“Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5

Maroon 5 have developed such a consistent reputation for talentless hackwork in recent years that it’s sometimes difficult to remember what a really terrific act they were when they first debuted. Their first album, Songs About Jane, was one of the few great Pop releases in a year where all the good music seemed to come from Alternative and Indie Rock, and it covered an impressive spectrum of emotion related to romantic obsession, with this, the first single, representing the angriest, most violent end of that spectrum. Like their later song, “Animals”, this is in effect a violently threatening stalker song, but that’s where the resemblance ends. The problem with “Animals” was that it was too silly and over-the-top to be frightening…”Baby, I’m preyin’ on you tonight/hunt you down, eat you alive” just sounds like a joke, but “I have the tendency of getting very physical/so watch your step, ’cause if I do, you’ll need a miracle” sounds like a legitimate threat. Some might try to claim this kind of content is ‘offensive’, but remember that the Songs About Jane album is a study of unhealthy fixation and codependency that knows it’s unhealthy, and the almost psychotic rage of this song is definitely not being held up as an admirable model of behavior. In addition, the song rocks as hard as anything the band would ever released, with the tight groove and sour tang that were their trademarks at the time, and its intentionally creepy sound was a perfect fit for Adam Levine’s unusual vocal quality, making it an asset rather than the liability it’s been since he started slathering it with auto-tune.

Verdict: Good.

“Commas” by Future

The phenomenon of what the music press has tentatively dubbed ‘Hook-Rap’ is related to, but different from, the preceding craze of Crunk-esque Party Rap it grew out of, being subtler and more artful. It’s basically a new form of Rap where the lyrics are completely irrelevant and all that matters is creating an atmospheric soundscape through the repetition of small melodic fragments…think a Rap version of Philip Glass. Many music fans, including myself, have been slow to embrace this new musical paradigm, but the truth is that there’s a reason the professional critics respect this stuff so highly. Future has received some not-entirely-unwarranted skepticism because his first album to make a mainstream impact, Honest, made some poor choices in terms of its single releases, but his later material, particularly from 2015 through 2017, is much more consistent. This song has the standard generic Glam Rap lyrics Future has always used, but they’re not really the point. The point is the melody, a string of melodic fragments that is actually extremely sophisticated, almost resembling the work of certain Classical composers like Debussy in terms of structure, and the hypnotic atmosphere created by the melodic and lyrical repetitions. This is a far more interesting song than it might seem at first glance, and I can actually see now why Future gets such a high degree of critical praise.

Verdict: Good.

“Joanne” by Lady Gaga

This is the most recent studio album by singer-songwriter-musician and former Pop sensation Stefani Germanotta, better known by her increasingly unfortunate stage name Lady Gaga. In all seriousness, I have to imagine she regrets choosing that name at this point…it worked for what she was trying to do for the first few years of her career, but now that she’s trying to establish herself as a serious artist, it’s becoming more and more of a liability.

In any case, for those who need a refresher course, Lady Gaga started out as a Pop starlet with pretensions of avant-garde artistry that she didn’t really try all that hard to back up. Unlike her closest peer, Katy Perry, she actually had genuine talent, but almost seemed to downplay it in order to not draw attention from her over-the-top persona. At first, this didn’t matter…most of the public was eating out of her hand, and she became the same kind of Pop culture icon that Madonna was at her peak. But after Adele broke into the mainstream and showed people what a real genius-level Pop star looked like, people gradually realized that their supposed visionary genius was a fraud.

After an extended hiatus and an attempted ‘comeback’ album that did little more than embarrass her, she spent the next few years working in fields of music unrelated to the Pop charts. She made a duets album of classic standards with legendary singer Tony Bennett, and crafted a harrowing, Oscar-nominated theme song for an ultra-serious documentary about sexual assault cases, and she would follow up this album by starring in a surprisingly respectable remake of the classic movie musical A Star is Born. This time associating with more legit musicians and genres seems to have done her a lot of good, as the quality of her work has actually improved immensely since her last ‘Pop’ album was released.

This album was nominally intended, at least in the eyes of the public, as her ‘comeback’ to the Pop world, and yet unlike her last ‘comeback’ album, Artpop, which reeked of desperation, this album seems almost indifferent toward its own level of success on the Pop charts. Strange as it may sound, Lady Gaga is not really a mainstream Pop artist anymore, and while this album only really produced one ‘hit’ to speak of, it wound up emulating Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, another album by a seemingly superannuated former Pop sensation, by becoming a major underground success outside the mainstream Pop scene.

Some fans of her early work complained about Gaga discontinuing the bizarre antics that she used to get attention back in her ‘Pop’ days (I remember reading a particularly idiotic argument along those lines from The Washington Post‘s resident Pop music critic when this album first came out). These arguments are stupid and hypocritical for a number of reasons, but the most obvious one is that Gaga’s ‘freak’ persona almost never spilled over into her actual music. Yes, she made surreal music videos, gave outlandish live performance, and made an ass of herself at public events in all kinds of bizarre ways. But apart from “Bad Romance” and to a lesser extent “Poker Face”, her songs were nearly all relatively normal (if often above-average) Pop music of the period. “Just Dance” and “Telephone” were fairly conventional club songs, “Alejandro” sounds uncannily like an Ace of Base song, “Born This Way” is a pretty standard ‘love yourself’ anthem, “You and I” is a pastiche of Pop-Country, and “Edge of Glory” is fairly straightforward retro-Classic Rock. This album has a more normal marketing image than most of her earlier work, but its actual content isn’t particularly different.

The primary difference between this and Gaga’s earlier work lies in its consistency. This album, which draws mostly on influences from Classic Rock and Classic Country, doesn’t have a single real dud on it. Even the third single, “A-YO”, while probably the least successful item on the album and thus not the best choice for a single, is a fairly solid and enjoyable song. The highlights are the Springsteen-meets-Jim-Steinman lead single, “Perfect Illusion”; the Country-flavored “Million Reasons”; the scorching album opener, “Diamond Heart”; the title track, an optimistic song about grief; the erotically off-kilter “Dancing in Circles”, penned by none other than the legendary Beck himself; and the heartbreaking “Angel Down”, about the Treyvon Martin shooting. But pretty much everything on the album is strong, even the bonus tracks, which is a rarity in Pop music…even good artists tend to rely on blatant filler material to fill out their deluxe editions. Several of the songs feature production by Mark “Uptown Funk” Ronson, and Florence Welch shows up for a duet, “Hey Girl”…and impressively, Gaga manages to hold her own against one of modern music’s most monumental voices.

Remember, the only Lady Gaga album to even approach this level of consistency before was the eight-song EP The Fame Monster, and even it had one blatant filler track in “Teeth”. Gaga’s done songs as good as anything on this album before (“Just Dance”, “Poker Face”, “Bad Romance”, “The Edge of Glory”, etc.); what makes this a breakthrough is that she managed to do so many of them in one place. If albums really do matter, then this is the opus that elevated Gaga to the prestigious rank of genuine ‘Album Artist’, and that has to count for something.

This isn’t a world-changing, genius-level masterpiece album like Adele’s 21 or Taylor Swift’s 1989 or Beyonce’s Lemonade, but it is a consistently excellent collection of sophisticated Pop songs—indeed, as a whole it is a more satisfying collection than Adele’s follow-up 25. But then, Lady Gaga is not, nor was she ever, a visionary genius…just a solid, dependable talent who unfortunately spent her early career trying to pass herself off as something she wasn’t. And while her flamboyant past and increasingly awkward choice of stage name are still somewhat hindering her attempts to reinvent herself as a serious artist, this set proved that she certainly has the raw talent necessary for it.

“Music is Better Than Words” by Seth McFarlane

For those who are wondering, yes, this album is by that Seth McFarlane—the comedian behind the long-running animated sitcom Family Guy, who used to be considered one of the funniest men in Hollywood but is now generally despised for his comedic excesses. For the record, I tend to agree with the general opinion on his work…that is, that it was extremely funny early in his career but has gone drastically downhill since he was given too much free reign with his own projects. But we’re not here to talk about that; our focus is the album of Great American Songbook standards he recorded in 2011.

The critics absolutely hated this album, but I imagine that had more to do with the very concept of Seth McFarlane trying to emulate Frank Sinatra than the actual quality of the album. Granted, it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, but there are so few high-profile Traditional Pop albums these days that this probably speaks more to the Grammy committee’s desperation to fill out a ballot than any positive feeling toward the album itself.

Of course, in one way doing an album of classic standards is easier than doing a conventional album of original songs because you’re pretty much guaranteed excellent material without any especial effort on your part. On the other hand, it can also be harder, because all the focus is on your performance and people will be automatically comparing you to the giants of the genre’s past. Certainly, it’s an established fact that McFarlane can sing, and from a purely vocal perspective his work here is unquestionably excellent, with the album closer “She’s Wonderful Too” showing off his strong baritone particularly well.

The critics accused McFarlane of sounding like a bland standard-issue Lounge Singer here, but he actually has a very distinct style as an interpreter of these songs. He approaches most of the album with a crisp, somewhat sardonic sound, even on the most ebullient numbers (such as the title track). This approach makes the ‘money can’t buy happiness’ credo “It’s Anybody Spring” sound like a satire in the vein of “All I Care About Is Love” from Chicago, and he delivers the humbly romantic “Anytime, Anywhere” with what sounds like withering sarcasm, turning it into a biting anti-love song.

This may sound like a bad thing, but it actually helps breathe fresh life into these overexposed standards. Remember, in interpretive singing there’s no one ‘right’ way to perform a song, and it is both expected and desirable that the singer put a fresh spin on the song. McFarlane’s approach is refreshingly different, and despite the critics’ accusations, this album is far more interesting than the warmed-over Sinatra leftovers that critical darlings like Michael Buble specialize in.

Seth seems to be having the time of his life on “The Night They Invented Champagne” and “The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl”, turning the former into a rakish party song far from its innocent beginnings (it was originally sung by the teenaged heroine in Gigi), and approaching the latter with a gusto worthy of Robert Preston. Even “Something Good” from The Sound of Music sounds faintly acerbic here, coming off as more regretful than blissful.

But lest you think the album is purely an exercise in irony, there’s Seth’s heartbreaking version of “It’s Easy To Remember”, where for a moment he really does sound uncannily like Sinatra. Also diverging from the album’s mocking tone is “Laura”, which he turns into an eerie song of obsession that sounds like the singer is going quietly insane.

There are also two duets with singers that everyone respects, who help lend credibility to this attempt. Granted, Norah Jones also contributed to the soundtrack of McFarlane’s decisively horrible movie Ted, for reasons I’ve never understood. But I certainly understand why she agreed to duet with him here, and they give “Two Sleepy People” a wry elegance that could honestly compete with many of the great duets from the ‘classic’ era. As for his duet with Sara Bareilles, they bring a stinging bite to “Love Won’t Let You Get Away” that emphasizes the song’s darker implications, resulting in a vivid if ironically cheerful portrait of a truly dysfunctional relationship.

I’m aware that Seth McFarlane has earned his negative reputation fairly, and that reputation will always work against this album being taken seriously. But none of the reasons for McFarlane’s bad press have anything to do with this album, and they really shouldn’t be held against it. I’m also aware that this isn’t one of the greatest Standards albums of the decade…it certainly doesn’t approach the level of Tony Bennett’s Duets II or Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom or Willie Nelson’s Here We Go Again. But it is a valid and frankly rather fascinating take on some truly classic songs, and if you can look past the bad work its singer has done in entirely different fields, it’s definitely worth a listen. And frankly, I think we can all agree that if McFarlane abandoned his primary endeavors altogether and just focused on making standards albums like this, the world would be a much better and happier place.

“Kisses on the Bottom” by Paul McCartney

Oddly enough, one of the most ‘Traditional Pop’ albums of the 2010s came from a seemingly unexpected source…a legendary pioneer of the genre that replaced the Great American Songbook in America’s popular culture, former Beatles member Paul McCartney. But this probably shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise: McCartney has always shown a visible love for the older classics of his parents’ era, paying tribute to them with such songs as “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Your Mother Should Know” in his Beatles era and continuing to do so with items like “You Gave Me the Answer” in his solo career. With that it mind, perhaps it should seem more inevitable than surprising that he finally joined the now-common trend of big-name rockers making albums of standards.

It’s worth noting that, while all the Beatles were geniuses in their own fields, McCartney was really the only one of them to command a truly first-rate singing voice. McCartney’s voice has lost much of its force and fullness as the years have gone by, reducing it to a mere wisp of sound, but it has lost virtually none of its beauty. On the more up-tempo selections on this album, such as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” (from whence comes the amusing pun in the album title), he offers some of the most delicate Swing you’re ever likely to hear, projecting a glowingly jaunty ebullience that is almost impossible to resist.

On the more ballad-like passages, his performance is even more subdued, offering some of the most gentle, tender, wistful interpretations of these songs imaginable, and his wispy voice only adds to the effect. Particularly exquisite are his renditions of two songs from Frank Loesser musicals—”More I Cannot Wish You” from Guys and Dolls and “The Inch Worm” from Hans Christian Anderson. The only place where McCartney’s performance veers from its tone of soft wistfulness is on the palpably bitter “Get Yourself Another Fool”, and even it comes across as very downplayed and realistic, without the theatrics most performers add to that kind of song.

There are several standards on this album that are more familiar in England than over here in the U.S., and while American listeners might not recognize them (and might find their twee style a bit of an acquired taste), McCartney fans will be fascinated, because songs like “My Very Good Friend the Milkman” clearly show the influences McCartney was drawing on when he wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four” and its ilk. There are two McCartney originals mixed in with the standards, but you might have a bit of trouble finding them, because while they do have the subtly recognizable mark of McCartney’s songwriting, the haunting “My Valentine” and the tender “Only Our Hearts” blend in seamlessly with the actual period tunes on this album. Granted, McCartney, as I observed earlier, has always had a gift for pastiche, but these songs are still impressive achievements in that regard, not to mention being lovely songs in their own right.

And for those of you who might find the extremely distinctive-sounding instrumentation on this album a bit…familiar, yes, that’s lauded Jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall playing the piano and leading the band. Krall does this occasionally on albums by stars even bigger than herself, such as Barbra Streisand’s Love Is the Answer (after all, she first got her start doing the same thing for Tony Bennett), and she never fails to add her own unique flavor in the process. Here, her haunting jazziness helps balance McCartney’s gentle sentimentality and keep it from coming off as cloying the way some of his solo albums have in the past.

This is quite seriously one of the most beautiful albums I have heard in a long time. It seems I’m not alone in this estimation: it received considerable acclaim at the time, even winning a Grammy, and even without McCartney’s prior reputation to back it up, I would readily nominate it as one of the finest albums of the current decade in any field. This decade has seen a number of acclaimed late-career comebacks for Classic Rock giants (Bob Dylan’s Tempest, Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What, and David Bowie’s Blackstar, to name a few), and while this may not be the most ambitious or substantial of those projects, it could hold its own with any of them in terms of sheer beauty.

“Based on a True Story…” by Blake Shelton

I wouldn’t have thought a vacuous shill like Blake Shelton could actually sell out any more than he already had, but he did, with this, easily the worst Bro-Country album of 2013 (at least if you don’t consider Justin Moore’s Off the Beaten Path Bro-Country). Granted, Shelton had been a fairly respectable, almost Neotraditional Country act back in the early 2000s, but that’s just a distant memory now, and even back then he was never one of the top-tier acts in the genre. There would be no shortage of worse Bro-Country albums in coming years (Chase Rice’s Ignite the Night, Florida Georgia Line’s Anything Goes, and Luke Bryan’s Kill the Lights, to name just a few), but at the genre’s actual peak of popularity, there was pretty much nothing worse in it than this.

I’ll say one thing for this album…it’s the first thing Shelton had released in years to inspire any emotional response other than boredom. Unfortunately, those other responses are generally disgust, revulsion and the desire to do serious physical violence to the singer. The big hit from the album, “Boys ‘Round Here”, is one of the most freakish songs in the entire Country genre. Country songs that attempt to Rap are nearly always disasters, but from its opening lines (a stuttering ‘red-red-red-red-red-neck’), this is one of the most surreal attempts at genre fusion I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard people try to fuse Country with Dubstep.

The rest of the album is more normal than that…basically standard-issue Bro-Country formula, just done worse than average…but no less annoying. The most obvious examples of this are the revoltingly sleazy “love” songs “Sure Be Cool If You Did” and “My Eyes” (the chorus of which runs ‘my eyes are the only thing I don’t wanna take off of you’).  Then there’s “Doin’ What She Likes”, which somehow manages to be cloying and sleazy at the same time. It’s particularly jarring coming right before “I Still Got a Finger”, which starts out as a rip-off of “Take This Job and Shove It” and then turns into a blatantly insulting breakup song, before climaxing with a horrible spoken punchline.

Particularly offensive is “Country on the Radio”, where Shelton claims Country songs ‘say the same old thing like a broken record’. No, Blake, that’s just the brand of Pop-Country you specialize in…real, Classic-style Country actually has a lot more variety than just ‘pretty girls, pickups and cut-off jeans’, as you so eloquently put it. The album even ends with some Justin Moore-style political pandering on “Granddaddy’s Gun”, something I actually thought even a hack like Shelton would be above doing.

About the only redeeming track on the main album is the touching ballad “Mine Would Be You”, and even it has some questionable lines. In fact, after all the sheer concentrated awfulness of this album, the songs that resemble Shelton’s usual dull-as-dishwater Easy Listening style, like the dull ballad “Do You Remember” or the bland attempt at sensuality “Lay Low”, actually come off as a relief.

Ironically, the two bonus tracks on the deluxe edition are vastly better than anything on the main album. Seriously, these two songs that got buried in apocryphal limbo are better than anything Shelton had done in almost a decade at this point. The genuinely insightful “I Found Someone” even bears a strong resemblance to Shelton’s first and best hit, the Country classic “Austin”. So apparently Shelton can still get material like this, but seems to think it suitable only for padding out deluxe editions, which means he’s an even bigger idiot than I thought.

Like I said, the Bro-Country genre would eventually get much worse than this, but the only year the genre was really a force in the mainstream was 2013. And while Justin Moore’s Off the Beaten Path contained a couple of Bro-Country-esque tracks and was certainly far worse than this, this is still the worst album consisting predominantly of Bro-Country to be released during the genre’s commercial heyday. And that’s more than dishonor enough, frankly, especially when you remember that we’re talking about a genre that is justly reviled at the best of times.

“Ocean Eyes” by Owl City

This album produced the first really huge Indie Rock crossover hit, thus paving the way for the unending string of hits in that vein that helped revitalize pop music in the current decade. Yet despite that fairly crucial contribution to actually making popular music good again, it received scathing reviews from the pro critics and an equally brutal reception from the Indie Rock subculture it was originally marketed towards. This response was actually kind of hypocritical, given that, if this album had come out in, say, 2003 instead of 2009, it probably would have been lauded as a masterpiece.

If you don’t believe me, think about the most obvious description of this record: gentle, pretty synth-pop with whimsical, childlike lyrics that create the impression of submerging the listener in an ebullient, optimistic worldview. Sound like anything you’ve heard of? It should, if you’re familiar with Indie Rock as a genre. That’s right—the Flaming Lips during their Indie Pop phase, particularly their breakthrough albums The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

And they weren’t the only heavily whimsical act being lauded as geniuses in Indie Rock at the time, either. So-called ‘Twee Pop’ bands like Belle and Sebastian, the Apples in Stereo, the Fiery Furnaces and Deerhoof pretty much dominated the genre at the time, and even though that style gradually fell out of favor as the 2000s wore on, the fact remains that the albums they were calling works of genius in one year and the album they were panning in another have virtually no major distinguishing qualities.

Of course, the other factor in this album’s poor critical reception is obvious…it produced a Number One hit on the Pop charts with the single “Fireflies”, and given the Indie subculture’s well-known contempt for anything perceived as ‘Mainstream’, that probably hurt its cause more than any other factor. Even now, when Indie Rock songs becoming major pop hits is a common occurrence, the acts that do it tend to get labels like ‘Fake Indie’ from a certain portion of the subculture, so in 2009, it must have been perceived as outright treason to the ‘Indie’ label itself. After all, the only true Indie band to chart anywhere near that high before had been Chumbawamba with “Tubthumping”, and it got pretty much the same reception at the time.

The truth is that this album is lovely. Even the people who hate the album don’t generally try to argue that the music itself is bad, as the melodies and arrangements are so catchy and obviously well-crafted that that’s kind of a losing argument. You’ll hear it compared to the Postal Service almost as often as to the Flaming Lips, and while the resemblance isn’t as strong on the rest of the album as it is on the hit single, it still is in the the general style of Indie Synth-Pop originally pioneered by that band (you know, the kind that doesn’t sound all that different from the classier forms of 2000s pop music).

The real Indie flavoring is in the lyrics, which are full of thick whimsy and deliberately goofy word choices. Granted, at times this style can get to be a bit much even for this album’s fans (there are portions of “The Bird and the Worm” and “Dental Care” that would make almost anyone wince), but at least as often the surface silliness masks surprisingly honest and even profound insights. The second single, “Vanilla Twilight”, went nowhere on the charts, but is actually a better and more moving song than “Fireflies”, perfectly capturing the range of sentimental bittersweetness that comes after a breakup. And items like the gently sweeping love duet “The Saltwater Room” and the swirling, soaring “On the Wing” are no less evocative and magical.

Granted, the album is impossible to take seriously, but I don’t think it’s meant to be taken seriously in the conventional sense. It’s meant to immerse you in the artist’s worldview, in much the same way as the aforementioned Flaming Lips albums were, and since Owl City’s innocent, imaginative and kind of wondrous internal world is actually a really nice place to spend some time, I don’t see why anyone would have any complaints about that. Granted, Adam Young is not by any distant stretch a Wayne Coyne-level vocalist, but even the fact that he sounds like a twelve-year-old rather suits the kind of music he makes.

Owl City’s second album, All Things Bright and Beautiful, would be in much the same style as this one, and almost managed to equal it in atmospheric beauty. His third, The Midsummer Station, would be quite a bit more conventional than his first two, with a sound more akin to mainstream radio-pop than Indie Pop, but its strong production, combined with significantly darker lyrical content, made it a pretty satisfying record all the same. And his 2014 EP Ultraviolet was arguably even better, netting him about the only critical praise of his entire career.

I’ll grant you that Owl City’s artistic track record hasn’t been spotless…his 2015 album Mobile Orchestra is exactly the kind of embarrassing schlock the critics have always accused him of making. Even so, his best material remains some of the most unique and rarefied Indie Rock of the last ten years—and since those are the qualities that Indie Rock most prides itself on, their rejection of this album and its singer based on his having the temerity to actually become successful is blatantly at odds with their real core values.

“1,000 Forms of Fear” by Sia

Sia’s latest album, This Is Acting, was done in by a horribly misconceived concept, and it produced one of the worst hit singles of 2016, “Cheap Thrills”, which made Number One on the charts for the three weeks despite the fact that virtually no-one would admit to liking it. So I thought that, instead of reviewing that album, I would shine a light on some of Sia’s earlier, better music. I just really feel the need to remind people that Sia is, in fact, still capable of artistically valid and important work…yes, even in the heart of her ‘Pop’ phase.

This album did have its detractors, but that’s mostly because it was such a deliberately aggressive and abrasive record…one that is definitely not designed to be easy to listen to. The music is very much in the style of mainstream Party-Pop, only with the intensity cranked up to frighteningly manic levels, and with some deeply disturbing lyrical content.

Despite Sia’s Indie-Pop fanbase largely turning on her after she went mainstream, this album still has a definite Indie-Pop vibe to it. Sia went from being completely outside the mainstream Pop genre (in her early work) to using it more or less conventionally (in “Titanium”, “Wild Ones” and her various behind-the-scenes songwriting contributions) to subverting it, using the conventions of Pop music to comment on the genre and the culture that surrounds it.

The goal of this subversive commentary is to unmask the anguish and desperation underneath modern Pop music’s upbeat facade, to question the reasons why it feels the need to submerge itself so deeply in hedonistic celebration. The lyrics on this album are seriously some of the most disturbing you’ll ever hear on a mainstream Pop album (example: ‘Just blow me up or run me down or cut my throat/And when it’s time for you to die/I’ll let you know’). They deal mostly with the album’s core theme, revealing the secret despair and self-loathing behind stereotypical party girls, but there are a few twistedly dysfunctional love songs (one of Sia’s trademark specialties as a songwriter since her Indie Pop days) thrown in for good measure.

Sia’s vocals alternate between murmurs or wails, with little space in between, and are drenched in auto-tune to further the invocation of the archetypical sounds of modern Pop. In fact, as disturbing as the songwriting on this album is, the most unsettling thing about listening to it might be Sia’s performance. It’s common knowledge that Sia has some pretty serious neuroses of her own in real life, and it sounds like she’s channeling all of them into her delivery here. The result is a devastatingly vulnerable explosion of emotional agony that sounds uncomfortably like this isn’t acting…like she really is feeling all of the pain she’s expressing.

About the only thing on this album to be remotely Pop-friendly in the conventional sense was the album’s second hit, “Elastic Heart”, which sounds rather like a much more intense version of Ellie Goulding’s output. However, the biggest hit from the album was much more typical of its sound…the epic anti-party anthem “Chandelier”. It’s kind of astounding that this song was as successful as it was, given that it’s almost the antithesis of a typical Pop hit in sound and feel. Not that I’m complaining, of course…it’s a fantastic song, arguably the highlight of the album, and it did a lot to spice up an otherwise boring year in Pop music.

Like I said, this is not meant to be a ‘fun’ album, and if you don’t have much tolerance for emotionally exhausting, almost expressionistic art, you probably won’t enjoy it. But it is nonetheless one of Sia’s most magnificent achievements, and for those of us with a taste for ‘difficult’ music, it stands with the best work of her career. This Is Acting consisted of Sia doing impressions of other people, as indeed most of her behind-the-scenes writing does, but this album sings with an utterly unique voice that has never been heard from anyone else. I can’t really say for sure if her latest efforts indicate that Sia has ‘sold out’, but after hearing this album, I wouldn’t be quick to jump to that conclusion if I were you.

“Fearless” by Taylor Swift

This was the first Taylor Swift album that could be called a masterpiece: while her first album had some fine material on it, she hadn’t yet reached a sufficient degree of emotional maturity to achieve the level of depth and insight she achieves here. By this point, while Taylor Swift the person was still clearly in many ways an adolescent, Taylor Swift the songwriter was pretty close to being in her full flower.

Granted, on this album any attempt to make her sound ‘Country’ was essentially abandoned, but the truth is that Swift was always more of an Adult Alternative Pop-Folk singer in the vein of acts like John Mayer, and only got pigeonholed as Country because she got her start through the Nashville machine. On her first album, the production tried to make her seem like a Country artist with a very self-consciously Country sound, but the single version of “Teardrops On My Guitar” makes it clear that the songs themselves don’t sound particularly Country when heard with different production. And by the time her second album came out, her producers had essentially given up trying to pretend she was something she wasn’t, which I see as a net positive.

This album, like all of Swift’s output, specializes heavily in her primary trademark: angry breakup songs. She has a particular gift for these because her usual persona is so sweet that it seems almost shocking when she projects real anger, giving these songs an impact they don’t have when delivered by, say, Beyonce. Items like “Forever and Always” and “You’re Not Sorry” are far subtler and less adolescent than “Picture To Burn” or “Should’ve Said No” from her first album. They serve as powerful expressions of quiet, dignified anger, and are the direct predecessors of items like “Dear John” on her later albums.

“White Horse” was Swift’s first single to make use of her recurring fairy tale motif, and it makes much sharper use of it than such later attempts as “Today Was A Fairytale”. The appealing teenage love song “You Belong With Me” and the honest autobiographical narrative “Fifteen” still stand as some of Swift’s most beautifully written songs, with the former showing an impressive economy of expression by summing up the difference between Swift and her glamorous rival with a simple piece of verbal shorthand: “She wears short skirts/I wear T-shirts”.

The album’s biggest hit, “Love Story”, has a somewhat divisive reputation due to playing fast and loose with classic literary references, her use of which some people considered to be inappropriate. But while the out-of-nowhere and somewhat confusing reference to The Scarlet Letter is questionable at best (she would make a much more adept reference to the same book in “New Romantics” several years later), the primary invocation of Romeo and Juliet is actually quite appropriate. And the truth is that invoking that famous tragedy, combined with the song’s wonderful emotional rush of a melody, makes the unexpected happy ending at the song’s climax all the more moving. I can actually see why this was the biggest hit of her early career, not to mention the best-selling Country single of all time for several years to come.

The title track is a suitably intense, even thrilling ballad, with a rousing, sweeping chorus and very nice use of guitars, and “The Way I Love You” is one of the most intense songs Swift has ever recorded, a ballad so anguished and desperate it almost comes off as a Rock song. Granted, the song’s message…that a healthy, non-turbulent relationship is ‘boring’…is not the most mature that Swift would express in her career, but most people have felt like that at one point or another in their lives, and you couldn’t ask her to capture that feeling any better in song. “Hey Stephen”, on the other hand, is an unpretentious, fresh-faced teenage love song that even features Swift laughing on a studio track and sounding completely genuine and spontaneous, a feat that surprisingly few Pop artists can pull off.

On “Breathe”, Swift collaborates with another impressive young musical talent, Colbie Caillat, in both writing and singing, and the two are a perfect match as collaborators, both tender, innocent romantic balladeers with an emphasis on acoustic guitar. “The Best Day” is an exquisitely written expression of love and gratitude toward Swift’s own mother, and still probably ranks as her most beautiful vocal performance to date. The climactic album closer “Change”, an inspirational anthem complete with a chorus refrain of ‘hallelujah’, is a bit of an unusual choice from Swift, but she pulls it off with real conviction.

What’s especially interesting is that the bonus tracks on the Platinum edition are actually more mature and complex than the material on the album proper—they sound far more like the songs on her next album, Speak Now, than they do like anything on the main disc. That’s the thing about Taylor Swift…like such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Eminem, she’s so gifted that even her leftovers are wonderful. (It’s worth remembering that Taylor’s lyrically simplistic but musically exquisite theme for the movie Valentine’s Day, “Today Was a Fairytale”, was also an outtake from this album).

The most notable of these tracks, “Untouchable”, was Taylor Swift’s first attempt to co-opt an Alt-Rock song, which proved to be one of the greatest artistic triumphs of her early career. This is presumably why she kept attempting the style with songs like “State of Grace” and that Better Than Ezra cover from Hope For Haiti Now, even though she would never achieve the same level of success with it again. “Superstar” is a surprisingly mature ballad, this time an exploration of the inherent bittersweetness of a celebrity crush. It sounds much more like a complex study in hindsight than the thoughts of an actual starstruck teenager, and is another sign that by the time these bonus tracks were being written, Taylor was gradually outgrowing the girliness of her early period. But it was the simplest and least complex of the Platinum Edition tracks, “Jump Then Fall”, that was the most successful: featuring a more pronounced country sound than anything else Swift has written since her debut album, it’s a breathless ballad that does a very convincing job of capturing the jittery feeling of first love.

Granted, Swift would surpass this album with her next one, the glorious Speak Now, and then surpass that album (and nearly every other Pop album of the decade) with the immortal 1989. Still, this is the point where Swift really proved to the music establishment that she was something truly special, and the material still holds up over a decade after its initial release. If you’re one of the many new fans that her recent work’s popularity has undoubtedly made, you owe it to yourself to go back and investigate this early breakthrough masterpiece…and be sure not to skip the bonus tracks, either.

“Red” by Taylor Swift

This album has an understandably bad reputation, as it produced three singles that, prior to the release of 1989, had most casual listeners at least partly convinced that Taylor Swift had sold out. That said, Billboard did place this album on its list of ‘the Best Albums of the Decade So Far’ in 2015, and while I scorned them for this myself when I first saw that (and still think her other two albums in that time period would be better contenders), having now heard the entire album, I understand a little more why they made that choice. Apart from the three big hits and the Alt-Rock experiment “State of Grace”, pretty much everything on this album sounds pretty much like typical Taylor Swift material, and most of that material is actually quite lovely.

This is Swift’s most melodious album, with one great tune after another…not just the bubblegummy hooks heard on the album’s hit singles, but real, gorgeous, flowing melodies that actually carry through the emotional content of the songs. Most of them stick to the usual Swift subject matter of romance, although they’re varied enough in tone and detail to keep from getting monotonous. That said, “The Lucky One” stands out for providing a strikingly honest look at what it’s really like to be a pop music superstar, making a truly convincing case for her assertion that her life isn’t as easy and cushy as it seems from our perspective.

Some have accused the album of having too little authentic Country flavor, but let’s be honest here…Swift was always really a pop-folk artist in the vein John Mayer or Jason Mraz. She only got pigeonholed as a Country singer because she happened to come to prominence through the Nashville machine. And this is pretty much the point in her career that she stopped even pretending she was a Country singer, but that was a separate phenomenon from her brief flirtation with selling out. The bulk of the material on this album may sound slightly less Country than her previous three albums, but it still sounds like Taylor Swift’s trademark sound.

What hurts this album’s reputation so much is that, while the good songs vastly outnumber the bad on the actual album, not a lot of people actually listen to albums anymore, and very little of the best material got the kind of exposure that the three ‘sellout songs’ did. The touching album closer “Begin Again” and the desperately yearning title-song were each briefly a Top Ten hit, the sweet Ed Sheeran duet “Everything Has Changed” made the Top Forty, and the album’s devastating high point “All Too Well” got performed on the Grammy Awards broadcast, but none of them ever landed on the Year-End Charts or made much of an impact with pop listeners.

And to be honest, even the ‘sellout’ singles aren’t really as bad as they’re made out to be. Well, okay, the lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is pretty bad (except in the Punk Rock version heard on the 1989 tour…apparently even Swift’s most reviled single just needed a better arrangement to emerge as a classic). But the primary objection to “I Knew You Were Trouble” back when it came out was the simple fact that it was an electropop song coming from Taylor Swift, and after the vast success of the 1989 album, that doesn’t really seem like much of a problem anymore. As for the youth anthem “22”, its relentlessly upbeat bubblegum hook can get a little annoying after a while, but it does feature a genuinely smart and characterful lyric, even if “New Romantics” would do the same idea much better a few years later.

It’s really a shame that this album has such a negative reputation, though, because Swift has never made a bad album, and I’m ashamed to admit that even I didn’t know that until I actually listened to the whole thing. If you’re a fan who’s been turned off of this album by the quality of the singles (like I was), try giving the whole thing a listen, skipping the three big hits if necessary, and see if your overall attitude toward the album as a whole changes. Based on my experience, I’m betting it will.