Sometimes an album title is exactly right.
Writing about new music every week — especially mainstream pop — you come to accept that you’re not going to encounter excellence every time. There are countless artists out there in the industry trenches, older and younger, famous and obscure, most of them scrapping and scheming for a hit however they can get one. Most are also vying for media attention. Sometimes they merit it for being extremely popular, or unique, or representative of a trend. Sometimes they’re so bad you have to tell everyone about it. In the cases of well-known acts with established career arcs, you observe the ritual of adding new chapters to a narrative some significant portion of the public is already familiar with. Yet despite a baseline competence that underlies almost all music at this level, very little of it honestly stands out.
Sigrid stands out. The 22-year-old Norwegian born Sigrid Raabe will unveil her debut album tomorrow on Island Records after two years of international buildup. In that time, she’s released a smattering of great singles and won the BBC Music Sound Of 2018 poll, becoming a known quantity across Europe and the UK and a favorite among discerning pop fans here in the US. I figured her LP would be good, but after watching so many artists follow up promising singles with merely enjoyable and/or acceptable albums, I wasn’t expecting it to captivate from top to bottom. Even at this late date — maybe especially at this late date — these upstart major-label releases are usually bogged down by filler. And yet, here we are: Sigrid’s is easily the best pop album I’ve heard so far in 2019. It’s called Sucker Punch. Sometimes an album title is exactly right.
The title does not actually refer to Sigrid bursting out of a cloud of mediocrity to smack listeners upside the head. It doubles as the name of the album’s surging, stabbing, slow-motion head bob of an opening track. “Sucker Punch” is one of many tunes here that render the ups and downs of young love with a vibrant, lived-in realism. Like so much of the album, it brims with specific details that instantly transport you into Sigrid’s world. This one begins like so: “Meet me in the hallway/ For a cup of coffee by the stairs/ We’re both in a hurry/ Let’s steal a minute when there’s no one there/ Both our hoodies red/ You’re in my head.” By that point the rest of us are in her head, too, seeing what she sees, wondering where this story is going to take us. Songwriters aim for that effect all the time, but rarely do they end up with narration that feels so personal and real.
Sucker Punch has lots of moments like that. Last year’s overseas smash “Strangers” begins with an evocative scene set to a whispery heartbeat pulse — “Just like in the movies/ It starts to rain, and we/ We’re the broken beauties” — only to later crash back to reality after the violently rippling low-end synths kick in: “You were not like in the movies.” The brightly thumping “Don’t Feel Like Crying” feels like Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass” flipped into a resilient 21st century breakup jam: “I know I should be ordering takeout/ Sitting on my couch, that’s what you do/ I know I should be all in my feelings/ Staring at the ceiling, but here’s the truth/ Wallowing in it would be such a waste/ That isn’t gonna fix it anyway.” Perhaps a scene from the same falling out, the spare guitar ballad “In Vain” is refreshingly direct: “So don’t you stay/ If you don’t mean it, If you don’t feel it/ And just fuck me up again.”
It’s not just what Sigrid says, though; it’s how she says it. Her voice is a versatile instrument. On “In Vain,” she’s blasting off into a gritty Janis Joplin blues rasp one moment, retreating into cutesy twee mannerisms the next. She can do soft, breathy prettiness and soaring powerhouse hooks with equal aplomb, and she’s crafted many instances of both alongside co-writers such as Martin Sjølie, Noonie Bao, and Chainsmokers associate Emily Warren. She toggles into speak-sing just often enough to make it feel novel, like the rapid-fire bridge on “Don’t Feel Like Crying”: “It hasn’t hit me yet/ And I know if I go home I’m gonna get upset.” Her accent often tweaks syllables in charming ways, like the way the words “down at the the harbor” sound swaddled in cotton balls on “Mine Right Now.”
That song rides a stuttering synth groove, like Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” reimagined as a Carly Rae Jepsen banger interspersed with humongous bass caverns. It’s part of the half of the tracklist that wasn’t released in advance, an arsenal of colorful gems that could have been singles just as easily as the songs actually selected. There’s also “Level Up,” a dreamy, theatrical ballad reminiscent of Regina Spektor; and “Business Dinners,” a brisk and nimble dancehall-flavored confection that reminds me of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener as sung by Ellie Goulding; and “Never Mine,” a cousin to Taylor Swift’s “Style” and all the hipster pop records that inspired it.
Perhaps best of all is “Basic,” a song that somewhat lives up to its name while also proving how glorious a pop song straight down the middle can be. Headspun and euphoric, it both argues for and embodies the appeal of life’s simpler pleasures: “If you feel it, don’t cage it/ Ooh, I wanna be basic/ ‘Cause you make me so complicated/ Can I be basic with you?” Perhaps belying the “basic” designation, the song overflows with the kinds of little flourishes that can elevate a piece of music beyond mundanity. In particular, I love the moment near the end when the entire production drops out and Sigrid sings the chorus in lo-fi over just an acoustic guitar — and the way all that sound comes rushing back for the grand finale.
The embarrassment of riches reminds me of Dua Lipa’s debut, even if Sigrid’s casual look, hyper-relatable persona, and beaming high-register vocals stand in contrast to Lipa’s untouchable supermodel vibe and deep bellow. While Lipa is settling into her role as one of pop’s reigning divas, Sigrid makes a point of emphasizing her down-to-earth authenticity. She spurns the glamorous wardrobe and makeup typically associated with pop stardom — and she actually backs up that posturing with lyrics that could be excerpts from actual conversations and videos where she looks like a normal person who’s getting to live out their superstar fantasies. Just watch Sigrid’s piano-ballad cover of Lipa and Calvin Harris’ dance-pop hit “One Kiss” recorded this week in the BBC Live Lounge. These are two very different pop stars, but one thing they have in common is a debut that feels like a greatest hits collection.
In both cases, that’s partially due to the inclusion of songs that have been out for quite a while. Sigrid’s first big break outside Norway was 2017’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe,” which thankfully appears on Sucker Punch despite its relatively ancient status by pop single standards. Given the resemblance to the title of a certain Kendrick Lamar song, it was a funny title coming from a Scandinavian pop artist whose music has almost nothing to do with hip-hop. But she made the phrase her own, converting Kendrick’s plea for solitude into a defiant affirmation of self-sufficiency.
The many writers and producers attempting to concoct a sparkling monogenre cocktail couldn’t do much better than “Don’t Kill My Vibe,” complete with a chorus as wide as the heavens, a choreographed torrent of synthetic sounds, and biting lines like “You think you’re so important to me, don’t you?” It’s like the best possible endpoint of the indie-goes-mainstream trajectory that defined parts of the industry this decade — more artful than the legion of slick, insubstantial small-font festival bands that emerged in MGMT’s wake and more boldly infectious than most critically acclaimed blog-pop acts allow themselves to be.
The track established a template Sigrid has been building off ever since, culminating in a debut that realizes much of her vast potential. Sucker Punch contains glimpses of all kinds of artists, but it never ceases to sound like Sigrid. It’s uncommon to hear music that’s clearly the work of a well-oiled song factory yet still feels inhabited by an appealing, distinct personality. Big, bold pop songs like these can become vacuums if not filled up with something substantial, and uniqueness can easily be smothered by a system bent on fitting artists into established molds. Instead, Sigrid’s vibe has only been amplified in the last couple years, resulting in an album that will knock you flat on your ass.
A Star Is Born may not have taken home any of the top film awards at the Oscars, but a deserved Best Original Song trophy for “Shallow” plus a spellbinding performance of that song helped to drive a major week on the charts. Not only has the soundtrack returned to #1 on the Billboard 200, “Shallow” has made a late-breaking push to top the Hot 100.
“Shallow” is Cooper’s first #1 hit. It’s Gaga’s fourth but first since 2011’s “Born This Way.” (She also hit #1 with “Poker Face” and “Just Dance.”) According to Billboard, this ends the longest gap between #1 hits since Gaga’s old “Telephone” duet partner Beyoncé went almost nine years between “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” and her appearance on the duet remix of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.” Last week “Shallow” was all the way down at #21, and it reaches #1 in its 22nd week on the chart. It’s the first Best Original Song winner to hit #1 since Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in 2002 and the first duet to both win the Oscar and top the Hot 100 since Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle’s “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme)” in 1993.
From #2 to #8 we have: Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” Halsey’s “Without Me,” Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” J. Cole’s “Middle Child,” Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier,” Grande’s “thank u, next,” and Post’s “Wow.” Rising to a new #9 peak is Blueface’s “Thotiana” remix. It’s his first top 10 hit and is buoyed by separate remixes featuring YG and Cardi B. Closing out the top 10 is Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode.”
On the Billboard 200, A Star Is Born returns to #1 for a fourth nonconsecutive week — per Billboard, the most weeks at #1 for a soundtrack since Frozen in 2013 and the most for a live-action film soundtrack since High School Musical 2 in 2007. It tallied 128,000 equivalent album units and 76,000 in total sales, boosted significantly by a two-day sale at the Amazon store, where it was priced at $3.99 last Wednesday and $2.99 last Thursday. No one does chart chicanery like Lady Gaga!
As on the Hot 100, A Star Is Born bumps Ariana Grande to #2. Grande’s thank u, next was also selling for $3.99 for a couple days, but it wasn’t enough to offset A Star Is Born’s momentum. It wrapped up with 116,000 units and 19,000 in sales. Gunna follows with a #3 debut for Drip Or Drown 2 on 90,000 units/7,000 sales; it’s his highest charting album yet, beating the #4 peak for last year’s great Drip Harder with Lil Baby. He just barely beats the #4-debuting album, Offset’s Father Of 4, which enters with 89,000 units/7,000 sales.
After the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack at #5 comes another debut, Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land, via 54,000 units/51,000 sales. Lil Pump is up next with a #7 debut for Harverd Dropout on 48,000 units/25,000 sales. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s Hoodie SZN is at #8, followed by one last top 10 debut, Kehlani’s While We Wait at #9 with 34,000 units/9,000 sales. And rounding out the top 10 is good ol’ Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys.
Jonas Brothers – “Sucker”
I did not foresee a Jonas Brothers comeback happening this soon, and I especially did not expect it to launch with a song that reminds me of Portgual. The Man and Peter Bjorn & John.
Louis Tomlinson – “Two Of Us”
Thus far Tomlinson has been the least successful One Direction alum. This song could change that. It’s a fairly basic power ballad, but it hits the pleasure receptors more effectively than anything else he’s released.
Ellie Goulding – “Flux”
“I’m still in love with the idea of loving you/ It’s a state of flux/ I just keep holding on” — that’s a pretty good synopsis of my relationship to Ellie Goulding’s music at this point. But her voice is such a special instrument that I keep coming back even if the songs aren’t popping like they used to.
Bea Miller & 6LACK – “It’s Not U It’s Me”
Miller is one of those major label project who has released a zillion singles without really popping off, but I feel like this song might be what finally does it for her. It expertly triangulates that zone where radio and streaming intersect: catchy with a lot of rhythmic motion but muted enough to wisp into the background. Also, 6LACK’s presence introduces the possibility of airplay on multiple radio formats. Do I think this a powerful work of art? No, but it’s definitely an achievement of strategic engineering.
Juice WRLD – “Hear You Calling”
I don’t know what’s happening to me, but there’s a new Juice WRLD song out that does not make me want to take a cheese grater to my ears.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- In a cover story for Elle Taylor Swift shared “30 things I learned before turning 30″ and vowed to be more politically active. [Elle]
- Khalid’s new album Free Spirit is out 4/5. [HNHH]
- Donald Glover and Glassnote Records settled their Childish Gambino royalties dispute. [Variety]
- Bebe Rexha wrote songs for new potato chip flavors. [Jezebel]
- Rexha also did “Last Hurrah” on Colbert. [YouTube]
- Rae Sremmurd will star in the first commercial for Sprite Lymonade next month. [Billboard]
- Kelly Clarkson will return as host of the 2019 Billboard Music Awards. [Billboard]
- Meanwhile, T-Pain will host the 2019 iHeartRadio Music Awards. [iHeart]
- The Terrence Malick-produced Lil Peep documentary Everybody’s Everything will premiere at SXSW. [Instagram]
- In Nashville, Brooks & Dunn joined Kacey Musgraves for the “Neon Moon” cover she’s been doing on tour. [Billboard]
- A plus-size model is consdering legal action against Future for allegedly banning “fatties” from a Miami club he was appearing at. [Buzzfeed]
- Thomas Rhett debuted a new song “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time” on SNL. [YouTube]
- DJ Khaled’s new album Father Of Asahd is out in May. [Vibe]
- Billie Eilish went Sneaker Shopping with Complex and said guys who wear Vans have small dicks. [YouTube]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— Reba (@reba) March 6, 2019