“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.

My Best and Worst Posts of 2018

A necessary part of being a small-time writer on a blog that doesn’t get much traffic is the ability to self-critique. I don’t get much in the way of serious feedback and some of my posts get barely any views, so I usually have to decide for myself whether it was successful or not. I think this is one of my strengths as a writer — just like I enjoy picking apart an album, I enjoy looking back at my own work and learning from my successes and failures, and I think I’m able to do it more objectively and honestly than most.

So as a possible learning experience and therapeutic exercise of sorts (plus a way to shamelessly plug posts someone might have missed), I thought I’d look back at the year I had and see if there are any takeaways from what I have deemed successes and failures. Let’s start with the good ones, in no particular order.


The Legacy of Trish Keenan Series

This is something that’s been rattling in my head forever because I’m such a fan of Keenan and so dismayed at how little her music gets discussed. I kept putting it off because I felt a lot of pressure to get everything right and usually would doubt my capabilities to do something on this scale. I’m only partway through it, but so far I think I’ve done justice to her career and have done it in a way that is unique to my blog.

Part of how I generate ideas now is to think about the type of writing I wish there was more of, and this is something I never see on other music websites: deep appreciation and enthusiasm for an artist, especially one who isn’t current. The One Week One Band tumblr is the closest I’ve seen and was the main inspiration for this. Almost all other music websites are obsessed with the now and are chasing clicks through news items, reviews, and controversial opinions. They also focus on an objective, academic style that drains the writing of any personality or joy for music.

So the broader takeaway that I like from this series is that it’s providing something different. I want to give a personal perspective and provide analysis of artists I love, regardless of their popularity or how they fit into the “conversation,” and this series serves as a baseline of what I want to accomplish. Now I just need to finish it, which is difficult since there’s so much to talk about.

This New Janelle Monae Song is Not Good

In a similar vein, I think other websites don’t have nearly enough negative criticism. I can understand why: it’s risky to potentially piss off readers, and a lot of blogs try to cultivate positive relationships with artists so they can promote each other. One upside of my lone wolf approach is that I owe nobody anything, so I can say something sucks if I think it does.

It’s reasonable to ask what the purpose is of just unleashing some negativity, especially towards an artist of this stature. A lot of it is my belief in just being honest: any real music fan has these moments where they despise something, even if it’s irrational, and I want to capture that strong emotion. The Pollyanna approach almost everyone else takes isn’t real and doesn’t actually serve artists or art. In an odd way, I think my post is more complimentary to Monae than the thousands of “YASS QUEEEN” cheerleading articles, because I’m actually taking her work seriously and engaging with it. And I realize nobody really understands this concept of criticism anymore, but I believe strongly in it and want to keep doing it.

There is also some strategic value to this, because I want to provide a context where potential readers understand that I don’t just love everything I listen to. This way, it means something if I am praising an album I do enjoy. That said, it’s important to pick targets judiciously, and even at my most negative, I usually make an effort to respect the artists and not diminish them or their fans on a personal level (except for the Black Keys).

Beyond all this, I think this might have been my strongest writing on a pure sentence-to-sentence level. It flows really well and I think it’s constructed in a way that is persuasive, even if pretty much no one on earth seems to share my dismay at Janelle Monae’s career path.

“How You Remind Me” Is a Perfect Song

Usually when I write about music, I don’t get a chance to show off my incredible sense of humor. It occurred to me recently that part of why music writing isn’t resonating with me much is that it’s so serious all the time. Everyone lately is treating music like it’s in a museum and must be treated with total solemnity, when half the fun is talking shit and disagreeing with people.

So this was my attempt to just write something silly, while still providing some level of analysis that I hadn’t seen articulated much elsewhere. I don’t think I’d want every post to be like this one, but it worked as a change of pace and as a way to show personality/voice that isn’t seen much at professional outlets. And maybe it was funny — I’m not actually sure.

The Landmark Feminine Vision of Hounds of Love

This is the type of post I used to shy away from: tackling some iconic album where it feels like little old me has nothing to add to the discourse. But this one has a personal angle, and I think it has that balance of voice/experience/analysis that I’m trying to do. It is still a little clunky at parts and maybe runs too long in terms of explaining every part of the album, but I thought it was still a good step just to write about such an intimidating work.

Becky Lynch is Making Wrestling Real

I ended up writing three different posts about Lynch as I got obsessed with her story right as I also hit a bit of a lull in music this year. My first two were kind of bad, since I was writing about a new subject and felt I had to fill in a lot of esoteric details for non-wrestling fans. But I thought on this one my perspective on the subject was more accessible, and I made an argument for why Lynch is an artist and wrestling, despite its obvious stupidity, is sometimes worth taking seriously. I don’t know if I’ll keep doing wrestling posts (nobody seemed to enjoy them), but if I do, they’ll hopefully be like this one.


That’s enough of how great I am. Let’s examine some of my humiliating atrocities from this year.

Naomi Osaka Meets Her Hero

For those that don’t know, I once aspired to be a sportswriter and currently work in the sports industry. I know a disturbing amount about sports (way more than I know about music) and so I wanted to try to bring that side of myself to this blog. Unfortunately, the problem remains that sportswriting is really boring and it’s almost impossible to have a unique perspective on any event that happens. In this one, I framed it as characters and drama, but it just didn’t really work and I was somewhat embarrassed to have published it. I like the occasional departure, but this was a mistake.

Look What You Made Me Do

One of the unique aspects of this blog is how I completely shun popular celebrity culture and try to focus on artists who aren’t being written about incessantly. I threw that away when I wrote this Taylor Swift essay because I thought I had a unique enough perspective and it would be entertaining. Neither of those things were true and I think this was just bad. I felt gross after publishing it. Let’s not do this again.

Oh Right, This is a Music Blog

This one isn’t bad in and of itself, but it’s a type of post I’ve realized is ineffective: the album round-ups thing where I just throw music out there and write a paragraph or two about it. I don’t think it ends up serving anyone, because I feel no sense of accomplishment from writing it and I don’t really do justice to the albums, and then anyone who reads probably isn’t that compelled to listen based on the two paragraphs I wrote. There were great albums featured in this post and I should have just written separate reviews instead of crapping this out.

My Best and Worst Posts of 2018

This started out as a good idea — honest self-reflection that would help articulate some of my process — but ended up being a work of bloated self-indulgence. At the end of the day, nobody cares that much about my process and I should have kept this to myself. I would be shocked if anyone even read the entire thing.

 

“Working Class Woman” is a Complex and Funny Self-Portrait

When I put myself in the shoes of an artist who has some level of popularity, I always think the most awkward part of it would be realizing that some of your fans are idiots. Marie Davidson explores that idea on “Your Biggest Fan,” the lead track on her new album, Working Class Woman, and it’s probably the funniest song of the year. In a mocking voice, she impersonates the dumb questions she gets after shows and the sexist assumptions people make about her: “Why are you so strange? Do you play in a band? Do you really need to carry all that gear with you? Is this album about taking risks?”

Davidson’s dark industrial electronic sound, which she’s developed over the last few years, adds some dread and horror to the comedy. Eventually, the funniness of “Your Biggest Fan” gives way to a sense of anxiety and despair as the annoying voices turn into paranoid whispers. It’s an ideal tone-setter for this album, which feels like a complete dive into Davidson’s psyche as an artist. At the end, I possibly knew too much about her sense of humor, her anxieties, and how she feels about her life as a traveling musician.

This dancey electronic music isn’t something I listen to much, but Davidson puts a spin on it that is compelling. The second track, “Work It,” is a good example: taken at face value, it resembles a typical electronic song with a pulsing club beat that someone might use to motivate them while working out. Taking on the voice of a deranged fitness coach, she uses the familiar language of empowerment, talking about working to be a winner and working until you sweat. Read another way, it’s a satire of her musical genre, her workaholic nature, and the values our society has that makes someone define themselves by work.

The ambiguity in tone is very intentional and part of what makes the album captivating. The protagonist of Working Class Woman is complex and difficult, which stands out among one-dimensional portrayals of women in other media, which are often either misogynistic or purely fantasy wish fulfillment with little in between. Davidson isn’t necessarily brave or heroic for working hard and dealing with weird fans — it’s just a part of her life that is portrayed, like everything else on this album, with brutal honesty.

My Favorite Albums of 2018

It’s December, which means it’s year-end list season and a reminder that music (and art in general) is a bloodthirsty competition. All year long, musicians put themselves out there, presenting the public with their latest work — not in hopes of expressing themselves or articulating insights about the human condition, but because they want to make it to the top and be the best. That distinction is administered upon them by bloggers and critics like myself, who understand the art form in a way that average people can’t even fathom. While artists everywhere dream of having that “1” or even “8” next to their name at the end of the year, the reality is that only a select few can make it into this privileged group. To the artists who weren’t chosen: I’m sorry that your work was an abject failure, but hopefully it can be used as motivation to be less bad next year.

The following were the only good albums of 2018. Any album not on this list is not worth listening to.

15. Tender Age – Becoming Real Forever

There is a national surplus of lo-fi, noisy rock bands out there, and Tender Age don’t necessarily distinguish themselves on the surface. This is where I’m supposed to explain why they’re different, but they really aren’t. I just really like these songs, which find the right balance of heaviness, chaos, and light, plus some Sonic Youth attitude in the vocals.

14. Peel Dream Magazine – Modern Meta Physic

If nothing else, Modern Meta Physic proves the value in stealing from the right artists. Joe Stevens’ band is very up front about how it is borrowing from past bands like Stereolab, who themselves were up front about borrowing from groups like Neu, and so on. Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, Peel Dream Magazine put themselves in that lineage, and this album plays as an earnest and thoughtfully crafted homage to the history of gentle psychedelic music.

13. Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore – Ghost Forests

By some margin the prettiest music I heard this year, this collaboration between the two folk artists conjures up woodsy, psychedelic imagery with Baird’s guitar, Lattimore’s harp, and ethereal vocals. The lengthy, spacious compositions function as their own little worlds that prove how two artists can strengthen each other’s sound through collaboration.

12. Julia Holter – Aviary

With its 90-minute run time and gloriously excessive, lush arrangements, Aviary functions as something like a meta-critique of the music listening process. While not necessarily an album I looked forward to listening to start to finish, I really enjoyed exploring all of its nooks and crannies and trying to figure it out. I’ll be honest: I still don’t know if I actually like it, and maybe I never will. But Holter’s project is a work of great purposeful ambition that raises more questions than it answers, and listening to it was a very different experience than any other album I heard this year.

11. Afrirampo – Afriverse

After eight years apart, Afrirampo picked up where they left off with Afriverse, providing an alternate vision of rock music where spontaneity, chaos, and fun take precedent over brooding and tired societal commentary. While their music undeniably seems random, there is real craft in its pacing and the use of dynamics, not to mention the technical ability of Oni and Pika, who both rip on their respective instruments. Sometimes music doesn’t need to be more than two talented people making a lot of noise.

10. Infinite Void – Endless Waves

Endless Waves is one of those albums that never really got a chance, given it was released by a band from Australia that already broke up. The world missed out, as it usually does. This is post-punk songwriting done at a high level with fantastic rhythms and dark imagery. I love music that sounds forceful but dreamy at the same time, and Endless Waves pulls that off.

9. U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

In a Poem Unlimited was my favorite topical album of the year because it didn’t seem intended to be. While many artists pander to critics and listeners with lyrics that resemble Facebook posts, Meghan Remy grounds her arguments in storytelling while not shying away from hard truths. Her album outlines the feelings of distrust and abuse people face in different situations and puts these complex narratives in the shell of catchy, noisy pop that has a punk edge.

8. Nun – The Dome

Nun has a sound that, for lack of a better term, is very cool. The throbbing synth sounds create a dystopian atmosphere of dread typified by the album’s title, which is married with legitimate pop hooks. Meanwhile, Jenny Branagan’s half-spoken singing style puts them more in the punk realm and makes this a band that doesn’t really sound like anyone else.

7. Beach House – 7

A few years ago, I thought Beach House were stuck in a rut where they were repeating themselves too much and had nowhere else to go. Sometimes it’s a pleasure to be proven wrong. On their last two albums, they have evolved while maintaining a sound that is uniquely theirs, with a layer of darkness and introspection that wasn’t there before. I wasn’t as obsessed with 7 as Thank Your Lucky Stars, but it’s another gorgeous album by a band that feels revitalized.

6. Wax Idols – Happy Ending

The fittingly titled Happy Ending brings an end (hopefully a happy one) to a strong run from Hether Fortune’s band, which again showed its knack for goth-rock songwriting that gets into heavy, emotional material while being very listenable. This one focuses on death and loss, but as was typical with this band’s work, it’s not content to just wallow in misery. It finds nuance and catharsis in life’s darkest moments.

5. Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman

Abrasive in both its sound and the personality of its protagonist, Working Class Woman is a darkly comic trip into the mind of Marie Davidson or possibly a character resembling Marie Davidson. Her deadpan singing and ironic lyrics make it hard to tell what is serious and what is a joke on the album, which takes no prisoners in mocking herself and the perceptions other people have of her as a woman in the male-dominated club scene. Its sound varies between subversive club jams like “Work It” and the pure industrial-noise terror of “The Tunnel,” with the unifying link being Davidson’s relentless, refreshing honesty.

4. Free Cake for Every Creature – The Bluest Star

A throwback in the best sense, Katie Bennett’s band plays music that is in the true original spirit of indie pop, with an honesty and authenticity that eludes many more widely acclaimed artists. On The Bluest Star, the band’s scrappy, winning appeal is combined with something resembling ambition, resulting in a sprawling showcase of heartfelt songwriting and detailed character-driven storytelling. The sheer likability of Bennett goes a long way: she doesn’t need much more than some reverbed guitar and her near-whispered lyrics to connect with any listener.

3. The Green Child – The Green Child

This collaboration by Mikey Young and Raven Mahon arrived in January to little fanfare and set a bar for 2018 that only a couple artists matched for me. While not outwardly ambitious, The Green Child taps into all of the best parts of psychedelic music, with introspective retro-futuristic arrangements, ambiguous, thought-provoking lyrics, and Mahon’s understated vocals. It also boasts the song of the year in “Her Majesty II,” a dazzling, timeless mix of swirling synths, harmonies and guitar with lyrics that reflect on current events with a welcome touch of subtlety.

2. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Bon Voyage

The world of shoegaze and dream pop is full of artists trying to sound like their heroes from the past. Bon Voyage shows the power of sounding like no one, as well as the risk. Full of bizarre tempo changes and quirky diversions, Melody Prochet’s album is intentionally alienating and strange, the product of an artist with too many ideas and arguably not enough editing instinct. But the flaws of Bon Voyage end up being its great strength — its overstuffed aesthetic represents genuine unfiltered imagination, the kind rarely heard in music.

1. Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses

Emma Ruth Rundle is making music I always wanted to hear: something that has the massive sound of metal, the intimacy of folk, and the hooks of straight-up rock. On Dark Horses continues her evolution into a genreless force who can make relatively simple quiet-loud alt rock songs sound unlike anything else. Her 2016 album, Marked for Death, was a breakthrough; the sound, the confidence, and the emotional conviction of On Dark Horses cement her as an artist who has no peers.