Album: "Rebel Heart"
Release Date: March 10, 2015
Songs: "Devil Pray," "Ghosttown"
Notes: A bit of backstory first: On Dec. 16, six unreleased Madonna tracks made their way to the web without the singer's knowledge or approval. They were songs-in-progress from her forthcoming 13th album and suffice it to say, not ready for primetime. In fact, Madonna likened the leak to "artistic rape."
But after letting off some steam on social media, Madonna and her camp huddled up and decided to release the songs to iTunes right away. And they did, within 48 hours in what manager Guy Oseary described to Billboard as a "circus show."
But for all the talk about the album leaking, there's been less discussion of the actual music. And I hate to say this because Madonna is an icon and all respect is due, but it's been some time now when things other than her music have taken center stage- be it her personal life or the insane amount of money she makes touring the world. But at 56 and nearing four decades in the pop star business, Madonna still has something to say.
"Devil Pray" is a song about salvation and struggle, and the part we heard is preceded by a long list of mood-altering substances from whiskey to weed to acid and ecstasy. The melody has the basic foundation of folks-y electronic music, made massive by the likes of Tiesto and Avicii, but the production is scaled back - perhaps even unfinished - which is a disservice to the song.
In a way, I almost wish she'd just put the basic tracks up on SoundCloud and let the world at 'em.
The second song I chose is called "Ghosttown," and as Madonna explained to Billboard the other week, it has a bit of an apocalyptic theme. And this is the Madonna we know and love, firmly in her wheelhouse of mid-tempo pop ballads singing about how, in the end, all we really have is each other. A sweet sentiment and one that's age-appropriate, which I can't necessarily say for the four other tracks released from Rebel Heart.
Artist: Kanye West
Release Date: 2015
Song: "Only One"
Notes: This album's undeniably anticipated. Kanye West's follow-up to Yeezus, which as you may recall was fairly divisive when it first came out in 2013, but has since been regarded as a sort of statement record. Well, now with the new year comes a new song, "Only One," featuring none other than Paul McCartney.
McCartney's on an electric piano but he doesn't sing on the track. And Kanye barely raps which is nice to hear - that is Kanye Kanye singing and embracing his sensitive side.
As the story goes, the two stars got together in an LA bungalow and improvised - Kanye's vocal were said to be stream-of-consciousness and channeling his late mother.
"My mom was singing to me, and through me to my daughter," he said, astonished.
I'll say this: Kanye's use of auto-tune here is almost painterly - it's weird and interesting and future forward. At the same time, Kanye could learn a lot about songwriting from someone like Paul McCartney. And give him credit, this is the hybridization of two very important artists.
Someone like Kanye needs the musicality of McCartney and McCartney, who's always collaborated with interesting people, shows that he doesn't always need to be the voice. If this was just McCartney singing over that piano, it might indeed feel gimmicky.
Instead, you get over a minute at the end of the track of just McCartney playing piano and it's a beautiful melody that you keep thinking is going to end, but in that McCartney way, it twists and turns in all these interesting ways.
Production takes a backseat and emotion comes to the front. You could say that's typical of a new dad - as we saw with jay Z soon after Blue Ivy was born, and that's valid here - but perhaps Kanye is thinking you can't be angry all the time, or you can't be angry at everything, be angry at things that matter.
Album: "No Cities to Love"
Release Date: January 20, 2015
Songs: “Bury Our Idols,” “Surface Envy”
Notes: Sleater-Kinney was a trio born of the Portland “RiotGrrl” scene of the early 1990s that took its musical cues from punk and indie rock and its politics from a feminist stance. The band also featured a 20-year-old Carrie Brownstein when it was formed in 1994 arriving on the scene to great critical acclaim.
Sleater-Kinney steadily gained in stature, eventually opening for arena rockers Pearl Jam in the early 2000s. But then in 2005, after seven albums, they announced a semi-permanent hiatus with no reason given for the stop.
Of course, Brownstein would go on to make a name for herself in comedy, co-starring in "Portlandia," but also formed her own side project called "Wild Flag." Her bandmates, drummer Janet Weiss and singer Corin Tucker, also started or joined other bands and Sleater-Kinney seemed like a fait accompli.
Then, nine years later, rumors starting swirling that a reunion might be in the works while the PR machine started rolling out the band’s greatest hits — not on any major commercial level, but to a devoted following of fans.
I’m happy to say that, here were are nearing the 10-year anniversary of their last show as a band, and there’s a new album coming out on January 20th called "No Cities to Love" and it sounds great.
Female voices ruled pop radio in 2014, but this is worlds away from that sound — this is grit, balls, paying one’s dues — but when the pendulum swings, it can go really far so let’s see what happens.