- Big Machine
- Taylor Swift
Dating back to her earliest records, Taylor Swift’s songs have navigated the familiar tropes of Western romance: Romeo and Juliet, cheerleader versus geek, the shy girl who falls for the rebellious boy, Prince Charming and his white horse. On her shapeshifting new album 1989, "Style" is perhaps one last look at the version of Swift who sees herself in broadly drawn characters—in this instance, a "classic" girl wearing red lipstick who has fallen for a slick-haired, white-teed guy with the "James Dean look" in his eye. But where those early songs were often parables, this one is more of an allegory: Swift dredges up iconic imagery of the American '50s as a way of framing an on-again, off-again relationship so intense that its essence feels infinite.
But "Style" also seems like a distilled look at a future version of Taylor Swift. Though it is structured like so many of her previous tracks, it’s not her meticulous songwriting that throws you into a headrush. Instead it’s her vocals, tense and restrained, misting emotion in cascading sighs and implied ellipses. But more so it’s the instrumentation from Max Martin and Shellback, which traces a line from Jan Hammer to "Teenage Dream". Swift delivers wallops in small moments, so her producers bust out the heartstoppers: a pre-chorus riff that’s like a car screeching short, then undulating waves of keyboards underneath the hook that feel like the wind blowing through your hair. Most stunning of all is a guitar figure that scribbles its own story of indefinite lust across the night sky. —Jordan Sargent
- Mass Appeal
"Blockbuster Night Pt. 1"
Ever since their debut, it's been easy to think of Run the Jewels in terms of sheer mass annihilation, rap Road Warriors tagging together to bring Doomsday Devices on everyone in their path. It doesn't hurt that El-P's beats continue to be so dusty and grimy that they sound like they've been dragged through the Paris-to-Dakar rally; this one's got gravelly molasses bass fuzz built to asphyxiate ears. But the mayhem is run through god-tier one-liners (El: "It's all a joke between mom contractions and coffin fittin’s"; Mike: "I give a fuck if I'm late, tell Satan be patient") and pure technique that makes the most of assonance, internal rhymes, alliteration, and every other trick that lesser MCs try to substitute for personality. Since both El-P and Killer Mike have used their inseparably complementary tendencies to make their personalities the whole point, it's here where all those traits run rampant: They're out for justice (word to Seagal), beholden to knocking down competitors and lifting up allies, bringing out the dead and laughing at the inevitability of joining them. —Nate Patrin
- Lykke Li
Lykke Li’s "Gunshot" is too cathartic to be a sad song and too sad to be a cathartic song. Despite lyrics that suggest an emotional morass of regret over a failed romance, it explodes with an uplift that makes stark and incapacitating heartache sound triumphant. "And the shot goes/ Through my head and back," Li cries on the song’s life-affirming build, an assertion that somehow sounds hopeful in a narrative of despair. The sparse, meandering interludes that punctuate the chorus underscore its unspoken euphoria by way of contrast—and yet, the specificity of the song’s anguish at earlier moments ("I am longing for your poison/ Like a cancer to its prey") tames this feeling. "Gunshot" invokes a rare balance between sorrow and liberating acceptance. —Molly Beauchemin
Lykke Li: "Gunshot"
- Erased Tapes
A good part of Nils Frahm’s rise to prominence in the past two years no doubt came from word of mouth surrounding his live shows. Some of my best musical moments have been watching someone’s reaction after taking them to see him for the first time. He’s a composer whose music strives for simplicity and directness even across a multi-part suite, and a talented pianist whose fingers say more than his lovable between-song banter. What I’m getting at here is that Frahm’s music is best heard in the live setting, and that’s why Spaces, a live album, was easily his best record yet.
While the excellent Spaces, which comprises several different performances, might not totally capture the experience of seeing a Frahm concert, the eight-minute "Says" comes the closest. You can almost see him running between his instruments, setting loops and adding little flourishes to his gradually blooming wall of sound. There’s a particularly great moment about five minutes in, when the rising synth line takes off as if it were finally breaking free, and then it does an upward dance that feels both wounded and victorious. It’s one of those moments on Spaces—and in his concerts—where you figure out that Frahm is no average pianist, nor an average modern classical composer. Instead, he’s a near-genius who makes emotional epics that scale the heights of post-rock with the mere stroke of his fingers. —Andrew Ryce
Nils Frahm: "Says"
- Infinite Best
- Twin Group
"In the House of Yes"
Overuse of the term "guilty pleasure" has rendered the phrase virtually meaningless; let it be said that drinking alone is one of the few activities that still earns that description. In the past, its musical tributes have emphasized the "guilty" part, coming from grizzled boozehounds like Merle Haggard and George Thorogood who have willingly done hard time and paid hard fines for breaching the social contract. In the spirit of "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe", Mr Twin Sister’s "In the House of Yes" makes a compelling argument for the "pleasure" principle. It’s a glittery disco wherein Andrea Estella wonders aloud, what would a club night be like without the rude boys on the dance floor, the cover charge, the wait at the door, the ridiculous drink prices, the shitty music, and the struggle to find a cab ride home? It would be pretty fucking awesome, that’s what. Cup in hand, dancing alone in her room, Estella sinks deeper into alcohol’s warm embrace until she hits the floor and wakes up knowing exactly how she got home, who she woke up with and where to get breakfast. All the while, a voice in her head repeats, "You’re the one!"—it doesn’t get any better than this, does it? That’s the lie "In the House of Yes" tells you, and the one that all solo drinkers believe to their ultimate destruction. So one of the year’s most seductive songs is also one of the most morally corrupt. —Ian Cohen
"Put Your Number in My Phone"
Though it mimics '60s sunshine pop and '70s adult-contempo cheese, "Put Your Number in My Phone" reminds me more of something less likely: a joke remix of a Tiger Woods adultery-scandal voicemail. The similarities are eerie: both are about revealing and manipulating personal information; both use actual voicemails as musical motifs; and both explore the blurry line between intimacy and deception. Where Woods begs someone close to him to hide his secrets from the world, Pink begs someone to get close to him while hiding a secret: he has no real intention of reciprocating that intimacy.
The parallels may seem trivial, and certainly without the voicemail that reveals Pink’s betrayal, "Put Your Number in My Phone" would simply be well-crafted pop—a deft web of love-letter couplets and sugary melody. But the reality check of a voice wondering why Ariel hasn’t called back gives the song’s sparkle a dark undercurrent. The effect is not unlike the way the plastic sheen on celebrities’ public lives glosses over stickier truths. Pink’s music is always at its best when he’s mixing layers that way, complicating and confusing what at first seems simple, and with "Put Your Number in My Phone" he’s left yet another messy message. —Marc Masters
Ariel Pink: "Put Your Number in My Phone"
- Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen spent most of her year conducting an exquisitely private conversation with herself in front of audiences. "No one's gonna try it for you, darling, no one," she sings plaintively on "Lights Out", from her fiercely enigmatic and still-arresting Burn Your Fire For No Witness. The song, a late moment of piercing clarity, has a drowsy feel, as do the guitars, which speak through the half-yawn of light distortion. "Just when you thought you would turn all your lights out, it shines," she muses, in one long drifting leaf of a melody, keeping the thought alive and following it all the way down to the floor. She lingers lovingly on every phrase, stretching out the words as if she was looking to hide something inside them. The song sounds like a private prayer that Olsen shares with us because she's confident we'll never truly plumb its meaning or crack its surface. Sometimes, all you need is one good thought, strong in your mind. —Jayson Greene
Angel Olsen: "Lights Out"
- Ariana Grande
"Love Me Harder" [ft. The Weeknd]
It’s been an art from blues to Britney: the song as extended double entendre, one that can come off either unassailably clean or unspeakably filthy depending on the listener’s life experience and cleanliness of mind (or nearness to a Google searchbox). "Love Me Harder" is sort of the opposite: even when it’s clean it sounds teasingly off, and even when it’s dirty, it sounds so disarmingly spit-shine clean. Much of it’s the premise: pairing a singer who was a babysitter on Nickelodeon less than half a year ago with a singer whose discography contains endless variations on permanently corrupting young ingenues, with no apologies and no inclinations to change that. Even more of it’s the execution: organ peals timed like winks after each line; Grande switching emotional beats like poses, her voice either knowing beyond her years or just polished to sound like it, with no indication as to which; Tesfaye revisiting the sturdy nocturnal electro-house of his Kavinsky collaboration (a sound that’s been fast adopted by the pop trickbook, from megastars to newcomers), leering about his rep and finding a way to describe hardcore porn acts in PG terms. When these tracks fail, they’re the most embarrassing failures an artist can have; when they succeed, the sleight of song can be breathtaking. Here’s to a generation of kids realizing horrifying things in 2020 about their teenage jam—and what lodged it in their mind. —Katherine St. Asaph
Ariana Grande: "Love Me Harder" [ft. The Weeknd]
- Loma Vista
St. Vincent is known for the way she can make a guitar sound like it’s made of rubber stretched to the point of snapping, and she's also known for her brittle funk and unabashed kookiness. "Prince Johnny" isn’t really that kind of song, though. The guitar is reined in but still wickedly effective. Nothing is smeared or off-kilter. It takes a basic beat that could have been funky and makes it the foundation for something lovely and drifting, a song whose beauty belies the conflict and spit in its lyrics. Those lyrics tease you with the huge "whoa-ohs" of the refrain a few times before you actually get there, that makes it more rewarding when you do reach it. Her records contain plenty of choruses that stick in your brain, but this may be the most simple and direct of them all. St. Vincent’s core appeal lies in her eccentricities but she doesn’t actually need to lean on them to make brilliant music. —Joe Tangari
- Secretly Canadian
- The War on Drugs
"An Ocean in Between the Waves"
This is a murky song. This is a song about murk. It opens on a "travelin’ man" who is watching someone, presumably a woman, walk toward him in the rain. It’s a stock image out of a film noir, and Adam Granofsky keeps the dark scenery coming. There are wild winds blowin’, black suns risin’, and nail guns blasting through hearts. At no point does any of this clarify the song’s meaning; clarity is in fact Granofksy's elusive femme fatale. What is the protagonist seeking? What exactly does an "ocean in between the waves" signify? Everything? Anything? Nothing?
"An Ocean in Between the Waves" parallels the confusion Granofsky experienced as he was making it; the title could very well describe the sound in his head that he was chasing and couldn’t pin down. He was the restless protagonist, and that sound was the barely visible figure in the thunderstorm. Like the rest of Lost in the Dream, "An Ocean in Between the Waves" is a questing epic with an uncertain destination. The only way out for Granofsky was to keep moving, to keep grasping in the dark, to keep questing forward. The exhilaration of this song—which Granofsky labored over for months before reworking his original demo at the last moment—is that you can hear him finally catch the wave in the final 90 seconds. When that guitar solo kicks in, it’s like a ray of light cutting through an everlasting night. It’s not clear whether Granofsky will be okay in the end, but at least he’s no longer lost. —Steven Hyden