Considering the lukewarm (even arguably harsh) response with which Paul McCartney’s two previous one-man home-recorded solo albums, McCartney (1970) and McCartney II (1980), were initially received, and how they nonetheless gradually found a welcoming and enthusiastic listenership with fans of a certain older generation of alt-rock/pop stars, one might anticipate that the most recent and the third installment in McCartney’s DIY trilogy would be an album that fails to fully submerge on a first spin. Recorded in 2020 at his residence in Sussex, the 78-year-old Scouse rock legend took quarantine as an opportunity to start noodling with some of his old ideas and leftover sketches. The final product, McCartney III, is nothing less than an experimental pop-rock slow-burn — perhaps its offbeat tenor is to be expected, coming from a septuagenarian billionaire sir and family man megastar who’s still enjoying (even goofing around here, and why not?) the chance to explore new musical possibilities after nearly six decades of activity and dedicated work. The album’s experimentalism gives an impression that isn’t dissimilar, in sonic form, from the way fellow countryman and visual artist David Hockney has embraced the work of painting on his iPad and iPhone since 2009, pushing form in the wake of career-long success, while the album’s slow-burn qualities are familiar, keeping in line with most of McCartney’s post-Beatles, post-Wings records.
The semi-instrumental opener, “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” aptly encapsulates the essence of McCartney III. With simple, straightforward, and phrase-repeating lyricism, which has always been part of McCartney’s signature — “Do you, do-do, do you miss me? / Do you, do-do, do you feel me?” — the track somehow recalls The Beatles’ 1962 debut single, “Love Me Do,” and also proves that this is a record as deeply rooted in the artist’s previous experiences as it’s joyously playful with uncanny melodies and tunes. Here, like all other songs on the album, everything stems from casually-performed riffs mixed with unadorned guitar chords and drum rhythms, and soon leads into a more instrumentally-varied and layered piece. This experience of the album can best be heard later in McCartney’s color-shifting vocal performances, varying from the soft, clean tone of his upper register to deep bass expressions, from humming and whistling to falsetto. All of the songs ably manifest their singular mood and atmosphere, each adding some fresh flair and flavor to the overall easy-listening feel of the record — there’s the beautiful, underlying piano support in “Women and Wives,” the waggish bluesy rock ‘n’ roll vibe of “Lavatory Lil,” the feel-good, heartwarming character of “Seize the Day,” the hibernal soothing of folksy “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes,” the structural complexity and feverishly dark inflection of “Deep Deep Feeling,” and the funky, sensual “Deep Down.” Elsewhere, “The Kiss of Venus” reveals McCartney’s facility with more profound, poetically-inclined lyricism and emotional richness, while “Find My Way” and “Pretty Boys” once more demonstrate his ability for composing catchy little ditties. It’s easy to catalog the album’s strengths in this way, and there are plenty more pleasures — especially for McCartney diehards — to discover, but if anything can precisely articulate the artist’s intent on McCartney III, it can be found in his own sincere, reflective, and revelatory words on the hard rock-styled “Slidin’,” where he intones: “I know there must be other ways of feeling free / But this is what I wanna do, who I wanna be.”
Writer: Ayeen Forootan Section: Pop Rocks
Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman captures Margo Price at an inflection point. The album was recorded in 2018, during a three-night residency at country music’s mother church, with Price still riding high on the success of her rugged and rootsy All American Made. And yet, the album wasn’t released until 2020’s COVID lockdown, in the midst of what should have been the rollout for Price’s delightfully venomous rock and roll record, That’s How Rumors Get Started. Listening to the 50-minute live set now, it’s not difficult to hear Price gesturing in both directions: She and her band are faithful but not overly reverential stewards of country tradition, happy to reach back into its hallowed songbook but restless when they stay there too long. The songs include a few standouts from the first two Margo Price albums plus some well-curated covers, but it’s not hard to imagine a couple of That’s How Rumors Get Started selections sliding into the sequence.
Actually, though all three of her studio albums are great, this live set most clearly demonstrates the breadth of her talent. It’s a rangy and free-wheeling program that finds space for a barreling, slash-and-burn rendition of Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Livin Long Like This,” a swooning “waltz” version of Price’s own “A Little Pain,” and a graceful, weepy take of “Wild Women” with living legend Emmylou Harris on vocals. Jack White’s here, too, for a faintly Springsteenian anthem called “Honey, We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap.” Elsewhere, Price defuses some of the latent dad-rock inclinations in her source material; listen to how she leads her firecracker band through “Fortunate Son,” building it from a lazy riverboat ride to a blazing country-rock conclusion. Here and throughout the album, Price gets the right balance of intimacy and spectacle, though she leans wholly toward the former on the finishing “World’s Greatest Loser”— only recently displaced by “I‘d Die for You” as the perfect Price closer.
Writer: Josh Hurst Section: Rooted & Restless
Rico Nasty has made quite a name for herself, utilizing an abrasive fusion of electronic-inflected hip-hop beats and a metal-adjacent vocal. Her first official album, Nightmare Vacation, takes the natural next step, then — upgrading Mixtape Rico to a fully realized version of that style that holds together, consistently, across a full length. Rico packs her album with great features, too: Dylan Brady, Gucci Mane, and Aminé each add a unique flair. Brady’s production on “IPHONE,” especially, stands out, and adds to the 100 Gecs’ mastermind’s already impressive, rapidly expanding catalog. Every song on Nightmare Vacation makes an impact in, usually, a very short period of time; album opener “Candy,” for instance, is a concise flex with Rico’s trademark rapid bars, full of confidence and itching to go: “Foot on the gas I stomp on the pedal / I need the best I ain’t trying to settle / I got half a billion but it still ain’t enough.” Some Kenny Beats-produced singles that didn’t make it onto those early mixtapes — like “Smack a Bitch,” about a beef with rival rapper Asian Doll — also show up on the tracklist, perhaps to subtly remind us that this isn’t some new artist making her mark. Rico has been a force in the indie rap scene for years, and this (re-)introduction works just as well as a flip through past exploits, if you’re already familiar, as it does as a salvo for the first-timers.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: What Would Meek Do?
“I feel my story’s still untold, but I’ll make my own happy ending,” Róisín Murphy begins, sexily, huskily speaking against strings on “Simulation.” It’s a striking, honest statement from an artist whose visibility has always been outsized by her influence. She takes it further: after her gasping breaths, after the echo-y, sweaty beat drops and then drops again, she declares: “These are my wildest dreams” and “All this is mine, I realise.” This is Róisín Machine after all, and the machinations are familiar in the hands of a master who has been making dance music for 25 years. Between the eponymous titles and aforementioned preface, Róisín has set up her fifth solo album as a reintroduction, and the emphatic statement couldn’t be grander. As “Simulation” randily builds, hints of the buoyant, mysterious synth line to follow in “Kingdoms of Ends” breaks through. What follows is a hedonistic, continuous mix rife with thumping bass, bold melodies, and thoughtful lyrics that attempt to reconcile a life of desires and dancing. That track propulses forward, building to nothing as she accepts “the true forms of [her] desires,” subverting relief for anxious, occasionally humorous, obscurity.
The next song, “Something More,” corrects the course, satirizing excessive, nocturnal lifestyles. Over a repetitive, sparse house beat, Róisín demands more than the billion in her bank and the ten lovers in her bed. On “Murphy’s Law,” she represents the titular phenomenon as near-daily run-ins with a past flame, dropping her voice and almost speak-singing over handclaps and boogie-ish bass. “When we talk, it gets around / There’s other people’s feelings / To think about,” she sings of her action’s consequences. On “Narcissus,” Róisín mockingly sings “be in love, be in love, be in love, be in love with me” over aggressive, heavily-accented string trills and a killer bassline — the instrumental breakdown is an incredible moment, with overpowering, whiny strings and aggressive pizzicato plucking. The drama continues with album closer, “Jealousy,” which recalls tracks from Róisín’s earlier solo work and Moloko output. Breaking into one of the funkiest grooves on the record, after she howls the title, Róisín battles with the titular emotion, first dismissing it and then finding herself enraptured by it. It all amounts to an overwhelming, extreme dance floor confessional that marries the thoughtful inventiveness of her last two minimalist, avant-garde records and her career-defining opus Overpowered. Within a discography of only pop perfection, Róisín Machine manages to respectfully look back while simultaneously pushing her sounds and thoughts far into the future, transforming the listener’s headphones and at-home speakers into a humid, underground party filled with beautiful people looking to make mistakes, even despite Róisín’s warning tales.
Writer: Tanner Stechnij Section: Ledger Line
For a brief moment, Brothers Osborne landed in that rare sweet spot between commercial impact and critical acclaim, rubbing elbows with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, and Eric Church as standard-bearers for contemporary country. With the release of Port St. Joe, though, the duo’s progressive bent outpaced what radio programmers were willing to abide: While most of the genre’s men were busy ripping off Bruno Mars and Maroon 5, the BrOs dropped an album that owed no small debt to the dancepunk of early aughts rock bands. Their follow-up, Skeletons, is a course-correction, then, attempting to move the needle back in the direction of commercial accessibility. Lead single “All Night,” for instance, is an obvious parallel to their signature hit, “It Ain’t My Fault,” while “Hatin’ Somebody” aims for the same brand of Can’t We All Get Along unity of recent hits like Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good” and Kenny Chesney’s “Get Along.” Both sure bets for future singles, “I’m Not for Everyone” and “All the Good One Are” have hooks far stronger than that of “All Night.” That this album stands as a step back from Port St. Joe is not a function of the BrOs’ commercial ambition so much as it’s a matter of songwriting that simply isn’t as sharp as their best material. The title track is easily the standout, with a memorable turn-of-phrase in the chorus (“You got skeletons in your closet / And I got bones to pick with them”) and a massive guitar riff to give the song a real sense of heft. It’s the Brothers Osborne at their rambunctious best, while most of Skeletons finds them settling for being better than most of their peers on country radio.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless
The White Stripes
After nearly a decade of being one of the more obnoxious personalities in the music industry, it can be easy to forget that Jack White was once the front man of an absolute powerhouse duo that made fun, and innovative, rock music. A compilation of that band’s hits sounds plenty appealing, at first blush, but, like the majority of White’s post-White Stripes output, Greatest Hits comes across as self-important and unnecessary. The Stripes maintained indie darling status through years of what could be considered major hits, with songs like “We’re Going to Be Friends,” “Fell in Love With a Girl,” and “Seven Nation Army” all breaking into the mainstream consciousness. And these songs, sure enough, are all present on this hits compilation. But it seems like the other “hits” were chosen at random, rather than curated for fans to enjoy. Several of the White Stripes’ standard setlist tracks make it in, to be fair, but there’s almost an hour and a half of music here, and no clear rhyme or reason to its sequencing — making for a discombobulated listening experience. Greatest Hits is messy, and not in the fun way the band used to be; many of the tracks are great, but the decision to not organize them by era, or even sonic character, turns this into a playlist to throw on shuffle rather than the cohesive look at the work of an excellent band it could have been. With a little more thought put into sequencing, and maybe a bit shorter runtime, this could have been a great introduction or a welcome shot of nostalgia; instead, Greatest Hits is a low-effort shrug.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Pop Rocks