After a 10-year hiatus, former Disney pop stars Aly & AJ have returned to the music scene in full force, with a more authentic and mature sound. Listening to their recent releases, you would never guess that the artists used to crank out cookie-cutter pop songs under the Disney record label.
Aly & AJ’s new music not only erases their formerly squeaky-clean image, but it also reflects a musical awakening by combining pop, rock and ‘80s synth.
Aly & AJ is composed of sisters Alyson and Amanda Michalka. The group made its musical debut in 2005 with the release of their first album, “Into the Rush.” Their pop-rock cover of “Do You Believe in Magic” was used in the Disney original movie “Now You See It…” which also starred Alyson as the lead character, Allyson Henlen. The album contained more rock influences and managed to showcase the powerful vocals of the two sisters.
After releasing a Christmas album in 2006, the duo went on to release their third studio album, “Insomniac,” which differed significantly from their first album. “Insomniac” included more electronic and dance-pop influences when compared to “Into the Rush,” making it seem like they were trying to appeal to the very audiences that Disney was trying to target — young girls.
While Aly & AJ were experiencing success in their music careers, they were simultaneously undergoing a breakthrough in their respective acting careers. Alyson Michalka starred in the hit Disney series “Phil of the Future,” while both sisters co-starred in the Disney Channel original movie “Cow Belles,” which received positive reviews.
“‘Cow Belles’ follows the Disney formula perfectly. It stars two hot, young singing sensations, who have a contract with the Disney recording branch. These girls are next in line to take over where Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan left the stage,” one critic said in reference to their performance.
Although their partnership with Disney seemed successful on the surface, Aly & AJ struggled over creative differences with their Disney-backed record label. From 2009 to 2017, the group underwent a period of both turmoil and growth. The sisters changed the name of their band to 78violet, but failed to release an album under their new name, essentially going on a musical hiatus.
Comeback and “Ten Years”
Following a return to their original band name and a move to a new record label, Aly & AJ finally returned to the music scene in 2017 with their album “Ten Years,” a reference to their 10-year hiatus. Their return was a triumphant one, with the sisters displaying a burning passion and unquenchable energy that was lacking in their music released under the Disney label.
“Ten Years” focuses on the range of emotions experienced throughout the duration of a romantic relationship. The album includes both pop and rock influences like their previous albums, yet their sound is much more cohesive and mature.
Aly & AJ are obviously taking advantage of the popularity of ‘80s nostalgia, including heavy synth beats in most of the album’s songs. It’s obvious that the duo is no longer being pressured to churn out pop hits by Disney; their new music contains an air of freedom that comes with having complete control of their creative process.
The lead single for the album, “Take Me,” describes the frustration caused by a crush who keeps dragging their feet; “I’ve been spending my attention on you, on you / I don’t wait long ’cause I got better things to do / When you gonna take me out? / Make a move and make it now,” the duo sings. The longing lyrics pair nicely with the bursts of ‘80s-reminiscent synth beats and rocking guitar chords. The song’s catchy lyrics and upbeat pop tempo will undoubtedly have listeners screaming along.
Another of the album’s singles, “The Distance,” details the end of a long-distance relationship and the distress of failure. The song has a heavy rock beat, showing that the sisters can not only successfully pull off both pop and rock songs, but they can also transcend musical genres.
“Sanctuary” and Musical Evolution
Aly & AJ’s newest EP, “Sanctuary,” further builds upon the duo’s new, mature sound. Rather than focusing singularly on romance, “Sanctuary” explores the topics of self-love, forgiveness and depression. By addressing these difficult issues, the sisters draw their listeners in by relating to them on a personal level.
The EP’s lead single, “Church,” is a call for forgiveness and redemption after a string of sinful behaviors. A far cry from their innocent Disney days, the sisters sing “I do bad things / Can’t you see it on my face? / I get caught in every lie.” Another outstanding song from the EP is “Not Ready to Wake Up.” The song seems out of place in 2019; rather, it seems like it belongs on a 1980s Whitney Houston album. Its tight melodies and bright beat provide an instant mood booster.
The release of an album chocked full of hits is even more impressive when considering that both Alyson and Amanda Michalka have successful acting careers. Alyson stars in the CW’s “iZombie,” while Amanda plays the lead in ABC’s “Schooled,” a spin-off of “The Goldbergs.”
Looking back on Aly & AJ’s musical evolution, it appears that their hiatus and separation from Disney was the catalyst for their musical evolution. The journey has been long, but certainly worth it. “There’s a lot that we’ve said no to that I think would’ve launched our careers in a different way had we said yes, and we don’t really have any regrets,” Amanda stated. “Aly and I have really come into our own when we could have been easily molded into something that would not have been us at all.”