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In a genre as old as folk, it can be hard for anything to stand out against the large body of work comprising the genre’s canon. Artists like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon cultivated the sound that became associated with folk singer-songwriters in the middle of the 20th century. While the sounds they played were by definition based on earlier American musical styles, these artists sounded novel and each presented a unique brand of folk. In recent years, however, artists like Ed Sheeran have figured out how to soullessly manufacture the singer-songwriter formula by repeating the same tired sound again and again. Faced with a barrage of mediocre music, modern folk singer-songwriters have been forced to innovate in an attempt to stand out.
Every 20 years, like clockwork, American culture repeats itself. This does not mean that the same exact trends are recycled in an endless loop. Rather, after about 20 years, outdated culture becomes “retro,” and nostalgia for past decades shapes new styles and artwork. The 1970s had “Happy Days,” and the 1990s had “That ’70s Show.” In a more abstract sense, the infatuation with the glamorous lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy in the 1980s inspired reality television and “Gossip Girl” in the 2000s. As we enter the 2020s, the music stylings of the early aughts are making a comeback. Artists like Charli XCX and Slayyyter evoke Britney Spears-style pop, while Poppy and Grimes both recently released music that is heavily reminiscent of nu metal.
After eight long years, 1990s teenage pop sensation turned reclusive savant Fiona Apple has released her fifth album, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” As longtime fans know, Apple’s album release schedule is erratic; she has only released five albums since her 1996 debut “Tidal,” which she released when she was 18 years old. Apple’s prodigious talents as a writer are apparent even on her first album, but her teenage immaturity and naivete are also obvious. While the 90-word title of her second album, often shortened to “When the Pawn …,” initially annoyed fans and critics when it debuted in 1999, the complex, jazzy instrumentals and tremendous lyrical improvement won over most listeners. A protracted dispute with her label created a six-year gap before the release of Apple’s third album, “Extraordinary Machine,” in 2005, which introduced full orchestration behind her music.
On March 27, English pop artist Dua Lipa released her sophomore album “Future Nostalgia” one week early, in the midst of the global pandemic. With millions around the world quarantined in their homes and looking for a way to pass the hours, the timing couldn’t be better. The album’s upbeat sound is exactly what the world needs in this time of uncertainty and confusion.
Last Saturday, “Citrus” debuted at Northern Stage in White River Junction. Celeste Jennings ’18 wrote “Citrus” as her senior year fellowship project while at Dartmouth. JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, who directed the initial reading of “Citrus” at the College last May, is directing the production’s Northern Stage iteration as well. “Citrus” is not a play in the traditional sense; rather, it is a choreopoem, which combines dance, music, poetry, rap and acting. It tells the stories of black women throughout history and in the present day, with a focus on personal experiences.
For Claire Boucher, the last few years have marked a massive change in popularity. Between the critical and commercial success of her 2015 album “Art Angels” and her high-profile relationship with billionaire Elon Musk, Boucher, better known as Grimes, has become a genuine celebrity. Her prodigious rise to stardom probably comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with her work since the beginning — which was full of obscured vocals and avant-garde goth-punk — especially since it took four albums for her to become a household name.
Over the last decade, Kevin Parker has used his solo project Tame Impala to create incredible anthems of loneliness and isolation. Ever since his 2010 single “Solitude is Bliss,” Parker has pushed himself further and further away from society, using his lyrics to present himself as an outsider looking in. Even the album cover of Tame Impala’s 2012 album “Lonerism” depicts people picnicking on the other side of a fence, just out of reach. During the production of his next album “Currents” in 2015, Parker withdrew even further, working meticulously on each track. And while these songs dealt more with interpersonal relationships than any of his previous works, the lyrics made it clear that Parker felt more alone than ever.
Last year, the Academy Awards were not in good shape; no one would host, the choices for winners were unpopular and the awards show faced consistently declining numbers. Alternatively, at this year’s 92nd Academy Awards, the decision to not have a host again worked very well; the choices for nominations and winners were the best they have been in years; and the presenters and performers kept the show interesting throughout. And yet, this year’s Oscars had the lowest viewership recorded since Nielsen Sounds can began keeping track in 1974. Those of us who did watch, however, were treated to the best Academy Awards in many years.
After another year of incredible music output, it is almost time for the Grammys to choose which albums were the most commercially viable of 2019 — or, as the Academy phrases it, the best.
In many regards, the advent of the Internet has changed the landscape of music more than anything since the invention of the phonograph. From the explosion of microgenres such as vaporwave and cloud rap in the 2010s to streaming services allowing immediate access to just about every song ever recorded, the music industry is almost unrecognizable to what it was pre-Internet. One of the more significant aspects of the new music industry is the now meteoric pace at which stars can rise through the use of websites such as SoundCloud, Bandcamp and even YouTube — all of which allow anyone to find an audience much more easily than in the past.
From start to finish, 2019 has been a whirlwind year for music. It has been a year of innovation and excitement in nearly every genre, whether it be hip-hop, folk, pop or any other. While there were dozens of albums that could be recognized for their brilliance this year, I’ve had to narrow it down to only 10 for this list. These 10 albums have all introduced new ideas into their respective genres while still being an enjoyable listen from start to finish. In a way, all of them manage to reflect the issues of the time while still sounding distinctly human.
There is no one in the world who sounds like FKA twigs. Her music contains a multitude of recognizable influences, sure, but the way in which she seamlessly weaves together musical ideas from a broad range of genres and styles into her own music is unique to her and her alone in the modern landscape of popular music.
For fans of Kanye West, there is nothing in the world more stressful than when he announces a new album. Kanye’s album rollouts are never anything less than a full-blown spectacle, often containing controversial statements, ill-conceived actions, pushed-back release dates and even major changes made to both the album’s title and content. After scandals like the “Imma let you finish” fiasco with Taylor Swift leading up to 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” the numerous name changes to 2016’s “The Life of Pablo” and Kanye’s public embrace of Donald Trump before 2018’s “Ye,” veteran Kanye fans thought that nothing else he could do would surprise them.
“Norman F—ing Rockwell!” is easily Lana Del Rey’s best work to date. Upon its reveal, the cover art of “NFR!” created a considerable amount of controversy within Lana Del Rey’s fanbase. While her previous covers all use similar bold fonts for the title of the album and feature cinematic images of Del Rey alone with a car and wearing white, conservative outfits, “NFR!” goes in a different direction.