Throwback Thursday: “1000 Forms of Fear” by Sia

Aesthetics have been intertwined with pop music since, well, the beginning of pop music; Elvis shook his hips onstage and millions of fans swooned, while decades later The Artist Formerly Known as Prince used an unpronounceable symbol to make his mark amidst the purple paisley. And don’t even get me started on Madonna.

Sia is a unique case because her choice of aesthetic is arguably a rejection of it. In the era when 1000 Forms of Fear came out, she presented herself as a recluse – even while onstage. She wore giant wigs that obscured her face and didn’t even appear in her own music videos. That was left to Dance Moms alum Maddie Ziegler. Both bizarre choices, but by taking herself out of the equation, Sia forced us to focus on the music itself.

The beats on the album are excellent trip-hop with Top 100 sensibilities: just listen to “Chandelier.” Sia knows how to make that work for her, even when she’s got full-size choruses; we never feel overwhelmed or like her voice is competing with those snaps and hooks. One doesn’t drown out the other.

For me, what stands out on this album is Sia’s voice. It’s throaty and rich. She’s got great range, too; most of the time her voice is in a deeper register, but on the chorus of “Chandelier,” she allows it to edge into a crack. It’s well-suited to the lyrical content of that song, too. She sings, “Party girls don’t get hurt,” and that deep voice does sound drunk, like she’s trying to reassure herself even as she “throw[s] them back till I lose count.” That inner struggle continues in “Elastic Heart.” “I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart,” Sia tells us. Yet throughout the song she wonders if this relationship might finally be the test of that strength: “But there were so many red flags.”

“Big Girls Cry” sums up the album’s themes. Even though she’s a tough girl, Sia’s in pain, and the champagne and high life won’t wash that away. She’s weighed down by baggage (“Eye of the Needle”) and working through a toxic relationship (“Flame Meet Gasoline”). It’s all those different forms of fear coming to life, just like the album title.

Throwback Thursday: “Fidelity” by Regina Spektor

The album Begin to Hope, released in 2006, was our first mainstream introduction to the Russian-born pianist Regina Spektor. It remains among her best-known work, especially the song “Fidelity.” It’s this bouncy little tune that’s engaging in its simplicity: “Fidelity” is essentially just Spektor and the piano. When this song came out, I loved it for just that reason. Her voice is also beautiful: it’s clear and soft and gives me Norah Jones vibes.

The lyrics are also intriguing to me, and were the first time I heard it as well. The song is titled “Fidelity,” but the lyrics don’t really seem to describe that concept. It’s a story about meeting someone and falling in love, wondering all the while about some alternate universe where that never happened.

The music video for the song is also kind of bizarre. The aesthetic isn’t quite hipster, exactly (despite the kitten heels and the quirky, vintage outfit she’s wearing), but it’s sparse; all black and white. She seems to be talking to herself: there’s an empty person sitting at the little table with her – literally. It’s a mannequin without a person inside, just the clothes hanging in the air, arranged to mimic a person sitting. Suddenly a man appears inside those clothes and they start throwing color at each other. It has to be seen to be believed.

In all honesty, despite – or, more likely, because of – its charming weirdness, this song is just a fun little escape for me. And it brings back strong memories of early high school; the clothes I wore, the classes I took. I hadn’t heard the song in quite some time before writing this post, but it was an immediate time capsule as soon as I did.

Throwback Thursday: “Brothers” by The Black Keys

This album was officially the start of my hipster phase. (Remember when hipsters were a trend?). I mean, the cover alone fits the bill: it’s a plain black background with the words, “This is an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.”

With that introduction, simple but direct, Brothers solidified the band’s commercial presence and aesthetic. It’s a refined version of a ’60s throwback: many of the songs, especially “Howlin’ for You,” have jangly, distorted guitar à la Jimi Hendrix. That distortion would continue with other, later hits like “Gold on the Ceiling,” which is another Black Keys favorite of mine.

“Everlasting Light” is such a lovely album opener. It’s slow – pensive, even – and the rhythmic drumbeat mimics the later line, “Love is the coal/That makes this train roll.” You’ve got that ’60s feel here as well: the repeated “Shoo-shoo-shoo-wa” seems like a nod to girl groups of the era. “Everlasting Light” is the closest thing the album has to a love song. Others, like “She’s Long Gone” and “Next Girl,” describe relationships that have ended. “Too Afraid to Love You” is the complete opposite of “Everlasting Light”; as the title indicates, the narrator is reluctant to start something new. When he does risk it, in “The Only One,” it’s too late.

Brothers closes with “These Days,” which has a completely different feeling than the other songs. It’s even slower than “Everlasting Light” and is very mournful. Part of its chorus features the lyrics, “Wasted times and broken dreams/Violent colors so obscene/It’s all I see these days/These days.” Oof. The song describes a “little house on Ellis Drive” that the narrator misses desperately. You can picture the house: something small and lonely, just like the song itself.

Throwback Thursday: “The E.N.D.” by Black Eyed Peas

This album was released in 2009. I still have a magazine from that year that features an ad for it. Get this: the ad says you can buy the CD at Target! What a time capsule. I definitely remember when buying CDs was still a thing and how exciting it was to take that plastic film off the case before you could listen to it.

Aside from showing my age, the album itself is still really fun to listen to. It’s got that tight proto-EDM feel that was big back then. Each beat is solid, steady; this comes across particularly well in album opener “Boom Boom Pow.” Those beats flow smoothly across the rest of The E.N.D. That said, “Imma Be” is the weakest of the singles in my opinion – even back then I thought so. I remember talking to friends about the song when it came out, and we all thought that it just sounded weird. The lyrics aren’t exactly meaningless, but the rap-style bragging is conveyed without much feeling.

But speaking of feeling: the best song on the entire album has to be “I Gotta Feeling.” All these years later, it still makes me want to get up and dance. That iconic beat is so joyful. Its lyrics are all about celebrating, and so you want to celebrate, too. I also love when Fergie says “Drank!” It’s silly in the best way and captures the spirit of a great party. After all: “I gotta feeling/That tonight’s gonna be a good night.”

The other hallmark of this album is vocal distortion. “Meet Me Halfway” is where this stands out the most. Somehow it actually fits the emotion of the song and the desperation of wanting to be with someone, despite the distance. Indeed, that song is one of the more “serious” songs on The E.N.D. in general. The rest, such as “Rock That Body” and “Party All the Time,” are more about going out and having fun. Even pop albums need something to ground them every once in awhile.

Immerse yourself in the nostalgia:

Throwback Thursday: “Passive Me, Aggressive You” by The Naked and Famous

It’s hard to believe that this album came out 11 years ago. It holds up so well, and is one of those rare albums that has standouts beyond just the singles (“Punching in a Dream,” “All of This,” “Young Blood,” and “Girls Like You,” for those following along at home).

The Naked and Famous have been around since 2007, but it wasn’t until they released this album that they really started getting traction. “Young Blood,” the first single, was a massive hit, and it’s not hard to see why. The song has jangly, strumming, guitars, with piercing synths. Lead singer Alisa Xayalith’s voice is distinctive right out of the gate: it’s not shrill, but high and confident, veering into an almost whisper when the song calls for it. The lyrics themselves are iconic: “We’re only young and naive still/We require certain skills.”

As for the other singles, “Punching in a Dream” has a similar sound to “Young Blood.” Those strumming synthesizers, those drums, those echoing guitars. Of the singles, I think I like “Girls Like You” the best. It slows things down and introduces us to Thom Powers, whose voice is much softer than Xayalith’s. They provide a nice counterpoint to each other.

I did say that there were other good songs from Passive Me, Aggressive You besides the singles, so let’s talk about those, too. One of my favorites is “No Way.” It’s so soft and acoustic to start with. Xayalith’s voice follows along, measured; she sustains the quietude of the lyrics perfectly. When the song explodes into a crunch, the progression feels natural and earned. (TNAF explores similar sounds in their follow-up album In Rolling Waves.) Meanwhile, “Spank” is distorted and muffles Xayalith’s voice; the whole song has a tight and tense rhythm.

It’s interesting that after the splash of this album, TNAF has – not faded, exactly, but they’re not as big. Their work has remained consistent without being repetitive ever since Passive Me, Aggressive You, and they’ve also branched out into remix work. I revisit TNAF regularly, especially In Rolling Waves, but I’ll always love this album for both the nostalgia factor and the jolt of indie electronica.

Throwback Thursday: “The Gift” by Angels & Airwaves

Angels & Airwaves might not be as familiar to most readers who came of age in the mid-2000s, but this song was definitely on repeat for me back then. Like “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John, I first discovered it through Gossip Girl. Don’t “@ me”: it might have been a trashy show, but it had an excellent soundtrack!

If the vocals here sound familiar, it’s because Tom DeLonge of Blink-182 is the lead singer. He has an inimitable way of warping words by stretching them out or curving them. This affectation is much more subtle than in, say, “All the Small Things,” but comes out in the chorus, especially when he sings “And now/I’ll stop the storm if you wish/I’ll light a path far from here…”

I like the lyrics of “The Gift” because it’s an odd sort of love song. It seems to describe love at first sight, but doesn’t come out and say it directly. “And suddenly,/You’ve done it all,/You’ve won me over/In no time at all.” We’ll never know what the titular “gift” is – it’s as mysterious as what Billy Joel is looking for in “The River Of Dreams.” I don’t even have theories about it. Maybe that’s part of what makes this song so compelling; everyone can create their own interpretations.

Instrumentally, “The Gift” opens in a really lovely way. It’s kind of suspended, with fast-moving synths underneath that quickly move into guitar lines. The guitar kicks up into the chorus; less strong than in DeLonge’s other efforts, but certainly an echo of it. Then, at the end, it fades into a punch, cushioned by those suspended synths. There’s something satisfying about songs that close that neatly.


Throwback Thursday: “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John

Peter Bjorn and John are a group from Stockholm. They’ve been around since 1999, but “Young Folks” takes them into one-hit wonder territory. If you’re going to have a single hit, though, you could do worse than this one. This song is a fun little number because it’s got virtually everything you’d want from an indie pop song: whistling! Cute guitar! Bright, bubbly drumming! Some kind of maracas in the background! And to top it all off, we’ve got a slightly nasal Swedish accent that somehow makes the song even more charming.

“Young Folks” was featured in the 2007 pilot for Gossip Girl, which likely helped launch it even further into the mainstream. The lyrics are fitting for the series: “If I told you things I did before/Told you how I used to be/Would you go along with someone like me?” I’m a music blogger, not a TV blogger, but I will say that, like many people, that show is where I first heard the song.

The most prominent part of the song, of course, is the whistling. Back then, whistling wasn’t a fairly popular “instrument” in music. It had had its heyday with songs like “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” or even “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.” After “Young Folks,” it seemed like you heard it everywhere in indie pop: see “Pumped Up Kicks,” by Foster the People; “Pumpin Blood,” by NONONO; “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. It actually got kind of annoying. But I guess that’s the thing with starting, or reviving, a trend. At first it’s cool and unique, then when everyone else jumps on the bandwagon, you don’t like it anymore. (Spoken like a true hipster!)

I really enjoyed relistening to this song because I haven’t heard it in years. As soon as I heard those drums, they hit me right in the nostalgia. If the YouTube comments are anything to go by, the song has that effect on others, too. Take a listen and take yourself back in time:

Throwback Thursday: “Angels on the Moon” by Thriving Ivory

You don’t really hear about Thriving Ivory these days, at least outside of posts like this. Then it’s like, “Remember when a California band wrote a really moving alt-rock song inspired by both 9/11 and U2?”

That’s right. An odd combination, no? Songwriter Scott Jason’s lyric about the “New York City angels” is a very specific reference to that event. As for the U2 influence, Jason reportedly heard “Where The Streets Have No Name” and wanted to capture that same emotion with his own songs. You can hear that with the echoing synths at the beginning of “Angels on the Moon.” There are hints in the lyrics as well: compare U2’s “I want to run/I want to hide/I want to tear down the walls/That hold me inside” to Thriving Ivory’s “I wanna feel, all the chemicals inside…/I wanna sunburn, just to know that I’m alive.”

The other thing that stands out to me with this song is the intense amount of vocal fry. That’s not something that happens particularly often in alt-rock, especially not with male singers – or even male singers generally. Clayton Stroope’s voice scratches along at a specific register. It only raises to a breaking point at lines like “Where everyone you know never leaves too soon” or the final “Don’t tell me if I’m dying” repetition.

Instrumentally, the song isn’t particularly complex. It has the standard drumbeat that you heard regularly in the genre during the mid-aughts, complete with a guitar break. The song speeds up towards the end, only to slow abruptly and burst into the chorus. This tugging along is compelling.

I was always curious about the cover art for the single. It depicts a woman who’s sitting on what appears to be a piano. She’s wearing black wings that are shedding and a wispy, semi-transparent gown. It doesn’t look like she’s on the moon, and she’s not a stereotypical angel. Maybe it’s just one of those deep/artsy covers that doesn’t, or isn’t supposed to, have a meaning. What do you think?

Throwback Thursday: “My Girls” by Animal Collective

I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but I didn’t start devouring music on my own terms until about high school. Even then, I often found songs and bands passively. This song is an example; I discovered it through the U.S. version of the iconic British teen drama Skins. It plays during the opening scene of the pilot, where Eura Schneider (their version of troubled bad girl Effy Stonem) stands outside after a night of partying. When you listen to the song, it’s an interesting choice for the scene. It’s not about partying at all: it’s about stability. All Panda Bear wants is “a proper house” where he can live with a little girl and his spouse. The little girl is his daughter, who was born only a few years before the song’s release.

“My Girls” really sneaks up on you. It starts out sweeping, shaky, as though there’s something trembling in the distance, built on all those synths. Panda Bear’s voice echoes through this establishing instrumentation, creating layers on layers. The arrangement seems to mirror Panda Bear’s dismissal of “material things.” Instead, he wants to focus on “a solid soul/and the blood I bleed.” He repeats those words for emphasis. Indeed, there’s a lot of lyrical repetition throughout the song. It grows into a bass-heavy tone that feels like a heartbeat, punctuated with hand claps. At the end, the instrumentation fades out into something that sounds like water rushing away, as if Panda Bear’s dream has come true and nothing else matters.

The song is taken from the album Merriweather Post Pavillion, which follows the trend of indie bands making great albums with weird titles. (See, for example, Bear Hands’ Burning Bush Supper Club or MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular.) Sometimes those titles serve as a distraction; they have nothing to do with the great music inside the album. Mostly, though, they set the mood. The title Merriweather Post Pavillion feels atmospheric, just like its best-known song.

Throwback Thursday: “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay

Coldplay’s 2008 album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is right up there with Fiona Apple for long album titles. It’s more experimental and even pensive than their previous efforts. The cover is the painting Liberty Leading the People, which provides a hint as to the album’s themes: war; loss; love. With Parachutes, Coldplay’s debut, you had the iconic “Yellow,” which introduced us to Chris Martin’s falsetto. Here, his vocals are used to great effect. Its softness belies the universality of Viva la Vida…‘s lyrics.

The breakout star of the album is the song of the same name, so that’s primarily what I’d like to discuss today. It was truly inescapable back in 2008. “Viva la Vida” inspired cello covers and a truly excellent mashup with Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” another song from that year that you couldn’t get away from. Today, of course, the song lives on in meme form.

The song is incredibly sweeping, thanks to the lyrical content and the string section that supports it. The Wall of Sound-esque effect almost drowns out the story. It’s a sad one. “Viva la Vida” describes a fallen emperor who used to “rule the world” and “feel the fear in my enemies’ eyes.” He commanded “missionaries in a foreign field.” Now, however, the narrator is plagued by revolutionaries who “wait/for my head on a silver plate.”

On its face, “Viva la Vida” is an intriguing song. It’s not relatable, unless you’re a historic British king. It’s not your stereotypical pop song, either. And yet its very quirkiness makes it catchy. You want to keep listening, if only to hear the rest of the story.