By Gregg Shapiro
Queer singer/songwriter Sia has been messing with her appearance on her album covers for years. It didn’t just start with 2014’s 1000 Forms of Fear or either version of 2016’s This Is Acting. (2010’s We Are Born had her face peppered with colored dots and colorful pipe cleaners were woven into her hair, making her look like a hipster Medusa.) All of this visual creativity can be traced back to her third album, 2008’s Some People Have Real Problems (Monkey Puzzle/Concord), newly reissued in its first-ever vinyl pressing. On the cover, Sia is grasping a trio of Magic Markers with which she has drawn a heart and lines on her face. As for what’s contained inside, the songs on Some People Have Real Problems marked something of a turning point for Sia. Sounding more confident than ever, in total control of her powerful instrument, Sia belts out original numbers such as “The Girl You Lost to Cocaine,” “Day Too Soon,” a cover of The Kinks’ “I Go to Sleep,” and the CD hidden track “Buttons” (included on the LP). She’s also joined by Beck on “Academia” and “Death by Chocolate.” It’s easy to understand why, shortly after the release of this album, she not only became an increasingly in-demand guest vocalist on other people’s albums, but also a sought-after songwriter who would go on to provide a multitude of hit songs for others.
King of the key change, the newly officially out Barry Manilow has released one of his best albums in many years. While the news of Manilow’s gayness might have shocked only a few devoted Fanilows, few can dispute his longstanding love affair with his hometown, which he celebrates affectionately on This Is My Town: Songs of New York (Decca). A career high, Manilow’s schmaltzy vibrato is put to good use on this soaring set of originals and covers. The best of the Manilow tunes includes the show-stopping title cut and the bright and bouncy “Coney Island,” as well as “I Dig New York” and “On the Roof.” Manilow still has decent interpretive skills, as you can hear on the “Downtown/Uptown” pairing, the Bernstein/Comden Green composition “Lonely Town,” and the eight-song “NYC Medley” that is as jam-packed as a rush-hour subway car.
To call the phenomenal No Shape (Matador) by the brilliant Perfume Genius (aka Mike Hadreas) his most accessible album to date is really saying something, but it’s true. No Shape sounds like an altogether more soulful effort that by no means abandons the subversive nature of his previous albums such as 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It (including the song “Hood,” which featured the now-deceased gay porn-star Arpad Miklos in the video) and 2014’s Too Bright (featuring the incredible single “Queen”). There is another side to opener “Otherside,” and listeners would be wise to take note as it erupts from the speakers. “Slip Away” is the first of the album’s most irresistible future-pop numbers, as are “Wreath,” the stunning “Sides” (a duet with Weyes Blood), and the modern soul of “Die 4 You.” Also not to be missed are “Alan,” “Just Like Love,” and “Choir.” Perfume Genius (along with Car Seat Headrest, Frank Ocean, John Grant, Shamir, and a few others) is redefining queer male pop music and setting the stage for what’s to come.
Palehound, led by Ellen Kempner, returns with their outstanding second album A Place I’ll Always Go (Polyvinyl). Kempner is a lesbian singer/songwriter in the vein of straight artists Elliott Smith (listen to “If You Met Her”) and Liz Phair (ditto for “Silver Toaster”), as well as queer contemporaries SOAK and Tegan and Sara. A song cycle of love and loss, the album features distinguished songs including the aforementioned “If You Met Her,” as well as “Room,” “Turning 21,” “Flowing Over,” and the heart-wrenching “Feeling Fruit” followed by “At Night I’m All Right with You,” which conjures Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise (just in time for the Twin Peaks revival).
Young, queer “nu-folk” goddess Marika Hackman and guest backing band the Big Moon raise a ruckus on Hackman’s second album I’m Not Your Man (Sub Pop). Opening with a laugh, and inviting listeners in on the joke, “Boyfriend” is the musical equivalent of Gloria Steinem’s “like a fish needs a bicycle” quote. The only difference is that you can dance to “Boyfriend.” A close chum of queer model/actress Cara Delavigne, Hackman explores a range of female relationships throughout the album, and songs including “Good Intentions,” “Gina’s World,” “Time’s Been Reckless,” “Eastbound Train,” “So Long,” and the incredible “My Lover Cindy” earn Hackman the distinction of releasing one of the best albums of the year.
Produced by Viktor Krauss (brother of Alison), Love Comes Back Around (Graylin) by lesbian singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp (who famously began her career in Christian music) is the third album she has released as an openly queer artist. Now back in Nashville after living in Australia for several years, Knapp can be heard embracing her country side. Songs such as the title tune, “Girl Thing,” “Roll Over Me,” and “Roman Holiday” are among Knapp’s mostly out-and-proud numbers.
You might not expect to find alt-metal band Linkin Park in a column about LGBTQ music, but here they are. The explanation goes like this: the band’s 2012 album Living Things featured a collaboration with gay singer/songwriter Owen Pallett on the song “I’ll Be Gone.” Five years later, Linkin Park’s new album One More Light (WB) features another unexpected collaboration. The song “Heavy,” featuring vocals by Kiiara, was co-written by gay hit pop songwriter Justin Tranter. That song, along with “Sorry for Now” and a few others on the album, are distinct departures from Linkin Park’s trademark rap/rock sound.
Take One Thing Off
This 21-track album intermingles a hysterical standup set at an underground Los Angeles comedy theater with songs “loosely mapped over my life in New York,” the queer musical comedian says. “There’s a track for when I arrived, a track for when I started working as a go-go dancer, a big breakup in the middle, and my departure for L.A. The idea for the album to be its own little show.” And what a show it is! Blue Élan Records (blueelan.com).—Suzie Lynde
With the title purposefully chosen a nod to the theatrical calling that shaped her (“When I hear them say ‘places everyone,’ I know it’s show time,” Michele says), the record glows as the kind of resonant “statement” her loyal fans have been waiting for. Personal and performance-centric, the 11-song album showcases her expansive range and signature vocal gradations that enrich the dynamics of a song and get to the heart of its narrative. Columbia Records (columbiarecords.com).—Troy Carrington