Boys give Taylor Swift a lot of grief, but they’re also sort of responsible for this little career she’s got going – and for the world’s vicarious interest in her life. Let’s face it: She satiates our nostalgic sense of teen romance. Swift is 22 now, but on her fourth album, Red, she acts both years older and years younger. If this is her not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman phase, she’s doing pretty all right – there’s no evidence of head shaving, and the songs on Red offer more signs that Taylor Swift isn’t the talentless hack people want her to be. She, like, totally comes off childish on the obnoxiously dippy “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (even though my inner teen-girl made me love it), but the emotional letting-go of “All Too Well” – an exemplary showcase of Taylor’s observant songwriting – is far from Valley Girl frivolity. The 16 tracks on Red bounce between womanhood and girlhood, pop and pop-country, breakup and makeup – it’s Swift’s most complicated, cross-genre album yet. She’s open to trying new things, even if they fail as bad as some of her relationships: I’d end it with “The Last Time,” too. Taylor’s tinkering works better in the hands of Britney Spears’ producer Max Martin on the stupid-fun Ke$ha wannabe “22,” and there’s other interesting gambles too: “State of Grace” goes the arena-rock route, and “Starlight” is a treat for the gays – a dreamy dance song that needs remixes stat. “Holy Ground” ranks among her best; “Begin Again” is sweet and hopeful, this time about a boy who might just be the one. You know, until her next breakup song.
“I walk the line between fact and fiction, define contradiction in every stride,” a revealing moment of swagger on Diamond Rings’ sophomore album, suggests that you might think you know the guy behind the rainbow makeup, but you have no idea. The old adage of judging a book by its cover – in this case, Rings, born John O’Regan, looks like Adam Lambert from the future – is completely quashed with a voice that drops so low it debunks any of those pesky “gay lisp” stereotypes; this ain’t no boy singing out of a helium balloon. And he raps. On “(I Know) What I’m Made Of,” a simple delight of glitchy rock-flecked dance, the singing oxymoron takes you back to all the cheesy guilty-pleasure raps from the days when you didn’t even have to feel guilty about listening to Vanilla Ice and New Kids on the Block. It’s kind of great. He does a similar breakdown on “Hand Over My Heart,” a happy little ditty that wants so bad to be in an ’80s movie. The raps are a bit jarring, but they’re also endearing, goofy asides that become memorable for their weirdness; remember, Robyn’s done it, and look at her – all cute and awesome. (Coincidentally, her producer, Damian Taylor, also had a hand in this release.) Robyn and Rings hit the road together a couple years ago, and someone was paying attention: John’s Free Dimensional, certainly a step up from his debut, embraces Robyn motifs of self-empowerment and individuality. It tells naysayers to eff off. It makes you two feet taller. You can finally feel good about yourself and the dance music you’re listening to.
Ellie Goulding’s Lights wasn’t an instant success; the U.K. import’s album made its way up the charts, but hardly at the speed of light. A polarizing pop release that was far more interesting in theory – ooh, “folktronica” – than it was in actuality, its path through my ear canal was even more rapid. But there’s no forgetting her edgier sophomore album: It’s not just more bizarre, working tribal beats into the mix, but it has a better grasp on how to make indie-dance complex and catchy. There’s sadness and hope, and the title track captures both perfectly: Goulding wants this relationship to work, but it sounds more like a lost cause. Lights off; this is dark, mesmerizing stuff.
A Fine Frenzy
If Max’s journey in Where the Wild Things Are was a musical, it would sound a lot like Alison Sudol’s third album, a conceptual release that thematically parallels the classic children’s book. This is not, then, the same Alison who bared her feelings for an “Almost Lover.” Part of a multimedia hybrid, Pines is far more elaborate, turning out 67 minutes of magic. Sudol, known as A Fine Frenzy, makes lit references and casts feelings of isolation and loneliness in this commanding set that broadens her contemporary-pop canon. Just how far? Well, “Riversong” is a child’s conversation with a gaggle of fish. And it’s so, so sweet.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.