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.

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.

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.

Upcoming Albums from LGBTQ Artists

Don’t miss these albums from iconic artists of the LGBTQ community, coming soon!

The Lockdown Sessions by Elton John is a collection of collaborations that the British singer recorded remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring Miley Cyrus, Lil Nas X, Stevie Nicks, and many more. The tracks cover a variety of genres and moods for a truly eclectic mix. Personally, I can vouch for this album because I’ve already heard a few of the tracks, including Chosen Family (absolutely gorgeous track with a great message) and Nothing Else Matters (gives me chills every time). If you, like me, spent time in quarantine singing along to everything and making playlists, you might relate to this album!

Broken Hearts and Beauty Sleep by Mykki Blanco is the new album from non-binary boundary pusher Mykki Blanco, melding hip hop and rap with club and trap sounds as well as experimental elements. I’m excited for this one because I love more publicity for non-binary artists, AND I just recently discovered this artist through their essay in The Queer Bible (an excellent book!).

 

To discover other LGBTQ artists, try:

Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power – their most recent album which was accompanied by a film released on HBO Max, and which wrestles with the suffocating side of love, pregnancy, creation, destruction and how we claim and use power.

 

 

Brandi Carlile’s In These Silent Days : the 2021 offering from a country and folk rock staple. Encompassing both intimate contemplation and defiantly rollicking tunes, it’s an album exploring the full breadth of Carlile’s skill and power, with echoes of Elton John and Joni Mitchell, according to critics.

Music Hype: Human by OneRepublic

This album has been hovering on the horizon for months now, as I waited to order it until a release date was officially announced. Now, it’s finally here! So let’s talk about OneRepublic: who they are, how they got here, and how we feel about their latest offering: Human.

OneRepublic is an American pop band formed in 2002. I know many of us in the millennial and maybe Gen X camps grew up listening to Apologize and Stop and Stare from their first album Dreaming Out Loud – both of which became massive hits around the world. Apologize in particular became iconic after being remixed by Timbaland.

All the Right Moves was the big hit from their second album, Waking Up, from 2009. Other earworms included Secrets and Good Life. More recently a lot of people found they’d accidentally memorized all the words to Counting Stars, the hit song from 2013’s album, Native. Their fourth album was Oh My My in 2016 and it was a major departure in their sound, producing singles Wherever I Go and Kids.

Human has been delayed a number of times (and I’m sure COVID was part of it), but there have been singles released from it to build hype, including Rescue Me and Wanted. According to some critics, this makes the album feel more like a time capsule than a new release: Rescue Me came out in 2019, which as we all know was a very different emotional moment than 2021. But there’s still a lot to love including the upbeat anthem Run and yearning track Distance, which echoes some of the band’s classic vibes. Speaking for myself, a band than can do soulful, emotional, and danceable all equally well is definitely worth following, and OneRepublic has a very strong track record to recommend them.

If you’re looking for a solid pop album that captures some nostalgia and some optimism, you might want to try OneRepublic’s Human, finally available for checkout.

Key Changes: Gen Z Hitmakers

I don’t know about you, but I’m hugely vulnerable to earworms: those songs that stick in your head and just never leave. Now, I fall squarely in the “millennial” camp, but in my experience lately, there are some Generation Z (born 1995-2015) pop artists that are making really catchy songs that spread like wildfire on social media and everyone finds themselves singing. Here are three top-rated Gen Z artists whose new albums we’ve recently purchased for the library, full of new earworms for you to love and hate – you’re welcome!

Billie Eilish became iconic for her oversized fashion and green-and-black hair alongside her homemade, whisper-sung tracks. I always found her work atmospheric and spooky, leaning into the dark side of humanity and growing up. For her new album, Happier than Ever, Eilish has changed her image to blonde hair and a nude color palette – but her softly sung, otherworldly musical style and lightly cynical lyrics remain largely unchanged. You might have heard her hit song Bad Guy from debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? This time around, watch out for Therefore I Am, which has a similar sound but revolves around defying bullies and haters.

Tones and I, AKA Toni Watson of Australia, rocketed to fame on the song Dance Monkey in 2019. Like Billie Eilish, she has a unique vocal sound, which in her iconic track is paired with danceable beats (evidence: the song is my favorite from the game Just Dance 2021). Dance Monkey was released on the 6-song EP The Kids Are Coming in late 2019. The new album, Welcome to the Madhouse, may have grown in scope as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: Watson added 5 more songs and took extra time to do most of the production work herself. According to critics, the songs on this album are Watson being really vulnerable and exploring her mental health and the cruelty of haters, through clever lyrics and strong vocals.

This last entry was added to our collection a few months back, but it’s too popular not to be mentioned in this group. Olivia Rodrigo was originally known for her acting work on Disney shows, including High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, but with the release of her smash hit album Sour, her fame has definitely shifted. The earworm (for me, anyway) in this case is Good 4 U, an energetic and danceable take on the anger after a breakup, especially when an ex-partner moves on quickly. The album as a whole is very centered on the teenage experience, especially falling in (and out of) love: the other popular track is Driver’s License, about getting a license but losing a partner. Guaranteed to knock around your brain for a while, this is not an album to miss – even if you’re not a teenager anymore.

Key Changes: New K-pop

In case you’re not familiar, K-pop is an increasingly popular music industry based in South Korea. It features energetic tracks inspired by styles of music from all around the world, along with tight choreography. K-pop has produced a number of talented bands, including the ones highlighted below. Forming a k-pop group is taken very seriously in South Korea, with aspiring musicians becoming trainees and working hard to be chosen for a group, all while under a great deal of public scrutiny and strict rules for conduct. If this is all new to you, read on to discover your next intercultural music addiction! If you are familiar with this global sensation, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye out for the below albums, recently added to the library collection. (Side note: k-pop tracks are also highly featured in the Just Dance video games, and make for quite a good workout!)

BTS (or the Bangtan Boys) is a seven-member pop group that first debuted in 2013, really breaking into the global music market in 2017 and quickly becoming one of the most popular Korean groups in the United States. Be is the South Korean boy band’s 5th album in Korean, and their 9th total, including their 4 albums in Japanese. It was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring the band members’ thoughts and feelings during the crisis and the album’s creation. Primarily a pop music sound, the album includes influences from hip-hop, disco, synth-pop, funk, and many others. Lead single on the album is “Life Goes On”, and music critics have praised the album’s authenticity and simplicity. Previous albums available include Love Yourself: Her, Love Yourself: Tear, Love Yourself: Answer, Map of the Soul 7: Journey, and Face Yourself.

Blackpink is a four-member pop group, also based in South Korea, that debuted in 2016 and quickly rose to fame on the international charts, repeatedly setting new records for most-viewed music video within the first 24 hours of release. The Album is the group’s first Korean album (preceded by Blackpink in Your Area, a Japanese album, and their two-track debut album, Square One), their first full-length work, AND the first album by a Korean girl group to sell more than a million copies. The album’s eight tracks include collaborations with Selena Gomez and Cardi B and explore love and the complexities of growing up, highlighting the group’s mature side. Reviews have been mostly positive, complimenting Blackpink’s vocal ability and stylistic variety.

See also: Blackpink: Kpop’s no.1 girl group and BTS: Blood, Sweat, and Tears, two nonfiction works about the groups, as well as some great YA fiction featuring the industry: Shine, Somewhere Only We Know, I’ll Be The One, and K-pop Confidential.

Key Changes: New Quirky Music

I love ordering the music CDs for the library – getting the inside scoop on all the new albums coming out is great fun for me. The only thing I like better is sharing the cool new music with other people! Today I’ve got another two albums, recently ordered for the library, which give us a great opportunity to think about how the artist’s work has changed and matured over the course of their career.

Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass by Lana Del Rey is another unique installment in already unusual body of work. Her music is hard to classify in my mind, with old Americana glamour (think 1950s and 1960s) fatalistically described in hypnotic, narcotic vocals. I’ve heard it described as a red rose smoking a cigarette. Another word people use is “sadcore”, which describes a moodier, alternative musical style featuring depressive themes, bleak lyrics, and/or downbeat melodies. It’s perfect music for thinking about doomed love or the flaws in the American dream. She has continually evolved over the course of her career: her first album, Born to Die, was a breakout hit, heavy with American nostalgia but influenced by hip-hop and indie pop. A subsequent album, Ultraviolence, was more guitar-based, sounding like psychedelic or desert rock, and was followed by Honeymoon, which had a thick, crooning sound that felt like a time warp, according to one reviewer. Her next album, Lust for Life, was for her fans, and it was followed by her biggest success, Norman Fucking Rockwell, which delved deep into twisted and sordid American fantasies and was called “massive and majestic” by reviewers. In Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, she has created a spoken word album, putting a series of original poems over musical accompaniment. Another studio album is anticipated in early 2021, titled Chemtrails over the Country Club.

Love Goes by Sam Smith is another artist that I’ve always felt stands apart from the crowd. They first rose to fame in 2012 and 2013 performing on other artists’ tracks, before releasing their first studio album In the Lonely Hour in 2014. This album rocketed to the top of the charts and won them 4 Grammy awards. They continued to release individual tracks, including Writing’s On The Wall, a very atmospheric song for a James Bond film in 2015, Promises with Calvin Harris, and Dancing with a Stranger with Normani. In 2017 they released a second studio album, The Thrill of It All, which was also a big success, especially the lead single Too Good At Goodbyes. This third album features another string of wildly successful singles including How Do You Sleep, To Die For, and I’m Ready with Demi Lovato. The beauty of Smith’s music is that it has grown increasingly personal and intimate over the course of their career; In The Lonely Hour had a crooner, R&B sound that was familiar, though extremely catchy, and the lyrics told age-old stories of love and loss reminiscent of music by Adele. With The Thrill of It All and subsequent singles, Smith became more vulnerable, putting more personal truth into their songs and developing a more meditative, unique sound. This album promises to be the most authentic record yet, featuring tracks that already popular as well as new unknown songs. Early reviews are positive, saying that with this album Smith celebrates freedom and self-expression in a way they haven’t before.

Recently Added: Quarantine Music

I think it’s safe to say the last few months have changed a lot of plans. Countless goals and dreams and ways of thinking have been forced to adapt, be revised, or be put to rest. One way, both beautiful and bittersweet, that these changes are expressed is through the art we create. Taylor Swift is a good example of what can be created in these unusual circumstances, but there are several other cases of creative projects altered by pandemic that are worth looking at. All the albums listed have recently been ordered for the library and will be available soon.

how i’m feeling now by Charli XCX is an album that was created in a truly unique way, unlikely to have arisen except in the context of self-isolation. The artist announced (where else?) on a Zoom call  that she would be making an album in self-isolation and that she would use only the tools at her fingertips to create the music, album art, everything.  Moreover, she worked collaboratively with her fans to get feedback on tracks, album art, and more. The result has been highly acclaimed by critics and fans.

In A Dream by Troye Sivan is the artist’s third album, following 2018’s Bloom. According to Sivan, this album represents an emotional rollercoaster, where emotions and feelings are shockingly fresh. Similar to Taylor Swift’s journey with Folklore, this album was made while Sivan was in lockdown in Melbourne, and it was facilitated by the boredom and isolation of the experience. Songs were created day by day and it was an unexpected realization to find that an entire album had materialized.

Here On Earth by Tim McGraw, in contrast to previous examples, was planned and recorded before the pandemic, but was unmistakably altered by it. The tour originally planned to accompany the release had to be canceled, and according to an interview with Rolling Stone, McGraw had to reexamine the record in light of the pandemic to see how its emotional impact had been changed. Some tracks, including I Called Mama, were found to have unexpected emotional weight.

ALICIA by Alicia Keys was also planned ahead of time, but struck a timely chord with its themes. Critics said the album struck a balance between hope and despair, and Keys herself said the album showed the value of introspection – something we’ve all had more time to do lately, right? The album was scheduled for release in March, but was delayed by the pandemic until September. In the meantime, various virtual performances allowed Keys to debut songs from the album ahead of its release, including the iHeart Living Room Concert for America.