“Rainbow” by Kesha

After several years out of the spotlight due to a tragic legal and personal entanglement that brought on an outpouring of public sympathy even from those who had hated her previous work, expectations were high for Kesha’s fourth album (or third, I suppose, depending on if you count the Cannibal EP as a full album in itself). After all, her 2012 effort Warrior had already been a massive leap ahead of her often disastrous first two releases, and after such a deep and tragic personal struggle, everyone was on the edge of their seats wondering what she was going to release.

And yet, in spite of all this hype, the resulting album still managed to exceed everyone’s expectations. This is, in all seriousness, one of the greatest albums of the entire current decade…and I’m not talking Top 100; I’m talking Top Ten. This is 2017’s equivalent of Adele’s 21 in 2011, Taylor Swift’s 1989 in 2014, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, and Beyonce’s Lemonade in 2016.

The lead single, the monumentally moving Gospel power ballad “Praying”, with its intensely personal lyrics and anguished intensity, set the expectations for this album’s content, but while there is plenty of honest singer-songwriter introspection on display here, this album is far more varied than one might expect from the lead single alone. Even the heavier, more serious songs have an impressive variety of tone…for example, the first track, “Bastards”, marries a tranquil, almost gentle melody to an enraged, profane lyric, providing a perfect tone-setting opening. Meanwhile, the breathtakingly beautiful title-song expresses a message of hope in indescribably gentle and tender melody, and the forcibly carefree “Learn to Let Go” talks about letting go of pain of the past in music that sounds like it actually means it.

The second song to be released from the album, “Woman”, with its explicit, defiant lyrics and a distinctive sound courtesy of the Dap-King Horns on backup, is perhaps the most ferocious feminist anthem in all of Pop music. This song is presumably what Kesha was trying to achieve on most of her first two releases, but whether due to her personal and artistic growth or the absence of Dr. Luke’s influence, it manages to succeed where those songs failed.

Similarly, the outsiders’ anthem “Hymn” is essentially a much more effective take on the model used on her earlier single “We R Who We R”. While that song was one of the more listenable items on the Cannibal EP, it failed to convince as the inspirational anthem it was supposedly meant to be, coming off as little more than a standard-issue club song. “Hymn”, on the other hand, thanks to its beautifully honest and heartfelt lyrics, genuinely comes across as a message of hope and inclusion for the outcasts and rejects of society with whom Kesha identifies, and I could see it providing great comfort to a whole generation of adolescents who feel like they don’t belong.

Interestingly, this album focuses so much on relatively unconventional subject matter for Pop music that there are only two straightforward, conventional love songs on the entire record. That said, they’re damned good ones…the glowing “Finding You” and the smolderingly sexy “Boots”.

To counterbalance all this heavy seriousness, the album features a couple of splendid comic novelties. “Hunt You Down” somewhat resembles a kind of funnier, more focused take on Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” (‘Baby, I love you so much…don’t make me kill you’). Even funnier is “Godzilla”…and yes, this song is literally about what it’s like to date Godzilla, as in the giant fire-breathing dinosaur from the movie franchise. Granted, it’s probably meant to be metaphorical on some level, but the humor comes from the sheer insanity of the chosen metaphor and the matter-of-fact manner in which it’s presented.

The album has as much variety in its musical influences as it does in tone. There are two outright Rock tracks, both featuring an act that also has some experience with tragedy, the Eagles of Death Metal. “Let ‘Em Talk” has a late-Nineties/early-2000s skater-punk vibe to it, while “Boogie Feet” sounds almost like an updated version of early Sixties Rock like “Do You Love Me?” and “Wipeout”.

The album also draws quite a bit on Country influences…more authentic Country influences, in fact, than much of the actual Country genre has been known for in recent years. The aforementioned “Hunt You Down” sounds uncannily like a classic-era Johnny Cash song, while Kesha’s cover of Dolly Parton’s hit “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” (which, incidentally, Kesha’s own mother co-wrote) even features Parton herself as a guest vocalist.

The album closes with a deeply profound song about life, death and spirituality entitled “Spaceship”. Another song featuring a Country-influenced sound, it applies a science-fiction metaphor to the idea of an afterlife and transcending the human experience. Even the other masterpieces I mentioned at the top of this article didn’t close out on a note this truthful and moving, and as the song fades out with a beautifully written spoken monologue, you almost can’t believe how far Kesha has come from the girl who introduced herself to the world with the words “Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy”.

I’m not really all that surprised that none of the album’s song except “Praying” had much luck on the radio, since Kesha curses a blue streak on almost all of them, sometimes to the point where it would be enormously difficult to censor. To her credit, the profanity never comes across as gratuitous…it just seems to arise naturally out of the album’s ultra-intense feelings…but it still limited the success of these songs as individual “hits”.

Still, if there’s any justice in the world, the album as a whole will get enough recognition to make that aspect virtually irrelevant…after all, Lemonade only produced two real hits to speak of, and it was still widely hailed as the best album of 2016. And make no mistake…Rainbow is the best album of 2017, and given that that year also gave us Taylor Swift’s Reputation, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, Demi Lovato’s Tell Me You Love Me, Lorde’s Melodrama, Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Jay-Z’s 4:44, SZA’s CTRL, Khalid’s American Teen, Pink’s Beautiful Trauma, Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life, and Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life (and even that is only a partial list of the masterpieces released in that year), that is not a statement I make lightly.

“Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry

I imagine this does not come as news to any of you, but a couple years ago, Katy Perry released a disastrous album entitled Witness. The album actually featured some interesting lyrics, but apart from the lead single “Chained to the Rhythm”, there was hardly a tune on the whole thing. It was as if Katy Perry was trying to be Courtney Barnett, and in addition to the fact that no-one wanted to see her do that, the lyrics weren’t that good…certainly not good enough to carry the album on their own. But my preference, when an established artist who was once good releases a terrible album, is to explore something from their glory days to remind people that they are indeed capable of good work. After all, everyone has weighed in on Witness‘ failure…I, on the other hand, would like to take you back to 2010, and the release of Katy Perry’s one masterpiece album, the monumental Pop smash hit Teenage Dream.

Anyone who thought Disco was dead in 2010 evidently wasn’t listening to the radio, as this album is unmistakably a Disco album. It doesn’t sound like Retro-Pop…its sound is immaculately modern (or at least was when it was released in 2010), but virtually every song is built on a Disco beat. The highlights are the title track, a beautifully constructed, glowing Pop love ballad, and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), the party song to end all party songs. Granted, the party jams of the early 2010s Club Boom were not exactly the best trend ever to hit Pop music, but still, being the definitive example of a genre that pervasive has to count for something.

The other singles were less well-received at the time, being widespread targets of mockery by various pop-culture satirists, but most of them have held up surprisingly well today. Granted, “California Gurls” leaves much to be desired in the lyrical department (both the main body of the song and the rap verse), but the superb production and insanely catchy melody make it nonetheless irresistible, and while legendary Rapper Snoop Dogg is clearly phoning in his guest verse in both lyrics and performance, his charisma still gives the song at least a faint touch of class.

“Firework” is one of the cheesiest of the long string of self-esteem anthems to come out of this era, but thanks to its explosive chorus and the way Perry throws herself into her performance, the overall result is actually kind of thrilling. Moreover, despite the sometimes clumsy analogies in the lyrics, it still comes across as genuinely sincere and warm-hearted…Perry genuinely seems to want to provide comfort to people, coming across as far more sympathetic than she had seemed on her more self-involved previous material. Indeed, it may have been the first of the self-esteem anthems of 2011/2012 to be released…remember that long before it became a single, it was already included on the album as far back as August of 2010, whereas most of its peers came from albums that were released in 2011 or later.

“E.T.” had a particularly large faction of detractors when it was released, but I blame most of that on the Kanye West rap verse added to the single. West is admittedly a better producer than rapper, but on his own albums he’s usually a reasonably competent lyricist (or was when this song was released, anyway). However, he seems to be absolutely terrible at improvising (an important skill for a widespread purveyor of guest verses), so he tends to make an ass of himself on most of his guest appearances, and this was a particularly severe case. But heard on the album, without West’s dubious contribution, the song is actually rather striking and arrestingly strange, with its cryptic, ambiguous subject matter and discordant but oddly hypnotic beat. Also, the complex, amorphous melody suits Perry’s voice as much as anything she’s ever sung, turning her tuneless moaning into an asset in a way that seems to foreshadow the success of acts like Future.

The final single from the main album, “The One That Got Away”, received a lukewarm reception even from most of Perry’s fans at the time, with many accusing it of being ‘boring’ and ‘dreary’. While it’s true that it lacks the camp appeal and uptempo excitement of her earlier singles, and that Taylor Swift was doing the same kind of thing much better at the time, this is still a perfectly respectable and even rather touching attempt at a bittersweet love song. The acoustic version included as a bonus track on the album’s rerelease, while it does not flatter Perry’s vocals, does do an impressive job of highlighting the emotional honesty of the song, and indeed is more interesting than the original recording…even Perry’s vocal strains and cracks fit rather well with the song’s emotional content.

Perry has a widespread reputation for excessive use of album filler, but at least in this album’s case, that reputation isn’t entirely deserved. Admittedly, there are two absolutely awful songs on this album…the gratuitously unpleasant “Circle the Drain” and “Peacock”, which may very well be the stupidest song ever written. The latter achieved a sort of meme status, and as a result actually managed to get played on the radio, despite the fact that its “double-entendres” are so blunt that it actually winds up repeatedly saying the word it’s supposed to be merely alluding to (“cock”, for any of you who hadn’t already figured that out). It only barely cracked the Hot 100 and never made it anywhere near the Top Forty, but it was a Number One hit on the Club Dance Charts, otherwise known as the musical kingdom of the damned.

However, the other album tracks were perfectly valid and, in many cases, excellent. The heartbreaking ballad “Not Like the Movies” is probably Perry’s best attempt at a “serious” song to date, and the joyful “Hummingbird Heartbeat” could easily have held its own as one of the singles. But the most notable album track of all is the most obscure, “Who Am I Living For?”. It was never a single, not even a promotional single, never got performed on the Grammys like “Not Like the Movies”, never got any exposure whatsoever outside of the album, but it is, hands-down, the best song Katy Perry has ever recorded. I’m not joking, either…a heartfelt song about spiritual searching set to music that sounds like the theme to a superhero movie, it is easily the most distinguished track of her entire career.

Granted, as is often the case with even good Pop albums, the bonus tracks don’t measure up to the rest of the album. The best of them, the atmospheric ballad “Wide Awake”, is rather pretty in an otherworldly sort of way, rather like a more conventionally euphonious version of “E.T.”, and could have held its own with the original album tracks. But “Part of Me”, another self-esteem anthem, is uninspired and obnoxiously belligerent, with none of the stirring melody or inspirational warmth of “Firework”, and the idiotic “Dressin’ Up” is only marginally less embarrassing than “Peacock”.

There’s a reason Perry isn’t usually thought of as an “album artist”…her other albums have admittedly not held up especially well. Her first release, One of the Boys, featured mostly decent songs (at least apart from “Ur So Gay” and the title track), but Perry herself sounded absolutely awful on it…her producers were clearly still figuring out how to doctor her voice into something listenable at that point. As for her follow-up to Teenage Dream, 2013’s Prism, it was only marginally better than Witness, with its only really outstanding song, “Roar”, being a blatant rip-off of Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”. But this album, in spite of a few duds and the uninspired bonus tracks, actually holds up an an overall ‘album’ experience, and indeed ranks with the great Pop albums of the 2010s. And long after all her late-career failures are forgotten, Teenage Dream will give Perry her longterm legacy…after all, “California Gurls”, “Firework”, “Last Friday Night”, and the title track are still radio staples to this day, and seem likely to stay that way for years to come.

“Rated R” and “Loud” by Rihanna

2016’s Anti has a reputation for being Rihanna’s first completely successful album release, but this isn’t entirely fair. While it’s true that Rihanna’s albums have a seriously uneven track record due to her insanely busy release schedule prior to 2014 (she was basically releasing an album every single year for most of her career), she did have a couple of fairly consistent and coherent albums prior to Anti, and 2009’s Rated R was one of them.

For the very few of you who might need reminding, Rihanna’s entire public life at the time was revolving around a scandal where her then-boyfriend, fellow R&B singer Chris Brown, put her in the hospital. I am well aware that, by now, that scandal was already yesterday’s news six years ago, but its impact on the music of that period created a ripple effect that it still being felt today, so bear with me.

Rated R was conceived as a kind of vague Concept Album through which Rihanna could directly address what happened to her, and even if Rihanna isn’t really a singer-songwriter, she seems to have found the means to select songs that conveyed her emotions on the subject. The lyrics on the album tended to be rather opaque and confusing (although that might well have been a deliberate choice), but their mix of bittersweet love ballads like “Crazy, Stupid Love” and “Photographs” and the violent imagery on songs like”Russian Roulette” and “Fire Bomb” was certainly possible to interpret if one knew about her circumstances.

In any case, the album as a whole had a dark, brooding atmosphere that suited its nominal topic well. It actually bears a strong resemblance to Anti in many ways…the subject matter of dysfunctional relationships, the sullen, somber ambiance, the frequently biting lyrical content, even the presence of an out-of-place Pop single than was little more than a bid for an easy hit and wound up the album’s primary calling-card despite sounding nothing like the other tracks. It makes a certain kind of sense, in a way…Rated R received a fair amount of critical respect, but its quality was overshadowed by its connection to her personal life. So in 2016, after everyone had more-or-less moved on from that scandal, she made another attempt in the same style, and got attention for an album for the first time in her career.

The album overall is built on Electro-Pop influences, a change of style for Rihanna that would influence much of her later career, although it does include one Rock song and one Latin-flavored track. The Rock song, featuring legendary Guns’N’Roses guitarist Slash, is in a Grunge vein rather than the Eighties Hard Rock style Slash normally favors, and was criticized by some for not making good use of its famous guest star. However, Rihanna manages to give it a real sense of swagger and menace, and it is she, not Slash, who really carries the song. As for the Latin song, “Te Amo”, it is a deeply bittersweet narrative about a Spanish-speaking girl who falls in love with Rihanna but is rejected, a kind of sadder, more mature alternative to Katy Perry’s hit “I Kissed a Girl” the year before.

The album’s singles had some success in the international market, and the striking Electro-Hip-Hop anthem “Hard” gave Rihanna her thirteenth Top Ten hit on the Billboard charts. However, the album didn’t produce as many hits in the U.S. as her previous work, and by far the most successful song on it was “Rude Boy”, a raunchy, overtly masochistic sex jam quite out of style with the rest of the album. After this song wound up becoming a Number One hit, her record label apparently decided that trying to milk what had happened to her for masochistic sex appeal sold more records than seriously addressing her story (which probably says something very disturbing about popular culture at the time, but I digress).

That brings us to the other subject of this review. 2010’s Loud consisted almost entirely of songs in the vein of “Rude Boy”, except that many of them take its questionable concept much, much farther. This is why it’s probably her worst album…granted, it contains two good tracks, while her next effort, Talk That Talk, would contain only one, but the bad material here is the worst to be found on any Rihanna album.

The primary problem with the songs on this album is not that they’re offensive (although, to be honest, they kind of are). No, the primary problem is that they’re loud, abrasive, overly strident, and would come off as more creepy than sexy even without the added real-life baggage. They fall very much into the trends of the ’09-’10 “Club Boom”, and like most songs of that era they have the sole redeeming element of a catchy beat, but there’s certainly nothing else good about most of them.

“S&M”, where Rihanna is literally singing about how she likes to be tied up and beaten, is easily the worst offender, but songs like “Only Girl (in the World)”, where she invites the listener to “Love me like I’m a hot ride”, or “What’s My Name”, which features an absolutely disgusting Rap verse from Drake with jokes about “The square root of 69”, aren’t much better.

On top of this, for perhaps understandable reasons, Rihanna delivers every one of these songs like she’s dead inside. It’s like hearing a robot trying to sing about sex, and it multiplies the album’s unintentional creepiness by a factor of ten. She’s also in absolutely terrible voice here, making horrible use of her Caribbean vocal inflections and giving what might be the single worst vocal performance of her career on “Cheers (Drink to That)”. This song’s worthlessness is particularly highlighted by fact that two infinitely better songs which are both about exactly the same subject, Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” and Halestorm’s “Here’s To Us”, came out at around the same time. Probably the strangest item on the album, “Man Down” is about Rihanna actually killing a man who wronged her—there was probably a way to make this song concept satisfying given the circumstances, but this extremely awkward attempt isn’t it.

Even the two aforementioned good songs only serve to make the record as a whole more of a travesty. “California King Bed” is a gorgeous and heartbreaking ballad, and “Love the Way You Lie (pt. 2)” is Rihanna’s collaboration with Eminem (arguably the best hit song of 2010) reworked as an R&B ballad for Rihanna with a single guest verse by Eminem. Her performance is a perfectly fulfilled expansion of her incredibly nuanced delivery on the original, and the result is one of the best songs of her career. Unfortunately, both these songs are blatantly out of place next to the other songs on the album, and serve not only to highlight the inadequacies of the rest of the material, but to turn the overall flow of the album into a disjointed mess.

There are a couple of other attempts at ‘serious’ songs, which try to mine similar territory to the songs on Rated R, but they don’t really succeed. For example, “Fading”, a breakup ballad very possibly aimed at the aforementioned abusive ex-boyfriend, is too lightweight and bland to make any real impact, coming off as forgettable album filler. And “Complicated”, another breakup song that resembles a serious version of Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold”, might be the most unlistenable song on the album, with its skin-crawling beat and nails-on-chalkboard vocals.

Given the utterly ridiculous furor the internet raised over the far more innocuous “Blurred Lines” in 2013, I imagine that, had this album come out a few years later than it did, the reaction to it would probably have been much harsher. In any case, Rated R still ranks as a minor classic, but Loud is a bad album as well as an offensive one, and even those who no longer care in the slightest about the years-old scandal that wound up birthing it can find an abundance of reasons to hate it based on the music alone.

“Animal” and “Cannibal” by Kesha

If you want to know why I’m reviewing Kesha’s first album and its accompanying bonus EP jointly, it’s because they are so similar in style and theme that covering either of them individually would be redundant. Ever since Kesha released one of the best Pop albums of the decade in 2017, people have begun to “re-examine” this album, attempting to convince themselves that it wasn’t the horrific disaster it was seen as at the time. However, there’s a reason that most people were initially convinced that Kesha was the worst Pop singer of all time. While Kesha is hardly the first great artist to make an embarrassingly bad first impression, and while I’m not sure how much of this is Kesha’s fault and how much can be blamed on the notorious Dr. Luke, who was basically managing her career at this point, her achievements since then don’t magically turn this album into a misunderstood masterpiece any more than David Bowie’s mature work turns “The Laughing Gnome” into a classic.

The official claim is that the songs on this album are intended as a satire of glam rap’s materialism and sexual objectification, but the people behind the album haven’t actually put any humor, or any commentary for that matter, into this supposed satire. Reproducing typical glam rap songs with a female singer doesn’t really make you some kind of outrageous visionary, and writing songs where the message comes across as “Women are just as stupid and shallow as men” is more degrading than empowering. This is why I never really bought into the argument that Kesha’s early work was intended as a ‘stealth parody’ of the Pop-music world. I’s not necessarily that I think the claim was disingenuous…I just don’t think it makes any difference, because her ‘parody’ here doesn’t really have a point other than being deliberately worse than any of the things she’s supposedly parodying.

If Kesha is indeed going for stealth parody, then Animal’s lead single “Tik Tok” is virtually the only time she achieved it in any real sense. The intensely annoying “Valley Girl” accent she affects here is still definitely an issue, but the song features a catchy chorus, and the lyrics, while still poor by normal standards, are at least amusing in their stupidity. I can’t really call “Tik Tok” a “good” song, and I definitely think it’s a bad sign that it was the Number One song of 2010, but I can understand why it was a hit, which I can’t say about most of her other singles from this period.

On this album Kesha is deeply entrenched in her performing persona as a shallow, mindless party girl—I’m well aware that this is nothing like who she is in real life, but that just makes this album even more uncomfortable to listen to today. It’s just hard to listen to someone who has since proved to have real talent and intelligence being forced to sing lines like “I threw up in the closet/but I don’t care!” Items like the idiotic and horribly mean-spirited “Grow a Pear” were supposedly intended as ‘female counterparts’ to songs by male singers and rappers that objectify women, but most of them wind up being about on the same level of subtlety and dignity as “Tonight I’m Fucking You” and Akon’s body of work, and I don’t really think we needed another edition of the aforementioned excesses, feminized or otherwise.

There are also a few emotional (if excessively self-pitying) ballads (I know Kesha’s situation at the time was pretty bad, but even “Crawling”-era Linkin Park would probably find “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” too melodramatic). But most of them are done in by Kesha’s overprocessed vocals…I don’t have a problem with auto-tune if it’s used well, but the production on this album does very ugly things to what turned out to be a perfectly good singing voice.

Then there are some items that are just ridiculous, like “Dinosaur”, a collection of groan-inducing puns and stupid, juvenile one-liners making fun of the elderly, or “Cannibal”, the title track to the bonus EP, which was presumably meant to be a piece of innuendo, but goes into way too much disgusting detail about its chosen metaphor in the lyrics, and ultimately comes across as disgusting rather than sexy.

The low points of this album rank with some of the worst Pop music of all time…the unlistenable and flagrantly inane “Blah Blah Blah” is easily the worst hit song of 2010, a field that does not lack for competition. Her vocals on this song are off-key, overprocessed wailing with the added annoyance of a stereotyped valley girl accent. The lyrics are as unutterably inane as the title suggests, and the music itself is abrasive, sloppily produced garbage. But above all of those things, the one thing that really enraged people about this song was its transparent sense of contempt for the audience. In the post-“Friday” pop world, things this stupid are often done with the intent of picking up an ironic following (e.g. “#Selfie” by the Chainsmokers), but that’s not the vibe being let off here. This clearly feels as if Kesha (or rather, her producers) had such contempt for the general pop-music listener base that they truly thought they wouldn’t know any better, and the fact that for the moment it appeared to work had a lot of people panicking and quoting Idiocracy. The panic has died down, and after almost a decade of positive developments in Pop music, it’s almost been forgotten, but at the time, this song seemed to embody the demise of Western culture, and frankly, in retrospect, it’s bad enough that listening to it now, you can see why they believed that.

“Take It Off” is yet another obnoxious, flip-off-the-listener single from this album, if still not quite as bad as “Blah Blah Blah”. The beat is actually quite good, and this might actually have succeeded in being an uninspired-but-competent Club banger (much like Britney Spears’ more tolerable material) if not for the choice of sample. For those who don’t know, this song lifts its melody from “The Streets of Cairo” (a.k.a. “The Snake Charmer’s Song”), putting it in the same category as “Swagger Jagger” by Cher Lloyd (which samples “Clementine”) and “Play That Song” by Train (which samples “Heart and Soul”), which is not company you really want to be keeping. Granted, the Marcia Ball classic “Snake Dance” is based on the same theme, but it was a complex Blues gloss on the melody, not just a straightforward recycling of a musical cliche. “Take It Off”, on the other hand, reduces this overexposed snippet to its tiredest, most inanely simplistic level, making what might have at least been enjoyably stupid come across as unbearably annoying.

“Sleazy” combines the single worst producer in all of modern R&B, Bangladesh, with Kesha at her most inane. This combination of the Worst Producer and the Worst Singer (okay, she certainly didn’t stay that way, but you see my point) works about as well as you’d expect, with Kesha delivering lyrics like “Rat-a-tat-tat on your dumb, dumb drum/The beat so fat, gonna make me cum”, over one of Bangladesh’s bizarre noise collages that sound both painful to listen to and terrifyingly surreal.

“Your Love Is My Drug” was one of Kesha’s awkward, creepy attempts to write a love song that was compatible with her original persona, here combined with one of her unconvincing attempts to pass herself off as a rapper. It’s not by any means the worst item on this album, but it was still an unwise choice both as the opening track and the third single. It certainly isn’t as decisively horrible as the three above songs, but frankly, it sounds like album filler. This raises the question of why it was released at all, especially given that there was another creepily clingy love song on Animal called “Stephen” that was pretty similar to this, except for being one of the few items on this album that was both listenable and disturbing in a way that was actually intentional. This deeply creepy stalker ballad combines the prettiest melody on either of these discs with a truly unnerving lyric of twisted obsession…it’s the kind of love song that says, “I want to skin you alive and wear you like a suit”. Why didn’t they release that as a single, if they wanted a song in this vein? It would have been easily the best single from the album, and even given that album’s apparent goal of shocking and offending its listeners with every single, “Stephen” is still a much more disturbing and attention-getting song than the cheesy piece of radio background filler they released in its place.

“We R Who We R” was supposedly meant as a tribute to all the gay teens who committed suicide as a result of bullying, but to be honest it just comes off as yet another sleazy, inane club banger little different from Kesha’s other singles at the time. Taken as a generic Club song, it’s far from the worst thing Kesha had done around that time, but it’s so laughably unconvincing as the inspirational anthem it was apparently meant to be that it’s hard to take it seriously on any level. It didn’t help that, ironic as it seems today, at the time this song was released Kesha seemed like one of the least qualified then-current pop stars to deliver a serious inspirational message (it would be a long walk to the era of “Praying” and “Hymn”, is all I’m saying).

To be fair, though, there are a few songs (of which “Stephen” is one) that show, at least in retrospect, that Kesha actually had the potential to do good work, though most of us missed it at the time. The title track of Animal sounds much more like a track from the Warrior album than like anything else on the album that bears its name. Then there’s “The Harold Song”, an emotionally devastating song of lost love that offered one of the first hints at the tragic depth behind Kesha’s shallow party-girl facade. Even the final single from the Cannibal EP, “Blow”, is a solid and striking Club track that shows the template used for her early singles could have actually produced good music.

But despite these flashes of genuine potential, this is still easily one of the worst albums of the decade, and while, in retrospect, I don’t entirely blame Kesha herself for that fact, the fact remains that the negative press this album got at the time wasn’t really unjustified. Being a ‘stealth parody’, or ‘subverting’ the trademark sexism of rap by gender-flipping it, isn’t as interesting or creative an idea as this album’s defenders seem to think, and in any case, so much of this album is terrible as pure music that it almost doesn’t matter. Just remember that just because Kesha herself has been vindicated by history doesn’t necessarily mean this album has, and the damage it did to her reputation still hasn’t been fully repaired.

“No Heart” by 21 Savage

21 Savage would seem to be, to all appearances, a pretty standard-issue, mediocre Trap Rapper. He raps the typical Gangsta-Rap cliches over beats that are adequate, but not especially interesting, and unlike the “Hook Artists” like Future and Young Thug, he doesn’t do anything particularly special with his vocal melodies. But there is one thing that places him above the rest of his particular subgenre…it’s just not something normally given much value in the Rap genre. Put simply, of all the Rappers that have ever threatened to kill me in a song (and there are a lot of them), this is the first one who sounds like he might actually do it. His talent lies not in his lyrics, his melodies or even his beats, but in his delivery. His voice seems to convey a nuanced, tormented insanity that is absolutely bone-chilling to listen to and gives his lyrics about violence and murder an impact they would never have in and of themselves. In this sense, he functions more like a Musical Theater actor than a conventional Rapper…after all, scores of people have had major careers on Broadway based purely on their ability to deliver the dramatic content of a song. His performance on this song, which details the apparently autobiographical story of his violently delinquent youth, actually reminds me in a strange way of Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd, which is quite a compliment.

Verdict: Average at best for the song itself, but very good indeed for the performance.

“What About Us?” by Pink

This is Pink’s latest attempt at a political song, targeted at the current Presidential Administration. She had tried this once before, back during the Bush administration, with “Dear Mr. President”, a collaboration with Folk-Rock duo the Indigo Girls. But that song was filled with very specific and temporal details, which not only makes it of little interest to anyone now that its political era is past, but arguably limited its impact even in its own time. From the Almanac Singers to Ani DiFranco, political songs full of specific details have always had their place, but what Pink seems to have realized is that employing universal archetypes and poetic language actually says so much more and has a far greater impact. It also ensures that your anthem will be as suitable for future generations’ ideological conflicts as it is for your own, rather than simply becoming a cultural relic only of interest to historians. To illustrate this point, which song from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan do you hear more often today…”Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Oxford Town”? I, for one, find this a fascinating and beautiful song that has a far more profound impact than the more heavy-handed and ephemeral “Dear Mr. President”.

Verdict: Good.

“Girl You Know It’s True” by Milli Vanilli

Before we start, I’m not even going to go into the famous scandal that wrecked this band’s career. For one thing, everyone reading this already knows about it, and for another, no matter who was really singing on those records, it doesn’t change the quality of the music itself. True, Milli Vanilli’s music does sound generally weak and dated today even apart from the scandal, leading many to express confusion on why they were such a big success before that scandal broke. But remember that this act came out of what was possibly the all-time lowest era for popular music, and out of a genre that was generally pretty embarrassing at the best of times. And as New Jack Swing acts that are not named Janet Jackson go, these guys (or at least whoever was really doing their singing) were actually fairly capable compared to, say, New Edition and their various spinoffs or Color Me Badd. The songwriting on this, the group’s signature hit, is fairly uninspired, but the production is quite decent as New Jack Swing goes, and the sentiment the song is built on is actually rather sweet. And if the group’s ghost-vocalists aren’t exactly the world’s most credible rappers, they’re still nowhere near as laughable as Vanilla Ice or Marky Mark or Gerardo. True, not long after this another group in this vein would show up and blow every act I’ve mentioned so far out of the water in terms of quality, but Boyz II Men didn’t really break through until about the time this group’s career-destroying scandal hit the press. So, given that they were actually a significant cut above most of their immediate peers at the time (however little that really says in the grand scheme of things), I don’t find it as baffling as most people that they were initially such a big hit.

Verdict: Incredibly dated and not very good to begin with, but not really any worse than most other New Jack Swing acts, and better than some of them.

“This Music” by Nine Days

When I described Nine Days as an otherwise terrible band who miraculously managed to create one classic song, I was incorrect, and I apologize. But in my defense, that seemed like a natural conclusion when all I had heard was the rest of their major-label debut, The Madding Crowd, which consisted largely of insipid Soft Rock pandering. The difference, I eventually learned, is that unlike the rest of the album, their smash hit “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” was written before they were signed to a major label…indeed, it’s what got them signed to one. And there is indeed more where that song came from, but you’d have to listen to their early self-released albums to hear it. This was one of several potential hits from their unjustly obscure early work, a piece of explosive quintessentially Nineties Power-Pop not especially different from “Absolutely”, albeit slightly harder-rocking and not quite as relentlessly catchy. Ironically, the entire subject of this song is that the outside world is trying to scrub away the honesty and individuality from the band’s music, which makes it rather a bittersweet listen today given that the record company did just that after they were signed. These early albums can be a bit difficult to acquire these days, but if you loved “Absolutely”, it’s worth going to the trouble to hear the rest of the band’s real peak output.

Verdict: Good

“Broken Witch” by the Liars

The Liars are what one might call a polarizing band, even by the standards of Indie Noise Rockers. They eventually managed to garner a measure of critical acclaim, but it’s worth noting that their debut album received absolutely blistering reviews upon its initial release, and while the Indie critics do like it better now than they did then, we’re not talking about a resurgence on the level of Weezer’s Pinkerton here. Now, probably the best known song from that first album is its sole single, “There’s Always Room on the Broom”, but since it sounds absolutely nothing like the rest of the album, I picked the album’s opening track, which is far more indicative of their overall sound, to review here. I’m pretty sure what they were trying to do here was to make a modernized, album-length version of “The End” by the Doors. But the only reason that band got away with this kind of ridiculous self-indulgence was that Jim Morrison was such a charismatic performer that he could recite pretentious half-spoken nonsense-talk over a vaguely creepy instrumental and still come across as completely hypnotic. Without anyone that even approaches Morrison’s presence, the Liars’ attempt at the same thing just comes off as utterly insufferable. I’ve heard the Liars described as one of those bands that hipsters pretend to like for image reasons, and judging from this song, there’s probably some truth to that description.

Verdict: Bad.

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“(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band

One of the reasons why the younger generation doesn’t seem to ‘get’ the hatred directed at disco is that most of the truly terrible acts in the genre are simply forgotten now. Think about it…most of the Disco acts you actually still hear these days are the ones that have aged fairly well, such as the Bee Gees, ABBA, Donna Summer, Chic, Barry White…that sort of thing. KC and the Sunshine Band are actually something of a rarity…they’re one of the only absolutely awful Disco acts that are still remembered for more than one song. The only one of their songs that anyone will still admit to liking unironically is “That’s the Way I Like It”, and even it is questionable. This song, on the other hand, is without the slightest question the worst of their hits. The prototypical ‘booty-jam’, it has aged about as well as most of its descendants like “My Humps” or “Ms. New Booty”. There’s really not much else to say about it…it’s simply one of the stupidest hits of all time, and it’s not even creative in its stupidity, just juvenile and inane in the most simplistic way possible. To be fair, that’s a pretty accurate description of most of this band’s hits…they all seem to consist of little more than a title repeated over and over…but none of the others had quite such a moronic title to repeat.

Verdict: Bad.