Oh Right, This is a Music Blog

When I’m not complaining about social media and the state of our society, I occasionally do find time to indulge in the expressive artistic medium commonly referred to as “music.” This art form uses sound to convey messages about the artists themselves or the world they live in, and it is easily accessible via websites like Bandcamp or Spotify — or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can even see it be performed in a live setting. Given my enjoyment of the medium and the artists who practice it, I realized this could be the type of thing I could share on this website, with the understanding that other people who love music could find my posts and share in my enjoyment of it.

Here are some of the releases from this year (2018) that I’ve been listening to recently, along with some incisive and articulate commentary explaining to you why I enjoy them.

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

The genre of “pop-punk” is often either bad pop or watered-down punk. In a Poem Unlimited finds a nice sweet spot between those two genres — its sound mixes pop hooks and vocals with the occasional burst of abrasive noise, while its lyrics have the sharp confrontational edge of punk. Mentally, I began thinking of this album as “punk pop.”

Meghan Remy’s lyrics are politically charged, but not in the way that feels like she’s talking down to you or telling you what you already know. The key is that she grounds her politics in narratives, like the revenge fable “Velvet 4 Sale,” which is just classic storytelling with a message attached to it instead of a strident scream at the listener that demands them to feel a certain way. “M.A.H.” is another highlight that serves as a scathing critique of the Obama administration and a personal story of losing faith in your country and the people who run it.

On “Incidental Boogie,” Remy whispers “I gotta tell you something you don’t want to hear; it’s the truth and that’s never easy to hear.” That is kind of the mission statement for In a Poem Unlimited, which is pop music that isn’t content to just be pleasant to listen to.

Beach House – “7”

Beach House remains a uniquely vexing band. Skeptics rag on them for making the same song over and over, while many of their fans will say they’re happy to hear the same Beach House song forever. Meanwhile, I argue that this band has evolved and changed in a subtle way that hasn’t really been noted by the general public.

A couple years ago, I went nuts for their previous album, the grievously underrated masterpiece Thank Your Lucky Stars. It just had a different feeling than their other music to me, and 7 has a similar intangible quality, where it sounds only like Beach House, yet conjures up completely different emotions than a lot of their previous work. I don’t think it’s quite as good as Thank Your Lucky Stars, but it shows the band continuing to evolve and experiment with their tried-and-true sound.

As someone who loves to laboriously explain why I enjoy things, this band has frustrated me because it’s been hard to come up with satisfying reasons for why their music is so effective. Now I’m starting to understand that not being able to explain why they’re so good is what makes them so good.

Wax Idols – Happy Ending

This is the somewhat delayed follow-up to American Tragic, which was one of my favorite albums of 2015. In the lead-up to this album, I found myself listening to all of Wax Idols’ albums and realizing that this is one of the best rock bands going today. Frontwoman Hether Fortune is charismatic and has constantly progressed as a songwriter, and their sound has evolved into a smooth mix of goth, pop, punk and shoegaze.

Happy Ending is the most poppy effort by the band, but it doesn’t back off from dark subject matter. “Mausoleum” turns the feeling of loss and memory into a catchy pop jingle; “Too Late” is a chipper song about suicide and realizing that you’ve wasted your entire life. This is rock music that is enjoyable to listen to and also packs an emotional wallop.

Lithics – Mating Surfaces

The rhythm-centric punk sound and jittery deadpan vocals of Lithics make for an easy comparison to The Fall if their singer were a woman who was less racist and dead. They’ve channeled a lot of different punk groups into a sound that feels unique enough, mostly because of the nearly spoken vocals and abstract lyrics.

I’m sure many listeners will find this band to be unlistenable nonsense, but that’s what makes it feel more like genuine punk, the kind that alienates closeminded people. Music that is this unapologetically weird and energetic doesn’t come around too often, and it’s always something I’ll embrace.

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

I’m a pretty stereotypical anti-country guy and have a healthy skepticism for any pop album that I feel is being graded on a curve by indie fans, like where they praise it to the heavens just because it isn’t an active assault on the senses (see: Lorde’s Melodrama). I also just really hate the city of Nashville. So I’m not exactly the target audience for this Kacey Musgraves album.

But there is an appealing simplicity to Golden Hour that makes me kind of understand why people like country music. Musgraves being a great singer helps, but it’s her lyrics that stand out: they’re basic and unpretentious, capturing every-day life while also not falling into the typical country tropes of talking down to the audience. There are some awkward half-hearted attempts at country radio songs on this album, like “High Horse,” that detract from the proceedings, but if you just ignore those this is a strong album that transcends genre stereotypes.

Musgraves is at her best on songs like “Slow Burn” that are gentle, simple, and oddly psychedelic.

An Explanation For Why I Quit a Bad Website

Since I deleted my Twitter account a couple weeks ago, many have been wondering why I chose to walk away from the website at the height of my fame, abandoning my nearly 300 adoring followers who read all of my tweets in rapt admiration. I’ve had people approach me on the street and ask me: “Why, Josh? Why did you do it?” So even though I had no plans of making the cliché post about my departure, I figured I owe it to all the fans and kids out there who look up to me.

My reason had nothing to do with any individual people, except possibly Kanye West, but more to do with how the site was starting to function due to changes Twitter made to its service. I’ll focus on the two big ones that I feel fundamentally altered Twitter and turned it from a Reasonably Good Website into an Actually Quite Bad Website.

The Character Limit

Recently, Twitter doubled its character limit from 140 to 280, in order to allow people to “more thoroughly express themselves and engage in the discussions they love” or some nonsense like that. This was met with mostly anger, but the outrage largely subsided after a few weeks as I guess most people got used to it. I never did, though.

A moment of over-analysis: I feel like the 140 character limit was important not just because of brevity and readability, but because it made people think about what they were saying and how best to say it. Now even with 140, Twitter was not necessarily a beacon of intellectual conversation, but tweets were often funny, incisive, and it felt different from other social media and writing.

Right after 280 was installed, there was a noticeable downgrade in tweet quality. Now tweets often took up twice as much space on the timeline, and it’s not like the extra words actually accomplished anything. Tweets didn’t have more clarity, they weren’t funnier, and they didn’t provide more information. All this change did was give people the freedom to write poorly.

So that change was part of why I quit, since it made my timeline into a mess, but it wasn’t the complete dealbreaker that reason #2 was.

Our Algorithm Thinks You Might Like This Algorithm

No, the change that nearly singlehandedly destroyed Twitter for me was the switch to an algorithm timeline, which was unrolled a few months ago by a company that seemingly has no idea why anyone uses its service. This was the single biggest reason I found myself looking at my timeline and getting actively irritated, because the entire point of Twitter was that you got to curate your own timeline and choose who showed up in it.

Messing with the linear timeline and inserting tweets from people you don’t follow or care about was bad enough, but the way Twitter chose which tweets showed up in your timeline was the truly offensive part. Much like Facebook, it decided it based on how many “engagements” and retweets and likes a tweet had, which meant you were always getting garbage memes or popular tweets by famous people shoved into your timeline.

More over-analysis: part of what I (and I suspect others) enjoyed about Twitter is that it was an egalitarian medium. For a long time, a tweet from some nobody like me would show up in your timeline and look exactly the same as a tweet from a celebrity with 10 million followers. The cool implication here is that my thoughts and opinions are just as worthwhile as theirs, or at least just as worthy of consideration.

This change destroyed that concept of the site. Pretty much overnight after instituting the algorithm, the site turned into a popularity contest (well, more than it already was) and a place that became disproportionately dominated by celebrities who aren’t actually interesting or intelligent. And I’ve gone off on this subject before, but the assumption that the best tweets you most want to see are the ones with the highest RT/fav numbers is the opposite of correct. The stuff that gets RT’d is usually pandering, hysteric, or obvious, and people began to tweet more in those tones to get high engagement numbers.

A sentiment I used to see about Twitter vs. Facebook is that Facebook was where you were stuck with boring people you knew and Twitter was where you could meet cool strangers. The algorithm timeline turned Twitter into the worst of both: a site where you were stuck with strangers you don’t like. It’s worse than Facebook. It might be the worst site on the entire internet. I haven’t even mentioned Trump yet.

It’s all a bummer because Twitter was an enjoyable place for a long time. I met (kind of) some people there that I liked talking to, and I think I even became a better writer through crafting tweets and almost developing a character in a sense. But the site has turned into something dark and ugly and I didn’t want to be there anymore. I realized one day that I was spending a lot of time looking at this thing that I didn’t even like when I could be reading a book.

The decision to quit entirely was maybe excessive, but I’m a firm believer in giving up when things get tough or unpleasant. Knowing when to quit is one of my few real life skills. In this case, it just felt like the site wasn’t doing anything positive for me anymore. I was thinking about it too much (in case that’s not obvious by now) and it stopped being fun.

And on some level, I began to feel like maybe we’re not meant to have a constant stream of people’s opinions running on our phone at all times, and I was tired of spending so much time just reacting to things and reading other people’s reactions. So I deleted my account while everyone was yammering about the White House Correspondent’s Dinner and haven’t really missed it much since. I haven’t seen anything about Trump in weeks. I don’t know what Kanye is tweeting about. I barely know what that “Laurel and Yanni” thing was. I read a book last week and enjoyed it.

“The Man Who Knew Too Little” Might Know More Than We Think

A couple days ago, the New York Times published “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” a story about Erik Hagerman, who has withdrawn completely from hearing about the news since the election of Trump. There were a variety of responses to this, mostly negative about either the article or its subject. Some felt it was a waste for the Times to use precious article space on this doofus. Others felt that the man’s method of complete ignorance and withdrawal was loathsome, a luxury afforded by his privilege and total lack of regard for others.

I found the article fascinating for a variety of reasons. I was amused at the lengths Hagerman went to in order to avoid hearing the news, and the article approaches his grand experiment with a proper “look at this guy” tone, particularly when he tells a friend “I’m now officially cross with you” when she breaks his self-imposed “blockade.” But beneath the chuckles at his eccentricities, there is some real insight here into privilege and the way people use it.

The prevailing opinion on Hagerman is that he is privileged and his blockade is the workings of a selfish man who wants to shut off from the world instead of confronting problems head-on. This is true to an extent, but also an oversimplification that doesn’t draw a key distinction: that following the news is not the same thing as actually being politically active. In fact, following the news passively and commenting on it — while also being fully aware that it only minimally affects you — is its own form of privilege that Hagerman has opted out of.

It is hard to call Hagerman’s blockade admirable, but there is an element of self-awareness to it that I respect. For various reasons, not everyone is cut out to be a political actor, but many people (including me) continue to comment on politics on social media and in real life as if it makes any difference. Hagerman, on the other hand, acknowledges his limitations, plainly stating that he never did anything productive in his years of following politics. While this isn’t the type of attitude that will win person of the year awards, his awareness of his shortcomings is something that others can learn from and I am sort of envious of it.

So this article caused some self-reflection, in that I’m a privileged guy who follows the news a lot and have really been no more productive in terms of creating actual change than Hagerman has been while obliviously listening to white noise in his headphones at the coffee shop. I’ve had an internal struggle lately over whether I should be doing more or less. As much as part of me wants to be the type of person who really makes a difference, there is also the truth that I can’t really stomach a lot of politics, am deeply cynical about the way the system works, and frankly just lack the networking ability to really make anything happen. My contributions have been limited to random donations, which is something that can be done independent of plugging into the gross news cycle.

Hagerman has figured something out here: that shutting up and going away is possibly more valuable than the counterproductive patterns I and many others engage in, of treating politics like entertainment and spending so much of our day reacting to circumstances outside of our control. Even though he likely reached this conclusion through self-preservation, there is real value in shutting off the 24/7 news faucet. Of course, those who have the passion and drive to make a difference in politics should do so. For the rest of us, sticking our head in the sand might be an improvement.

Vyva Melinkolya is a Reminder of Why Shoegaze is Great

I watched lot of figure skating and icedancing during the Olympics. In those competitions, contestants receive two different scores during the routine: there is the technical score, where the judges determine how well they executed certain elements of their routine, then there is a program component score that measures their artistry, interpretation and presentation. Honestly, it’s a pretty baffling scoring system for a sport and it is communicated very poorly to the viewing audience, but it got me thinking about how I evaluate music, especially shoegaze.

There is a very established shoegaze formula, and like those figure skating routines, there are certain elements I really want the performer to nail. It comes down to a certain balance of the reverb and noise of the guitar with the vocals and the melodies. Everyone who makes this music is aware of that framework and there’s a large supply of technically competent shoegaze out there. Where I’ve found artists struggle most is in that “program component” area: a lot of shoegaze will sound the way I want, but it’s hard to make it feel personal and meaningful, which is how the formula can be transcended.

I found this album on Bandcamp by Vyva Melinkolya, and it stands out because of how it nails the technical aspects of shoegaze while also having a personal touch — it’s a melding of the shoegaze formula with the type of intimate recordings that Bandcamp makes possible. On a technical level, the sound of this album is like a tribute to all the shoegazers of the past, and it’s easy to hear the inspiration from Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and others. But what I really love about it is how it has a real sense of individuality and purpose. While shoegaze can so easily be impersonal and focused purely on aesthetics, this album suggests that, beneath all the layers of reverb and noise, it can be a way for an artist to express their true self.

Alyc Diaz is the artist here, and this self-titled album really feels like it reflects her personality and experiences, even if a lot of it is kept under a veil of noise. To that end, she helps with any problems deciphering the lyrics by adding intimate little notes on each song on Bandcamp, which could have been handwritten in a different era. They give the impression of an artist who is passionate about this style of music and is trying to figure out who she is. The note on “Identity” says it’s “about a lot of things. Gender, trauma, seeing things that aren’t there, transitioning.” In the song, she sings “I look in the mirror, don’t even know me.”

The uncertainty in the lyrics is a natural match for the shoegaze style, which can allow a singer to remain hidden from view. Beneath the sheets of guitar, Diaz carves out a little world for herself, proving the universal power of shoegaze: it doesn’t care about your gender, the language you speak, or really anything else as long as you can get that chemistry right. In track after track, Diaz finds the right balance of loudness and quiet and ugliness and beauty.

Her talents are immediately present on the first track, “Love’s Easy Years (Nonbinary Heartbreak).” Its title, which references the Cocteau Twins’ “Love’s Easy Tears,” along with the heavy opening riff make it instantly clear that she knows the history of this music and how to recreate it. There is a feeling of longing in the song and its lyrics, when Diaz insists “love’s easy years will come to me if I truly believe.” Like the rest of this album, this song functions as an ode to what makes shoegaze great and as a powerful personal statement.

This New Janelle Monáe Song is Not Good

On her debut full-length, The Archandroid, Janelle Monáe established herself as a unique and daring voice. The album refused to belong to any one genre, instead blending funk, hip-hop, soul, folk, and psychedelic rock. Its lyrics might have been even more ambitious: inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Monáe’s songs were based around the concept of a messianic android named Cindy Mayweather and touched on themes of afro-futurism and cyborg feminism. It felt completely new and it justifiably made her a star.

Eight years later, it’s hard to find a starker contrast to The Archandroid than one of Monáe’s new singles, “Django Jane.” While her first album felt like the work of an artist with something to prove who was overflowing with creative energy, on “Django Jane” she reveals herself to be someone who has become complacent and bought into her own celebrity hype. Where once there were lyrics that told fantastical stories with deep, thought-provoking themes, now there are only smug boasts. “Already got an Oscar for the casa,” she brags about winning a meaningless award chosen by the same group of voters that gave Crash best picture. “Runnin’ outta space in my damn bandwagon,” she later adds, smirking as she revels in her popularity.

It’s hard to argue with the last part: Monáe is massively successful now, a star of music and film, and this single was met with a wave of admiration on social media. Many are empowered and inspired by her music, and who am I to tell them they’re wrong. But I find this type of pop song, that’s so focused on the artist’s own success and greatness, to be possibly the worst thing in music. If someone walked up to me on the street and started bragging to me about the awards they’ve won and how many people love them, I wouldn’t find them inspiring. I’d find them annoying. And I would probably think they were compensating for something.

It’s not just the egotism of the lyrics that grates. Musically, there is no attempt at innovation or genre-bending like on The Archandroid. Monáe spends most of the song half-rapping while autotuned over generic pop sounds that anyone could have made. It makes such poor use of her phenomenal ability that it almost feels like self-sabotage. There are few other ways to explain why this artist whose music once exuded musical freedom is content to put herself into this tiny box.

In a promotional interview with The Guardian, Monáe flaunted her independence, proclaiming that “you don’t own or control me.” It’s a good message in theory, but it’s hard to reconcile that quote with this song that sounds so desperate for external validation. The Archandroid was the work of a truly independent artist who clearly did not care about how people perceived her — ironically, it sounded more confident than this song because it took risks and didn’t conform to any expectations. “Django Jane,” on the other hand, feels like an artist who is under the control of the music industry and her own increasing thirst for fame and adulation. Its pandering lyrics and generic sound indicate an artist who craves the approval of the puppet-masters who run the Grammys more than one who is interested in music as a form of real self-expression.

As is often the case with pop music, I suspect what makes me absolutely hate this song is what makes other people love it. It’s that Monáe, to use the parlance of our times, “gives zero fucks,” and is simply owning her stature as an artist and giving herself credit. She came from nothing to be what she is today and has earned the right to brag about it. I can see how her confidence and lack of restraint in showing it could be empowering. As a white man, I’ve never had to be empowered ever, so I’ll concede that this song potentially has a power to many listeners that I can’t fully know.

But I do know Monáe’s music and what she’s capable of. I remember being so absorbed by The Archandroid, wondering with excitement about how she would follow it up, and thinking that she could be another Björk — an artist with otherworldly talent who merged different genres and existed outside of the typical pop/indie divide. So to hear her sink to the level of this song is really depressing. The artist I initially loved never would have made a song that sounded this lazy. “Django Jane” could generously be described as an intriguing political statement, but it’s barely music.

The Landmark Feminine Vision of “Hounds of Love”

One of the words I’ve become most wary of as a dude writer is “badass.” It was one I used a lot to compliment women musicians who made heavy guitar-driven rock music — the idea was that they were beating the men at their own game. The problem with this is that it framed them in comparison to men, evaluating them based on how they fit into a certain masculine ideal of rock music that existed in my head.

I had a major “badass” phase where I loved artists like PJ Harvey, Karen O, Alison Mosshart of The Kills, and Sleater-Kinney, who all made aggressive rock music. These are all artists I still like to varying degrees (Harvey in particular subverted and transcended the idea of guitar rock), but my love for them was also based on insecurity: their badassness (badassitude?) let me listen to women singers without feeling like I was enjoying “girl stuff.” I was so drawn to the idea of women beating men at their own game of traditional rock music that I overlooked artists like Kate Bush who were playing a different game entirely.

Bush’s 1985 masterpiece Hounds of Love is one I’ve wanted to write about for awhile because it changed how I perceive music. In my personal canon, the enduring legacy of this album is that it is not “badass” at all. It is distinctly, uncompromisingly feminine and doesn’t fit into any male-established framework of what rock music should be. This made it more difficult for me to initially latch onto than my other all-time favorite albums. It required me to remove those sexist male blinders and rewire the whole way I was consuming and interpreting music. Not that I’m perfect in that regard now, but this is one of the albums that pushed me out of my comfort zone and deepened my perspective.

There aren’t many albums that feel like they emerged from the aether with no antecedents, but Hounds of Love has few easy comparisons to anything that came before it. Even Bush’s previous albums don’t quite have the same feeling for me; I’ve struggled to get into The Dreaming, which is so busy and ambitious that it’s like a code I’ve never been able to crack, and I find songs she made at a very young age like “Wuthering Heights” to be too precocious. These were criticisms Bush faced at the time, and Hounds of Love is where she harnessed her boundless imagination and talent to make her most cohesive and listenable album. It could almost be described as restraint if this wasn’t still such an audacious work.

Hounds of Love is split into two parts: the first half is a murderer’s row of some of the most forward-thinking and creative rock/pop singles ever recorded; the second half is a suite of conceptually linked experimental songs (dubbed “The Ninth Wave”) about being lost at sea and the ephemeral, sometimes frightening nature of dreams. Bush has resisted touring forever, instead preferring to make intricate, complex studio creations that aren’t weighed down by expectations of live performance. Her production on Hounds of Love is fittingly detailed and obsessive, with a dense combination of synths and strings on most songs.

The opener, “Running Up That Hill,” is one of Bush’s most iconic songs, yet I often think it’s one of the weakest parts of this album — not because it isn’t great, but because Hounds of Love is at a level that so few artists have reached. It still serves as a useful introduction to this album and shows how Bush approaches making music in a different way. While the badass music I loved was often about sounding cool and tough, Bush’s performance embraces traditionally feminine conceits: emotion, drama, and fragility.

Bush is known for making quirky music with odd storytelling, and it only works because of her conviction. She pours herself into these songs, committing to everything she does with an intense focus. It’s heard in her voice, a rich soprano that lends itself to dramatic flourishes, and in her arrangements, which have a level of detail and thought that speaks to the effort she puts in bringing what’s in her mind to life. I always love artists who seem almost maniacally dedicated to their craft, and Bush is one of the forbearers of that type of music.

The album’s fifth track, “Cloudbusting,” is where Bush shows her ability to tell a story befitting of a novel in a five-minute pop song. Inspired by Wilhelm Reich and his fantastical pseudo-scientific “cloudbuster” machines that promised to bring rain, Bush sings from the perspective of his young son, Peter, who witnesses his dad get in trouble with the government for his experiments. She inhabits Peter and his childlike innocence — especially his steadfast belief that “something good is going to happen.” The repetitive string arrangement also has that sense of  young wonder and naiveté, which is contrasted with the ominous imagery of the government “in their big black car.” Like all great storytellers, Bush finds the universal truth in this strange tale and its characters, expressing that moment all of us have as kids when we realize that the adults we look up to are flawed.

“Cloudbusting” is one of my favorite songs and it crystallized what this album means to me. Bush singing from the perspective of a boy and conveying those universal feelings is where I realized this isn’t “girl stuff.” It’s “human stuff.” The empathy and humanity in her music is something I can connect with beyond just appreciating her artistry, and I think it’s what makes her an artist with a large following for someone who makes very strange music.

As good as the album’s singles are (the title track and “The Big Sky” are also classics), “The Ninth Wave” is where Bush shows a different kind of genius. Together, the last seven songs form one story of a woman who is lost at sea and trying to find her way home. She brings out the entire kitchen sink of vocal and production techniques to make this story come to life, though it starts out on a simple note with “Of Dream and Sheep,” a piano-driven lullaby that describes the protagonist being lost and wishing for sleep.

From there, things get weird in a hurry. As the protagonist falls asleep (or possibly hallucinates),”Under Ice” and “Waking the Witch” show Bush twisting her sound into something frightening and strange. The latter sounds like a fever dream; Bush includes some other voices and alters her own to convey the illogical, twisted nature of weird dreams and the feeling of your own mind turning against itself. It’s the hardest song on the album to listen to, which might also make it the most effective.

Bush’s natural tendency towards musical exploration really works in “The Ninth Wave” because all the different styles and elements give it that scattered dream logic. The woozy pop of “Watching You Without Me” dissolves into scary nonsense at the end, as if the listener is being woken up abruptly. It’s followed by an Irish jig, “Jig of Life,” which sounds out of place with the rest of the album, but I think that’s what she was going for — dreams are often inexplicable and sometimes our brain wants to hear a fiddle for some reason.

Eventually, the protagonist gets rescued on “Hello Earth” and on the album closer “The Morning Fog,” awakens to a brand new day with a new lease on life and a sense of optimism. That song represents a return to normalcy in the lyrics, but also in the music, as it’s more in line with the pop style of the first half of the album. The production and vocal performance by Bush makes it sound like when you first wake up in the morning after a night of dreaming and aren’t exactly sure where you are.

The idea of “influence” in music is often described in a linear sense where one artist directly inspires another. I’ve often found that to be overly simplistic, and it doesn’t really capture the impact Hounds of Love has had, even on artists who aren’t necessarily fans of it. In my head, I think of it more like a door being opened. The existence of this album established a new framework for music that was feminine, musically adventurous, and focused on storytelling.

A lot of artists I love walked through that doorway, even if they didn’t know who opened it, and there are days where it feels like everything I’m listening to is indebted to Hounds of Love. I roll my eyes when every creative woman musician gets compared to Kate Bush, but it’s also easy to see why it happens. This album cast such a long shadow and was ahead of its time in so many ways that its impact feels biblical.

Two Talented Artists Find Their Voices as The Green Child

I have this moment of panic every January, after finishing my year-end reflections and starting with a clean slate, where I can’t help but wonder if this is the year where everyone finally runs out of ideas and there is no more good music that can be made. Then there’s always that icebreaker album that reminds me that music is great because it’s this infinite thing, always building on itself, and there are always new artists, collaborators, and ways to reimagine the form.

It’s fitting that my icebreaker album this year is by The Green Child (named for a 1935 novel I’m not smart enough to have read), a long-term and long-distance collaboration between artists from two bands I like that I didn’t even know was happening until the album dropped. Mikey Young is a guitarist in the Australian post-punk band Total Control, while Raven Mahon was a member of the defunct Grass Widow several years ago. They worked across continents on the album over a period of several years and the result is a mostly synth-driven collection of psychedelic songs that perfectly meshes their two styles into something that feels really different, like music that exists out of time.

That was a trait I always felt like Grass Widow had: their music was uncanny and strange, but also tuneful, and they were probably too original for their own good in terms of picking up more than a cult base of listeners. While the members went in separate directions, the music they’re making still has that feeling in it. I’ve raved endlessly about Hannah Lew’s band, Cold Beat, and Green Child shares some of that project’s sensibility in its refusal to do the obvious and the way it effortlessly blends different styles from different eras into something cohesive.

This is most evident on this album’s major highlight, “Her Majesty II,” which I’ve been listening to on loop for days. It starts with a reverbed guitar riff that I wish would go on forever, which is joined by a recurring synth part and Mahon’s eerie and distant (yet still expressive) vocals. Every element of the song feels like it’s from a different decade; combine them all and the song sounds like it’s from the future.

I was so enamored with the sound of “Her Majesty II” that the lyrics snuck up on me. Mahon sounds serene, but her words are brutal. She takes aim at privileged people in power: “Captive under the weight of all you consume,” she sings. “In time you’ll rot with the few to replace you.” It’s unclear if these lyrics are inspired by anyone in particular — perhaps even a businessman-turned-world leader of some kind — but they make a clear point while also having a dark poetic beauty.

While it’s hard for the rest of the album to stack up to that track, it is all effective psychedelia that is easy to get lost in.  “Traveler” opens the album with a hypnotizing vaguely middle-eastern synth part and Mahon’s spoken word vocal producing more abstract imagery of “going into a green oblivion.” “46 Timelines” has a soaring dream pop chorus as Mahon’s voice blends in with shimmering synths.

The spirit of collaboration underpins this entire project: this is two talented musicians experimenting with the different sounds they can make together, and the songs on The Green Child bring out the best in both of them. Every song has a different feeling to it, but the consistent retro-futuristic vibe makes this an addictive listen and an early contender for the most pleasant surprise of 2018.