“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.

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.

“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.

I Guess I Like Yoga Music Now

It is weird that I’ve gotten to a place where I’m listening to an album called Tides: Music for Meditation and Yoga when I don’t meditate or do yoga. That I listened at all is mostly a testament to the genius of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, who has an innate ability to make what should be background music into something that is engrossing and full of spirit. This is one of those new old albums; it was recorded in 2013 and commissioned by her mother who wanted a soundtrack for the yoga classes she teaches. This makes it one of her earliest recordings and one that offers insight into her development making music on her Buchla modular synthesizers.

Smith’s last two albums are among the most immersive, thoughtful, and imaginative I’ve ever heard. 2016’s Ears was a colorful collection of songs that fused her synthetic sounds with her love for nature, and 2017’s The Kid built on that style with layers of deep, affecting storytelling and whimsy. Due to its reason for existing, Tides lacks the ambition and diversity of those albums, but it shows Smith figuring out what would become her signature sound through various synthesizer tones and repetitions.

There are a lot of negative connotations for this type of new age hippie music, and I’m still surprised that I love Smith’s fluttery, spiritual style as much as I do. In addition to sounding so vibrant, there is a sincerity and braininess to her approach that reminds me of artists like Broadcast and Björk. Even on an album like Tides where she doesn’t sing, I get a strong sense of who Smith is through her music — there is real charisma here and it finds a way to transmit itself through sound.

Tides doesn’t really aspire to be more than background music, which actually becomes part of its appeal. It’s a chance to hear Smith tinkering and learning in a relaxed way at a stage in her development where she hadn’t yet figured out how to make the mesmerizing ambient pop songs of Ears and The Kid. This makes Tides a useful chapter in the story of her career, which is defined by her growing and progressing on every song and album as she gains more mastery of her tools.

I can’t really evaluate it from a yoga or meditation context, but I assume it works quite well for that purpose too. I imagine I’ll listen to Tides a sneaky amount this year while I’m writing or falling asleep, or when I feel like hearing one of my favorite artists starting on the path to finding her voice.

Please Don’t Sing About Donald Trump

Two years into his presidency, musicians have formed a consensus about Donald Trump: he’s a subpar president whose style of governing leaves much to be desired. Most of them don’t seem to care for his behavior one bit, and I don’t blame them. I don’t like to get too political, but heck, I’ll just say it: I don’t really enjoy Donald Trump as president either. I’ve been underwhelmed by much of his decision-making and have yet to really be blown away by anything he’s done. In fact, I think there’s a very real chance he’ll go down in history as one of our least great presidents.

Right when Trump got elected, there was a lot of chatter about how great it would be for art, as all of the brave artists would rally to “stick it to the man” and make their best work while suffering terribly. I was a bit more skeptical. I don’t think a bunch of assholes running the country is the sort of thing that spurs creativity and I’m familiar with how artists get when they feel like they need to “speak their truth” about current events. So I knew what we were really in for: a lot of songs that preach to the choir, pretending to be really daring while having an ineffectual “Trump stinks, maaaaaaaannnnnnn” tone. When I hear songs like this, I understand for a moment why the GOP is so passionate about cutting funding to the arts.

Everyone knows I’m not the type to rip into specific artists and mock their craft. That isn’t what this blog is about, and I would never use this space to add more negativity into the world. So I won’t bash specific artists (like, say, The 1975) for making music that I feel is about pandering to people with obvious talking points. Instead, like always, I want to focus on the positive: an artist who has managed to make music about these times that resonates without resorting to condescending lyrics and false bravado.

The album I’m talking about here is Julia Holter’s Aviary. When it came time to rank my favorite albums at the end of the year, this was the hardest one to peg because it had so much going on and it was hard to tell if I liked the music or just liked the process of listening to the music (I have no idea if this makes sense). Clocking in at a ridiculous 90 minutes, it’s an album that clearly is making a point through excess. There is an unreasonable amount going on even in each song, they all seem to run a little too long, and there are way too many of them. It’s not quite impenetrable, but it asks a lot of anyone listening to it.

This is all reminiscent of what living in 2018 is like, where there is a lot of overstimulation and it becomes difficult to tell what is real and what matters, particularly when it comes to political news. Her twist is to turn all that mind-numbing chaos and noise into something beautiful so that the album also functions as an escapist fantasy world, similar to Björk’s UtopiaAviary has a lot to say about life right now, but it always shows the listener instead of telling. All of its moods are conveyed through sound and feeling.

What I come back to with Holter’s album is how it challenged the listener and rewarded them for putting in the effort. Because it was this mountain to climb, I wanted to keep listening and thinking about it until I made it to the top. Music that is explicitly about Trump could never hope to accomplish that unique feeling because the artist has chosen to anchor themselves to the type of tired commentary heard on Saturday Night Live. An album like Aviary, on the other hand, understands there is no value in telling people what they already know.

The appeal of the obvious topical music is that it is perceived to be offering a window into these times and capturing a certain mood of the populace. I have never really bought into that as a reason to praise music. Every artist is living in the present and on albums like Aviary, those traits organically came out because she was channeling her experiences and mindset into art. That holds true for every artist, even if they’re making shoegaze music with no discernible lyrics. There are many more ways to comment on life and society than quoting Trump’s Access Hollywood tape in your song.

A Defense of Artists in Their 30s

While Emma Ruth Rundle topped my year-end list for the second time in three years, I didn’t see her on any list published by a major music website, which I tracked for fun through Metacritic and this spreadsheet by Rob Mitchum. In and of itself, this is no big deal. A lot of music I love doesn’t appeal much to others and I would never expect it to be on anyone else’s list. But Rundle is different: my success rate with recommending her music to people is extremely high and I’ve converted many people I talk with about music into fans. And while many artists I love are languishing in complete obscurity, Rundle is on a reasonably well-known label (Sargent House) and has a passionate, growing fanbase who sold out her shows on her last American tour. I also don’t feel that her music is all that impenetrable; it’s unique but has its roots in hook-heavy rock that is in a similar musical space as many albums on these sorts of lists.

It’s ridiculous to say an album must make everyone’s year-end list, but given just how many albums get charted at the end of each year, it’s odd to me that Rundle has been completely shut out by all critics after delivering consecutive incredible albums. I really don’t think it’s strictly a matter of me having different taste. I’m convinced she’s victim to certain biases in the music media that have caused her great music to be undervalued or overlooked completely. Maybe it’s a waste of time to think or care about this, but I feel like the best thing I can do with this tiny platform is try to correct what I perceive as wrongs by these larger outlets.

The more I think about it, the more I think Rundle’s biggest issue is that her career arc is… untidy. Part of what the music media likes to do is frame narratives about artists by crafting these arcs, and they like to start young so they can have control over the story. The artist’s first album is the “breakthrough,” then the second is their Best New Music “statement” and the third is their “magnum opus.” Then they “decline” from there and the media moves on to a new crop of young artists. Obviously this pattern doesn’t always hold true and it’s a large generalization, but I think anyone who pays attention to music criticism has witnessed something resembling this cycle repeat itself over and over.

This year, I noticed a lot of really young songwriters who are in the same musical ballpark as Rundle and seemed to be early in that media cycle — I’m talking about artists like Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail, boygenius, Soccer Mommy, etc. They’re on their first or second album, which means they’re getting promoted as “exciting new voices.” They’re talented artists, but it’s hard not to view the hype around them as being linked to their age and relative inexperience, which lets the media tell a new story with unlimited possibilities while appealing to a younger demographic. (I also want to stress that this doesn’t mean people who love these artists are being “tricked” into liking them or anything — I just think these artists were given a chance to be heard that wasn’t afforded to many artists with similar talent.)

Then there is Emma Ruth Rundle, who played in like three different bands and released several albums before finding her voice (in my opinion) on 2016’s Marked For Death at age 33. I liked all of her music even before that album, but I feel she has taken a massive step forward with her solo works. And the path she took to those albums was a real joy to listen to because I could hear her improve and figure out who she was over a course of several years. But the media doesn’t have time or patience for that kind of story: they want artists to come out of the gate fully formed at a young age so they can be out in front promoting something that feels fresh and hip. I strongly believe that if Rundle were 10 years younger, the reaction to her music from the media would be much different.

The problem with that is Rundle needed to make all those albums before she could arrive at her sound on Marked for Death. The typical musician narrative where they peak right away in their early 20s is wildly unrealistic and just untrue most of the time. It’s caused a lot of young artists to be hyped too soon and has caused a trend where artists deeper into their careers are consistently taken for granted. Every artist is on a different path and not all are going to follow the same tidy arc that is applied to everyone.

Of course, this is something I want to believe, since I’m almost 30 and feel like I’m still improving at my craft all the time and have barely even lived yet. And I think that’s part of why I am relating more to artists who have taken more winding routes to success. Now I really enjoy hearing artists at different stages of their journeys, whether it’s Rundle or someone like Melody Prochet, who took six years to release her second album that completely blew away my expectations (and also, believe it or not, was left off almost all year-end lists). There are inspirational stories to be found in those albums, even if the media isn’t telling them.