Songs I Want to Talk About
“Headphones Baby” by The Vaccines (2021)
Imagine if Death Cab for Cutie wrote the lyrics for a Walk the Moon song. That’s essentially the masterpiece that is “Headphones Baby.” This song turned up in my Release Radar mid-May and I fell in love with it almost immediately. At first glance, it’s just a fun love song with just the right touch of attitude. Upon learning the lyrics, I found the song is surprisingly dark… yet somehow that just made me love it more.
I’ve learned that when it comes to music and lyrics, I either want them to fall in line with each other or I want there to be such a dramatic divide between the two that there’s a delightful irony. “Headphones Baby” is a masterclass in how to do the second one. The fact that one of the catchiest hooks of the year describes dying together “strung out on the bed over the handlebars” allows this song to subvert tropes while still leveraging them to light up my soul in ways only great pop hooks can.
“Alien Boyfriend” by Gregory Dillon (2019)
Apparently at some point in my past, I clicked the like button for this song but I can’t remember when. DAMN, does Past Anne come through every once in a while. I wasn’t expecting much from a song called “Alien Boyfriend” (still having flashbacks to Katy Perry’s “E.T” and they’re not good), but I got a spot-on ’80s-style synth anthem. I think it thrives precisely because it’s not trying to be an “updated” version of this sound. There’s something both familiar yet mysterious about this track. There’s A glossy sheen of synths, but yet something dark and brooding is bubbling beneath the surface.
“Pink Pony Club” by Chappell Roan (2020)
This one sneaked in at the end of the month but it had to be here. It’s been a while since A song has stolen my heart the way that “Pink Pony Club” did. Roan has the voice of an angel and yet she’s singing about… being a stripper?
This song has a story that could easily become campy or comedic: a girl who leaves her conservative heartland upbringing for Los Angeles, and she finds herself by dancing at the “Pink Pony Club.” Yet Roan and producer/co-writer Dan Nigro (who I’ve fangirled over before) treat the topic with so much sincerity and conviction that it becomes a transcendent anthem. The track starts with a fairly simple piano and vocal, evoking an old saloon in the wild west. As the track grows more and more confident it evolves into a proper dance bop, welcoming any listener into the Pink Pony Club’s world of seduction. Just when you think you know what the song is and what’s coming next it throws you a proper guitar solo, which was a pleasant surprise. The result feels like the track Lady Gaga would’ve put out if she was trying to launch her career in 2021 instead of 2009.
Albums I Want to Talk About
Coyote Cry by Ian Munsick (2021)
I’m usually not a super huge fan of country music that leans too heavily into the pop sphere. However, there’s an exception to every rule and Coyote Cry is just the kind of album it takes to make me fall in love with such a sound. Oftentimes, country-pop feels like the unfortunate result of an artist’s inability to commit to one sound or the other. Ian Munsick on the other hand is so committed to his particular interpretation of country that it avoids this pitfall. Rather than feeling like an inauthentic cash grab trying to cater to too many audiences at the same time, Coyote Cry is so unapologetic about its country-pop identity, I can’t help but admire its convictions.
There’s trap influences on songs such as “She Was Right.” At the same time, songs like “Solo” and “Like it Ain’t” offers the sort of fiddles and banjos that oftentimes get deleted from records with high crossover ambitions. “Might Be Everything” is a folksy breath of fresh air from some of the poppier tracks as well. Some of my favorite songs are also the ones that challenge country tropes. One high point, “I See Country” is a poetic rebuttal to anyone who’s ever written a “There’s no place like Texas/Tennessee/Georgia/Carolina” song. It’s as if Munsick is here to say “fuck your gatekeeping. Anyone that wants to be part of this party is invited.” For that reason, it actually makes sense that this song isn’t a super traditional country sound, it’s supposed to be “big tent” country. My overall favorite song is “Humble” which not only does a great job of weaving country and pop elements together into a super fun track, but also has a really great definition of nontoxic masculinity as Munsick describes his version of the cowboy archetype.
The renegade attitude of Coyote Cry helps makes its sound work. It’s an album that challenges us to rethink our notions of what country has to sound like, while still paying more than enough homage to the genre’s traditions to feel like that challenge is coming from a place of love.
a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun by Aly & A.j. (2021)
I’ve already covered two tracks from this album in the “songs” sections of these writeups, so it’s probably no surprise to see the full album show up here now that it’s finally out. I never thought it was possible for an album with a name I hate this much to also have music I love this much. I’ve loved Aly & A.j. since tweenhood, and they’ve done a great job of maturing their sound into something quite different from 2007 without losing the free-spirited zest that made them fun in the first place.
This album that must not be made is like a delightful lovechild between 1989-era Taylor Swift and folklore-era Taylor Swift, as epitomized on songs like “Stomach,” “Personal Cathedrals,” and “Slow Dancing.” There’s obviously huge influences from ’80s synthpop, but they’ve also strayed away from a lot of pop tropes at the same. Sticky melodies are actually kind of few and far between, but in a good way. Sure, you have the Bop-with-a-capital-B “Symptom of Your Touch” which I wrote about last month, but there’s also an introspective, bedroom pop mood in a lot of these songs. It’s an album that’s quite content to be what it is without begging for your attention, and that brings a certain grace and poise you don’t often see on mainstream pop albums.
For these reasons, I’ve found it can work very well as both an album to listen to while you’re busy and just need some good mood music in the background. At the same time, it still holds up to highly attentive listening while I’m on a walk. If I’m in the mood to listen to any music at all, I’m in the mood to listen to a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun, even if the name drives the marketer in me up a wall.
SOUR by Olivia Rodrigo (2021)
I talked about the breakout hit “Driver’s License” back in my January roundup and I’m pleased to report that Rodrigo’s accompanying album, SOUR doesn’t disappoint. I think what’s most impressive about it is the number of influences that Rodrigo is drawing from, yet all of it adds up to a clear, visceral snapshot of a girl watching her ex move on to a new relationship while she struggles to make sense of things. This level of clear vision and artistic confidence is rare on debut albums, especially those by artists this young.
That’s in part because Rodrigo fiercely forages new paths into…well… wherever she feels like going. There’s explosive angst on grungy tracks like “brutal” and the punkish “good 4 u.” Then there’s delicate folksy songs that I consider to be some of the high points of the album, “1 step forward, 3 steps back” and “enough for you.” You’ve got “happier” which puts bitter breakup lyrics against a ’50s doo-wop slow dance backdrop. Then there’s the poppier stuff, which brings us songs like “Deja Vu” that are JUST experimental enough to stand apart from the rest of the pop music landscape. That’s one thing Rodrigo excels at: feeling “on trend” yet ahead of the curve at the same time.
Overall SOUR is a strong album in its own right, but it’s also an album that makes you feel like the sky is the limit for Olivia Rodrigo, and gets you excited to hear what she’s going to put out next.
The Rise & Fall of Loverboy by Sir Sly (2021)
If you know me, you know I always have room for another existential crisis soundtrack in my life. The current fave is a new release from Sir Sly, The Rise & Fall of Loverboy. The lead single, “Material Boy” caught my attention a few weeks back and I’m happy to say the rest of the album lives up to that standard. This MGMT-ish pop sound pairs perfectly with lyrics about a millennial trying to make sense of the world and his place within it. It’s angsty, but in a slightly more mature, refined way than the angst I listened to as a teenager.
One of the things I love about The Rise & Fall of Loverboy is I can listen to it multiple times and different songs will resonate with me each time. There are slower ballads like “thx” that don’t really have the ear worm quality of “Material Boy.” You might even forget they’re here in between listens. Yet in the moments that they’re playing, they capture my attention, refusing to let me zone out the way I do when every song is just trying to have a catchy hook. After 3ish listens “Are We Having Any Fun?” emerged as another favorite. Neither a sad song nor a happy song, the music epitomizes that caught-in-the-middle apathy described by the lyrics. All of this leads me to believe that The Rise & Fall of Loverboy can offer a slightly different experience every time I listen to it, and that makes me excited to continue diving into its world with more listens.