock songs on the same album. Why limit yourself to just big rock songs? Or having to do a different project for something like acoustic songs?

It’s an ambitious effort, but the production value is weak compared to most of their other albums. Loud mixes are prevalent. Sometimes the instruments are just a distracting mess. Other times, the voices are quiet compared to the guitar, and especially, the drums. I know they wanted the first half to be loud, but you can do loud without being indecipherable. The slow half of the album feels, to this day, pretty boring overall. In Your Honor was really pushed as this loud vs. soft double album at the time of its release, but it doesn’t have two albums worth of material. Do all double albums fall victim to this? Who’s to say. (Me. And I say, yeah, that’s a problem.)

All of that to say though: the album is still really fucking good.

I’ve always been a rock fan, so the rock half especially still holds up pretty well. It’s such a strong set, top to bottom. The Foo’s classic sound, devoid of fads or overt trends of the era, still gets me pumped up. There’s nothing to overly date this as being from 2005–cementing the Foo Fighters as a timeless rock act. I personally may be biased by my own nostalgia for the album, but being as objective as possible, there’s still a lot of good content here.

The acoustic half is the weaker half, but it’s certainly not as bad as I used to think. My problem with it is that it seems to lack a clear identity, besides being the “soft” side. Dave said it didn’t have a specific genre or style, for a reason, but it could have used a bit more direction. There are some gems in there, and to be fair, it’s not a poor effort by any means. Trying something new is always commendable and they definitely pulled it off. But is it some amazing acoustic masterpiece? No. I don’t know that it needs to be though.

My favorite way to retro review albums though is to rank the songs! So let’s do that. Splitting up the discs into separate rankings, of course. Let’s get to ranking In Your Honor!

Disc 1 – The Rock Side

10. “Resolve” – Easily my least favorite, and it always has been. It’s not a skippable offense, by any means. But I don’t think it’s particularly good, and that’s because of the melody and vocal performance. Love you, Dave, but what were you doing? “A little bit of reSALVE–is what I need noooOOOOOOOoooowwww”. Also, this could have easily been reworked for the soft side. I think that was always my complaint. It’s put on the “rock” half that’s loud and in your face, but this song is more chill and dances on the border of being a country song.

9. “Deepest Blues are the Blacks” – I’m already finding it hard to rank these. This song is such a jam. Ultimately, I put it here because the lyrics feel kind of “fake deep”, at times. I know Dave is a passionate dude. I know that a lot of their songs come from the heart. I also know that sometimes words are just words. That’s fine. This song still hits hard and feels really passionate and raw at times.

8. “Hell” – This is only so low because it’s short. But it sure packs a punch in a short time.

7. “End Over End” – This is a great closer song: it’s got good lyrics, kick ass riffs, and a catchy hook. In fact, it’s too catchy. The end gets a little monotonous and the obnoxious feedback that goes on for like a minute straight at the end is enough to drive someone insane. The rest of the song is so good though. I love the emotion Grohl sings with in the verses and chorus. It has a good composition the way the verses and choruses flow into one another. Lyrics like “end over end, I’m circling” do lend itself for a loop-style structure, I suppose.

6. “The Last Song” – Hey, it’s a list ranking bingo! This is also Track 6 on the album. Love how this sounds like a fight song. Plus, it’s a spiteful song about an ex, which is something we can all relate to. It always gets me hyped up to kick some ass, or go to a pep rally, or a homecoming game (something feels distinctly high school about it). There’s some pop punk vibes that I’m definitely digging,

5. “Free Me” – This was my favorite song for awhile. Wrought with emotion and packed with all the loud, crunchy guitars that a grunge girl could dream of. And Grohl screams his lungs out, too. Great for when you’re feeling angsty and moody and your parents won’t leave you alone. I don’t know if Grohl was inspired by anything in particular, or if he channeled someone else’s story to write this, but he’s always been good at conveying emotion. My favorite part is when he asks with such conviction, “Can you free what’s keeping you?” Which leads right into him belting, “Well I need somebody to….Free me.” Except he screams it. And it’s great. And it’s impossible not to feel things.

4. “In Your Honor” – I’ve never really liked this as a song because it feels like your standard intro song: a glorified trailer for the album introducing tones and themes to come, but ultimately not being a great standalone song. So why put it so high? Because it’s an experience. I picture a whole music video when I hear this song. I go to another place in my mind when I hear this song. I can’t not start my In Your Honor listen without the title track, come on, now.

The beginning of the track sound like a plane gearing up to take flight. There’s a palpable tension as the song builds with guitar riffs. Then, Grohl’s voice breaks through:

“Can you hear me? Hear me screamin’?
Breaking in the muted skies.
This thunder heart, like bombs beating,
Echoing a thousand miles”

It doesn’t mean much when you look at it, but when you hear it. It does sound like his scream is breaking in the muted skies, like god damn. As I hear this and the song continues to unfold before me, I think about beginnings. Events, and people, and moments that signal new beginnings. Changes. Birth. Rebirth. Renaissance. I think about people who sacrifice for others, for the greater good. I think about those who sacrifice for themselves. I think about achieving dreams. About a world of harmony and synergy. About purpose and meaning and what we’re all doing here. How we all have some common ground, part of a story we share with someone.

As the music continues to build, with the guitars climbing toward a climax, the drums adding a powerful backdrop and Grohl’s screams over top, I see all these visuals unfold: people conquering their fears and achieving their dreams; coming from different cultural, societal, and economic backgrounds; highlighting their personal sacrifice for a greater gain; giving their all for various important reasons. I get chills every time.

That’s why it’s more than a trailer song. And more than a song, in general, really. At least, to me.

3. “DOA” – Okay, this probably isn’t a top 3 song. If I were a real song critic, I’d call it a “fluff” song and rank it much lower. But I’m not a real critic and I don’t know shit. I do love music, and this song has always been a favorite. It’s fun, it’s catchy, it’s cool. I also really dig the lyrics. Here are my two favorite lines:

Never say forever, ’cause nothing lasts
Dancing with the bones of my buried past

I’m finished, I’m getting you off my chest
Made you come clean in a dirty dress

I don’t have any good, justifiable reasons to rank it at 3 except I like it a lot. And in the courthouse of the Queen, that’s enough.

2. “No Way Back” – This song fluctuates around the top for me a lot. It’s never far from number 1 though and for good reason: it’s a kick ass, pump-me-up kind of rock song that always makes me feel like I can do anything. But are there more qualities needed to be number one? A lot of this album gets me hype. What makes this one special? Well, you see, dear reader who didn’t actually ask, it’s because of something called nostalgia. I’m not going to try to dance around it. The solo is weak sauce shit on the studio version. The guitars themselves sound watered down, either due to production or because of the type of guitar they’re using, maybe? I honestly have no idea. But what I do know is that I used to rock out to this song a lot and we bonded. Me and the song. So, there you go. No one ever called me objective.

1: “Best of You” – This song did commercially well and is still considered by fans to be one of their best. And it’s understandable why: many, if not most, of Dave’s songs come off so incredibly sincere because of the raw emotion he puts into his voice. This is one of my favorite examples of how he enhances the story in the lyrics through his vocal performance. He sells it so well I’m convinced it’s autobiographical. I have been moved to tears on some occasions, when I’m going through something, and I hear this song at the reprise/bridge part (I don’t know the musical terminology well enough): “I’ve got another confession, my friend. I’m no fool. I’m getting tired of starting again, somewhere new.” The way his voice changes from hard and aggressive to soft and vulnerable, sounding like it might break at one point. Fantastic. I don’t care if it’s not cool to like hit songs or singles from the album. Mark it down! “Best of You” is my favorite!!!

Disc 2 – The Acoustic Side

10. “Miracle” – The composition and melody are okay, but there’s something very dull and unappealing about the lyrics and vocal delivery. This one was a total miss for me. Similar to “Resolve”, I just can’t get over, “hands on a MIRAACCCCUUUULLLLLLLEEEE OOHHHUUHHHH.” It’s…not good.

9. “Friend of a Friend” – Though it was written in the 90s, Grohl chose 2005 to release this song about Kurt Cobain. I can see why he waited. Maybe the melody and approach didn’t fit in with other records, or maybe the lyrics just weren’t super strong. I know I’m supposed to revel this as a rare glimpse into Cobain and Grohl’s friendship, but it sounds like he kept his first draft lyrics, for one. It also lacks the emotional depth and vulnerability that I’d expect a true story to have.

8. “Cold Day in the Sun” – If you’ve read my review and rankings of Concrete and Gold, you’ll know that the other Taylor Hawkins-led song the Foo Fighters have in their catalog fared significantly better than this one. “Cold Day in the Sun” sticks out like a sore thumb on this side of the album. It’s trying to do a lot of things at once and not really succeeding at any of them. There are some nice moments, but just enough to land it here.

7. “On the Mend” – On the one hand, this is an unremarkable song that leaves you with no memory of it on your first listen (or 2nd, or 10th) of the album. But if I could offer two things in its favor, it’s these two : 1) the lyrics are pretty nice, and 2) the song lulls you into a false sense of security, repeating the verse-chorus-verse structure, before breaking into a total left-field turn with the lines, “Was it you? Sat alone. Here we go.” I don’t know what the fuck that means, but it sounds really nice with the shift in melody and tone. It’s my favorite part.

6. “Still” – The riff seems to constantly build up to something that never comes, with its lack of chord progression. It just repeats, making you think there’s a big breakdown or shift just around the corner. But somehow, despite how infuriating I find the unfulfilled anticipation of the melody, it somehow crept its way up this list. There are a lot of really beautiful and nuanced moments in it: the piano notes sprinkled throughout, the guitar notes that sound really similar to “Let It Die” (2 years before its release), Grohl’s vocals, the harmony in the background. Just sucks that it’s taken me years and multiple close listens to notice that over the unresolved tension in the song.

5. “Virginia Moon” – This is a pretty song, especially with Norah Jones’ contribution. Honestly, big props to the Foo for doing an actual bossa nova song on this album. Grohl’s voice sounds really soft and nice, too, which is not the voice he puts on for all these songs. I really like the approach, vibe, and structure of this one. Unfortunately, I find it a little boring though, which feels bad to say, seeing how much effort went into it. Great job doing something new, but it lands here for mostly technical reasons and not emotional ones.

4. “What If I Do?” – My favorite thing about this song is the folksy-sounding lyrics and gorgeous verses. My least favorite thing is the chorus kind of negates all of that. It just doesn’t match the energy and earnestness that the rest of the song has. Grohl really wants to go to those howling-like, rock vocals, and it doesn’t fit here. The problem is: I’m annoyed enough to want to drop this down the list, but I really don’t like anything else enough to raise it to 4. At least the verses in “What If I Do?” make me feel something. So it stays.

3. “Another Round” – This folksy song doesn’t let simplicity deprive it of character or feeling, with a harmonica solo, sparing violin, and John Paul Jones on mandolin. It’s a really good song that has somehow flown under my radar over the years. I’ve come to really love “Another Round” and would put this firmly in S-Tier, if this had been a graded list. I enjoy the melody and minimalism–it sounds like someone singing from their porch about their estranged lover.

2. “Over and Out” – I really wrestled with this and “Another Round” for number 2. Both of them grew on me immensely while writing this list. “Over and Out” quickly gained my favor because it’s the darkest song on the acoustic half (maybe the whole double album), but beyond that, I’ve struggled to write something that legitimizes why it’s number 2. But, let’s not pretend I’ve always loved this song or knew it was this great. In fact, I have to credit a song that came out two years later, “Stranger Things Have Happened”, for why it’s actually this high on the list.

The riff of “Over and Out” always makes me think of “Stranger Things”. Plus, they share a similar tone and content. But “Stranger Things” came out later? If anything, I should consider the latter to be somewhat of a rip-off! Except, “Stranger Things” is far superior. Since it took so long for me to dissect and properly review this half of the album, I can’t help what I’m influenced by. I’m not saying that Dave took this song and inspired himself to create “Stranger Things Have Happened”. But what I AM saying is that my thinking of them as sister songs only helps “Over and Out”. They’re both dark, sullen, pained; have good composition and structure; and make me feel things. That’s nothing but a compliment.

1. “Razor” – I never had a favorite on this side of the album until I became an adult. It was never close, either. This one is the clear standout, and the only one whose position I knew immediately when I made this list. It’s melody is based around a repeating riff of beauty and optimism that climbs and falls effortlessly. It’s neverending–everlong, if you will. Absolutely makes the track. I don’t usually pay much attention to the lyrics on this one, and I don’t know if it matters. It could be an instrumental and I would be moved by it. Josh Homme plays rhythm guitar on this, and it’s the crescendo of guitars, almost dueling one another toward the end, that elevates this song to otherworldly. I don’t know if the other two great songs of this half would make it to my personal Greatest Foo Fighter Songs Ever List, but no doubt in my mind that “Razor” would be there.

Well, that’ll do it!

This blog is all about music. Retro reviews, tracklist rankings, sometimes new reviews, first impressions, and song highlights. I post when I want about what I want. It’s my wonderful world of music, after all.

Justin Timberlake 20 20 album cover. Justin standing behind a device used to check people's eyes at the eye doctor

Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience: Better than FutureSex/LoveSounds

When I first heard The 20/20 Experience, much later than everyone else, I was awe-struck. Its style was something that Justin Timberlake had been in proximity of, but never fully embraced.

The previous two albums by Timberlake showcased pop, R&B, and even some electronic sounds. But none of them had the smooth neo-soul, retro sound down quite like 20/20 does, managing to out-do everything on the radio without sounding like anything else there.

I immediately declared it, in my mind, to no one, as Timberlake’s best album. I was disappointed, stunned even, to learn that the media at that time in 2013, did not feel the same way. The first album of the double release seemed to generate more positive reviews than the second (also, user reviews were considerably more favorable), but the criticism of the songs are baffling to me. Don’t talk smack about “Strawberry Bubblegum”! How dare you have an opinion different from mine?

Critics lauded FutureSex/LoveSounds at the time of its release, and beyond. It was innovative, brought Justin to the forefront of pop and R&B, matured his sound, and showed off Timbaland’s slick production skills, plus all of the radical influences he and JT had absorbed. It was the perfect storm.

But I’m here to tell you they’re all wrong. 20/20 is Timberlake’s best album by far. Here’s why.

FutureSex/LoveSounds: Nostalgia Is A Strong Aphrodisiac

First of all, have you listened to FutureSex recently? I mean, like really recently. Besides jamming to the mega hit “SexyBack” or remembering how good “My Love” actually is, if you fired up the album right now, you would also notice how incredibly dated the production is. Electronic/dance music has found its way into the heart and track of many popular, mainstream songs of today, and has done so for awhile now, but it sounds so painfully 2006 on this album. Yes, it was innovative for the time, and it was a great move for Timberlake’s career, but I said what I said. It’s old.

At the time of its release, I loved this album. I played it so much I got sick of it. But, hindsight is 20/20, and I find its flaws more glaring than ever, and the songs less replayable than they used to be. Lyrically, the album is about having fun and getting laid, primarily. Compared to the more mature and refined approach of similar topics on 20/20 Experience, it sounds pretty juvenile. We’ve all been through a phase in our lives when something like “Summer Love” would have been our anthem (falling in love with a stranger on the street, i.e. wanting to bang), but a lot of the imagery portrayed in FutureSex is cringe-worthy at best, and downright gross or stupid at worst (e.g. “Chopped and Screwed”, the “LoveStoned” prelude). Many of the songs implicitly treat women like they are wildlife being hunted, and while that’s fun to dance to, it makes for shallow and one-dimensional experience. And who’s to say that’s a bad thing? It’s not. But this album is hardly the best of his career, like some might have you believe.

A More Sophisticated Experience

The 20/20 Experience, by comparison, also has themes of love and sex, with some of that “let’s have a good time” vibe, too. But it’s far less about partying and sexual conquests and more about enjoying yourself as an adult who defines “party” in a much different way now (“Take Back the Night”, “Let The Groove Get In”, “Suit & Tie”, even). The art of seduction is less about calling a girl a “model, except she’s got a little more ass,” and more about calling a woman beautiful no matter what she wears, or doesn’t wear (“You Got It On”), or enticing a woman to leave a bad relationship and be with someone better (“Don’t Hold the Wall”). This is something you’d expect from someone of JT’s age and experience–a type of refinement and maturity that FutureSex can’t, and isn’t trying to, pull off.

While love and sex seem to be topics both albums share, the tone and approach of 20/20 Experience is far more palatable and well-written. They didn’t perfectly nail this on 20/20, but some of the more questionable lyrics, on tracks like “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)”, and “Murder” are more tolerable and subtle (there is no excuse, however, for the “coochie coo” line in “TKO”, especially how it’s repeated to infinity). Additionally, “seduction songs”, like “Strawberry Bubblegum”, “Spaceship Coupe”, and “You Got It On”, aren’t sleazy or predatory. Not to mention that slick, old school soul sound takes the edge off anything mildly offensive or possibly blush-worthy (but in case you hadn’t heard, all of the original soul singers were big, ole horndogs, too–for instance: “Let’s Get It On” is one of the most famous songs of its era or genre).

Some complaints about 20/20 Experience, even in the most glowing of reviews, say the songs are unnecessarily long and self-indulgent. I find that length is just one of the ingredients that make 20/20′s songs work, as they evolve right before our ears. If they felt monotonous (“Let the Groove Get In”, which, for all its uniqueness, doesn’t change much throughout its course), that would be a sin. But that’s not the case. Most of the songs carry the richness and depth of a multi-layered composition, where many songs sound like the courtship, commitment, and long, fulfilling marriage of two songs into one beautiful union. Such a union deserves all the minutes necessary to do it justice.

While plenty of professionals and fans alike would disagree (and have), I would say there are no bad songs on 20/20. I’d say there are no F tier songs. There are a couple C or D ones that I’m not fond, but none of them are total bombs. They all do enough things right to be credible, and more importantly for a giant, double album, listenable. Timberlake and his team of producers were smart about how they approached these songs, for the most part.

And what I can say about the C’s and D’s of the album is that they’re certainly not boring. Usually, it’s a case of Justin trying to do something new and maybe not pulling it off. That’s not the worst crime. At least he tried. I can admire that more than some of the cringe moments of its predecessor.

With FutureSex, I would have once argued that every song was a banger. At face value, they are all still fun, tight songs that are purposeful in their own way–even if that purpose is just to fucking party and hit on a hot girl. It does have two songs that hold up to this day: “What Goes Around…Comes Around” and “Let Me Talk to You / My Love” are my two favorites now that have most endured the test of time. You could make a case for “SexyBack” because of its popularity and sheer dance hit success, but I find that one is easier to listen to in the right mood. However, with the type of production and lyrical content that I’ve already touched on, I could distill my complaints about this album to one word: one-dimensional.

On the other hand, 20/20 isn’t one of anything. It jumps from genre to genre without feeling disjointed. The songs feel polished, carefully crafted. Though it only took 20 days to record, it’s unclear how long it took to write and compose the songs. JT may not be able to pull off all these genres or styles entirely, but he tries and he tries convincingly, even if the result is only pseudo-successful (“Take Back the Night”, “Only When I Walk Away”).

A track listing, with tiers, seems like the most complete and best way to talk about this album, so let’s dive in:

The 20/20 Experience: Album Track Reviews with Tiers

I am doing the double album as one full ranking, but I am excluding the bonus/deluxe tracks. “Pair of Wings” will be considered on its own merit, not as part of “Not A Bad Thing,” thankfully for it.

F Tier

None. Oh, that’s right.

D Tier

None here either. At least not if I have a say, and it’s my blog so, I do. I considered some of them to be D Tier because I didn’t like them as much as other songs, but considering the quality, style, and execution of them all, I can’t, in good faith, put anything here.

Oh, wait, I forgot about “Not A Bad Thing”.

22. “Not A Bad Thing”: Okay, I always forget about this one because it’s at the end, and it most definitely IS a bad thing. Granted, it’s certainly in Timberlake’s wheelhouse, but for an album that’s trying so hard to push him as a legendary, timeless artist, “Not A Bad Thing” does nothing but evoke the NSYNC days. It’s not badly produced or badly written–albeit very generic sounding–just bad for his target image and established reputation. This song should be sung by the next teen idol, not a grownup looking to cement his status as a pop icon.

C Tier

21. “Only When I Walk Away”: He tried it, I give him credit for that. Even after dozens of listens to this song, I can only half-confidently say it’s an attempt at rock. If not musically, then at least vocally. It’s wrought with angst and frustration, but I don’t know if I buy it. That will be a theme with the C-tier songs. I admire the attempt at something different, but Justin’s vocals were not made for this kind of song. I put it above the previous song because the message of the song is different than anything else on the record.

20. “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)”: With it’s carnal approach to seduction and vivid imagery, this is the most blatantly sexual song on the album. I guess there’s only so many subtle and mature ways to talk about sex before you land on the whole “we’re all just animals” thing. It’s good for what it is–a song comparing sex to being animals in the jungle. However, the beat boxing should have been left on FutureSex.

19. “Let the Groove Get In”: Justin and his production crew tackle a percussion-driven track that starts strong, but becomes repetitive and a little boring. For such a fabulous collection of drum beats and flourishes of brass fare, the song rests on its laurels too much. I do enjoy a lot of aspects of this song, especially the outro, but the repeating chorus just feels pointless and doesn’t incite anything in me. Still not a skippable offense by any means, just wasted potential.

18. “Murder”: Evocative of a either a femme fatale character or a corpse who likes to have sex (“give new meaning to dying to fuck”), “Murder” is certainly an interesting song. Too bad it’s not better written. It would actually be higher if not for lyrics like, “you’re talking real big with your little slim waist”. Sounds like a first draft. Actually, most of the lyrics sound half-written, especially Jay-Z’s verse, which is just some of the worst lyrics ever rapped out loud . It finds itself above the other songs so far because that hypnotic beat is fire, the subtle horns were a great touch, and the bridge is strangely addictive (“I line ’em up, she shoot ’em down”–repeat ad nauseum). I also do like the chorus. So, in short, all style, no substance.

17. “Blue Ocean Floor”: I can’t say that I love this one, but I admire how different it is. Yes, you do get credit for effort. It’s a dreamy, shapeless song with a disjointed structure, but mellow melody, to make it feel both comforting and chaotic at the same time. Plus there’s imagery of drowning, and that always makes me uncomfortable. Pulling off that type of emotion is pretty impressive though, and I applaud it. Do I actually like it more than “Muder”? No. But I think it deserves to be higher on merit. That feels fair, and I don’t care if it’s not in actuality.

16. “Take Back the Night”: I want to like this song so bad. The production pulls off faux-disco pretty well, merged with modern pop beats and Justin effortlessly doing his best 70’s soul impression. It’s not a bad song when you break it down into the sum of its parts. So why can’t I get into? It comes back to a recurring problem on the album (one of its only flaws): I just don’t buy this as authentic. There’s something disingenuous about it, but I can’t put my finger on it. He’s got the voice for it; the song clearly has the production chops. He’s even done 70’s-style music before! Hello, “Rock Your Body”? Anybody remember that? He’s even done it better on this album! It dumbfounds me why this song just doesn’t hit it for me. However, since the sum of its parts are objectively good, I will at least put it here as some sort of acknowledgment that I am not, in fact, a slave to my perceptions and bias all the time.

15. “That Girl”: I was conflicted on this one for so long. My main hangup is that it feels incredibly inauthentic. The cheesy “lounge singer” intro where someone introduced JT & The Tennessee kids, and Justin “humbly” says thank you–it just makes me eye roll every time. Like, shut up. You’re Justin Timberlake. They’re thrilled to have you and pay a shit ton for you.

Also, I could not confirm anywhere online that the song isn’t about dating a black girl.  The comments on the YouTube video seem to think that’s what it’s about, with one comment saying Justin himself said he was inspired by the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, which essentially confirms it’s about dating a black girl.

Why would I have a problem with that? Well, I don’t. The topic of interracial dating in of itself is not bad or wrong, but in this case, it doesn’t sit well with me. It again comes back to authenticity because, first of all, he’s married to Jessica Biel. I mean, singers and writers are allowed to write about things that aren’t based in 100% truth, but of all things to draw inspiration on and tell a story about…why this? It feels icky, like the motivations are not genuine (perhaps wanting “credit” for writing about this progressive topic to gain favor amongst the black community).

In fact, Justin Timberlake has historically caught tons of flack for cultural appropriation, which is why it’s more than a hunch that the motivations are not entirely pure here. Maybe they are in his mind, but this has been a trend for him where he’s been accused of wanting to use black music and black culture in his music and videos, but being unusually quiet when it comes to black issues. Although he apologized for it, his history has made me uncomfortable about this song.

With all of that being said, I have to also say that this is one of the best-done songs on the album. The silky-smooth neo soul production is gorgeous, and the addition of horns further lends credit to an old school vibe. Justin milks that for all its worth, hitting some beautiful notes in the process. It’s not the best written love song, nor would I call it even a good love song, regardless of content (“Come here, let me rock you like a baby”?), but it’s certainly well-executed. It’s just so unfortunate that it is so contrived and so disingenuous. So 15 seems like a good spot for it to land.

14. “You Got It On”: This is not a favorite of mine, personally, but I had to acknowledge the execution. This is what neo-soul should sound like, and Justin’s evoking of Marvin Gaye only helps its case. I also appreciate that it’s not a crude or excessive sex song; it’s far more subdued and refined, like he’s a grown-ass man, in love with his beautiful wife.

13. “Mirrors”: Many people call this the best song on the album, which made me hesitant to put it so low, much less in C-tier, but let me explain. While it’s far more genuine than the previous love/sex songs listed in this tier, the production is what I don’t like about it. Timbaland’s signature beat-boxing completely undermines what could have been an elegant, subdued song. 2006 is over, man! Move on.

The symphonic flourishes and wrought emotion carry this song. I don’t have a problem with its length, as it lets the message really permeate into your soul. For example, when most of the music drops out for one of the final choruses, it’s beautiful. Leaning on vocals and drums at first, eventually the main riff coming in underneath and really seals it. Also, the refrains (or are they outros?) “you are, you are the love of my life” and “Girl, you’re my reflection/ All I see is you” help reinforce the main message, leaving you with warm and fuzzy feelings, if you’re not some kind of monster. By this point, the production has scaled back and it matches the song much better, in my opinion.


12. “TKO”: “She kill me with the coo coochie coo coo.” That’s why this is so low. Yes, 12 is low. I feel like I should defend this song though because the fighting metaphor is a little cheesy and it’s not the best-produced or even most complex or well-composed song on the album. So why put it in tier? Well, guys, the song fucking slaps. So that’s worth a lot. Still pulled off better than “Take Back the Night” and I STILL DO NOT KNOW WHY.

11. “Tunnel Vision”: I’ve seen accusations that say this is a creepy, obsessive song. If it is, it’s at least being creepy and obsessive toward someone who appears to be his girlfriend. There’s nothing indicating he’s stalking some unsuspecting lady. I read it as being really into the one you’re with. Also, really hard to care about that when the beat is absolute fire. It’s repetitive lyrically, but it rides that line between being repetitive because it’s a catchy earworm and being obnoxious and poorly written. It’s mostly the former, and it always sounds better than I remember each time I hear it. The spiraling notes in the bridge feel like you’re also spiraling with Justin, as you zoom, zoom, zoom closer to the person of your affections. Everything becomes so clear.

10. “Cabaret”: This could have easily been a sleazy song, but it doesn’t play like that at all. It’s about having a partner who’s into doing kinky, secret strip shows for her lover. How sweet! The pre-chorus is metered in a different way than the rest of the song, too, which is cool (if I even used “metered” right). That rhythm and flow breaks up the rest of the song, and it’s probably my favorite part. Also can we talk about how Drake’s verse really isn’t as bad as some critics/fans want you to believe? I mean, he does rhyme “long” like 4 times, but I forgive it because he’s confident about it.

Let’s talk about the reason I’m so endeared to this song and “TKO” : the transition between these songs embodies everything I love about this album. It’s only something you can get by listening to the songs back-to-back. During Drake’s verse on “Cabaret”, we begin hearing a de-crescendo of synths that add a fantastic dimension to the song that carry us through the outro of the song. It’s also a very similar melody to the synths in “TKO”‘s main riff. As “Cabaret” fades out, an ominous, disembodied voice comes through: “In all enthrilling, new, living sound”. All the sudden, we’re in a new song, with the same line starting off “TKO” (and thus, ending “Cabaret”) and it immediately hits us with those juicy synths in a very similar fashion as the ones that ended “Cabaret”. Confused yet? Go listen to it. It’ll all materialize.


This is where it gets really good. I will probably only be singing praises from here on out, so avert your gaze if that’s not what you’re into.

9. “True Blood”: Everytime I think I want to bump this song down, I listen to it, and I think about how I can’t do it like that. This is one of those times where going out on a limb and doing something different, and possibly ill-fitting, actually worked. The unsettling, weird aspect works in its favor. Everything from the rhythm and cadence, to the imagery it conjures (the howl-like sounds in the background are the right amount of spooky), to the way the song keeps coming up with new ways to transform as it goes on. It’s how they should have approached composition on all the other songs that didn’t reach this bar. Also, why wasn’t this ever a Halloween anthem? We have so few Halloween songs, you’d think people would be all over it.

8. “Pair of Wings”: Hearing a song like this gorgeous, simple love song makes me angry that something like “That Girl” wasn’t better written. Justin and his team can clearly write a heart-felt love song wrought with real emotion, not ham-fisted showman attempts. It’s stark, how stripped down this song is. Absolutely gorgeous song and a great homerun by Justin, stepping out of his wheelhouse and succeeding.

7. “Don’t Hold the Wall: Hey, “Let the Groove Get In”, this is a dance song, and it’s the appropriate way to incorporate drums from another culture. According to one columnist, the song features “pseudo-Indian beats” and “tribal drums”, specifically taking from Bollywood and Bhangra music. They do a bang up job mixing the rest of the production and vocals around this. There’s even a drum breakdown, which is something I longed for in “Groove”! The song is full of spiffy transitions and cool musical elements, which is very technical musical review terminology for “this shit bangs”.


6. “Strawberry Bubblegum”: Let me just make up a genre to describe this: dreamsoulpop. It goes from being a retro soul-influenced love ballad to being this ethereal, hazy pop tune that morphs in and out of genres. It’s so well-crafted that I have never thought twice about the words “bubblegum” and “lollipop” being used seriously in a love song. My favorite part, and probably the best part of the song, is the bridge where he introduces the phrase “blueberry lollipop” (the transition starts around 5 and a half minutes in). Another fantastic evolution on the album, the song takes on a whole new identity, including some very tasty funk vibes (that bass line is so sick that it needs medical care). If the song were shorter, the payoff would not be nearly as sweet. So, sit down, shut up, and enjoy your 8-minute song. Delayed gratification is a sign of maturity.

5. “Suit&Tie”: Effortless elegance. That’s this song in two words. When I hear “Suit&Tie”, I think of Justin and his lady dressed to the nines at a gala or ball, served by waiters in white gloves, eating from opulent dinnerware, and just generally being fancy and lavish. The production is slick, with horns, what sounds like an actual harp (but I’m certain isn’t), and a memorable beat layered together seamlessly. Jay-Z’s verse kicks off a slight change in the rhythm and tempo, shifting it toward a thick, synth-y breakdown that really tickles the eardrum.  I enjoy a lot of the wordplay on this song, too. “We don’t mind all the watching / ‘Cause if they study close, real close, they might learn something”, and “Oh shit, so sick got a hit and picked up a habit,” are two of my favorites.

4. “Spaceship Coupe”: I never thought a novelty track about getting freaky in space would ever make it into any top five I’ve done, but here we are. Allow me to reintroduce you to… Justin doing neo-soul right. He kills it here, then resurrects it, and kills it again. Old school soul meets a Prince-esque guitar solo, divine falsettos, and sci-fi innuendos to create this extraterrestrial experience that far exceeds whatever myopic vision that mere mortals might have otherwise devised. It sounds ridiculous on paper, but this is not Katy Perry’s “ET”; this is exploring sexuality with someone new and how weird, but exciting, that can be. I’m here for it in a big way.

3. “Amnesia”: It’s amazing this song is so high, even with Timbaland’s obnoxious beatboxing. Nothing dates these songs worse than that. However, the mixture of orchestral sounds and hip-hop is gorgeous and well-executed. The poignant lyrics and emotional delivery forgive its single sin. It is so strong that it still deserves number 4, and if you don’t believe me, you need to re-listen to “Amnesia”.

The song really finds itself during the outro, where the tempo and rhythm shifts to what sounds like a totally different song. Using prominent strings and traditional hip-hop beats as the backdrop to Timberlake’s voice, we twist deeper into the meat of the song, much like with “Mirrors”. It begins with the line “So tear me apart and do it again tomorrow”, and eventually gives way to the line “this is turning into some kind of fucking amnesia”. The latter is a recall of an earlier line that is almost exactly the same, sans F-bomb. I think it really drives a nail into the heart of the song and it’s absolutely perfect. Without these “lengthy, self-indulgent” songs, we wouldn’t have “Amnesia”. Let’s hope we never do, lest we should forget this song.

2. “Drink You Away”: I worship in the house of rock and roll, where this song is the altar call. I heard the 2015 CMA’s performance of this song with Chris Stapleton long before I heard the entire 20/20 Experience. I fell in love with the live performance, but the studio version more than holds its own. As a huge blues fan, anything that gets in the vicinity will endear me if done remotely right. It’s not just blues though, it’s the mix of country and a tiny bit of gospel (which really shined in the live performance).

Damn, even the studio version gives me chills and makes me want to yell along with it. Wanting not for the extravagant production of other tracks on this album, “Drink You Away” thrives on Justin’s belting vocals, minimalist guitar-playing, subtle, but beautiful organ flourishes, and that driving drum beat. Killer melody, great lyrics, absolutely perfect production. Less was more here, and if Justin spent the rest of his career making only music like this, it wouldn’t be enough.

This so clearly wanted to be number one. And I so very much wanted it to be there, if not for one, tiny, little problem.

1. “Pusher Love Girl”: I’m addicted to this song. Please inject it directly into my veins. Which is really on-brand for this song. The moment I watched the lyric video for this song, I knew this entire album would be special.

This song is peak 20/20 Experience: experimenting, letting the song meander, grow, and get lodged in your brain, genre-blending, well-composed, beautiful. I struggle to even find appropriate musical terms or praise to give it that’s not just, “YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THIS SONG”.

We’re back with Justin Does Neo-Soul Really Well. In case you haven’t heard this week’s episode, uh, he’s still really good. This song showcases everything right about what Justin, the producers, and the writers wanted to accomplish on this album. But it’s more than doing really great neo-soul or R&B; it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever heard in R&B or pop or anything in between. The song makes you feel high, and that totally embodies what the album is going for. It want to make you feel the songs; not just hear them.

I can’t help this is number 1. I’m just under the influence.

The members of the Raconteurs standing in front of a green backgorund

Album Review: The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (Plus Track Rankings)

Album reviews are for “new-to-me” albums that I’m experiencing and digesting for the first time.

For eleven years, the Raconteurs were absent from musical relevance. While their official hiatus wasn’t announced until 2011, their last album, Consolers of the Lonely, was released in 2008 and saw them slowly fade from the limelight. They spent a good deal of time touring and appearing in festivals in the years leading up to their hiatus (I was lucky enough to have seen them three times in their career), but they were off the radar for anyone that wasn’t a Raconteurs fan.

When they announced their break from music as The Raconteurs, I assumed it was permanent. Jack White was beginning to dip his toes into solo act freedom–and the others? Well. I don’t know. They were so far off my radar, as just Brendan Benson and The Greenhorns (or Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence), that I didn’t hear anything about them, nor did I think to look. So when I came across an awesome song on a Spotify alternative playlist that sounded familiar, you can imagine my surprise when I saw it was The Raconteurs. That song was “Sunday Driver”, and the accompanying album I discovered shortly thereafter, was Help Us Stranger.

Help Us Stranger dropped on June 21st, 2019, a few days before I had discovered “Sunday Driver” on Spotify (this review is almost a year late). It was like a little gift from the music gods, that I happened upon that playlist and that song, right in time to find their new album. “I’m here right now / I’m not dead yet”, Brendan Benson reminds us on “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)”. I’m thankful for that.

That’s how I felt upon first listening to it, when I intended to write this review. So it’s nowhere near new anymore, but it’s new to me, and that’s the premise of this album review segment (and song reviews) that I intend to do. So let’s hit the broad strokes, before diving into my favorite part: opinion-based list-making for arbitrary reasons!

The garage rock revival may be over, but no one told the Raconteurs. Big electric guitar and the solos that love them; fuzzy bass lines; synths that sound like fuzzy bass lines; 60’s-style harmonies; and riffs reminiscent of classic rock songs that you can’t quite put your finger on–it definitely feels like the garage rock of yore.

However, the Raconteurs did a fabulous job over all three of their studio albums, progressing and experimenting with their sound, while staying firmly in the alt rock genre. That’s the beauty of alt rock–it’s broad enough to be your playground no matter what you decide to do. Just ask Jack White.

Help Us Stranger does the familiar Raconteurs sound with a shiny new coat. There’s not a singular word to describe how it sounds, so I’ll use several: it feels like a callback to a lot of late 60’s rock, especially psychedelia-influenced rock in some moments. It has country elements, as Consolers did, but the squealing guitars and driving drums keep recalling an older time, with older bands, that the Raconteurs have imbued into their sound. It’s as natural as though they, too, came from the 60’s.

There’s nothing that feels reused or recycled from old albums though, nor does it feel forced or out of its element. This is a mistake I see in other artists who either try to recreate their old sound that they’ve already outgrown (and fail), or try to do something new and experimental that they can’t handle (and fail). It’s possible to retain your signature sound, while growing as an artist. Just ask Jack White…again. Sure, his solo records aren’t flawless, but you sure as hell wouldn’t confuse any of them for White Stripes material (or The Raconteurs, or Dead Weather, for that matter).

The writing is as strong as ever. It’s been my belief since the dawn of my love for this band that Brendan is the lifeblood of the writing. I love Jack White and his brand of songwriting, but I’m fond of the way Brendan can turn a phrase and evoke emotion in his solo work. I attribute a lot of that same feeling in Help Us Stranger (and all of the Raconteurs’ albums) to him. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure. Both Jack and Brendan are credited as co-writers on every song, save for the Donovan cover “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)”. However, a helpful track-by-track commentary is available on Spotify for the album, which gives us some insight. It’s better than nothing, which is essentially what we got for their first two albums.

Okay, but enough of that. How about we rank these songs from worst to best, according to my incredibly subjective rubric that no one else will have any say in and probably disagree with?

Track Rankings

12. Shine the Light on Me – I would probably love this song if not for the inane piano ditty that plays incessantly throughout this song. I’m not sure if I’m just too uncool to get this or what. While the song has positive aspects (including the fact that it sounds like a White Stripes’ song), I generally find it unenjoyable because of the melody.

11. Only Child – While there is no recycled content on Help Us Stranger, “Only Child” is definitely the “Old Enough” of this album. Unfortunately, they can’t match the playfulness of the latter song. It’s not that I don’t like old man, preachy wisdom, it’s just that this song doesn’t hit for me, as much as I try to like it.

10. Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness) – Never heard the original, and I’m not gonna start now. Look, I’m not a professional musician. I don’t know musical terms, but this sounds like a song you would hear in a saloon in the 20’s. Or, the soundtrack to a Donkey Kong Country level. I just can’t get into it. What I can get into is that fierce harmonic solo by Brendan. I wish they had put horns on this song, too, just totally leaning into a campy, goofy song.

9. Don’t Bother Me – Is this a political song? Is it about obnoxious youths? A girlfriend who you can’t get rid of? I don’t know. I suspect it’s about nothing, since Jack himself said he just created a character who was accusatory and vengeful. It’s a short, fast track that finds its best moments in the outro. A tempo change guides us into a guitar solo, while madman drummer Patrick Keeler lets loose in the background.

8. What’s Yours is Mine – For such a cool and weird song, they certainly didn’t bother with any real message or consistent lyrics. I have no idea what it’s about, and I don’t know why that bothers me so much. But it hurts what would otherwise be a really cool song. The dissident vocals and sharp departure from the established melody late in the song help to give it character, but I just can’t get past the pointless lyrics when there are better tracks to serve the purpose of marrying good melody and good writing.

7. Help Me Stranger – The acoustic guitar that makes the backbone of this song is juxtaposed against an electric guitar improvising on top of it. It’s what I’d call a “vibey” song, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t still end up wishing they just made a full version of the country song they teased at the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, it has some tasty guitar and an interesting music composition. I like the song, but I like all the remaining songs better. Probably because I hate when lyrics talk directly about a song being a song, i.e. “I wish I had the words / and I want those words to rhyme” and “these 16 strings we’re strumming”.

6. Live a Lie – This energetic track has a punk rock energy (Jack White agrees). It would be just a flash in the pan rock song (and I’d be okay with that), but the message of deceit and wanting to live in ignorant bliss gives this song some heft. I didn’t expect it to land here, but I have to follow where the songs take me. 

5. Bored and Razed – This will for sure be the show-opener for the tour supporting this album. If it’s not, they need to fire whoever steers them away from it. It gives a shout out to all their hometowns! A good, ole-fashioned rock song, it gets the job done and is very easy to jam to, as the professional term goes. With Jack White’s signature guitar squealing in between the vocals, “Bored and Razed” sets the tone for an album that features a lot more where that came from.

4. Thoughts and Prayers – Oh this tongue and cheek little bugger. I didn’t expect this song to be so good, with a satirical name like “Thoughts and Prayers”. Lyrically, it’s gold. Musically though? Actually, also, gold. That slight bluegrass vibe with mandolins and violins (fiddles, you mean?) is my jam and if they did an entire album of this style, it wouldn’t be enough. Let’s just be thankful we have this though.

3. Sunday Driver – This song is an absolute blast from start to finish. I already count it as one of my favorite Raconteurs song overall. I just dig everything about it–a song so modernly retro, or retro-ly modern, that I am using the word “dig” unironically. The lyrics mean absolutely nothing, and I couldn’t care less, because have you heard the riff on this thing? Garage rock heaven. Yeah, I’m a hypocrite for docking “What’s Yours Is Mine” for having meaningless lyrics, but once again, I’d like to call your attention to the ABSOLUTE BEEFY RIFF on this thing. Every component of the song works well together, too, like a fully-fleshed out song should. The meandering guitars backing up the monster riff, Jack White screaming over top, the song just building and evolving, until it eventually melts into this “Magic Carpet Ride”-esque moment of spooky harmonies and divergent guitar notes. 10/10, would recommend. And yet, it’s only 3. Damn, what a good top 3 we have.

2. Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying) – On paper, I wouldn’t have picked this over “Sunday Driver” or maybe even put it in the top 5. The most country song on the album, this song is also one of the simplest. It’s lyrically sparse, but incredibly powerful. With a candid performance by Brendan as the backdrop, Jack’s guitar pickin’ is free to shine, and I absolutely love it. I don’t think of these lyrics as being especially beautiful on their own merit, but the emotion behind it feels intimate and real, something that “Shine the Light” and “Don’t Bother Me” both lack, despite this sense I get that I’m supposed to feel something with those two. The second part, where the song completely changes, as they repeat “I’m here right now; I’m not dead yet” was a fantastic addition and perfectly complements the rest of the song.

1. Now That You’re Gone – Somehow this one crept up to the number one spot, and I don’t know why. Except, I do. It’s the bluesiest song on the album. It’s not terribly obfuscated, with all that Jack White guitar shredding and the soul-tastic “doo wop” influenced harmonies in the background, but the style and format of the song is hardly your typical blues copycat song. This song also has something on “Sunday Driver”, a song I really wanted to put at number one: it’s earnest and painful. Like “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)”, the lyrics tell a convincing story (whether or not it’s based on reality), and I feel like I’m able to relate to the lyrics and the emotion behind it, even if I haven’t been in that exact scenario.

That’s it! That’s my review and track listing for The Raconteurs Help Us Stranger. I’ll be around, posting as often as I can and feel like it. Hoping to grow and evolve this blog as we go.

picture of Demi Lovato's new single cover. Profile picture of demi wearing a red jacket, eyes closed, head tilting up as she walks down the street

Song Review: “I Love Me” by Demi Lovato

I love Demi. She’s outspoken about her struggles with addiction and body image. She’s honest and real, seeming down-to-earth despite how long she’s already been in the spotlight at 27. She wants to make other people feel good about themselves and know that they’re worth it, that they can do it.

That’s the theme in “I Love Me”. It’s an admirable message, and the song has some punch, quite literally as she talks about beating up on herself. Vivid imagery and Demi’s signature big voice are anchors of this track.

The cute, whimsical melody, paired with her soaring vocals on the chorus, creates a satisfying dynamic of loud vs soft. I wonder if there is intentional symbolism there about the battle between being yourself and feeling like you have to hide who you are. If not, I’m going to infer it anyway.

It seems like a very personal song, one that I and a lot of other people can relate to. I know it’s something near and dear to Demi’s heart, as she spoke about on The Ellen Show. However, the song isn’t quite the home run I wanted it to be, despite it’s accessibility and dream-pop affinity. I certainly applaud the message, but songs that are written specifically to be anthems, like this, often fall flat because they’re written to become anthems. It suffers from maybe trying too hard.

I love a good personal song. Nearly every song on Tell Me You Love Me punched me in the face with how much feeling and realness were behind it. But it’s obvious when a song is written to pander to a certain crowd, no matter how authentic that place comes from.

I don’t even think it’s a bad thing to write a song for a specific purpose, because that’s what all songs are written for. Even if you’re trying to appeal to a certain crowd or intentionally write a hit or write an anthem for the youth, the oppressed, the whoever, it’s not necessarily a BAD thing. It’s just bad when you can tell it was done for that reason. Not that I would call “I Love Me” bad. I could just tell from the first listen that it was packaged to fit into the “Female Empowerment Anthem” category.

I support Demi’s message and her desire to be a role model and a harbinger of body positivity–and to be fair, it’s hard to write a song to reach and inspire a group of people on purpose, while still feeling authentic. Though, it can be done, see “Eye of the Tiger”, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”. It doesn’t mean these songs are better than “I Love Me” or any less contrived in their approach, but they seem to achieve something “I Love Me” cannot: authenticity.

However, this isn’t a death sentence for the song, which is still quite catchy and has a lot of positives. I’m sure “I Love Me” will still gain popularity and favor because of its intention. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would rather listen to Demi’s other work thus far. I would honestly say that “Confident” is the better anthem, whether or not it was trying to be.

Highlights: The vocal delivery on the chorus; the harmonies; the beautiful melody

Lowlights: The clunky lyrics at times; the whole “we wrote this for YOU” aspect that

“I Love Me” Demi Lovato on YouTube

“I Love Me” Demi Lovato on Spotify


A picture of The Weeknd's album cover, After Hours, which shows a closeup of him with blood-stained teeth and blood running down his face.

First Impressions: After Hours by The Weeknd

The Weeknd’s back! I just had to get this out and talk about the album as soon as possible. While not a full on review, “first impressions” will be a segment I do that’s less polished, less researched, and much faster to post. So any inaccuracies or dumb shit thoughts are the result of this approach.

Let’s get to it!

Overall thoughts: Over the course of his career, The Weeknd has both developed a signature sound, while also growing and evolving it with each album. He’s lowkey my favorite pop artist of this generation. I feel his pain as though it were my own. I see his bragging about cars and sex as a mask, as a cry for help. Getting high and sleeping with some girl he doesn’t care about has been his shtick from the beginning, and yet, The Weeknd pulls it off because he contrasts it with the awareness that he knows it’s not enough for him. He’s back at it with an 80s-esque, synthwave, retro pop album that hits like a truck in your feelings. I love the sounds, the atmosphere, the beats, but also the themes: loneliness, fame, emptiness, regret, sadness.

That being said, the same themes have persisted across all of his albums, and while I do enjoy them, it would benefit him to explore some new topics. And while I do love the 80’s style of the whole album, a little bit of diversity could have gone a long way. There were other styles in the 80’s besides just synthwave, as much as I love it. Even an entire album of synthwave can feel a little monotonous when some of the tracks seem to have the same BPM and similar melodies. It doesn’t feel too repetitive to me after one listen, but I’m curious how future listens will treat it. Love the vibe, but it could have used a little more depth or diversity.

Activities while listening: making coffee, zoning out on the couch, setting up remote desktop, zoning out at the kitchen table.

Favorite track: So many strong contenders on this album just on a first listen. Songs, like “Too Late”, “Blinding Lights”, “In Your Eyes”, “Until I Bleed Out”, okay probably most of the album is strong. My knee-jerk reaction for favorite is “Faith”. We’ll see if that changes for future listens.

Least favorite track: “Snowchild”.

Grade based on my arbitrary rubric that’s entirely subjective and mostly based on my feelings: 94/100 A

While partly arbitrary because I “go with my gut”, my general rules are that S-rated albums or songs are perfect and could not be improved upon; “A” grades are fantastic and nearly perfect, with just some minor, nitpicky problems; “B” grades show a lot of promise and good material, but have a few subpar or unpleasant elements; “C” is the opposite of B, in that it has a few good bits, but it is mostly subpar or unpleasant; “D” means you barely tried; “F” means the F were you thinking.