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My Favorite Albums of 2017

December 13, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

15. Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest

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

 14. Sneaks – It’s a Myth

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

13. Novella – Change of State

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

12. Björk – Utopia

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

11. Daddy Issues – Deep Dream

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

10. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

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

9. Frankie Rose – Cage Tropical

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

8. Widowspeak – Expect the Best

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

7.  Palehound – A Place I’ll Always Go

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

6. Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun

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

5. Girlpool – Powerplant

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

4. EMA – Exile in the Outer Ring

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

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

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

2. Cold Beat – Chaos By Invitation

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

1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid

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

Björk Convincingly Imagines a Better World on “Utopia”

December 6, 2017 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Desert Liminal’s “Static Thick” is a Low-Key Gem

November 29, 2017 Leave a comment

In the sea of anonymous releases on Bandcamp, the dream is always to find a legitimately great band that you never would have heard of otherwise. It rarely happens, because there is such a saturation of music writing and critics/bloggers are eager to jump on anything that might appeal to more than five people, but sometimes a band like Desert Liminal slips through the cracks. Their recent release, Static Thick, is among my favorite albums (cassettes?) of 2017, even though it hasn’t reached many listeners.

But that’s enough reveling in obscurity. I listened to a lot of music this year, and Static Thick stood out because it has such a distinct vibe, a lot of which comes from Sarah Jane Quillin’s vocals. She has a husky voice (think Fiona Apple and Cat Power range) and sings with a bit of a drawl that adds to the disorienting, blurry nature of her songs, which explore gray areas sonically and thematically. She plays keys with various effects while Rob Logan handles drums, and the sound is about as minimalist and lo-fi as you would expect from a duo with a self-released Bandcamp record. Sometimes these bands I find on Bandcamp can sound like they’re missing something, or are still working out the kinks, but I wouldn’t change a thing about Desert Liminal’s sound, which is full and rich despite the minimal set-up.

I’m always curious to see how bands describe their sound, especially if it resists easy categorization like this one, and Desert Liminal’s are particularly entertaining: “dreamed up sike rok for high-functioning depressives” and “30 yr old woman falls in love with distortion pedals.” Both strike me as fairly accurate. The pedals and Quillin’s vocals do give the music a hazy, dreamy vibe, and the music is naturally downbeat, almost to the point of being narcotic. This fits with Quillin’s lyrics, which are gloomy and ambiguous like great poetry. There are clear themes of loss and grief, like on “Sun Limina,” but a lot of it is left open for interpretation.

The band I kept thinking of while listening to Desert Limina was another Chicago duo I was obsessed with recently: Algebra Suicide, which had a similar duo approach and a focus on dark poetry backed by minimalist music. That band was a little more lyrically driven than Desert Limina, and had talking instead of singing, but they both create moody and powerful songs with very simple parts. And also like that band, part of why I like Static Thick is that it’s a welcome respite from overproduced music that sounds too eager to please as many listeners as possible. This is smart, challenging music that packs surprising potency in its low-key presentation.

 

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Widowspeak Uses Nostalgia to Their Advantage on “Expect the Best”

November 21, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s easy to overlook a band like Widowspeak, who have been around for a few years while making music that is all within a very specific lane of hazy country/shoegaze/grunge (they call themselves “cowboy grunge”). None of that changes on their newest album, Expect the Best, but it still represents a subtle progression for the band and is their most confident and self-assured release yet. It’s one of those breakthroughs that is unlikely to be widely recognized as one, similar to how I felt about Beach House’s Thank Your Lucky Stars album back in 2015.

Widowspeak’s calling card has always been singer Molly Hamilton, who has had one of the best voices in music since their self-titled debut in 2011. She only really sings one way, but it’s perfect for this dreamy style of music, and her voice inherently captures the feelings of nostalgia and longing that fit a band that (for better or worse) has a very 90s aesthetic. While mostly sounding the same, Hamilton makes some subtle shifts on this album that help make Expect the Best feel different and better than Widowspeak’s previous efforts. Her voice is more a part of the music than it has been before, and it’s aided by her lyrics, which are the most direct and relatable she has written.

The gorgeous opener, “The Dream,” sets the tone for the rest of the album, with Hamilton waiting in line, thinking about leaving town and going west (likely mirroring real-life for the band, who moved from New York to Tacoma back to New York). “Isn’t that the dream?” she wonders in the chorus, and the rest of Expect the Best asks similar questions about the choices we make and the inertia we sometimes have to overcome to make them. “When I Tried” is the most direct song in this regard, as Hamilton confronts feelings of malaise in what might be the most straight-forward rock song the band has recorded. Her lyric “why am I still like this” speaks to any self-loathing slacker.

Hamilton repeats lyrics a lot on Expect the Best, which is another clever way of portraying inertia in the music. The most striking example is on the album closer, “Fly on the Wall,” where she repeats the phrase “it was nothing” for minutes until Robert Earl Thomas’ guitar builds and drowns her out. The song is about a go-nowhere relationship, and the repetition gets across the idea of doing the same thing over and over while hoping the situation will change. On “When I Tried,” the repetition of the phrase “you can try all the time” at the end feels more like a pep talk to herself, but it’s unclear if it will be effective.

A lot of bands use nostalgia in a cynical way by trying to transfer your love of older music onto themselves without bringing anything new to the table. I’m sure Widowspeak have been accused of that also, but I think this band uses nostalgia in a purposeful way that actually adds to the richness of their music. The retro, dreamy sound automatically has the feeling of looking back and wondering what could have been, which plays into Hamilton’s lyrics about encountering forks on the road in life and not being sure if you chose the right one. So even if Expect the Best sounds familiar, the depth and quality of these songs makes it feel new.

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“Masseduction” is the Sound of Assimilation

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Let’s start with this: Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) is a ludicrously talented artist. She can rip on the guitar, she writes songs that are simultaneously catchy and weird, and she’s extremely charismatic as a singer. She has always struck me as an artist who could basically make whatever kind of music she wants because she has so much talent and versatility.

So part of why her newest album, Masseduction, disappoints me is because I keep thinking about what could have been. Clark’s prodigious gifts make her a potentially singular artist, but on this album she seems content to sound like everyone else. While previous albums by her like Actor (which I think is her best work) were whimsical and had contrasts in her guitar-playing and indie pop stylings, Masseduction sounds more like a generic pop album that covers really tired subject matter — I’m not sure if you’re all aware of this, but apparently Los Angeles is a sleazy place with lots of drugs, sex, and plastic surgery.

This doesn’t hurt as much as it could because I saw it coming when Clark became famous (by my definition, which is that people are interested in who you date) and enlisted in-demand producer Jack Antonoff (aka That Guy From Fun) for the album. That Guy From Fun has cashed in on America’s desire for schmaltzy pop with obvious lyrics, and while I can’t pretend to know how much he influenced the songs on this album, I’m more than comfortable blaming him for some aspects. He has a co-writer credit on “Pills,” which has lyrics that are about as subtle as a burlap sack full of hammers, and I also sense his grubby paws on the back half of the album, which is full of sappy ballads from the Fun playbook.

In general, the lack of subtlety on the album is what bothers me — the themes all feel obvious and done before, and the music itself sounds more like a big pop production than an individual statement that showcases Clark’s talents. That said, this album has some good moments, because Clark is too talented to make completely worthless music. “Los Ageless” has been certified as a jam by the jam-certification committee (of which I’m a member), “Slow Disco” is a nice ballad even if it sounds a bit out of place on the album, and “Young Lover” sounds like a classic St. Vincent track with a sweet chorus that is undercut by some distorted guitar.

Still, even with those high points, my ultimate takeaway with this album is that it feels like a five-star chef who is working at a Chili’s. The music on Masseduction just isn’t befitting of an artist with this much ability, and at times it sounds complacent, like she is coasting through the songs. St. Vincent doesn’t owe us anything, and it’s hard to begrudge an artist for making a pop album to get her art to more fans  — in fact, one of my lingering inner conflicts over this album is that I’m glad more casual listeners will discover this artist who is legitimately talented and weird, and not of the traditional pop music mold. So maybe I’m just selfish for wanting something that was weirder, more subtle, and more like the St. Vincent whose music I’ve loved for years instead of this slick pop album.

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Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s “The Kid” Sounds Like Life

November 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Childhood is a subject rarely discussed in music, for obvious reasons: musicians are adults who are writing about their current grown-up exploits, and it’s sometimes hard to articulate the feelings we all had as little kids in music. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s newest album, The Kid, is inspired by the four stages in the Hindu dharma, and it instantly took me back to those feelings of childhood. Its sound is a perfect reflection of the young mind: full of wonder, imagination, and possibility.

Smith is a prolific composer whose work I was largely unfamiliar with before this album. She’s known for using fluttering synths to make music that is light and airy, but also a little psychedelic. The Kid incorporates a wide instrumental palette; her trademark synths are joined by flutes and horns which, along with her layered vocals and off-kilter rhythms, give this album a playful toybox-like feeling. This suits the album’s early themes of learning, being a kid, and discovering the world and your place in it. One of the lyrics on the second track, “An Intention,” sums up how awe-inspiring the process of discovery can be: “I feel everything at the same time.”

A really smart aspect of this album is how the childhood themes of discovery and wonderment are paralleled by Smith, who is using her modular synthesizers as her own vehicle for exploration. Her vocals and lyrics are much more pronounced on The Kid than in her previous work, so you hear her growing as an artist by learning to make music in a different way, mirroring the album’s concept of a kid who starts as nothing but a name before growing into a complete person. This also tracks with her career: she learned to play her Buchla synthesizers after being lent them by a neighbor and now seems to have complete mastery over her tools. While this could easily feel like a detached artist assembling sounds, Smith feels like she is a part of this music in a very primal way because she has that connection with her instruments.

Eventually, The Kid moves past the early stages of childhood into songs with more existential themes that are reminiscent of adolescence. “In a World, but Not of the World” is my favorite of these tracks; backed by a marching beat and twinkly synths, Smith’s lyrics remind me of when I was a teen who enjoyed questioning things I learned in childhood: “I love it when I think I know something and then I find out it’s the opposite. I’m in love with contradicting myself.” The whole album builds up to the final tracks, where the inherently selfish process of discovering the self is replaced by caring for someone else. “I Will Make Room For You” describes finding love or companionship, but in the same brainy terms as the rest of the album: “All I want is to live my whole life for a chance to explore the unknown with you.”

Possibly the highlight of The Kid is its poignant closing track, “To Feel Your Best,” which deals with the fallout of caring for somebody and knowing that eventually they’ll be gone. It’s a melancholy ending that feels like even more of a gut-punch given the tracks that came before, as all the learning and growing eventually leads to heartbreak. However, there is also a spiritual, peaceful element to the song. I think Smith recognizes there is some beauty to the life cycle and how everyone has different experiences that bring us to the same place.

This album is an incredible balancing act, the work of a composer who has put thought into every note. It is smart without being pretentious, experimental and quirky without being too obscure, emotional without being sentimental. It took me back to when I was younger without being nostalgic and simply relying on recycled sounds. As insane as this is to say, Smith made an album that captures life.

Chelsea Wolfe Soundtracks Our Apocalypse On “Hiss Spun”

November 2, 2017 Leave a comment

If the world really is ending, Chelsea Wolfe’s new album, Hiss Spun, is a fitting soundtrack. Wolfe’s music is not particularly political, instead focusing inward on the darkest parts of ourselves, yet this album feels weirdly timely. As massive hurricanes crash the coasts and we reach the precipice of nuclear war because two idiot leaders can’t stop trash-talking each other like grade-schoolers, the turbulence and doom in Wolfe’s music reflects a dark world that is on the verge of complete chaos.

That sense of foreboding pervades every second of Hiss Spun, which impressively manages to be even darker than her previous effort, Abyss, which felt like a concept album about being stuck in a pit and not seeing the sun for 20 years. This is a massive, beautiful monster of an album — the kind that makes other rock albums feel ineffectual and tame by comparison. It pummels the listener with loud guitars and crashing drums while Wolfe’s powerful voice and her poetic, gothic lyrics sometimes struggle to be heard over the din.

What I love about Wolfe’s music lately is how unrestrained and feral it is. She seems to put every bit of herself into every song and note, and it makes these relentless journeys into the void cathartic and meaningful rather than sounding like empty noise. She also has no qualms about embracing drama and theatricality, which stands out in an era where a lot of music is self-consciously “chill” and relaxing. Every song feels like it has life-or-death stakes as Wolfe struggles to prevent her soul from sliding into complete darkness.

Like Abyss, this album uses dynamics heavily, and it’s easy to get lost in its thunderous loud parts or the bewitching folk-inspired sections. But beneath all of that, Wolfe shows an underrated ability as a relatively traditional songwriter who writes real hooks. “16 Psyche,” “Vex” and “Static Hum” are all not so far away from sounding like 90s radio hits, but Wolfe adds enough weirdness and personal touch (plus some growling vocals from Aaron Turner on “Vex”) to make them stand out from other alternative rock imitators. The album’s last track, “Scrape,” is rawer and even more intense than the rest of the album, as Wolfe describes a destructive relationship in blistering detail with less production and noise to hide her pain.

While Hiss Spun is bleak, there is always an inspiring quality for me when an artist really seems to throw all of themselves into the music they’re working on. Wolfe is among the best at that, and her charisma and songwriting ability make her one of the most captivating artists out there. So much music is content to sit in the background; Hiss Spun grabs the listener and doesn’t let go.

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