How Good Is Janet Jackson's First Album in 7 Years?

Plus, get reviews of the latest albums from Avicii, Garbage and more.

October 7, 2015, 4:02 AM
PHOTO: Janet Jackson performs at American Airlines Arena on Sept. 20, 2015 in Miami.
Janet Jackson performs at American Airlines Arena on Sept. 20, 2015 in Miami.
Getty Images

— -- intro: This week Janet Jackson returns after a seven-year absence, Swedish DJ Avicii releases his second album, the members of Garbage celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut album, British post-punk band Editors return with their fifth album, Josh Homme and Jesse Hughes reunite as the Eagles Of Death Metal and actress Emily Kinney of “The Walking Dead” releases an album after dropping a couple of EPs.

quicklist: 1title: Janet Jackson’s “Unbreakable” ****text: “Unbreakable” is Janet Jackson’s first album since 2008’s “Discipline.” It also finds her re-teaming with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jam and Lewis brought her to mega-pop-star status in the 80s with classic albums like “Control” and “Rhythm Nation 1814.” The two continued to work with her through 2001’s “All For You,” then handling a couple tracks on “Damita Jo” and “20 Y.O.” The fact that “Unbreakable,” then is Janet’s most consistent and enjoyable release since “All For You” shouldn’t be a surprise. The lesson here is that, after working with each other for nearly thirty years, Jackson, Jam and Lewis know exactly how to work well together. She has consistently made her best records with them by her side.

What’s striking about “Unbreakable” is its sheer subtlety. Sure, there are a couple in-your-face jams like the shiny electro funk of “Damn Baby” or the Missy Elliott-assisted “BURNITUP!” but for the most part this is a collection of low-key R&B, either in the “smooth-lovin’” vein of the hit “No Sleep” (featuring J. Cole) or showing a quieter, more melancholy side like on “After You Fall.” “Black Eagle” even has a meditative, gospel-like prayer energy. The fact that this is Jackson’s first album since her brother Michael’s untimely 2009 death may also be a reason for this album’s downbeat energy. Her uncanny vocal similarity to her brother on “The Great Forever” is enough to stop you momentarily in your tracks, even if it can be chalked up simply to genes. That resemblance has always existed. Now without Michael it is both comforting and a little haunting, particularly when you consider the two share a distinct knack for vocal phrasing.

This album is not immediate. If you are looking for something as iconic as her work on “Control,” “Rhythm Nation” or “Janet.,” this record may seem a little subdued in comparison. (It takes a few listens to make its impression.) Really this album carries the latter-day charm of “The Velvet Rope” and “All For You.” After the somewhat unimpressive results of her last three records, this is the sound of Janet getting back on track. She’s as smooth as ever with an occasional electro shine. At its core, “Unbreakable” finds Janet quietly regrouping and going back to her essence. If loved her previous work, there is plenty to enjoy here. True to its title, this album shows Janet Jackson’s resilience.

Focus Tracks:

“Unbreakable” This title-track is a slice of smooth disco-funk, with a touch of retro “new jack swing” swagger, anchored by a beat full of chopped-up vocal samples. This is a hit waiting to happen and it opens the album with both power and warmth.

“The Great Forever” This is a mature club track with a slightly trippy alternative edge. Again, this song has some strong hit-potential, with its damaged and distorted digital riff, which builds into a driving chorus.

“Gon’ B Alright” The album’s closer is an upbeat track that obviously pays tribute to Jackson’s brothers’ work in the Jackson 5. In fact it sounds like a modern answer to their hits “Dancing Machine” and “The Life Of The Party,” at a time when disco was creeping into their sound. There is also a strong Sly & The Family Stone influence here as well.

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quicklist: 2title: Avicii’s “Stories” *1/2text: Swedish DJ Avicii returns with another dose of slick, pop-fueled EDM. As was the case on his last album, “True,” his lazily-titled “Stories” shows the same sort of formulaic rave-up sound that has become ubiquitous in certain club circles. This is pop from a template. And a bland one at that. Avicii doesn’t take many chances. Pretty much every song here is a rave-up with a pseudo-disco edge and with vaguely gospel-y lyrics akin to his hit Aloe Blacc collaboration, “Wake Me Up.” The forced folky earthiness of “Ten More Days” just drives this sense of formula home. The same goes for “For A Better Day” which features Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes and Ima Robot fame or the folky “Trouble.” When in doubt, Avicii simply adds an acoustic guitar and some melancholy lyrics to the mix to give the false impression of artistic depth.

There are hints of something better seeping into the mix. The Celeste Waite-aided track, “Touch Me,” implies that Avicii may have listened to Moby’s 2008 album, “Last Night.” But while Moby’s album sounded like it was thick with grooves discovered in a forgotten corner of the early eighties, Avicii here has sacrificed any sense of edge.

When Zac Brown makes an appearance on the somewhat standard-issue “Broken Arrows” it just becomes apparent that this is just an uninteresting collection of songs. This is dance music, yes, but it is dance music of the blandest kind. “Broken Arrows” is merely a forgettable country-pop song with drum-machines and a formulaic EDM rise.

Avicii hits a nice groove on both “Talk To Myself” or “True Believer,” but these songs would be better as instrumentals. Lyrically, they are just not very notable. The fact that the latter features Chris Martin of Coldplay just speaks to the fact that Avicii has been one of the architects of Coldplay’s significant decline in quality. (His participation on their track “A Sky Full Of Stars” from last year’s “Ghost Stories” also speaks to the problem. It is evident he wants to make rave-ups that are void of any sort of real impact.)

These songs play like they want to say something that is deeply affecting, but ultimately just play to empty sentiments. The lyrics are out of a forgettable emo handbook. Jonas Wallin and Noonie Bao sing on “City Lights,” the lyrics, “We’re not scared. / We are for real. / Love can’t hurt us now. / We’re sheltered by lies” and you wonder what they mean.

Moby’s influence again pops up in “Pure Grinding,” which is obviously trying to evoke the same sort of vintage gospel vibe as heard on Moby’s classic, “Play” while at the same time marrying it with a clumsy nod to Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love.”

“Stories” is the kind of album that gets made when factory-minded pop takes over dance music. It has passing key moments but ultimately lacks anything substantial or redeeming. It tries to hop on bandwagons by adding a bit of country or blues influence, but all attempts come off as shallow schemes. In short, if you think “Stories” is a great, enjoyable dance record, you need to widen your horizons. Avicii may be one of the biggest DJs currently in the world, but he is also one of the least inspired. He’s got the tools and the skill to make better records, but he remains in the middle of the road.

Focus Tracks:

“Touch Me” At its best, this track not only recalls Moby but also Mylo’s excellent classic “Destroy Rock & Roll.”

“Talk To Myself” Soaring Fox guests on this track, which in its instrumental form would serve as a more impressive dose of pseudo-eighties funk.

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quicklist: 3title: Garbarge’s “Garbage” (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) *****text: In retrospect, 20 years after the fact, it is amazing that Garbage worked. Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker were three studio pros from Madison, Wisconsin who happened to be watching MTV’s “120 Minutes” one night when a video for a song by a Scottish band, Angelfish was played. Having been involved in various bands throughout the 70s and 80s, the three supposedly saw the video and decided to fly in the band’s singer, Shirley Manson from Scotland. Thus, a new band was formed.

Garbage’s self-titled debut has been re-mastered and reissued this week with nine bonus tracks. The two-disc edition has the original album, featuring landmark hits like “Queer,” “Only Happy When It Rains” and “Stupid Girl,” while a second disc boasts the resulting b-sides that originally hit the cutting-room floor. Yes, “#1 Crush” (which later became a hit in its own right after being included on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s version of “Romeo & Juliet”) is now on this set where it belongs.

Listening again to this record, it is overwhelmingly apparent that Garbage sat dead in the center of just about every aspect of the 90s alt-rock revolution. They had grunge-rock cred because Vig had produced both Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream.” Their knack for using trip-hop and hip-hop beats put them side-by-side with outfits like Portishead and Tricky and their knack for experimenting with edgy club sounds put them at the center of the budding electronica movement. Their sound even had passing nods to shoegaze. In many ways, Garbage were a flawless nineties band. Their debut is a perfect, multi-hued sonic experiment that speaks to the creative conventions of the time.

“Queer” is a sultry bit of seductive funk, while “As Heaven Is Wide” has a near-industrial stomp. “Not My Idea” is a bit of electro-punk that should have been a hit and “Vow” is a cunning, menacing growler of a song. “Milk” is chilled and sensual while “Stupid Girl” takes the drum track from the Clash’s “Tran In Vain” and gives it strikingly new life.

Manson proved she was up to the task. She’s one of the best and most attention-grabbing vocalists of the era. She’s capable of spewing bile one moment while singing a something sweeter the next. She wouldn’t really attempt a real love song until the Pretenders-esque “Special” three years later on the band’s equally notable second album, “Version 2.0,” but her depth as a performer was felt immediately.

There isn’t a true dud in these nine bonus tracks. They each would’ve added a different element to the album’s mix and yet you get the feeling that they were originally omitted in order to maintain the album as a tight, 12-track set. In other words, with this version of the album, you get the entire picture.

Admittedly, a song like “Alien Sex Fiend” comes off as perhaps unfinished sonic experiment, but an interesting one nonetheless. “Driving Lesson,” on the other hand sounds like a ramped-up track from a James Bond film, as Manson threateningly and breathily urges her subject to “get in the car,” as if she is some sort of supervillain. (Garbage would later do a proper bond theme. In 1999, they did the theme to “The World Is Not Enough.”)

Ultimately, this expanded edition is more than justified. This album is a clear classic. In fact, two decades later, this band has released five solid albums. Each one deserves this kind of treatment. Currently they are supposedly working on album number six. In other words, in spite of how unconventionally they came together, Garbage has remained one of the most versatile and reliable rock bands working today. Twenty years down, this album still sounds as fresh and vital as ever.

Focus Tracks:

(NOTE: The traditional album is well-known at this point. The focus tracks are limited to the bonus material.)

“#1 Crush” This song is just as good as any one of the singles from the core album. It is interesting that it didn’t make the record’s original cut. It remains one of the most erotically-charged singles of the era and yet at the same-time, Manson brings a stalking sense of menace to the table. It is simultaneously dangerous and alluring.

“Sleep” This minor key piano-led bit of trip-hop plays to Manson’s softer, haunted side as she sings about what is going through her mind as she battles insomnia. The song is brief, with really only one verse, but it makes an impression.

“Butterfly Collector” You get the feeling listening to this album that Manson was still finding her footing. She maintains a forceful whisper on some of these tracks. It is distinctive, but it is a whisper nonetheless, as if she’s still securing her place. This is a fuzzy track which unites a tripping, tempo-shifting beat with some vintage-sounding score elements.

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quicklist: 4title: Editors’ “In Dream”(Deluxe Edition) ***1/2text: Five albums in, Editors still sound like a more theatrical British alternative to Interpol. Both bands firmly are built on a post-Joy Division, post-Bauhaus mold, but Editors’ Tom Smith has more of an operatic approach when compared to Interpol’s Paul Banks. “In Dream” is a lush, expansive, slow-burning record that will earn Editors new fans as they more effectively continue to escape Interpol’s shadow.

More than a handful of these tracks clock in over the five-minute mark and listening to the openers “No Harm” and “Ocean Of Night,” both these songs deserve the room to breathe. Still, as was the case on their four previous records, they remain a band who often sacrifices accessibility in favor of mood. They have always sounded like they were more ready to score a film than to have a strong pop hit. “The Law,” for instance is pregnant with slow-burning tension as it slithers across the floor, and while “Our Love” has an electro-pulse, Smith’s falsetto-toned vocal delivery makes it a bit polarizing.

On some level, one gets the feeling that Editors aim for the same dramatic, lofty heights as Muse. But while Muse often get buried in their attempts to make semi-metallic sociopolitical rock-operas, Editors are more grounded. “In Dream” finds them more focused than ever, allowing each one of these songs to simmer in its own juices. Admittedly, this group has yet to really rise above the shadows of their obvious influences, but with each progressive album, they get further and further into their own light.

The deluxe edition of the album is packaged with six bonus tracks, expanding the album from a mere 51 minutes to a more substantial 75. Many of these additional tracks are radically different readings of songs that already appeared earlier in the set, thus giving an indication of the depth of the band’s arrangement process and giving hint to what could have been. For instance, the alternate (still falsetto) version of “Our Love” actually works better than the standard-album , club-drenched version.

Focus Tracks:

“Ocean Of Night” This track shows Tom Smith’s dramatic approach at its apex. This is a highly textural, building track that could potentially pull you firmly into its depths. One gets the feeling that this song could get a commanding club remix, but doing so might accidentally diminish its appeal.

“Forgiveness” This is the closest to what sounds like a traditional single on this album, as the band delivers a minor key, churning rocker.

“The Law” Again, this song is somewhat minimal in its approach, but there is a lot to study in those spaces. This also sounds like something David Bowie would have put on one of his nineties-era albums.

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quicklist: 5title: Eagles Of Death Metal’s “Zipper Down” ***text: Eagles Of Death Metal neither sound like the Eagles or like Death Metal. Instead they are the playful duo of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Joshua Homme and his cohort Jesse Hughes. They play often hard-edged odes to classic rock, albeit with a jokey flare. In fact, you get the idea that this band is just one big in-joke between two really good friends. If you aren’t down for the wink-wink, nudge-nudge energy that comes with the hipster-mocking “Silverlake (K.S.O.F.M.)” or the pseudo-seventies-glam rock of “I Love You All The Time,” which switches from English to French at one point, this album may not be for you.

As evidenced from this album’s cover which finds the two members’ faces covering a woman’s nipples, these two don’t take themselves too seriously.

“Zipper Down” is indeed a silly record, but one with rock chops and a genuine T-Rex-influenced rock crunch. Will it set the world on fire with its amazingness? Not at all. But that isn’t its point. This just sounds like two friends having a great deal of fun playing with some time-tested rock themes. This album is thick with vintage sleaze and surly elements, but it is for the sake of a joke. It’s almost like this is intended to be the soundtrack at a dirty dive, frequented by motorcycle enthusiasts.

Seven years removed from their last effort, “Zipper Down” doesn’t show Homme and Hughes lessening their cartoonish drive. Whether this album is greeted with groans or enthusiasm of course depends on the listener.

Focus Tracks:

“I Love You All The Time” The most ridiculously catchy song on the set, this is also one of the most absurd. But tune-wise it also proves that these two, even when maintaining a joke are strong songsmiths.

“Save A Prayer” Again, this song shows an admittedly strong level of depth, showcasing the kind of song-craft one might expect from Homme’s other bands Queens Of The Stone Age or Them Crooked Vultures.

“Skin Tight Boogie” This song is most notable for its deep riffing, which really brings some low fuzz.

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quicklist: 6title: Emily Kinney’s “This Is War” ***1/2text: Emily Kinney is mainly known as an actress, having appeared on “The Walking Dead,” “Masters Of Sex” and “The Knick.” As a singer-songwriter, she has a pleasant, likable approach that merges indie-rock and pop with a hint of country. Her voice has an amiable quality that plays well when paired with the quirky, personable nature of her lyrics.

Actually, the fact that Kinney is also an actress is actually beside the point because she stands pretty well musically-speaking. It is evident that she’s not aiming for big pop stardom. These songs are brimming with unique personality and have a specific, refreshingly handmade quality. Songs like “Birthday Cake” and “Mess” are focused narratives on love and relationships. These songs might occasionally run the risk of being too cutely precious for their own good, but Kinney lessens that aspect with her wit. On “Mess,” she describes a cigarette-smoke cloud in great detail one moment and then declares about her loving subject, “You’re like a tattered ankle-bracelet I don’t want to take off.”

In a world where every other actor or actress is churning out formulaic pop records, Kinney has set herself apart by having a very personal charm that verges on the most accessible edges of the “anti-folk” scene.

And like any successful actress, she is obviously bi-coastal. Half of these songs reference Brooklyn and various parts of New York while others take place in Berkeley. Whether these songs are actually autobiographical isn’t immediately apparent. However, Kinney fills each track with enough lyrical detail and whimsy to make you believe every word.

At a mere ten songs and 31 minutes, this album is just about as long as her last offering, “Expired Love” from last year, which was considered an EP. No matter how you classify this record, it definitely makes an impression. Kinney is a very busy actress at this point. Her music career definitely shows similar promise.

Focus Tracks:

“Birthday Cake” This is a ballad about new love and “making out on a friend’s new couch.” It verges on being reminiscent of those idealized romantic comedies where two young New Yorkers meet and fall in love, but Kinney gives the song enough authentic sweetness to make you believe this without any sense of irony. Again, it is Kinney’s great sense of detail that pays off in the end.

“Molly” On the flipside, this is a scathing indictment of a woman who has stolen Kinney’s protagonist’s boyfriend. It’s an epic kiss-off and take-down as Kinney tells the title character to “take my boots in his closet like you took my man. / It’s clear you don’t mind wearing things second-hand.”

“Berkeley’s Breathing” This is a bit of an insomniac booty call, as Kinney sings, “I’m wide awake. / I’m a sure bet.” This plea for company is surprisingly tender. In fact, as she does on “Birthday Cake,” Kinney is able to find a nice mix of lust-filled romanticism.

Next Week: New music from The Zombies, The Decemberists and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Chvrches, New Order, The Dead Weather and more.

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