“Philosophy of the World” is the Best Album of 1969 — And Possibly Ever

Local radio station The Current just did a March Madness style tournament to determine the best album of 1969 as voted on by its listeners. Like anything determined by consensus, the end results of the bracket were boring and obvious — The Beatles’ Abbey Road knocked off Led Zeppelin II in the finals. Meanwhile, the actual best album of 1969 — The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World — was unceremoniously eliminated in round one, picking up just eight percent of the vote against a CCR album that doesn’t even have “Fortunate Son” on it.

I wrote about the Shaggs a bit a couple years ago, recanting the oft-told story of this group of sheltered sisters that were enlisted to play music by their overbearing dad, who thought they were destined (as in literally, from a palm-reader) to be a popular rock band. Due to their lack of any training or possibly any awareness of music whatsoever, the results sounded bizarre and many people think it’s the worst album ever, while another contingent, led by Frank Zappa, think they were “better than the Beatles.” I am here to defend the latter argument and I will tell you why this is a better album than Abbey Road.

But first, because The Shaggs raise these sorts of questions for me, I think it’s worth considering what music really is on a basic level that we rarely even think about. It’s all a collection of sounds that, in and of themselves, are utterly meaningless. For I suppose brain science reasons, some sounds are more pleasurable for people than others — we don’t like the sound of nails on a chalkboard, but we tend to like the sound of a cat purring or other various ASMR things. Still, there is a clear subjectivity to the sound aspect of music and everyone has their own preferences that are hard to declare as wrong. If someone told you they really enjoyed the sound of nails on a chalkboard, you wouldn’t be able to convince them they were somehow incorrect for enjoying something you don’t like.

That is The Shaggs in this comparison, because their music undeniably does sound “bad” while The Beatles sound “good.” But I don’t think people ever really stop and think about how weird that is: that we have all decided that certain sounds are “better” than others. I always think this about those weird snobs who are really into musicians who display “technical ability.” The entire concept of developing mastery of an instrument is more about reaching a point where you conform to the arbitrary societal standards of what “good music” sounds like. So I push back a bit against the common belief that The Shaggs were bad at their instruments. I think they just play differently than we’re all used to.

The actual playing isn’t the only aspect of The Shaggs that is alien compared to other music. What really grabs me about Philosophy of the World is how radically different its intent and motivations are compared to all other recorded music. Think about why any artist forms a band, releases songs, or performs in a live setting. It’s always motivated by some sense of desiring something for themselves- they may want to make money, make friends, look impressive or cool, or make themselves feel better through self-expression. Or they may sincerely feel like they have a gift that needs to be shared with the world. Either way, there is an inherent self-indulgence to music, but it’s such an obvious part of performance that it often doesn’t even register to people.

But listening to Philosophy of the World is possibly hearing music in its purest form, made without any pretensions or aspirations. The Shaggs might be the only band to ever make an album with this mindset, though I suppose you could argue they were trying to impress their dad or had actual pop music ambitions. The word “authenticity” is thrown around a lot (by me included), usually to refer to albums that reduce the natural self-indulgence of music by having humble, genuine qualities through the music itself and/or the artist’s persona. No album could ever be more authentic than Philosophy of the World because it was made by people who didn’t know any better. And it’s so insane to hear an album without an ounce of posturing, or desire to impress the listener, that it’s almost impossible to comprehend it.

So this is an album that doesn’t sound like anything else ever made and might be the most pure, direct translation of childlike innocence and emotion into sound. People think of The Beatles as these great innovators, but all of their music was on the same basic pop music path that has been developed for centuries, and I’d argue most of what they get credit for is stuff that would have happened eventually anyways. Philosophy of the World is, unintentionally, a complete rethinking of what music even is. It raises questions and challenges preconceptions in a way that is completely unique. There has never been another album like it, and given the way society is now with the internet, I doubt it’s something that can ever be replicated.

People who think of themselves as music experts will always scoff at this album because it doesn’t fit their preconceived, constructed ideas of what a guitar or a drum beat should sound like. But people who actually understand music and art will appreciate that Philosophy of the World does things that no other album could ever do. Possibly its greatest strength is how it functions as a litmus test of sorts, an album that sparks ideas, conversation, and challenges entire notions about what music is and who can make it. As good as The Beatles were, they never did that for me.

Anemone Captures the Good Parts of the 60s on “Beat My Distance”

Every once in awhile, I come across an album that almost feels algorithmically generated to appeal to me. Anemone’s Beat My Distance combines krautrock, French pop, breezy psychedelia, and pretty much every other style of music I enjoy into a very pleasant package. It’s a little hard to tell if it’s actually “good” or if it just panders to me, but these days I don’t see much reason to draw a distinction. If I want to listen to it, it’s probably great.

The twangy guitars and bright synth parts, along with Chloe Soldevila’s airy vocals, make Beat My Distance sound like that idyllic version of the 60s that people have built up in their mind, where everyone walked around outside on sunny days and handed out flowers to each other while definitely not being racist. The overall focus on good vibes and lack of any rough edges can sometimes lead to the album feeling a bit naïve and absent of personality. These are flaws that I find easy to look past when the songs are this enjoyable to listen to, and this album provides a nice escape from the real world and its issues.

“Sunshine (Back to the Start”) is the clear highlight here; its bouncy rhythms, instrumental outro, and simple lyrics all add up to one of the more addictive songs of the year so far. Its template is followed by a lot of the songs on this album, which is all about mining familiar sounds and lyrical themes, creating a sense of nostalgia in the music. This could easily backfire (and many listeners might be turned off by the lack of originality), but Soldevila’s lack of cynicism and knowledge of exactly what her music is help me give this a high grade, even if she might have peeked at a neighbor’s paper a couple of times.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan

For the last few months, I’ve been writing a multi-part series about one of my favorite artists, Trish Keenan. My blog doesn’t seem to handle this multi-part concept that well from a readers’ standpoint (especially since I’m writing other stuff in between each installment), so I’m compiling a table of contents here with links to each post in order. I still have a few parts left, which will be edited in later.

Chapter One: Before We Begin (Introduction/Work and Non Work)

Chapter Two: The Impossible Song (“Echo’s Answer”)

Chapter Three: It’s Hard to Tell Who is Real in Here (“Come On Let’s Go”)

Chapter Four: TNMBP (The Noise Made By People)

Chapter Five: Valerie (“Valerie” and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders)

Chapter Six: Let the Balloons Go Outside (Haha Sound)

Chapter Seven: America’s Boy (“America’s Boy”)

Potty Mouth Go Back to Basics on “SNAFU”

Listening to Potty Mouth’s new album, SNAFU, I’m reminded of that “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons with Bart’s evil twin, Hugo, who is determined to be “too crazy for boys town” and “too much of a boy for crazy town.” In the last few years, the Massachusetts trio of Ally Einbinder, Victoria Mandanas, and Abby Weems have found themselves in an analogous predicament: they’re too pop for punk town and too punk for pop town.

This is their first full-length album since 2013’s Hellbent and first non-single release since 2015’s excellent self-titled EP, which raises some questions — with all due respect to the band’s music, it’s not like they’re in the studio laboring over a follow-up to Loveless here. In interviews now (and in tweets and song lyrics), they’ve discussed being courted by a major label, who burdened them with endless comparisons and expectations that left the band tangled in bureaucratic red tape without a sense of direction. Eventually, they parted ways with the major, and so now SNAFU finally surfaces on a friend’s label with not much PR or “momentum.”

For a band with such a faithful 90s aesthetic, it’s fitting that even the process of making the album sounds like something straight from 1994, with the scrappy indie band struggling between major label ambitions and staying true to themselves. While it was a winding road to get there, I’m glad they chose the latter. None of that self-doubt and struggle is heard in the sound of SNAFU, which brims with confidence and is the product of a band who now knows exactly who they are. It barrages the listener with one impossibly catchy chorus after another and its sugary rock sound is reminiscent of the best parts of The Go-Go’s and Veruca Salt. It might be my favorite pop album since Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION, and it makes me think the people who work for that major label have no idea what they’re doing — though, of course, I would never suggest that anyone working in the music industry is less than competent.

I’ve mentioned this before, but writing about music inevitably warps how you think about it, and sometimes I get into a mindset where I feel like any “great” album needs to come with like, a thesis statement and a bunch of cooked-in narrative. After all, you can’t just write “this has good songs that sound good” and expect anyone to care. Sometimes I think artists have internalized this from writers, too, and some seem almost afraid of writing songs that are too poppy or too frivolous.

So there is a gutsiness in how SNAFU totally owns its status as an enjoyable pop album. It doesn’t bury its massive hooks under a bunch of lo-fi gimmickry in an effort to seem hip. It doesn’t have overly complex lyrics that might distract from the songwriting. It hits that perfect sweet spot where the songs are so well-crafted but never sound like they’re trying too hard. It may not challenge listeners much or break new musical ground, but there is an appealing self-assuredness to these songs — the album sounds like a band being who they want to be instead of what others expect them to be.

That theme is explicitly stated on a couple of the songs that I have been listening to repeatedly over the last weekend. “Smash Hit” (initially released as a single in 2016) kisses off that major label with a chorus that is a list of meaningless adjectives that you can just imagine one of those record label guys breathlessly telling to the band as if he is providing them with the best career advice of all time. “Plastic Paradise” is a more general commentary on the fakeness of shopping advertisements that burden everyone with societal expectations; listening to it is about the closest anyone can get to time traveling to the mid-90s. Another highlight, “Fencewalker,” is slightly more contemporary, with some critical and relevant lyrics about people who don’t engage with the world around them. It was written with Gina Schock of The Go-Go’s, just in case Potty Mouth’s intentions on this album weren’t already clear.

While it lacks the edge that most associate with the genre, I think SNAFU is in the true original spirit of punk. It provides a blast of simplicity in a context where a lot of artists are trying to out-think each other and push the limits of complexity, sometimes to self-aggrandizing degrees. In that sense, it’s a really smart album in addition to being impossible to stop listening to.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: America’s Boy

I don’t remember the exact year I discovered Broadcast, but it was somewhere in 2008 or 2009. Prior to then, it’s hard to overstate how little I knew or cared about music. I didn’t really listen to it growing up and partially defined myself by not caring about this trifling art form that other people loved. Broadcast were one of the first bands to prove how wrong and dumb I was. For me, they occupy a space that for most people is taken by classic bands like The Beatles — the band I heard when I was at my most open and impressionable, that shaped the entire way I perceive music.

Sometimes this makes it hard to tell if I like Broadcast because of my taste, or if my taste was shaped so much by hearing Broadcast when I did. Whenever I do a list of my favorite albums at the end of the year, I’m struck by how much they all resemble Broadcast — sometimes literally through sound, but more often philosophically, through the ideas and principles of their music. Their traits are what I think every band should aspire to: imagination, thoughtfulness, intelligence, etc.

Lately, I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about topical music, and wondering why it does so little for me. It’s another area where Broadcast set a standard: their lyrics almost never were about providing commentary, but instead focused on more abstract concepts of the mind and self. It’s not so much that I view music as a pure escape that should never address the real world. It’s more that using it as a platform for basic political bickering feels like such a diminishment of music’s potential power. If a song can be about anything, and make someone feel anything, why would you choose to make it resemble a bad Thanksgiving dinner conversation?

As usual, Broadcast provided a guide on how to do this sort of song the right way with “America’s Boy,” the first single off 2005’s Tender Buttons. It is one of their only songs that provides anything resembling commentary on society, but it is done in a way that is uniquely theirs that makes it hold up 14 years later. It also represents possibly their greatest departure in terms of sound. With the band reduced to a duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill, it has a repetitive drum machine beat, a distorted synth, and a more claustrophobic feeling that combines the minimalism of The Noise Made By People with the buzzing clatter of Haha Sound.

But it’s the lyrics that stand out. Keenan offers up a collection of free association images and words that cohere into a portrait of an American soldier, or possibly just America in general. Given the timing of the song’s release, it’s not hard to connect the dots to the Iraq war, but it’s also far from one of those ineffectual artist screeds informing us that war is bad, actually. The tone from her words and her singing is more one of bemusement, a British person looking at our weird culture with a sense of amazement.

Keenan said the inspiration came from doing a crossword puzzle and getting annoyed by its difficulty. “In my frustration at not being able to decipher the clues, I began to react to them, make up my own answers, mimicking back the language of the clues. I was interested then in possible answers. I got on a roll arguing with the clues, asking questions back, taking offence to them and deliberately misreading them.” It’s a fitting creative spark given how often Broadcast’s songs resemble cryptic puzzles that are fun to solve. It’s not hard to gather a general meaning at what the lyrics in “America’s Boy” are hinting at, but Keenan’s own motivations are where it gets trickier. Is she in awe of America or angry about its imperialistic tendencies? Or maybe it’s a mix of both.

I don’t think there’s a correct interpretation here which is part of why “America’s Boy” has endured. The title is one I still mentally apply to any number of privileged old white guys in this country. Keenan’s vagueness and her puzzle-like approach may have made this song less visceral when it was released compared to more in-your-face protest music, but now it still sounds fresh because it wasn’t purely about her opinions and feelings. Instead, she gave autonomy to the listener, who is allowed to try to connect the clues and find the possible answers.

“What Chaos is Imaginary” Shows a Band in Flux

In one of my recent posts, I lamented the way really young artists are disproportionately hyped in the music industry due to novelty. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen to any of them, and one of my favorites in the past few years has been Girlpool, who started out making amateurish, heartfelt songs that were reminiscent of The Shaggs on Before the World Was Big, then evolved into a full-fledged indie rock band on 2017’s Powerplant. They overhauled their sound while maintaining the band’s biggest strength: the genuine connection between Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, who sang in interlocked harmonies and conveyed authentic, youthful feelings instead of trying to sound older than they are. It made me feel like I was hearing the band grow up and change on every song.

That theme continues on their new album, What Chaos is Imaginary, but in a way that is much more dramatic than I would have expected. Tucker came out as transgender last year and started taking testosterone, which lowered their singing voice. It’s a courageous decision that is way more important than music, and it feels like trivializing it to analyze how it impacts the band. But they did put out a new album with Tucker’s voice on it, and it’s impossible to ignore how it has fundamentally changed the band’s aesthetic — those lockstep feminine harmonies are gone, which is what gave Girlpool their distinct style that reminded me of a musical version of nursery rhymes or “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Not to be too clinical about it, but all of this makes What Chaos is Imaginary fascinating to listen to. It’s not just hearing a band evolve like all of them do from album to album; it’s a band that has lost one instrument and replaced it with a new one. And parts of this album reflect what must have been the difficulty of figuring that out — I think it runs a little too long at 14 songs and 45 minutes and it sounds like they’re trying many different types of songs without a clear idea of what the band should be now, especially compared to the focused and confident sound of Powerplant.

While Tucker and Tividad always sang simultaneously before this, here they settle into more of a traditional lead singer/backing singer dynamic on most songs. The ones where Tucker takes lead are the biggest departures from the band’s previous material; “Lucy’s” and “Hire” show their new voice and are the most traditional indie rock songs the band has made. Tividad’s songs like “Pretty” and “Stale Device” are closer to the familiar Girlpool sound with the harmonies and mix of sweet melodies and abrasiveness. Chunks of the album feel almost too traditional to me — without the unique harmonies of previous material, a lot of this sounds like a normal indie rock band, and I feared the magic from previous recordings may have been lost.

But they find something that really works in the back half of the album. “Minute in Your Mind” and the title track are spacy ballads with keyboards that add an extra layer of psychedelia to the band. On the former track, Tucker’s voice sounds at home in the more subdued mode, and Tividad harmonizes on the back half of the song in a way that is reminiscent of old Girlpool but still inherently different. Tividad takes the lead on “What Chaos is Imaginary,” which adds strings to the mix and is the band’s most ambitious recording yet, with a larger sense of scale than anything they’ve ever done.

The way Tividad and Tucker separate from each other on the album is reminiscent of how tight friendships can fade away or change in meaning year by year. The change here is drastic but it also feels true to life, and there is a lot to like here in the songwriting (which is as soulful and endearing as it’s always been) and the band’s ability to find new sounds and push themselves on every recording. Part of me still is unfairly focusing too much on what was lost and is mourning the old Girlpool sound from Powerplant. But something has also been gained on What Chaos is Imaginary, and it is exciting to think of the future of this collaboration that surprises and evolves with every album.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Let the Balloons Go Outside

Since I don’t do drugs, I think the most psychedelic experience I’ve ever had was when I let go of a balloon outside for the first time and watched it rise into the air until it turned into a tiny dot and disappeared. It made no sense to me that a balloon would do that and nothing else would, and I wondered where it ended up — if it was in space or if it crashed on an island somewhere. As a kid, it might have been the first thing that made me start to ponder the depths of the universe and realize how little I knew about it.

Now that I am something resembling an adult, I have no use for balloons. If someone came up to me on the street and handed me one, I would say “why are you giving me this balloon.” If they insisted on me taking on the burden of the balloon, I would walk around with it for awhile out of some weird sense of guilt, then eventually get tired of having to hold the string and let it go because I don’t care about the environment. And as the balloon rose up, I wouldn’t think about how cool it was that this object was floating into space. I would think “yeah balloons do that because of helium or science or whatever.”

Trish Keenan either never stopped being fascinated by balloons or found a way to channel that sense of kid wonder through her music. As easy as it is to feel depressed about her death while listening to Broadcast, on Haha Sound the predominant feeling I get is joy. “Lunch Hour Pops” might be their most overtly happy-sounding song — it’s like a nursery rhyme with her sing-song vocals plus the chirping electronics, and includes the refrain “let the balloons go outside.” It’s an ambiguous psychedelic image that also captures the band’s approach to making this album.

Haha Sound is a pop music carnival where every song is like a different exhibition that shows the listener something new. There is the cotton candy girl-group inspired “Before We Begin,” the spiky sci-fi rock of “Pendulum,” the warm, affecting shoegaze of the last two tracks, “Winter Now” and “Hawk.” If there was a criticism to be aimed at The Noise Made By People (there wasn’t, but speaking theoretically here), it’s that it was very focused on a specific minimal aesthetic. Haha Sound feels like a reaction to that: it’s Broadcast at their most maximalist, and the joy comes from hearing the band explore every possible texture and sound they can come up with while still combining all of that weirdness with timeless pop songwriting.

This would be the last Broadcast album before it reduced to a duo of Keenan and James Cargill, probably because it used up every idea they had for the full band. Neil Bullock’s drumming is worth singling out because the rhythms on this album are really creative and make every song on Haha Sound feel distinct. “Man is Not a Bird” is his best showcase; its dense sound and the textures he provides make it a significant departure from TNMBP while maintaining all of the band’s strengths.

Keenan sits at the center of these kaleidoscopic pop fantasies, observing the strange world around her with a sense of awe and wonder. Whether it’s Alice in WonderlandThe Wizard of Oz, or Valerie and her Week of Wonders, there is something about the concept of the ordinary woman in a fantasy land that resonates, and she inhabits that role on Haha Sound perfectly. She adds such relatability to the band’s psychedelic sounds and visuals, like on “Ominous Cloud,” where the titular image is used to convey trying to overcome self-doubt and procrastination like all of us do.

While I’ve always loved Haha Sound, it didn’t emotionally connect with me as much as Broadcast’s other music until I started listening to it repeatedly in the last few weeks. Lately, I’ve been more into music that can take me back to my old balloon-loving self while still treading new ground, and this album’s unjaded sound appeals to me now more than ever. I’ve also been asking myself what makes this band’s music ageless, and I think it lies in its mix of classic pop songwriting and malleable lyrics, themes, and sounds. No matter where I’m at in life, I’ll be able to find something in Haha Sound that makes me feel and sparks my imagination.