Taylor Swift, #4 album of 2019 according to Billboard magazine

Before getting into the specifics of this record, it is worth noting that the top 4 albums of 2019 were helmed by female vocalists: Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift. The ladies of pop music as a group have a deep bench from which to pull blockbuster albums. Think about who’s not on this list: Adele, Beyonce, and Rihanna, among others. However, we won’t see another lady on the year-end list until we get to numbers 19 and 20. A sweep of the top four spots is noteworthy, nonetheless.

And Taylor Swift is partly responsible for the resurgence of the pop diva in the past decade. She’s been churning out country and pop nuggets for almost 15 years now, adding her own unassuming brand of superstar branding to the mix. Nobody since Janet Jackson (y’all knew I couldn’t go very many posts without mentioning my girl J) has done such a thorough job spinning humility into divadom.

Taylor, however, flaunts an important advantage over Janet in Lover, her umpteenth blockbuster album in a row. In the internet age, with the constant and real-time social media banter that has existed since Taylor became a household name, the chatter about her character, her real and imagined beefs with other celebrities, and so forth, Taylor has become a master of self-reference and self-parody. Without her innocent, good-girl phase, there would have been no Reputation where she could lash out and vent about all those controversies. And then there would have been no Lover, which serves as an antidote to that bitterness. On this album she solidifies her bonafides as a post-Good Girl Good Girl, someone who has shown her hand as petty and snarky but in the end is actually Good after all, flaws and all.

Taylor’s songwriting craft literally sparkles here as it cavorts playfully in the electronic, sonic beds laid out by her longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff. The gauzy, ear-candy arrangements are both pleasant on their own and serve as great frames for Taylor’s incisive and effortless lyrics. The tone alternates between flippancy (“I Forgot That You Existed,” “Death By A Thousand Cuts,” “You Need to Calm Down”) and earnestness (“Cornelia Street,” “Soon You’ll Get Better”), but it never descends to cloying cleverness or cloying sweetness.

I still need to get up to speed on Taylor’s earlier work, but from what I recall, the songwriting here is not substantially different than when she was younger, apart from a bit more topicality (“Why be mad when you can be GLAAD?” she asks on “You Need to Calm Down”). What’s different to me is the context. When she was playing the ingenue, her lyrics were seen as an outlet for what she couldn’t say in polite conversation. Now, the same tone comes across as conversational. Which is a roundabout way of saying what I’ve read from others–that Lover shows a relaxed, unaffected Taylor. Like all of us, the older she gets, the less she feels she has to prove.

With all the meta-ness that surrounds Taylor, it’s not entirely clear if the whole image thing as reflected in the music is just an elaborate illusion. What is real, though, is the songwriting skill. When you listen to an album once and have lyrics and melodies pop into your head for days afterward, that’s talent and skill.

Fantastic record.

A Star is Born

Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper, #3 album of 2019 according to Billboard magazine

The A Star is Born soundtrack is a real, integral part of Lady Gaga’s catalog, a true musical turning point. Her commercial success had waned in the preceding six years, starting with 2013’s Artpop. And as of this writing, her newest release Chromatica seems destined for the same middling success as before the soundtrack.

The reinvention on this soundtrack is complete and convincing. While she amps it up toward the climax of the story arc, becoming something like the glam pop star she is in real life, the heart of this soundtrack consists of country-rock gems that are surprisingly effective.

As great as Gaga is, Bradley Cooper provides the biggest jaw drop of all. We already knew she was versatile, but we didn’t (read: I didn’t) know Cooper could hold his own musically with her. Obviously, he’s not the powerhouse she is, but he does a convincing and earnest honky tonk Eddie Vedder impression. His songs aren’t isn’t-that-cute filler; they are every bit as emotionally engaging and pop-smart as hers are. And their duets mirror their on-screen chemistry.

Soundtracks used to be this way. Then they turned into free-for-alls, and then they turned into nothing-sandwich collages, about as thoughtful as an algorithm-generated streaming service playlist (yes, I’m looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy). This soundtrack follows the trajectory of the film, using snippets of dialogue to shadow or summarize the plot points. It’s a little hokey, but it lets you know why the songs exist in the context of the soundtrack. I like that format.

And if any soundtrack and film can get away with hokey, it’s the third (fourth?) iteration of this classic rags-to-riches, good-girl-gone-big story, with all its self-referential fixation on stardom and celebrity.

Although Gaga recasts herself in an almost unrecognizable persona, the idea of fame as a thematic element in her music is entirely consistent. Her first album, after all, was called The Fame. Here, by inhabiting a character who navigates a rise to fame and by chronicling that journey indirectly through the music her character writes and sings, this soundtrack becomes more than just a series of ditties, even if it doesn’t attempt the pretensions of Artpop.

Blah, blah, blah. I know. Bottom line is that this is a solid collection of sturdy pop songs, that enrich the film they support and also stand on their own.

Thank U, Next

Ariana Grande, #2 album of 2019 according to Billboard magazine

Ariana is a frustrating creature for me. She’s a gifted vocalist with a great sense of humor and a hammy self-awareness. Somehow, though, her music never fulfills the potential of these potent ingredients.

You can tell that Ariana really wants to share her personal feelings. The title track “thank u, next,” and “needy,” among others, are classic pop confessionals that should make us cry, empathize, and want to hug her. And yet, most of it doesn’t quite gel for me.

I read somewhere that people often become gym bunnies in order to build a literal physical armor to protect them from the world and hide their vulnerabilities. I feel that Ariana does the same with her voice. Instead of using her gifts to let us into her world, she tends to throw her smoky, towering voice full-force against the recording studio wall with indiscriminate power, obliterating any hope of genuine connection with the listener.

My homework for Ariana is to binge-listen to Mariah Carey and Beyonce albums until she internalizes their vocal philosophy. Both know how to showcase their vocals by thoughtfully modulating their tone and volume, and by playing nice with their conversational, hip-hop-tinged lyrics. Ari has come to embrace all of these things in theory, but the execution is flat. Too often she defaults to one of two fallbacks: a sassy, talky sing-song or a flat belt. Her singing sounds great but is mostly unthoughtful.

That being said, Thank U, Next is a noteworthy album. For all of my critical notes, Ari’s voice is indeed gorgeous, and the production is crisp, polished, and sometimes clever. She co-wrote most of the album, and it’s exciting to think about the amount of room she has to grow as a songwriter.

The clear highlight of the album for me, where she shows she can push past the unthoughtful vocal gymnastics, is “ghostin,” a song so tender and vulnerable that I spontaneously began crying less than a minute into the run time. In the song she chronicles her dejection at disappointing her current lover by constantly thinking about her ex. Her well-chronicled relationship with the late Mac Miller definitely adds a layer of devastation to lines like “He just comes to visit me / When I’m dreaming every now and then.”

If Ariana can channel the amount of heart she poured into that song into her broader catalog, she will truly be a dangerous woman.

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

Billie Eilish, #1 album of 2019 according to Billboard magazine

Welcome to the revival of This blog was created a few years back as a reaction to the negative coverage of modern music, under the philosophy that music is a positive thing, not something to be approached with disdain or prejudgment.

My challenge to myself in this revival is to listen to the top 100 albums of 2019 and provide my thoughts on them in individual blog posts. My style is to start punchy and weave in some heart-felt prose, so forgive the more subdued prologue this time.

As I work from the top down, from insanely popular and possibly overexposed music to the less so, I find myself in the unenviable position of writing about music that has been subjected to countless critiques already.

So, to be trite, what is there to say about Billie Eilish’s full-length album debut that hasn’t already been said? Probably nothing, but here goes.

Visceral. Visceral. When Billie and her brother Finneas collaborate, they embody the concept of music as a gut-felt, living being. That’s what makes this album sing, so to speak. From the subwoofer-heavy bass bleats to the teeth-chattering vocal effects, you actually feel this album in your body as you listen. The surreal, atmospheric lyrical narratives heighten the effect of the music, making it seem more than gimmicky noodling.

But what anchors the bold production and the spooky lyrics are a trifecta of unbeatable ingredients: pristine melodies, jammin’ grooves, and naked vocals. Billie has a vocal gift, one that transcends the showboat-y criteria of diva worshipers. She emotes in a deft way that either reflects her youth or transcends it–I still haven’t decided.

The grooves here, with an obvious nod to the megahit “Bad Guy,” are the real unheralded bright spot. R&B is my musical home base, and my neck was working overtime as I appreciated the deep-dish grooves of “you should see me in a crown” and “bury a friend.”

I was in college when Tori Amos broke big, and Billie brings the same eccentric pixie-ish energy to her vocal performances. A whole generation of female vocalists have thrived in this emo-centric niche, so I’m not saying Billie is the direct descendant of Tori or that there aren’t a slew of other artists that take this tack to their recordings, but it’s a pleasant throwback reference for me personally.

Love, love, love this record and am excited about what the future holds for Billie.

Teddy Riley vs. Babyface

On April 20, there was a botched online DJ-style battle between Teddy Riley and Babyface, part of the evolving Verzuz beat battle series, with each hoping to assert the heft and grooviness of their respective discographies. As the story goes, Babyface did little more than hit play and effortlessly dispatched Mr. Riley, who did too both way too much and not nearly enough, succumbing to logistical and technical difficulties.

This is all hearsay–I don’t have the patience to go back and review video footage or biased recountings of what seems to have been not easy to watch when it happened the first time. I only bring it up as a pretext to delve into the fray myself–not the live battle itself, but the conversation about the musical legacies each legend was hoping to defend. These two guys overlap with the sweet spot of my pop music awareness, when I was old enough to absorb and critique music with some discernment, but no so old that life got in the way of enjoying music as a major pursuit.

In other words, these guys and I go way back.

I have a natural tendency to be team Teddy. I thrive in the world of groove and funk and dance. I bought Guy’s debut album as a cassette (yes, a cassette) and then their follow-up The Future as one of the first CDs in my collection. I played both records extensively (in between jamming Janet and Troop) and marveled at the deep grooves and the sparkling synths. I tolerated Aaron Hall’s gospel histrionics and found them to be a good stylistic foil to Teddy’s too-cool electronic modernism.

Then, when Teddy branched out and worked with Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson, I was totally on board. MJ’s Dangerous is a much-overlooked masterpiece, and Teddy’s work on the first half of the record is stunning. Stunning. Even though it’s clear to a Janet superfan like me that MJ cornered Teddy in the studio and made him promise to copy the template of Rhythm Nation but up the technical wow factor, it’s the best damn ripoff anyone’s ever attempted.

Then for his final lap in the limelight, Teddy headed up Blackstreet and churned out another few classics, most notably the chart bomb and best groove of all time, “No Diggity.” On the basis of that song alone, Teddy deserves to be in any music hall of fame that has every existed.

Of course, I’m leaving out a lot of his creative output. There’s much more–some I don’t even remember, and some I probably never knew. For instance, when he was about 16 or 17, Teddy helped produce the rap classic record “The Show” for Doug E. Fresh. Teddy virtually created New Jack Swing, the dominant sound of R&B for half of a decade, and a clear precursor to the Bad Boy sound that dominated even more resoundingly in the 90s. As if that weren’t enough, he profoundly influenced his fellow Virginian Timbaland and mentored a young Rodney Jerkins, who have since become equally formidable pop culture forces.

Teddy Riley may be the fodder for some memes over the past week, but he’s no joke.

People of my age are legally required to be Babyface fans. I looked up the federal statute. That universality aside, I do consider myself a free-willed supporter of his creative output. I loved, loved, loved some of the gems he wrote and/or produced and/or performed: “My Kinda Girl,” “End of the Road,” “Baby, Baby, Baby,” “Take a Bow” [Madonna not Rihanna], “Giving You the Benefit”, “Most Girls” [an early P!nk hit], “Ready or Not,” and OK, I’m getting exhausted. It is impossible to overstate the pervasiveness of his presence in pop and R&B music between 1988 and 2000. If they wrote a definitive book on how to write songs, he’d be the subject of two chapters and the author of the preface.

‘Face’s production tropes (with longtime partner L.A. Reid) are also notable and influential. My only issue with the LA & Babyface sound as it existed during their heyday as producers is that it’s the tiniest bit derivative. They were never explicitly focused on being innovators, and it shows in their music. The ballads are often tasteful and restrained, with no production personality. They’re about the music. (Think “Love Makes Things Happen,” a gorgeous cut Babyface duetted on with Pebbles.) The more production-centric cuts seemed to mix the New Jack-esque swing beats (courtesy of you-know-who) with the high-gloss production flourishes of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The only sound innovation that I credit Babyface with is the opera-style background vocals which crop up as a dynamic contrast on songs like “Dontcha Think” and “Most Girls.” No one else mastered the inherent melodrama of sparkly 90s pop and vaguely classical window dressing.

How do you compare these two? Well, you don’t, not really. That’s what makes it fun. If you actually pitted one apple against another, one apple would get its feelings hurt because it was clearly less flavorful and crisp than the other. When you pit an apple against an orange, everyone just ends up having fun with their confirmation biases and everyone goes home feeling superior.

Telling me I, as a fan, have to pick between Kenneth and Theodore is like asking me to pick between melody and rhythm, almost literally. Not gonna do it.

As a music critic, I reluctantly award my gold star to Teddy. I wouldn’t want a world without Babyface, but Teddy has served as a sound innovator and has influenced other sound innovators. It’s not lost on me that Teddy is a clumsy singer and songwriter when compared to Babyface, but his talent with crafting sound is (perhaps–I’m not sure?) more rare.

My Music Faves – Damita Jo – Janet Jackson

Posted on November 19, 2019

Reviewed: Damita Jo by Janet Jackson (2006)

I almost don’t want to review this album after revisiting this revisitation by Pitchfork from earlier this year. It’s a spot-on analysis from a relatively objective source instead of a ravenous fan.

Shoving that thoughtful review at you absolves me of all the meta-analysis. I guess.

For my part, I think Damita Jo is a fantastic and unique record for Janet. It was the beginning of a three-album arc away from Jimmy & Terry, and while the other two records yielded decidedly mixed results, Damita Jo clearly benefits from the creative new blood. Dallas Austin, Scott Storch, Kanye West, and others pitched in to push Janet into new sonic territory. Jam & Lewis were never far, collaborating on most but not all of the tracks.

Thematically, Janet meditates on the universality of love, a clear riff on the theme of The Velvet Rope, which was about acceptance. The theory is that all of us, but Janet in particular, cultivate different personas; these personas all take different tacks toward looking for that love (and, not incidentally, sex). Janet introduces us to Damita Jo and Strawberry, two of her shadow alter egos, in the early songs, but then allows us to infer what parts of her personality are at play as she lounges in the Caribbean, steams up the dance floor, and graphically narrates her amorous adventures throughout the rest of the record.

The music sounds different. But the tone is also new. Her five blockbuster albums from Control to All For You were diligently on the move at all times, from the fast side to the slow side, from the chorus to the bridge, from one mood to another, often with explicit directions included (“Get the point? Good, let’s dance.”) Janet got shit done on her records.

On Damita Jo, for the first time, Janet is unapologetically self-indulgent. It’s a post-IDGAF world for Janet. The new Janet/Damita Jo/Strawberry combo lingers and luxuriates. She performs two entire songs about highly specific sex acts. She gives a monologue about how much she loves dusk. She hammers home the same looping refrain on “All Nite (Don’t Stop).” And so on. After nearly two decades of trying to impress everyone, it seems to click for her that she’s an established artist who can actually meditate and fixate, and not worry who sees her staring.

There’s too many highlights to mention, so I’ll limit my mentions to a top two and a bottom two. “Strawberry Bounce” is a sneaky earworm that gets better with each repeat. “Truly” is a sparse, gorgeous Michael-esque performance filled out with Janet-esque harmonies. And at least five other tracks are as good as those two.

On the other end of the spectrum, “Thinkin’ Bout My Ex” just sounds like Janet checking Babyface off her bucket list rather than an inspired collaboration. It’s also a very safe arrangement on an otherwise adventurous record.

It’s followed by “Warmth,” one of the two sex songs mentioned above. It’s the only meditation of the bunch that stalls a bit too long on its fixation. Once you get over the oh-my-god-she’s-singing-about-THAT moment, there’s not a lot else going on sonically.

Of course, any review of Damita Jo has the duty to mention that its success was artificially stunted by the post-Super Bowl blacklisting and backlash. I won’t carry on about what could have been. Instead, I’ll mention what actually was–a fully realized Janet, comfortable on record as never before, having fun and taking names.

My Music Faves – 20 Y.O. – Janet Jackson

Reviewed: 20 Y.O. by Janet Jackson (2006)

“There’s something to be said for not saying anything.”

OK, Jan, if you say so.

This was the inauspicious opening of 20 Y.O., Janet’s comeback punch after the uppercut she was dealt with the media blackout around her prior release Damita Jo.

Janet could be forgiven for wanting a little escapism after the bullying and shaming of 2004, but deconstructing the foundation of her record-making ethos might not have been the right ticket. A Janet record needs a reason for being, a central organizing theme that tells you where Janet is in her life at the moment. 20 Y.O. found Janet rationalizing why she didn’t want to talk about it, any of it.

The thematic confusion doesn’t stop there. Ostensibly a celebration of the 20 years since her emergence as an independent and successful musical artist, the record failed to connect that theme in any meaningful way to the tracks. The interludes find Jan reminiscing with friends and reflecting on her career in a carefree, non-reflective manner. But the tracks themselves don’t carry the theme. They simply show up between the interludes.

OK, now with all the griping out of the way, it’s time to unearth the biggest secret about this much-maligned entry in Janet’s discography–this album JAMS. And to be fair, that is all Janet seems to be concerned with in the first place.

The energy in the opening tracks leaps from the speakers and drags the listener onto the steamiest corner of the dance floor. Jermaine Dupri was near the top of his game at this time, only one year removed from his astounding work on Mariah Carey’s comeback record The Emancipation of Mimi.

Of course, the hope was that he could accomplish the same feat with his then-girlfriend. A more forgiving media might have allowed it to happen, because these tracks are good enough. I mean, they’re not “We Belong Together,” but they’re pretty darn good. All six of the opening tracks, from the Herbie Hancock-sample assisted “So Excited” to the chopped, screwed, and rocked-out “This Body,” show Janet in fine form, affecting her vocals to match each distinctive mood as the tracks melt into each other on the record’s first half.

The record briefly bobbles midway through. “With U” is the only partial misstep on the album. It probably felt like a special moment between JD and JJ in the studio, but it comes across a bit formulaic on record. It’s a pretty song, just not a sonic zinger in the Janet tradition. The bright first single “Call On Me” quickly picks up the slack afterward. It’s largely been forgotten that this was a huge R&B hit in 2006, although even many Janet fans felt like she was resorting to uncharacteristic mainstream concessions, namely a duet with Nelly and an extravagant Hype Williams music video production.

Jermaine Dupri suffered much unfair criticism and grief from Janet’s fans over his work on this record. He did a wonderful job. Unfortunately, Janet’s musical soul mates Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis decided to produce a few tracks for good measure. The results are four should-be-legendary tracks that end the record and almost close the loop on the 20 Y.O. theme.

The Jam & Lewis tracks evoke the magic of the two decades of their work together in a vivid way. “Daybreak” is a teeny bop delight. “Take Care” is “Come Back to Me” on vitamin E, all dramatic crescendos and clever vocal arrangements. “Love 2 Love” is a Prince-forward falsetto-fest and one of the more dynamic vocal performances of Janet’s career.

But the best of all is “Enjoy,” which gets my vote as Janet’s finest song–ever. On a different record, at a different time, this could have been a huge hit. It’s a meditation on living life to its fullest, but also comes across as diligent and melancholy. The joy on the record is palpable, but there’s also a sense that it’s well-earned and thoughtfully considered. A complex and layered song, it’s almost too fine a composition for this otherwise carefree, say-nothing record.

My Music Faves – Discipline – Janet Jackson

Reviewed: Discipline by Janet Jackson (2008)

Discipline was a necessary evil. It was an other-side-of-the-mirror exercise, with an unintentional premise. What if Janet had played by the rules and allowed herself to be carried by superstar writers and producers instead of staking out her own identity?

In that respect, Discipline is a clear throwback to her pre-Control work. Both her eponymous debut and the somewhat dismal Dream Street consisted of queues of star producers, all lined up for a go at the production slingshot that would catapult Janet to stardom. Notably, the then-red-hot Giorgio Moroder (of Donna Summer and Flashdance fame) produced some real duds on the latter album.

This time around in 2008, a quarter-century later, Def Jam Records again hatched the “brilliant” idea of lining up all the hottest producers to bring Janet back to the effortless commercial viability of 1986 to 2001, during Janet’s unprecedented chart run across five multi-platinum albums.

The production and writing heft was considerable and exciting. Stargate! The-Dream! Rodney Jerkins! Jermaine Dupri! Ne-Yo! Babyface!

Listening to the sheer pop, dance, and R&B-ish craftsmanship of the tracks on Discipline, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were successful. The hooks are solid and the production glistens across the record.

Problem is, they forgot to bring Janet along. Much as with her first two albums, the producers and writers seem so absorbed with crafting hits that they did not properly pause to consider whose name was on the wrapper.

Granted, Janet didn’t give them the most material to work with. As the story goes, Janet wanted to go on tour to support 20 Y.O., her 2006 effort and first attempt to rebound from the PR debacle that was Super Bowl 38 (sorry, not typing out all those Roman numerals). Def Jam was ready to take a big L on 20 Y.O. and wanted to get Janet right back in the studio to craft a guaranteed blockbuster album. Janet, against her better judgement, went along with the idea.

However, she didn’t have a story to tell this time in the studio, and it really showed. This left her entirely in the hands of a bunch of musicians whose names didn’t start with “Jimmy Jam” or “Terry Lewis.” Janet’s vocals are fine but mostly unremarkable. Everyone seemed OK using Janet as a melody-reciter instead of a song interpreter. The result: Discipline is an exceptional Britney Spears record but a comparatively two-dimensional Janet Jackson record.

OK, that was the bad news. Now the good news: the album, considering it was assembled using a lot of flavor-of-the-month producers, has aged really well so far.

Also good news: while most producers failed to work properly with Janet, Ne-Yo (whom I also adore as an artist) distinguished himself by pulling the two best vocal performances of the album out of Janet. (Not a coincidence.) “Can’t B Good” is a jaw-dropping mid-tempo tribute to Michael Jackson. There’s even a YouTube video where the audio is slowed down to lower the pitch, and Janet’s vocal intonations sound remarkably like MJ.

The other Ne-Yo standout is the title track. Critics at the time bristled at the kinky overtones, dismissing it as more pointless Janet-sex-kitten schtick. A few years’ perspective on the song, though, reveals a slinky melody, a relatively restrained S&M lyrical narrative, and an inspired erotic delivery from Janet.

Other highlights include first single “Feedback,” which has showed real staying power in Janet’s live shows in the ensuing years, growing more lean and mean with each interpretation; second single “Rock With U,” a deceptively simple lazy disco romp, surprisingly well-produced by Janet’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri, and fleshed out by an outstanding music video (JD’s other contributions here, however, are underwhelming); and likely single candidates “Luv” and “Rollercoaster,” both of which feature rollicking, catchy production hooks.

I had hopes in 2008 that this hook machine of an album would grant Janet her commercial renaissance, but the media blackout, still only four years old, held sway. Even in the absence of an overt refusal to play Janet’s material, the break in momentum proved to be insurmountable.

Even without millions in sales and multiple hit singles, Discipline serves as an interesting  experiment in alternate-reality Janet, the reality where she didn’t take control, she ceded it.


My Music Faves – Unbreakable – Janet Jackson

Reviewed: Unbreakable by Janet Jackson (2015)

By way of getting back into practice, in my return to music blogging, I am going to go back through the catalog of my favorite musical artist, Janet Jackson.

Unbreakable came out four years ago, and the perspective I’ve gained on the record since it came out has been valuable. Elsewhere on the internet there’s a breathless review I wrote proclaiming this Janet’s best work. Now I can be a little more objective.

Actually, what I said was that this release was a deep, thoughtful, clever record that may come to rival The Velvet Rope as Janet’s magnum opus. So I kind of gave it a close second.

The proverbial tree in the forest that no one is around to hear fall comes to mind. Between 20 and 30 years ago, every moment on a Janet record was a heralded cultural tick of the collective clock. By contrast, only a few hundred thousand die-hard fans bought and digested Unbreakable. It’s impossible to compare apples and really popular apples.

And Unbreakable is one tasty, if less popular, apple. Janet poured herself into this project  in a way she hadn’t since Damita Jo in 2004. The two intervening releases, 20 Y.O. and Discipline, were stifled a bit by her failure to own up to the seismic shift in her career that happened after the 2004 Super Bowl. It’s understandable that she wanted to move past it, but Janet albums are always confessional–we all knew it hurt her to be so unfairly targeted, and yet, the Janet that appeared on record ignored that it happened at all. Then, after her brother passed in 2009, I suspect that grief was too much for her to ignore. She took a break from recording at all for five years.

Unbreakable was Janet coming clean: “I lived through my mistakes/It’s just a part of growing/And never for a single moment/Did I ever go without your love,” she opens on the record’s title track, revealing more about her inner dialogue in ten seconds than she had in the previous decade. She spills her guts over the 17-track sprawl (with no interludes this time!) about her brother, her crush on her hubby, her Michael-like distrust of the media, her disillusionment with her own social idealism, and her spirituality, among other topics.

The album seems remarkably organic given this potential laundry listing of topics. It’s just like an old friend that you haven’t seen in years catching up with you about everything important they’ve been pondering and dealing with. She’d never waited as long as 15 years to tell us how she really feels, and she was just about to burst, it seems.

The musicality is just as exciting as ever. She’s certainly not trying to keep up with the current crop of chart-toppers, or straining to outdo them with innovation. The production matches the songs, and Janet’s multi-tracked harmonies are just as dreamy as you remember. The joy of reuniting with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, who hadn’t worked with her for a whole album of material since 2001’s All For You, is palpable.

The most fun parts of the record, in fact, are the clever self-references. The instrumental track of “BURNITUP!” is nothing but a sped-up version of “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” On “Dammn Baby,” Jan launches out of left field into the breakdown of “I Get Lonely,” and it works.

The most poignant lyrical moments, though, are the personal references in the two ballads that appear in the album’s second act.

[As a reference point for the non-fan, Janet always seemed more comfortable making veiled, coy, or fictionalized revelations in her songs. I mean, we all knew that her ex-husband Rene Elizondo was the “stupid bitch in my beach house” on “Son of a Gun,” but she paired that zinger with a sample from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” so that he couldn’t try to prove it without seeming like the jerk she was saying he was. Well played, Janet.]

On “Shoulda Known Better,” Janet directly name-checks “Rhythm Nation,” bitterly casting it off as a silly, idealized fantasy. It’s sort of like her brother breaking down and admitting that Billie Jean was in fact his lover. The line is devastating, though ultimately it’s reverse psychology–we know she wants to inspire us to prove her wrong.

On the following track, “After You Fall,” Janet gives perhaps the rawest, most personal vocal of her career. Though it’s couched in the indirect second-person, you can hear the pain and loneliness in her voice as you imagine the isolation she felt after her career was sabotaged in 2004, or as you imagine her sympathizing with what MJ dealt with in his agonized celebrity bubble.

Unbreakable is the Janet record we needed in 2015. It was epic, it was personal, it had Jimmy and Terry, and while reflective, it wasn’t the work of a lady in the twilight of her career–it was (and is) a vibrant piece of pop music.




Back again!

If anyone out there was truly waiting on me to post again, I appreciate your patience. I want to continue my project of reviewing the best albums of all time. But I also want to review new albums, favorite albums, and maybe even some old albums. Oh, and singles, too.

The first record I want to go on–er, record–as reviewing is the most recent release from my favorite artist. (You’ll find out.) I’ll be titling the posts from here out according to the “project” I’m working on, along with the title and artist. So look for a wide variety of editorializing in the following projects:

My Music Faves

New Releases


Best of All Time

… and maybe some more. Stay tuned.