25th Anniversary: ‘Jagged Little Pill’ — A New Perspective

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Like a lot of older Millennials, I can remember the first time I heard Alanis Morissette. I was in eighth grade, and her debut music video in the U.S., “You Oughta Know”, began making the rounds on TV. I didn’t think much of it, but her second single, “Hand in My Pocket”, arrived months later and I became hooked like the 33 million fans worldwide who’d buy her blockbuster album, “Jagged Little Pill”, in 1995 onwards.

It wasn’t just that I was a fan; she literally introduced me to music—and at that pivotal age, it was momentous. Like many teenagers, my musical taste would be crucial in informing my identity. Aided by Alanis’ music, I discovered the genre she was ostensibly part of—alternative rock—and I was in love.

I remained a fan of Alanis in the subsequent years, still fondly playing her first and second albums regularly, well into my thirties. A quarter of a century later, however, I unexpectedly found myself coming full circle to the minority of outliers whom I recalled initially rebuked the phenomenon of her music, perplexingly.

Something had shifted my sensibilities. Now the instrumentation, style, and concept of her music simply struck me as… inauthentic. They seemed preconceived, affected, and a little silly. It wasn’t that there wasn’t true talent involved; it’s that the music was less about art than it was about entertainment. On that level, yes: the music was certainly catchy—enough for me to listen repeatedly for decades. I would never tire of her music in some sense, but I began to realize: maybe she wasn’t such an authentic artist, but again: just an entertainer with a phenomenal gimmick.

These were the accusations from her critics, twenty-five years ago upon the release of “Jagged Little Pill”. They had baffled me then, in their reservations against a surely indelible and spectacular artist—but now I understood where they were coming from.

I remember hearing people flatly say her music was “whiny” and an outlet for complaining—rather than profound and cathartic, as millions of fans attested. Her most famous critics declared her hackneyed and contrived; I could hear it in the instrumentation now—often, it sounded more like an imitation of rock music than actual  rock music, if that makes sense. It was too slick and mannered for its own good. A sophisticated ear is a tall order for a fourteen year old; what was my excuse for the last twenty years? Maybe when I listened to her music between then and now, it was clouded by my own nostalgic attachment to it.

Morissette’s credibility was always suspect from the start: prior to “Jagged Little Pill”, she’d released two strictly dance-pop albums that were indicative of their time: the early 1990s. Her about-face with “Pill” as an alternative rock singer was suspiciously convenient, a few years later at the peak of the grunge phenomenon. That she collaborated with veteran music producer Glen Ballard—who was accomplished but best known for polished pop rather than rock music—only perpetuated doubts of Alanis’ “rock” status. Honestly, this theoretical calculation on her part wouldn’t have bugged me, except that she didn’t pull it off artistically after all.

It’s telling that Morissette never repeated her success with “Pill”—commercially or artistically, ever again. Not that an artist should replicate their style or subject repeatedly, but she never attained the same relevance even on a strictly esoteric or artistic level. Her follow-up album came the closest, but even now it suffers from a similar quality as its behemoth predecessor: inhabiting a dubious sonic limbo between art and entertainment. In fact, all of her subsequent albums shared this trait. That was no accident.

It’s no wonder that no matter how beloved and entrenched “Jagged Little Pill” is in popular culture, it rarely if ever landed on any of those contentious, retrospective “Best of” lists from presumably serious music critics. Those dissertations always lent themselves to debate, which is why their unanimous omission of this album is all the more telling: and rarely debated!

Don’t get me wrong—I still think Alanis Morissette’s music has merit, but her music is tantamount to a blockbuster movie: it may become a beloved fixture in popular culture, but it’s not necessarily the finest example of its medium. In many ways, it’s no less valuable for bearing this quality, and there’s no shame in liking it. I will always have a place in my heart for her brand of music, just like I do with other fun pop music, blockbuster films, or cheesy TV shows. They all serve a purpose. Twenty-five years later, I may have changed, but I can still laud this landmark album for its most consistent quality: a pivotal moment in pop culture—for me, and the millions of fans that made it one of the biggest albums of all time.

Fiona Apple: A Ranking of Her Albums

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It feels like a milestone with Fiona Apple’s new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Maybe because of the relief it spells for us in our unprecedented times of ambiguity during a global pandemic, or because it’s her fifth album—rounding out a full discography that officially spans four decades in this new year, or maybe every album feels like a milestone from the famously reclusive singer who has solidified a slow pace of artistic output with her last release, in 2012.

For all of these reasons, it feels warranted to geek out over Apple’s music—with that most irresistible and contentious of efforts: a list. With five albums under her belt now, Apple’s catalogue feels ripe for a ranking of this very discography. It’s all the more tempting because it’s no easy feat, considering how ingenious her music has consistently been these last four decades: how would you rank her albums from best to worst, or in her case: best to almost as best?

  1. The Idler Wheel… Her 2012 release has been aptly described as “distilled” Fiona. It best showcases her artistic sensibility, style, and skill in top form. Although the piano was synonymous with her identity and music at the start of her career, and still is—The Idler Wheel… transcended instrumentation, literally: its pared down sonic landscape was a stark departure from Apple’s prior albums, but her lyrics and melodies were instantly recognizable—and an extension as well, showing her artistic growth. These assets were brought to the foreground, and were always Apple’s greatest strengths. Songs like “Anything We Want”, “Hot Knife” and “Every Single Night” were as rich and potent as any music with multitudes more instrumentation. It’s her most consistent record, without a single weak track. Apple was at her peak: the songs don’t aim to be catchy, but the melodies are indelible anyway. It’s the perfect balance of artistic and accessible.
  2. When the Pawn… – Apple’s sophomore album was also an impressive balance of rich melodies and artistic innovation. In many respects, it’s her most satisfying album because it operates on all cylinders: it features beautiful production values, potent lyrics, and inventive sounds. It’s no wonder that this appears to be the fan favorite, from what I’ve read online—myself included. It draws from several influences and weaves it into a rich tapestry that can be sung along to, while also digested for its lyrical meaning: classic rock, hip-hop, show tunes, and spare piano torch songs. “Paper Bag” remains one of her best songs for good reasons: it’s lyrically and melodically taut yet bursting with ripe instrumentation that includes a brass section. “I Know” is one of her loveliest songs—a quiet, infectious meditation on adoration and contentment. When the Pawn… is the complete package.
  3. Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Undoubtedly her least pretty album, but perhaps because it’s the sequential last step in her artistic progression thus far: her most revealing, in a career that always prioritized revelation. Similar to her 2012 release, it moved even further from instrumentation and focused more on lyrics and themes. The result is a palpably cathartic album that marries deeply personal experiences with the primal impulse for release: pure art. What the melodies lack in accessibility, they make up in sheer urgency and authenticity—they’re like chants you made up in the schoolyard as you faced down bullies, or while you lounged quietly in the privacy of your home. They pulse with vitality. “Ladies”, “Heavy Balloon”, and “Relay” touch on themes like jealousy, betrayal, and mental health without being didactic or heavy-handed.
  4. Tidal – Her most accessible album for its sheer sonic gloss, it features her most catchy songs like “Criminal”, “Sleep to Dream”, and “Shadowboxer”. The seemingly surface beauty of these songs is not a detriment to their accomplishments. They sound as vibrant and relevant today as they did a quarter of a century ago. This album is ranked lower than her others only because an artist like Fiona can only improve with age, and starting from 18 years old at that, as she was when this album was released in 1996. The lyrics are not as mature as her subsequent albums, naturally, but the melodies and gorgeous piano-laden instrumentations aid them in their appeal.
  5. Extraordinary Machine – This was always my least favorite album, perhaps because it sounded less urgent and distinctive than the rest. There are a few classic gems that exemplify what I love most about Apple: “Parting Gift” is what she did best at the time: a girl with a piano singing about love askew; “Waltz: Better than Fine” is a throwback, reminiscent of her preceeding album’s foray into classic show tune influences. The rest of the album justified Apple’s talents, but there was a whimsical instrumentation and mood to this album that, though shouldn’t be synonymous with inferiority, was less appealing.

‘Bolt Cutters’ Opens Wounds, Stretches Boundaries of Music

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Fiona Apple has increasingly stretched the boundaries of music with each release, so that it’s no longer driven by artifice but absolute remove. Her new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is nothing if not a natural progression for the famously reclusive singer then, who has established a slow-drip pattern of releasing material. It may be her most riveting album yet, which is a feat she’s secured with each release in a career that now spans four decades.

Apple starts the album with opener “I Want You to Love Me”, one of its more deceptively conventional tracks. Backed by pretty piano keys that invoke gentle blue skies, she coos with the rich alto fans have long recognized. However, the next track “Shameika” is more indicative of the album’s ethos: lacking a catchy chorus, Apple’s lyrics fixate on one vague line: “Shameika said I had potential”—and repeats it dozens of times by song’s end, no less decipherable with piano keys that clatter like drums.

By the third and fourth tracks—the title song and a ditty entitled “Under the Table”—the heavy, percussive, thread-bone instrumentation and Apple’s idiosyncratic musings threatened to put off even a lifelong fan like me, who essentially grew up with her music when were both teenagers at the dawn of her career in 1996. I’d been prepped by press releases that referenced an incendiary, stark track, “Hot Knife”, from her previous album, 2012’s The Idler Wheel… as a precursor to this album, but was still thrown for a loop—and I loved that track.

I pressed on, and to my chagrin fell for “Ladies”, which is most reminiscent of Apple’s earlier, more accessible work: swooning, lilting melodies with high production values and best of all, Apple’s voice at peak beauty. If one wants a pretty melody though, Apple is no slouch in that department either. “Ladies” is lovely, and shouldn’t be ashamed to be.

Suffice it to say, Cutters is not a pretty record though; but upon repeat listens, it’s certainly not easy to ignore either. After the tentative first round, I was drawn back to it and was able to hear it on its own terms. This is not a typical Fiona Apple record, but it’s that very ornery defiance that makes it an utterly typical Fiona Apple record.

The new album is like an exotic meal you try once—discovering that it’s not doused in sugar or spice or anything immediately definable—then you end up craving it for weeks after. That it also happens to be nutritious is only a bonus—this is music of and for the soul.

“Reinvention” is a cheesy word and would never apply to Apple, but the 42-year old singer has avoided repeating herself since arriving at the tender age of 18 in the only decade she could have gotten traction in: the 1990’s, when it was last plausible for a sad-looking and even sadder-sounding musician to go triple platinum, as she did.

Her debut, Tidal, was disarmingly honest and haunting, but with a pop sheen that she would never rely on again. She quickly dispelled all mounting doubts of being a fluke with her 1999 follow-up, When the Pawn… confidently establishing herself as a true sophisticate with a penchant for timeless melodies and mature craftsmanship on par with her hero, John Lennon. 2005’s Extraordinary Machine expanded her sound and conceptual reaches even more, and 2012’s The Idler Wheel… was her most innovative work yet: stripped down to sonic essentials, it only showcased her lyrical and melodic ingenuity further.

In hindsight, this discography set the stage for Cutters, which rests entirely on something Apple was never short of and still isn’t: authenticity. What draws the listener to the album isn’t escapism, so much as exorcism—of inner demons, anxieties, and revelations that have been percolating under the surface for years or even decades.

Much has already been written about the timely themes that permeate the tracks: Apple’s quest to give voice to the silent majority that still finds itself at the whims of an ostensibly masculine world. However, Apple has always held men accountable for their actions from the onset of her career. That she does so to this day is perhaps most revealing, politically, now. She also clearly ruminates on the tricky nature of female friendships in several songs on Cutters, which is new in her catalogue.  “A girl could roll her eyes at me and kill,” she laments gingerly in the title track, needing no more explanation for the adolescent hell that still haunts most adults.

Chants, wordless vocalizing, and half-speaking fill the album—invariably centered on a phrase that does not belong in Top 40. They’re cathartic only in the capable hands of Apple: “Kick me under the table, I won’t shut up”, she repeats like a petulant preteen. It oddly becomes a mantra, not just literally but for its sheer attitude.

“I spread like strawberries/ I climb like peas and beans”, Apple shouts with conviction in “Heavy Balloon”, invoking a startlingly earthy and esoteric metaphor—a reference from a children’s book that described how the aforementioned flora grows.

It’s not to say that the album is devoid of indelible sounds. Aside from the more conventional tracks mentioned, “Hot Balloon” rouses with a pulsating percussive splash that seems to belie its meditation on depression. The title track has a serene, lazy, almost calypso-style lilt. “Under the Table” has perhaps the catchiest chorus, accented by a shimmering piano loop. “Cosmonaut” recalls the whimsical, melodic instrumentation of her mid-career albums.

Underscoring the visceral quality of this album, it was notable how relieving it was for me to listen to a pure, unabashed pop song from the rest of my itunes playlist afterwards. It made me appreciate that sort of music even more—while also simultaneously appreciating Fetch the Bolt Cutters more. There is a time for each urge; if I want unvarnished authenticity and raw muse literally caught on tape for secondhand witness, I will press play on this album repeatedly.

25th Anniversary: ‘Live Through This’ album review

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The rumors about Courtney Love were true: her band’s second album is brilliant. From the deceptively underplayed riffs of opening song “Violet” to its explosive chorus with Love’s rebel yell backed by her four-piece band, Hole laid the groundwork for an album that flexed considerable muscle for the then-peak alternative rock movement. It will stand as one of the genre’s seminal works.

The elephant in the room is neither ignored, pointedly demolished, or obsessed over on this album: can a woman rock legitimately, without negating her femininity?

Love wins, because she has it both ways: she’s so good her gender’s not even relevant, which makes the revelation all the more relevant. She’s a natural: charismatic, dangerous, cocky, defiant, funny, tender, and poetic. That she happens to wear baby doll dresses is moot.

And the answer is a resounding yes: feminine themes are laced throughout the album’s lyrics and sound, but not at the expense of the genre’s nihilism. Just as Love’s voice can command and dominate with raspy force, it can flirt and dance with a showgirl’s glee.

‘I am the girl you know can look you in the eye,’ Love boasts in the raucous first single, “Miss World”. Mixing her favorite concepts of glamour and destruction, the song nakedly implores ‘Watch me break/And watch me burn’, before crunching everything under a guttural chorus: ‘I made my bed and I lie in it’.

Most of the album employs this soft/hard dynamic that dominates the genre, with a few heavy exceptions. “Plump” churns hard guitar riffs like gunfire while Love subverts feminine expectations: ‘I don’t do the dishes/I throw them in the crib.’ “Jennifer’s Body” skitters edgily along until exploding into power pop/rock riffs rivaling any hard-rock contemporaries.

Elsewhere, the slow-burn cautionary tale “Doll Parts” lays down its lyrical and stylistic groundwork so expertly without a hint of artiness: an artist’s dream in the form of twentieth century grunge rock. ‘Someday you will ache like I ache,’ Love forewarns in the chorus, changing the inflection slightly at every reprise until it bears multiple meanings.

A lone guitar riff periodically accents the throbbing bass showcase of the album’s quietest song, “Softer. Softest”, titillating you just as you’re being soothed by the song’s languid spell. It’s these simple but unexpected sonic twists that captivate and challenge listeners.

Throughout the album, we’re reminded again of the ineffable power of music—what can be achieved by the arrangement of chords and beats from a few instruments in different variations. No matter how crude and humble the parts are the sum can be transcendent.

The album’s lyrics alone are exemplary too—born from the best conversations neo-philosophers dream of and budding screenwriters would sacrifice a rent check for: ‘If you live through this with me/I swear that I will die for you’, begs the song “Asking for It”.  ‘I fake it so real I am beyond fake,’ Love concedes in “Doll Parts”. ‘I don’t really miss God/But I sure miss Santa Clause,’ quips “Gutless”. None of the lines feel precious or pretentious, furthering their impact.

Like the lead singer herself though, it’s not an easy album to accept at face value. Its compelling sheen is on alternative-rock terms; this is not your grandmother’s female rock star. Many music fans will simply not bear the palette to welcome it, and it’s their loss.

For fans of alternative rock and true music connoisseurs, however, it is undeniable. “Live Through This” is a stroke of genius in its sonic dynamics, thematic scope, and lyrical potency. It’s rife with excoriating ruminations set to indelible hooks that seduce and assault you simultaneously, daring you to embrace and question yourself and the world—like the best rock music does.

Album Review: Radiohead’s ‘Moon Shaped Pool’ is One-of-a-Kind Art Rock

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The album cover art for Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool is a fitting metaphor for the music within: a corrosive, abstract form that defies definition. It is the venerable band’s most oblique and sonically dense record, from their catalog that has consistently defied musical categorization.

It’s easy to get lost in the theorizing of the mystique and motives of such an artistically lauded band instead of focusing on the work that propelled them into such a position in the first place. Their new album stands on its own as a musical work of art, and an admirable extension to their ambitions and abilities as musicians, writers, and artists that have been in the public domain for a quarter of a century now.

The first response I had to the album was not immediate devotion as a fan, but a caveat: it was not outwardly accessible, even for a band that never aimed for such a feat. For a fan, it threw me.

Listened to on a cursory level, the eleven-song cycle could be condensed to obtuse whispers, hushed strings, and formless melodies—all wind and sail, with no immediate soul or beat to anchor one’s mind to. Or so I thought.

Like some records we’ve doubtless encountered, I had to be in the right headspace to receive it. And like the muse behind art, there is no formula for discovering the beauty behind art. It simply arrives on its own.

When it occurred, I found myself intoxicated with ineffable fascination at the album’s sonic landscape. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood was the prime force behind the songs’ use of haunting choruses and emotive strings, imbuing the album with a strange and indescribable beauty that singled it out from any other albums I’ve ever listened to in the rock genre.

Whether it was merely artifice or thematic ingenuity, I found myself quietly stunned and enraptured, like a zealot hearing his gospel at church. If music stirs you instinctually or cerebrally or both, it’s done its job.

The opening track and first single, “Burn the Witch” is the most conventionally structured song in the album. Buoyed by a fast, frightening string section straight out of an arty horror film, it’s a tense and urgent tune that gives way to a far more oblong musical journey afterwards.

“Daydreaming” follows—a languid, sleepy meditation that lead singer Thom Yorke has essentially been writing since OK Computer in 1997. It’s a summation of all the fears, dreads, and wonders the band persistently chases throughout their discography, providing new insights each time with each new phase they enter.

“Decks Dark” perhaps best encapsulates the album’s musical identity: an anomalous hybrid of harrowing archaic choir, weaving strings, Yorke’s croon, and ebullient keyboards. Even if the voice and lyrics aren’t articulate, the emotion is there—it’s all in the sound.

Another track, “The Numbers”, is a heightened version of this combination, propelling the sensation of strings and conventional rock instrumentations into new levels of hysteria and transcendence.

Elsewhere, there are more familiar sounds that Radiohead fans will recognize: “Ful Stop” seeps in quietly, building on a searing guitar loop that crescendos periodically through the cacophony of Yorke’s falsetto wails and shimmering noises.

“Present Tense” is a rollicking, acoustic guitar-driven track that is reminiscent of the band’s prolific first decade of the new millennium. It is no less riveting for being familiar: a plaintive, yearning ode that hooks you throughout its tense course.

Lastly, the album closes with a tune that has batted around the Radiohead canon for two decades now, as a fan favorite at concerts—only officially appearing on the band’s Live EP I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordingsin 2001. Now, “True Love Waits” is punctuated with muted piano chords and lilting keyboard effects. For a fan of the poignant, acoustic guitar-centered live version, it was initially unnerving. But in the context of this searing album, it is fitting. The somber, sedate take feels earned: wary yet hopeful, shattered but enthralled by the wonders of feeling, it’s a serene close to an otherworldly journey.