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Ranking: Every Arctic Monkeys Album from Worst to Best

dissected logo Ranking: Every Arctic Monkeys Album from Worst to BestWelcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Sheffield’s finest.

Arctic Monkeys have enjoyed more than a decade-long reign as tastemakers and frontrunners of modern rock and roll. Their energetic guitars, indefatigable drums, and moody bass lines are what first caught our attention, but it was frontman Alex Turner’s writing that made us fall in love with them. Turner’s balance of poetic and picturesque meets blunt and brusque lyrics was a highlight from the first time we heard them as rowdy, North England teenagers. Thanks to the then-burgeoning world of MySpace and the democratization of music, they were already considered the biggest new band in rock music since Oasis before their first album dropped. We’ve seen them through their early years, when they were passionately jaded and unpolished, all the way to their last album, AM, where they brought us perhaps their most popular songs to date. Now, with a new album about to drop, we’ve reminisced and re-listened to every album (like we ever stopped) in an attempt to make sense of the Sheffield rockers’ remarkable catalog.

–Sarah Midkiff
Contributing Writer


05. Humbug (2009)


“Calm, Collected and Commanding” (Mood): Following the accelerated indie-punk of the band’s previous two albums, Arctic Monkeys opt for something calmer and more foreboding. Queen of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Humbug’s producer, is largely responsible for this stark musical change. It was recorded out of Homme’s studio in the desert, and he incorporated a sense of maturity and restraint, two key elements that distinguish Humbug as a historical shift in the band’s sound. Songs are slower and not quite as catchy, but this results in a gradual work. Humbug opens itself to the listener with each listen.

“I Play It on Repeat” (Catchiest Chorus): Humbug isn’t a record laden with instantly recognizable choruses such as “Fake Tales of San Francisco” or “Fluorescent Adolescent”, but its lead single, “Crying Lightning”, is bound to get stuck in your head. Its repetitive drum pattern and Alex Turner’s vocal melody complement each other to make for one of the most memorable choruses from this record.

“Through Curly Straws and Metaphors” (Standout Lyric): “What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?” from “Pretty Visitors”

“Oh, There Ain’t No Love” (Most Underrated Track): Although “Cornerstone” was released as the second single, it still doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. As one of two songs from Humbug written in a major key, “Cornerstone” is a standout among the album’s ominous atmosphere. However, don’t let the joyous instrumentation fool you; this is perhaps the most bleak song on the album. Turner desperately misses his ex-girlfriend and sees her everywhere he goes. He even insinuates the death of his former lover (“Under the warning light/ She was close, close enough to be your ghost”).

“One for the Road” (Best Live Song): “Pretty Visitors”, a song about the band’s immense success and their own live show, is also the most exciting from Humbug to witness live. It’s the most lively song on the album, and Matt Helders’ impressive drum fills infuse the song with a brisk, kinetic energy. The bridge is loud and brazen and slows down into one final sing-along chorus, a necessary element to an engaging performance.

“I Gotta Tell You the Truth” (General Analysis): Humbug is often an overlooked piece in Arctic Monkeys’ discography. Although it’s the weakest album they have released thus far, it’s still an integral part of the band’s style and history. It’s important to recognize what this record did for the band. It was a reinvention of songwriting that paved the path for albums such as Suck It and See and AM. It might not have as many memorable moments compared to their other albums, but this maturation was a necessary step in Arctic Monkeys’ evolution and success.

–Grant Sharples


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Beyoncé Reigns, Rock Dies: Coachella 2018 Festival Review

Photography by Natalie Somekh

Beyond the Gates: Each year, tens of thousands of eager festivalgoers descend on Coachella Valley for three days of music and free-spirited fun. While Weekend Two usually hosts a more laid-back crowd of festival veterans and music lovers, Weekend One tends to lure the endlessly self-indulgent masses of social media influencers and other 21st century caricatures. Given this year’s lineup — with headliners The Weeknd, Beyoncé, and Eminem headlining the event and pop figures like Migos, Cardi B, and Post Malone occupying its second lines — the crowd was slated to be Coachella’s most sybaritic showing yet. Coachella’s prevailing “selfie culture” is predicated on its focus on shock value, on capturing the moment. Walk through the festival’s daytime crowds, and you’re bound to interrupt a number of attempted picturesque moments, catching the vexed stare of 20-somethings adorned head to toe in the latest fashions.

Best Bites: If you’re willing to fork over $18 for something a little less than a full meal, Coachella’s Main Lobster rolls or Lobster Mac N’ Cheese might suite your fancy. Or, for something succulent but more budget friendly, perhaps Seabird’s avocado tacos are more your flavor. There was no shortage of ice cream at this year’s festival, either, with a variety of desserts such as Sweet Rolled Ice Cream Tacos, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, and a plethora of sweet Ice Cream Truck pop-ups scattered throughout the festival’s grounds. Coachella’s food prices are anything but a bargain, though, with most meals ranging anywhere from $13-22. A $6 order of fries might get you a sparse amount of potatoes that looks more like a bag of chips. You might want to bring a granola bar or two next year.

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Festival Fashionista: Tyler, The Creator sported a medley hairdo of brown and blonde patches. The outfit was complete with a neon green traffic vest, matching shorts, and a white t-shirt that read “no violence.” The fit was the ultimate supplement to Tyler’s volatile stage presence. Beyoncé wore a whopping five outfits during her iconic performance, including the theme-fitting jean shorts and hoodie, risque black leather, and the regal, diamond-studded “Queen” outfit. St. Vincent sported a white PVC suit and played multiple fluorescent guitars that beamed out to the crowd like beacons in the dark.

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Desert Redemption: BROCKHAMPTON arrived 15 minutes late to their Coachella debut (there were issues with mics), but America’s favorite boy-band came out swinging with a palpable verve when they finally hit the stage. Backed by a flock of expert violinists, all dressed in blue masks, each member of the hip-hop collective dressed in what looked like a bullet proof vest, each lettered with a bold statement: Kevin Abstract’s read “Faggot”, “Ameer Vann’s read “Nigger”; others read words like “Wakanda”, “Maestro”, “Fiend”. The group has been compared to hip-hop supergroups of hip-hop’s past: Wu-Tang Clan, Odd Future, Beastie Boys, the list goes on. The fact of the matter, though, is that BROCKHAMPTON are the hip-hop collective of the current period, and their live showing certainly solidified that. No comparisons needed.

St. Vincent, photo by Natalie Somekh

Best Set for the Smallest Crowd: St. Vincent’s brooding, symphonic builds and captivating art house visuals proved to make for one of the weekend’s best sets. The only issue? Despite her (wink) mass appeal, St. Vincent’s crowd was abysmal, not undue to Coachella’s primary demographic flocking to Kygo in drones. The set proved to be welcomed programming for festival veterans looking for a thoughtful counter to Kygo’s brand of Urban Outfitters EDM. In what Annie Clark self-described as a “blistering, disturbing rock show,” St. Vincent’s alt pop spectacle featured visuals that sometimes erred on the side of the grotesque, but always veered towards the thought provoking. Clark’s guitar frenzies mesmerized those who stuck around to see her, performing a powerful trio of tracks to close the set with “Rattlesnake” and “Fear the Future”, before finally moving into “Slow Disco”, purple and blue hues setting on the sparse crowd as the bust and gyrate.

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Chained to the Rhythm: Jamiroquai’s first set in the US since 2005 was welcomed with open arms by both festival vets and party goers looking for a thoughtful alternative to The Weeknd’s main stage madness. The band filled the Mojave tent to the brim when they brought out LA icon Snoop Dogg for a “Dr. Buzz” rendition. The entire set was spilling over with funk, and the crowd certainly reciprocated their energy.

Adorned in metallic gold dressings, Kali Uchis ushered fans into Day One of the festival with some of the most mesmerizing dance moves the weekend had to offer. As the sun’s heat beamed down on the Outdoor Theatre crowd, Uchis enraptured her audience with movements that were both methodical and quicksilver, gyrating and contorting her body all while somehow maintaining the velvety nature of her lush alto.

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“What the Hell Did I Just Watch?” Post Malone’s showing in Coachella’s Sahara Tent was by all means intriguing. “Rest in peace Lil Peep, rest in peace A$AP Yams” shouted Posty as he came out singing “I don’t wanna die too young”. The showing felt like a contemporary spectacle, with wide eyed 20-somethings flooding the tent in drones, but make no mistake: it was no Beyonce. Post Malone’s energy would soon dissipate, largely due to his gawky acoustic rendition of “I Fall Apart”. For a crowd anticipating the carnal amusement provided by the Sahara Tent’s massive sound system, such a display stifled any momentum he may have built with his dramatic entrance. Post Malone should probably stick to what he knows best, and that’s hyping the crowd with thickly layered bass and traditional hip hop stage antics.

Best Way to Dance Away the Heat: Nile Rodgers took the stage with his band, Chic, for a showing of pure disco delight on Saturday afternoon. The set began with a piece of wisdom from Rodgers. “We just came from Australia, where a journalist called Chic the ‘greatest cover band ever,’” he said, noting that the “journalist” at hand was thrilled they had performed covers of Dianna Ross, Duran Duran, David Bowie, and more. Rodgers paused for a bit before continuing, “I don’t want to offend anyone, but, motherfucker, we wrote those songs in the first place!” The group proceeded to bust into a dense set of hits, including “I’m Coming Out”, which fused straight into “Upside Down”, “We Are Family”, “Like a Virgin”, “Get Lucky”, “Let’s Dance”, “Le Freak”, “Good Times”, and finally concluding with “Rapper’s Delight”.

Rodgers even had a moment of personal revelation during the set when he told the crowd he was cancer free. “My doctors didn’t know what the outcome would be,” he said, describing his cancer diagnosis eight year ago. “So they told me to go home and get my affairs in order. So I thought to myself, If I’m going to contemplate getting my affairs in order, what exactly would that mean to me? So, I decided I was gonna write more songs than I’ve ever written in my life, I was gonna do more collaborations than I’ve ever done in my life, and I was gonna do more live shows than I’ve ever done in my life.”

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Catching Nerves: SZA arrived to the party 10 minutes late to her slot as sub-headliner to The Weeknd. Offering a dose of anecdotal wisdom to her fans (like the time she smoked an ounce of weed to herself after being stood up by her date at a party), the pop ascendant’s performance felt a bit lackluster considering the massive acclaim of her debut studio album CTRL. The set featured mainstays like opening track “Supermodel”, “Drew Barrymore”, and “Love Galore”, as well as a cover of Rihanna’s “Consideration”. Once again, hip-hop’s biggest force in Kendrick Lamar came to join SZA for “Doves In the Wind” and the duo’s Black Panther collaboration “All The Stars”. Opening for The Weeknd is no simple task, and SZA took it on with precision, but we’re waiting for next weekend to see if she comes fully into her stride.

That One Act: As I woke up from a dehydrated, heat-induced stupor inside the car I slept in during Coachella, I checked out the headlines from the night before. CNN: Beyoncé makes history with Coachella performance (she was the first black woman to ever headline the festival); The New York Times: Beyoncé is bigger than Coachella. Jon Caramanica’s New York Times piece starts by saying, “There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful, and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at [Coachella] Saturday night.” It’s almost impossible to describe the level of spectacle induced by the Queen herself, but by the grace of pop glory, it’s a damn near obligation to do so.

As I arrived to the main stage early Saturday afternoon to catch Nile Rodgers and Chic, the pit area was already filled to the brim with Beyoncé’s eager fans (the Bey Hive, as they call themselves). On more than one occasion, I witnessed mothers waiting anxiously with their children. Some of them couldn’t be more than seven or eight, and I couldn’t help but feel incredibly inspired by the fact that these mothers likely took expensive flights, rented cars, booked lodgings, and, most daunting of all, braved the Coachella heat for hours upon hours to allow their kids the opportunity to watch pop music’s most prominent icon.

By the time Beyoncé took the stage, the crowd stretched back as far as the eye could see, the most attended Coachella performance to date by most estimates. “Ladies and gentlemen,” proclaimed a rogue announcer, the crowd erupting in a roar at this point, “Welcome to Beyoncé Homecoming 2018!” The 36-year-old star proceeded to enthrall the crowd with expertly choreographed movements, pyrotechnics, a full HBCU marching band, and over 100 live dancers. There was the Jay-Z appearance for “Déjà vu”; the unthinkable Destiny’s Child reunion with bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams joining the stage; and Solange’s appearance for “Get Me Bodied”, in which the two sisters danced with an innocence that only family could embody.

The raw beauty, though, lay heavily with Beyoncé’s stringent attention to detail, incorporating songs by Master P, Crucial Conflict, Juvenille, C-Murder, and Fast Life Yungstaz into her set, not to mention paying homage to Fela Kuti and Nina Simone. Within a festival landscape that continues to offer up homogeneity, Beyoncé’s performance was, in the words of David Byrne, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. As DJ Khaled proclaimed halfway through the set, “Coachella gotta rename Coachella the Beychella”; the crowd went into a full frenzy. “NEW NAME ALERT!” The set wasn’t just the best performance of the weekend; it was a performance marking the winds of change in American musical and cultural history.

Don’t Believe the Hype: Migos’ set on Sunday night had the potential to be the weekend’s most compelling hip-hop show. After all, the festival’s EDM/Hip-Hop mega — the Sahara tent — underwent massive renovations this year. Its daunting sound system was primed for a thunderous performance by one of hip hop’s biggest cultural mainstays. Well, after horrendous sound issues that plagued their set for the first half-hour, the group never was able to find their footing. As the DJ attempted to hype the crowd with his intro, the sound was barely recognizable, prompting a massive round of boos from the crowd. Perhaps next weekend the group will find their footing.

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Not So Hot Take? Rock Music Is Dead. What do David Byrne, St. Vincent, The War on Drugs, A Perfect Circle, and X Japan all have in common? Abysmal crowd sizes at this year’s Coachella. In what marked a massive turn of the tides, this year’s programming felt almost exclusively geared towards pop music, with rock getting tucked away in the festival’s back pocket.

Best of the Tiny Fonts: One of the most exciting parts of attending a festival, especially one as large as Coachella, is the aspect of discovery. Each day has the potential to unearth your next favorite band. Los Angeles surf punk band The Regrettes ushered a pop-punk party into the festival’s Sonora Tent on Friday, as did San Francisco garage rock icons Oh Sees on Saturday. Westside Gunn + Conway brought their ’90s-inspired hip-hop rhythms to a small crowd of about 50 people in the Gobi tent during the midday heat. Despite the small crowd, the performance was one of the best the weekend had to offer.

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Noname and Japanese Breakfast both had some of the more sizable crowds of any performers on the festival’s undercard. The crowd sang happily along to Noname’s poetic rhymes as she danced onstage while Japanese Breakfast concluded their set in high-energy fashion with “Everybody Wants to Love You”. Kolsch’s melodic techno builds provided a surefire escape from the heat on Sunday, and Fidlar’s beer ballads incited some of the festival’s biggest moshes. Rex Orange County performed as a late add on Saturday afternoon, much to the delight of his newfound fanbase.

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Why Can’t We Be Friends: Cardi B brought a flock of guests for her Coachella debut. After spending more than 300,000 on production for the set, it was certain that Cardi was gunning for the crown on Sunday, and she needed some star power to help make her point. Throughout her 35-minute set, Cardi B brought out G-Eazy for “It Ain’t Safe”, YG for “She Bad”, Chance the Rapper for “Best Life”, Kehlani for “Ring”, and 21 Savage for “Bartier Cardi”. Cardi finally closed the set with “Bodak Yellow” in what was one of the best-attended, highly profiled sets of Weekend One.

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Phones Up: As Vince Staples lurked onto the stage and broke into “Get the Fuck Off My Dick”, an ominous gaze set out across the crowd. The main stage projectors fragmented into dozens of videos, including (but not limited to): a hand putting a condom onto a dildo, a woman twerking on someone’s grave, a glitch edit of the main stage crowd, various clips from ESPN, and more than a few YouTube and WorldStar clips that I likely missed the reference to. As he concluded his poignant first track, “I’m the God in this/ Fuck up off my dick,” the entire tone of the performance had been set.

Though he didn’t quite receive the level of energy he sought, Staples demanded the crowd’s attention. Peppering his set with fierce quips — “None of y’all look like me, but y’all look good Coachella” — his presence is hilarious and effortlessly charismatic. For all the set’s mastery, most attendees will remember the show for Kendrick Lamar’s guest appearance on final track “Yeah Right”, which cause hundreds of idle bodies to lurch toward the stage. The appearance was a poignant collaboration between hip-hop’s avant-garde auteur and the genre’s unequivocal king.

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Coming Home: Coachella’s position in pop culture as the ultimate pop spectacle is predicated on the performances of impossible reunions and larger-than-life bookings. Oasis, Prince, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, ACDC, Daft Punk. There is seemingly no limit to what the festival can pull off. This year’s programming was largely overshadowed by Beyoncé’s globe-shaking performance, a showing that rocked the global pop music sphere to its core. Most would agree that the year would be worth remembering for her performance alone. However, the festival’s sweeping lineup resides at the intersection of Super Bowl halftime show, global rave massive, Studio 54, underground warehouse party, and CBGB-era punk outing. You get the chance to see just about everything at Coachella.

Outside of the Queen’s appearance, the festival was a balancing act of pop music flavors and a sign of the times. One track can be the equalizer in today’s murky festival market, bumping artists like Portugal. the Man and Cardi B to back-to-back slots on the festival’s main stage, the former with a slow and methodical ascent to the Coachella stage, the later earning her stripes in a much more jarring fashion. Coachella is both a statement about the current state of pop music and a message about what’s to come out of the current musical zeitgeist. As digital streaming continues to redefine the nature of the music industry, Coachella will likely continue to evolve and set the pace for American music festivals, despite its various hiccups.

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The Voidz Don’t Give a Fuck What You Think

Halfway through my interview with The Voidz, I got a bloody nose. I initially tried to hide it, but after a few minutes, blood gushing down my face, I had to hit pause on our chat and run to the bathroom, leaving both my FaceTime and my recorder running.

Shortly after a few Julian Casablancas wisecracks – “You should take an Andrew WK photo of yourself! Put on a white t-shirt and we’ve got your next Halloween costume!” – he began reading a quote from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World.

“When we believe something to be the absolute truth, we have become caught in our own views,” he reads, later adding: “We may be practicing a kind of violence by discriminating against and excluding those who follow other spiritual paths… Being caught in our views can be very dangerous and block the opportunity for us to gain a deeper wisdom.”

If anything, The Voidz’s entire existence in 2018 is an attempt to prove this quote. They are hell bent on being the band pushing the boundaries, putting out music that they themselves want to hear, not necessarily anyone else. Instead of staying in a single lane on the freeway, their new album, Virtue, sees them swerving in and out of five or six lanes at once, bringing us all along for a roller coaster of a ride, chock-full of whiplash from the quick-changing tempos and fast-switching genres of each song in rapid succession.

Virtue sees the band, made up of music industry veterans from across a wide spectrum of indie rock, somewhat tone down their Tyranny-era weirdness for something ever so slightly more listenable. But in doing so, The Strokes’ frontman & co. refuse to give in to the critics that largely trashed their 2014 debut, allowing themselves to explore dozens of influences and different styles throughout Virtue’s 15 tracks.

But don’t call these risks, the band tells me – they’re just following their musical interests.

“Everyone in this band is very open musically, so it creates a great environment to create,” guitarist Amir Yaghmai says from his home in Los Angeles, sharing a couch with the rest of the band. “I don’t worry about something being too pop or too experimental when I’m sitting in a room with these guys. It’s one of the first times I feel like I can play whatever I really feel like and not think about the context that it’s in or the audience that it’ll reach. It’s just a really nice feeling of freedom when we’re jamming.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m an overwhelmed hoarder, editor, curator, and they’re just all freely, wildly, shooting off all of their craziest ideas,” Casablancas adds. “I’m herding these wild creatures and we agree together which ones are good. They edit my edits. It’s a web of cool musical taste and not giving a fuck.”

And many of those “crazy” ideas made it onto the final record: the purposefully out-of-tune guitar solo on opener “Leave It in My Dreams”, the Auto-Tuned vocals on the Middle Eastern-influenced “QYURRYUS”, and the hair metal-esque guitars on “Pyramid of Bones” all feature in just the first three songs on the album. There’s a lot going on over Virtue’s 58-minute running time, and if you blink, you may miss a face-shredding guitar solo here or an acoustic stunner there.

“I feel like we really wanted to not conform,” Casablancas explains, comparing each song on this record to assembling a Mr. Potato Head. “I feel like I was doing something where I wasn’t compromising – we were all trying to get on the same page. I’ve written two different parts and joined them in a song since I was 15. But I think with this record, we did it early on.”

Most of the 15 tracks come from messing around in the studio, jamming along until something that resembled a song emerged, though some, like the Mac DeMarco-esque “Wink” or “All Wordz Are Made Up”, date back to messing around in a makeshift studio in the back of their tour bus. But at each point, every member contributed a great deal to the final record, the overall band utilizing everyone’s individual skill sets in different ways.

“It seems like we all figured out what we all do [well],” guitarist Jeramy “Beardo” Gritter says. “Everyone has these abilities, and I feel like it’s like Voltron, in a sense, because we all come together in one big machine. We don’t plan anything; it just happens in a natural way. I think for this record, it made things faster and more fluid.”

But while each member comes from a different musical background – Beardo has a punk band, keyboardist Jeff Kite is the lead singer of indie pop outfit Beat Club, drummer Alex Carapetis is a touring member of Wolfmother – a major interest in politics is what links them all together. Though the band seemed to want to focus on the album itself rather than politics at large – revisit Casablancas’ wild profile in Vulture for that – the current political climate was impossible to ignore, especially as it serves as a major influence for the record’s lyrics.

“I think all conflicts, whether it’s family or war in countries, are based on the idea that you see your views as the truth and you see people with different views as wrong, and I think that’s where a lot of issues and conflicts happen,” Casablancas says, explaining the frequent use of the words “truth” and “lie” on Virtue. “I think the album and the lyrics – I tried to keep it relevant and universal, so I think it’s accidental that universal concepts happen.”

Casablancas sings quite a lot about the basis of conflict and what is real and what is fake throughout this new collection of songs. “Murder in the name of national security” dots the Gorillaz-esque “ALieNNatioN” while the heavy punk of “Black Hole” features the line “What’s that say?/ NSA, NRA at the gates of psycho city” twice.

Casablancas also appears unsure of where he stands throughout the record, at points crooning: “I don’t really know where I’m going/ Not sure that I want to be knowing.” The first line of “All Wordz Are Made Up” sees him whispering the line, “No one will care about this in 10 years,” apparently repurposing a critique thrown at The Strokes around 2001.

While his lyrics may seem as if he feels lost in an increasingly dark world, Casablancas, as well as the Voidz’s five other members, feels perfectly at home with each other, making extremely bizarre – and sometimes beautiful – music for themselves and no one else, pushing each other to make a record that they would want to listen to rather than one for the critics. Virtue is a record that doesn’t necessarily flow as a cohesive collection, but it never wanted to in the first place.

The Voidz began as a creative outlet for Casablancas and his new collaborators to experiment and get weird in ways that their individual acts couldn’t – and sometimes wouldn’t – allow. Upon listening to the record, you get the sense that with every strange twist and turn, for every guitar screech or Auto-Tuned vocal, Casablancas is somewhere smirking to himself, happy that he has a outlet where he can finally be himself.

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The Essential Guide to Finally Starting RuPaul’s Drag Race

(Note: This feature originally ran in January 2018. It has been updated in the wake of the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars and the premiere of the tenth season of Drag Race proper.)

Great news, one and all: Right now is the perfect time to get on board with RuPaul’s Drag Race.

There are reasons, and last week’s season premiere — the tenth in the show’s history, give or take a few All Stars seasons — is only one of them. First, it’s great. Even the show’s most lackluster seasons are great (again, give or take an All Stars season or two). Second, it’s informative. That’s meant sincerely. Drag Race has always been an excellent place to listen to people talk about everything from rejecting the gender binary to battling depression, from grappling with addiction to surviving homelessness, and from coming out to learning exactly how to contour your nose. Yes, it’s funny and campy and an absolute treasure trove of GIFs, but it’s also honest-to-god more substantive than one might expect when all you know about the show is that there are huge wigs involved.

It’s also stirred up its share of not-great controversies in its day, particularly when it comes to transphobic language and ideas. That’s a conversation that continues, and the show has also spotlighted a number of trans* performers. Among them: Peppermint, the season nine runner-up, who spoke eloquently about her experiences, as well as the struggles she and others face, during her run on the show.

As stated above, there are plenty of reasons to watch. I could go on — and I will, below — but there’s one more that’s worth addressing. Drag is punk. Drag is an act of rebellion. Drag is the kind of thing that makes the Ted Cruzes and Mike Pences of the world super mad. Part of what makes reality television so fun is that it’s easy to pick favorites and get irrationally invested in the lives of these real people, or at least in the versions of themselves they play. In watching Drag Race, you celebrate these people and their defiance, and every time a drag queen triumphs, a bigot gets so steamed he slides right out of his loafers. At least, I hope so. A girl can dream.

Getting into anything that’s been around for nine (and now ten) regular seasons, three All Stars seasons, and many, many episodes of Untucked (more on that later) can be daunting. So, here’s a quick guide to getting on board! Catch some, or all, of these essential episodes, commit a few recurring segments to memory, and you’ll be good to go. Last week’s premiere is just waiting for you, so start your engines. And remember — don’t fuck it up.


What is this show?

ru paul The Essential Guide to Finally Starting RuPauls Drag Race

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a glorious hybrid of Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, and your odd America’s Got Talent or American Idol.

It’s hosted by RuPaul Charles, who’s both the Tim Gunn (out of drag) and the Heidi Klum of the proceedings. RuPaul has been a pop-cultural mainstay for decades, and odds are you know “Mama Ru” from hit single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” or from one of many film and TV appearances over the years.

She’s joined by a variety of judges, usually Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, Ross Matthews, and a celebrity guest (last week, Christina Aguilera). Michelle is the savage one, and she’s usually right. Ross is the funniest one, but they’re all funny. Carson is from the original Queer Eye. (That’s a read. You’ll learn about reading below.)

This is the tenth season of the show. In related news, I am old. There have also been three seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, which is about what you’d expect. Queens from previous seasons return and compete against each other. There was a short-lived spin-off and makeover show, RuPaul’s Drag U, and several seasons of backstage show Untucked.


How are winners and losers chosen?

drag rac ejudges The Essential Guide to Finally Starting RuPauls Drag Race

Usually, the queens do a mini-challenge and a main challenge, the latter of which typically involves either costume construction, some sort of performance, or a test of one’s ability to self-market or hustle. The judges choose the best and the worst of the week, critique them, and then RuPaul identifies a winner or winners and a bottom two. In the original series, the bottom two then “lip-sync for their lives,” and Ru tells the loser of the lip-sync to “sashay away.” (The winner is told “shanté, you stay”; both are lyrics from “Supermodel (You Better Work)”.)

You could probably write a Ten Commandments for Drag Race lip syncs. Thou shalt not forget the lyrics, lest thou reveal thine ill-preparedness. Thou must not pick up another contestant without her permission, for that is super dangerous. Thou shouldst remember that ripping off one’s clothing does not always a winner make. Thou must always remove thine face mask. Thou shalt not remove thy wig, unless [spoiler]. The list goes on.

All Stars does things differently. Beginning with All Stars 2, the top two queens lip-sync, rather than the bottom two, and the winner then has to choose one of the two losing queens to send home. It creates so much drama and is thus delicious, but for the most part, it’s not mean. The queens can be mean, but here, the strategy is too important to seem needlessly cruel. Do you send home the strongest competitor or the one who performed worse? Do you send home a chaotic presence, knowing it will help calm a fraught atmosphere or keep a messy bitch around, thinking the distraction might mess with others? Do you save a friend, knowing you risk looking like you play favorites? Or do you send that friend home, knowing it might make you an enemy?

Like I said, delicious.


Wait, lip-syncing? Like Lip Sync Battle?

Oh, honey, no. Lip Sync Battle is like Drag Race, or rather, is like drag performance in general. Drag pulls from all corners of pop culture, so lip syncs aren’t merely about doing one’s best Rihanna (though that certainly helps). It’s about commanding the stage. Some queens are primarily there to be fierce as hell, and that can be thrilling. Some are funny, and that’s also great. Some, like season nine winner, Sasha Velour, use them as a jumping-off point to create something weird and wonderful — performance art, with someone else’s voice. More recently, queens can even lip sync to their own tracks, a thing that happened frequently in the third season premiere of All Stars. It’s become something of a tradition for Drag Race stars to release a single or two. Some are very bad. Some are great! Most are in the middle somewhere.


What’s reading?

It’s fundamental.

Reading, also called throwing shade, is taking an insult and elevating it to high art (i.e., reading someone like a book.) The best reads are exaggerations of truth and are so funny that it’s hard to see them as truly mean. The worst reads aren’t funny and are usually both mean and a little inaccurate. A great read makes a queen seem brilliant. A bad read makes a queen seem petty and small. It’s a fine line. Reading sessions are typically announced with the phrase, “The library is open,” and often involve silly glasses. You know, for reading.

Pro-tip: if a queen is great at reading, they’re probably going to do very well elsewhere. It takes a very quick wit, and that’s a huge key to success on this show. Here are some great examples.


What else should I know?

Snatch Game! It’s like Match Game, but filthy and with celebrity impersonations, instead of celebrities. It’s reliably one of the best episodes of every season, because when it’s good, it’s heaven, and when it’s bad, it’s so bad.

Also, there’s a thing about puppets, because everybody loves puppets. Don’t overthink it.

Oh, one last thing: a quick way to get a sense of the history here is to watch Paris Is Burning, the excellent 1990 documentary about New York’s drag, ball, and vogue scene. Drag Race didn’t invent most of this stuff, and by the way, neither did Madonna.


On Your Mark, Get Set, Binge…

rupaul drag race 2017 The Essential Guide to Finally Starting RuPauls Drag Race

In brief, here’s one highlight from each season. This should give you a crash course in all things Drag Race. You can skip RuPaul’s Drag U, as well as all the Untucked seasons. There are some memorable moments in the latter, but Untucked is best when watched right after Drag Race. Some good news on that front: VH1 will be showing Untucked immediately after each new episode of Drag Race this season, so if you live for the drama, you’re in luck.

Season one, episode four, “M.A.C./Viva Glam Challenge.” If you can find it, this one is essential. One competitor has a manipulative emotional meltdown, but another’s moving, joyful performance inadvertently shows it to be the charade that it is.

Season two, episode four, “The Snatch Game.” The first-ever Snatch Game features two of the best Snatch Game performances ever in Pandora Boxx’s Carol Channing and Tatianna’s Britney Spears.

Season three, episode eight, “Ru Ha Ha.” This one, in turn, features a terrific performance from Drag Race favorite Shangela, as well as a glimpse of why she rubs some of the other queens the wrong way. It also ends with a lip sync that’s easily in the top five of the show’s history.

Season four, episode nine, “Frock the Vote.” This is still a highlight of one of the show’s best seasons, but frankly, you can pick just about any episode from season four. Here, Ru and guest judge Dan Savage ask the top five to run for “Drag President.”

Season five, episode seven, “RuPaul Roast.” Another comedy challenge, ending with a lip sync that coined perhaps the most canonical Drag Race rule: don’t take off your wig, unless [spoiler.]

Season six, episode six, “Oh No She Betta Don’t.” This is a rap challenge, which sounds like a nightmare and is nowhere near as bad as you’d think. It also features a dynamite lip sync performance from Trinity K. Bonet, one of the show’s best “lip sync assassins.”

Season seven, episode nine, “Divine Inspiration.” Worth it for the runway theme alone, “Ugliest Drag,” but this one also includes some divine Divine tributes and the always entertaining Library is Open mini-challenge.

Season eight, episode 1, “Keeping it 100!” The 100th episode of the series is appropriately packed. It’s a tiny crash course on all the previous winners, so if you have a hard time tracking down any of the early seasons, you’ll get a glimpse of all the glamour here.

Season nine, episode 9, “Your Pilot’s on Fire.” A fun challenge — the queens have to create TV pilots — and a great runway lead up to a truly shocking elimination. Count on it being referenced frequently this season.

Season nine, episode 14, “Grand Finale.” I have to cheat and throw in this finale, which features three great lip syncs, including what might be the best in the show’s history, from Sasha Velour.

All Stars, season 1, episode 5, “Dynamic Drag Duos.” Honestly, you can skip the first season of All Stars. A bad concept really held it back. Still, watching two great drag queens sob through Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” is worth a look.

All Stars, season 2, episode 5, “Revenge of the Queens.” If you can skip all of season one, you should really watch all of season two. It might be the single best season of the series as a whole. If you’ve only got time for a single episode, however, choose this one — it includes what you might call “the face-crack of the century.”

All Stars, season 3, episode 3, “The Bitchelor.” The most recent All Stars season was uneven, to say the least, but there were some highlights, and most of them came courtesy of season six standout BenDeLaCreme. DeLa’s always great, but she’s particularly funny here, as is fellow season six queen Kennedy Davenport.


About last night…

Be forewarned: There are spoilers galore up ahead.

After a lackluster All Stars season, it sure felt good to watch an energetic episode of Drag Race again. That was true of last week’s excellent premiere, “10s Across the Board,” and it’s equally true here. “PharmaRusical” might feature the single strangest premise for a challenge in Drag Race herstory — though early season two mini-challenge “Chicken or What” would probably beg to differ —  and a lip sync musical about fictional drag-adjacent pharmaceutical companies adds a dollop of surrealism to a show that’s already A Lot. Best of all, this is an entertaining cast, featuring quite a few serious contenders and precious little in the way of cannon fodder. These early episodes can feel unwieldy, particularly if some of the queens neglect to serve up either great looks or a dynamite personality, and that’s not a problem this season. Maybe it’s the cast, maybe the super-sized episode length, but whatever change in the Drag Race alchemy is at work here, I’m fully on board.

There are a few off-notes, however. Messy drama is a fundamental part of the Drag Race formula, but this viewer, at least, likes it in small doses. There’s an element here that’s more interesting than such things usually are, and it’s The Vixen’s commitment to dragging all the drama out into the open. While the episode could have benefitted from either less Aquaria vs. Miz Cracker or Asia O’Hara vs. Eureka, the real struggle here — Eureka vs. herself — is a compelling one. It’s easy to see how others could be irritated by Eureka, who’s both chatty and obviously determined to get plenty of screentime (smart girl.) But the real conflict is the one within her, as a dancer contends with a career-altering injury.

As is often the case with these early, all-skate performances, there are few real standouts, but Eureka and Kalorie both struggling with the lyrics is enough to see them in the bottom, and Eureka’s deeply felt (if tonally strange) lip sync is enough to send Miss Karbdashian packing. As for the winner, choosing the winning captain is a predictable choice, and while The Vixen didn’t give my favorite performance or show the best runway look, it makes perfect sense to reward a focused team captain. Plus, she’s from Chicago, so we at Consequence of Sound are required to cheer her on

drag race e1522378603456 The Essential Guide to Finally Starting RuPauls Drag Race


MVP: Always and forever, Alyssa Edwards. This challenge might actually have been a disaster if she weren’t around to remind the competitors that they should, you know, perform. Dear VH1, please give Alyssa her own show. Maybe a Dance Moms situation, or a Making the Video series for all those drag queen singles. Whatever it takes, put her on TV a hell of a lot more.

Judging the Judges: Ross — in rare form and wearing a killer jacket. Michelle — watching Ms. Visage make Ru laugh by repeating “Miss Vanjie over and over again was a goddamn delight. Ru — see above. Halsey — unexpectedly, one of the best guest judges the show has ever had. Very funny, great critiques. Padma — obviously well-practiced at the whole reality show thing.

Subscribe to TV Party, Consequence of Sound‘s weekly TV podcast that’s hosted by TV Editor Allison Shoemaker and Senior Writer Clint Worthington. Guests, games, gets, and gluttonous rankings, all for your TV-loving ears.

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Top 10 Songs of the Month: Rae Sremmurd, Pearl Jam, and Lucy Dacus

After a winter-long hibernation, Top Songs of the Month returns on the final Friday of each month to share the songs that we just haven’t been able to shake over the last 30 days. And trust us, March kept our earbuds swamped. Legends returned, the biggest names in rock and roll had something new to say, fresh faces further carved out space for themselves, and hot acts dropped tracks that’ll no doubt still be bumping in our heads come warmer weather.

So, go on. Have a listen.

–Matt Melis
Editorial Director


10. Judas Priest – “Lightning Strike”

Release: From Firepower, available now on Epic

With the release of Firepower bringing Judas Priest’s album count up to a whopping 18, the English heavy metal titans prove that they never lost their grip on their grit, and “Lightning Strike” makes for strong evidence. Brimming with a delectable darkness and raw power, the lead single hits the ear hard and heavy. This results in the track taking on an effortlessly epic life of its own, which is exactly what makes it the ultimate rock and roll cocktail that will keep listeners coming back for round after round. –Lindsay Teske


09. Snail Mail – “Pristine”

Release: From Lush, available 6/8 on Matador

The first single off of upcoming June album Lush, Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan tells an insightful, honest story of teen isolation and angst in lilting ballad “Pristine” with straightforward yet poetic lyrics. Jordan’s youthful voice is supported by her trademark punk-inflected yet soft guitar, questioning those who keep her down with queries like “Don’t you like me for me?” and discovering that she loves herself and “Won’t love anyone else”. –Clara Scott


08. Soccer Mommy – “Cool”

Release: From Clean, available now on Fat Possum

Soccer Mommy has proved a smash hit on the indie circuit with her debut album, Clean, a collection of rock ballads and jams that weave interesting stories between catchy guitar-based hooks. “Cool”, the second single from the record, carries its power in the narrative of female badassery sung dreamily by the outfit’s creator, Sophie Allison, telling the story of a man-eating cool-girl while maintaining a danceable chorus. –Clara Scott


07. Jack White – “Over and Over and Over”

Release: From Boarding House Reach, available now on Third Man

Jack White has successfully concocted a masterful melting pot of scuzz and style in “Over and Over and Over”. The standout track from his third solo album, Boarding House Reach, finds its strength in its exploratory nature. The cool and cohesive mashup of textures and tones boldly diversifies White’s existing body of work, yet still makes way for his signature sonic flair to shine through. “Over and Over and Over” was a creative gamble, and White rolled his dice and won big. –Lindsay Teske


06. DJ Khaled – “Top Off” ft. Jay-Z, Future, and Beyoncé

Release: From Father of Asahd, available April 2018 on We the Best

Features are a catch-22 proposition in hip-hop. Going it alone isn’t in the genre’s DNA, but roll with too many others and those guests can be seen as crutches. And then you have former Terror Squad member DJ Khaled, the anomalous hit-maker whose success stems from knowing exactly who to write with, tap as producer, and pass the mic to, and rarely, if ever, has the hip-hop chess master had better pieces to maneuver than on “Top Off”. With features from Jay-Z, Future, and Beyoncé, the top may just stay off that Maybach for the rest of 2018. –Matt Melis


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Jack White Gets Joyfully Weird on Boarding House Reach | Album Reviews

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The Lowdown: Weird. If there’s one word that’s been used to describe Jack White’s latest record, Boarding House Reach, by critics and fans alike, “weird” is it. But White himself has never been normal, and at this point in his career, this audacious hodgepodge isn’t entirely unexpected. It feels like a natural evolution for the singer/songwriter/guitar-master who’s made a career out of channeling bluesy bombast with punk rock-style urgency. This time he just added more funky freak-outs.

The Good: Like Funkadelic’s wondrously cosmic jamfests, Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow and especially Maggotbrain, Boarding House Reach has some dark layers. But dark doesn’t have to mean drab or hopeless. White is still having fun and sparking joy, and by incorporating new sounds — new wave synths, pizazz-y organ parts, and spoken word, which some have called an attempt at “rap” — he’s re-invigorating his style. The catchiest track, “Over and Over and Over”, brings to mind early Rage Against the Machine, driven by relentless rhythms and rants, both of which feel right for a performer like White making music in these troubled times. It feels right for us listeners, too.

The Bad: Some might find him blustery and his delivery over-dramatic, but White is clearly trying to capture the soulful feeling of his live shows on Reach. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it works until it doesn’t, such as on the singles “Connected by Love” and “Corporation”, which take the classic White sound and tweak it, sometimes too much. But the question remains: Is there ever such a thing as “too much” for a rock and roll provocateur like White? Some will listen and say, yes.

The Verdict: It seems everyone has something to say about Boarding House Reach, and for White, that is ultimately a good thing. The essence of experimentation is taking chances. As we get older, it’s how we shake things up. The key to pulling off something new without looking like you’re trying too hard (or selling out) is maintaining the essence of who we are when doing so. White’s reverence for classic music of the past is still a big part of who is he here; he’s just shifting focus with a more manic and multi-faceted approach. That’s not weird. That’s smart.

Essential Tracks: “Over and Over and Over”, “Connected by Love”, and “Corporation”

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Jack White in 10 Songs

Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

Jack White is one of contemporary rock music’s great personalities. A genius, a virtuoso, a short fuse, an excavator, a revelator. His career, from the first four-track White Stripes recordings to his most recent solo effort, the intricate and elaborate Boarding House Reach, has morphed and shifted as he has revealed more and more of his idiosyncratic self and pushed the boundaries of his musicianship in new directions. A list five times as long as this one would still struggle to encapsulate all of the many faces and voices of Jack White. But here are 10 of them.

–Kayleigh Hughes
Contributing Writer


Jack, Meg, and Raw Freedom in the Garage

Song: “Cannon” from The White Stripes’ The White Stripes (1999)

In 1999, when The White Stripes released their lo-fi, high-energy self-titled debut, the national rock charts were decorated by the likes of Bush, Everlast, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And The White Stripes didn’t change that much at all. It would be a few years before Jack and Meg galvanized the music world with White Blood Cells (Pitchfork didn’t review the Stripes’ first two records until a 2002 re-release). But in the dark, sweaty corners of garages and basements throughout Detroit, wailing like a banshee about John the Revelator and with Meg by his side bashing out the raw powerful heartbeat of the song, White didn’t sound like he cared about the outside world at all. “Cannon” is a perfect example of early White Stripes. Slow, reverb-heavy guitar ramps up fast but stays crunchy as White settles into grooves and moods. The song pulls directly from a powerful early gospel blues song originally recorded by Blind Willie Johnson, and the Stripes use parts of iconic blues musician Son House’s a capella version. Meg’s bass drum kicks you in the heart while her cymbals crackle and spark. Sounding like a haunting but riotous death march, “Cannon” leaves you feeling more alive than you maybe ever have, indicating that right from the start, Jack and Meg were able to create something very special together. –Kayleigh Hughes


Jack the Bluesman

Song: “Death Letter” from The White Stripes’ De Stijl (2000)

Rock music has always been stylistically rooted in the dense musical soil of black Southern blues. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the list goes on and on. As the modern rock paradigm shifts from decade to decade, contemporary fascination with the blues remains a prominent stylistic influence. Jack White is perhaps one of the genre’s most prominent purveyors in the modern guitar music era. White’s undying adulation for the blues legends knows no end, with him even going so far as to call legendary Delta Blues artist Son House’s track “Grinnin’ in Your Face” his favorite song of all time. An homage to one of his biggest artistic influences, “Death Letter” — originally recorded by House himself in 1965 — is one of the most pointed examples of White’s infatuation with blues music. It’s an outright proclamation tracing White’s roots back decades. Utilizing madman guitar wizardry and a deep knowledge of blues cadences, his reinvention of House’s Southern twang into his own invigorating thrash is doubly an homage to his musical influences and an argument for the reinvention of the blues in a modern sense. –John Flynn


Jack the Punk

Song: “Fell in Love with a Girl” from The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells (2001)

One of Jack White’s most beloved musical creations relies on the most classic punk rock song structure of all time: the power chord. “Fell in Love with a Girl” is fast, rude, and electrifying; it’s a study in raw simplicity. White shrieks maniacally. Meg smashes the shit out of the drum kit, leaving indelible fingerprints with every motion. It’s one minute and fifty seconds of fury and joy, panting and tingling. And in true punk rock fashion, the song relies on a short and sweet vocabulary to get you where you need to be. “She turns and says, ‘Are you alright?’/ I say, ‘I must be fine because my heart’s still beating.’” Thump.“Fell in Love with a Girl” is arguably the pinnacle of what a Jack and Meg collaboration could be. Of all the musicians who have covered the song over years, none has ever made “Fell in Love with a Girl” sound and feel the way it does when The White Stripes play it. –Kayleigh Hughes


Jack the Demon Boy

Song: “Black Math” from The White Stripes’ Elephant (2003)

On one hand, tracks like “Hotel Yorba” and “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” are an exsposé into White’s sensitivities, but it’s tracks like “Black Math” that cause us to stop and ponder, “Maybe Jack White is some sort of demonic alien sent to us from another planet to subvert the garage rock genre altogether.” His persona certainly aligns with such a theory. Claims that The White Stripes began on Bastille Day, the self-constructed rumor that he and Meg are siblings, his vampiric physical appearance … let’s admit it: Jack White the “thrash king” is a bit of a demon. Yes, there are probably valid explanations for White’s peculiar behavior, but have you ever seen him and the gremlins in the same room together? There’s a certain air of mystery ingrained into his core being, and nothing musically emulates such a persona quite like “Black Math”. As White boldly screams out “I’m writing down things that I don’t understand,” his guitar cadence kicks into overdrive, shifting tempos to bolster its chaotic screech. With the “go fuck yourself” touchstones of Iggy Pop and blues riff sensibilities of Jimmy Rogers, White seems to be from another planet, his inner demon released once and for all in what is one of his catalog’s most invigorating solos. One can’t help but feel like he must have dropped dead after recording the track or at least hopped back into his UFO. –John Flynn


Jack the Vulnerable

Song: “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” from The White Stripes’ Elephant (2003)

Translating feelings into words is hard. Often, the burning flame of emotion doesn’t seem to carry the same luminous glare on paper as it does in one’s heart. Broadcasting those emotions to the entirety of the music world for them to be analyzed under a microscope? The thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Perhaps such anxieties help explain our keenness to listen to such ballads, though. It’s why we get together at weddings and scream “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the top of our lungs, not fully stopping to consider its rather despondent subject matter. After all, there’s something reassuring about hearing someone expose their deepest vulnerabilities via song. Musical confirmation that, yes, even famous musicians are just as fucked up as we are. “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” sheds light on White’s fragility within his dissolving relationship with an unnamed party (presumably Meg White, given its release date). Keeping her “in his pocket” is White’s effort to protect and shield her from the world. But the relationship is toxic in nature. The sentiment is equal parts fatherly and possessive, exposing White’s convoluted paternal desire to possess another human being. “But now you’re scared, you think she’s running away,” he croons, desperate in his efforts to get her to stay. It’s an admittance of emotional defeat in which White reconciles the toxic side of his feelings and grapples with the pain of letting go of his beloved. For a guitarist who’s known for making bold proclamations and busting out vivacious solos, the track is one of the most candid glimpses into White’s “softer side.” –John Flynn


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True Stories: How David Byrne Learned to Stop Worrying and Love America

David Byrne is all about cautious optimism these days. Recently, that’s taken the form of an interactive lecture series entitled “Reasons to be Cheerful,” in which Byrne catalogs and champions examples of public policy triumphs large and small from communities around the world. It’s also led to American Utopia, Byrne’s first solo record in 14 years and his artistic reaction to the political and existential fears that radiate daily from the Trump Administration.  

In addition to highlighting stories of Paris’ groundbreaking bike-share system, Portugal’s successful drug-decriminalization policies, and investments in clean energy happening in a deep-red Texas suburb, the project also stands as the latest involving one of Byrne’s longest-standing fascinations: how to make America (and the lives of Americans) better.

Byrne’s transformation into pop music’s hippest cultural-critic-cum-philosophy-professor wasn’t a given. As Rob Tannenbaum of The New York Times noted in a recent feature, “At the start of his career, when Mr. Byrne was the singer in Talking Heads, fans turned to him for alienation, not hope.

Breakthrough records like Talking Heads: 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food introduced listeners to a very different Byrne, one whose eccentric delivery, autobiographical elusiveness, and obsession with the mundanities of everyday life, allowed him to slip into the role of the bewildered outsider, one who found himself equal parts frustrated and fascinated by the customs of the world where he loved to visit but didn’t want to live.

The songs that made Byrne and the Talking Heads famous during these years dealt directly with this disorientation; their most famous single is anchored by Byrne literally asking, “How did I get here?” On those early records, everything was a possible threat: love was an impossible riddle (“I’m Not in Love”), paradise was a boring trick (“Heaven”), and the comforts of modern society led nowhere but brain death (“Don’t Worry About the Government”). Redemption, when it came at all, did so through art and self-expression, and other people’s problems were theirs alone to solve (“No Compassion”).

However, that kind of paranoid post-punk Byrne wouldn’t remain an impartial (and overly anxious) observer for long. By the mid-’80s, his artistic and lyrical concerns would undergo an evolution and expansion that still informs his work today. As we approach Byrne’s latest reckoning with American culture, it feels important to revisit the place where that reckoning began in earnest.

Perhaps the best document to capture the turning point in Byrne’s innate sense of apartness isn’t an album but a film. Released in 1986, True Stories took Byrne from New York to Texas for his first foray in moviemaking. Taking cues from Errol Morris’ oddball documentary Vernon, Florida, the film explores the inner lives and outer quirks of residents from the fictional town of Virgil, where microchip manufacturer Vericorp is king and the sesquicentennial “Celebration of Specialness” is imminent.

As the film’s nameless narrator and tour guide (as well as its writer and director), Byrne blows into town in a red Chrysler convertible and soon finds himself palling around with all sorts of weirdos, from a woman who refuses to leave her bed and her voodoo-practicing butler to Louis Fyne, a Vericorp employee so desperate to find a wife that he records a television commercial complete with hotline number. In between these meetups, viewers are treated to interludes inspired by the mundane settings of high capitalism; everyday people stage an absurdist mall fashion show set to the haunting “Dream Operator”, a field sobriety test turns into a balletic movement piece, and a nameless security guard sings an operatic solo to no one on the half-built stage he’s tasked with protecting.

Had True Stories been made by Byrne in the ’70s, its promo inspiration (in, what else, an interview with himself, Byrne described his movie as “a project with songs based on true stories from tabloid newspapers” and “60 Minutes on acid”) might’ve resulted in another scathing takedown of quotidian suburban living. After all, this was the same guy who, on More Songs About Buildings and Food standout “The Big Country”, reacted to the everyday goings-on of flyover country with a dismissive “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.

Eight years later, things were different. Far from being a backhanded compliment, the film’s “Celebration of Specialness” actually feels like, well, a celebration. True Stories goes out of its way to express the (sometimes conflicted) positives at the heart of even the most nondescript town. There are rich inner lives inside each of the Vericorp drones (especially Fyne, whose quest for love is played out with circus-bear sympathy by John Goodman). The mall combines the town square with air conditioning. The prefab metal buildings that line the outskirts of town represent economic growth rather than unchecked sprawl. “Who can say it isn’t beautiful?” Byrne asks over a shot of an unfinished subdivision, thinking more of the lives about to unfold in each empty room rather than the cul-de-sacs on the edge of scrubland.

Most of these cues come from Byrne’s narrator who, instead of collapsing from the tension of being an outsider, replaces ironic distance or jaded worry with curious acceptance. He may not believe that “economics has become a spiritual thing” or that freeways are “the cathedrals of our time,” but he can understand the people who do.  

True Stories was a polarizing part of the Talking Heads canon from the beginning. Critics were wary of this newfound sincerity; though Roger Ebert praised the film for its “wonderment” and “bold attempt to paint a bizarre American landscape,” others, like New York Magazines David Denby, dismissed it for its “bland, floating facetiousness.The soundtrack bombed, too; originally intended to feature songs as they were performed by the movie’s actors, the record instead delivered (allegedly) more bankable Talking Heads versions that found the once-transcendent band, as Ira Robbins of Trouser Press put it, “slumming in the mundane world of tunesmiths and working musicians.

With the benefits of hindsight, it’s safe to say that the critical and commercial legacies of True Stories matter less than what it reveals about Byrne’s subsequent artistic and academic work. The movie (and accompanying record and book) signaled the final end of frustration, cynicism, and isolation as the dominant motifs of Byrne’s work. In their place, we find the codification of the themes and concerns that would continually reoccur over the course of the next 32 years: the search for meaning outside oneself (1994’s “Angels”), the belief in the possibility of connection between two people (2008’s Eno collaboration “Strange Overtones”), and the continued assertion that, for all of its faults, America is actually worth it (1997’s “Miss America”).

Perhaps most importantly, True Stories also marks the full emergence of Byrne’s ability to approach frightening existential questions on both a geological and subatomic scale. The film opens with a history lesson, in which Byrne traces the lifespan of the land that is now Texas from the time of the dinosaurs to the decimation of the native Americans to the oil and technology booms of the 20th century. The film’s closing sequence bookends this scene-setting with “City of Dreams”, in which Byrne recaps the same history with an implied caution: We’re only here for the middle of the story. Texas is temporary. Cherish it, before you go the way of the stegosaurus yourself.

In his 1986 review of the True Stories album, SPIN critic Chris Carroll identified these new mellower concerns as Byrne “aging happily” and “coming to terms with the things that made you angry just a few years ago.” Whether he’s mitigating the pain of a dissolving relationship by breaking things down to their constituent parts (2004’s elegiac “Glass, Concrete, and Stone”) or putting listeners at peace with their (infinitesimally small) place in the universe (1997’s “Finite=Alright”), Byrne finds comfort through perspective and, as Ebert said, a whole lot of wonderment. He captures those sentiments best on his newest single (“Everybody’s Coming to My House”): “We’re only tourists in this life/ Only tourists but the view is nice.

These ideas, and the songs they would inspire, helped Byrne transition from the jittery loner of his band’s earliest record into what he is now: an almost-spiritual guide offering solace and navigation through the isolation and despair of life as we live it. No wonder he named the town Virgil.

Of course, like any artistic evolution, this switch in perspective wasn’t without its downsides. It made Byrne’s work more open-handed and accessible, but also less urgent. Its concerns with mitigating interior dread and finding joy in the everyday also operate from a position of relative privilege and, for many facing far more tangible threats to their existence, don’t always feel like a priority.

However. In a political climate where uncertainty is the rule and not the exception, it’s still comforting to know that David Byrne is out there somewhere, riding his bike and dreaming up new ways to help us understand ourselves.

Some days, that’s the only reason to be cheerful that we need.

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Ranking: Every Talking Heads Album from Worst to Best

From their first gig opening for the Ramones in 1975 until the (eventually permanent) hiatus that followed the release of Naked in 1988, the Talking Heads released eight albums of music potently attuned to the absurdities and anxieties of late 20th century living. As they evolved from the sweaty post-punk weirdos that mesmerized audiences at CBGB to the well-oiled (and expanded) funk automatons depicted in Jonathan Demme’s seminal 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, the band never lost sight of their guiding principle: that being alive in the postmodern world is a deeply strange, deeply unsettling proposition.

byrne dance Ranking: Every Talking Heads Album from Worst to Best

While the message rarely changed, the means of delivery did. Listen to the eight albums the band released in those 11 short years, and you’ll cross sonic landscapes that take you past nervous New York punk and no wave, the irresistible grooves of contemporaneous R&B and funk, and exit pointing towards country-western, glam, and nearly every other dominant subgenre of the era. With a catalog that sometimes sounds like a wild spin of a radio dial, it’s easy to lose your way. Luckily, we’ve done some of the work for you and assembled a rough ranking of the Talking Heads’ body of work. You may still find yourself living in a shotgun shack, but with this guide at the ready, you’ll at least know how you got there.

Just remember: this ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. 

–Tyler Clark
Contributing Writer


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