Radio Rant: Billboard’s Songs of the Summer 2016

Of all of Billboard’s silly charts, none draws me year after year like the Songs of the Summer. For one, it’s a good tip-off to how the year-end is going to look because whoever runs the summer will place generously there, but mostly I enjoy it because its only purpose the futile exercise of quantifying hype. Most of Billboard’s other charts are rooted (however dubiously) in the hard numbers of sales, streams, and airplay. The Songs of the Summer chart is made of, “the most popular titles based on cumulative performance on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart from Memorial Day through Labor Day,” which (I think) means that it takes however the songs are doing on the Hot 100 and rejiggers them into a new list…somehow. Cumulatively? Who knows! It gets even kookier because Billboard doesn’t do one final list for the entire summer anymore and instead issues the chart week by week, meaning wherever you rank in mid-September is supposed to reflect the summer, leading to wonky claims like “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” magically coming in at the 10th song of the season despite never being that popular. Thank goodness for cumulative ranking!

So instead, I made my own list with Billboard’s data. Using their 20 spot Summer Song  weekly chart, I gave the number one song 20 points, the number two song 19 points and so on each week (if a song didn’t chart for a week, it got 0 points), and then averaged each song’s points out for what’s basically a pop music DVOA. The top ten highest point-earners are below. And, if you’re so inclined, you can click here for the breakdown.

The last thing I’ll say is that this year solid enough, but it was pretty homogeneous. Most everything that ranked high had a sultry, electronic, dancehall tinge to it. In other words, it all sounded like Rihanna. So then, part of today is going to be a game called “Sounds Like Rihanna,” where we’ll appraise each song on how much it does or doesn’t evoke the ANTI singer. Let’s begin.

10. Kent Jones – “Don’t Mind”Hola como esta Kent Jones? Long time, no see. I still maintain that “Don’t Mind” is a mindless song, but at least the chorus is mindless fun instead of mindless dumb like the verse, and that’s enough to make it harmless coming in at number 10. I don’t know, this is still low quality radio filler, so there’s not much to say. The Pitbull remix fits “Don’t Mind” like a glove, though (this is a compliment).

Sounds Like Rihanna: Very low. It’s just so damn perky that I think she’s sneer at it over her sunglasses.

9. Mike Posner – “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” (Seeb Remix)
In which Mike Posner capitalizes on what the rest of us have known since 2010: fuckin’ nobody wants to be Mike Posner. There’s potential for a song like “ITaPiI” that so nakedly grips with being a wash-up, but Poser’s too self-pitying to really make it work outside a line or two. The Seeb remix is uninspired sub-DJ Snake EDM pop, and jamming in the club to “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” is “getting drunk to ‘Swimming Pools’” level Missing The Point.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Musically, not really, but “I took a pill in Ibiza” is definitely a thing she’s done.

8. Sia ft. Sean Paul – “Cheap Thrills”
“Cheap Thrills” landed on my personal Songs of the Summer list, so it’s gold to me. It’s just a fun listen because Sia, Sean Paul, and Greg Kurstin know their way around mercenary, breezy pop music like few others do. And, speaking as part of a friend group where invariably one of us checks their mobile banking app on the sly before we all go out, I can appreciate a song about partying on the cheap. “Cheap Thrills” is just an honest good time, and the fact that one of our summer hits is by a pair of 40-somethings only made the happy hour booze that much sweeter.

Sounds Like Rihanna: “Cheap Thrills” was literally written for Riri, if that answers it.

7. Rihanna – “Needed Me”
When ANTI came out in January, I wanted “Needed Me” to be a hit, but I never thought it would actually happen. It’s not structured like a pop song. It neither slaps nor bangs. It has a surprisingly raw Rihanna. It has DJ Mustard’s iciest beat made of stretched and twisted synth buzz and reverby drums. None of these are knocks–in fact, I’d call “Needed Me” one of Rihanna’s best songs–but it doesnt’ scream “radio single,” even with an eye-catchy video. Still, though, it happened. What I like about “Needed Me” in pop context is that it’s basically just Rihanna on this thing: it’s not weighted down by a guest verse, it’s not anchored by a big name producer doing his trademark work; it’s just her front and center. Also, Rihanna curving a tuxedoed Drake in front of millions has to be a “Fuck your white horse and a carriage” moment.

Sounds Like Rihanna: It’s not just Rihanna, it’s Peak “Maneater DGAF” Rihanna.

6. Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla $ign – “Work From Home”
Fifth Harmony have the same problem that Ariana Grande had last album cycle: here’s a pop act with decent material, but lacks that one intangible to send it home. And “Work From Home” is fine, really. End of the day, I think I slightly prefer the brassy attitude of “Worth It,” but I can respect the way “Work From Home” taps current trends and churns out a good application of them. If you like songs on the radio, you’ll probably like this one, but you probably won’t love it. There also, y’know, that other song.

Sounds Like Rihanna: “Work From Home” is the The Amazing Spider-Man to “Work”‘s Spiderman.

5. Calvin Harris ft. Rihanna – “This Is What You Came For”
The easy bag on “This Is What You Came For” is that the song’s behind the scenes drama between producer Calvin Harris and pseudonymous writer/Harris’ now-ex Taylor Swift is more interesting than the song itself. I’m not gonna fight that exactly, however, “This Is What You Came For” is a solid dance track. It features some relatively restrained and smooth Calvin Harris production (check the way that chorus synth/handclap combo just bounces and the post-chorus glides), and even if she’s doing a light Taylor Swift impression, I’d rather hear Rihanna on this than T.Swift herself. And c’mon, was it really surprising that Swift wrote this song? Doesn’t “Lightning strikes every time she moves” scream “Taylor Swift lyric” to anyone else?

Sounds Like Rihanna: If Rihanna hadn’t gone artistic for ANTI, its first single would have sounded like “This Is What You Came For.”

4. The Chainsmokers ft. Daya – “Don’t Let Me Down”
This is still a song I will never give a shit about, and Daya seems poised to have a legit career, but the most exciting thing that’s happened between now and the last time I looked at this C-minus of a hit is The Chainsmokers’ bro-tastically unself-aware Billboard profile. In the profile, the guys talk about: being inspired by characters in Entourage, starting an investment club in high school, pin that awful VMAs performance on Halsey, a “tip-to-tip” measurement of their combined dicks, describe their first meeting as “a man date,” mention how “even before success, pussy was number one,” and I’m only lying about one of those. Enjoy it while it lasts, broskis, but remember that Mike Posner was once you. And some day, you’ll be him.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Daya continues the chart’s “Rihanna imitation, Actual Rihanna, Rihanna imitation, Actual Rihanna, Rihanna imitation” pattern.

3. Desiigner – “Panda”
“Panda” is still too long by a stretch, but not since seeing DJ Esco and Metro Boomin weave through “Where Ya At” has my opinion of a song been so buoyed by seeing people dance to it. You couldn’t choreograph that kind of shit to “Don’t Let Me Down.”

Sounds Like Rihanna: “Panda” and Rihanna both appear like, 40 seconds apart on The Life of Pablo, but that’s about it.

2. Justin Timberlake – “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
I’m of two minds with “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” On one hand, this is some aggressively middle of the road, people pleasing, disco-pop by numbers, craven capitalist (Don’t forget to see Trolls in theaters!) bullshit. “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is like Justin Timberlake’s Michael Jackson self-insert fanfic last year without Michael’s take there to shine things up. On the other hand, I fucking loved “Love Never Felt So Good,” and if anyone’s going to dedicate themselves to making this fizzy pop song work, it’s JT. And most of my knocks against “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” seem like they’re by design: this is a song that’s supposed to color inside the lines and please people. It’s the all-ages banger for the summer. I don’t have to like it, but for weddings? It’s time to dance, dance, dance.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Not at all, to the point that it’s sort of a defining feature. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is trend-averse, silent majority kind of pop.

1. Drake ft. Wizkid & Kyla – “One Dance”
A large part of why the Songs of the Summer chart feels so doofy and unnecessary is that the actual song of the summer is always a forgone conclusion. We’ve been so thoroughly shellacked by the season’s biggest song by mid-September that our reaction to it has calcified into grudging indifference, unbridled joy, or deep, unending rage. “One Dance” falls squarely in the “grudging indifference” category: it’s passable, maybe even good if you squint at it, but completely underwhelming, no matter the context. It’s hard to pin down exactly how “One Dance” did so well; there was no unstoppable video, it’s not super quotable or joke worthy, and it’s barely a song. Maybe Drake’s just too big to friggin fail at this point. With “Controlla” and “Too Good” bubbling under in recent months, we shall see. If those songs really take off, he can rule the rest of the year. Otherwise, this is just that summertime sadness.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Sort of? I feel like she probably laughed at “One Dance” the first time she heard it.

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Radio Rant: Lady Gaga – Perfect Illusion

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. No quip today, just appreciate that cover art.

lady_gaga_-_perfect_illusion

It’s here. All of Lady Gaga’s goodwill endeavors since ARTPOP stalled in 2013–recording and touring trad pop standards with Tony Bennett, the Sound of Music medley, singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, acting gigs, recording a critically acclaimed, socially conscious ballad–every part of the Gaga’s Still Got It Campaign, has been building toward this; her first reentry into the pop game she once ruled and made in her own, weird image. Gaga’s been dropping hints and updates from the studio leading up to “Perfect Illusion,” and with the fall pop release schedule essentially open to whoever has the first great track, there’s no better time than now for her to launch her comeback. So let’s see how this goes.

Before we get started, go ahead and listen to the track. Seriously, go ahead. The single art up there links to the song. I can wait.

Okay, so that first listen was pretty underwhelming. No matter where you eventually land on “Perfect Illusion,” the consensus is that it doesn’t wow on the first spin, that you have to give it time. It reminds me of how we perceived “Work”, where a key part of understanding the song was realizing it wasn’t designed to hit you in the same way as Rihanna’s previous work. But that was pretty easy to do with “Work” once you considered that “Rude Boy,” “You Da One,” and “What’s My Name?” all exist. But “Perfect Illusion” doesn’t have an easy comparison point in Gaga’s discography. For those first few seconds filled with alarm sirens and sun-fried hard rock guitar, you think the track’s going to be a campy Born This Way throwback rocker, but the major features here are four to the floor drums and vamping keyboards. And while those aren’t new weapons in the Gaga arsenal, the restraint is.

The biggest difference between “Perfect Illusion” and the rest of Lady Gaga’s work is in what the production is trying to do. From “Just Dance” all the way up to “G.U.Y.” her beats have been these stadium sized club jams with massive, digitized drum tracks and blown out synths that tried and (mostly at first and less so over time) succeeded at invoking a listener response through sheer size and rush. The thrill wore off on ARTPOP because Gaga’s songcraft abilities seemed to more or less leave her; where her songs had always been big, they always knew how to best deploy their size to sweep you off your feet, even when they went from “huge” to “mondo freaking huge” (I’m think of “The Edge of Glory” in particular here). Her production specialty was “barnburner.”

Meanwhile, “Perfect Illusion” has a beat that’s honest to God nuanced. It’s not one bent on world domination, but a track that includes subtle shifts and extra flourishes, like the twinkling synth that fades in on the chorus. Lady Gaga coproduced and cowrote “Perfect Illusion” with Mark Ronson and Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker (BloodPop coproduced as well), and it sounds like a Gaga/Ronson/Tame collaboration instrumentally. You’ve got Gaga’s dance pop base with Ronson style tastefulness and synth and drum textures straight out of “Let It Happen.” It’s maybe a little too compact at a 3 minute run time for how much it wants to do, and the drum sound is weirdly flunky, but that campiest of camp key change is a “Holy shit” moment musically. There’s an HQ version of just the beat that’s a must-listen.

Which is why it’s rough to pair “Perfect Illusion”‘s tailored beat with what has to be Gaga’s capital R Rawest vocal take ever. One of the Gaga’s Still Got It campaign through lines was a call for authenticity and vocal talent (based on the preliminary look for this new record and the emphasis on ~realness~ this album could be “Gaga Goes Rockist” move), and accordingly, she consciously sings the shit out of “Perfect Illusion.” On the hook–which, by the way, 77% of this song is its hook on repeat–she belts “IT WASN’T LAAAV, IT WASN’T LAAAAV, IT WAS A PERFECT ILLUSION” complete with near voice breaks and sounding like she’s at the top of her range. It wows at that first chorus thirty seconds in, but feels less earned as the song goes because there’s never any tension or build up to a release. Even after the key change, which is a genuinely cool moment, my enthusiasm dissipates because “Perfect Illusion” doesn’t go anywhere with the momentum.

Your mileage may vary as to if you find “Perfect Illusion” to be a slowburner or a fizzle. The most popular argument espoused on YouTube and Twitter (sidenote: remember Gaga’s Little Monsters? They’re back!) is that it takes a few listens for “Perfect Illusion” to take off, but so far I’m not hearing it; a dozen plays in, and this still just sounds like a really cool demo. Gaga going this hard over this production does neither any favors since she sounds too forced and the beat sounds too plodding. I’m not saying it’s bad, but if she pulled back a little or if the beat leaned into those changes and matched her, this would be an unqualified success instead of a tepid one. As is, this is a fine song with the projections of a great song. The illusions of one, if you would.

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Ranting About Music’s Top Songs of the Summer (2016)

It’s the last day of August, Labor Day’s coming up, and there were two chillyish mornings last week leading to everyone in my social media feeds to talk about how ready for fall they are; it’s the end of the summer. As per usual, the rundown on Billboard’s songs of the summer will be up after Labor Day when the summer chart closes, but I wanted to do something different first. Here are the songs that I got the most mileage out of this summer, because you only get so much out of the radio, and I wanted to touch on some songs that wouldn’t get a spotlight otherwise (and some that will). So here are my songs of the summer in alphabetical order.

Beyonce – “Sorry”
Lemonade‘s been out since late April, which in 2016 music release time means it’s practically ready for a reissue, and while 4 or 5 different tracks could have been on this list, it was always going to come down to “Sorry.” This electropop number with the late-night synths, crisp snares, and dreamy atmosphere is not only catchy and melodic, but it best distills Lemonade‘s themes: don’t let anyone fuck you out of your grind, stay defiant, and do right by yourself at any cost. If you want to celebrate it in context, “Sorry” also had Lemonade‘s second most pronounced video and its most headline-baiting lyric, but really, I think what sells it is the emotional range. It opens with that spent but unwavering anger, but gradually gives way to sadness–listen to the slight voice quiver on “I ain’t thinkin’ ’bout you” at 1:54–and eventually loss during its free-floating outro. All that pathos wrapped up in one of the year’s best beats; nothing to be sorry about here.

Chance the Rapper – “Same Drugs”
The degree to which Chance’s Coloring Book has been pegged as “the happy album” strikes me as true if reductive. Sure, most of the mixtape is bathed in sunlight, but it also has stuff like the sad gospel hymn “Same Drugs.” “Same Drugs,” which Chance has gone on record saying isn’t about actual drugs, is a heartbreaker to hear in summer; summers are supposed to be all about hanging out with your friends and being together, and here’s this somber but melodically deft song about how you and someone you used to relate to have grown up and apart. That’s a hard one to deal with at any time of the year, but in summer, when you’re apt to see a younger you and your friends all tanned up looking back at you thanks to Facebook’s On This Day? It fucking sucks. Of course, all this sadness is tempered by some truly soothing piano and female backing vocals, plus strings and a guitar solo of all things, giving “Same Drugs” the comforting warm of an old summer.

DJ Khaled ft. Big Sean and Drake – “Holy Key”
In a space similar to this one last year, I wrote about Kendrick Lamar’s pathological inability to mail it in, and nowhere is that compulsion nearly as on display as it is on Khaled’s “Holy Key.” The song’s pretty great before Kendrick shows up, thanks to a surprisingly game Big Sean, that huge arena-rap beat, and Betty Wright’s take’em-to-church hook, and for a while it looks like Kendrick’s going to keep everything where it’s at, energy-wise. But no, once he locks into the wordiest, most technical part of his verse, he pivots into his upper register and goes the fuck off, chaining together multisyllabic phrases and rhyming voice cracks with each other with the dexterity of a goddamn Simone Biles floor routine. And all this is, again, on a DJ Khaled track: a one-off where just showing up and not bludgeoning Big Sean in the head with a dictionary (again) is 98% of the job. But Kendrick won’t do 98% percent of a job when he sees a whole other 52% just sitting on the table. It doesn’t get more major key than that.

Drake – “Feel No Ways”
How bad does Drake have to feel listening to the like, three or four flatout wonderful albums that have come out in the last few months knowing his entry is the bloated and tedious VIEWS? My guess is “kind of bad,” because while he’s having the time of his life on the charts, VIEWS neatly snapped his critical hot streak, and even most fans concede that the album is “okay” at best. It’s not the coronation he had in mind, I’m sure. But VIEWS does have a couple of winners on it, like “Feel No Ways.” Musically, “Feel No Ways” is a sleeker, less chart-baiting “Hold On, We’re Going Home” with its watery keys, clicking beat, and some familiar vocal melodic phrasing, but stands on its own thanks to enough beat variation and the last minute of breakdown. Despite a few lyrical missteps (“Who is it that’s got you all gassed up?” really, Aubz?), the hook and production are all around solid here, and the tempo’s a good fit for Drake. I don’t even hold it against “Feel No Ways” that it’s almost a convincing argument to give VIEWS another try.

Ariana Grande – “Into You”
My pick for the “Summer Pop Banger: Contrarian Edition” category. It might scan as odd to call the sitting 13th biggest song in the country underrated, but in the case of “Into You,” it totally is. The song reminds me most of mid-period, Blackout and Circus Britney, when she had these industry-insider, weapons grade, icy club beats to work with that bordered undeniable. The difference is that Grande can sing the shit out of this stuff, and “Into You” is constructed (in part by chief Britney architect Max Martin, no less) so that Grande gets to deliver on that chorus in as big a way as possible. Grande brings her A game here, standing head and shoulders above a track that could easily swallow an artist whole. She’s working in the same field as “Love Me Harder” but sounds less–well–childlike here, a problem that was exaggerated her last album cycle, but noticeable all the same. Really, “Into You” stalling out is emblematic of Dangerous Woman as a whole: it’s a good pop album, but Grande can’t seem to find her footing. Still, this is a keeper, and probably your friend who wouldn’t shut up about Carly Rae Jepsen last year’s favorite pop single.

PUP – “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will”
One of my favorite moments in this year’s music takes place a minute and a half into pop-punker “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” when everything but an overdriven guitar riff drops out, and the entirety of PUP screams in raspy unison “WHY CAN’T WE JUST GET ALONG?!” That moment takes the song from just a needling travelogue from frontman Stefan Babcock (that name, though) to a full band civil war. On the surface, “ITTDK,IW” aims to de-romantcize life on the road, but underneath that, this is a song about how those who know each other best know best how to piss each other off; it’s for the times when someone else’s quirks can’t help but bug the shit out of you, you know your schtick is getting thin with them, and look, dammit, we’re all in this so just deal with it. And while that sentiment sounds overwrought, it’s actually pretty funny as a song. Look, it’s 2016: tensions between varying factions of Americans are running high, we’ve suffered through a year of Trump’s bullshit, and the election from hell still has two more months. Maybe a band of Canadians screaming “WHY CAN’T EVERYBODY JUST CHILL?!” is what we need right now.

Rihanna – “Same Ol Mistakes”
For me, ANTI‘s been in rotation since its January release, with “Same Ol Mistakes” picking up as we entered the warm season, which is weird because I was never receptive to Tame Impala’s original. Listening to the pair back to back, I think Rihanna’s take works because Kevin Parker just doesn’t have the voice to capitalize on a pop hook while Rihanna does them so well that “Imitate Rihanna” is a pathway to radio success. In Rihanna’s hands, “Same Ol Mistakes” goes from being a sleepy album closer to a killer late summer night cut for when the air is a shimmering as these synths. She just knows how to find the fun and the sway this sort-of-stoned psych-pop. I might even come around on the original through a combination of her and Donald Glover.

Sia ft. Sean Paul – “Cheap Thrills”
My pick for the “Pop Hit Summer Banger: Non-Contrarian Edition” category. I understand why Rihanna passed on this one, but it’s still a good summer jam with its dancehall thump and groove and I’m glad to see that Sia notched took it to number one. I honestly just appreciate Sia’s pop career because it’s like she’s daring it to succeed. Like, the music’s market friendly, but she’s so willfully obtuse: she refuses to let her face be seen in public appearances or be at the forefront of her performances/music videos, and we’ve rewarded her with multiple top ten hits. Take the Sean Paul feature on “Cheap Thrills” for example: it makes sense–he’s a veteran performer and adds some Caribbean authenticity–but the inclusion of a dude who’s been out of the charts for the better part of a decade feels again like daring the song to take off in spite of itself. Yet, because of a smooth beat and her own do or die vocals, here’s Sia with a number one song. Nothing cheap about that.

Teen Suicide – “Falling Out of Love With Me”
This lo-fi indie popper and the album it’s from have quietly flown under the radar for most of the year, but I can’t get enough of both. Teen Suicide’s farewell album (well, to the moniker) It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot is a hodgepodge of styles, but it carves a pretty generous lane for poppy guitar rock with interplay between reverb and delay drenched vocals and peppy, clicky drums, something the band does quite well. “Falling Out of Love With Me” in particular could almost pass for a take on The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” except its reminiscence is anchored in “I can’t stop you falling out of love with me” instead of “You’re just like a dream.” The interplay between the different guitar parts here and aloof vocal take put the dream in dream-pop, and like the end of a relationship, “Falling Out of Love With Me” sounds like it could drift away at any second. Not that you’d want it to.

What were some of your songs of the summer? Let me know below!

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Radio Rant: The Chainsmokers – “Don’t Let Me Down” ft. Daya AND “Closer” ft. Halsey

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants, where we’re pulling double duty today.

dontletmecloser

I know there’s an ocean-sized release out there right this second, but let’s get back to the pop charts one last time before the summer’s over. Today, we’re looking at DJ duo The Chainsmokers, who–well–are here to stay. They have, of course, been in mainstream for the last twoish years; breakout it’s-a-joke-song-but-not-really “#selfie” blew up in 2014, and they went legit with last year’s “Roses.” But it’s the simultaneous charting of “Closer” with Halsey at number 6 1 and the Daya-featuring “Don’t Let Me Down” at 8 that cements The Chainsmokers as, to me, the best example of what Chris DeVille at Stereogum calls the rise of the producer as a lead artist. DeVille’s argument is that, as a byproduct of the producer-worshiping EDM scene infiltrating and influencing pop, producers are more visible both behind the scenes and on the charts, and now guys like Calvin Harris and Zedd are more prominent in a post-“We Found Love” world. I say this is truest of The Chainsmokers because they’ve notched hits with bit players and unknowns, whereas Calvin Harris is only as successful chartwise as his collaborators.

Which hey, good for them, but it’s trouble for me because I just cannot find it in me give a shit about The Chainsmokers. And I’ve tried, too! I listened to “Roses” when it and its “The Chainsmokers aren’t hacks, we swear” narrative blew up last year, and it left me cold. I kept trying “Don’t Let Me Down” and bailing, whereas I could muster up something to say about a song as dull as “One Dance.” I don’t even really think The Chainsmokers are bad, it’s just that something about them turns me into Mean Old Mr. Rant. Their take on trendy EDM is smaller and less world-conquering than the likes of Zedd and company, but also completely fine. It just goes in one ear, rattles around okay, and out the other.

Thus brings us to “Don’t Let Me Down.” “Don’t Let Me Down” is probably going to be the fifth or sixth biggest song this summer, which feels about right in a grudgingly acceptable way; this is The Chainsmokers operating in “you wanted a hit?” mode. It starts with some a-okay guitar and drum pads under Daya’s vocals, but let’s be real, paying attention to this song’s verses is like pretending you’re invested in the first 20 minutes of a disaster movie: you’re just here to see shit blow up. The song throws some watery synths in during the build-up, adds in some drums/claps straight outta “Black Widow” to ratchet up the drama, and Daya injects as much meaning as she can into “Don’t let me, don’t let me down” and “I need you, I need you, I need you right now.” The drop comes and throws everything vaguely into trap territory with big bass, snares, “hey”s, and more handclaps as Daya repeats the song’s name a bunch. It’s smooth, it’s tolerable, it’s the signal for me to stop dancing and get a new drink when it comes on at the club.

Jokes aside, “Don’t Let Me Down” does a few things well. The drop is catchy enough, and Daya brings the drama and vocal power on the song’s second half when she gets to let loose, and nearly overpowers these place-holder lyrics (theory: “Don’t Let Me Down”‘s lyrics function only exist as scene dressing to heighten the dramatic build-up. Otherwise they pack as much meaning as singing about like, Olympic medal counts). It’s not a bad song, but “Don’t Let Me Down” feels like empty calories without the sugar overload. It’s been a totally acceptable song to hear in shopping malls, sporting events, clubs, and ads, but if I never hear it again after October, I’m absolutely fine with that. Mostly, “Don’t Let Me Down” makes me miss “Lean On.”

So there, I thought hard enough about a Chainsmokers song to replace my innate apathy with informed apathy. I just wish my feelings on “Closer” were that straight forward.

Which, “Closer.” Hooooo boy.

I can’t back out of this one now. Not only did I already write it into the title of this blog, but it just become Chainsmokers’ and Halsey’s first number one hit, so welcome to legitimacy, baby. And while ultimately “Closer” leaves me just as mixed as “Don’t Let Me Down,” it takes a far more frustrating route to get there because I almost, almost like it.

Let’s step back for a second. Now that I’ve invested some time and energy into The Chainsmokers, I’ve pinned down why they rub me the wrong way: their music is weirdly, stridently ungroovy. There’s no rhythmic through line, no unerring beat to come back to and lose yourself in. You can’t dance to this shit. Lest I sound like every anti-EDM crank ever, let me state that this is a Chainsmokers’ problem and not an EDM one: “Sweet Nothing” is still a killer dancefloor cut, and I’ve wrung more mileage out of Bieber’s sad-bro EDM tracks than I care to admit. Zedd’s “Stay the Night” is probably a D-grade song, but at least you can move to it. You can’t say that of Chainsmokers’ tunes outside the drops, the only developed parts of their songs (such to the point that I almost swear they write the drops first and work backwards from there).

All this comes to the forefront of “Closer” because, even as one of their best beats and one that’s in my lane, it still feels slight. It’s the darker, piano-y electronic ballad to “Don’t Let Me Down”‘s bright summer banger that features Halsey, the aspiring prom queen of darkish, electronicy pop ballads. And unlike “Don’t Let Me Down,” the hook at the drop absolutely works; those wistful, rotating synths interlock over a beat that’s easy to get lost in. The whole thing captures that shared, swept-up infatuation. To be fair, I consider Kanye’s “Paranoid” and “Sober” by Childish Gambino criminally underrated, so warbling robo-keyboards like this are just dog whistles for me, but still “Closer” is as strong a hook as any Chainsmokers have done. The production on the verses and the sung chorus is fine–there’s that word describing these guys again–but that hook is a make.

Then there’s the rest of this damn song.

“Don’t Let Me Down” might have had lyrics that were dashed off on the back of a takeout receipt en route to the studio that day, but “Closer” is so obnoxious that I miss that banality. The lyrics of “Closer” are about as vapid as “#selfie” but played entirely straight as a love story between two kids so self-absorbed that, y’know, maybe we have all of those “millennials are ruining _____” thinkpieces coming. It’s a love duet between two people to themselves. To wit:

“Hey, I was doing just fine before I met you/I drink too much and that’s an issue but I’m OK” Is that a pick-up line or?

“You tell your friends it was nice to meet them/But I hope I never see them again” This line, and really, anything Chainsmoker Andrew Taggert sings in “Closer,” is so vaguely affluent and douchey that it technically counts as a PostGradProblems column.

“So baby pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover/That I know you can’t afford” That’s a moment killer, right? Like, you and this person you’ve had eyes on for years are touching mouths and shit, then one or both of you reflects on how this car’s an active credit bomb, and the magic’s over.

“Bite that tattoo on your shoulder” I’d actually be kinda mad if someone bit my tattoo. Tattoos cost more than you do.

“Pull the sheets right off the corner of that mattress that you stole/From your roommate back in Boulder/We ain’t never growing older” What kind of asshole steals a mattress?

“Stay, play that blink-182 song/That we beat to death in Tucson, OK” I’m glad this song brings up blink-182 because they’re a perfect comparison for why “Closer” can take all the shit other people bought it and go die. Blink’s brat anthem “What’s My Age Again?” similarly prides itself on blowing people off; “I never wanna act my age” isn’t too far from “We ain’t ever getting older.But “What’s My Age Again?” knows this schtick has consequences and may even be pathological as Hoppus wonders aloud “What the hell is wrong with me?” in a moment of self-awareness that “Closer” either cannot or will not give. You’re not quirky or carefree, you’re just assholes.

That’s a lot to pile on a track written by a pair of bro-y DJs whose lyrical prowess is usually remedial at best, but they tried something here and it tanked. Alex Pall, the Chainsmoker who doesn’t sing on “Closer,” has described it as “comical in nature” and about “spoiled girls in college who have family money but also live the dichotomy of the broke college life” (the idea of “the broke college life” including the words “Range Rover” is the most Caucasian thing I’ve heard today), and how an ex will “remember all the horrible truths” after y’all hook up. Exactly none of that translates to the song’s delivery, which is bullshit wish fulfillment. The beat’s nice, but it can’t drown out how stupid this song is. The Chainsmokers might have escaped “#selfie” but the move from “novelty act” to “mediocre hit maker” is like boasting you’re never getting older: staying the same means not moving forward.

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You Should See Them Live: blink-182 at Riverbend in Cincinnati

A rock show on a late night in the summer singing along to the songs you love with a beer and your friends. There’s no getting more pop-punk than that.

But that makes sense, right? If you’re about to see one of the biggest pop-punk groups, why half-ass that shit? You and everyone else in the cheap seats are going to end up shouting “LATE NIGHT. COME HOME. WORK SUCKS, I KNOW” by the night’s end, so you might as well lean all the way into that with something sleeveless, swoop bangs, and Chucks (dear God, so many Chucks). You know that the slightly retooled blink-182 aren’t going to hold back, and at Riverbend, neither did thousands of their fans.

Really, the slightly retooled blink aren’t just doing well for themselves, they’re flat-out doing well. This is a pretty serious reversal from the last 7 years of rough going for the Mark, Tom, and Travis show; despite a bright reunion in 2009, sessions on an album stalled, and 2011’s Neighborhoods proved to be both a lousy blink album and a middling Angels & Airwaves one. A few years of tours and false starts later, guitarist and co-founder/singer/writer Tom DeLonge left the band (again!), leaving drummer Travis Barker and bassist co-everything Mark Hoppus to manage the band, the hits, and the dick jokes. They recruited Alkaline Trio singer/guitarist Matt Skiba to pinch hit for some 2015 tour dates, after which Skiba formally joined the band, and about a year later, here we are with California and a substantial tour. And already, California has outsold Neighborhoods‘ opening and generated its own hit; blink is friggin’ back.

So why’s blink-182, a band that was written off as lightweights in its day and even now gets the backhanded “great singles band” compliment, having a moment? It could be that us filthy, nostalgia loving millennials finally have enough disposable income to buy lawn seats by the score, but this doesn’t account for just how packed Cincinnati’s Riverbend amphitheater got, or why me and my gaggle of mid-20’s friends felt dangerously close to “old” for the crowd. Is California just so great that it captured the zeitgeist and brought in new fans? Wishful, but no; it’s handily better than Neighborhoods, and I’d even rank it above the more-filler-than-you’re-remembering Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, but ultimately it feels more like a good transition record than an outright good one.

No, I think the answer is so simple, it might as well be a blink single: this is a great band with a lot of killer songs. One of my friends said afterward that she’d been nervous about not knowing what all was played, but she was thrilled because she ended up recognizing just about everything. Blink just has that kind of depth. It actually borders on overwhelming to hear them all chained together, but look at how many hits this one band has: “I Miss You,” “All the Small Things,” “What’s My Age Again?” “Bored to Death,” “The Rock Show,” “Feelin’ This,” “First Date,” “Adam’s Song,” “Dammit,”–oh man, it’s still going–“Down,” and “Stay Together For the Kids.” You’re not gonna see Sum 41 get people fired up once “Fat Lip,” “In Too Deep,” and maybe like, “The Hell Song” come through, but blink were able to blow through half a dozen hits early on, lean into deep cuts and fan favorites for the middle, and rally again with more hits for a surprisingly fun and robust set.

And what a set it was. The songs were almost entirely played as they were written–I think the only difference was “I Miss You” used phasered clean guitar instead an acoustic–but shit, “Feelin’ This” and “Dysentery Gary” are weapons-grade catchy out of the box. Curiously, just about all of the band’s “ha ha, penis” throwaways appeared, but 1. hearing “Built This Pool” within shouting distance of the world’s biggest flat-surface swimming pool was pretty funny, and 2. they’re actually kinda entertaining as set-breathers. The rest–new songs like “Cynical” and “The Only Thing That Matters,” the classic “Carousel,” and deep cuts “Violence” and “Reckless Abandon”–held up against the more famous stuff, mostly based on setlist placement and performance (an aside: I more or less memorized Enema of the State as a mopey, broken up with 16 year old, so even though I know “Dysentery Gary” and “Dumpweed” shouldn’t fly today, ain’t shit stopping me from screaming along with “Fuck this place, I lost the one/I hate you all/your mom’s a whore!”).

IMG_3707Each member brought it for that setlist, too. Travis Barker is every bit as manic a drummer live as you’d expect (And he, the notoriously quiet member of the band, spoke! He said “Hey, Cincinnati! at one point! Hoppus even quipped “Yeah, Cleveland didn’t get that shit”), and he kept the solos to a tasteful minimum. Skiba’s a full-time member now, but still somewhat in gracious guest-star mode: he deferred to and assisted Hoppus on banter, but any apparent oddness about him playing DeLonge’s parts dissipated halfway through “First Date.” Because let’s be honest: you don’t replace the dude who wrote half of your songs without people noticing. It’s like trying to hang out with your friends knowing there’s been a rift between some folks; you’re all going to know. So instead of talking about the man directly, we were treated to a little something I’m calling…

The Top 4 Times blink-182 Subtweeted Tom DeLonge
4. Replacing him with a competent singer: Skiba seems to get on well with everyone in the blink operation, and his parts on California are enjoyable enough, but the fact that he won’t sing like someone’s constantly spraying his throat with a Super Soaker’s gotta count as a mild Tom burn.
3. “Not Now:” I’ve always gotten the feeling Hoppus, like all of us, thinks AvA is kind of silly. Introing the last pre-hiatus single DeLonge wrote with a jokey robot voice announcing “Commence. Space. Noises.” helps that theory.
2. No Neighborhoods: There are legitimate reasons for blink to let this LP fall away (it’s underwhelming, and Travis Barker’s been surprisingly candid about how not-fun it was to make), but stiff-arming “Heart’s All Gone” because it was on the band’s most DeLonge-centric record feels deliberate.
1. ”Man Overboard:” “Man Overboard” is straight-up about that time Mark and Tom fired a dude from blink-182, and if you think DeLonge wasn’t on Hoppus and Skiba’s minds as they sang tut-tutting lines like “We can’t depend on your excuses/Cuz in the end, they’re fucking useless” and “You can only lean on me for so long” then, I don’t know, I’ve got a book of alien conspiracies to sell you. This was definitely a subtweet.

Whenever I heard any news about blink in the fallout of their most recent band shake-up, I subconsciously thought “Why is this band still going?” And I didn’t think it out of malice! If anything, I was wondering why Hoppus and Barker couldn’t just dose up on post-punk records and churn out another +44 album, but I get it now. blink-182 is going to continue so long as Mark Hoppus can brandish a low-strung P-bass and chirp his way through “Dammit” because Mark Hoppus lives for being in this band. He led the charge the whole night through, whether that meant blasting through 16-year-old songs, bantering with the crowd to break out their emo swoops “Because it’s 2002 and your parents don’t ~understand~ you and Taking Back Sunday”, or telling jokes about the humidity as his gelled up mohawk lost the fight with Cincinnati’s abhorrent mid-August weather. blink-182 is what he’s done with his life, and instead of finding that limiting, Hoppus honestly seems to relish it. There was this disarming moment when, at the end of the night, he put down his bass and, as everyone shuffled out, flopped into a pile of confetti at the front of the stage with joyful abandon and just lied there for a second before leaving the stage, sweaty arms now plastered in confetti. It just seemed like a dorky, fun little moment for himself. Endearingly goofy, sweaty summer fun; that’s blink-182 in a nutshell.

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Thinkin (Too Much) Bout You: Frank Ocean Doesn’t Owe Us a Damn Thing

In case you’ve spent the last week living under a rock (in which case, can I chill with you until after the election? Yes? No?), this week’s big music news is that Frank Ocean is finally, allegedly, set to release his second album Boys Don’t Cry on Friday. This is the first significant new music we’ve heard from Frank since 2012’s Channel ORANGE, a widely beloved, critical smart bomb of ornate, vaguely futurist, soulful R&B. Channel ORANGE wasn’t praised just as being musically brilliant, but culturally important–in the wind-up to the album’s released, Ocean penned a note included in the liner notes about how his first love was a man. This was a big thing in 2012, not just because it was metatextual information and representation for queer, black men, but because it permanently altered the perception of already personal sounding songs like “Thinkin Bout You,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Bad Religion.” That was all in 2012. Frank’s been fairly quiet in the meantime, with news of a follow-up only coming to surface in April of last year, saying only that a new album and publication were coming by July, likely titled Boys Don’t Cry. But then July 2015 came went without so much as a single measure of new music by Ocean, leading to the popularity of “Frank Ocean has disappeared” meme.

Now look, I know as well as anyone that a meme’s just a meme, but these things don’t take off without some real feelings involved. Channel ORANGE was an emotionally intimate album that resonated with a lot of people, and when Frank’s deadline last year came and went without a borderline-shell game app, frenzied tweetstorms about exes and fashion shows, defensive statements, or any acknowledgment from his people, folks felt abandoned, hence the jokes that even I’ve made. I want to listen to Boys Don’t Cry. And I know I’m not alone in that.

But shit’s got an upper-limit. While I want Boys Don’t Cry so badly that I’d tolerate Apple Music’s abysmal interface to hear it even once, I would never be so crass as to argue that I or any other music fan deserve it. For all the jokes about how Frank’s left us and how dare he do that, there’s a contingent of fans and writers out there that feel truly, madly, deeply that it is their right to listen to new Frank Ocean. So I’ll say it plain.

Frank Ocean doesn’t owe you a thing.
Frank Ocean doesn’t owe me a thing.
Frank Ocean doesn’t owe us a thing.

Frank Ocean does probably owe his label heads a thing, but that’s neither here nor there.

The idea that artists and fans owe each other something routinely comes up when one party acts out against another–i.e. Father John Misty trying to finesse a concert meltdown into performance art or Death Grips’ entire career–but you’re only “owed” a record if the artist keeps your money for a preorder, which nope, isn’t the case here.

The idea that fans are “owed” an album is inane enough to cause me to short-circuit when trying to counter it, but let’s try. Setting aside “Because I really want it” as a reason fans are “owed” content from their faves, the most popular argument arises from the creator’s responsibility to create. At its heart, this argument boils down to the same thing taxpayers frequently tell Congress, and what my theater boss told me in college: “I’m not paying you for nothing; do your damn job.” I see the logic here: Frank, and any artist really, decided that music creation was going to be the way they made their way in the world, so quit stalling, knuckledown, and do it. But this argument misses the point. Be it in album sales, concert tickets, merch, or (technically) streaming revenue, we pay artists for their work when the work comes. We don’t have a “Pay $5 to Frank Ocean a month” subsidy for him to do fuck all, we paid him for Channel ORANGE because he made the album then. And as soon as he puts something else out with the potential to make me ache, feel close to someone, and pretend I’ve got a falsetto, I’ll pay him again. Part of creating is creating the best thing possible, and if that means taking more time, then that’s part of the process.

What’s bizarre about people leveling this argument against Frank is that he gets it: when Boys Don’t Cry failed to materialize last July, he withdrew from his headlining spot playing LA’s FYF Fest that August. I can’t see into his mind, but I can take a guess why: dude is an incredibly conscientious artist and, knowing the new material was in some form or fashion not ready, he opted out instead of capitalizing on old stuff (the unwritten “Don’t take big gigs without new goods” rule is why the Outkast reunion felt muted enthusiasm, and probably why LCD Soundsystem isn’t a bigger deal this year).

Going hand in hand with this, and part of why I feel fine giving Frank Ocean as much time as he needs, is a near total absence in trying to cash-in. In the 4 years since Channel ORANGE, he’s done a whopping five guest spots for non-Odd Future artists: A hook for a Jay Z deep-cut, a Beyonce collab, interludes for John Mayer and Kanye West, and a Diplo/The Clash curio for Converse Shoes. He hasn’t been dangling an album over us on social media while chasing down splashy looking features and like, pushing a movie career, but only come up recently to say that Calvin Klein makes a good undershirt. He’s not on any social media, he doesn’t do a lot of interviews or guest appearances, and I honestly think that’s how he wants to be. I look at his wobbly, earnest-art-student Grammy performance and bashful acceptance speech from that year, and I see a guy who’d rather have super deep conversations with his mom than be famous (sidenote: the shot of Frank’s mom and Tyler sitting together proves there are two kinds of happiness). If he takes some time to get it right, that’s fine; I truly believe he’s only taking this long to get it right. And even if not, fuck it, he still doesn’t owe me an album.

And lastly, y’all, it’s only been four years. Come on. I know that’s a big enough gap to mean something, but the distance between here and Mitt Romney’s political relevance is still inside the acceptable album wait time. No one yelled at D’Angelo for taking 14 years between Voodoo and Black Messiah, nor gotten on Maxwell for going 7 between records, or fussed at Erykah Badu for 5 between her last album and last year’s mixtape. No one wrote a trendpiece on what Radiohead, ostensibly the world’s biggest band, owes us for the 5 year gap between The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool, although that’s probably because no one was clamoring for Radiohead after Thom Yorke inflicted that solo album on us. Hell, Fiona Apple, whose last album was neck and neck with Channel ORANGE for “Best of 2012” accolades, has been even quieter than Frank has about new music.

If you’re jonesing, go dig into Black Messiah, Wildheart, Ego Death, The Electric Lady, Reality Show, Because the Internet, LP1, Sail Out, Malibu, Beauty Behind the Madness, Z, 3, or go listen to Channel ORANGE again; that’s what I’ve been doing all summer. So don’t worry, Boys Don’t Cry will happen, and even if it doesn’t, so what? Frank Ocean owes us an album far less than we owe him our gratitude for sharing his work with us.

But for real, Frank, can’t I be grateful sooner as opposed to later? Please?

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You Should See Them Live: Alice in Chains at Taft Theater in Cincinnati

I would love to see 15 year old me’s reaction if I told him he’d go on to see one of his favorite bands live, mostly because I don’t think he’d believe me. He definitely wouldn’t believe that they came to Cincinnati and played in a sit down venue with nice carpet. He wouldn’t believe he would make a week-before choice to go. He wouldn’t believe that he would make small talk with two dudes from Dayton who sat next to him, and lamented he wasn’t a woman with big boobs. He’d probably believe that he agreed with one of those guys during small talk when he said that seeing Alice in Chains was a bit of a bucket list item because who knows much longer they’d be touring. He would jump at the chance to see Alice in Chains; he’d probably be real excited, but not before asking “Wait, how?”

A quick history: Alice in Chains a grunge band of the early ‘90s, were thought to have ceded Last Grunge Band Standing to Pearl Jam in 2002 after lead singer Layne Staley died of a drug overdose. While Staley’s death was devastating, it was a grimly logical conclusion for a band for where 80% of their discography (conservative estimate) was about junkie fatalism. You don’t hear something like “Would?”, “Nutshell”, or “Dirt” and think happy ending. Staley had functionally exited Alice in Chains in 1996 or 1997, and starring down nearly a decade of inactivity, the remaining members reunited in 2005 for some tour dates with guest vocalists before solidifying their line-up Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall in 2006. The reformed AiC put out a solid record in 2009 (I still remember buying it on its fittingly gloomy looking release day), another in 2013, and tours steadily on the concert hall and rock festival circuits.

If they play your town, I suggest you see Alice in Chains, not just because they sound great, but because history has made them a strange creature. Any other member of grunge’s big four–Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden–wouldn’t have survived losing their singer (I’m already praying that Eddie Vedder is secretly immortal), but Alice soldiered on in large part because of guitarist Jerry Cantrell. Not only is Cantrell the band’s chief musical architect, but he split lyric duty with Staley about 40%-60% depending on the album, and his haunted, Southern Rock harmonies and backing vocals are AiC trademarks. Years back, I was reading something about them online somewhere, and the author suggested that had Cantrell died instead of Staley, the band would have broken up. I’m not sure I agree with that argument, but I definitely understand it.

IMG_3609The best part of seeing Alice in Chains, though, is DuVall. It’s actually kind of hard to take your eyes off him. Not only is he effortlessly charismatic, but he’s up there giving 110% the whole time. He leans into the mic stand, he high fives and daps people in the front row, he goofs off with other bandmates, he shakes his hips and jumps around during instrumental breaks. And none of it looks contrite or like a pose; instead it just naturally looks like how dude performs. He was an energetic, afro-ed, rock and roll wailer having a blast on stage, and fuck, if he’s getting into it, so should the rest of us.

It’s interesting because on stage, DuVall is the most striking part of the show, and then you measure that against the fact that any conversation about Alice with even a little depth will mention Staley first every time (hell, this piece even does it!). The best comments about DuVall from fans usually amount to “He actually sounds pretty good” while the worst paint him with the same brush as Sublime With Rome or Arnel Pineda-era Journey: a sound-alike stand-in so the original members can keep the dream–and name–alive to the tune of $47 for the cheap seats. Actually, no, the worst comments are the racist ones. Anyway, whether he’s being praised or not, the implication is always that DuVall can’t touch Staley.

Sitting in a balcony seat while the band tore through “We Die Young”, this seems kinda fair, but mostly not. On one hand, the deference to Staley is understandable because DuVall wouldn’t have this gig if Staley hadn’t written something like “Man in the Box” that put the band on MTV. On the other, DuVall is close to matching Staley for years active in Alice, has sang late-Staley period songs like “Again” more than he did, and won’t do anything like force the band drop out of a tour supporting the world’s most popular metal act. And not only does he match Staley as a singer, but he has vocal control that Staley never developed, especially on the higher end of his range. You could hear him reach on something like the final chorus to “Man in the Box” but reaching or not, he was still singing the fuck out of each note, whereas Staley tended toward brute force and screams if he needed extra oomph (sidenote: Something I’ve never seen mentioned in the “DuVall can’t touch Layne” argument is that DuVall is in his late 40s essentially competing with Staley in the vocal prime of his early-to-mid 20s; the two’s birthdays are weeks apart. DuVall sounds healthy today, while Staley had noticeable wear and tear by 1996, although that was probably because of the heroin.)

IMG_3611But exactly none of this background or handwringing came up while the band was on stage. In fact, I was most interested in seeing how much of the new stuff came out, and they lead with new album opener “Hollow.” Only one other The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here song came out–groove-heavy single “Stone”–and a trio of songs from Black Gives Way to Blue rounded out the Alice 2.0 songs in the setlist. I had kind of hoped to hear another newer song or two because I like how this band’s evolved. Alice in Chains were always the heaviest and least ~grunge~ of the Big Four, and they’ve actually gotten heavier with time. Cantrell’s developed the ability to take these grinding, lurching, hewn-from-stone riffs in the vein of “Dam That River” and made them his main form of attack while rhythm section Mike Inez and Sean Kinney form a potent low-end. Meanwhile, DuVall and Cantrell are practically co-leading vocalists boasting meticulous, off-kilter harmonies more intricate than most of the band’s older material (“Stone” and “Check My Brain” show everything great about this approach in action). “Stone” was great to hear, as was personal favorite “Last Of My Kind” where DuVall really gets to shine on lead.

Meanwhile, the classics are classics for a reason. Just about all of the band’s hits from ‘90 to ‘94 came out, including “Man in the Box,” “Them Bones,” “We Die Young,” “Angry Chair,” and “Got Me Wrong.” I’ve always thought Alice in Chains had the weakest album roster of the Big Four–a field with Superunknown, Nevermind, and Vs. is just hideously stacked, even against something as good as Dirt–but in terms of who has the most great songs, they can go pound for pound. The rockers, all brute strength leveled with the gut dread of drug withdrawal, remain powerful, but it was the softer stuff that surprised me. “Nutshell” is quietly the grunge era’s best ballad by a Seattle mile, and “Down in a Hole” proves that Alice can be melodic as anyone else. Cantrell, Inez, and Kinney have had these songs for 20 years, and still make’em sound fresh (I realize I haven’t said much about them as performers, so here goes: Inez was only behind DuVall in terms of “fun had on-stage,” rocking out with his long curls. Kinney had that weird but reassuring thing as a drummer where he doesn’t age. Cantrell was sporting a beard, which made him look like pre-Super Soldier serum Zakk Wylde). I’ve never especially liked “Rooster” and “No Excuses,” the first two songs of the encore, but when the band finished with “Would?” I knew I’d made the right call to go.

Buzz has it that there’s a new Alice in Chains album in the pipeline, and after seeing them live, I’m definitely looking forward to it. This is a band with tons of chemistry and chops, and great songs old and new. Honestly, I’ve been on a bit of a rock kick lately, and so this was a right time, right place fit. If I told 15 year old me could have seen them, he would have been excited, surprised, and confused, but he wouldn’t have been let down.

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