Seems like just last week we were talking about Taylor Swift failing to make 5 Best Songs. Actually, it seems like it was three months ago, but it was, in fact, just last week. Crazy. Time flies. Here we are. Y’all ready for this?
Yesterday, Ted Leo swung by Stereogum HQ to do a three-song solo acoustic set that we streamed live on our Facebook page. Now, I don’t know if you watch a lot of these types of videos in general, but I see a whole bunch of the actual performances IRL (we share an office with Billboard, Spin, and Vibe, and there are sometimes as many as three mini-concerts here on any given weekday), and in my experience, real talk, they are pretty fucking hard to pull off. I’m not saying they’re some kind of crucible, but they definitely demand of the artist an unusually high degree of composure and confidence that, ideally, will be entirely invisible to the at-home viewer. These little mid-afternoon gigs are supposed to look easy. But man, they are not easy. I’m not projecting here: A few months ago, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba came by to do a set for Billboard, and in-between songs, he said, “You know, you go out and you play shows in front of, like, hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of people, and you get nervous? And then you play in somebody’s office and you’re … terrified?” And I absolutely believe him. I’d be terrified, too! (Incidentally, Carrabba was a one-man wrecking crew who basically demolished the whole building.)
Anyway, as I was saying: Yesterday, Ted Leo visited our office. This is Midtown East, a block from Grand Central, no sunshine, only skyscrapers and corporate blight. He rolled in right around lunchtime, unpacked his acoustic guitar, grabbed a cup of tea, and walked onto the stage just as Corin Tucker and Peter Buck were walking off. (No pressure!) Then he warmed up for five minutes, got a five-second countdown, and just like that, boom, he was live. And lemme tell you, no joke, my man rocked that shit like motherfucking Sinatra at the Sands. He owned it. He was so great. (Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.) And there are so many reasons why he was so great, but the big one, of course, is the songs. Leo played two new tracks (“Can’t Go Back” and “The Smug Little Supper Club”) and closed with his 2007 single “Colleen,” and in those spartan arrangements — stripped to nothing but voice and guitar — all three of those cuts sounded like goddamn classics. Throughout the entire 13-minute performance, I found myself thinking back to this great quote I once read, something Bruce Springsteen said after covering some of Billy Joel’s tunes: “Those songs — they’re built like the Rock Of Gibraltar. Until you play them, you don’t realize how well they play.” That’s what I was feeling yesterday. I’ve loved Ted Leo for a long time, but until I saw him do that, I hadn’t realized how good he actually is. I mean, my fault. Now I know. These songs are brick shithouses. They’re gonna sound great for a very long time, wherever the hell they get played. –Michael
I used to hate Yung Lean. I hated that he called himself a “sadboy,” I hated that he wore bucket hats and drank Arizona Iced Tea, and most of all, I hated his wooden, stilted wannabe swag-rap delivery. He struck me as something like a shittier version of Lil B, an amateurish living meme figure without any of the genuine outsider oddball charm. All of this is to say: I didn’t expect to like “Red Bottom Sky.” I probably didn’t even want to like “Red Bottom Sky.” And yet here I am, and here “Red Bottom Sky” is. Lean has gone through some legitimately harrowing experiences over the past few years, and the darkness on this song sounds less performative than plain old sad. But he and producer Yung Gud, who’s long been his secret weapon, take that darkness and transform it into something truly beautiful, a floating palace of glowing synths and introspective melody: “I lived a thousand lives, but I’m still searching,” he sings. This time, I believe him. I’m ready for this Yung Lean. — Peter
Kelela has always been an R&B singer, but she’s never been this much of an R&B singer before. What always set Kelela apart was her icy precision, the way her voice could float above disorienting future-beats without letting them upstage her. Adr’s production on “Frontline” is tricky and intricate; sounds (drum skitters, synth whooshes) arrive suddenly mid-song or drop out after a verse, never to return. But the production isn’t the draw. It stays in the background, unfurling delicately over nearly six minutes. It knows it’s the supporting player. The star is Kelela’s voice itself, and it sounds more natural and conversational and real than it ever has. It’s a breakup song, a song informing an ex that they’re not getting back together again and that it’s time to move on: “Cry and talk about it, baby, but it ain’t no use / I ain’t gonna sit here with your blues.” It’s not a cold song; there’s empathy there. But it’s a no-bullshit song. And singing it with delicate power and exquisite timing and personality to burn, Kelela sounds like she’s firmly within the lineage of history’s great R&B singers. A slightly less weird version of this could’ve come out in 1994 and gotten serious radio burn. –Tom
It shouldn’t work. And for some people it never will. That’s OK! But “…Ready For It?” is a massive pop banger and, while it’s one of the most anonymous songs that Taylor Swift has ever made — her past singles have either been in her own country-pop lane or a half-step ahead of the curve, in the case of the ’80s-inspired 1989 — it’s also viciously catchy and intensely finessed. I’m curious to see how its reception changes over time. Like, say, in a couple months after it’s become ubiquitous, blasting out of every grocery store loudspeaker and late-night cab ride radio. That’s really the field that Taylor Swift is playing on with this song — it’s not a matter of if you’ll hear it again, just a question of when. And on the scale of inescapable, world-conquering pop songs, “…Ready For It?” is a winner and it’s built to last.
The touchstones are flashy and obvious — a Sleigh Bells browbeat, the glimmering Chainsmokers-y chorus, a hint of radio’s obsession with “tropical house” (a made-up genre that has nevertheless become omnipresent) — but it’s a better song than the sum of its influences. The bratty, squelching beat is meant to be overwhelming, borderline ugly, and Swift’s voice acts as the foil, weaving in and out of intense blasts of noise. Anyone who says Swift is rapping here is silly; rapping typically requires some looseness or spontaneity, but her words here are piercing in their exactitude. That’s the only way it works. Max Martin and his cadre of Swedish producers would allow nothing less. The lyrics aren’t Swift’s most inspired, for sure, but she’s also not using this song to flex her songwriting chops (though shout out to that “He can be my jailer, Burton to this Taylor” mindfuck); instead, “…Ready For It?” is aimed for global dominance. And it’ll undoubtedly get there: 1) Because it’s a great song and 2) Because nothing stops the Swift machine. Are you ready for it? It doesn’t really matter; it’s happening anyway. –James
The first song we heard from St. Vincent’s forthcoming fifth album MASSEDUCTION, “New York,” was a swooping, wistful ballad, all pianos and strings and plaintive choruses that half-recalled her earlier work — the baroque arrangements that preceded her turn towards icy, synthetic textures — yet also suggested the new direction that might’ve been signaled by her teaming up with producer Jack Antonoff. Her new song “Los Ageless” is similarly contradictory, a logical extension of the warped plasticity of St. Vincent and Strange Mercy yet also a moment where Annie Clark delves further into some funhouse freak-out interpretation of synth-pop than ever before.
“Los Ageless” starts off catchy and cool enough, but it’s that emotional firebomb of a chorus that really makes it a “Holy shit, new St. Vincent” moment. That chorus shouldn’t work. It comes in out of nowhere, almost as if from another song entirely, an abrupt airstrike that ratchets the track’s drama up several levels at once. With verses mostly dominated by sardonic critique of LA, the chorus of “Los Ageless” blows up like it’s something Clark has to say amidst it all. “How can anybody have you/How can anybody have you and lose you/How can anybody have you and lose you/And not lose their minds, too?” she sings, working the wordiness into a hypnotic, elliptical chant full of audible grief and desperation. That initial disorientation of the chorus is perfect, solidifying the song’s identity: “Los Ageless” is all disorientation, the gnarled counterpoint to “New York,” stuck in the wrong city and in the wrong headspace, meditative heartbreak disrupted by still-gaping wounds. –Ryan