In the process of wordbombing the internet with solipsistic rants about how much the album SPOKE TO ME, I don’t think I did justice to how good I Want to Grow Up is as just a simple rock album. Now armed with a full band (at least in studio), Colleen Green really rocks on I Want to Grow Up, which has big 90s-inspired riffs and songs that are impossible to get unstuck from your head.
In a way, the fact that it’s so fun to listen to might have hurt I Want to Grow Up in terms of being perceived as Serious Art. When an artist plays quiet folk music, gently strumming their guitar and singing dramatically, it is automatically lent a certain authenticity and we credit them for baring their soul in the music. Green does this on I Want to Grow Up as well as anyone else, but it is sometimes overshadowed by the hooks, her deadpan delivery, and humor, which are all signals to not take this seriously.
But I Want to Grow Up is a truly great album that deserves serious recognition. What still stands out about it is Green’s fearlessness in communicating her fears and anxieties in such a blunt manner, and the way she taps into so many unspoken feelings shared by others. I lost count of how many times this album said something that I’d been thinking about forever, but hadn’t said out loud. Green nails every specific aspect of the minutiae of growing up and trying to overcome your own insecurities.
Even if I didn’t relate to it so hard, I Want to Grow Up would still be great because it’s such a focused album, with a clear progression in the songs. And most importantly, it is almost a complete portrayal of who Green is, from her darkest fears on “Deeper Than Love” to her blase sense of humor and conversation-holding anxieties on songs like “Pay Attention.” I love albums that really reflect the artist’s personality, and I Want to Grow Up did that better than any other I heard this year.
With her loyal fanbase, incredible natural ability, and established reputation as one of music’s innovators, it would have been easy for Björk to coast on her ninth album, Vulnicura. Instead, she released her most personal album yet, a heartbreaking and challenging work that is as far from traditional pop as she has ever gone. The result is an album that is classic Björk: it sounds alien, but is also deeply human.
Björk’s separation from longtime partner Matthew Barney sets the stage for Vulnicura, which has the most traditional concept of any recent Björk album. However, her execution remains singular. Bringing back the strings that defined 1997’s Homogenic, Vulnicura has a sweeping beauty that portrays her heartbreak in majestic tones, with the music becoming more dark and formless as the sadness increases. The chronological narrative gives Vulnicura a sense of momentum, and also adds to its “plunging into the depths of despair” feeling as the listener pretty much follows Björk during and after the separation.
Heartbreak is such a common, enduring theme in music, to the point that many artists sing about it because that’s just what musicians do. I always wonder if some of them have ever really had their heart broken. With Björk, there is no doubt: Vulnicura has too much intense personal energy in it and too many specific, brutal observations. This makes it one of the more difficult albums of the year, but also a vital listening experience that offers a deep, honest portrayal of the artist’s life while sounding like nothing else.
There are many theories as to why Beach House released Thank Your Lucky Stars just a couple months after putting out their first album of 2015, Depression Cherry. Personally, I’ve started to think they did it just to make me feel insane. I’m not one to necessarily share consensus opinions ever, but I felt pretty alone in loving this album and in perceiving a wide gap in quality between it and its predecessors.
Worst of all, I still don’t have a satisfying explanation for why I like Thank Your Lucky Stars so much more than the rest of Beach House’s work, which drives me nuts as a writer and just as someone who likes to think about why I like the things I like. So I’m left trying to explain the unexplainable, that subjective aspect of music that makes it click for me, but maybe doesn’t impact other people the same way. If nothing else, the decision to release two albums in a year made for an interesting litmus test on taste and what we all value in the music we listen to.
My not-at-all-widely-shared perspective is that Thank Your Lucky Stars taps into something that other Beach House music doesn’t. While the band’s previous music was known for being warm and inviting, this album has a dusty chill that makes the songs feel more ambiguous. Thank Your Lucky Stars ends up feeling different while still absolutely sounding like Beach House due to some kind of musical butterfly effect: the band twiddles a couple knobs, changes some small details, and suddenly the end product feels entirely different.
These are pretty much the accepted differences in Thank Your Lucky Stars, and from there it’s a matter of subjectivity and taste. I think this vibe suits the band much more and feels a lot fresher than the played-out “warm and sunny” sound. Victoria Legrand’s vocals feel less processed and more natural, the lyrics are more interesting (especially the doomier passages like “Elegy to the Void”), and the band’s usual collection of guitars and organs actually sound better because of the different context.
Those are my basic attempts at explaining why I love this album, but I’ve accepted that part of what makes Thank Your Lucky Stars great is that it is so inscrutable and just makes me feel how I do at a gut level. It’s the album I always wanted Beach House to make, even if I’m not entirely sure why.
Perhaps the most aptly named album of the year, Abyss combines thunderous doom metal guitar riffs and quiet folk to create an experience that is like being thrown into a bottomless pit and eventually forgetting what sunshine and happiness feel like. This is high praise that I don’t toss around lightly.
Chelsea Wolfe is a prolific artist who never feels limited by genre, and her ability to effortlessly switch between the folk and heavy sounds on Abyss is an impressive musical feat. I’ve heard metal bands that try to mix in a quiet folk song and fail, and I’ve heard a lot of folk artists who (*shudder*) attempt to go heavy to try to gain rock cred and fall flat on their faces. Wolfe does both styles, often in the span of the same song, but it always feels cohesive and natural.
The album takes dynamics to the furthest possible limit, which makes for very dramatic and theatrical songs, with roaring crescendos mixed with near silence. Very little of this album is at a normal, reasonable volume. The dynamics also provide the fascinating duality of Abyss: somehow this album manages to feel epic and intimate at the same time. Wolfe’s voice and lyrics shine in the folkier stretches, but she’s not afraid to sometimes let her voice get buried by the guitar and noise, and the music really does sound like an abyss.
Abyss seems like a difficult album to love given its relentless bleakness, but I really love Wolfe’s artistry and intensity as a performer. She pushes her music to its limits here, going as deep into this hole as she possibly can and emerging with something that sounds truly special.
Writing all these year-end posts inevitably makes me confront the reasons I like all these albums over others. The word I find myself wanting to use in virtually every post — especially now, near the top — is “complete.” My favorite albums feel like they’re accomplishing exactly what the artist intended and are a fully realized vision (I’ve been using “vision” a lot, too).
American Tragic is an album that feels very complete to me. The band is mostly a one-woman show, with Hether Fortune doing everything but the drums, and the album is powered entirely by her sensibilities, her songwriting, and her charisma. A new-found emphasis on production gives American Tragic its crystalline gothic rock sound, while Fortune channels the feelings of a recent divorce into lyrics that are often about the intersection of love and pain. The way all these elements complement each other makes American Tragic one of the most compelling rock albums of the year.
Despite the heartbreak that went into the album, American Tragic remains remarkably nuanced, avoiding the kind of self-pity and blaming we’ve come to expect from the post-breakup album. Fortune touches on loneliness and grief, but her performance has a steely resolve, a refusal to let any of those feelings define who she is.
Fortune is very different from most rock front-people, and her personality and her refusal to conform to expectations is what makes this album consistently exciting. She can also really write a hook, and American Tragic has some surprisingly poppy moments, like “Lonely You” and “Severely Yours.” Those two songs, in different ways, explain how sometimes love can hurt.
A lot of recent pop doesn’t feel like it was made for people who care about music. The songs are just tools to enhance the artist’s multimedia brand, which is about gifs, videos, thinkpieces, awards show moments, etc. Emotion is a pop album for people who actually like music, who appreciate the craft of a catchy chorus and the feelings that a well-made pop song can create. At its center is Carly Rae Jepsen, who delivers a performance that can win over even the crankiest pop music cynic.
Jepsen reinvents herself on this album by consciously zigging when everyone else is zagging. With the focus of everyone on branding and trying to be current, Jepsen embraces the music of the past and puts the focus on the songs rather than herself. This could make Emotion feel like a cheap 80s nostalgia exercise, but it never does, because Jepsen’s warmth and enthusiasm are so endearing — this is an artist making the music she has always wanted to make, the type of timeless pop she grew up listening to.
Despite its nostalgic sound and the large number of personnel she worked with on the album, Emotion always feels like a distinct Carly Rae Jepsen vision. It dodges the focus-grouped feeling of other pop albums, which have the obvious singles and then a bunch of filler, and instead feels like a complete album. Jepsen reportedly wrote 250 songs for Emotion before narrowing them down, which might be why it often sounds like a cohesive greatest hits compilation.
That element of craft is what I keep coming back to with Emotion — it’s the result of an artist given the chance to make the album she always wanted by putting in the proper amount of work, time, and care. And Jepsen’s enthusiasm for performing this music is infectious, which gives the album its humble, sincere quality that stands out so much compared to other pop.
Cold Beat’s debut album, Over Me, was one of my favorites of last year, and the Hannah Lew project wasted no time following it up with Into the Air, which improves on the first by expanding and refining the group’s sound. While Over Me sometimes felt repetitive, every song on Into the Air feels different from the next, and the album tells a cohesive story as it progresses and the sounds change.
I get really geeky about album sequencing sometimes, and I got especially into the sequencing on Into the Air. The early songs on the album are more in line with what I expected after Over Me, with relatively straight-forward new-wave rock like “Broken Lines.” But about halfway through, the music starts to change, starting with “Cracks” which adds synths to the mix, and then the electronic instrumental “Clouds” that segues into the final part of the album, where “Spirals” and “Ashes” continue down that electronic path.
The way the album is sequenced, there is a feeling of ascending “Into the Air,” among the “Clouds,” and ending up in the ominously pretty blue sky portrayed on the album cover. This is reinforced by lyrical motifs about ashes and dust, like a wind is blowing you away into the sky. While ascending into the sky is typically considered positive, like going to heaven, on Into the Air the technology has an icy, creepy vibe to it that makes it more like OK Computer. “Cracks” in particular feels frantic and paranoid, and it’s the track that starts the upward ascension of the rest of the album.
I don’t know if the band intended any of what I just wrote, but part of what makes Into the Air so replayable — beyond the quality songwriting — is that Lew’s lyrics lend themselves to interpretation and don’t have a specific, obvious meaning. Yet there is still a story being told on the album, a sense that all the tracks are tied together and going down the same path. Where exactly that path goes is up to the listener to decide.