Author: Maura Johnston

In Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour, Expect The Unexpected

Where were you when you first heard Madonna? It’s a question that pop fans who devoured the offerings put forth by MTV and top-40 radio during the ’80s and ’90s can probably answer without thinking. Mine: “Borderline,” off her self-titled debut and an MTV staple thanks to its video, which mixed high art and graffiti and hopscotch. The song’s wounded, yet bubbly production made me dance; Madonna’s effortless cool gave me a glimpse at what bohemian adulthood might be like. The songs of hers that I probably remember best, though, are the ones on her 1986 album True Blue, which served as the official warm-up album for a dance class I took during sixth grade; any mention of the pugilistic actor Jimmy Cagney, to whom Madonna dedicated that album’s feisty “White Heat,” flashes me back to the afternoons of leotards and stretching at the barre. [pullquote] 30 years on, the Material Girl still packs stadiums around the world.[/pullquote] No matter what era of Madonna one remembers most fondly — the crumpled white dress of the “Like …

The Rise and Fall of the “Indie” Artist

I came to college radio in the ’90s, when “alternative” was earning itself a capital “A” among marketing types and when bands that existed for as long as a 7-inch were snagging major-label deals. This was also the period of slackers and Slacker, when corporate rock continued to suck and when Coca-Cola’s attempt to tell Gen Xers that they’d created a soda that was totally OK was met with derisive eye-rolls. The palpable tension between the creation of culture and its ever-quicker path toward commodification was probably best    exhibited in my world by the extended argument — written in Sharpie and a variety of pens — that covered the inlay of Built to Spill’s 1997 album Perfect From Now On. The trio’s major-label debut was a marvelous album full of sprawling songs and gorgeous textures, with singer-guitarist Doug Martsch tossing off explosive solos and meditative drones featuring lyrics about finding eternity’s true size and standing up to the demands of the metaphysical world. Perfect remains a fairly astounding piece of work, a shining example …

7 Shows You Should Be Obsessed With This Summer

What better way to celebrate sunny skies and sultry temperatures than to hide inside, surrounded by the comforts of home and episode after episode of riotous comedies and tissue-requiring dramas? Here are a few that you’ll want to watch in their entirety while hunkered down in the air conditioning. A few you’ve heard of, and some may be brand new — to you. 1. Burning Love A tart refresher for fans of The Bachelor‘s roses-and-rings universe, this Ben Stiller-produced show has some of comedy’s brightest lights — among them Ken Marino (Party Down, The State), June Diane Raphael (Grace and Frankie), Ryan Hansen (Veronica Mars), and Natasha Leggero (Another Period) — taking on the American ideal of “happily ever after” and the not-here-to-make-friends archetypes that populate competitive reality TV. Packed with absurd situations (“fruit run,” puppetry) and the sort of people who would only be welcome in your living room through your television, Burning Love offers laughs that are just familiar enough to be passable as actual Bachelor segments. (Stream it here.) 2. iZombie Ever been to …

5 Gifts For Your Resolution-Ready Friends

It’s natural that the indulgence and celebration of the holiday years precedes the asceticism and vows to do better of the new year. If you have a friend who’s already figuring out how she’s going to make big changes once the clock strikes midnight on January 1, these five gifts will show her your unwavering support for her mission. The best part? You can buy them for yourself — all in the name of self-improvement. 1. Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, as she’s known, actually released two albums this year; the Think Like A Man Too soundtrack wasn’t officially dubbed as such, but she sang all the R&B jams on that album. For her just-released The London Sessions, though, she packed up and headed to the UK, where she reflected on getting sober and collaborated with of-the-moment songwriters and producers like the soppy Sam Smith and the glitchy duo Disclosure. The result is an album that’s very 2014, with Blige’s undeniable pipes pulling her collaborators’ sounds even further into …

5 Bands Who Represent the New Power in Pop Music

Power pop, power chords, powerhouse vocals, “The Power Of Love” — music has myriad ways to flip the switch. Here are five artists who are honing and, in some cases, redefining what the idea of power in pop music means. 1. EX HEX There are some days when only the power of classic rock can save you—thanks to its big chords, hip-shaking beats, and long-hair-don’t-care swagger. The Washington, D.C. trio Ex Hex—made up of Betsy Harris, Mary Timony, and Laura Wright—gets this. Their debut Rips (Merge), out next week, takes rock and roll’s biggest ideas and compresses them into shiny pop gems, dismissing the wanky tendencies of certain rock-radio staples while audibly delighting in those tropes that put the pedal to the metal—juicy solos, sticky hooks, oh-oh-oh backing vocals.   2. SLEATER-KINNEY Timony is an indie lifer; before she formed Ex Hex, she was in the supergroup Wild Flag. That quartet also counted among its members Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from the Pacfiic Northwest guitar-guitar-drums trio Sleater-Kinney, whose assaultive take on postpunk showed one way that …

5 Amazing Voices in Music Right Now

Pop music is defined by the voice — after all, the communion that a great song provides comes from singing along with lyrics, and not basslines. Here are a few singers making some of the most exciting music of 2014, in large part because of the way their artistic visions and strong voices come together. 1. KIMBRA Her voice blanketed radio in 2011, when she assisted Gotye on his inescapable breakup track “Somebody That I Used To Know.” But The Golden Echo, the second album from this Melbourne-based singer/songwriter/auteur, places Kimbra in the driver’s seat of pop experimentation, and she stretches her voice to its outer limits on the dissonant yet wistful “’90s Music” to the wanting, string-accented “As You Are.” The skating-rink-worthy “Miracle” is a disco jam on which she turns into a yowling, shape-shifting, and utterly joyous diva. 2. ANITA BIAS & AMBER STROTHER The two vocalists who make up the powerhouse R&B trio KING seem to be made for each other, at least as partners in soul—their singing is alternately coy and commanding, …

5 Gems for The Gen-X Audiophile on Your List

Giving the gift of music is a time-honored tradition. But in the post-digital-era, it’s a bit fraught — after all, sticking iTunes gift cards into boxes makes for a less satisfying gift-giving experience, no matter how elaborate the packaging. Here are five physical musical offerings for the person on your list who just wants to stick something new in her ear for Christmas. 1. Various Artists: Atlantic R&B, 1947-1974 Aretha. Ray. Otis. This eight-disc, 203-track box set collects the biggest hits by those one-named lights of R&B and other classics that are identifiable from their opening bars — “This Magic Moment,” “In The Midnight Hour,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” A crash course in American pop music that also provides hours of pure listening pleasure. $54, Amazon.com 2. Soundgarden: Screaming Life/Fopp: Loser Edition For the grunge lifer on your list, a handsome reissue of the first two EPs by the Seattle kings — the 1987 EP Screaming Life is pressed onto on blue vinyl, while 1988’s Fopp comes on a clear 12-inch. These two …