By Deanna Costa
Springtime hits are no doubt on their way, but let’s not forget about February.
The St. Patrick’s Day hangovers are behind us and the first day of Spring is less than 24 hours away. The perfect time to listen to some new-ish tunes and break into an old Irish jig. Last month I scoured the internet, combing through the newest batch of singles in every major genre and classifying them as “The Best” or “The Worst” of the month. For my critique of February’s new releases, I’m honing in on the latest albums by six major artists instead.
Tracks on each album explore themes that link my list together: perseverance, bold admissions of the heart, and self-reliance. Released by American artists in the midst of Valentine’s Day festivities, the music’s romantic sentiment isn’t a surprise. What’s more unusual is that some of the albums promise to be pivotal in their creators’ discographies.
There are no songs labeled “worst” in this list. Why? Such a judgement seems too definitive for a single writer (who can only ingest so much emerging music in 28 days) to bestow. However, I have taken several jabs taken at two egregious acts who are all over the radio today.
Country & Country Singers
1. Tedeschi Trucks Band (Blues Rock)
Like any other TTB album, Signs could easily be at the top of the R&B list as well. I put the group under the Country umbrella for two major reasons. Their Country, Blue Grass, and Americana roots are palpable in every track, albeit some more than others. (See “The Ending” for a Country-heavy example.) I am also hoping to lull Country listeners into giving this unconventional band a listen, partly because their message is particularly necessary for that crowd. The 11-track album is robust, both lyrically and musically. Each member of the band has their spotlight moment, especially in the first few songs. The album as a whole has an interesting structure — the opening single, “Signs, High Times,” tosses an immediate punch and it includes everyone in the band’s roster. The lyrics seem to refer to the kind of exhaustion that every woke American in 2019 can relate to. The album’s blend of jazz, funk, soul, country and rock continues to ebb and flow beautifully. The final song, aptly titled “The Ending,” is stripped down given what has gone before. Arts Fuse review
2. Trisha Yearwood (Easy Listening)
Yearwood has been on the Country scene for 30 years, so I automatically put her album Let’s Be Frank in this genre. After listening to the work in its entirety, I realized the record is a collection of Easy Listening covers — the title is a clever pun. Still, I am keeping her among her peers. Like this month’s top Country choice, Let’s Be Frank is not a cornfield party staple. But any longstanding fan will be able to appreciate her powerful pipes crooning timeless standards. The crown jewel of the album is unquestionably its only original: “For the Last Time.” In recent interviews, Yearwood has happily described the co-writing process behind the song, which was a lyrical collaboration with her husband and fellow Country star, Garth Brooks. Despite being an artist who doesn’t consider herself a singer-songwriter, the single is a breathtaking testament to the warm feelings of finding one’s forever partner.
3. Florida Georgia Line (Country Pop)
Can’t Say I Ain’t Country can be best described as the southern man’s Slim Shady LP — a self-hype album whose creators are consistently reminding the listener of their street cred in the redneck community. In an iHeart Media interview at the album’s release party, Tyler Hubbard confirmed that the inspiration for the album’s skit tracks (which spotlight a longtime personal friend known as Brother Jervel) came from “back in the day on the old hip hop albums and stuff.” FGL has snugly hugged the Pop end of the genre’s spectrum after their breakout single “Cruise” was released in late 2012. Many of the songs on Can’t Say I Ain’t Country follow the same track. The strongest tunes feature collaborators — fellow Georgia/Florida natives — Jason Aldean and Jason Derulo. This is their fourth studio record, and a pattern is emerging in their work: a desire to move toward Pop and Hip-Hop but still maintaining the original (rural) fan base. They accomplish this dichotomy on a few tracks, like “People Are Different” or “Blessings.” Ironically, the songs sound gratuitous, given that so many other tolerance-preaching Country singles were released in 2018. Other tunes on the album, such as “Swerve,” sound more like appropriation than musical exploration or true expression. The lyrics include classic rap phrases such as “like I’m in a Bugatti” and “makin’ me swerve.” Revealingly, the duo has made no mention of their obvious influences as they’ve ran the music press gamut in the wake of the release.
1. Kehlani (Hip-Hop/Soul)
While We Wait is a thoughtful, multifaceted album from start to finish — including its title. Kehlani has been writing, recording, and producing throughout her pregnancy and is now expecting the birth of her daughter any day. She has described the record as her first gift to her child, a sort of musical family history for her to listen to as she matures. The narrative largely revolves around Kehlani’s own parents; the first few tracks describe their tumultuous relationship with each other and its impact on her as a child. The mixtape includes four collaborators, two of which are lesser known but still shine as they harmonize with her soulful voice. The strength and emotion she and 6LACK bring to “RPG” provide a great introduction to the project. “You told me I’m beautiful ’cause I told you, you don’t tell me enough // You’re lying next to me ’cause I told you, you don’t touch me enough // Now you told me you stay with me ’cause I told you, you’ve been working too much // You told me you’d care for me ’cause I told you, you don’t show me your love.” Potent words from a powerhouse of an artist who is surely going to raise an equally powerful young woman. During Women’s History Month, who could ask for more?
2. Chaka Khan (Funk/Soul)
Speaking of Women’s History, I am overjoyed to highlight a major figure in music history: the lovely Chaka Khan. Hello Happiness may be the Soul staple’s first new album in twelve years, but she doesn’t sound a whit stale. The decades and fads may go by, but Khan has an exceptional gift: to gather the best of contemporary hits and make them her own. The latest album is fairly short by today’s standards (just seven songs), but each tune is vibrant and brimming with flair. The opening lines of the title track perfectly set the tone for the rest of the piece:
I’ve got your cure
This music is yours
And this beat is mine
Goodbye sadness (Hello happiness)
3. Ariana Grande (Pop/R&B)
Thank U, Next invites an encapsulation of this writer’s thoughts on Ariana Grande. The 25 year-old Florida native’s career skyrocketed after she gained prominence as an actress on the Nickelodeon tween show Victorious, which ended in 2013. Since then, she and her manager have been actively branding her image to reflect her target audience: perpetual teenagers, the kind of vain/noncommittal millennials that give us all a bad rap. Her approach is trivial and juvenile, as is her music. With every sale, her bronzer has become darker and darker, leading some blogs to question her appearance and the (purposely?) misleading pronunciation of her surname. (Her heritage is 100% Italian, and the rest of her family has consistently referred to themselves as the “Gran-dee’s”, not “Gran-day’s.”) Some critics have gone as far as to charge her with appropriation of African American and Latina culture. Add these charges the utter failure of her Japanese tattoo and you have to wonder what Grande thinks she is representing, beyond the need to make a buck.
What does any of this have to do with her recent album, the one featuring three chart topping singles that led Billboard to compare her to the Beatles? Everything. From the first beat of the first song to the outro fade of the last; Thank U, Next is a product created by executives for sake of profit. The personnel credits for the album (which are as long as a CVS receipt) feature Swedish hit makers Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh; these two are exceptional examples of the commercialization/formulation of modern Pop. “Thank U, Next,” “Seven Rings,” and “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” are shallow hits fit for an increasingly shallow world.
Deanna Costa is a recent graduate of Boston University’s College of Communication, where she earned a B.S. in Journalism with a focus on Magazine Design. During her time at BU, she covered local concerts for on-campus publications in multiple formats. Outside of writing, she routinely interviewed artists and reviewed albums live on her weekly radio show, DJ-ed on campus events, and held the Studio Productions Director position in 2017. Currently, she is a full-time administrative assistant, a freelance music journalist, and a podcast co-host alongside her husband.