Key Changes: Machine Gun Kelly and Mainstream Sellout

As someone who’s had the song Emo Girl (featuring Willow Smith) stuck in their head on and off for weeks, I think this is a perfect time to explore controversial artist Machine Gun Kelly’s professional journey from hip-hop and rap to pop-punk and mainstream success, culminating in 2022’s appropriately-named album Mainstream Sellout.

He rose to fame with a series of rap and hip-hop mixtapes (generally acclaimed) before releasing studio albums, starting with Lace Up in 2012, General Admission in 2015, and Bloom in 2017. Notable features included rapid-fire flow and pride in an unattractive underdog image. Then in 2020 he made a dramatic shift from rap to pop/punk with the release of Tickets to My Downfall – a shocking, impressive, and fluid album still with rap-inspired elements.

Why did he make the move? Without knowing details, it reminds me of Lady Gaga’s professional journey (which is a blog post in itself) in which she made mostly loud statement pieces until she’d captured public attention and then, fame established, moved to a more stripped-down mainstream sound in albums like Joanne. (Lady Gaga, of course, has now moved back to her outlandish roots with the flashier album Chromatica, but I digress.) Sometimes musicians want to try something different and explore their other interests, but don’t have the freedom to do so until they’ve reached a certain level of success.

Whatever the reason he seems satisfied with his new career track, since he continued with pop/punk in 2022’s album, Mainstream Sellout. The reviews have been mixed, but the album has had big commercial success debuting high on the Billboard 200 charts. Emo Girl ft. Willow is particularly good track (though I may be biased in saying that) — it’s a good example of the overall pop punk revival going on in the 2020s, partly because it’s extremely self-aware of how it’s referencing a scene more than participating in it. Rolling Stone called it “gleefully derivative” and on the whole the feeling is of playing a part and having a ton of fun with it.  Willow Smith’s vocals shine, her gen Z energy a good balance to Kelly’s so-called “buzzsaw bubblegum”.

For myself, I haven’t heard the whole album yet, but I enjoy Machine Gun Kelly better in pop-punk, which is one of my favorite genres. I know I may be in the minority; what are your thoughts on Machine Gun Kelly, Willow, or the pop-punk revival? Let us know in the comments!

The Latest from Pop Punk Princess Avril Lavigne

Love Sux is Avril Lavigne’s latest album, and if you grew up like I did yelling along with her angsty bops, this is the perfect album for you.

Her first album was smash hit Let Go, containing tracks like Sk8er Boi and Complicated which rocketed her to fame. Next was Under My Skin, a darker grunge-inspired album whose most lasting track was My Happy Ending. The Best Damn Thing was album number three, and had several good tracks including Hot, Keep Holding On, and the yearning When You’re Gone, but most notable was Girlfriend, possibly her most popular song to date. Number four was Goodbye Lullaby, which has some of my personal favorite songs on it, including What The Hell and Smile. After that came self-titled album Avril Lavigne which is bursting with catchy tracks like Sippin’ On Sunshine and Here’s To Never Growing Up, alongside the controversial j-pop inspired Hello Kitty and the ballad Let Me Go with then-husband Chad Kroeger. After her battle with lyme disease she released Head Above Water in 2019, a bit of a departure in style as she processed the pain of her experiences; the main song with her signature rebelliousness is Dumb Blonde with Nicki Minaj, while the rest are slower, ballad-style tracks about helplessness and struggle to break free.

Love Sux is a return to form, with energetic rock-style tracks expressing defiance at every stage of relationships. The energy starts strong with Cannonball and doesn’t let up through a duet with Machine Gun Kelly, two dysfunctional love songs, and the eponymous Love Sux. Things might mellow a little by the end, but the whole effect is vintage Avril – which only fuels the Internet’s speculation that she doesn’t age (or ages very well). I’m always impressed at the way her music naturally matures as she does, while keeping her signature style; Let Go‘s “let’s crash the mall” skater vibe was definitely a teenager’s point of view, but Love Sux listens well from an adult perspective, even though it still probably has youth appeal.

If you’ve ever enjoyed Avril Lavigne or just like rock music with punk vibes and pop appeal, you’ll probably enjoy Love Sux.

The Highwomen, feat. Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires

My journey to rediscover country music continues! A modern country sound that honors the roots of the genre, The Highwomen is a unique gift to today’s country music. If you like or have liked country music but are looking for something fresh – or you prefer Outlaw Country to Bro Country or Boyfriend Country – this might be a good album for you.

Now, if you’re a longtime country fan, you’ve probably already guessed that this group was inspired by the legendary Highwaymen, composed of Outlaw Country Superstars – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. The idea was Amanda Shires’, who wanted to bring together a female supergroup partly to combat the low representation of women’s voices in country music radio and festivals. She connected then with Brandi Carlile  and Maren Morris, originally intending to leave the fourth spot open for guest collaborators. When the group debuted in 2019, at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday concert, Natalie Hemby was officially announced as the fourth member. The album came out later the same year.

What I really liked about this album was the stories that it told, stories that I haven’t heard a lot in my country listening. Now, I like a good “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” song as much as anybody else (Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood, anyone?) but it sure seems like a lot of what makes country music (or most music, honestly) popular is the same story – boy meets girl (Hurt Somebody by Dierks Bentley), boy chases girl (She’s a Girl Ain’t She by Rodney Atkins), the bliss of love (Heaven by Kane Brown), boy wrongs girl or vice versa (Jolene by Dolly Parton, I Hope It Rains by Jana Kramer), messy heartache ensues (Burning House by Cam), both move on (Red High Heels by Kellie Pickler, Bartender by Lady A). And if it’s not that story, it’s the Living In The Country is a Real Good Time story (Where I Come From by Montgomery Gentry, Mud on the Tires by Brad Paisley, Meanwhile Back at Mama’s by Tim McGraw, etc. etc.). Both are good, but repetitive after a while.

The Highwomen sing a new slate of relatable messages – in this album we hear the voices of women wronged by history/society (Highwomen), the struggles and joys of being women (Old Soul, Redesigning Women), a daughter facing the death of her father (Cocktail and a Song), various reasons not to be a mother (My Name Can’t Be Mama), an homage to suburban moms (My Only Child) and, my personal favorite, Heaven is a Honkytonk, which is a very Willie-Nelson-esque homage to country music legends who have passed on. And of course, thrown in are a few romantic journeys including post-breakup Don’t Call Me and the both relatable and subversive If She Ever Leaves Me. The latter is particularly a gem, because it portrays love between women in a positive and unexpected way.

If you missed this album when it first came out and love a modern twist on classic genres, get your country on with The Highwomen.

Super Monster by Claud

Support a non-binary artist and discover some catchy new music on Super Monster by Claud.  How to describe their style? Well, here’s what they say on their website: “claud mintz (they/them) makes the kind of pop that goes well with a late night snack.”

If that doesn’t clear it up for you, here’s my take: this is a pop sound similar to twin icons Tegan and Sara, and the California band Muna, but also with shades of Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish. With simple hooks and honest lyrics, Claud combines soft, musing ballads with more fast-paced, playful tracks for a mix that is overall optimistic, affectionate, vulnerable, and proudly queer. Listeners will be drawn in by bright, quirky album art and intriguing song titles including “Cuff Your Jeans” and “That’s Mr. Bitch to You”.

Incidentally, “That’s Mr. Bitch To You” is probably my favorite track for its light-hearted energy in response to hate (definitely my new personal anthem) – but most tracks are relaxing and enjoyable to listen to. I also recommend “Overnight” and “Falling with the Rain” for more romantic vibes, and “Ana” for a lost-love story.  Most tracks will leave you humming for the rest of the day, and the lack of cynicism will keep you coming back for more.

Silver Lining Suite by Hiromi

The Silver Lining Suite by Hiromi is a fascinating set of original pieces by a rising Japanese star of piano and jazz composition, which come together in a suite that defies categorization. Here’s how a publisher describes it:

Hiromi’s latest album pairs her virtuosic and emotive piano with a string quartet assembled by violinist Tatsuo Nishie, concertmaster of the New Japan Philharmonic. Devised for a series of live-streamed concerts at the Blue Note Tokyo during the Covid pandemic, the results blur the lines between classical music and jazz, crafting a vibrant hybrid possessed of the fervent, rock-inspired energy and cinematic beauty that Hiromi has always instilled in her music.”

I found this an engaging album with appealing and melodic instrumentals, executed with energy and thoughtfulness. The quintet was well-balanced, giving enough focus to the piano but not skimping on the strings. Best of all it really is a genre-blender, both dignified and playful, classical and jazzy, but all-around an original.

You can experience this CD as a discovery of a skillful modern jazz and classical composer, or use it as an interesting background to your everyday activities (not recommended for car trips, because road noise makes it a challenge to fully experience the nuances).

Don’t miss this clever and relaxing jazz fusion album!

A Beautiful Time by Willie Nelson

Confession time: I’m a late convert to Willie Nelson, because I’ve been known to fall into the trap of thinking all country music is created equal. Little did I know, Willie Nelson’s outlaw country is a far cry from the “bro country” or “boyfriend country” music that just doesn’t work for me. (Side note: I HAVE been known to like the feminist/”woman kills her no-good husband” country music.) Luckily, I have seen the error of my ways and am getting familiar with Willie’s large body of work, and in my opinion his newest album, A Beautiful Time, is an excellent and enjoyable addition to his canon.

There’s an even mix of toe-tapping tracks, melancholy ballads, and wise insight here – from the heartfelt loss of “Dreamin’ Again” and the playful “We’re Not Happy (Till You’re Not Happy)” to the both thoughtful and light-hearted “I Don’t Go To Funerals”. The overall message seems to be about aging with grace and being honest about death; songs like “Dusty Bottles” directly suggest that age comes with advantages, blessings, pleasures, and of course pains, all its own; it’s clear Willie sees the passage of time but doesn’t fear it, and he sings about it with heart.

I highly recommend this album as the soundtrack to your summer road trips – and if anyone has specific Willie Nelson songs or albums to recommend, send them my way!

A Beautiful Time is Willie’s 72nd solo album and has been well-reviewed by critics; it’s available from the library as both a CD and through our music streaming service, Freegal.

In Defense of My Own Happiness by Joy Oladokun

Raw emotions and deep insights are combined with catchy, hopeful melodies to make truly captivating music in Joy Oladakun’s (oh-LA-da-koon) most recent album, In Defense of My Own Happiness.

24 unique tracks are packed into the album, each with its own viewpoint delving into love, society, struggle, beauty, or some combination thereof. What all the songs have in common is Oladakun’s signature singer-songwriter style. She’s described on her website as “a new kind of american troubadour” and her music reflects that – while your toes are tapping, head bobbing along to the beat, your mind and heart are absorbing deeply intentional lyrics. Particularly powerful is the specific perspective she brings on the world.

“i feel like it’s not an accident i’m a queer black woman writing and making music,” says the Nigerian-American singer. Her singles criticizing religion and systemic racism, among other topics, have been widely acclaimed. However, as the album’s title suggests, the music at its core is about hope and happiness wherever and however it can be found. “when you listen to me, i want you to feel like you’ve taken an emotional shower. that’s what i’m trying to accomplish for myself. to me, music is a vehicle of catharsis. i write a lot of sad songs, but i always push for a sliver of a silver lining or glimmer of hope it could be better. that’s why i’m writing in the first place. i want you to be changed when you hear me, and not because i’m special, but because i make music with the intention to change myself.”

I was surprised, touched, and fascinated by this album; I kept expecting to find a track that didn’t hook me, something that I didn’t like, that I’d skip past, but I never did. Every song was gentle on the ear but persistently catchy, with lyrics that kept you waiting to hear what came next. There was nothing superficial or frivolous going on, and everything felt like an authentic, intentional celebration of life – the good and the bad. Whether you’re into the singer-songwriter style of folk music or not, I definitely recommend you give a listen to this powerhouse album.

Freegal Music Celebrates Mother’s Day

It’s the time of year when everyone starts thinking about their parents, as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, National Parents Day (4th Sunday in July), and Non-Binary Parents Day (3rd Sunday in April) help us kick off the spring and summer seasons. This May, Freegal Music, the digital music service we subscribe to as a library, has made a special playlist to help you celebrate the mothers in your life.

A refresher on Freegal: it’s available both on our website (linked under Digital Content) and as a downloadable app for your smartphone. On its website, once you log in with your Davenport library card it’s free to stream any available songs, albums, playlists, or audiobooks, but you can also download five songs per week for offline listening.

The mother’s day 46-song playlist includes a variety of artists, genres, and styles, from pop (Meghan Trainor) and country (Carrie Underwood) to R&B (Alicia Keys) and international music (Bad Bunny). So however you and the mothers you know like to jam, there’s something here to put you in a grateful, celebratory mood.

Music Buzz: International

Travel around the world (including the heart of the USA)  with these hit albums from international musicians!

Italy: Teatro d’Ira by Måneskin

This is the second album from the wildly successful, Eurovision-winning Italian band, and features the hit that Americans will recognize the most: I Wanna Be Your Slave.  The band originally formed in Rome, Italy in 2016, and – fun fact – the band name is drawn from the Danish word for moonlight. You may also have heard their rendition of the song Beggin’, which was originally popularized by the band The Four Seasons in 1967. That song doesn’t feature on this album, but you can hear the song that won them the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest – Zitti e buoni.

Colombia: Dharma by Sebastián Yatra

If you’re a Disney fan or have kids, you may have seen the Disney film Encanto – and if you have, you’ll remember the pivotal song Dos Oruguitas. Sebastián Yatra is the performer of that song, both in the Spanish and English versions, but he’s also a highly successful musician in Latin America, known for romantic ballads and reggaeton influences. Born in Medellín, Colombia and raised in Miami, he released two previous albums and has collaborated with artists including Daddy Yankee, Ricky Martin, and the Jonas Brothers.

Puerto Rico: LA 167 by Farruko

Farruko first broke into music as a collaborator to J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Nicki Minaj, and others, before launching his solo career his first studio album, El Talento del BloqueThis most recent album features his wildly popular song, Pepas, which is in his signature Reggaeton style mixed with an electronic dance style called Tribal guarachero. You won’t want to miss this album particularly because it may be the last of this kind – at an event in February he announced his retirement from urban music in an emotional speech.

USA: Run Rose Run by Dolly Parton

Both Dolly Parton and James Patterson are juggernauts of mainstream American culture, and now they’ve pooled their talents in a special project that feels uniquely American. Run Rose Run is both an album and a novel, and in both cases it tells the story of a young country music star trying to make it big despite a dangerous past catching up to her.  The album doesn’t require you to read the book, since the tracks are universally appealing statements in a number of styles, from bluegrass to ballads, pop and more.

Hidden Music Gems: Global Edition

You may not know that our “global” genre of music CDs incorporates not only great music from around the world, but also great folk music groups from the US. Here are some great albums you can find under Global:

Appalachia Waltz , with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor, which honors the legacy of fiddle and folk music in America. This is just one example of eminent American cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s dedication to folk and global music; he’s also made an album called the Goat Rodeo sessions, collaborating with Edgar Meyer and others, as well as several albums with the Silk Road ensemble, an intercultural collective of musicians, artists, and storytellers, tracing the trade routes and the impacts of the Silk Road, which ran from the Mediterranean to China and beyond.

The Civil Wars‘ self-titled album was the indie folk duo’s second and final, featuring Grammy-award-winning song “From This Valley”. Fun fact: the band’s name was not a historical reference, but actually referred to the battles each of us is fighting within ourselves – based on the quote “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The pair met in a songwriting workshop, and got early success when their song “Poison and Wine” was featured on Grey’s Anatomy in 2009.

Foreverly, featuring Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day duetting with jazz singer-songwriter Norah Jones, honors traditional Americana and folk music as recorded by country icons the Everly Brothers, while remaining true to the singers’ distinct styles. The Everly Brothers recorded Songs Our Daddy Taught Us in 1958, and it was their second studio album. When Billie Joe Armstrong fell in love with the album, he decided to remake it to make more people aware of it, and wanted to add a woman’s vocals to deepen the meaning. It was actually Armstrong’s wife Adrienne Armstrong who suggested he invite Norah Jones to partner with him – and their voices turned out to complement each other perfectly.

Album 1700 by iconic folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary was the band’s seventh album, featuring their last big hit, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (a John Denver cover). If this cover looks familiar, you might recognize that it’s styled after a promotional photo for the 1967 movie Bonnie & Clyde where the gang held machine guns. It’s an eclectic mix of tracks, standing outside the contemporary trends at the time. As well as the John Denver cover, there’s also a Bob Dylan cover and a song which was eventually turned into a children’s book, “I’m In Love With a Big Blue Frog”. The group itself was a big part of the 1960s folk music revival in the US after their debut album topped the charts for weeks after its release in 1962.

Songs of Our Native Daughters – a collaborative album by four Black female artists highlighting historical issues that influenced black women, using mostly the banjo to echo historically Black minstrel music. Rhiannon Giddens had the original idea for the project, after visiting the  Smithsonian’s  National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. and watching Nate Parker’s 2016 Birth of a Nation, in which she felt the suffering of enslaved women didn’t receive enough focus. She then invited other Black female artists to collaborate, resulting in the final team of Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. A major part of the album is devoted to songs about different aspects of slavery and its aftermath.