Welcome back to IRL, our series dedicated to the things that Engadget writers have been playing, using, watching and listening to. This week we're focusing on music and podcasts, from Sia's Christmas album through to Rihanna's stunning Anti. First up, executive editor Dana Wollman on the joy of listening to other people's problems.
Where Should We Begin?
The premise for the podcast Where Should We Begin? is simple and compelling: A noted psychologist (Esther Perel) records couples' therapy sessions, for your listening pleasure. The series, which launched earlier this year as an Audible exclusive, is now available on the more popular Apple Podcasts, with a new episode of the first season dropping each Friday. As you might expect, the brave couples in question are anonymous, with any identifying details edited out. And the experience of listening in on them is just as voyeuristic as you'd hope.
Each week presents a new vignette. The couples are diverse in both age and dilemmas, with problems that include sexlessness, the monotony of caring for small kids and, in more than one case, the aftermath of infidelity. Because each episode is billed as a "one-time" counseling session, it's never clear what became of the couple. To my ears, it is the aural equivalent of a short story: You drop in on these characters mid-narrative and take leave of them before there's necessarily a conclusion. Did he forgive her for cheating? Can they learn to find sexual compatibility? That we doesn't know feels appropriate: If there's a theme underlying the series, it's that there are no easy answers, relationships are hard, and everyone, even the unfaithful, is ultimately human.
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I like "Deck the Halls" and "Frosty the Snowman" as much as any other joyous holiday tunes, but it's easy to get burned out on the same Christmas songs you hear dozens of times every year before the actual holiday. Thankfully, the pop mastery of Sia is here to save us from another year of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" for the 784th time. Indeed, the singer-songwriter's Everyday Is Christmas isn't an album full of traditional selections -- and that's a gift we can all enjoy this year.
Sure, these hooks may not be as catchy as the skill that's on display in nearly every corner of 2016's This Is Acting, but the songs here are still super well done. Standouts for me are "Ho Ho Ho" (admittedly because it's about booze), "Sunshine" and "Underneath the Mistletoe." Sia's unique vocal sound and a break from tradition are what make this entire album a winner, though, if I'm honest. If you're familiar with the singer's previous work, you know what to expect here in terms of sound: an even mix of bombastic sing-along pop choruses and swooning ballads. Of course, because these songs aren't so familiar, it'll take a few listens before you'll actually be singing along, but that's just fine with me.
I get it: There's a limit to how much Mannheim Steamroller, Michael Bublé or Trans Siberian Orchestra you can hear before you start to go insane. It also doesn't help that even if your favorite artist released a holiday album, it's probably the same songs you're bombarded with from Halloween until Christmas Day. If you enjoy that, no judgment here, but I can take only so much of the same stuff before I'm ready to bang my head on the table. And I really don't want to destroy another festive centerpiece.
Blue Lips isn't the album to listen to on the way to family holiday parties or stuffy office gift exchanges. This is the music to blast as you drive away from all of the garlands, gravy, ugly sweaters and sweets, heading home or back to your hotel, or to the end of your favorite bar. Blue Lips is heady, sensual and rich. It's ideal for introspective fantasy; it's an escape in electropop form.
Tove Lo has a gift for crafting entire worlds in each of her songs, inviting the listener into scenes spinning with sex, drugs, love and dancing. Blue Lips is a celebration of skin and sweat, and all of the emotions that combination can spawn. It's an honest experience: Tove Lo sings repeatedly, unabashedly, about her love of lust, but this isn't a Disney star attempting to prove to the world how much she's grown up. Tove Lo is confident and comfortable in her own sensuality, and a haze of relaxed maturity permeates the album.
Though it touches on themes of heartbreak and loss, Blue Lips is overwhelmingly optimistic. Behind the driving bass and synth beats, Tove Lo paints brilliant, relatable landscapes of lights flashing across dance floors, intimate moments between lovers and late nights with friends. The album is filled with a restrained kind of joy, winking at the darkness while simultaneously soaking up the light. Hedonic and dance-inducing, Blue Lips is incredibly easy to listen to -- maybe just don't call it "easy."
No Such Thing As a Fish
My trivia team was headed for yet another third-place finish when one of our ringers suggested a podcast filled with trivia. On paper, listening to strangers yak on about unrelated facts sounds like asinine torture. But it turns out some folks out there love my flavor of useless information. No Such Thing As a Fish is a damn near perfect weekly serving of knowledge in a reasonable chunk of time. For proof, I'll present its positive qualities in a neat four-point list:
- The four lovably British hosts (Dan, James, Anna and Andy) each serve up one fact per episode, which they riff on and follow up with related trivia. That means you'll probably end up with 12 to 16 unique nuggets of info to share with peers during the half hour you slack off at work every day.
- The facts span a bizarre range. A recent episode featured Roaring Twenties president Calvin Coolidge's robotic horse, the inventor of email, and which language it's easiest to speak while drunk. You'll be able to impress somebody.
- Each episode runs around 35 to 45 minutes, which is a bit longer than the average US commute of 25 minutes -- but that extra bumper time means you'll finish an episode between when you walk out your door and finally sit at your desk.
- You'll learn something. I'm serious. If school had presented randomly chosen information from a quartet of snarky enthusiasts, I would've paid attention.
Timothy J. Seppala
Rihanna's Anti is the dark pop album I've been looking for all year. I'm aware that it came out in 2016, but I didn't happen upon it until over the weekend, after some good-natured prodding from features editor Aaron Souppouris. Now I'm obsessed. Barring her wedding anthem with Calvin Harris — "We Found Love" — I've always liked Rihanna's singles but was pretty content with surface-level appreciation. I'm now realizing what a mistake that's been.
Every song on Anti could be a single, really. And despite an army of producers, each song feels like a part of a cohesive whole. Anti is an album that takes the listener on a journey from reggae-infused opener "Consideration" to "Desperado," four tracks later, all the way to the closing combo of "Pose" and "Sex with Me." Acoustic singer-songwriter songs like "Never Ending" sit comfortably alongside the doo-wop/soul single "Love on the Brain."
Even lead single "Work," with its Drake guest spot, feels surprisingly not out of place on the same album as piano ballad "Close to You." What's tying everything together is a damn near tangible sense of desperation in Rihanna's voice. The production isn't nearly as clean or polished as Taylor Swift's Reputation or Katy Perry's Witness, but Anti has something that neither of those albums has: heart.
Anti was the Barbadian singer's first album on Jay-Z's Roc Nation label, and she seemed bound and determined to make a statement with it. It's at once abrasive, beautiful, confident and vulnerable (on "Woo," specifically) at nearly every turn. Here's a singer who's been making music professionally for 14 years, has more than 30 Billboard Top Ten hits and dozens of awards under her belt, and has reinvented her sound multiple times, with nary a misstep, putting her entire career on display. Yet Anti was skipped over for a Best Album nod from the Grammys. If you've been left flat by this year's efforts from the reigning pop queens, you should revisit Anti just to see what happens when pop loses its plasticky veneer.
"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.