Oh boy. Oh boy oh boy oh boy. I am thrilled to make this list this year but I need to preface this by saying something, something pretty shocking. I actually had trouble making this list. Seriously, I don't think I heard much terrible music this year to the point where I can't come up with a Worst Songs of the Year list (though I will point out multiple awful songs on this list). And even putting this list together, I had to think about if albums I listed were actually bad or if they just didn't meet my expectations, namely the new Kacey Musgraves and Twenty One Pilots albums. But nonetheless, there's still a list here, so let's get to it. Here are what I think are the 5 worst albums of 2021.
5. Coldplay - Music of the Spheres
All combined, there are three things that I like on this album. I think the songs Higher Power and Coloratura are fantastic, though the former has some painfully basic lyrics. I also think the stuttering synths at the end of My Universe are really neat but outside of that, any hope I had of Coldplay returning to form after Everyday Life was essentially crushed with this album. Everyday Life was actually a very bold album and actually felt like the Coldplay everyone fell in love with on Viva La Vida and A Rush of Blood to the Head. The Coldplay on this album almost feels like a parody of themselves. Sure, that's Chris Martin singing, but that's about the only thing on this album that makes it feel like Coldplay. Outside of Coloratura, I don't think there's much here that hasn't been done better by other artists. Human Heart or Heart Emoji (whatever the stupidly titled emoji songs are named) sounds like a bad Bon Iver ripoff, I can't confidently put my finger on it but Human Kind gives me shades of The Killers and Arcade Fire, and People of the Pride sounds like any of Muse's heavier songs (think Uprising or Psycho). And if a song isn't wearing its influences on its sleeve then it's either painfully basic or painfully boring. For example, the rest of My Universe,which has a feature from BTS for streaming money no reason. Have we not heard the build-up and drop leading into the chorus a million times before? Or the song Biutiful (I know I butchered spelling that but so did the band) which sounds like its only purpose is to be played in the background of a clingy girlfriend's TikTok compilation with a bunch of pictures and videos of her boyfriend. The chipmunk vocals don't help matters much either. All around this is just a very poor showing but Coldplay being inconsistent honestly shouldn't be as surprising as it is at this point. At least Higher Power slaps.
4. Drake - Certified Lover Boy
Yes, this is the real album cover.
I was reading through Rolling Stone's Best Albums of 2021 list the other day and unsurprisingly, this album was featured on it. In the write-up, the author writes, "Is it Drake’s best album? Well, no. But Certified Lover Boy is still a highly enjoyable cruise on autopilot from modern pop’s most charming blob of resentment and self-pity." And those sentences right there are the reason why Drake can still get away with putting out bloated, boring albums of material that are good for maybe a couple singles and Instagram captions. Any album being praised because of its artist being on autopilot is cause for concern because everyone is just accepting of Drake's level of mediocrity at this point. I don't even hate Drake either, I'm one of the many who thought he showed a lot of promise in his early records, I think Take Care and If You're Reading This, It's Too Late are two of the best rap albums of the past decade with the latter probably being his best project to date. That's a different argument for a different day though, just know that the Drake on If You're Reading This, It's Too Late could probably put the Drake from this album in the hospital after one punch. There's a lot that's wrong with this album to the point where I think I'll just have to make passing mentions rather than going in-depth, so I'll start listing off my issues now. It's wild that this album is 21 songs long and there are only 3 that are memorable (2 aren't for good reasons), it's sad that most of the features on this album are meh yet they all still outshine Drake, and it's sad that every. single. label. executive. who heard this album heard Drake say, "Say that you're a lesbian/girl, me too!" and didn't hear anything wrong. The only song that I think I'll ever see myself returning to on a constant basis is the song Knife Talk and that's mainly because of how hard 21 Savage goes on the song before Drake comes in and drops a line saying, "Checked the weather and it's gettin' real oppy outside." I think that's a great omen for almost all of this album, flashes of greatness that get ruined when Drake decides to show up.
3. Tom Morello - The Atlas Underground Fire
You guys know Tom Morello right? Guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Well noted activist. Dude known for writing super heavy, super cool riffs and playing guitar solos with all different types of effects and filters that makes it sound like he hates the sound guitars make. Well, let me break down this for you. On this album, noted rock legend Tom Morello decides to be DJ Khaled and make an album that's kind of a rock album, kind of an EDM album, and completely a trainwreck. I think what upsets me the most about this album how he managed to make things that could be great sound terrible. For example, do you know how hard it is to make a song that Chris Stapleton is singing sound bad? It's gotta be close to impossible. Yet Tom Morello somehow manages to put Chris on top of one of the most boring instrumentals he's ever sang over while Tom also wails away on his guitar pitched up one octave so it sounds like a chipmunk. There's also a cover of Highway to Hell by AC/DC that features Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder. This has to be one of the easiest songs in the world to cover and with Bruce and Eddie in tow, it should be amazing right? Of course not, because Tom blows out and distorts the song way more than it ever deserves to be to the point where his guitar and the drums don't have a distinct sound, they just sound like noise. Things don't get much better as right after this there's the song Let's Get This Party Started featuring Bring Me The Horizon which is another song that's compressed to hell and just isn't good. There's a line in the chorus where Oli Sykes says he's feeling "50 shades of f*cked up" and there's also the bridge where he's literally just screaming, "I'M SO HAPPY I COULD DIE RIGHT NOW, SOMEONE F*CKING KILL ME!!!" This song is awful. The only song on here that I think is somewhat decent is the song Hold The Line featuring Grandson given that Grandson has been copying off of Zack De La Rocha's notes for a long while now. Of course the guy who wants to be Zack De La Rocha would have good chemistry with Tom. I really hope that with the Rage Against the Machine reunion coming up soon, Tom can ditch this solo project for a while because this is doing absolutely nothing for me.
2. Morgan Wallen - Dangerous: The Double Album
Do you ever see something that's popular and want to understand what the hype is? Something that all of your friends love and you want to see what it is that they love about it but you just can't? That's me and this album because no matter how many times I tried, I still just don't get the hype around Morgan Wallen and this album. For starters, the only thing "dangerous" about this album is its title, and an hour and 40 minutes of this album is way longer than I think anyone needs of this album. I also want to make something clear really quickly, my ranking of this album is not because of anything Morgan has said or done in the past year and a half, it honestly is strictly because of the music, though I could easily bash him because of his character for this whole writeup. On my first listen through this album, 30 songs up, 30 songs down, I counted 9 songs that I liked. Surprisingly, that number is still close with the count of songs on this album I like at 8 now as, over this year, I've become a huge fan of Jason Isbell and I've come to realize how badly Morgan butchered this version of Cover Me Up. It's also just a strange song for Morgan to cover given that Isbell wrote the song fresh out of rehab for his now-wife Amanda Shires with lines about getting sober "forever this time" and how Shires helped him reach the sober and mentally stable state he's in right now. It just feels very contradictory given when Wallen got out of rehab, the first time he came back out on stage was to throw back shots with Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan. I digress, however. Again, this is about the music and I've said enough about Morgan and his character. I do have to say, I think this album starts and ends on its strongest songs. Sand In My Boots is super compelling from a songwriting perspective and Quittin' Time definitely puts a nice bow on top of this but everything in between is rough. There's also minor adjustments that could be made to make a lot of these songs better. Like if the song Warning had real drums versus that god-awful snap beat and trap drums, I would probably like it so much more. Or even more beneficial would've been cutting the song Country A$$ Sh*t entirely because this might be one of the worst songs I've had to subject myself to this year. There's a lot of reasons why but I'll just paste the chorus down below:
’Cause I just wanna do country-ass sh*t
With my country-ass friends
But my country-ass been
Havin' to make them dollar bills, y’all
Ask me how my country ass feels, y'all
Between workin' it off and gettin' it chewed
There ain’t much country ass left in these old blue jeans
But wait a minute, the whole world can kiss it
'Cause me and my country ass gone fishin'
Depending on how much you like those lyrics will probably also determine how much you'll like this album so if this for some reason appeals to you, maybe you'll also be giving me earfuls like I expect to be hearing from many people who love this guy.
1. SOUR - Olivia Rodrigo
1. AJR - OK Orchestra
Last year I put out a list for The Worst Songs of 2020. In the #1 spot was a song called Bummerland by AJR. I said in the write-up that I would rather have to endure coronavirus than have to purposefully listen to the song again...yet somehow, someway, Bummerland is the best song on this album. If you haven't put the pieces together yet, this album is really bad. Let me give this album some very slight praise real quick. I still commend the fact that this trio of brothers is writing, recording, producing, and mixing their music in their apartment still, even with the levels of success they've been having, and there are a few songs on here instrumentally that I actually enjoy, mainly the songs 3 O'Clock Things and Way Less Sad, there's something about them having horns in their songs that always get stuck as earworms for me. Also, of their music I've listened to thus far, I guess you could say that this is their boldest, probably even their best album, but this is AJR, so that means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
I'm not even putting this album on this list just for the meme or to make this a "HAHA AJR BAD!" writeup, though I could easily make this memeable. And I'm not doing this to knock on AJR either, their music is just not for me. If you've never heard of AJR and need to know whether you need to feel offended or not by this placement, here are some actual lyrics from this album:
It's kinda funny how I paid for college
When YouTube was an option
But then I would've had to spend
My best years
Skipping ads and readin' comments
And when the hell did advertisements get so good?
They're like narcotics
So now I'm spending every penny I own
I should have allotted to finishing college
I keep losing my socks
Where the hell do they go?
I bet they're finally free
Floating somewhere in the sea
Do they miss my feet?
I keep losing my socks
I got nothing to wear
I bet they're at her place
A house where I can't show my face
How I wanna be there
Feel like I'm gonna puke
'Cause my taxes are due
Do my password begin with a one or a two?
Been a hell of a ride
But I'm thinking it's time to grow
My grandpa fought in World War II
He was such a noble dude
Man, I feel like such a fool
I got so much left to prove
All my friends have vaping friends
They're so good at making friеnds
I'm so scared of caving in
Is that entertaining yеt?
Humpty Dumpty, when Humpty Dumpty
When Humpty Dumpty went down
He said, "Screw it, I'ma smile right through it
And I'll scream when no one's around"
Much like the Morgan Wallen lyrics I attached, your opinions on these lyrics will probably shape your opinion on this album. I think that these are awful and I can't believe an actual human being sat down, wrote these, recorded them, and still said, "Yeah, these are great." Yeah, this album is really a great package of everything a bad pop album today needs. Overproduced, basic instrumentals with lyrics that at times actually circle back and make you think...is this genius? There is no doubt in my mind that this is the worst album of 2021.
I'm gonna be 100% honest with you guys before I start this roundup, it feels really good just to be able to rank concerts I went to this past year. After a year and a half away from shows it got to a point during this extended time at home that I didn't think concerts would ever come back in their normal state. I also tortured myself by attending a socially distanced concert in Lubbock and all that did was make me even sadder that concerts couldn't be held in a normal manner. However, with the vaccine rolling out and more states finally repealing social distancing measures, I finally started getting to attend shows again in July and it's been so great to do so.
This list is likely going to be the easiest one to write out of the ones I plan on doing because it's such an easy thing to do. Of course, there will be some bias here and there (see the #1 spot on this list) but this ranking is based on three categories, 1.) my enjoyment of the show, 2.) The quality of the performance, and 3.) the reception by the crowd. So without further ado, here are the 10 best concerts I saw in the past year.
10. Flatland Cavalry
Flatland Cavalry has been on my list of Texas Country bands to see live list for a while, I think since the first time I heard One I Want. Given the chance to see them at Josh Abbott's festival, I knew I couldn't wait any longer. The band played for a solid hour and 45 minutes and there were a few things that made this show feel pretty special. For one, this was a homecoming show for the band, something that frontman Cleto Cordero touched on a few times and something that made the live version of Tall City Blues hit a little harder. Another thing that made it special was all of the artists hanging out on stage during their set. While this was dubbed as a festival, it was really just a Flatland show with three openers but regardless, it was still cool to see Kolby Cooper, Pecos Hurley, and Josh Abbott and his wife just hanging out while the band was on stage. Abbott did come out and play guitar during the song No Ace in the Hole which was cool but his microphone wasn't on which made it kind of funny. Performance-wise however, Flatland is tight as a knot. On stage, Cleto has fun banter and I think he smiled the most I've seen any performer smile during any show (save for someone I'll mention later). A lot of their songs also translate a lot better live, mainly the songs Some Things Never Change and Coyote (The Ballad of Roy Johnson). The hometown crowd was a great cherry on top too as everyone sang every word back at Cleto and you could tell everyone was having a good time. If you're a fan of Texas Country music and you have yet to see Flatland live, I highly suggest doing it the next time they're in your area.
9. Phoebe Bridgers
Look, I'll start off with the negatives first because there are a few. First things first, while Phoebe 100% deserved to play a main stage at a major festival like ACL, having her play in the daylight felt almost disrespectful. Speaking of disrespectful, I think this show was the worst that talkers got during the entire weekend, especially during the songs Punisher and Scott Street where at times I couldn't even hear Phoebe over everyone in the crowd. However, when the crowd was attentive, it was magic. Especially during I Know The End where everyone progressively got more and more hyped as the climax of the song inched closer. Phoebe's set started off with an amazing run of songs, going from Motion Sickness (a perfect opener) into Garden Song into Kyoto, the last of which Phoebe said was dedicated to "anyone who's ever had to lie to CPS about their parents." This brings me to my next point, Phoebe is hilarious on stage. Whether she was giving songs wild introductions (my favorite being her introducing the song Chinese Satellites as a song about "being chased by anti-abortion activists" then also dedicating it to Greg Abbott) or asking everyone if they were ready for "more mid-tempo jams," she always had something witty to say in between songs. Her setlist was great too though it mostly leaned heavily on Punisher material, it was all great live. Songs that I didn't care all that much for like Moon Song and Graceland Too sounded miles better live. I hope Phoebe hits the road again soon because I'd like to see her in an environment where this material would be better suited. Preferably a theater or smaller venue that can get dark and really let her visuals pop (because the visuals she had were really cool and deserved more love.)
Never thought I'd like a pair of Aggies as much as I did these guys.
Hailing from College Station, Texas, I initially wasn't too sure if I wanted to see Surfaces at ACL Fest. For one, I wasn't too crazy about their latest album Pacifico, a lot of it felt too generic and safe. However, the second the band launched into their opening song, Good Day, I already knew I had made the right choice. I don't know how else to explain this show except for fun and the most positive vibes for any set I saw during the weekend. The crowd ate it all up, Forrest and Colin were super active, bouncing around the stage and even running down through where the barricades divided the crowd during their closer, Sunday Best. Sunday Best live was an experience, you could tell that that was the one song everyone knew for sure and the second the pianos hit, everyone lost their mind. I think a reason I haven't been crazy for their studio material has been because a lot of it feels a little too generic but when they play songs like So Far Away and can throw in a saxophone solo or just jam a little bit, that makes the songs so much better. They also threw in a couple covers, Fly by Sugar Ray and Ain't No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye, the latter of which went over waaaaaaay better than the former. And I know this will be a dumb comparison but in some way, Colin and Forrest sort of reminded me of Cage The Elephant live where one person is singing and the other is holding a guitar and just keeping the crowd hyped up. I don't know, that's just what I drew comparisons to. I also have to point out that Colin was extra appreciative to play this show because in 2017 when he attended the fest, he sent himself an affirmation text saying "gunna make it on these stages one day." 4 years later, he and his bandmates absolutely delivered and made for one of the happiest sets of the weekend.
7. Koe Wetzel
The first time I saw Koe Wetzel was in 2018. He played a Spring Break show in Corpus Christi and was the second artist to play out of 4 on the bill. Before the show, I tried to listen to a couple of his songs, the first being February 28, 2016, and I remember telling myself, "What's so special about this guy?" A few hours later, Koe and his band took the stage and I swear a tornado blew through Concrete Street Amphitheater. For a full hour, Koe and his band delivered one of the rowdiest, loudest, and most hell-raising shows I have ever seen from an artist in the Texas scene. Fast forward 3.5 years and I finally got the chance to see him again, this time being very familiar with his catalog and his reputation live. Yet once again, he blew through every expectation I had. I want to make something really clear though before I continue this write-up for this show, come here, listen real close. ahem. Koe Wetzel is a rockstar and makes rock music and I won't be debating that claim. Taking the stage promptly at 9:30 PM to an audience of 9000 fans, Koe walked out on stage, grabbed his guitar, threw his guitar stand into the wings of the stage, then immediately kicked us in the teeth opening with Sundy or Mundy and Something To Talk About. There's one massive upgrade from the last time I saw him though and you can probably guess what it is from the picture up above, an increased show production. While the band still rocked just as hard as they did the first time I saw them, it certainly helped to have fog cannons, pyro, fireworks and video screens this time around (even if he didn't use the video screens all that much). And, um, Fuss & Fight live...insanity. I think that's about all I can say about it. Just like Flatland, if you're a fan of Texas music and haven't yet taken the chance to see Koe live, it's an experience and I'd hurry to do it before he's in arenas.
6. Chris Stapleton
Speaking of arenas, man Chris Stapleton knows how to rock one. I want to give some credit where it's due though for another aspect of this show that I haven't really talked about for anything else listed here. Chris picked excellent openers for this show with both Yola and the legendary Jamey Johnson getting things warmed up before he took the stage. I do have to say though that I was a bit nervous about this show. He had had to cancel a few shows prior to this one due to laryngitis and when I found this out I was nervous for either a) the show to be canceled, or b) Stapleton to take it easy on his voice and maybe not play for as long as he usually does. Both of those notions were wrong however and from his opening song, Nobody to Blame, until the last notes of Outlaw State of Mind, Stapleton sang so effortlessly good like laryngitis had never been an issue for him. Stapleton played for two hours and barely even took breaks to talk to the crowd because it was so focused on the music. Which, yes, the music was very good. I'm a huge Stapleton fan so getting the chance to see him live as close as I did was incredible, but even knowing all of these songs, they all sounded so much better live. Hard Livin' and Second One to Know rocked a little harder live, Millionaire and Broken Halos both led big sing-alongs, and Tennesse Whiskey was the perfect way to cap off his set before going into his encore. I will say that one thing that bummed me out was the fact that his wife, Morganne, was unable to make it to the show that night as, according to Chris, she was home with one of their children who was sick. It didn't completely ruin the experience but it definitely would've made it cooler. Regardless, Stapleton is a beast live and I will definitely be seeing him again should he ever roll through these parts.
5. Tyler, the Creator
I remember eating breakfast with my mom when I felt my phone vibrate. I turned it over to see ACL had tweeted, "Lineup Addition: Tyler, the Creator has been added to this year’s festival, performing Sunday night of both weekends." He was called in to replace a disgraced DaBaby who had been dropped from DaLineup after his Rolling Loud incident. This was something that was still on my mind even as Tyler played, and not in a positive light. Even from the opening song CORSO, Tyler glided across the stage while fireworks popped behind him and he still rapped every single word without losing his breath, and right as that song ended I said to myself, "I can't believe DaBaby was supposed to be the rap headliner tonight." That's something else that I need to point out. As someone who is a huge fan of Tyler and has been super happy to see him grow both as an artist and in popularity, I was skeptical to see him being billed as a headliner both here and at Lollapalooza but any skepticism was erased as he continued performing. If this music thing ever fails for some reason, Tyler could easily have a career as a stand-up comedian because he is hilarious on stage. Whether he was calling the crowd trash for not singing Boredom loud enough for his standards or repeatedly asking us, "Are y'all sweatin' yet?" to respond with "Good because I am dripping." Perhaps the funniest was him saying how much love he had for the city of Austin even though, "Based on the color of my skin I feel uncomfortable going into a lot of places in this city." Oh, and don't get it twisted, Tyler is one of the best live rappers in the game right now, I could probably count on one hand the active rappers who are better than he is live. Every aspect from the set design to the setlist to his energy on stage was incredible and at times it felt cinematic. The only reason I'm not putting this show higher is that the crowd was pretty lame until mosh pits and a less-than-packed audience allowed me to keep moving closer and closer to the front. By the time I got to where I took that picture, he was dropping IGOR material and NEW MAGIC WAND live is an experience, take my word for it. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST OUT NOW!
4. St. Vincent
Another reason I'm not listing Tyler higher is because of the set I saw right before his by Texas native Annie Clark, professionally known as St. Vincent. While it took me a while to warm up to her latest album, Daddy's Home, I'm now convinced that it's one of the best albums released this year and I think that live, a lot of the Daddy's Home material slaps a tiny bit harder. Mainly the title track which benefits live from having extended time for solos and the song Down which has some really awesome synth passages live that didn't make it into the studio version. The show was very theatrical with Annie donning a blonde, Marilyn Monroe-esque wig and a set design behind her that looked like a tiny city. I also need to mention the band she had behind her because they were fantastic. While a lot of her music tends to be electronic and synth-heavy, hearing a song like Digital Witness get a funkier reworking or Sugarboy get a little extra distortion makes them all that much better but surprisingly, my favorite performances were songs where Annie wasn't even playing guitar, most notably the song Fast Slow Disco which had me dancing like a fool. That song live is honestly one of the best live performances I've ever heard of any song, I can't explain why but it was just beautiful. As far as guitar songs go, I can't not mention the songs Marrow and Birth in Reverse, Marrow mainly just because it's probably my favorite song she's ever released and it was fantastic live but Birth in Reverse absolutely blew the proverbial roof off of the place and was a kick in the teeth (to use the phrase again) to have right at the beginning of the show. I have plans to attend Innings Festival in Tempe, Arizona this upcoming Spring and I am very stoked to be able to see Annie again.
3. American Aquarium
In my Principles of Journalism class, I've learned that to be a successful journalist, it's best to be transparent and share whatever biases you have before you make whatever points you need to make so let me do that real quick. A) this was my first live show after a year and a half of no concerts, B) I love BJ Barham, American Aquarium, and their music, and C) this show was at Gruene Hall I mean...come on now. For two hours, BJ Barham and the rest of American Aquarium tried their hardest to burn Gruene Hall down with only two guitars, drums, an organ, and a pedal steel, and they came really close. At 9:15, the band walked on stage to the sound of Smooth by Santana before Barham grabbed his signature red acoustic guitar and started strumming the chords to Casualties from the band's 2012 album, Burn.Flicker.Die. I don't think I saw any show with an opening song as fierce as this one all year. BJ was stomping around on stage, yelling in people's faces, and scooting away from the mic every time the final line of the chorus hit to let the sold-out audience yell, "NOW I'M JUST A CASUALTY OF ROCK AND ROLL!" Speaking of, the crowd was amazing. Being just about the only fan of this band in my inner circle, it was super awesome to be belting out a song like Jacksonville or Tough Folks with 900 other people. I wanted to try and single out some great performances but there were way too many to pick from. I could talk about how passionate BJ got during the final verse of The Long Haul, or maybe I could talk about how incredible the song The World's on Fire was live, but I think the crown jewel of this show was the performance of one of the band's biggest hits, I Hope He Breaks Your Heart. The song had a sing-a-long so loud that I couldn't even hear Barham at all during the chorus and it even prompted my dad to ask, "I wonder what everyone just walking by outside is thinking." The night capped off with a cover of Sammy Kershaw's Queen of My Double Wide Trailer before Barham stood at the merch booth shaking hands and talking to anyone who wanted to stop by. As one of those people who did stop by, I can assure you guys that he is a giant sweetheart and honestly one of the nicest guys I've ever met in this indie country circuit. With a new album planned out for the summer of next year, I can't wait to see what Barham and company have planned both in the studio and for their live shows.
Where do I even begin with this show? While I do still regret leaving before the last two songs of his set, I am both really proud and still blown away at the quick ascension of Sloan Struble's musical project, Dayglow. I actually have ACL to thank for introducing me to him when he was added to the 2019 lineup late. That year he played on the festival's smallest stage, the BMI stage in a brutal time slot between 4 other artists. I wasn't able to see him because the group I was with wanted very badly to be very close to Billie Eilish so I had to stay put at the Honda Stage for the whole day until after her set. That being said, in only two years, Sloan went from just another early-day option to headlining the VRBO stage which is an incredible feat, but enough of me talking him up, the point of this is for me to tell you why it was so great and there was a myriad of reasons. For one, the stage was nestled in a back corner of Zilker Park surrounded by trees on both sides. Second, whoever their lighting guy is needs a raise because the lights for this show were incredible and nailed the vibes of every song he played which leads to my next point. His setlist was packed with banger after banger and he only really slowed down in the middle to tell the story of how, while attending UT Austin, he uploaded his first album Fuzzybrain to SoundCloud before eventually dropping out of college. And last but not least, Sloan Struble. I really don't know how to describe him as a frontman because there's a lot of things I can say about him. For starters, as big as this project has gotten, he still seems pretty shy and nerdy but I feel like that's part of his appeal as well. He doesn't have a larger-than-life ego but he's also not just curled into a ball trying to avoid talking to the crowd, he's honestly just a guy who likes making music and got lucky and all his huge smiles on stage made it feel even more personal (This is who I mentioned earlier as someone who smiled more than Cleto). And speaking of, when the music hits, Sloan turns into a dancing machine. Just from the opening notes of their first song Something, Sloan immediately skipped onto the stage from out of the wings, hit the woah, did a spin, then started singing like nothing happened. He also had a David Byrne like energy during the song with some awkward moves that looked like he was fighting an enemy we couldn't see. Elsewhere through the set, the songs Fair Game and Listerine were both incredible live as was the song False Direction which greatly benefitted from a guitar solo from touring guitarist Colin Crawford. And the last two songs I saw, Crying on the Dancefloor and Close To You were the perfect way to cap off the end of the night. Had ACL not booked the next guy I'm going to talk about, I would easily say that this was the best set of the weekend and the best show I saw this year. It was even better considering I'm a pretty big fan of Dayglow and he still blew me away. However, I can't say that this was the best show I saw this year because ACL did indeed manage to book...
1. George Strait
Again, Journalism Class, biases, let me get those out of the way. For starters, I am a Texan, I was born with George Strait lyrics already memorized. When I was growing up, I absolutely adored George and you can ask any family close to me, Mom, Dad, cousins, aunts, uncles, I literally wanted to be this man when I grew up (I mean I still kinda do but it's a lot less feasible). When it was first rumored that George would be playing I already knew I would be set for a 3 day pass to this festival and that I would be hanging out at his stage all day to be as close as possible to him since I don't ever imagine myself paying thousands of dollars to see him from this close in an arena or stadium.
Alright, biases out of the way. This was my third time being able to see George. I had seen him for my 10th and 14th birthday in Little Rock, Arkansas and Denver, Colorado, respectively. Of course, never from this close and never as appreciative as I was of this opportunity to see him. I can confidently say that at 69 years old, George has never missed a beat and he still sounds incredible live. His voice may have gotten a little more baritone over the years but outside of that, he still sounds identical to how he sounded on Strait Country. Maybe it was just because of how close I was or how awesome the crowd was but I think this is the best of the three times I've been able to see George. He usually enjoys playing live ever since he retired from touring but for some reason I feel like he was extra appreciative to be headlining a fest like ACL, a fest where you also had the option of seeing Miley Cyrus at the same time or Billie Eilish and Tyler, the Creator on the same stage as him in the two days after. He seemed in really good spirits telling the crowd that "We were originally supposed to do this a year ago and we're so glad we finally made it." He also said that whoever thought the festival up deserved a medal. His stage banter was brief but it was always followed by a laugh or a smile before he would launch into his next song. One of my favorites being when George noticed someone, who I see yearly, holding a sign cut out in the shape of a guitar pick reading, "pick me!" He tried to throw the pick but he said, "It's hot, I'm sweating, I tried, sorry," after the pick didn't even clear the subwoofers in front of the stage. I know this will sound stupid to say just given that he's George Strait but of course, his setlist was just hit after hit for 2 solid hours and while he did drop in a few new songs, everything felt super consistent and the 2 hours went by way faster than I expected them to. As he walked off the stage after The Cowboy Rides Away, it sort of hit me that this might be the last chance I ever get to see him live. If this ends up being true, I can't complain, he was incredible, and there's no doubt in my mind that this is the best concert I saw in all of 2021.
(Photo by Charles Reagan/ACL Festival/C3 Presents)
On October 12, 2019, I left Zilker Park. I had a great day there, I got to see Denzel Curry, Brittany Howard, Billie Eilish, Childish Gambino's last show ever, and possibly The Cure's last show ever too. I, unfortunately, was only able to go that day but I still made the most of it, I still had a blast with the group of friends I got to meet up with there, and I was very much looking forward to 2020's festival...but, ummm, do I really need to say it? So of course, 2020's festival didn't happen, at least not in person. However, around the end of April, things started looking up. Lollapalooza started making some rumblings that their fest was going to happen, tours were getting booked, more shows were being announced, and it really seemed like after a year off, ACL was going to get to happen again.
The lead to the festival's announcement was pretty interesting. At the beginning of April, there was a message posted on a festival forum I frequent by a person who posts once in a blue moon but is never wrong. They were responding to someone who was saying that with ACL booking more hard rock and classic rock acts it seemed like the fest would get away with booking either or for headliners. The response? "More Like Stevie Nicks & a big Country Headliner." Rumors also started swirling around of a lineup drop at the end of May and the festival taking it's usual dates at the beginning of October and lo and behold, all of these things ended up being right.
I want to say something real quick about this lineup before I get into what my initial thoughts were. First off, this lineup went through a handful of changes, the biggest being DaBaby getting kicked off the lineup after his stunt at Rolling Loud and Stevie Nicks dropping out due to concerns of COVID-19 with her old age. However, C3 (the company who books the fest, I'll be referring to them a lot in this paragraph) made up for both losses big time. When DaBaby was kicked off DaLineup, he got replaced with Tyler, the Creator (more on him later) and when Stevie dropped out, she was quickly replaced with Duran Duran, a booking that is still amazing to me.
When I first saw this lineup I was...confused? Yeah, I think confused is the best word, mainly due to some gross overbilling, strange headliner choices, and the whole thing just felt small. As far as positive remarks go, I still applaud C3 for booking George Strait for this year's festival. Booking George was something that made ACL stand out this year among other major festivals across the country. While they easily could've grabbed something safe like Foo Fighters and Post Malone who will headline every festival under the sun in the next 2 years, they decided to go out and grab George out of left field. Grabbing Stevie Nicks would've been an added bonus too as I don't think I'd pay money to see her on her own. The rest of the lineup was where I started my confusion. For example, I love Black Pumas, I think they're an awesome band, but are they really worthy of being billed above two of Pitchfork's headliners? And does Machine Gun Kelly need to be on the top line of any lineup? The same question sort of applies to DaBaby, does he really need to be headlining festivals of ACL's size that aren't just straight-up rap fests? Regardless of my complaints, there was still more than enough that I wanted to see and my mom and I ended up grabbing 3-day passes for the first weekend.
Due to inclement weather overnight and impacts to Zilker Park, gates for the first day of ACL Fest will open at 3pm today. We look forward to seeing you this afternoon. Stay tuned for performance schedule updates. pic.twitter.com/Wju3pZsSCv
This is how my Friday started and to be honest, I'm super happy that it did start this way. I had flown back home to then drive up with my mom and it felt nice to not be as rushed to have to make it to the gates at 11. There was one major issue though and that was that 3 PM is when something starts that the festival likes to call a "peak time" which means that's the time when the majority of people attending the fest like to show up to the park. So as you can imagine, opening the gates at one of these times was pretty chaotic. My mom and I decided to shuttle in the first day of the fest and that was a major mistake. We got in line at around 2:30 to ride in and didn't get on a bus until around 4. Once we got off the bus, the line to get your bag checked and wristband scanned was even more chaotic. It was just a sea of people with no real lines and everyone just sort of pushing forward until you got to a security guard.
Not really ideal.
However, once I was in the park, it was smooth sailing. It wasn't too crowded inside the park which made acquiring a spot for the last two sets of the day extremely easy. The first show I got to see back in Zilker Park was the mighty Black Pumas.
Black Pumas were a solid start to the day. If you've yet to see them live, I highly encourage you to do so. This isn't a secret but Eric Burton is a fantastic singer and Adrian Quesada is an amazing guitar player. Eric was also very engaging on stage and the band was just full of great musicians. I do have my gripes about this set though, mainly the fact that if this band had anyone else besides Eric and Adrian in it, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed this set. The setlist was also...kinda wack? Me personally I think their song Fire is much better towards the end of the set, plus I'm hurt that they don't play Touch the Sky live. But neither of these things are as bad as the fact that even with an encore, they finished their set 6 minutes early. I still enjoyed myself either way and I honestly don't doubt that they could headline this festival next time they come around. After around an hour of conversating with the people around me, listening to what I could of Jon Pardi's set from across the field, and checking my phone, the lights on the stage turned blue and it turned into Friday night's headlining set, George Strait.
Now I want to give you guys full disclosure before I start reviewing George's set just to get my biases out of the way. Y'all have to understand that I adored this man. Just ask anyone in my family, whether it be parents, cousins, aunts, uncles. Whoever you ask, they'll likely tell you stories of me putting on a cowboy hat, strapping up a toy acoustic guitar, and pretending to be George. And even as I've gotten older and grown out of pretending to be George, I still have nothing but admiration for the man. He's stuck it out in the country game for so long and his level of quality has never decreased. ACL booking George was one of the main reasons I bought a wristband and I knew going into this that this would be the closest I'd possibly ever get for one of his shows.
Okay, my bias is hopefully clear now. This was my third time seeing George. I had been lucky enough to see him on the Twang Tour and again a few years later when he was doing his Cowboy Rides Away Tour, and dare I say this was the best of each three shows I've seen. I attribute most of that to the people I was around and how close I was for his set but regardless, he's a legend and at 69 years old, his voice has not aged a day. For two hours straight, he ran through hit after hit and for the crowd just ate it all up. You could also just tell that he was happy to be there, saying in his greeting to the crowd, "We were booked to play this thing a year ago and we're so excited to finally be able to play for y'all" before launching into Here For A Good Time. He also told us "... and then we're limited on our time, unfortunately" which caused the crowd to start booing to which George responded, "That's what I'm saying!" George was in great spirits the whole night and you could tell for a lot of people around me that it was truly special to have him headlining the Friday night of the festival. Oh yeah, I got to dap up Jon Pardi as he walked to the soundboard to watch George's set so that was cool too.
Jack Harlow drew in a looooot of people on Saturday
Saturday already started better based solely on the fact that we found a solid parking spot in a garage for $15, got a belly full of BBQ, then got to be within walking distance of the park. The day started with just hanging out around the park before wandering over to Gracie Abrams' set. Gracie is still getting her feet wet in touring and playing shows but regardless, I'm excited to see where she goes from here. I really enjoyed her EP Minor from last year and I think a lot of the songs translated well live. She was also super cool on stage and you could tell she was excited to be playing a festival of this level, freaking out at one point that Jack Harlow was closing the stage she was playing. After this we turned around to the Honda Stage to get a good spot for Surfaces and boy oh boy where do I begin.
For those unfamiliar with them, Surfaces are a pop duo hailing from College Station, Texas. They've had a few viral hits, mainly the songs Wave of You and Sunday Best. I wasn't too crazy about their new album that dropped over the summer but after seeing their set, I really need to give it another spin. For a solid hour, Colin Padalecki and sidekick Forrest Frank gave off so much energy and were just solid performers. They've definitely cut their teeth and after seeing this set, they honestly may have deserved to play a little later in the day. Forrest also took some time to express his gratitude saying "Playing this festival has been a dream of mine since the first time I stood at this stage in 2017 and it's truly an honor to play for you guys." I also have to point out that the cover of Ain't No Mountain High Enough that they threw in absolutely slapped.
Charley Crockett performing on the VRBO Stage at ACL Fest 2021 (Photo by Jackie Lee Young/ACL Fest/C3 Presents)
From that point on the day honestly started to kind of fly by. Charley Crocketttook over the VRBO Stage to start the second half of the day and while his music is great in its own right, the man is a natural-born performer. He's one of those performers that is just tough to take your eye off of because you don't know what his next move will be. Whether he's running circles behind his mic stand or shuffling down to his knees and back up again, he is definitely gonna be someone to not miss when he comes through your city. His setlist was solid too even though it leaned a bit heavier on new stuff. I can't knock it though, hearing Welcome to Hard Times live was such a fun time and I Need Your Love, one of my favorite songs of this year, was definitely better live. After Charley, I got to cross a big one off the list, Phoebe Bridgers. While I want to come on here and praise her set to the sky and talk about how awesome it was...I have to talk about some of the negatives first.
For starters, ever since the schedule dropped, I think it's been stupid that Phoebe was playing in the daytime. Punisher isn't an album that could translate as well during the day, trust me, I've tried walking my dog in the middle of the day listening to it and it just doesn't work out. But actually attending her set made me realize that her playing in the daytime wasn't the biggest damper on her set, it was the talkers. If you've never listened, most of Phoebe's music is slow indie-folk music with a lot of sad lyrics and it's very soft, easy on the ears usually, which means at a festival set, it's very easy to talk over. And it was, for about the whole set. I think the worst it got was during the album's title track where at times, I couldn't even hear Phoebe sing. However, despite the noise, I still think she deserved her mainstage spot. The opening punch of Motion Sickness -> Garden Song -> Kyoto was about as solid of a run to open a show as any. The finale of I Know The End was amazing too, that song takes on a whole new life live. And on-stage, Phoebe is such a sweetheart. She didn't talk much but when she did, it was usually met with a smile and a punchline of some sort. For example, before Kyoto she pointed out a fan's sign that was supposed to read "MOMMY" but was flipped upside down with Phoebe saying, "your sign says WOWWY," she then introduced the song saying, "This song is for anyone who's ever had to lie to CPS about their parents." Even funnier though in my opinion was her introducing Chinese Satelite by saying, "This is a song about getting chased by anti-abortion activists. This one is dedicated to Greg Abbott."
After Phoebe, I saw a little bit of two sets. Freddie Gibbs threw down on the T-Mobile stage for the little bit of his set I got to watch. As far as live rappers go, I think I could consider Freddie one of the better I've seen. He was actually rapping all of his lines over instrumentals and had great energy. And yes, he's just as funny onstage as he is on Twitter and as he was on Instagram. I also got to see about 20 minutes of Doja Cat from the very back and honestly, if I didn't have anything else I wanted to see immediately after her, I probably would've tried to get closer because her set looked so fun. She had a big production with background dancers, tons of choreo, and she sounded really good too. I know this doesn't really go in order but I think I'll talk about her now since she was pretty underwhelming, Saturday night's headliner was the one and only, Billie Eilish.
Now a lot of you guys know that I love Billie and her music, as far as pop music goes it's awesome to see someone who might be one of the biggest pop stars in the world making boundary-pushing and cutting edge pop music. I've also already been lucky enough to see her play this festival in 2019 and I was excited to see what she could do with a full 90 minute headlining slot. Unfortunately, she suffered from a lot of the same problems as she did when I saw her last time. I don't know when it'll happen but eventually, her sound crew needs to wake up and realize that she's not playing 1k-2k person theaters and clubs anymore, she's playing big arenas and huge festivals. Billie doesn't have a loud voice to begin with so why would you keep her voice so quiet in the mix?
In defense of Billie though, I do think her stage show has improved since her last time at the festival and a lot of the new stuff is really good live. Mainly songs like Billie Bossa Nova which I didn't care for too much on release or of course, Happier Than Ever which closed the show. I think I heard about 50,000 people go to therapy for free screaming out that last "JUST F*CKING LEAVE ME ALONE!!!" line. The reason I bring up Billie now though is because of the set I saw right before her who, even as a big fan of his music, I was completely blown away by. That, someone, was Dayglow.
I actually have this festival to thank for introducing me to Dayglow when he was added to the lineup late to fill in a mid-afternoon spot on the festival's smallest stage. Now, two years later, Sloan Struble and his band closed out the VRBO Stage with one of the best shows of the weekend. On stage, Sloan is kind of awkward, kind of weird, but his swagger and his confidence really make his performances stand out. Whether it was him skipping out on stage and hitting the woah during an extended intro of the song Something or him and guitarist Colin Crawford leaning on each other's back for the guitar solo during the song Medicine, there was always something worth paying attention to. While Dayglow might be the solo project of Struble, these songs absolutely shine live with the added members. I also have to mention that the crowd for this set was amazing. Everyone was singing, dancing, giving all of the energy Sloan was giving us right back. This set could've easily ended my day and I would've been very content. It was the perfect closing set for a stage like this one.
Sunday, in my opinion, had the weakest daily schedule of any day I went but I also didn't want to sit around and do nothing for a while so we again got to the park early and got to take a picture in the frame, in front of the Rock Island, and in front of some of the stuff Tyler the Creator brought with his GOLF pop up shop. While the park was pretty calm up until then, the energy get turned up almost immediately when KennyHoopla took the stage. Sitting at Tito's pop-up booth after playing their Plinko game, I heard the sound of loud guitars coming from the T-Mobile Stage so, curious, my mom and I went to go check it out. For the next 30 or so minutes, Kenny kicked ass and took names. I'll admit, I haven't been too crazy about this "pop-punk revival" that's been happening recently. I think a lot of artists just think that the loud the music is, the better it is, leading to a lot of overblown and lifeless songs and albums, but Kenny 100% won me over. He was doing twirls on stage and jumping into the crowd who loved every moment of it. I'm excited to see where he goes from here. White Reaper followed soon after and kept the energy level high with a solid, riff-heavy hour of music. Their keyboardist was a huge goofball but I loved him for that. He poked fun at the two artists after them saying, "Who's ready for Polo G?? (crowd cheers) But who's ready for Karol G?? (crowd cheers again) We didn't get the memo that we had to have a G in our name." He then unofficially renamed the band "Reaper G."
The performance of their song Conspirator was an absolute mess but I mean that in a good way. Before the song, their keyboardist asked everybody to throw their boxed water up to the stage if they had one which of course, everyone obliged. The singer also asked for people to open up mosh pits which again, everyone obliged. And during the song, the keyboardist would open up boxes of water that had been thrown on the stage and throw them back into the audience. It's all in the video linked above so check that out if this all doesn't make sense.
Cautious Clay took over the Miller Lite stage soon after and provided the chill R&B vibes for his hour slot. He has a great voice and was a great presence on stage. He also didn't just sing, he also had songs where at the end he would throw in a flute or a saxophone solo and also played guitar on a couple songs. He was the perfect mid-afternoon set in my opinion. Band of Horses played the Lady Bird Stage next and delivered banger after banger for their time slot. Also surprisingly, their set wasn't nearly as crowded as I anticipated it would be. I showed up about halfway through their first song and got a spot about midway between the stage and the soundboard but I could've easily been 4-5th row if I actually tried. Their music is a solid blend of Americana and Heartland Rock and in my opinion, it was perfect festival music, and had Stevie still been playing, I think they would've been great to start the leadup to her set. I also have to point out that they threw in an awesome cover of Brooks & Dunn's Neon Moon that the crowd really enjoyed and I think frontman Ben Bridwell did it 100% justice. Finally, their performance of The Funeral was just as great as I anticipated it would be even with Bridwell stopping in the middle of the song saying, "Man, I can't remember the chords. I've played this song a million times I don't know why it's escaping me."
Sunday ended with 3 of my most anticipated sets of the weekend back to back to back. It started with Marc Rebillet who is a bit hard to explain if you don't know about him and his shtick. Essentially, he goes on stage in a robe and his boxers and makes up beats and loops on the spot for 55 minutes before usually ending his set with a couple songs that people know from before. He also does a lot of crowd work, even asking an audience member what a song he was going to make up should be about (she said penis) and at one point he stage dived, landed on his back on top of the crowd, then opened a bottle of champagne and sprayed it all over the crowd. After his set I left to go use the bathroom and fill up my water bottle and had to listen to a little bit of Greta Van Fleet who are once again getting rave reviews but they're still not for me. I will say though, Safari Song absolutely slapped live. The next two sets I saw were not only the best of the day but also two of the best of the entire weekend. Those two were St. Vincent and Tyler, The Creator.
Both of these sets were artists I had high expectations for just based on what I've seen from previous live performances and even with those high expectations, I was still blown away. I'll start with St. Vincent (who for simplicities sake I'll just call Annie for the rest of this writeup) because she was easily the better of the two. For starters, Annie is a queen and she commanded the stage with authority. She's an awesome singer and an even better guitar player, even if she didn't solo as much as I wish she could've. I also have to point out the Daddy's Home era is one of the coolest she's ever done. The band is on point, the background singers are amazing, and the reworked versions of the song Digital Witness was fun, funky, and just a solid opener. The songs Marrow and Birth in Reverse let her guitar playing shine, I danced like a fool to Los Ageless and Fast Slow Disco, the latter of which might be the best performance she did of any song, and it really hurt to have to walk away right as she started Cheerleader but the impression left was strong.
To end the festival, Tyler the Creator played for about an hour and 15 minutes and many times throughout his set I thought to myself, "I can't believe DaBaby was supposed to be Sunday's rap headliner." Tyler is an absolute pro and I've never seen one single person command a stage and an audience like he did, even if the audience was pretty subpar. To start his show, Tyler walked on stage while intro music played holding two suitcases, one holding a microphone that he pulled out, then he put a knee up on a trunk on stage, and held his hand under his chin as the intro music started ending with the refrain that's very common from his latest album "CALL MEEEEE IF YOU'RE LOSSSSST." The intro music ended with a phone ringing before he launched straight into CORSO which was probably the best opening song I saw at any set the whole weekend. As he rapped through the verse, fireworks were going off on stage, Tyler was hitting his weird dance moves and slithering across the stage, and still rapping every single word. While I do think the first part of his set kind of dragged since it was mainly reliant on new material, once the Flower Boy stuff started, it was smooth sailing from there. I also have mosh pits and a less than packed audience to thank as I started the show parallel with the sound booth and ended up about 20 rows back and the closer I got, the more fun the audience was. For a song like Who Dat Boy, I was the only person within about 20ft of me jumping to the song. Meanwhile, when I got to the spot I ended the show in and NEW MAGIC WAND dropped, I had the time of my life. On stage, Tyler is equal parts weird as he is funny asking us multiple times, "Y'all good?? Because I am wet!" He also cracked me up during the intro to Boredom where he was trying to get the crowd to sing starting with the left side who he said was "Trash. I should've stayed home." He then tried the right side who he told, "Trash. I should've gone to Dallas." He then finally asked everybody to sing and they did, but Tyler responded, "That was great but y'all were offbeat. It's fine though." Tyler is a showman and really knows how to rise to the occasion. As the final notes of RUNITUP played and everybody jumped one more time, Tyler left the stage, giving us the middle finger, then disappearing backstage.
So, despite the lineup being pretty weak, I once again had a blast in Zilker Park for the festival. You could tell a lot of people were grateful to be back and just about everyone I got to talk to (between sets of course) was super happy to be there and usually super nice. The ACL experience may have been tampered with a little bit due to what felt like lower attendance and mulch all over the park due to rain but regardless, I had a great time and I don't think I saw a bad performance the whole weekend. My top 5 sets of the weekend in no particular order were George Strait, St. Vincent, Tyler the Creator, Surfaces, and Dayglow.
I took a lot of videos over the weekend, like, a bunch. If you want to check any of those out, I'll link the YouTube playlist below. All photos were taken by me except for where stated.
Remember last year when I came on here and reviewed a new Killers album? It was called Imploding the Mirage and at the time, I thought it was the band at their best since their heyday in the mid-2000s. I gave a lot of high praise to frontman Brandon Flowers' performances and writing, I loved a lot of synth passages and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr's performances as well. But most importantly, the album was tight, consistent, and strong. And even post review, I still gave that album a lot of praise. The opening song My Own Soul's Warning landed in the #3 spot for my top 30 songs of the year, and the album landed at #10 on my Best Albums list. Once this album cycle was sort of over though, I didn't expect anything from The Killers until 2023 or so at the very earliest. I figured they would tour, do the festival circuit, maybe tour again, then try to start recording something. However, I got taken by surprise in June when Vannucci said in an interview that they already had a new album finished and they were planning on releasing it this month. It wasn't a 100% good surprise either.
(From L to R): Dave Keuning, Brandon Flowers, and Ronnie Vannucci Jr. in a promotional image for the new album.
In fact, I was almost kind of concerned? For starters, Ronnie said in the same interview that they had a huge stockpile of material for this album and that it was going to be "very different" which is usually a cover for an album being horrible. Also, just about anyone would be concerned if one of their favorite bands decided to drop another full-length album just under a year after their last one. So, with low expectations, I went into this new album just hoping for it to be consistent, maybe a banger or two that could slip into the setlist, and maybe a song that I could fight people over being underrated in the years to come but what I got was not that...and I mean that in the best way possible.
The album is 11 songs long, the standard version is a little over 51 minutes in length and Ronnie did deliver on that promise, this is a very different album from Imploding the Mirage. This album still does have the staples of The Killers music, bright synths, great guitar leads, catchy choruses at times, but where this album strays from their usual material is the fact that this is a concept album and Brandon's writing is the most focused it's ever been and dare I say I think that this is the best his writing has ever been. This album revolves around the town of Nephi, Utah where Brandon lived for part of his life while growing up, and through the various interludes between songs, there's a whole lot to learn about this city...both good and bad. On the good side, this town has all those small-town cliches. Everybody knows everybody, everybody knows who's doing what with who and where common tropes you'll hear about any small town. There are also people who talk about their love of hunting, their blue-collar work. Again, nothing too uncommon for an album about a small town. Then there are the not-so-happy aspects of these interludes where the citizens talk about being hopeless, how the town has been run through and severely hurt by opioids. There's also an interlude before the song Quiet Town where the speaker talks about how every 2 or 3 years someone gets hit by a train in the town and how a lot of people see the train as a way of escaping life in Nephi.
Quiet Town has to be one of my favorite songs on this album, while I'm on the topic of it. I love the blend of acoustic and electric guitars on the song along with the nice synth lead and the wailing harmonica that shows up during the chorus. The lyrics on this song too are really good with Brandon opening the song talking about how a couple in the town got hit by a train and it shocked everyone because they were getting ready to graduate and they were planning on getting married and having kids. He ends the first verse by saying "Things like that ain't supposed to happen in this quiet town." He also sings in the chorus about how everyone in the town is super tight to the point where no one locks their doors at night.
But the themes and lyrical focuses on the album spread farther than that with some songs on here about religious trauma, homophobia, there's even a song on here, Desperate Things, where Brandon portrays a cop who pulls over a woman who's speeding, finds out that she's a victim of domestic abuse, and they end up falling in love with each other and being unfaithful to their spouses. In even more of a twist, the song ends with Brandon killing the girl's husband. It's a wild lyrical moment. I think another one of Brandon's strongest lyrical moments is on the song In Another Life, which, instrumentally I think leans a little too close to a War on Drugs song but again, Brandon's lyrics pick up that slack big time, opening the song by singing:
Is this the life you chose yourself Or just how it ended up? Is that the yard you pictured when You closed your eyes and dreamed Of children in the grass running through the sprinklers?
Now while there are more slower and subdued songs on this album than usual, don't worry, there's still a handful of bangers on here. The opening song West Hills, is energetic, dramatic, and I honestly think it might be their best opening song on any of their albums to date, I'm not sure, Sam's Town slaps. The song starts off with some somber piano chords and Ronnie pounding away with some speedy 16th notes behind the drums. If he was playing a more simple pattern I'd probably compare this to a Nick Cave song but since Ronnie decided to drink 3 Bangs before they hit record, I can't make that comparison. Brandon's lyrics on the song again flex his storytelling muscle, singing about how he was born in Zion as God's own son even though he never cared for religion. He continues on singing about a relationship, saying that this girl he's dating or married to already had two children with "one still on the vine" and even though he wasn't that third child's biological dad, he still "loved him like he was mine." The song reaches its climax in the third verse when Brandon sings:
When the sheriff kicked my door down I was sleeping in my own bed And the mess I got caught up in Rained hard down on my head They got me for possession of them hillbilly heroin pills Enough to kill the horses that run free in the west hills
In The Car Outside might be my favorite song on this album because it's the best representation of this album to someone who might be curious what it's like or just needs a song to ease themselves into the album. Instrumentally, it's classic Killers through and through with a nice mix of New Wave and Heartland Rock. It's upbeat, it's catchy, to put it simply, this song is a banger. But lyrically, this song is a lot darker with Brandon singing a very one-sided song about a marriage that isn't working out, opening the song singing about how he's seeking refuge in his car and doesn't want to go back into the house because he knows his wife will be pissed at him. I also love his lines on the second verse where he sings about how he put stickers on the house windows that make them look like stained glass but when his wife "turns it's like the shadow of the cross don't cast." The line he ends the verse with too, "It's like waiting for a train to pass and I don't know when it'll pass" is fantastic too.
Runaway Horses is a song I was looking forward to hearing considering that none other than Phoebe Bridgers was featured on the song and after spending some time with it, I think it's great. Even if Phoebe doesn't get her own verse, her and Brandon still sound fantastic together. It's the perfect song for Phoebe to be on too with an acoustic guitar, some grand and somber strings, and piano chords leading the song. It's Phoebe's bread and butter. But Brandon really shines on an acoustic song two songs earlier with the song Terrible Thing which is probably one of the starkest songs on the album with Brandon singing from the perspective of a kid in this town who's confused and afraid to express that he's gay. He sings about how everybody in the town takes up a cross and praises God as faithfully as they can "but the cards that I was dealt will get you thrown out of the game." He sings afterward:
Hey, mama, can't you see your boy is wrapped up in the strangle silk Of this cobweb town where culture is king?
He also sings in the third verse confused about how people in the town can fight bulls to get seriously injured or even killed, as a bullfighter in this song does, and be worthy of God but liking someone the same gender as you is cause to be chastised. And if we're talking about religion-based songs, I have to mention Cody even though this one is more based on Cody than religion as a whole. The song instrumentally sounds really raw, Ronnie's drums on the song sound like they have the air sucked out of them, either that or they just recorded them with one microphone. I also love the horns that pop up in the second half of the song and I can't not mention Keuning's guitar solo on this song which is fuzzy, distorted, loud, and it understands its assignment perfectly. Brandon sings about our protagonist in the song, Cody, who is a kid who has nothing better to do in this town than cause trouble. Brandon says that Cody "does his pulling with his eyes" and "does his talking with his fists." He also sings that Cody:
Says religion's just a trick To keep hard-working folks in line He says it makes his stomach sick
And statements like this seem to revolve around the whole album. In Nephi, you either love God, love worshipping him, and do the best you can to look good in his eyes, or you resent him, and don't understand what's so great about him because either A.) you don't believe in him and his power, or B.) the people in this town are just giving a false sense of who he is which makes it hard for someone like the character in Terrible Thing to truly see his light. Sorry if this turned into some pro-religion rant. I do consider myself to be a Christian and someone who loves God and believes he's there, but it's easy to see in a town like this that people can be toxic about their love of God and use it to excuse homophobia or other transgressions of that nature.
Ronnie, Brandon, and Dave photographed for NME.
I honestly don't know how I want to wrap this one up because I think this album is incredible. I guess with extended time at home last year due to quarantine, Brandon found the key to consistency again either in between a cushion or in a dusty box in the attic next to his eyeliner. Either way, this album is probably the best thing they've put out since Hot Fuss and Sam's Town. I know I said that after Imploding the Mirage too but Imploding the Mirage doesn't hold a candle to this. It's almost upsetting to me that they decided to put out that album when they had this kicking around. Brandon's writing is the sharpest it's ever been, the band doesn't deliver a bad performance together at all, and most of all, those magic words, it's very consistent. I don't really know how much more I can add to here without this just turning into Brandon Flowers worship so let's just leave it at this. This album is their 3rd best ever, give it a listen, give it a spin, you probably won't be disappointed.