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.