During the last few months when the world was in lockdown, people like Ryan Holiday spoke of alive vs dead time. What can you do during these downtimes to make a difference in your life moving forward. Whether it be working out, reading books, going for walks, working on relationships or various other projects. For Taylor Swift, that meant using the time that was meant for touring her Lover album and instead working with longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff as well a new working relationship with The National’s Aaron Dessner.
Swift’s eighth album, folklore appeared virtually out of nowhere on July 24th and was quickly followed by first single “Cardigan”, the first in a three song story about a teenage love triangle. The second in that cycle, “August”, co-written with Antonoff who called it the best thing they have ever done together. Here, it sounds like a track with other Anotonoff favourite Lana Del Rey with an earworm chorus. “Betty” takes on the point of view of a relationship from the male’s point of view as he tries to apologize for being a crap partner on his girlfriend’s doorstep.
On “Exile”, Bon Iver takes on the lead role of male in a song about a love falling apart. The piano takes centre stage with strings in the background, the production on the voices in the chorus is staggering. “The Last Great American Dynasty” sees Swift singing about Rebekah Harkness who previously owned a house that Swift bought and was constantly in the town’s gossip while she lived there. Swift turns the lyric on it’s head in the last chorus – “There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen/I had a marvelous time ruining everything”.
“Mirrorball” sees Swift sing the type of song that soft indie pop singers would kill for. “You’ll find me on my tallest tiptoes/Spinning in my highest heels, love” “This is Me Trying” is a heartbreaking song where Swift’s voice hits an emotional high point as she pleads “I just wanted you to know that this is me trying/(at least I’m trying)” Her vocal inflections put in a good turn on “Invisible String” while “Mad Woman” tells of the men who drive the lady to madness behind the scenes.
Last year, the “Lover” duet remix with Shawn Mendes was a standout track. A warm and touching song that Swift duplicates here many times over. On folklore, she makes it sound so effortless to hit so many high points on various styles and emotions. Working with great producers certainly helps but she is the spark that lights the fire. This is a wonderful and story driven album that shows what Taylor Swift did during her alive time.
Back in late March, Bob Dylan released the nearly 17 minute single “Murder Most Foul”. The track acts as an elegy for John F Kennedy as it focuses on his assassination. “Right there in front of everyone’s eyes/Greatest magic trick ever under the sun/Perfectly executed, skillfully done” The song then touches on pop culture that was occurring at that moment including The Beatles, the British Invasion, Thelonius Monk, etc. Similar in tone to Van Morrison with just piano and strings, the song has a dreamy quality of a man looking back upon his life.
In several places on Rough and Rowdy, Dylan’s 39th studio album, he mentions his contemporaries and other historical figures including Anne Frank and The Rolling Stones on “I Contain Multitudes”. The lead track is about living a life of contradictions with multiple layers. A phlegmy growl powers the bluesy “False Prophet” where the man sings, “I’m first among equals/Second to none/The last of the best/You can bury the rest”. Most of the 70 minute album has a slow to mid tempo speed. “My Own Version of You” adds a bit of jazz noir to the proceedings in a track about putting body parts together to create something new.
Dylan’s voice is clear on “Crossing the Rubicon” and follows the a style that appears on a few other songs of having many verses with the name of the song featured in the last line of the verse. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” mentions the blues legend on a rollicking track about religion. Lyrically the album is a dense lyrical wonderland but tracks like “Mother Of Muses” give the listener the chance to listen to the legend strum and sing a lovely little tune. Similar in tone, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” mentions “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac” and that the “radio signal, clear as can be/I’m so deep in love that I can hardly see”.
On a personal level, I’m familiar with most of Bob Dylan’s 60s albums plus a few others. This is the first Dylan album that I’ve purchased when it actually came out. Upon purchasing the The Complete Albums Collection Volume 1, I’ve gone back and started to review his albums in order, with a long way yet to go. As Dylan turns 80, he makes it all seem effortless on a collection that is a wonderful addition to his discography. Rough and Rowdy Ways is one that will endure beyond just being a late period footnote.
One of the legendary bands of the 60s, The Byrds sound played a major role in ushering in folk rock to the Top 40. The main line-up centered around guitarists Jim (Roger) Mcguinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark; they were also joined by bassist, Chris Hillman, and drummer Michael Clarke. The band scored several hits including covers, most notably of Bob Dylan of which four appear on The Byrds Greatest Hits collection. Originally released in 1967, the album was then updated with the addition of three songs in 1999 but keeps its focus on the first two years of the band.
The Greatest Hits starts with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and features one of the most famous guitar beginnings in rock history. The Byrd’s version of “Chimes of Freedom” has the band locked in with their excellent harmonies while “My Back Pages” was their last top 40 hit and a highlight here. Pete Seeger was another favoured source for material including “The Bells of Rymney” that adds a pop shine to a Welsh mining disaster. More famously, is the band’s cover of Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn” that also features another landmark guitar solo to start the track and wonderful harmonies. The lyrics are mostly taken from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes deal with peace and love, “A Time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”.
The band got into some radio trouble with their original songs. The spaghetti western guitar on the darker and more complex “Eight Miles High” who’s lyrics are most certainly drug influenced. Another track banned by some radio stations is the title track of their third album, “5D (Fifth Dimension)”. Podcast Sound Opinions steals a snippet of “So You Want to be A rock and Roll Star”, another classic guitar sound. The lyrics take aim at their more manufactured contemporaries.
Gene Clark turns in a fine original in “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” while at the end of the disc, a final highlight appears with the Chris Hillman penned “Have You Seen Her Face”. The track leaves behind the folk influences and instead sounds more like the British Invasion. While the guitar sound is one of the band’s hallmarks, the drumming of Michael Clarke on several tracks really add a lot of life to the songs. The Byrds Greatest Hits doesn’t always burn bright, but the influence of the band on acts such as R.E.M, Big Star and Teenage Fanclub is immeasurable and still reverberates through rock and roll today.
A little over a year after her successful self titled debut album, Madonna followed it up with one of the best-selling albums of the 80s, Like a Virgin. Fresh off producing, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, Nile Rodgers was brought in as producer. The match up worked as Like a Virgin has sold over 22 million copies worldwide since its release.
The first two singles taken from the album also brought to life two of the most iconic videos of all time. Written by songwriting duo Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, etc), the title track sees Madonna cavorting on a gondola down a Venice canal. The cool synths and crisp drum beat of Chic’s Tony Thompson provided a track that was everywhere in late 1984. In early 1985, the Marilyn Monroe styled video of “Material Girl” is one of Madonna’s most memorable visuals and singles, hitting #2 in the US charts. The lyrics of loving the material world in relationships gave Madonna one of her famous nicknames as the Material Girl.
In between those two classic pop songs is third single “Angel”. A Madonna co-wrote with then boyfriend Stephen Bray, it is a simple but catchy synth track that went top 5. The second track on the album co-written by that duo is “Over and Over” where Madonna sings that “I get up again/over and over”. Reminiscent of the plucky songs off her debut, it is the best album track here. Madonna has never been known for her voice but on the cover of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, she turns in a fine vocal performance in front of a live orchestra that gets stronger as the song goes on.
The final single from the album, “Dress You Up” brings sex and fashion together. A good but not great single, it was left off the Immaculate Collection a few years later. Madonna gets a sole songwriting credit for “Shoo-bee-doo”, a Motown homage that is a nice change of pace from the rest of the album. Much like the debut album, the excitement starts to fade towards the end of the album as “The Pretender” and “Stay” do not move the needle much.
Like a Virgin is where Madonna the icon started. The memorable videos played well across the world to wide eyed teenagers who started to replicate her style and dance moves. But more than that, the songs backed it up. While the album is greatly overshadowed by the first two singles, it is a more than decent pop album albeit with a bit of filler at the end.
Bjork first caught the ears of alternative music fans in the late 80s as a member of Icelandic band The Sugarcubes who’s 1988 single “Birthday” became a hit with DJ John Peel listeners. Upon that band’s break up in 1992, Bjork moved to London and began working on her solo debut studio album also called Debut. Many of the songs were already around in some form at that time but were transformed when she started working with producer Nelle Hooper (Soul II Soul, Sinead O’Connor).
The eclectic album starts off with the powerful tribal drums of first single “Human Behaviour” where listeners are introduced to Bjork’s impressive vocal gymnastics. The dark clouds of that track are blown away by the bright percussion of “Crying” before the clattering beat and luxurious strings of “Venus As A Boy” appear. The track floats with Bjork singing “he believes in beauty”.
The original version of “Big Time Sensuality” comes in half way through the album. It would take the Fluke remix to really set this off as one of the best singles of the 90s but the slinky beat of the original helps push the track before Bjork exclaims that “it takes courage to enjoy it” in the chorus. More powerfully is when Bjork sings that she “doesn’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to”, words that virtually every 20-year-old can relate to as they dance the weekend away.
While many of the bolder tracks are reserved for the first half, the second half of Debut takes on a dreamier side with the chill beats of both “One Day” and “Come To Me”. Forty-five seconds into the last single “Violently Happy’ an irresistible club beat is introduced before the jazz horn stabs of “The Anchor Song” close out the original version of the album.
Depending on where you live, the reviews of the album went from ecstatic in the UK to a laughable review from Rolling Stone. The album is a wonder of musical styles that hold together exceptionally well. From here, Nellee Hooper went on to work with such superstars as Madonna and U2. Bjork would spend the next 25 years releasing critically acclaimed albums to a devoted fan base. Debut is an remarkable release by an adventurous and consistently groundbreaking artist.