2019 In Pop

aka U2's most underrated album

Mon Dec 30 2019

Just a few weeks ago, Georgia Maq, the singer of Australian punk band Camp Cope, released her debut solo album, Pleaser. It had the exact effect she intended, I think, which was to completely defy all expectations and shock her fans. It starts with an acoustic guitar, as one might expect, but that instrument quickly disappears in favor of synths and digital beats, and that’s the actual album: simple pop music. Now, if this turn of events had occurred in the ‘90s, I probably would’ve turned it off after a couple songs and thrown the CD away and denounced Maq as a sellout without any hesitation. You wouldn’t even know it was her if a track popped up on the radio or something, not just because the music and subject matter are completely unlike Camp Cope, but because she’s taken vocal lessons in order to apparently lose her distinctive mode of expression in favor of a generic pop singing style that we’ve been inundated with for close to two decades now.

It’s not the ‘90s, though. It’s practically the ‘20s. Not only is it unconscionable to dismiss a pop pivot out of hand; I realized years ago that my hatred of pop music was a front to begin with. Yes, I’ve finally reclaimed my right to listen to Mariah Carey without shame, look at me. The only problem is, now that I’ve accepted the legitimacy of pop music, I have to have real opinions about it. And I think this Georgia Maq album is terrible. I don’t question the sincerity of her expression; I recognize that an artist writes and performs whatever it is they need to at the time. Twenty years ago I might’ve felt betrayed by Pleaser; today, I just don’t like it and fear that I might not like anything Maq does from here on. Who knows, right?

Now, it’s still unlikely that I’ll ever get to the end of a year and discover that my most-listened-to genre is pop; it’s not my bread and butter. In fact, I realized after finishing Pleaser that I had no idea what, for instance, Ariana Grande even sounded like. For all I know her music is just like this! I did not actually say to myself but you get the idea. I mean, the rudimentary music on Pleaser isn’t all that dissimilar from Billie Eilish, just nowhere near as well-crafted or interesting. So I put on thank u, next as an ostensible attempt to contrast Maq’s new identity with what I gather is the pop gold standard for this year. The contrast was, um, staggering? But Ariana Grande has an army of producers and gobs of money and clout, whereas Georgia Maq is a punk rock chick just fucking around; it’s pretty stupid to even compare them. But damn, thank u, next sounded sooooooo good, a complete palette-cleanse. Then I put on WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? because it had been a while. It was like I remembered. It’s not a big elaborate production like Grande; again I know there’s big bucks behind it, but some punk with the right programs and imagination could come close to making tracks like these.

So, what makes Eilish’s songs waaaaaaay better than Maq’s? Initially I thought to myself, it’s her sense of humor. In pop music you’re not supposed to take yourself so seriously! In Camp Cope, Maq is gravely serious because the subject matter demands it, and it’s powerful, whereas…I stopped myself there. That’s not the issue. There’s plenty of good, earnest lovesick pop music throughout history, who am I kidding? I’m overthinking this like I overthink everything. The fact is, nothing about Pleaser is the least bit original, except the fact that it’s a punk rock singer who made it. Hey, it’s just a first try, starting from scratch, and undeniably a bold-ass move, and I’m just some dude who felt incredibly inspired by who she seemed to be before and let down by this new version of her. But that’s me taking it too seriously, eh.

Maybe she’ll find her pop voice in the coming years, maybe Camp Cope will resume and be incredible. It’s silly to let this brief moment in time suggest anything about the future, right? Hats off to Georgia for doing something no punk from my generation would ever have the balls to do—they all default to retro country, yawn. At least it prompted me to finally listen to Ariana Grande.

Other hats off: to Lana Del Ray, for dominating the conversation this year. You’ve heard of her, right? Oh my God, are you living under a rock? She named her album Norman Fucking Rockwell!, how could you possibly not have heard about that? Gosh, talk about controversial. There’s a lot of swearing on the album, too. I guess she was kinda pissed off about how a few years ago the critics were all ripping her to shreds. I was never really sure what the issue was but I can assure you it was very controversial. I never did get around to listening to her first album, but I had to hear this new one, you know? It’s almost like she was daring critics to rip on her again. And the strategy worked! The critics love her now. A lot of regular people seem to love her, too. I personally found the album to be terrible, but what a hoot! Norman Fucking Rockwell!, can you imagine? I’d sooner revisit the Georgia Maq album, personally, and if you can honestly listen to Norman Fucking Rockwell! back-to-back with thank u, next and say you think the former is a better album, well, ell oh ell to ya. I’m pretty sure I’m not the target audience for any of these albums anyway; I’m glad they’ve hit their marks. I’ll bet ya Dave Grohl and Thom Yorke are big LDR fans.

A shout-out also to St. Vincent for making the world safe for Sharon Van Etten’s pop transformation, resulting in her best album yet. Remind Me Tomorrow sacrifices none of Van Etten’s distinctive dynamic sense, and she’s written bolder and more contemplative lyrics for this one than anything from her back catalog—which I happen to already adore. We knew this transformation was coming, sort of; she played a bunch of this material at the final outdoor installation of Eaux Claires in 2018, only completely stripped down, and being unable to fully transport myself back to that day, I’m not sure which versions I prefer. I’d give almost anything to have the full production presented back at the dang Foster Farms, but I guess I’ll probably never go back there again. I still hesitated to file this under “pop”; songs like “I Told You Everything” and “Memorial Day” barely qualify, but I guess if LDR is pop, this can be, too. It didn’t sound much like pop at EXCIV. When will Justin release recordings of every single set from every year of that festival?? Don’t try to tell me nobody recorded them!

Then I’ll move on to Marika Hackman, whose last album, I’m Not Your Man, I liked but it didn’t stick with me. Her latest, Any Human Friend, really drew me in, though, and I guess I chalk it up mainly to the hooks, because the biting, venomous lyrics have been there the whole time; maybe these ones are a step up in terms of emotional outreach, with the cleverness dialed back a bit. I keep revisiting this one and am reminded of how great the songs are every time; that’s pretty much the measure of great pop music, right?

Finally, I’ll mention probably my favorite pop album of the year, Lost Girls by Bat For Lashes. I was way into her first two albums and then it started to seem like she was riding out her persona and recycling ideas. It’s possible that this new one only sounds fresh because I haven’t been paying much attention the past several years. And a couple of the songs (“So Good”, “Peach Sky”) are a little cringey in the lyric department, I’ll admit. I just love the overall tone and feel of the album. It’s one that I think if you listen to the first song and go ‘oh yes, this is my shit’ then you’ll probably dig the whole thing.

Stop the presses: Another pop album came along into my awareness, or what I might call “meta-pop”, as long as that’s not already a thing: 100 gecs1000 gecs. Give this a spin the next time you’re not around young children and don’t have a splitting headache, I implore you. Tell me you’re not grinning ear to ear. If you’re not, immediately go watch that tweenwave episode of South Park and ask yourself why on Earth you’re even reading this blog.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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