I don’t mind being backed into a corner to fight on behalf of a musician or their work.
In an era of overzealous fans, or “stans,” I’ve often rallied behind an artist’s more questionable choices or what I felt was an overlooked gem from their discography. I’m not above blasting the sax intro to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me” at a dismissive friend.
There’s also some honor in defending the toilet sounds that appear halfway through one of Yoko Ono’s avant-garde albums. (That would be “Toilet Piece.” It’s 30 seconds of a toilet being flushed. It’s also a funny interlude, I swear.)
This week, the NewsHour asked its staff for recommendations of music they’ve had to fight for against a chorus of detractors. Some chose maligned albums, dissed artists, and even whole genres that maybe don’t get enough respect. (What monster actively chides jazz?) In their words:
OK, cue the haters, but I love show tunes. Sure, I have a range of other fave genres and go-to playlists, including classic rock, indie rock, danceable pop and ‘90s hip-hop, but when I’m in the mood to feel the feels, and especially if I’m alone in my car or kitchen and want to sing along, I turn to Broadway.
From the stalwarts like “West Side Story,” to deep cuts like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love,” to contemporary, instant-classics like “Dear Evan Hansen,” I am a sucker for a dramatic plot, a clever turn of phrase, a toe-tapping melody, and a belting ballad. If you’ve not heard Cy Coleman’s “City of Angels,” you’re missing out on some delicious fun.
“Les Miserables” always brings a tear and sends goosebumps during the sweeping final verse of Jean Valjean’s “Who Am I” or the heart-achingly beautiful “Bring Him Home.” Every. Time. A lot of people find show tunes too cloyingly sweet or unsophisticated musically — and I see why. But the heart wants what the heart wants.
— Sara Just, executive producer
“The Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory” soundtrack
“The Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory” soundtrack is an album about sins and snakebites and outlaws, about comfort in a whiskey bottle and debts to pay in Santa Fe. Jon Bon Jovi howls his way through cowboy songs with names like “Justice in a Barrel,” “Dyin’ Ain’t Much of a ‘Livin,” and my very favorite: “Blood Money.”
The lyrics are truly terrible. Like this: “I’ve been broke and I’ve been hungry/ I think they’re both my middle name.” Or this: “I could be as gentle as a newborn/ Then spit into the eye of a hurricane.” Um, what? “Jovi couldn’t bluff his way west of Newark with these lyrics,” Rolling Stone wrote in its 1990 review.
Oh but the romance of it all. Somehow, in the early 1990s, the lyrics really spoke to this white, suburban California preteen. They understood me. I was lonesome as a jukebox, too. There was fire running through my veins, too. I, too, could “kick this bad world’s ass if I could just get on my feet.” I was, after all, “just another man searching for a better way.”
— Jenny Marder, digital managing editor
Released after their breakthrough “Black Album,” “Load” had a lot of old-school Metallica fans tearing their impressively long hair out. The thrash metal sound of “Master of Puppets” and “Ride the Lightning” was replaced with a weird, alt-rock metal sound. The band also cut their hair.
I personally love this album and its companion “Reload.” James Hetfield expanded his singing range and started writing more thoughtful, introspective lyrics. He seemed right at home in country-infused songs like “Mama Said” and “Ronnie.” Some of the Load’s songs are classics. “King Nothing” is a fantastic metal song and “Bleeding Me” might be a Top 5 Metallica song. “Load” is no “Master of Puppets” and not all the songs are winners, but I think its highs are worth its lows.
— Michael Boulter, news assistant
Reba McEntire’s “Rumor Has It”
I’ve always loved Reba McEntire’s album “Rumor Has It’ and specifically “Fancy” as a song, but I adopted it as almost a personal anthem after I moved away from home, to Washington, D.C. — a place where it’s hard to hit a solid country music station on your radio dial.
I belt it out while stuck in Beltway traffic; it’s a song about an outsider who made good, and also references a mother selling her daughter off as a prostitute. That storyline has earned criticism from some people I hold near and dear, who wonder what kind of message it sends. But Fancy’s grit and refusal to submit to the expectations of the world (“I mighta been born just plain white trash but Fancy was my name!”) ignites a fire in me every time I hear it.
— Laura Santhanam, data producer
Liz Phair (with a special nod to Kesha)
Long car rides with a jazz-bass-playing husband and hip-hop-obsessed 13-year-old son are an exercise in persistence for my 10-year-old daughter and me. If it’s going to take three hours to get where we’re going, the males in the family will probably grudgingly consent to one or two runs through Kesha’s “Rainbow.”
But last month my son wouldn’t give in:
Boy: No, not Kesha. Hell no, never.
Mom: You know, someday you might meet a girl who wants to listen to Kesha with you.
What Kesha’s “Rainbow” really brings back is fond memories of my formative years: The Breeders, Chrissie Hynde and my all-time favorite, Liz Phair.
I still sneak Liz Phair into the family playlist every once in a while. Most of the songs from “Exile in Guyville” are on pause until my daughter is older, but for now, we love to sing along to “Uncle Alvarez” from “Whitechocolatespaceegg.” Can’t explain. It’s just fun. It’s also when my son reaches for his headphones.
— Leah Clapman, managing editor, education
Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak”
By far it’s Mr. West’s most underrated body of work. In 2008, marked by the death of his mother Donda, West released his most vulnerable and emotional album. He bypassed the bombastic rap, hip-hop and R&B beats that defined his first three albums for a pop-electronic infusion.
Singing without reservation, he created auto-tuned masterpieces like “Say Your Will,” “Street Lights,” “Welcome to Heartbreak,” and “Paranoid.” Not only did the album lay the foundation for West’s best album to date, “My Beautiful Dark Fantasy,” but also became the bedrock for hip-hop music today. Rappers like Drake and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee and Kami constantly channel Kanye’s reckless sing-song style. It may not be his best album, but it transformed him as an artist and our taste for music as listeners.
— Jasmine Wright, reporter/producer
Kanye West’s “Yeezus”
Not since John Lennon’s proclamation that the Beatles are bigger than Jesus has a pop star been as blasphemous as Kanye on his sixth studio album. “Yeezus” is abrasive and in-your-face. It’s Kanye at his best, declaring with no shame that he “is a god.” In “Blood on the Leaves,” which samples Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” Kanye the producer shines through. The album is brutal in its sound and its subject matter, ranging from consumerism and black culture to his own discomfort in his relationship with women, despite his marriage and new baby daughter. Unlike his previous albums, there was no radio hit like on “College Dropout” or “Graduation,” no genre-changing masterpiece like all of “808s & Heartbreak.” And it certainly was not like its predecessor, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which cemented Kanye among the greats in the genre.
In “Yeezus,” there is an obvious desire to reject and redefine what a successful or popular record should sound like look like. The record confronts uncomfortable topics like misogyny, insecurities and modern-day racism. And it doesn’t allow for the listener to get complacent, from the abrupt production in “New Slaves” when Kanye’s verse over a minimalistic beat drum rolls into a melodic Frank Ocean outro, to the sparse and jarring “Send It Up.” It’s bold, brash, and as anti-establishment as one of the biggest pop stars on the planet could sound.
— Jessica Yarvin, production assistant
As a teenage girl in the mid-2000s, catching “1D fever” was a rite of passage, one that came with the burden of defending “that silly girl music” for the rest of my life. Now, I don’t care if you don’t like One Direction’s music, but too often I find myself defending the band — and its members who’ve since gone solo after the band’s hiatus — against critics who claim their music is insipid or talentless for the sole reason that its primary audience is teen girls. As if young women can’t possibly like “good” music?
I think One Direction’s Harry Styles said it best, “Who’s to say that young girls … have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? [Young girls are] our future — our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.”
— Lora Strum, audience engagement specialist
In a time of social upheaval and legalized marijuana, you would think reggae music would be resurgent. Bob Marley and his “Redemption Song” feels like an anthem for resistance in this era. There were so many iconic reggae stars and hits when I was in high school and college in the ‘70s and ‘80s, like Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” or his “Vietnam.”
Why has Reggae dropped off the pop charts? We surely haven’t resolved the need for political protest music to bring people together, but you never hear it on the radio.
— William Swift, coordinating producer, Student Reporting labs
Walk along a sweaty summer avenue in New York City circa 2006, and you would have been hard pressed to miss this rapper’s raspy timber. What’s his mother-given name? Jeffrey Bruce Atkins — better known as Ja Rule.
At the turn of the century, as the era of radio singles seemed to make way for “complete” albums, Ja Rule remained firm, pumping out summer jam after summer jam. “Holla Holla,” “Between Me and You,” and “Put It on Me” … That’s just 1999 and 2000.
Many accuse Ja Rule of mimicking DMX, but when was the last time DMX did a duet with Jennifer Lopez or Ashanti? His series of duets reinforced the foundation of a rap-and-R&B flavor that continues to this very day. Put on the “I’m Real — Murder Remix” and I dare you to not sway your hips or bop your shoulders. Can’t be done.
But the next time the temperature rises about 80 degrees, I implore you to put those things aside, wind down the car windows and be mesmerized.
— Nsikan Akpan, digital producer, science
In general, country music is a hated-on genre, but Shania inspires a special kind of derision. Maybe it’s the leopard print, maybe it’s all the songs about being a woman, maybe it’s the success. Whatever it is, I grew up on Shania and will always defend her. She flipped gender stereotypes on their head (see “Honey I’m Home”), wrote epic love songs (listen to “You’re Still the One”), and bridged country and pop better than most (check out “Any Man of Mine,” which is also a kind of feminist anthem). Let’s go girls …
— Elizabeth Flock, reporter/producer
At first, Britney Spears appeared to be another manufactured popstar crooning tunes with typical themes of a dysfunctional desire for boys. But Spears both exemplifies and rejects that. She surprised me with tunes like ‘“Stronger,” singing, “I’m not your property … My loneliness ain’t killing me no more.”
And Spears is more than just the music. She was flung into the public eye at a young age, when social media was emerging. I remember when she publicly struggled with a divorce, a custody battle and addiction, and the paparazzi published photos of her tripping on her flip-flop. I can’t help but think that Spears created a roadmap for young starlets to be real. Songs where she sang, “I’m not that innocent,” or, “Not a girl, not yet a woman,” helped give women license to assert themselves, paving the way for stars like Katy Perry to sing, “I kissed a girl.”
And when she returned with the album “Blackout,” singing, “I’m Mrs. ‘Oh my God, That Britney’s Shameless’,” mocking those that love to hate her, I turned up the volume and pumped my fist.
— Teresa Carey, science and social media news fellow
James Taylor and Carole King
I grew up on James Taylor and Carole King and have always felt a need to say, “I’m not stuck in the past” when it comes to music. But Taylor and King are still relevant both in terms of their timeless lyrics and in their presentation. “Gone to Carolina” recalls for me off-season trips to Martha’s Vineyard with high school friends. “Tapestry” brings back beautiful memories of my mom and how we played that LP in my teen years until the vinyl was all scratched. “Sweet Baby James” pulled my heartstrings and I think there was something at work in my subconscious when my husband and I named our son James. (There was also some family tradition involved.)
I had the good fortune to take my mom and my then pre-teen daughter to see Taylor and King together in concert about six years ago and there’s a photo of the three generations together.
And three summers ago, when I pitched an interview with James Taylor, he accepted. We filmed him rehearsing with his band in a New York studio and it was magic. As his song goes, “Shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel.” And as Carole has sung, “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue, an everlasting vision of the ever-changing view.” To James and Carole — with no apologies.
— Anne Davenport, deputy senior producer
I grew up listening to the jazz greats, but when I got to elementary school, it had somehow become cool to hate the genre altogether. As an uncool daughter of uncool parents, I did not truly learn this until the fifth grade, when during a sleepover I told a group of classmates I liked Miles Davis. (Social. Suicide.)
It’s actually harder to hate jazz than you think. It’s a million little genres from a million little places. There’s blues and soul, Latin jazz and Afro jazz, Big Band and bebop, fusion, funk and the boisterous deep-belly bass of New Orleans. It’s spontaneous, evocative and always evolving. Rarely are two performances of the same song actually the same.
Critics have eulogized jazz over and over (and over) again — yet it always comes back. The 1990s brought A Tribe Called Quest, and even a brief, inexplicable explosion of “metallic jazzcore.” There was Amy Winehouse and the mainstream acceptance of soul-infused Sharon Jones and Trombone Shorty. Willie Nelson’s 2013 album“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” drew on hits from legendary jazz producer Booker T. Jones. In 2015, Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” leaned on jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington. David Bowie’s final album was backed by an impressive cast of jazz musicians, and Bob Dylan has launched a late-career revival of jazz standards. Jazz is in Erykah Badu, Chance’s “Coloring Book” and Beyonce’s country-crossover “Daddy Lessons.” Odds are you’ve been listening to some form of jazz all along without even knowing it.
— Erica R. Hendry, digital news editor
My pick is not so much a band that draws stark criticism, but one that’s often forgotten: Blind Melon. When I tell people it is one of my favorite groups, that’s frequently met with a quizzical look and the question, “The music video with the bee girl?”
Yes. Blind Melon’s break out hit was the song “No Rain” that features a girl dressed as a bee.
But the band, led by Shannon Hoon, has a rich collection of other songs that have been a big part of my listening life. Take a listen to Blind Melon’s performance of “Change” on David Letterman’s late-night show the day Kurt Cobain killed himself. Hoon, who also sang backup for Guns and Roses, also died young at the age of 28 in 1995.
— Mike Melia, senior broadcast producer
Carly Rae Jepsen
Most people only associate Carly Rae Jepsen with her 2011 breakout hit “Call Me Maybe,” dismissing her as just another bubblegum artist with a song that got too annoying too quickly. If you’ve never listened to her well-reviewed but commercially unsuccessful 2015 album “Emotion,” prepare your ears for pop perfection.
Her voice blends beautifully with the underlying synth sound that permeates the album, giving it a retro ‘80s vibe. You’ll be hooked from the first track.
— Sarah Seale, assistant to the general manager
Recent headlines such as, “Grow up Eminem, you’re 45 years old,” came after the self-made rapper-turned-vocal Trump critic drew a line in a viral music video, insinuating to his fans that it’s no longer possible to support both him and the president. For some, the song created yet another pique of political anxiety in our society. (Ironically, his song “Not Afraid” was played as a defeated Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore exited the stage after telling an audience it would be best for them not to wait up to see the election results.)
But in a way it made me remember that supporting this artist has always been controversial. I remind people of that from time to time, because in the end that’s what I’ve always admired about him: the ability to be unapologetically honest.
— Courtney Norris, production assistant, national affairs