Album of the Week, Harry Styles, 'Harry Styles'

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Harry Styles, 'Harry Styles'
Harry Styles, 'Harry Styles' (Columbia Records Group)
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Is it possible that the future of rock and roll resides in the voice, hands, body and soul of a 23-year-old boyband popstar named Harry Styles? Styles, formerly of One Direction, recently released his self-titled solo debut, and it's currently the number-one album in the world. That might not be too shocking, given that between 2011 and 2015, "1D" won six Brit Awards, four MTV Video Music Awards, 11 MTV Europe Music Awards, seven American Music Awards (including Artist of the Year in 2014 and 2015), and 27 Teen Choice Awards, with all five of their albums hitting number one in the U.K., and four number-ones and a number two in the U.S., with more than 25 million albums sold. But what is shocking is that in a world where the top Pop music is further from rock than at any point in history — Styles has succeeded while creating a beautiful, lush, fun, smart, rock album.

Harry Styles is not a masterpiece; it's not gonna surpass Abbey Road or OK Computer, but think about this: For millions of One Direction fans worldwide, this might be the first rock music featuring a singer of their generation that they have ever heard. That's amazing! While my son's 11-year-old friends might roll their eyes at me if I tried to explain Radiohead to them, Styles has absorbed some of the best lessons of Britpop and beyond, and incorporated them into his new sound. Similar to the move Justin Timberlake made to embrace R&B after the pop of N*Sync, Harry Styles's authentically produced solo debut is likely to distance him from his former bandmates and could enable him to establish a credible, viable, long-term career as an artist who is both popular and critically important. We often hear Current-friendly bands slide away from rock towards pop (I'm looking at you, Chris Martin), but I can't think of any point in time where a popstar went rock — and pulled it off.

If you were anything like me, you didn't even notice the success of One Direction. Boy band, whatever. Been there, done that. Then I heard Harry Styles's "Sign of the Times" — the stunning first single from the self-titled album, building from a simple three-chord piano progression (F-Dm-C for those playing along at home) to a majestic power ballad almost as large as the Rains (that's Purple, November or Right As). But the production is what set it apart: it was a rock band playing this music — with big huge drums, slide guitar, piano, bass, mellotron, and gospel choir — no loops, no programming, no samples, no discernable auto-tune or featured rap verses. It sounds like it could have been cut in 1967, 1977 or 1997, but unlike at least 99.9 percent of what passes for popular in 2017.

Next, I caught Harry Styles on SNL a week later — with Styles hilarious in a sketch impersonating Mick Jagger, and absolutely captivating in his musical performances. With most indie rockers shyly apologetic or ironically false-enthusiastic live, here was an artist unafraid to bring a song to the stage somehow both intimate and huge, with a band that was musical but also looked like they could playing the Entry next week. The weird thing about all this is that the band (and album) is anchored by Jeff Bhasker, an Los Angeles-based producer and musician mostly known for working with the likes of Bruno Mars, Kanye, fun., Alicia Keys and Katy Perry. But whatever the pedigree, I was in, and I thought, This is better and cooler than a lot of what we play on the Current. We could play this on The Current.

Then came the album, Harry Styles. After five years of near-Beatlemania-level pop hysteria with One Direction (oh, and dating Taylor Swift for a while, too), Styles apparently got lost to find himself, writing songs and chilling out in London before decamping to L.A. to find his solo voice and sound for the album with Bhasker and his new band … which is all over the map — and sure, you can hear the influences, but that's OK — maybe it's even part of the fun. A bit of Blur/Beck in "Carolina," a few Oasis-style rockers, a hint of Travis on "Ever Since New York," and could that be echoes of the Allman Brothers' "Melissa" in "Two Ghosts"? Maybe. But all are rendered with impeccable style, and the result is an album of songs that are unabashedly hooky and at the same time produced in a way that will be as new and fresh to a pop fan as it is familiar in a great way to a Current listener. It's a tough needle to thread, and certainly against my preconceived expectations, Harry Styles pulls it off brilliantly.

And while it's hard to predict where Styles will head down the road from here, at this point with more commercial success and WAY more critical acclaim than any of the solo outings of his former bandmates, we can only hope that he continues to develop, delight and surprise us on future albums the way Harry Styles has on his debut, our Album of the Week on The Current.

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Harry Styles - official site

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