Zen Arcade


Album: Zen Arcade

Artist: Hüsker Dü

Released: July 1st, 1984

Highlights: Something I Learned Today, Never Talking to You Again, Pink Turns to Blue, Turn On the News

For a scene that was as much about music as it was about attitude and having freedom to express one’s ideas, the punk rock movement sure had a lot of unwritten rules that needed to be followed. This weird dichotomy between liberty and restrictions was present at the heart of the genre from day one, and anybody who dared to step out of pre-established expectations, be it by signing to a major label or by not playing songs that were loud and fast, was bound to be shunned by many. It is possible to argue such extremist thoughts were the natural result of a musical ideology that rose to combat, among many other ghosts, the artistic excess and elitist lifestyle of musicians of the 70s; therefore, keeping it all as pure as possible was important. Yet, there is something ironic about the fact that people who often sang against oppression and narrow-minded attitudes were so quick to establish a few guidelines themselves.

Whatever rules punk had, the hardcore movement – its American offspring – seemed to take them to a whole new level. If the Ramones played fast, Black Flag played faster. If the Sex Pistols had simple tunes, Minor Threat made them simpler. If Wire did not care about song structures, the Minutemen created a whole career out of the concept. And if The Clash, even after going into a major label, still did not bow down completely to capitalist practices, as evidenced by the fight the band put up to release the double “London Calling” and the triple “Sandinista” at normal prices, Fugazi simply never gave in to large corporations, going on to sell quite a whole lot of records solely via independent labels and distributors.

Still, in the midst of a scene with so much admirable ideological statements, there lies a monolith of ambition by the name of “Zen Arcade”. If both punk and hardcore pushed against excesses, then “Zen Arcade” is an offender in two senses. Firstly, it clocks in at seventy minutes, a length that takes it closer to the flashy psychedelic extravaganzas of the 70s than to standard hardcore albums, which tended to barely make it to half an hour. Secondly, as if such indulgence were not enough, the record commits the sin of being a concept work centered on the life of a young man who runs away from a toxic home; a nature which ties it to opera-making dinosaurs of the previous decades like The Who, with their “Tommy” as well as “Quadrophenia”, and Pink Floyd, of “Animals” and “The Wall”.

However, rather than attracting pitchforks and torches, “Zen Arcade” ended up being widely celebrated, and for good reason. Theoretically, this is an album that could be disastrous. Besides being a statement, the briefness of hardcore works was also a wise choice born out of the understanding that, for a genre so stylistically tight, putting too much into one package was a recipe for dullness. Yet, Hüsker Dü was far from being a run-of-the-mill hardcore group. Sure, they played fast; they sang furiously; they had little technique; their recordings were of famous low quality, even after they went big; and Bob Mould wielded a guitar tone of blistering deafening nature, playing a buzzsaw guitar that had seemingly been drowned in acid. But, as they had lightly shown in the material they put out before “Zen Arcade”, Hüsker Dü did not mind throwing some pop sugar into the wild racket.

Much to the benefit of the album, and as the main reason why its seventy minutes are not excessive, this is where the band’s signature melodic work becomes established. Bringing twelve solo compositions to the table, Mould is responsible for the more muscular anthemic tracks, those that rock furiously and invite the audience to shout along as the choruses get to their hooks. Drummer Grant Hart, meanwhile, is the sensitive core of the band; penning six tunes on his own, his tracks are ballads often disguised in hardcore presentation, and if his highly emotional lyrics are not enough to drive his explosive feelings home, his screaming without a care for formality is sure to do so. It is much due to the distinct personalities of its creative leaders and thanks to their consistency in finding good melodies that “Zen Arcade” escapes whatever stones someone was looking to throw towards it; and the alliance of these qualities with its bold artistic ambitions propels it to a classic status.

The strong melodic work is not the only reason why “Zen Arcade” manages to find stylistic variety, since Hüsker Dü also happens to take some unexpected detours throughout the album. “Never Talking to You Again” is an acoustic number whose frantic strumming does not let listeners forget the band’s hardcore origins. “Dreams Recurring” is a vicious instrumental piece played backwards. “Hare Krsna” is noisy and certainly punk, but its repetitive chants nod to psychedelia whilst replicating some bad acid trip. “Standing by the Sea” has some loud-and-quite dynamics, with Hart seemingly screaming in the middle of a cacophonous storm when the track explodes. Both “One Step at a Time” and “Monday Will Never Be the Same” are short piano interludes. “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess” is another cut that is played backwards, with the distinction being that it carries a dreamy atmosphere due to whispered vocals and jangly guitars. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a fourteen-minute instrumental jam that, like an opera, keeps returning to the same catchy central theme repeatedly when the band takes a break from making a beautiful racket.

Surprisingly, most of these weird turns work, with the annoying “Hare Krsna” possibly being the sole exception. The backwards instrumentals are thematically appropriate to replicate the character’s dreams. The short piano pieces offer nice breathing room between the guitar attacks. “Never Talking to You Again” is among the album’s best tracks. “Standing by the Sea” is an unlikely successful theatrical and dramatic moment. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a musical achievement: a long instrumental piece that never feels tired or indulgent. That does not mean, however, “Zen Arcade” is not dented in the slightest by its length. Although it begins flawlessly with four strong opening tunes in a row and closes mightily in the seven-song sequence between “Pink Turns to Blue” and “Reoccurring Dreams”, its mid section can drag a bit, because the weakest melodic moments of the album are all joined in this segment, giving birth to the most common downfall of hardcore groups: making sequences of songs that are too hard to distinguish from one another.

Despite that irregular portion, “Zen Arcade” has highs that more than make up for such stumble. “Something I Learned Today”, “Broken Heart, Broken Home”, and “Chartered Trips” would go on to serve as fantastic blueprints for future Bob Mould classic compositions that are equal part muscle and melody. “What’s Going On” has enough energy to outdo an atomic bomb. “Turn on the News” has an irresistible call-and-response chorus that urges the protagonist to return in order to face real life. And “Pink Turns to Blue”, which depicts the moving sad desperation in the witnessing of an overdose may as well be the best song produced by any band of the hardcore movement; a scene that took the punk spirit to sometimes shocking extremes, and that happened to find its finest hour in an album that went against many of the rules that first brought it to existence. Ironically or appropriately, “Zen Arcade” is the ultimate hardcore classic.


Song Machine Season One

Album: Song Machine Season One

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: October 20th, 2020

Highlights: Chalk Tablet Towers, Aries, Dead Butterflies, Désolé

Ever since the incredibly successful and kaleidoscopic “Plastic Beach”, an album in which the usual sullenness of Gorillaz gained a whole lot of colors thanks to a horde of guests, the creative audio-visual project of musician Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett has seemingly alternated between releasing two types of albums: those in which most of the tracks are built via various collaborations as well as features; and those in which the core of the virtual band go through their creative process in a more hermetically sealed chamber. As proof that great art has no recipe other than good old inspiration and the urge to say something important, successes and failures can be found in those two types of efforts.

As far as albums where the band worked primarily alone, 2018’s “The Now Now” can be pointed out as a consistent breeze of minimalistic creativity while 2010’s “The Fall” ranks as a malformed and dull artistic statement. Meanwhile, in relation to works in which the door of the studio was blown open so that Damon Albarn could explore sounds emanating from different parts of the world, “Plastic Beach” itself emerges like a successful cohesive whole whilst 2017’s “Humanz” was judged to be a junction of pieces that, besides not fitting together, were so touched by outside influences that they ended up corroding the essence of the band.

Released in 2020, “Song Machine” falls into the category of a Gorillaz collaborative effort. In fact, it has such a large number of guests that all of its eleven tracks boast at least one outsider joining the band in both performance and writing. As such, inside the scope in which it exists, it feels less like “Plastic Beach” (an album that still left room for Gorillaz to operate on their own in spite of the abundance of features) and more like “Humanz”, in which guests were as omnipresent as they are here. And although such comparison is not likely to be too positive for fans of the group at first, “Song Machine” actually triumphs where “Humanz” had failed.

Many are the reasons for that difference in outcome. For starters, and to begin with the most meaningful one, there is the simple fact that “Song Machine” has good tunes. Sure, “Humanz” found a couple of those as it ventured into the band’s usual blend of electronica, experimental pop, and hip hop, but in many cases its cultural openness and artistic boldness led to cuts that had interesting flavors that did not mix into cohesive parts, as songs simply did not find the melodic hooks, clever grooves, and alluring chord changes that the band thrives on. “Song Machine”, on the other hand, not only carries musical and cultural diversity, but also unites those elements in songs that have contemporary pop flavor as well as quirky adventurous spices.

Moreover, “Song Machine” greatly benefits from the fact it is free from conceptual ambitions. “Humanz” had those in spades, and since their translation from theory to album was not nicely done, a disjointed product was born. Truth be told, “Song Machine” – like any Gorillaz record – has some fictional background: in its case, the opening of numerous portals in the group’s Kong Studios, which consequently let 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel travel to where their guests are and bring them in to collaborate. But here the storyline or theme is not the purpose of the venture, only an excuse for Albarn to work with those who he admires and for Hewlett to give animated life to the crew’s adventures, thereby lending the whole affair a loose and unpretentious spirit and allowing the songs to shine on their own.

“Song Machine” is, in fact, so free of constraints that it is more of a playlist than an actual album. Most of the songs that make it up were released as singles, usually accompanied by music videos, between January and October, only to finally be compiled into a standalone record once they were out, and the collection’s subtitle – “Season One: Strange Timez” – indicates Albarn intends to give the project at least one more spin. It is an approach that could have generated a work that ran the risk of falling victim to complaints regarding lack of thematic or sonic consistency, much like “Humanz” did, but as tracks change and guests come and go, “Song Machine” stays grounded on experimental electronic pop with plenty of the usual hip hop segments that are expected out of Gorillaz; and to further enhance the band’s signature in these tracks, Albarn himself (appearing as 2-D) gets plenty of vocal spotlight, usually sharing it generously with his guests.

What is more remarkable about “Song Machine” is how the guests, especially those coming from genres the band does not usually explore, heavily shape the nature of the tracks in which they appear. Robert Smith, from The Cure, shows up on opener “Strange Timez” and, thanks to his unique vocal inflections, turns a sparse background of playful sounds and beats into one of his band’s moments of colorful naive weirdness; Beck brings his urban funk to “The Valley of the Pagans”; with the help of Leee John, “The Lost Chord” flirts with disco; “Chalk Tablet Towers” has St. Vincent delivering her unique brand of dirty and catchy art pop; “The Pink Phantom” boosts a hip hop track by having the grand voice of Elton John take over on the chorus; the unmistakable bass of Peter Hook, from Joy Division and New Order fame, transforms “Aries” into electronic post-punk; and Fatoumata Diawara matches relaxing danceable pop with beautiful African vocals in “Désolé”.

It goes without saying that, to a point, such phenomenon of guests influencing the tracks they contribute to has happened ever since the inception of Gorillaz; in fact, Damon Albarn might as well claim that is one of the reasons he loves the project so dearly. In “Song Machine”, however, that interesting creative tug of war seems more prominent than ever, coming off as the defining trait of the album and its central fuel. “Song Machine” may not have an assortment of great tracks that compares to those of “Plastic Beach”, but as an extreme experiment in the abundance of collaborators, it lands as a package that is far more consistent, appealing, and fun than the one executed by “Humanz”. Without statements to make or messages to push, the music gets a great chance to shine, and it steps up to that challenge quite nicely. To top it all off, the freedom found in the format and creative conception of “Song Machine” paves the way for a group that is already very open to become even more interesting when the device is given another spin.



Album: Free

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: September 6th, 2019

Highlights: Loves Missing, James Bond, Page

A series of atmospheric hums emerge inside a wide and sparse soundscape. A duel of freestyling trumpets, one that seems to come out from somewhere in the depths of a dirty alley and another that appears to be far closer, is sparked. And suddenly, as the relaxing immersive racket reaches its apex, Iggy Pop shows up to deliver four words that seem to encompass the essence of his eighteenth album. “I wanna be free / I wanna be free / Free”, he speaks with that signature low tone, which has characterized him through his whole solo career but that has become surprisingly solemn and maybe even wise with age, before vanishing like a voice from beyond that has breezed by listeners with the goal of delivering a succinct message that hides some sort of major revelation.

If freedom is what Iggy wanted, then that is exactly what he has found with his 2019 release, “Free”. Following “Post Pop Depression”, his collaboration with Josh Homme and quite possibly his most successful album since 1977’s “Lust for Life”, Iggy could have certainly taken the easy way out, gathered the very same band, and built yet another testosterone-infused album that is as heavy and dark as it is sexy and insightful. But apparently, returning to good old straightforward rock after an interval of two albums and sixteen years was enough for the singer to realize that, ultimately, the genre that launched him to the world alongside The Stooges is also a hand that constrains him.

Suffocated by it, “Free” works like some sort of declaration of independence by Iggy Pop. Its unexpected style is likely to make it an album that his fans, especially those who jumped back into the bandwagon after “Post Pop Depression”, did not want him to produce at this moment in time. However, its content, title, and opening statement broadcast in blatantly defined waves that “Free” is the album Iggy Pop wanted to create as of 2019. In a way, it is strange that such a personal message is delivered through a record in which only three out of the ten songs have him as a co-author. On the other hand, though, such characteristic reveals that “Free” has a nature so urgent that it just had to be unveiled whether Iggy had the material in him or not.

The result is a piece that is, in equal parts, odd, charming, irregular, and daring. “Free” could be labeled as a jazz album thanks to how its most prominent instrument is, by far, the trumpet of Leron Thomas, whose improvisational spirit is so dominating that he gets writing credit for nine of the record’s tunes. It could also be filed under the ambient category, for the moments when Iggy is supported by background noise, usually accompanied by a horn, are more numerous than those when he has a full band behind him. Finally, it would not be out of place in the spoken-word universe, as it holds a bigger quantity of talking than of singing. What “Free” really is, though, is all of those musical moods combined into a brief but meaningful package.

All in all, two are the cuts in “Free” that approach what one would expect out of a contemporary Iggy Pop record. “Loves Missing”, the finest tune in the album by a large margin, still has fragments of “Post Pop Depression”, as it starts with a dangerous combination of drums and insinuating guitar licks before slowly accentuating its dark sexy vibe when more guitars come in and the beat gets progressively more chaotic. Meanwhile, “James Bond” uses a bit of the same recipe, with the difference that stands between both songs being the fact that while the former grows by moving forward, the latter does so by going in circles with an ever-increasing intensity. Everywhere else, “Free” poses a considerable challenge to those that step into it.

Even if there is a clear distinction between the album’s two halves, that difficult aura exists in both parts. The first five tracks of “Free”, with the exception of the opening number, feel more like fully developed songs. In addition to “Loves Missing” and “James Bond”, that initial segment also includes “Sonali” and “Dirty Sanchez”; however, where the first pair borders on conventional, the second duo is positively weird. “Sonali” has an unusual beat and a myriad of electronic adornments that, at least instrumentally, make it sound a whole lot like a Radiohead song, and Iggy Pop wears his Thom Yorke hat proudly by trying to deliver lines and melody amidst very uncommon musical timing. Quite contrarily, “Dirty Sanchez” is an old-school Iggy Pop rant that includes ridiculous character-building lines such as “You desensitized sluts / Are always playing with your butts”, with the twist being that it is backed up by a marching drum, an out of control trumpet, a call-and-response structure, and a guitar and bass that try to keep the madness anchored to a solid groove.

Following that segment, the second half brings with it a myriad of spoken word tracks that are perhaps a bit too tightly packed together for their own good. As different mixtures of atmospheric sounds and wild horns fill up the vast silence, Iggy Pop basically sits and reads poetry: two original texts, “Glow in the Dark” and “The Dawn”, as well as Lou Reed’s “We Are the People” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”. Although Iggy’s voice does have the potential to make even a cake recipe sound engaging, it is unable to turn these tunes into must-listens, even when they consist of words as poignant as those of Reed and Thomas. Thankfully, though, the final part of “Free” does have a positive note, which comes in the form of “Page”, where an echoing picked guitar brings new spice to the side’s usual instrumentation while Iggy – taking full advantage of his voice – plays the role of a crooner as he sings a track that is beautiful, wishful, and moving.

Despite its highlights, which are indeed great additions to the Iggy Pop canon, “Free” never quite gains enough traction to be a good record. “Dirty Sanchez” is so terrible it is almost embarrassing, and not even the funny turns its rant takes can save it; “Sonali” simply falls flat; and the absurd amount of spoken-word tracks the album carries drags it down, even if none of them are downright bad. As such, “Free” winds up being a record that, while rather meaningful to Iggy Pop himself, will likely go down as one of the weakest entries in his discography, because although the album’s flirtations with experimental constructions and jazz are interesting – not to mention a nice nod to “Blackstar” by David Bowie, who was a crucial figure in Iggy Pop’s life – they are just not carried out with the required spark.

Merrie Land


Album: Merrie Land

Artist: The Good, the Bad & the Queen

Released: November 16th, 2018

Highlights: Drifters & Trawlers, The Truce of Twilight, Ribbons, The Poison Tree

It took a lengthy eleven years for The Good, the Bad & the Queen to produce their second work, and although a long absence of the sort is certainly unwelcome for a group that gathers such unique and varied talents, it makes a whole lot of sense for their sophomore effort to come out towards the tail end of 2018. And that is because Damon Albarn, their leader and the creative force behind the band’s lyrics, has always had a knack for dissecting the intricacies of British life and exposing them through delightful pop hooks; a task he thrived in during the middle period of his career as the singer of Blur.

And with the realm of Elizabeth II amidst some historical political turmoil as it tries to find a way to negotiate the United Kingdom’s way out of the European Union, Albarn unquestionably ranks as one of the musical voices that could broadcast the troubles of the current day. As a man of many simultaneous projects, he could have called upon any of them to give musical backing to his lyrical exploits. However, since Blur has long moved beyond British themes, Gorillaz exists in its own weird universe, and his solo output is often more concerned with matters of the depressive mind, it is only natural that he would reactivate The Good, the Bad & the Queen: an outfit whose name and debut record indicate it was born to dive into all that is British.

“Merrie Land”, then, is a vehicle to talk about the Brexit, which – naturally – makes it more British than tea. Yet, as far as its writing style goes, the record’s inspiration could not be more American. As stated by Albarn himself, when putting lyrics to paper, he took a page out of the Lou Reed book of songwriting, which favors prose over poetry and throws both metric and rhyme out the window. Interestingly, though, stepping out of both his comfort zone and also the area usually explored by Reed, Damon is not very concerned about specific characters in “Merrie Land”; his eyes, in fact, turn towards the environment and scenery he sees in a nation that has, through its voting, revealed sadness, anger, frustration, division, and general unhappiness with the image it sees in the mirror.

As such, while Reed rode the subway and walked down the dirty alleys of New York to write about the people whose existence the city itself preferred to ignore, Albarn moves through the piers of Blackpool to try to capture the atmosphere that led to such a critical decision. To a point, it works. “Merrie Land” is bleak; so much that its title feels sarcastic. And the album has an introspective stream-of-consciousness mood that makes it quite clear it was built through observation and loose writing.

It is a combination that makes it an alluring piece to anyone trying to catch a glimpse of the situation it describes, even if at times Albarn’s lyrics get too cryptic for one to grasp the link between what he is singing and the social moment he is portraying. But “Merrie Land” has its share of problems. Musically, Albarn and his keyboards are joined by Paul Simonon, the bassist of The Clash; Simon Tong, the guitarist of The Verve; and drummer Tony Allen, one of the creators of Afrobeat. And, together, they come upon stellar instrumentation (which includes all sorts of synthesizers, a choir, and strings) that finds a unique middle ground between contemporary pop and the traditions of British music hall, forging a sound that is complex, decadent, and gloomy; a perfect complement to the album’s subject matter.

Sadly, the wild prose of Albarn does not adhere very firmly to that fabric. In tracks such as “Merrie Land” and “Gun to the Head”, the spoken nature of the singing these kinds of lyrics require does click with their instrumental backing. The same, though, does not apply to the meandering “Nineteen Seventeen”, “The Great Fire”, “Lady Boston”, and “The Last Man to Leave”, an issue that becomes more serious when one considers the lyrics to many of these songs are obscure in meaning.

As a statement on how Albarn’s delivery of prose can become aimless at times, the moments when “Merrie Land” avoids dullness entirely come when he abandons that style and takes a more straightforward approach to his craft. “Drifters & Trawlers” has an interesting contrast in its pairing of a breezy, almost sunny, instrumentation with a lethargic and appealing vocal line. “The Truce of Twilight”, carried by a mean Paul Simonon bass line and an infectious call-and-response melody, evokes a sinister vibe. “Ribbons”, which depicts the colors of the countries that form the United Kingdom tied around a Maypole, is a gorgeous and evocative folk number. And closer “The Poison Tree”, where a sad European Union seems to come to grips with the fact that the United Kingdom is leaving, is a song of heartbreak lifted to relaxed resignation by colorful guitar and keyboard work.

As a whole, therefore, “Merrie Land” is not consistent, for its lackluster cuts are almost as numerous as its good numbers. Nevertheless, like any album where Albarn talks about English life, it provides an interesting look into staples of the country’s society while also working as a point of reflection to anyone who wants to understand why phenomena of the kind have been happening in other nations. And even if the picture it paints is not as complete as the ones seen in Blur’s “Modern Life is Rubbish” and “Parklife”, it is still vivid and thought-provoking.

The Idiot


Album: The Idiot

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: March 18th, 1977

Highlights: Funtime, China Girl, Dum Dum Boys

When one thinks of Iggy Pop, the first image that comes to mind is certainly that of a muscled and shirtless maniac fronting a reckless and dirty rock and roll band while dressed in impossibly tight jeans, stage diving with a certain frequency, emitting wild animalistic grunts, and – in his most insane years – smearing his chest with meat and cutting himself in public. Four years after surviving the implosion of The Stooges – the punk rock pioneers that went down in flames with the intensity and speed most expected them to – Iggy Pop emerged from the wreckage with “The Idiot”; however, unknowing fans who walked into the record found none of the bloody, violent, and sweaty environment that Iggy tended to feed off from to trigger the raw power of his instincts. Like a record by The Stooges, “The Idiot” is frighteningly menacing, meaning that Iggy is still effectively able to spook; unlike the three classic albums produced by the band from Detroit, though, “The Idiot” does not achieve such menace through brutality.

“The Idiot” is like wandering through the darkest part of town, finding the courage to enter one of its most poorly-kept alleys, and stumbling upon a creepy nightclub. There is this odd nearly mechanical music coming from within, and its conjunction with the odd-looking characters that come in and out of the establishment creates such an intriguing atmosphere one cannot help but go in. In there, amidst the smoke and the almost total lack of lights, visitors discover Iggy Pop – once the godfather of punk – has suddenly transitioned into a ghost-like figure whose deep voice floats over layers of electronic beats and sparse guitar riffs let out by his new band. Instead of tackling the stripped down aggressive somberness of the post-punk exposed by groups such as Joy Division, Iggy dresses the genre up in industrial noise and weird beeps while penning slow-tempo songs that retain the style’s tendency to let rhythm instruments lead.

The unexpected setting, aura, and experimentalism the album broadcasts are not without reason. Its alternative electronic nature is distinctively European, and it is no wonder its nucleus was put to tape in Berlin, perhaps the continent’s most avant-garde city. After falling to the bottom of the well of drug addiction following The Stooges’ breakup, Iggy Pop was lifted from the shadows by David Bowie himself – one of his biggest admirers. Therefore, it was under the influence of Bowie and guided by David’s restless artistic spirit that Iggy Pop put “The Idiot” together, and it is no accident much of the album’s musicality nods to the legendary Berlin Trilogy of records Bowie would construct shortly thereafter. Its dark electronic vibe stems from Bowie’s interest and first experiments in the genre, making “The Idiot” as much of an Iggy Pop record as a David Bowie work, and both artists gained a lot from the encounter.

“The Idiot”, however, is not just about collaboration, atmosphere, and experimentation. Great records need great songs; and the album is solid in that regard. Built around cyclical and restlessly repeating hooks (like the beat of “Sister Midnight” and the piano of “Nightclubbing”) and often opting for thinly structured tracks that do not present significant changes between verses and choruses, the music serves as a bed for Iggy Pop to spin his most obsessive lyrics yet and sing free of constraints, which he does wonderfully on “Dum Dum Boys” (a seven-minute epic about his old band-mates and whose constant and unchanging guitar riff is a highlight of the record), on the poppy “China Girl”, and on the closing “Mass Production”, an industrial beauty that alternates chaos and noise with bliss. “The Idiot” may not be truly representative of who Iggy is as an artist, but it is certainly the album that allowed him to move on with his life and give the world the wonderful music his solo career has yielded; Bowie must be thanked.

The Now Now


Album: The Now Now

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: June 29th, 2018

Highlights: Humility, Tranz, One Percent, Souk Eye

Artists, as the free creative spirits they are, rarely give fans exactly what they want. And such attitude does not stem from bitterness, stubbornness, or lack of recognition towards those that are – in the end – somewhat responsible for their success. Artists follow their muse because they are far more likely to encounter true inspiration and satisfaction by doing so than by being led by their audience. It is not surprising, then, that Damon Albarn, as the leader of Gorillaz and one of most creative musicians of the past three decades, has – as such – built a strong career out of subverting expectations and carving his own path.

That is why it is, to a degree, shocking that “The Now Now”, the sixth album by the world’s most popular virtual band, sounds like a concession; a letter of apology to a fanbase that, mostly, reacted quite negatively to the group’s previous release, “Humanz”. Arriving slightly over a year after that work, “The Now Now” comes off as some sort of reparation not just because it is a good record that hits the market following an interval that is unusually short, but due to how it seems like it was constructed around a checklist containing the most common pieces of criticism its predecessor received.

Where “Humanz” was attacked for having way too many guests, “The Now Now” only features two tracks with extra participation, George Benson in “Humility” and the duo of Snoop Dogg and Jamie Principle in “Hollywood”. Furthermore, as a consequence of its wide cast, “Humanz” was rightfully singled out as unfocused and devoid of personality: the concept upon which it was based did not materialize; its wide array of genres made it sound like a compilation of different styles that did not fuse into a cohesive piece; and the rarity of the appearance of Albarn’s voice (which gives life to the band’s vocalist, 2-D) generated an album that lacked a Gorillaz aura.

“The Now Now”, in turn, is absolutely defined. Its eleven tracks (a low number for the band’s standards) offer no overarching concept, making the record tight and light; despite not having a unifying theme, they are all brought together neatly by their almost uniform tone, the smartly narrow array of genres they tackle, and the fact “The Now Now” feels like it is the effort of a united entity, be it the fictional quartet of 2-D, Russel, Noodle, and Ace (the latter of which replaces an incarcerated Murdoc) or the trio of Damon Albarn, James Ford, and Remi Kabaka, who pen the compositions in our earthly realm.

That cohesion, and the low number of guests, turns “The Now Now” into the most focused entry in the Gorillaz canon. Sure, there was beauty to be found in the way both “Demon Days”, in its darkness, and “Plastic Beach”, in its pop kaleidoscope, stunningly united distinct styles under the same umbrella. But “The Now Now” builds its character in a way that is pleasantly unique for the group; that is, by dwelling on a single genre. It is first and foremost a synth pop effort: there are plenty of beats, layered lush arrangements, and keyboards. And although there are times when the album goes for a delightful sunny vibe, as in the opener “Humility” and in the closer “Souk Eye”, which has a sweet acoustic guitar picking to along with its soaring synths, “The Now Now” is – like all modern-day Damon Albarn works – sulky.

When summer hits, he would rather contemplate his isolation or long for someone he lost than bask in the season’s inherent happiness; when a party seems to be taking place (“Tranz” and the instrumental “Lake Zurich”), he is present yet absent; everywhere else, though, the music is a perfect sad and lethargic companion to the often cold, sad, and distant vocal approach Albarn takes when giving voice to 2-D, one that makes it seem as if even at times when happiness is visible – as in “Kansas” – it is just out of reach.

“The Now Now” does not push any boundaries, as it may appear relatively tame and generic for a Gorillaz album, but given stylistic wildness and manic experimentation abounded on its five predecessors, and even caused the last two to be lackluster, such simplicity ends up being a defining trait instead of an annoying flaw. Additionally, although it is clearly lacking a couple of heavy-hitter tunes of outstanding quality to anchor the listening experience, “The Now Now” is impressively consistent; there are no weak cuts in sight and all tracks have strong musical and melodic moments that justify their inclusion into the package.

It is, as Damon Albarn himself put it, a journey into the world of 2-D, and the result is both intimate, engaging, and enjoyable, allowing listeners to catch a glimpse of the character’s thoughts and struggles while solid synth pop plays on the foreground. One might point out it is too safe for its own good, but perhaps a safe move was exactly what was needed to put this train back on track after the disappointing pair of “The Fall” and “Humanz”.

Make Yourself


Album: Make Yourself

Artist: Incubus

Released: October 26th, 1999

Highlights: Stellar, Drive, I Miss You, Pardon Me

Good music must be written with a purpose; it needs to be fueled by genuine intentions and, most importantly, it requires a clear target. Songs that are composed for everyone usually end up striking no one in particular, standing on a weird middle ground that separates universal adoration from total indifference. In “Make Yourself”, Incubus seems to be stuck on that island: there is little to nothing about the album – save for few tracks – that is truly remarkable; likewise, almost none of it – with the exception of occasionally embarrassing lyrics and “Battlestar Scralatchtica”, a four-minute instrumental starring turntables – is downright awful. Its strongest songs (which include the notable ballads “Drive”, whose acoustic setup was a first for the band; and “I Miss You”, with its swirling delicate guitar and a brief touching chorus on which the title is sung with heart) will still move those who grew up listening to them; however, save for that understandable nostalgic beauty, the record falters under a contemporary light.

And that is because “Make Yourself” does not seem to be willing to make the effort to get to the place where it wants to go to. It is quite obvious what Incubus wanted to do here: the band was bent on surfing the radio-friendly nu metal waves of the turn of the century. It is quite unmissable, though, that the group did not make it, for “Make Yourself” is still stuck on the funk rock wackiness of the two records that preceded it, and trying to pair up the extravagance and tongue-in-cheek humor of that genre with mainstream aspirations – which are evidenced in the album’s clean production and blatant hit singles – can only be done when one has the flexibility of the Red Hot Chili Peppers during their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” era, and there are not many groups that can make that claim.

Despite the fact it is walking on a tightrope between the Red Hot Chili Peppers (sans the self-awareness), Jane’s Addiction (minus the delightful debauchery), and ensembles from the nu metal scene (with a prominent DJ included), without the bravery to jump straight into any of those pools, “Make Yourself” manages to hold some good moments in addition to the pair of calmer tunes that propelled it to stardom. “Stellar”, for instance, is a great exercise in dynamics, with a quiet verse that explodes into a chorus backed up by a wall of guitars Linkin Park would ride to the top of the charts one year later; “The Warmth”, meanwhile, has a chorus that – melodically – might be the album’s finest hour, and – as a bonus – it has a perfect merge between turntable effects and distorted guitars; and the title track sends a message of self-reliance and independence with a vocabulary that is aggressive enough to justify the tune’s loudness.

Three records into their career, Incubus attempted to grow out of their funk rock beginnings; and, while such a move was definitely commendable, its conduction was definitely a bit misguided, because “Make Yourself” lacks purpose and audacity, trying to move to new grounds and simultaneously making sure its roots are still attached to the place it has just left from. Thankfully, though, such a period was not in vain, for it was a change that – down the line – would yield positive results in the shape of “Morning View” and “A Crow Left of the Murder”. That, however, does not save the album from being, at best, average and inoffensive.



Album: Humanz

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: April 28th, 2017

Highlights: Saturnz Barz, Andromeda, Busted and Blue, Let Me Out

A party taking place right before the end of the world, in an alternative reality in which Donald Trump had become president. It is the instruction Damon Albarn, the leader of Gorillaz and the singer of Blur, gave to the sixteen collaborators that would give birth to “Humanz”, the fifth album by the virtual band and the first since the 2010 pair of “Plastic Beach” and “The Fall”. Back when handing out those instructions, little did Albarn know the parallel dimension he envisioned would materialize; and, given the world’s political state signals the apocalypse is indeed right around the corner, “Humanz” could have come off as the work of a visionary, an album that captures the atmosphere of the context in which it was released, like some self-shaping sponge. Sadly, that does not happen, for while “Humanz” delivers the party – as it consists of fourteen dancy tunes (discounting all interludes and the intro) of electropop and hip-hop – it fails to conjure the apocalypse.

The album’s concept, therefore, was left shattered on the ground somewhere in between its planning and execution, and it is relatively easy to see why: it is just too hard to pull off any kind of coherence when all tracks feature at least one collaborator both in writing and performing. Albarn’s experimental soul, and his wish to work alongside others, yielded excellent results in “Demon Days” and “Plastic Beach”, so it is not that the Gorillaz formula is inherently bad; it is just that something did not quite click this time around. That is why “Humanz” ends up being a record in which great tunes like “Ascension” and “Strobelite” (which do represent Albarn’s original concept – the former by pleading a love interest to give in to desire because the sky is falling and the latter by posing questions about the frailty of existence over a pulsating beat) share space with “She’s My Collar”, a song about relationship angsts in the digital era.

If the inconsistency of “Humanz” existed in thematic terms only, it would be rather negligible; after all, numerous are the great albums that do not gravitate around the same subjects. Likewise, the same could be said about the fact “Humanz” feels more like a compilation by various artists than a work by musicians working together, as the unifying elements of the Gorillaz sound (such as 2D’s voice) are more absent than present. The problem here, though, is that such irregularity leaks into the quality of the tracks. “Saturnz Barz”, in its alternation of Popcaan’s rapping and 2D’s nonchalant singing, has the makings of a Gorillaz hit; and the dreamy electropop duo of “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue” is equally brilliant. Sadly, “Humanz” has just way too many tracks that are either downright terrible or unremarkable.

“Momentz”, with its grating beat and high-pitched vocals, is a disappointment given the previous collaboration with De La Soul had birthed the classic “Feel Good Inc.”; “Charger” is devoid of lyrical meaning and musical purpose; “Sex Murder Party” and “Carnival” meander without going anywhere; “Hallelujah Money” has powerful lyrics but, with its lack of melody, is too close to pretentiousness for comfort; and “We Got the Power”, the long-awaited product of the partnership between two Britpop geniuses (Albarn himself and Noel Gallagher) is a cheesy conclusion with an empowering message that could have been penned by someone in primary school. In the end, even if it has moments that will go down as some of the finest by the band, “Humanz” is too fragmented to rate as anything higher than an average and disjointed apocalyptic party.

Post Pop Depression


Album: Post Pop Depression

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: March 18th, 2016

Highlights: Gardenia, American Valhalla, Chocolate Drops, Paraguay

With Lou Reed and David Bowie gone, Iggy Pop stands as the last rock ‘n roll rebel; the final bastion of the proto-punk generation of musicians that, through their looks, attitude, themes, and – most importantly – musical prowess, displayed to countless other talents that tackling the music business and consequently bringing that giant down could be done without losing one’s authenticity. From his maniacal presentations with The Stooges; going through the life-threatening addiction that followed the breakup of his legendary band and the subsequent start of his solo career with the help and support of Bowie himself; and including his most recent artistic endeavors, Iggy Pop has always been a man willing to live and die on his own terms. “Post Pop Depression” is not different from that mindset: it is loose, dirty, weird, passionate, energetic, reckless, and incredibly genuine; and it might also be Pop’s best work in well over a decade.

Joined by Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age and The Dead Weather), and Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys), Iggy sounds as reinvigorated and as close to being back on track as his persona allows him to. Whether consciously or not, in “Post Pop Depression” Pop pays homage to his two deceased companions. From Bowie, he borrows the feel and sound of both David’s Berlin Trilogy and of his own albums produced in Germany alongside the British star, the classics “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life”. Meanwhile, from Reed, he takes the distant and dry delivery of poetry concerning the deranged, the outcast, and the emotionally disturbed; subjects that, truthfully, have always been Iggy’s main theme given his identification with such people.

In fact, such recognition runs so deep that while Reed was firmly attached to the description of third-party characters, Iggy’s lyrics here seem more personal than ever. There is little to no doubt that Iggy Pop is talking about himself when he sings “I’ve shot my gun, I’ve used my knife / This hasn’t been an easy life” and “But if I have outlived my use / Please drink my juice”, in American Valhalla; or “I followed my shadow / And it led me here / What is the problem / If I disappear?” in “In the Lobby”. It is as if, by looking at himself and the world that surrounds him, Iggy was so unnerved by the incompatible values, lifestyle, and way of thinking that he used it as fuel to power one final grand statement as an artist. It is no surprise, then, that the album concludes with the epic “Paraguay”, whose coda is a hilarious, lengthy, and angry rant where Iggy shouts “I don’t want you” and “I’ve had enough of you” at the listener before exclaiming  “I’m gonna go to Paraguay / To live in a compound under the trees / With servants and bodyguards who love me / Free of criticism / Free of manners and mores”.

Under that wild thunderstorm of words, Josh and the band lay thick grooves and textured beats all over the record, setting the table for Iggy to shine, understanding who the real star of the show is here. Although pounding riffs and spiraling guitars do occasionally show up, the instruments never overpower the vocals. Instead, they complement them with accuracy either in the album’s poppiest moments (“Gardenia” and “Chocolate Drops”); in its most inscrutable tracks, like the Nick Cave inspired “Vulture”; or in its borderline hard-rock numbers, like the heavy opener “Break into Your Heart”, which is as close to Queens of the Stone Age as this excellent album gets.

American Idiot


Album: American Idiot

Artist: Green Day

Released: September 20th, 2004

Highlights: Jesus of Suburbia, Holiday, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Wake Me Up When September Ends

“American Idiot” is an odd album in rock history. Adjectives such as bold, courageous, and unexpected have been attached to many of the works produced by the world’s most relevant rock groups; however, those qualities often come associated with astronomical stylistic leaps, such as the ones performed by The Beatles between “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”; “The Velvet Underground” between “White Light / White Heat” and their self-titled follow-up”; or Blur between “Leisure” and “Modern Life Is Rubbish”. “American Idiot” is bold, courageous, and unexpected; conversely, it does not exactly feature any groundbreaking musical exploits on the part of Billie Joe Armstrong and his crew. Musically, it is Green Day by the numbers: fast-tempo rock songs with a pop punk edge and catchy melodies, and a few sorrowful introspective ballads thrown in for good measure. The difference-maker here is thematic, and it does make quite a difference.

Green Day had always sung of the worries, concerns, and angsts of average middle-class teenagers and young adults. “American Idiot” takes those themes and gives them a much grander resonance by contextualizing all of those issues inside the most heavily debated topic of the American political scenario of the mid-2000s: the Iraq War. The cohesion brought by that unifying background turns “American Idiot”, the product of a not-so-serious band that had once named one of its albums after a poop joke, into a rock opera that bridges a micro universe, one that is riddled with personal troubles; with the major overarching tragedy of war. The fact that it went on to be the group’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed work should not, then, come as a surprise.

“American Idiot” is not flawless. Throughout the album, the band reaches for a level of songwriting that they had yet to achieve, though they had come quite close to it in both “Dookie” and “Warning”; the melodies are uniformly stellar, and even the nine-minute suites of “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming”, which serve as bookends to the album if one discounts its introductory and closing songs, never wane one tiny bit. Unfortunately, what is intended to be a solid storyline crumbles under the weight of its own ambition as the band is unable to pull all the pieces it sets in place, namely its three characters, together into one clear thread.

Still, despite those storytelling shortcomings, “American Idiot” is a great rock record that broadcasts its message loud and clear, whether it is in the character-related tales of “Jesus of Suburbia”, “St. Jimmy”, “She’s a Rebel”, “Extraordinary Girl”, and “Whatsername”; in the loud political declarations of “American Idiot”, “Holiday”, and “Letterbomb”; or when both worlds come together, such as in the loneliness of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and in the loss depicted in “Wake Me Up When September Ends”. It might not be a thoroughly coherent statement, but it is one that is true and representative of its time; an opportunity that certainly could not have been missed by a genre as relevant as rock.