3 Essential Listens: Panic, 5SOS, and Keiynan Lonsdale

2018 has proven to be politically brutal (protest and vote, dear reader!), but to give us some hope in this time of strife, artists have delivered the best pop music I've heard in years. I've not felt so engaged with new music since 2013 (which I consider a watershed year). Last month I did a big round-up of tunes that won me over, and this month I want to recommend one single and two great records to keep your spirits up this muggy July.

"Preach" by Keiynan Lonsdale

Since his turn in Love, Simon, I've had a killer crush on  Keiynan Lonsdale, which has been bolstered by his two new singles. Following the sweet "Kiss the Boy," Lonsdale goes full New Age gospel in his testimony to love, "Preach." The song has a stronger vocal performance and sensual under-current. I hope it foreshadows a full-length debut record.

5 Seconds of Summer's Youngblood

Leaving behind the bratty pop-punk of their teens, 5SOS delivered their first "adult" record, Youngblood. Though the album is more melancholic than their most popular tunes, it's full of hooky, addicting pop, including the title track, lead single "Want You Back," and the 80s-tinged "Talk Fast." Perhaps the most interesting song is "Moving Along," which has the phrasing typical of pop punk, but with more mature lyrics about being disaffected and heartbroken in your early 20s. The tune has layered  vocals in the chorus and an unexpected thundering drum machine ripped right from Katy Perry's Witness. The band's willingness to play with electronic textures and interest in reflecting their evolving perspective make Youngblood a worthwhile listen.

Panic! At the Disco's  Pray for the Wicked

Panic! has experienced a curious success over the past 5 years. Though the band dropped its breakthrough hit in 2005, it's garnered the most consistent critical and commercial success a decade into its career (when most acts decline). This success is due to two factors: the bottomless charm of Brendon Urie (lead singer and the only remaining member of the band) and how Urie's singular vision has shaped Panic!'s most recent records. Pray for the Wicked is a grand, flamboyant album brimming with showbiz antics and melodrama. Pray also feels quintessentially queer and Broadway. Perhaps this is because of Urie's stint in Kinky Boots last year and his recent coming out as pansexual. On tracks like the big-band tinged "Roaring 20s," dance-rock "Hey Look Ma, I Made It," exuberant "Dancing's Not a Crime," and piano ballad "Dying in LA," Urie's voice soars. This is the best he's ever sounded on record. 

Celebrate Pride 2018 Mix

Happy Pride Month, dear reader! To celebrate this joyful time of year, I have curated a mix to carry us through the month. Pride is about celebrating both the past and present, so I have few old favorites mixed with 2018 tracks.

I want to note three new songs I've not mentioned on the blog before: 1) "All Things" by Betty Who is not only the superior version of the Queer Eye theme, but it's an awesome way to kick off June; "Dancing" (Anton Powers Edit) by Kylie Minogue perfectly captures the diva's recent country dance  era, and the tune is essential because Minogue will headline NYC Pride this year; 3) "High Hopes" by Panic! at the Disco is one of band's best feel good anthems, and singer Brendon Urie always brings something queer to his music--an aesthetic reinforced by his work as an ally for the community.

I hope these tunes of celebration and hope keep you dancing through June! I send you love and happiness.

Big Pop Music Round-Up: Charlie Puth, Celine Dion, Troye Sivan, and List Goes On!

2018 is panning out to be a stellar pop music year. After a dour 2017, pop stars are pulling out all of the stops, releasing top-notch pop singles. In particular, it's a year for romance, with artists doubling down on love and sex. Below are the highlights released in the past month or so.

Charlie Puth's Voicenotes

I've never been a Charlie Puth fan, and I had dismissed him as another generic millennial crooner a la Nick Jonas or Shawn Mendes. Voicenotes is a game-changer, and this sophomore effort proves his knack for melodies, strong hooks, romantic lyrics, and appropriating nostalgia. The album mixes early 90s R and B, 80s yacht rock, and soft-rock balladry with a contemporary sheen that makes it one of the most pleasurable pop records this year. The album casts Puth as a romantic combatant disillusioned by his west coast fame-seeking paramours ("Attention," "LA Girls"), while still holding out for true love ("Patient," "BOY," "Slow It Down")--or at least some good sex ("Empty Cups").  The album stands out because Puth is not afraid to play it cheesy, and that makes him all the more endearing; "Slow It Down" is a straight-up Hall and Oats homage, and guest appearances by both Boyz II Men ("If You Leave Me Now") and James Taylor ("Change") place Puth in a long line of smooth-voiced romantics. Voicenotes goes down easy and all of the tracks work, but the high-water mark is ear-worm "BOY"--if you love it, you'll love the whole album.

"Bloom" by Troye Sivan

It's a good year to be a burgeoning queer pop icon, and Troye Sivan is the head of the pack. The second teaser single  and title track from his forthcoming sophomore effort is gloriously gay. This cheeky ode to bottoming is at once camp and pop art perfection. Sivan nails the experience of queer sex, and his spot-on lyrics ("I need you to / tell me right me before it goes down. / Promise me you'll / hold my hand if I get scared now. / Might tell you to / take a second--baby slow down) mixed with his of-the-moment production make him ripe for a deserved break into the mainstream. In a year of queer romantic art kicked off by Love, Simon, Troye Sivan is the gay pop prince we need and deserve. I can't wait to hear what he does next.

"Kiss the Boy" by Keiynan Lonsdale

Speaking of Love, Simon, Keiynan Lonsdale (who played Bram in the film) released his first blatantly queer single, "Kiss the Boy." Though softer and sweeter than Sivan's lusty tune, "Kiss the Boy" has more nods to soul music, and plays as a more youthful tribute to falling in love (note the bicycle spoke sounds early in the track). Lonsdale's falsetto, slightly nasal delivery has a charming innocence, and lends this teen romcom tune an approachability. "Kiss the Boy" marks him as a promising talent.

Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer

Keeping to 2018's themes of love and sex, Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer is a futuristic ode to lesbian sex and feminist empowerment in the wake of Me Too. Monae is still preoccupied with Prince references, but this album also feels authentically Monae; she's been a critical darling, but this album feels like she's arrived. Her vision of a female-dominated paradise is perhaps best captured in "Pynk," a utopic tribute to vaginal beauty. "Make Me Feel" is another highlight and finds Monae doing her best Purple Rain strut. Dirty Computer is delightfully explicit, and its celebration of carnality is liberating.

"Accelerate" by Christina Aguilera

Christina Aguilera is also preoccupied with sexual freedom on her forthcoming Liberation. The first single, "Accelerate," is a curious preview of the record. Xtina is no stranger to erotic songs, and "Accelerate" recalls "Dirty"--her 2002 confrontational coming-of-age tune--but the song is too freeform. In fact, as Aguilera's first solo single in over five years, it is curiously devoid of a strong hook or through-line. The first two movements of the track meander between her vocals and raps by the featured Ty Dolla Sign and 2 Chainz. The song doesn't gel until the last third, in which Aguilera vamps with some sexy "ooo"s. It's no masterpiece but exudes a laidback cool.

"Ashes" by Celine Dion

Who would have thought Celine Dion would become front-and-center in the meme culture of 2018 by singing an old school ballad in her signature melodramatic 90s style? "Ashes" is not all that different from the tracks she contributed to the Beauty and the Beast and Titanic  soundtracks: it has big emotions and big vocals. Yet, it works as a return of classic Celine epic balladry, and it also suits Deadpool's campy and queer sensibility. Dion is a left-of-center choice for the lead single from Deadpool 2, but that is what makes the song such a pleasant surprise. The video has garnered the tune attention, but after a few listens, "Ashes" gets under your skin toon. Celine Dion is still in remarkable voice, and "Ashes" reminds listeners why she remains an icon.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour

2017 was a dark year for music, with many artists turning to icy beats and hard edges (Katy Perry and Taylor Swift not least among them) to express their anger and heartbreak in the bleak political climate. Following such a grim pop cycle, Kacey Musgraves' exquisite  third record, Golden Hour, feels like a breath of fresh air. Its mix of Americana, folk, and soft rock, as well as its focus on love, recall the best of Carole King and James Taylor, heightened with contemporary touches. It's an open-hearted, big sky of a record--the best of career so far.

Though the album has its share of folk guitars, Musgraves and her producers lend the tunes a cinematic scope with modern accouterments.  Vocoder spices up "Oh, What a World," and disco flourishes on "High Horse" transform the tune into a pop gem. The entire record thrives on contemporary details, like on "Lonely Weekend," a gentle, hooky ballad in which she sings, "I keep looking at my phone, putting it back down / There's a little part of me that's got the fear of missing out." She resolves this social media era tune by later concluding: "It's alright to be alone sometimes" before the song breaks open with a wall of harmonized voices. It is nothing shy of brilliant, and it's the best thing she's recorded.

When Carole King released Tapestry in 1971, she helped create the singer/songwriter soft rock sound, as well as captured the heartbeat of her generation. Golden Hour follows that tradition. Does that make it less of a country record, and more of a mainstream piece? Definitely, but if there is an artist who deserves more mainstream appeal, Kacey Musgraves has proved to be it. Golden Hour is already a strong contender for the best album of the year.

Love Simon and the Love Simon Soundtrack

Between the ages of 12 and 18, I watched Pretty in Pink, the John Hughes-penned rom com starring Molly Ringwald, several times each month. I leaned on that movie and its exploration of forbidden love (in this case, due to economic class), feeling like an outsider, and standing up for yourself and your individuality in the face of adversity. In hindsight, I realize I connected with these themes because of my closeted homosexuality, and Ringwald's character, Andie, embodied the perseverance I hoped I'd one day live up to. Pretty in Pink moved me in an essential way, and I was moved in a very similar way at an advanced screening on Love, Simon  this past weekend.

Love, Simon is the movie I always wanted as a teenager--the kind of movie that could have even eclipsed my deep love for Pretty in Pink, had such a film existed when I was coming of age in the early 2000s. Based on a novel by Becky Albertalli, it follows Simon through his first love and coming out.

Yes: it's much easier for a lot teens to come out in 2018 that it was for my peers over a decade ago. (Not to mention how difficult it would have been for a teen in 1986, the year of Pretty in Pink, to come out. Check out Dave Morton's underappreciated, sweet, and harrowing Edge of Seventeen  for an authentic take on being a gay teen in the 80s.) However, despite the progress that has been made, it's still very difficult for teens (and adults) to acknowledge their sexual orientation because we still live in a world where straight is seen as the default and gay the exception.

Love, Simon explores this delicate time. It's also a sweet romance and captures the breeziness of adolescence. Director Greg Berlanti has a light, skillful touch bringing gay romance to the screen (as he has already proven with The Broken Hearts Club).

The film also features a wonderful soundtrack. The music in Pretty in Pink helped make that film a teen classic, and Love, Simon (I hope) will have the same fate. Featuring an abundance of tunes by The Bleachers, as well as Troye Sivan, The 1975, and Amy Shark (among others), the album balances contemporary sounds and nostalgia. Like Andie, Simon is a music fan, and the character's cool taste shows on this well-curated selection of tunes from the film. The album helps you connect with Simon, and because of that, it's a great success.

There's a lot we could talk about with Love, Simon: the importance of gay representation on the big screen, how the film casually but beautifully deals with diversity, or that the films we watch as teenagers--often about other teenagers finding their way--can be some of the most important movies of our lifetime. For a simple, sweet, and funny romance, Love, Simon accomplishes a lot, and I am happy it is in the world. Go watch it (and read the book and listen to the soundtrack too). It will warm your heart.

Happy 2018: A Decade Blogging, Nostalgia, Troye Sivan, and LGBT Pop Culture

Hello, dear reader. It's been a while! I've been away from the blog for almost three months. After making my way through the holidays,  I spent the new year hibernating and writing.

I am currently juggling two big writing projects: a new poetry collection, as well as a prose-poem project. The latter has been a lot of fun--full of experimentation and excitement.

The poetry collection has been more of a challenge, in part because the news cycle in 2017 shifted what themes I wanted to explore in my follow-up to Men and Music. While I initially planned on writing another book about romance, I've decided to shift my focus to nostalgia. I'm playing with an interesting mix of new poems, and I am looking forward to seeing how this pans out--not to mention if I end up with a chapbook or full length collection. We'll see! I feel a very creative year ahead.


February 2018 marks a decade of blogging at From Yes. I initially started this project to explore poetry and publishing. In 2008, I finished my last semester of undergrad, wrote lots of poems, and moved to the Midwest for graduate school--all while posting reviews and essays on this blog.

As time passed, I retooled the blog, and it has became an outlet to explore pop music and its intersection with poetry. I have also explored tangents like mystery novels, Angela Lansbury, and "feel good" popular culture. In 2011, I revamped From Yes and deleted the back catalog, marking a rebirth for this site.

So where do we go from here? In 2018, I plan to integrate more poetry with the pop music material. Like the poems I'm working on, I want this year's blog theme to be "Nostalgia"--recalling great popular culture of the past--especially the 90s--and discussing its relationship to the present. I also want to focus on queer art, including gay icons. More and more, I feel the importance of using art to extend LGBTQ visibility, and I want to blog to celebrate queer and queer-ally voices.


More good news: 2018 already has a great gay love song. Troye Sivan's "My My My!" captures the excitement and gratitude of being in love, and the tune is full of sensual details, like: "Spark up. Buzz cut. I've got my tongue between your teeth / Go slow. Go fast. You like it just as much as me." What I like is the balance of the feminine and masculine in these lines--the joy of going hard and taking your time.

Sivan is open about his sexuality, taking up the mantle of other great gay pop singers--George Michael, Patrick Wolf, Elton, John, and Rufus Wainwright not least among them. It's interesting that Sivan does not play coy, and his transparency is key to his success. Is it a coincidence that the same year he is on the cusp of major pop break-through with his sophomore record, a gay romance, Call Me By Your Name, is collecting statues on the awards circuit? Probably not.

I think 2018 is going to be a great year for queer artists, and I'm looking forward to discussing them with you. Come back soon!

Two Holiday Recommendations and Signing Off for 2017

Well, dear reader, it's becoming a holiday tradition for me sign off from the blog in November. Much like 2016, this year presented a lot of social and political challenges. I am looking forward to holiday celebrations with family and friends. I also want to break from the blog to focus on some writing projects that need my love and attention as I look forward to 2018.

Before I sleigh away for the season, I wanted to make two holiday music recommendations. As you know, holiday music brings me a lot of joy and these are the projects on my mind this year.

Whitney Houston's One Wish: The Holiday Album

Surprisingly, One Wish is Houston's only holiday release. Though she often took long gaps between records, Houston's voice is such a good fit for the seasonal fair I am always curious why her label never encouraged more Christmas recordings from the singer. Perhaps Houston had limited interest in the material. Regardless, her holiday album is a pleasant throwback record that capitalizes on the  sound of her synthesizer-based 80s records. She delivers the material with enthusiasm, selling even the melodramatic and gaudy tracks--especially the title track, which was a modest hit.

Looking at the record in the context of her personal and professional life also enriches the album. One year prior (2002), Houston released the least successful album of her career--the abrasive Just Whitney--and struggled through its disastrous "crack is whack" press junket. Following those debacles, Houston took a step back, traveling to Israel on a holy pilgrimage. After that journey, she recorded and released One Wish, and it marks the dawn of a spiritual and creative reawakening for the singer.  Though I Look to You (2006) wouldn't arrive for another three years, One Wish and I Look are sister records, focusing on Houston's strengths as a soul singer whose gospel background allowed  her to breathe personality into Adult Contemporary fair.

Houston is still in great voice on One Wish. Her belting has some ragged edges, but all in all her delivery is energetic and flexible. Some tracks are playful and fun, like her funky take on "Deck the Halls," but the best material is her interpretation of hymns, including a lovely "O Holy Night" and tour-de-force "O Come O Come Emanuel."  Many listeners forget about One Wish, but check it out if you want a traditional holiday record. It's an album about returning home to heal--a sensibility many listeners may find comforting this season.

"Santa's Coming for Us" by Sia

Now that I've recommended a classic, I want to praise something new. The lead single from Sia's upcoming Everyday is Christmas, "Santa's Coming for Us" has already snatched the crown for the best new holiday pop tune. It's quintessential Sia--melodramatic, playful, a little off kilter. The track is mix of Cyndi Lauper's quirky Merry Christmas... Have a Nice Life and Mariah Carey's high-octane classic, "All I Want for Christmas." I am excited for her album's release on November 17th. How often do we get a record of ten holiday originals? Merry Christmas, indeed.

And with that, I wish you a beautiful holiday season, dear reader. I hope to see you back here, happy and healthy in the new year. May we all find some joy and hope this season.