I’m Obsessed With a WWE Storyline

At this point, I’m sure many people know of my deep abiding love for professional wrestling. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about more because it fascinates me so much, but it’s pretty overwhelming to try to explain this very complex and weird art form to other people, especially those who aren’t necessarily inclined to be interested in it. Believe it or not, there are many people out there who think wrestling is lame and refuse to let themselves be entertained by it.

So this post will be my one attempt to sell any non-converts on professional wrestling. If you’re wondering why I like it, it’s because I love a good story, whether it’s through music, a sporting event, video games, film, etc. But none of those mediums can compare to wrestling when it’s done well — which is not as often as I’d like, but even then you can always just snark on the product.

One ongoing storyline in WWE encapsulates everything that is great and consuming and frustrating and amazing about wrestling. I tend to watch WWE with more of a detached and analytical fascination (which is how I kind of process all art), but this storyline has me emotionally involved like I was when I was a kid and thought everything that was happening was real.

Part of this is because it involves my personal favorite wrestler, Becky Lynch. She debuted on WWE television a couple years ago along with her friend Charlotte Flair, the daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair. They were put into a haphazard team because the writers didn’t know how to write a storyline for women that didn’t involve them arbitrarily organizing into catty groups. Eventually, Charlotte, the member of the group most tabbed for greatness, became the champion. She attacked Becky from behind after losing a non-title match to her to ignite a rivalry between the two, then cheated with the help of Ric to beat her at the Royal Rumble event in January, 2016.

The rivalry with Charlotte helped form Becky’s character as an old-school plucky babyface who does everything the right way and fights with honor. In the world of WWE, this means that her main job is to eat shit from all the heels. She became the first women’s champion on Smackdown when WWE split the brands, but quickly dropped the title to the conniving heel, Alexa Bliss, then faded into the background with few relevant storylines.

Somewhere in this time I became a die-hard Becky fan, and I’m not even sure when. At some point, I realized this was maybe the most talented performer on the roster and I couldn’t believe how little she was used. She is good at the actual wrestling part, but really excels at acting and talking, and she used those skills to organically develop a character that felt real and genuine. She has an uncanny ability to gain sympathy from the audience, which she had plenty of opportunities to show as she got screwed out of every opportunity for the next two years.

Last year, Charlotte was moved over to Becky’s show, Smackdown, and the writers wrote an awkward storyline that mended their friendship, at which point Becky settled into mostly a sidekick role to the more pushed Flair, who won the championship later in the year. Charlotte eventually lost the title to the underhanded tactics of Carmella, an obnoxious heel who isn’t a great wrestler, then took time off to fix her breast implants (yes, really).

With Charlotte gone, Becky suddenly went on a long winning streak on television after months of eating pins and barely being utilized. She was always a favorite of the crowd, but now started to have real momentum, with louder cheers every time out. When she beat Carmella in a non-title match, she was rewarded with a hard-earned title opportunity at Summerslam, having defeated literally every heel on the Smackdown roster as well as Charlotte.

The next week, Carmella attacked Becky, at which point Charlotte returned to save her friend. To punish Carmella, the Smackdown GM gave Charlotte the same deal as Becky: a win in a one-on-one match against the champion and she would be added to the Summerslam match. This put Becky in the awkward position of wanting the best for her friend, but also not wanting her odds of finally regaining the championship to be decreased with the addition of Charlotte.

Sure enough, Charlotte won the match, and over the next few weeks building up to Summerslam they teased possible tension between the two best friends. And using sort of booking logic, it was clear that Carmella wasn’t walking out with the title, just because this wasn’t really her story and the title run she’d been on had run its course and had nowhere else to go. It was pretty much guaranteed that one of Charlotte or Becky would win and then one would turn on the other to set up their feud.

I share this exhaustive backstory because it’s important to understand the long-form, meandering nature of WWE storytelling and how it can get you invested in the characters at a level that doesn’t really have a comparison (except maybe soap operas, which might be the closest analogue to wrestling). I’d been on this two-year journey with the Becky Lynch character, through all the ups and downs (mostly downs) and now was deeply invested in her winning this title, or at least getting a meaty storyline where she could prove herself as a top player in the company after months and months of being underutilized. Another big part of WWE fandom is that the character and the performer (Rebecca Quin is her real name) can become intertwined — it wasn’t just that I wanted Becky Lynch to win, it was that I wanted Rebecca Quin the person to make it to the top because it would be evidence that the people who run WWE believe in her and understand how good she is.

So the match at Summerslam happens and it’s another in a long line of Becky Lynch disappointments. She locks Carmella in her armbar finishing move in the middle of the ring, but Charlotte sneaks up from behind, hits her with her finisher, and pins Becky to become champion. After the match, they hug and cry, but then Becky finally snaps. She hammers Charlotte in the face, beats the crap out of her outside the ring, and throws her into the German announce table. (It starts at 11:30 of this completely legal video.)

This is where the story gets hilarious and fascinating. Because what Becky did is almost always understood in wrestling as a heel turn, and you’re supposed to boo the heel for doing something unsportsmanlike, especially betraying her friend. Instead, the crowd explodes for Becky. They chant her name as she goes on the warpath. They boo Charlotte when they show her on screen and chant “you deserve it” at the end, saying either that Becky should be champion or that Charlotte deserved to get her ass kicked. These are some of the loudest crowd reactions any woman in WWE has ever gotten.

It’s a perfect story that was told completely by accident. WWE, because it is run by life heels like Vince McMahon, actually thought the fans would side with Charlotte in this story. They had no idea what story they were telling, and they underestimated how much the crowd was behind Becky and wanted to see her win. This becomes evident on the next Smackdown, when Becky is scripted to cut a classic “you people” heel promo and the fans don’t buy it whatsoever. If anything, they love her even more, and they’re mad at the company for trying to get them to boo this character that everyone was behind.

The cool thing about wrestling is that the crowd is a participant in the story, and if they’re not reacting the right way, you have the opportunity to change course (unless it’s Roman Reigns). It appears WWE did that last week on Smackdown, when Becky attacked Charlotte after her match to massive cheers, then called her a “bitch,” which in PG-era WWE is about the coolest and most rebellious thing any character can do.

There is a lot of weird wrestling stuff going on in these crowd reactions. On the most basic storyline (or kayfabe) level, Becky’s role in this story was much more sympathetic than Charlotte’s. She worked her butt off just to get into the match while Charlotte got gifted yet another opportunity. And while Charlotte didn’t technically do anything wrong, she also didn’t do anything right and was oblivious to the feelings of her best friend. On a deeper level, this is like a morality play with two characters representing larger ideas. Becky represents hard work, dedication, and the feeling of being overlooked when you deserve better. Charlotte, fairly or unfairly, will always be associated with nepotism and elitism due to her name and the fact that she has been pushed hard as a top star by WWE her entire career. I mean, her entire previous heel gimmick was about how she’s “genetically superior.”

Becky is not behaving honorably here, but who cares? The fans want to cheer Becky because they understand her plight, they’ve been in her shoes (kind of) and they relate to her struggle. Every time she beats down Charlotte, it’s a cathartic moment for everyone who has been thrust to the side or overlooked in favor of someone who was unjustly more favored by higher-ups at their workplace, school, etc. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s defense of “don’t hate me because I’m great” isn’t all that endearing to most people.

This story is still in the relatively early stages, and another fun part of WWE is speculating on where the writers will go with everything. It looks to me like the company has given up on Becky Lynch getting booed and is now positioning her as an ass-kicking anti-hero. She’s fixated on winning back the title and is done letting other people stand in her way. Her character has turned by dropping the silly steampunk gear and not playing to the kids anymore, but they might have accidentally made her the most popular face in the history of women’s wrestling by unleashing this ruthless streak. Charlotte is kind of the loser here, because her character didn’t really do anything wrong, but she’s getting booed because of this building wave of Becky support, which could plant the seeds for her to turn heel again.

I get the sense that this is very inconvenient for WWE, who seem to have long-term plans for Charlotte as a face character and were hoping she could run through a heel Becky on her way to the biggest event of the year, WrestleMania. The fact that it all blew up in their face is what makes this story so compelling. Now we get to see how they adapt to these crowd reactions and what they do with these characters, who are both in a moral gray area instead of the easy face/heel alignment that defines most wrestling feuds.

This story, if it’s not clear, is basically all I’ve been thinking about for the last two weeks. It’s something that only could have been done in professional wrestling, because it needed the long build-up, the crowd reactions, and the physicality. And there are all these layers to it, with the characters, the real-life personas, and the backstage machinations of the company all entangling, which blurs the line between reality and fiction. A lot of WWE is pretty stupid and lives down to outsiders’ perception of wrestling as an idiotic redneck spectacle, but storylines like this are why I stick with it.

“The Bluest Star” is an Indie Pop Throwback With Lots of Heart

One of my favorite albums from 2016 was Free Cake For Every Creature’s Talking Quietly of Anything With You, a charming little 22-minute home recording that was a welcome throwback to heart-on-your-sleeve indie pop artists like Rose Melberg. Katie Bennett’s band is back with The Bluest Star, which expands on her songwriting vision while maintaining its winning, genuine appeal.

“Genuine” is the word I always come back to with Free Cake, and it’s a bit of a subjective thing that not everyone even cares about. When I listen to Bennett’s music, I feel like she believes everything that she says and it’s coming from a real place. This isn’t just because it’s lo-fi home recorded music, but because of how she writes and performs: her lyrics are peppered with little details that help insert the listener into her world, and she sings them as if she’s whispering secrets in your ear.

Compared to the brevity of her last album, The Bluest Star almost feels sprawling with its 14 songs and 38 minutes. It mostly stays true to the style she established on previous efforts, but the extra space lets Bennett develop something of a universe of her own, complete with a roster of rich characters and small moments of pathos. While not strictly connected in a single linear story, there is a sense of a narrative woven together by all of the songs, which look back on long car rides, romances, and friendships.

While many artists focus on small details in their lyrics, Bennett likes to look at the littler things within the little things. “Be Home Soon” is about a ride home from work and starts with a perfect character moment: “eating Clementines on the  subway/put the peels on my blue jeans.” Another highlight, “Sunday Afternoon,” needs fewer words to describe a perfect lazy day where she is “washed in the nothing, happily.” Those blissful songs are matched by sadder tunes like “Goodbye, Unsilently” which describe the other end of friendships as they fade away.

The focus on smallness also applies to the music, which is mostly a humble mix of reverbed guitar and light percussion (as well as that nice banjo part on “In Your Car”). It isn’t overly ambitious, but it is another step forward for Bennett, who has found the right sound to showcase her lyrics instead of burying them beneath a bunch of musical tricks. Everything in her music just fits together really well, and it’s why The Bluest Star feels so honest and real compared to a lot of contemporary indie pop.

“How You Remind Me” is a Perfect Song

For as long as I’ve been interested in music, Nickelback have been a punching bag for people who want to feel superior in their taste to others. Part of this makes sense: Nickelback are a very bad band who make atrocious music that deserves to be mocked at every turn, yet are irritatingly popular, making them an easy target and emblematic of Everything That is Wrong With Music. On the other hand, I started to almost feel bad for Chad Kroeger and co., who have never really professed to being more than a dumb rock band that makes big loud noises for people who don’t really want to engage with music on a deeply intellectual level.

The way I see it, there are a lot of awful bands deserving of mockery out there, and Nickelback’s crimes against music don’t really rate to me. It’s easy for me to just not pay attention to Nickelback, but there are bands who I don’t think are much better who are often shoved in my face as an example of “real music.” One of these is The Black Keys, and their drummer Patrick Carney went off on Nickelback in a Rolling Stone story a couple years ago:

Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world… So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit – therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that! Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don’t like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap, horrendous shit. When people start lumping us into that kind of shit, it’s like, ‘Fuck you,’ honestly.

You can hear the superiority and condescension coming from this guy whose band is a fourth-rate White Stripes knockoff. The Black Keys have every bit of Nickelback’s cynicism and lack of originality while sounding even worse. Every song is like one garbage guitar riff played 100 times in a row. And yet he has the temerity to classify his band as “real rock and roll” — this is what is worthy of scorn, not Nickelback minding their own business with their crummy rock music (thanks for your contributions to the Bojack Horseman soundtrack, though).

He does make a decent point about post-grunge, which is like the Mariana Trench of music — it goes lower than humans can possibly fathom, and at the very bottom there are hideous things that we can’t even comprehend (Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” comes to mind). But within this foul genre of music, Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” holds up as a landmark work that is perfection of a specific aesthetic, much in the way that Loveless and Pet Sounds are.

The style of “How You Remind Me” happens to be one that I don’t really enjoy — this grunty, faux-masculine, whiny brand of rock where every element of the music sounds like it’s been run through a garbage disposal. I prefer listening to women sing about dreams. At the same time, I’m a man who can appreciate the very best of a specific thing, and “How You Remind Me” is indisputably Nickelback’s magnum opus and the high-point of this type of rock music.  While the rest of post-grunge is truly offensive and makes one wonder how centuries of human evolution reached this point, “How You Remind Me” reaches the level of being borderline tolerable.

“How You Remind Me,” is, at its core, a song about not wanting to be reminded of who you really are. Its lyrics are a key part of its success because of their relatability: who among us hasn’t cut it as a wise man or as a poor man stealing? Kroeger’s goat-like voice conveys a man who has reached rock bottom and has nothing left to lose. The repeated lyric, “are we having fun yet?,” asks a potent question to the listener, who is left to decide for themselves whether or not Kroeger is, in fact, having fun yet. I personally think he isn’t, but the beauty of “How You Remind Me” is in its ambiguity.

The song’s sound is a bracing mix of many varied influences: Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, and also Pearl Jam. It’s loud in a way that is typically associated with rock music, but the guitar sound lacks any kind of edge or meaning. This emptiness is, intentionally or unintentionally, a vital part of its status as the definitive crappy adolescent post-grunge song. It captures a certain angsty youthful state where you have extreme feelings and frustrations that feel real in the moment but are really just idiotic and pointless. It spawned many imitators, but none were ever able to do it this well, partly because Nickelback have an undeniable ability to craft a hook or they never would have gotten on the radio.

Am I saying that “How You Remind Me” is the greatest song of all time? Of course not. I think The Beatles have a few songs that are better, and others would point to songs by The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Mozart, etc. But I maintain that it is a perfect song in the sense that it achieves everything it is trying to do. It has a certain bleakness and impotence that makes it the quintessential post-grunge song, ahead of even Scott Stapp’s impressive body of work. I don’t quite classify it as “so bad it’s good” — more like it’s so good at being bad.

Infinite Void’s “Endless Waves” is a Perfect Farewell

In what is becoming a disturbing trend, I’m in love with a band that doesn’t exist anymore. Australia’s Infinite Void have already broken up prior to the release of their second full-length, Endless Waves, which casts a bit of a pall over the proceedings. On the other hand, there is some value in breaking up at the top of your game. Endless Waves is such a perfect distillation of this band’s style and such a strong set of songs start to finish that it would have proved difficult to improve upon if they tried.

Out of all the subjective elements of music, maybe the biggest one is what makes a great rock song. Lately, I’ve been really into bands that sound a lot like Infinite Void: aggressive yet ethereal with a bit of a goth tinge coming from the rumbling bass lines and reverbed guitar. Alicia Sayes’ vocals sound more withdrawn and distant, which leads to the band’s distinct sound that falls somewhere in between punk and dream pop.

The lyrics don’t feel like a major emphasis of this album that is really about the sound, but they focus on the types of motifs that fit music that is dark and dreamy — for example, the opening song “Dark Dreams” is about dark dreams. “Face in the Window” is another highlight, and the titular image is one that is a bit unsettling and creepy. That leads into an instrumental, “The Long Night,” followed by “Reflection,” which hypnotizes with its spacious sound and rolling bass. It’s one of my favorite sequences on an album this year.

It can be a bit tough to convince anyone to listen to an album by a band that is already broken up — it can feel like you’re inviting people to a party that already happened. And there is the sad reality that other music writers won’t be incentivized to write about or promote this album, which is going to keep it obscure. It’s too bad, because none of that has any impact on the actual music, which is so solidly written, thoughtfully sequenced, and has all these compelling tensions in it. Infinite Void deserve a wider cult following that they may never get.

Baseball’s Contrarian Franchise

Despite what you might think from watching ESPN or MLB Network, the most interesting franchise in baseball is not the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the L.A. Dodgers, or the Chicago Cubs. It’s a team that plays its home games in a dingy dome stadium in front of generously 5,000-10,000 people per night, has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, and was accused by almost everyone of “tanking” for a high draft pick just a couple months ago.

Despite the public thinking they were fielding a terrible team on purpose, the Tampa Bay Rays currently sit at 46-44 with a +13 run differential, continuing their recent trend of somehow patching together a .500 team every season with what looks like the baseball equivalent of Scotch tape or possibly gluesticks. If not for the Mariners being the luckiest baseball team in history, they would be contending for a playoff spot. The secret to their success is what makes them the most fascinating team in the league to watch: the Rays are willing to rethink every single aspect of the game if it means getting an edge.

In the old Moneyball days, it was somewhat easy for the small-budget organizations to field a winning team because other front offices didn’t know what on-base percentage was and thought the key to winning games was bunting. In today’s MLB, there are no secrets. The big market teams have stopped entrusting their decision-making to former players who don’t actually understand the game, replacing them with robotic Ivy League whizzes and baseball nerds. The odds have never been more stacked against teams like Tampa Bay or Oakland, who can’t afford to keep star players once their salaries get too high and now are left with fewer resources towards analytics than the bigger clubs.

Since simply outsmarting teams like the Red Sox and Yankees is no longer an option, the Rays have gone a different route: they think differently and weirder. In a Wall Street Journal article, a team official summed up the Rays Way: “If we occupy the wake of both the Yankees and Boston and our behavior is aligned with theirs, we’re never going to step out and pass them—ever.” The only edge the Rays have is their willingness to try anything, no matter how crazy it sounds.

So the Rays have become the contrarians of baseball, mostly through necessity. Their home park of Tropicana Field has become like a baseball laboratory, where new ideas are constantly tossed into the fire. Eyebrows first raised in the offseason, when they traded away their face of the franchise, Evan Longoria, jettisoned last year’s best player, Steven Souza Jr., and straight-up DFA’d Corey Dickerson, who was coming off what looked like a career year. This led to the accusations of tanking (and they were obviously salary-cutting moves), but they were more about changing the philosophy of the team. With the rest of the league obsessed with power hitting and launching the ball, the Rays decided to go small ball, building around their defense and pitching.

It’s worked thus far, as the Rays are a competitive team that is notably stingy at giving up runs. Most remarkably, they’ve done it while frequently using a three or even two-man starting rotation. They’ve taken to having “bullpen days,” where 3-4 pitchers go through the batting order once or twice instead of using a traditional starter. They’ve also begun using “the opener,” where one of their normally late-inning relievers starts the game, faces the team’s toughest hitters, then leaves after one or two innings to hand the ball to the “starter,” who is spared from facing that team’s best hitters three times. These are all dramatic shifts from the way every other team is run, with a five-man rotation where the starter pitches basically as long as he can every game.

The logic behind the bullpen days makes a lot of sense: relievers routinely have lower ERAs than starters and pitchers always are better the first and second times through the batting order than the third. While very good starting pitchers are still important (and the Rays have them in Chris Archer and Blake Snell), using a group of bullpen guys instead of trying to wring 150-180 innings out of a mediocre 4th or 5th starter is one of those obvious ideas backed up by data that just needed a team brave enough to try it. As always, due to their situation, the Rays are that team.

Baseball is notoriously resistant to change, which leads to widespread skepticism and even disdain whenever the Rays try these strategies. But baseball’s obsession with tradition and doing things the way they always have been done is exactly why the Rays are able to comparatively thrive despite being in the worst possible situation. And when the rest of the league catches up to them on bullpen days, like they did with infield shifts and aggressive platooning, they will have some other trick to try to stay ahead of the curve (my guess is trying to develop two-way players).

More reasonable critics of the Rays dislike the team’s cold approach and cheapness, which leads to their best players inevitably being shipped out of Tampa, often at the peak of their ability. Personally, I enjoy the team’s lack of sentimentality and borderline disrespect for their own fans. If the Rays only did things that were popular and understood, they would never be remotely competitive in the AL East. And there is something admirable about how they make their decisions with the internal conviction that they are right, even if nobody else agrees. It’s why the Rays are a fun and good baseball team, as well as a walking argument for not just aligning with the status quo.

“Bon Voyage” is the Sound of Melody Prochet’s Imagination

There are many elements in Bon Voyage, the new album by Melody’s Echo Chamber, that I should dislike. There’s the Ron Burgundy flute section in “Cross Your Heart,” the scat singing in “Cross Your Heart,” that autotuned part in “Desert Horse,” the out-of-place metal guitar riff in “Desert Horse,” the screeching vocals in “Desert Horse,” that guy randomly shouting in a different language in “Desert Horse,” and all of the other things in “Desert Horse.”

This album is an absolute mess and I love it. After years of listening and writing and being kind of fatigued with music at times, it is so refreshing to hear an album that is so different, so unexpected, so creative. Bon Voyage is the follow-up to Melody Prochet’s self-titled 2013 album, and it definitely feels like she is cramming five years of kooky ideas into a relatively short (seven songs, 33 minutes) album. The closest comparison I can think of is Blueberry Boat by the Fiery Furnaces — that was another album that was cryptic and baffling and left the listener unsure if the creators were geniuses or just incoherent musicians.

Bon Voyage is even more remarkable because Prochet’s last album, while enjoyable, was fairly safe and predictable. It was classic shoegazey dream pop, like the noisier side of Broadcast, and the songs all went the obvious way and sounded like a lot of other bands. On this album, the songs never go the way you expect them to; they careen back and forth between different melodies, rhythms, genres and tempos, never settling in one place or on one idea. This makes it jarring and disorienting, and as hinted in the first paragraph, it’s unlikely that any one listener will enjoy every single thing Prochet throws at them on this album.

But isn’t that how it should be? The sound of someone’s imagination shouldn’t always be exactly what we want or expect — that would be excruciatingly boring, which is one word that can’t be applied to Bon Voyage whether you love it or hate it. This is a purely forward-thinking album in the shoegaze/dream pop realm that is too often about worshiping the past.

Here’s a weird thing about Bon Voyage: the parts I mentioned in the first paragraph, all things I normally hate in music, might be my favorite parts of the album. While initially off-putting, after several listens I embraced this album’s eccentricities because it was so fun to hear an artist just try everything and not care. Instead of turning the album off, they made me want to keep listening to hear what she would do next.

People who enjoy doing such things can try to psychoanalyze Prochet and figure out why she made an album like this. There was the relatively high-profile break-up with Kevin Parker of Tame Impala (who produced her last album) and a vague serious accident that left her with broken vertebrae and a brain aneurysm. With six years in between albums, there was obviously a lot of pent-up creativity. It all came out in a gloriously scattered way, and I think the music largely speaks for itself without needing any narratives attached to it.

All of the quirks of this album are the obvious talking points, which can overshadow that Prochet is still very good at traditional singing and songwriting. The back half of Bon Voyage chills out a bit and is more the straight-forward dream pop that she was previously known for, and even its weirdest songs have addictive hooks in them. This is a lot more than some random hodgepodge of sounds: there is a real internal logic to what Prochet is doing, and every second of this album is imbued with the intoxicating spirit of freedom and creativity.

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.