The breakout pop star of 2021 is Olivia Rodrigo, the singer and actress whose debut single, “Drivers License” went straight to the top of the Billboard charts in January and stayed for two months.
The heartbreaking ballad is cleverly constructed around a scenario that’s teen angsty in the extreme. Finally old enough to drive herself to her boyfriend’s house, the singer now finds herself replaced by “that blonde girl” who’s “everything I’m insecure about.” Now she spends her days driving past his house alone, “‘cause how could I ever love someone else?”
The thin line between art and life is treacherous: Rodrigo is the star of the Disney+ show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and is believed to have written many Sour songs about costar Joshua Bassett, her ex-boyfriend now rumored to be dating Disney Channel Girl Meets World star Sabrina Carpenter.
But never mind the gossip. Whether Rodrigo’s songs concern characters real or imagined, the album finds her skillfully shifting perspectives amid emotional tumult as she searches to find a comfortable version of herself.
The most obvious influence is Taylor Swift, but Rodrigo is no mere imitator, and when she sings with a sob in her voice, she also brings to mind confessional songwriters like Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes.
Sour, which is a collaboration with songwriter-producer Dan Nigro, makes multiple musical moves, from grungy guitar-rock on “Traitor” to delicate folk-pop on breakup songs like the almost-ready-to-forgive “Happier” and the anxious “Deja Vu.” The returns diminish toward the end of the album, but on the whole, it’s an impressive enterprise from a young talent with a bright future.
— Dan DeLuca
Palehound’s Ellen Kempner and Jay Som’s Melina Duterte were mutual fans before they met on a shared bill in 2017. They teamed up as Bachelor for an eerie single, 2018′s “Sand Angel,” and reconvened in January 2020, just before the pandemic lockdown, to record what would become Doomin’ Sun.
Fans of Palehound’s forthright expressiveness or Jay Som’s variegated bedroom pop will find trace elements here, but Bachelor finds its heart in the soft-loud-soft dynamics of grunge, specifically the Breeders, Pixies, and Belly. That’s not to suggest that Doomin’ Sun is an overt homage: it has too much joyful creativity and anxious energy to be narrowly pigeonholed.
Aside from help on a few songs from Big Thief drummer James Krivchenia and Chastity Belt’s Annie Truscott (who arranged strings for the title track), Kempner and Duterte recorded everything themselves, and they seem to enjoy spinning songs in surprising directions — often with a blast (or more) of disruptive guitar. On “Sick of Spiraling,” a minimal, sing-song melody about a desperate love gets interrupted by a slashing, fuzzed-out guitar solo.
The lyrics are often about coming to terms with unfulfilled desires — for a relationship, for recognition from a rock star, for a planet unaffected by climate change — but gratification comes from the clever, surprising songs themselves.
— Steve Klinge
Where Have You Gone
The “you” in “Where Have You Gone” is country music itself. In the title song and leadoff cut of his first album in six years, Alan Jackson laments what he sees as the disappearance from the radio of the country verities: fiddle and steel, “words from the heart ... sounds from the soul.” And he vows: “I won’t let them fade.”
That’s no surprise coming from the superstar who for three decades has deftly melded country traditionalism and commercial accessibility. And it’s not the first time he has taken a shot at a Nashville establishment he views as betraying the music’s roots. Remember his duet with George Strait, “Murder on Music Row.”
Throughout the 21 songs on Where Have You Gone, most written by Jackson, he lives up to his pledge, and with impressively consistent results considering it is essentially a double album.
He chronicles the joys and pains of everyday life with plainspoken grace against generous helpings of fiddle and steel. Among the most touching numbers, two of them, “You’ll Always Be My Baby” and “I Do,” are described as having been “written for daughters’ weddings,” while “Where the Heart Has Always Been” was “written for Mama’s funeral.”
This being country, there are also plenty of references to booze: “Wishful Drinkin’,” “Way Down in My Whiskey,” “I Was Tequila,” “Beer:10.”
In “Back,” amid a litany of staples of country life (“Bourbon on the table, Jesus on the wall”), Jackson sounds uncharacteristically boastful: “Back, I’m bringing country back/ Back where it belongs, back on track.” We’ll see, but he himself has never lost the faith, nor the fire to keep his aim true.
— Nick Cristiano