Why “The Kid” is an Instant Classic

One of my favorite musical moments of the year comes at the beginning of “To Feel Your Best,” the final track on Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid. After about 25 seconds of bubbling synths, lyricless vocals and cosmic swoops, there is suddenly the sound of horses galloping. It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s one of many little moments on this album that make me think it’s one of the most special accomplishments in years. It represents not only the merging of nature and electronics that is such a part of Smith’s music, but also the journey of life that The Kid describes as the clomp-clomp-clomp of the hooves signifies moving constantly forward.

That sound of the horses galloping says so much without needing any words, and it illustrates the imagination and attention to detail that makes The Kid such a vibrant album. It’s hard enough to tell a story with songs, but to do it almost entirely through sound like Smith does, and to have this much feeling and meaning in it is a monumental feat. It’s made even more incredible by how overambitious and trite its concept sounds on paper: “the story of a life.” I would forgive anyone for assuming it’s impossible to execute on a 51-minute album. But Smith pulls it off, and does it in a way that feels personal while also being completely universal.

What really resonates with me about this album is how its sound has this kid spirit in it — I kept thinking it sounded like what would happen if you let a really smart eight-year-old loose in the orchestra room and they started playing with all the instruments. It is hard to say that without it sounding derisive of Smith’s abilities, but it is meant as a high compliment: her music captures the inner child all of us have, and for an adult to be able to pull that out through her music while still making it sound beautiful and sophisticated is an intricate balancing act. It’s why I loved all of its whimsical instrumental asides, like the opening of “A Kid,” which gradually piles synth sounds on top of its playful beat.

I find that kid feeling especially powerful in 2017, where the political situation and the internet has turned every day into a deluge of bad news as we’re made all-too aware of every bad thing that is happening in the world at any given time. What I’ll remember a lot about this year is that feeling of wanting to disconnect from the constant news cycle, but also feeling like putting my head in the sand and embracing ignorance is even worse. The Kid really taps into a nostalgic feeling, a desire to see the world through unjaded eyes and appreciate life’s beauty, and does it in a way that is wholly original.

And far from preaching ignorance or naivety, The Kid celebrates the process of learning, questioning the world and seeking self-improvement. As its themes move past early childhood into young adulthood, its sound gains a more cerebral touch while also maintaining its playfulness. The most lyrically-driven of these songs, “In a World, but Not of the World,” describes a process I relate to heavily, of finding joy in questioning and proving myself wrong, especially after growing up with certain beliefs I was certain were true. Intellectualism has never sounded this joyous.

Now in my late 20s (which is insane to think about, but let’s move on), I’m still mired in this likely endless process of self-improvement, of trying to do a little better each day and hopefully at some point become decent at life. It’s very internal and solipsistic, and not the kind of thing that would seem to lend itself to music. “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” is a song where barely anything “happens,” as its just some repeated synth noodling with bird sounds over it for five minutes, but it has that feeling of contemplation and pondering the self that describes a lot of how my 20s have been.

Songs like this are also crucial to the pacing of The Kid, which excels at all the minutiae I love to overanalyze in music. Smith shows a cinematic understanding of rising and falling action, separating some of the album’s more powerful moments with ambient exercises that strengthen their impact through context. In this way, The Kid mimics the ebbs and flows of life, which isn’t just a series of constant thrilling events. There are usually long stretches where not a lot is happening (but it’s still sort of interesting in its way), then something major happens, then not much happens again for awhile. In this case, “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” sets up the final three songs, which form an awe-inspiring conclusion.

Which I guess brings me back to “To Feel Your Best” and those horses. After a lot of time spent thinking about the self, the end of The Kid is about making room for someone else, and “To Feel Your Best” is about losing them. What I really love about about this ending is that it is so much more powerful and moving because of everything that came before it. We know how life always ends, but this album creates a relatable journey through childhood that gives this song maximum impact. It’s also ambiguous in the best way: the idea that we start and end life alone after all that growing can be depressing, but I suspect it is meant more in a Zen-like spiritual sense — Smith sees a certain beauty in this universal beginning and end that almost all of us share.

I am honestly a little uncomfortable with how effusively I’m praising The Kid, but I really think this album is going to stick with me for a long time. There is even more I want to gush about: how it’s an actual album that is strengthened from playing it start to finish, how it challenges the listener with its sound and lets you draw your own conclusions, how Smith as an artist is learning and growing in parallel with her story. I imagine its avant-garde (maybe even New Age) style won’t appeal to everyone, but adventurous listeners owe it to themselves to go on this journey that Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has created.

My Favorite Albums of 2017

I listened to a ton of music this year — mostly to escape the news cycle, but also because the process of writing about it has made me more excited to engage with it, which is why I still do this. I’ve narrowed it down to 15 albums, but I left off a lot of worthwhile music, which I might compile in another post if there’s interest.

One of my main beefs with media year-end lists I see is that they all have this very focus-grouped feeling, where they’re trying to represent every kind of music and appeal to every reader. This is just the music I like (it’s roughly in order of how much I listened to each album), and I don’t make any concessions towards popularity or what I think will necessarily appeal to other people. So I imagine no one on earth will remotely agree with much of this, but I hope at least one of the (mostly underappreciated) albums on this list strikes your fancy.

15. Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest

I’ll admit to being ignorant of Gainsbourg’s previous work (and I almost missed this album too), but Rest instantly jumped out to me because of its masterful production and dark disco hooks. The occasionally joyous sound somewhat masks that this album was written in a period of grief, and the way Gainsbourg’s lyrics (occasionally in French) clash with the music make this an ambiguous and intriguing album — the kind that makes a joyful chorus out of a Sylvia Plath passage.

 14. Sneaks – It’s a Myth

There are few things harder in music (or life, really) than convincingly being cool, but Sneaks (Eva Moolchan) pulls it off on It’s a Myth because of her effortless charisma. Her deadpan poetry and natural swagger are at the forefront of these economical, minimalist songs that are a seamless fusion of post-punk, funk, and hip-hop.

13. Novella – Change of State

Novella’s lengthy description of Change of State sells it as a political post-Brexit album, but the real appeal here is their sound, a mix of krautrock rhythms with dreamy guitar and vocal harmonies. This band clearly loves Stereolab, and Change of State makes a convincing case for how good taste can lead to good music.

12. Björk – Utopia

The new album by Björk is overwhelming — to the point that it is hard to figure out how to reasonably rank it against other albums. For better or worse, Björk has never felt so distant from contemporary music, and Utopia‘s endless sprawl and the approximately three million things going on in every track make it feel like nothing else this year. While at times indulgent, the album is grounded by Björk’s optimism at a time when that might be even more unusual than her music.

11. Daddy Issues – Deep Dream

The sound of Deep Dream is a pure 90s throwback, with Jenna Moynahan’s grungy riffs contrasting with her light vocals, but Daddy Issues are much more than a tribute band. They bring a different perspective to the grunge genre with emotionally complex lyrics that are equally funny and insightful, using personal experiences to address contemporary gender dynamics and general anxiety. I also find their lack of originality oddly endearing: while so many bands try to be everything at once, Daddy Issues know exactly who they are, and they have the unpretentious, catchy songs to prove it.

10. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

After playing bass in the unfortunately-named The History of Apple Pie (a band I liked, for the record), Owens stepped out on her own with this sleek collection of down-tempo minimalist electronic songs. While clearly indebted to trip-hop bands like Massive Attack (“Keep Walking” is mostly a 2017 reboot of “Teardrop”), Owens’ airy vocals differentiate it from her predecessors, and her ear for production makes it one of the year’s smoothest and most addictive albums.

9. Frankie Rose – Cage Tropical

Every year I seem to fall for one of these throwback 80s pop albums. This year’s is by Frankie Rose, who uses shimmering synths and rich bass to craft catchy and subtly emotional songs on Cage Tropical. Like her former bandmate, Kristin Kontrol, Rose has mastered how to create memorable pop songs through her years of experience, and this album feels like the perfection of her synth-pop vision that began on 2012’s Interstellular.

8. Widowspeak – Expect the Best

Molly Hamilton’s crooning vocals and Robert Earl Thomas’ gorgeous shoegaze/country guitar have always made Widowspeak sound warm and cozy. On Expect the Best, they turn their own music against itself, with songs that show how comfort and nostalgia can turn into inertia that makes you feel directionless. While not a huge musical evolution for the band, Hamilton’s lyrics made this connect with me more than any of their previous work.

7.  Palehound – A Place I’ll Always Go

Written after the loss of her grandmother and a close friend, A Place I’ll Always Go is an honest and heartfelt reflection on loss and friendship by Ellen Kempner, who records as Palehound. While her flashy guitar playing tends to steal the show, Kempner’s lyrics provide the emotional base that makes her fuzzed-out riffs more potent. She captures the feeling of emptiness that follows the loss of a friend by offering us a window into her world — even her mundane descriptions of trips to the grocery store or Dunkin’ Donuts are rich with pathos.

6. Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun

After 2015’s massive Abyss, Wolfe plunges even deeper into darkness with Hiss Spun, a thunderous collection of songs that makes most other artists’ attempts at rock music feel inconsequential. Wolfe is a powerhouse vocalist, and her intensity and flair for the dramatic make every song on Hiss Spun feel like a fight for survival. It’s not for the faint of heart, but great rock music rarely is.

5. Girlpool – Powerplant

After the bare-bones minimalism of their debut album, Before the World Was Big, Girlpool enlisted a drummer and embraced a full rock sound on Powerplant, which easily could have been their “sell-out” moment. Instead, it’s like they emerged from a cocoon. The duo of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker still have their unique chemistry forged from years of friendship, and the collision of noisy guitars with their vulnerable lockstep harmonies is one of the most compelling sounds in music today.

4. EMA – Exile in the Outer Ring

After the election of Trump, journalists penned a seemingly endless amount of portrayals of the American working class in a desperate attempt to figure out how it happened. They could have just listened to Exile in the Outer Ring instead. Drawing from her upbringing in South Dakota, EMA’s provocative third album is a searing portrait of the American heartland that melds her personal experiences with a broader political message. Its grimy industrial/grunge sound, her lyrics and her vocals capture how it feels to be abused and forgotten about — as well as the barely-restrained fury that simmers underneath.

3. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)

When most people think of great guitarists, they focus on artists who draw attention to themselves with their massive riffs and personalities. Meg Duffy, who records as Hand Habits, is a guitar hero for the indoor kids. Her lo-fi bedroom songs are slow-paced and unassuming, matching her low-key personality, but Wildly Idle gradually reveals itself to be an intimate and powerful album, anchored by her beautiful, psychedelic-tinged guitar. It’s like a shy friend who ends up being kind and caring once you get to know them.

2. Cold Beat – Chaos By Invitation

I continue to bang the drum for Cold Beat and its mastermind, Hannah Lew, who has put out a run of three albums that I compare favorably to any other current artist. Never content to stay in one musical place for too long, Lew pushes her project into new synth-driven territory on Chaos By Invitation, but does it while retaining the band’s distinct (yet hard to pin down) sound that somehow feels chilly and warm at the same time. While the switch to synths would seem to indicate a narrow musical path, Lew shows her creativity and versatility as a songwriter by making a collection of memorable songs that all feel different.

1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid

I have no idea how Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith does what she does. Her collection of modular synthesizers, with all of their cords, knobs and wires, look like impossibly complex machinery, but in her hands they’re a conduit for music that feels deeply human and in touch with the natural world. Inspired by the four stages of life, The Kid plays as an outline of one person’s existence, beginning with the wide-eyed joy of early childhood discovery, then progressing to the adult process of learning, questioning, and finding your place in the world. Smith’s own journey of exploration is captured in The Kid‘s restless musical experimentation, and all of its quirky tracks build up to one of the most moving, achingly beautiful conclusions to an album I’ve ever heard.

Björk Convincingly Imagines a Better World on “Utopia”

Björk making an album called Utopia almost feels redundant. Her soaring, one-of-a-kind voice, genre-hopping style, and fusion of technology, nature and humanity has always imbued her music with natural utopian qualities. I even wrote a goofy paper in college about the very subject five years ago. Her ninth album doubles down on those elements that have always been present in her music, which makes it’s her most Bjorky album yet. It’s a 72-minute bird-song-backed ode to love and beauty that tries to imagine a better world than the one we live in now (which is, admittedly, not an incredibly challenging task).

The concept of a utopia is inherently political — offering a vision of a perfect dream world is a way of pointing out what is wrong with the world we actually live in. With so much political discourse taking on an unmistakably whiny, angry, and outraged tone (which is understandable, but still exhausting), the concept of Utopia is a smart way to funnel political ideas through a message of optimism and hope, themes that naturally suit the majestic soundscapes that Björk is known for. The result is that Utopia makes some powerful points about the world we live in, but in a sneaky way. What’s missing from this utopia is just as telling as what is in it.

Most of those missing themes were on her previous album, Vulnicura, which was at times ugly, angry and difficult, as she outlined the end of a relationship in stark detail. The beginning of Utopia hits the restart button, with Björk finding love again and relating it to her deep connection to music. Opener “Arisen My Senses” describes the original awakening and making mixtapes, followed by “Blissing Me,” where she is one of “two music nerds obsessing” and “sending each other mp3s.” Some of this gets a bit gooey for my tastes, but it sets the tone for this album, which is mostly about Björk wishing the whole world felt like she did when she was falling in love.

The lyrics on Utopia end up settling in familiar territory for Björk, with a focus on loving and caring for each other along with the planet we live on. This isn’t revolutionary material by any means, but after Vulnicura, there is a comfort in having Björk back to being her usual self. And she is still capable of articulating these fairly simple themes in ways that other artists would never think of. “Body Memory” is a weird, 10-minute epic where she describes a return to her primal state. Backed by strings, a choir, heavier beats and some sort of animalistic growling noise, she vows to “refuse to accept what was meant to be” after the events of Vulnicura, making the choice of love over hate.

The other big prescription that shows up in Björk’s utopia is abolishing the patriarchy, which pops up in a few songs. On “Tabula Rasa,” she sings of “the fuck-ups of the fathers” and how “it is time for us women to rise up and not just take it lying down.” While she doesn’t go full SCUM Manifesto, her vision is clearly one that includes more femininity, especially in positions of power. “Saint” makes that case clearly by describing a matriarchal leader who cares for the sick and poor, providing an unspoken contrast with our real-world leaders while also comparing it to the healing power of music.

The sound of this album is really where the utopia concept comes to life. Björk succeeds in creating a musical paradise, with flutes, strings, choirs, birds, and her voice all combining to make a musical Candyland. Much like Vulnicura, this album isn’t really interested in traditional songs, but instead in creating a landscape to get lost in. The relative lack of hooks combined with the long run time can make Utopia feel a bit indulgent, and I think some big choruses could have made the world she created feel even more lush and beautiful. On the other hand, I feel like Björk has earned the right to indulge in her music, and I can put up with her noodling around when it sounds this lovely and complete.

It is tempting to think of this album as a pure fantasy of another world, but on the title track, Björk makes a point of singing that utopia “isn’t elsewhere. It’s here.” Her genuine belief that the world can reach her ideas on this album gives Utopia a feeling of optimism and hope that is refreshing in the current political climate. I would normally chuckle cynically at that sort of pie-in-the-sky thinking, but Björk is one of the only artists who can really pull it off in her music. After all, this is an artist who has made a career out of making the impossible a reality.