Butch Walker scored his first hit as the frontman of Marvelous 3, who recorded the alt-rock smash “Freak of the Week” in 1998, before he launched a lengthy solo career as a singer-songwriter with a cult fanbase. But over the last two decades, Walker’s most widely heard work has been as a producer or songwriter. With his lyrical wit, his bottomless well of guitar licks, and his ear for big catchy choruses, he’s a pop punk power player who’s helped with Fall Out Boy’s comeback as well as singles for Bowling For Soup and American Hi-Fi. But his versatility and work ethic have also made him a crucial collaborator for pop stars like Katy Perry and Pink, hard rock bands like Sevendust, and even country singer Keith Urban.
New Jersey singer and musician Jack Antonoff fronted the band Steel Train for a decade with only a small cult following before pivoting into an unlikely career as a producer and songwriter behind Hot 100 hits by platinum pop stars like Taylor Swift and Lorde. It all began when he joined The Format’s Nate Ruess in a new project, fun. The band’s second album, Some Nights, launched “We Are Young,” an anthemic track that became one of the biggest pop hits of 2012. Ruess followed up the album with a solo project while Antonoff fronted a new band, Bleachers. But Antonoff went on to gain most of his success behind the scenes.Antonoff’s early outside credits include co-writing with Canadian indie pop heroes Tegan and Sara, including a track on their 2013 breakthrough album Heartthrob, and a bonus track for Carly Rae Jepsen’s Kiss. He also landed a big hit for Sara Bareilles, helping her write the Grammy-nominated, triple-platinum single “Brave.”By then, Antonoff and girlfriend Lena Dunham were rubbing elbows with a number of Top 40 stars, including Taylor Swift and Lorde, who both began seeking out his ear for nostalgic ‘80s pop sounds and confessional lyrics. Antonoff co-wrote several tracks on Swift’s 1989 and also her recent hit duet with ZAYN, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever.” He’s frequently collaborated with Lorde, both on her recent hit “Green Light” and on the second Bleachers album, Gone Now, due out June 2nd. He also collaborated with Grimes on “Entropy,” from the soundtrack for Dunham’s HBO series Girls.Though he sings in Steel Train and Bleachers, Antonoff’s Terrible Thrills series defers to stars like Tinashe and Charli XCX for their own spin. His affinity for female voices and perspectives has served him well as a songwriter, and ultimately, he might be happiest when handing the mic to a woman, even on his own records.Click here to follow this playlist on Spotify.
Jean Castelis a French multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles, CA who first debuted his Billboard-described "forward-thinking pop" in the form of his catchy single, "What Happened to Us?" earlier this summer. Now with his infections debut EP Orange & Yellow out, Castel created a playlist for The Dowsers exploring what went into the making of his music. Having worked with production group Infrared, a partnership with Spike Stent (Ed Sheeran, Julia Michaels) and mastering by Chris Gehringer (Vince Staples, Rihanna), its no surprise to see some of those artists name-checked by Castel. Listen to his inspired playlist right here and check out his resulting debut EP.Says Castel, "Here’s my playlist. I’ve called it “Orange & Yellow, The Sounds”. They are the songs that inspired my forthcoming EP. I’ve drawn influence from each and every one of these records."
When Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter—two denizens of Germany’s musical underground—founded Kraftwerk in 1970, nobody could have imagined the impact they would have. But all these decades later, few corners of popular music are untouched by their influence. The sounds they crafted in the ’70s and ’80s with Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür resonated worldwide, influencing post-punk, synth-pop, New Wave, hip-hop, techno, and more.
Kraftwerk were among the first to use electronics as a tool for fashioning pop music. Even though their first few albums employed electronics in a more experimental way, they broke through internationally in 1974 with “Autobahn,” their mechanically paced hooks and android image positioning them as the Beach Boys of the robot revolution, pointing toward an entirely fresh musical future.
Before the ’70s were over, disciple David Bowie had released the Florian homage “V-2 Schneider” and incorporated Kraftwerk’s influence in his legendary “Berlin trilogy” of albums, and Gary Numan had channeled the band’s inspiration into the first flowering of synth-pop, which would continue to bear Kraftwerk’s mark in the ’80s.
From there, Kraftwerk’s electronic innovations went on to profoundly affect hip-hop and electro, starting with Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and continuing through countless samples. This fed into the band’s influence on Detroit techno (and subsequently the international IDM scene). By the 2000s, the band’s influence was doubling back on itself via the ’80s-retro electroclash movement.
Today the majority of pop and hip-hop is created with electronics, and even artists who have never heard a note of Kraftwerk in their lives owe some of their existence to them, whether they realize it or not. Schneider left the band in 2008 and Hütter continued to lead a new lineup in occasional tours, but when Schneider passed away on April 30, 2020, at the age of 73, even though he was no longer working with the band, it marked an epoch’s end. Gathered in the accompanying playlist is a tiny percentage of the countless artists indebted to Kraftwerk’s fearless vision.
I first met Janelle Monàe when she was 22 years-old and opening up for the Oakland neo-soul legend Raphael Saadiq at the San Francisco venue Bimbos, a mid-size club on the outskirts of that city’s North Beach neighborhood. A few months before, she’d released her debut EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). It was an exciting, groundbreaking collection. It combined the wild, post-rap funk of Outkast and afrofuturism of George Clinton with the tech dystopianism of William Gibson and a more formalalistic, Brechtian remove. For a kid weaned on semiotics and Gang Starr, this collision was enthralling, if a bit messy. Janelle’s voice was captivating, but the songs sometimes couldn’t keep up with her energy -- the backing vocals blurred together, and the choruses weren’t always memorable. In short, I liked the idea more than her music.Regardless, she was a dynamic personality, and I was excited for the interview. About a half hour before she took the stage, her manager took me backstage, where Janelle was cloistered inside of small changing room -- more of a closet than a suite. She was already outfitted in her signature white tuxedo shirt, with her hair was bunched up into its beehive coif. She was nervous, but friendly. She offered me a water, which was nice of her. I spent the first 10 minutes of the interview trying to place her in the lineage of afrofuturism, discussing Octavia Paz and Parliament. In retrospect, it was a dumb move -- I assumed that her reading of herself was the same as mine, and didn’t allow her to speak for herself -- and the strategy bit me in the ass when, with five minutes left in my appointed interview window, she, annoyed and maybe embarrassed, declared that she didn’t know much about afrofuturism, she’d barely even heard of it. I felt shitty and a little bit disappointed. I hated that I had put her in a foul mood, and, more selfishly, I had no idea if anything in the interview was usable.But her live show that night was rapturious, a prolonged ecstatic release of energy that found her bouncing, jerking, and bounding across the stage in barely controlled dance patterns. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. And though she doesn’t make dance music, you couldn’t help but move. It didn’t matter that here hooks weren’t quite there, or that she hadn’t yet been able to name her own style, the performance was special, even singular. Since then, she’s made some jaw-dropping tracks that’ve shown immense growth and refinement, but the music, though oftentimes very very good, has never quite escaped her heavy conceptual framework. Luckily, she’s entirely catches up with herself on Dirty Computer. The album largely, though not entirely, loses the funkified Android conceit of her earlier work. It’s both more personal and more self-assured. It glides where her other music tends to churn, and the hooks are immediately catchy, and stick in your head. It’s still occasionally directive of other people’s work -- “Make Me Feel” sounds remarkably like Dirty Mind-era Prince, for example -- but she entirely makes it her own here; the sums of her influence coalesce into something much more personal and singular. It’s the best work of her career, and may end up being both the most fun and important album of 2018.The album’s two opening tracks are among the most memorable one-two punch in recent memory. Brian Wilson’s vocal remain pop’s greatest invocation, and amidst his lilting, layered , the lead-off title resurrects Janelle’s dreamy, sensual landscape. She invites us to “look closer” at the “text message caught up in the sky.” Once again, she’s identifying with hardware (a dirty computer, in this case), but the vocals are warm and human, and, soon, we hear MLK reciting the Declaration of Independence. We’re onto “Crazy, Classic, Life” now -- one of the neat tricks the front half of the album pulls off is blurring the space between songs, so that it all sounds like one, long jam -- and Janelle quickly asserts a theme that will run through the album. It’s 2018 now, and her and people like her are no longer on the margins; they’re now the “rulers” and “kings.” “Im not Americas nightmare,” she coos on the song’s pre-chorus, “Im the American dream.”In that way, it resembles Frank Ocean’s Blonde, another coronation of a queer America that was curtailed by Trump’s election a few months later. Monàe’s work contains little of Ocean’s melancholy or ambience; Dirty Computer is pure pop music, euphoric and uncluttered. “PYNK,” which features Montreal steam pop producer Grimes, is a technicolor march down the broadest boulevards of American culture. The song hems together and subverts lyrical archetypes. Witness the pre-chorus:“So, here we are in the carLeavin traces of us down the boulevardI wanna fall through the starsGetting lost in the dark is my favorite partLets count the ways we could make this last forever"Taken out of context, this could be sung by Tom Petty, Britney Spears, or any number of chroniclers of main street adolescence. That Janelle is using this in the service of an anthem to pansexuality should be subversive, but, in 2018, it seems perfectly normal. This is a victory for all of us.Monàe’s previous music has always seemed to exist in a different time. The revved-up guitar riffs and funky drummer breakdowns place her in the ‘60s, while the lyrics’ runaway-Android lover motif put her firmly in the (20)40s. But Dirty Computer feels necessarily of this time. The world caught up with her. The techno-dystopian daydream of her earlier work has become a crippling reality, and, yes, that’s unfortunate. But the sheer, self-conscious otherness of Janelle, which ten years ago was a commercial liability, is not only permissible, but is celebrated, and this album is funky testament to this new freedom.
Keyboardist Erik Deutschs sound has been described as "a gumbo of American music that touches in jazz, blues, pop, funk and dub," and with his swirling new album Falling Flowers, that statement is definitely true. Touching on psychedelic and atmospheric, Deutsch traverses the realm of what a keyboard can do. An artist in his own right, Deutsch has also been backing up artists like Citizen Cope, Norah Jones, Alice Smith, Rosanne Cash and Shooter Jennings as well as touring regularly with Charlie Hunter throughout his career. Obviously a master of his craft, its no surprise he made a playlist championing his fellow keyboardists. Check it out here or hit play above.Says Deutsch of his playlist, "Hammers, Strings, Stops, & Knobs is my tribute to some of history’s best ticklers, plunkers, pounders, and tweakers of all things related to the undisputed heavyweight champ of western music: the keyboard. Every one of these essential artists holds a special place in my heart as the uniqueness of each of their musical voices exist on a level reserved for the very best (not to mention that these are seriously dope tracks!) So kick back, relax, and allow a hefty dose of keyboard wizardry to brighten up your day."
The storied songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin won their first joint Oscar at the 2020 Academy Awards for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” a disco-tinged, self-affirming strut from the Elton biopic Rocketman. That Oscar capped off a decade of big-ticket soundtrack songs, whether they were high-concept tracks like Lana Del Rey’s glammed-up Great Gatsby lament “Young and Beautiful,” heart-tugging ballads like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born duet “Shallow,” or Pharrell Williams’ giddy Despicable Me 2 bounce “Happy.” Musicals were in high supply during the 2010s as well, with La La Land and Frozen leading the pack of song-filled fantasias that took viewers to far-off lands.
Whats This Playlist About?: By now we all know Ms. Swifts rather fickle taste in men, so its refreshing to see 43 other things that she loves——at least for now. This playlist will be updated monthly, after all.What You Get: The old Taylor may be dead, but between a few f-bombs (which youre hit with straight away via Bazzis woozy R&B hit "Mine") and some feel-good hip-hop, she still wants——and needs——to preserve that cuddly every-girl image. The vibe here is almost exclusively mellow and moody. This is intimate pop for candlelit moments, with lots of silky post-xx dream-pop (EXES, Haux) and sensitive post-Bon Iver dream-folk (Bootstraps, Trent Dabbs). Filling in the gaps are a couple of her very own songs, because, you know, self-love is whats most important.The Track That Defines It All: Sylvan Essos stripped-down lullaby "There Are Many Ways To Say I Love You," a short but sweet distillation of everything Taylor stands for.Greatest Discovery: Kiwi singer/songwriter Holly Arrowsmith, whose pure, pretty folk number, "Love Together," is the most pleasantly modest track of the bunch.Biggest Surprise: Yoke Lores precious cover of Savage Gardens of "Truly Madly Deeply." Hes kind of like the male Birdy.Will This Playlist Turn Taylor Haters Into Lovers?: Not likely, but it may quickly put them to sleep (and shut them up).
Whats This Playlist All About? The "Havana” singer and former Fifth Harmony star reveals the tracks that leave her swooning.What Do You Get? A fun (though somewhat predictable) mix of mushy modern pop hits and timeless romantic classics. The playlist leans mostly on recent stuff (well give her a pass since shes only 20 years old), including Taylor Swift at her sweetest ("Love Story"), Ed Sheeran at his schmaltziest ("Perfect"), and Selena Gomez at her sultriest ("Hands to Myself")—oh, and Camila herself at her slinkiest ("Never Be the Same"). A little Stevie Wonder and Prince are thrown in for good measure, while The Weeknd slips in not once, but twice.Most Romantic: No one can top Etta James. No one.Will Playing This Win Over Your Crush? Only if youre 15 to 25 years old.
Within days of each other, CamRon and Kevin Gates released tracks with unlikely samples. CamRons romantic "10,000 Miles” has him singing "Lookin up out my Benz" over the familiar twinkling piano riff from Vanessa Carltons massive 2001 hit "A Thousand Miles," while Gates more reflective "What If" utilizes Joan Osbornes "One Of Us" to inquire if God is "Just a thug like one of us."Adult contemporary pop is no stranger to hip-hop and it often lends itself to a variety of mood-setting styles. Rappers utilize its piano ballads and campfire-ready acoustic guitar lines, either reworking the lyrics or topping off familiar strums with harsher beats. The final product can yield some surprising results that often are friendly to radio.Janet Jackson took advantage of the infectious guitar on Americas "Ventura Highway" to create the romantic pop jam "Someone To Call My Lover," and also brought on Carly Simon herself to rework her "Youre So Vain" into the sassy, slam poetry-filled "Son Of A Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You)." Didos "Thank You" turns ominous in Eminems iconic and gorgeously dark "Stan," and Rihanna turned the dark and moody "Im with You" by pop-punk princess Avril Lavigne into party anthem "Cheers (Drink To That)."In some light-hearted, ridiculous moments, Elephant Man reimagines Nelly Furtados "I’m Like A Bird" for his single "Gal Bruk," Project Pat toys with the haunting, atmospheric sound of Alanis Morissettes "Uninvited" for his track "Sucks on Dick" featuring Juicy J, and Ice Cube reimagines the lyrics of No Doubts "Dont Speak" for his bleak "War And Peace."Some samples are more subtle: Adeles "Hometown Glory" just barely creeps up at the beginning of Childish Gambinos "Heartbeat," overshadowed by a rough, aggressive beat, and Nicki Minaj and Cassies reference to Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” may go unnoticed because of how briefly they slip it into “The Boys.” No matter how small the contribution, the unlikely juxtaposition of adult contemporary pop and hip-hop can be enough to spark an unexpected musical idea.Click here to follow this playlist on Spotify.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.