My Favorite Albums of 2017

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”

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.

#2: Björk – “Vulnicura”

With her loyal fanbase, incredible natural ability, and established reputation as one of music’s innovators, it would have been easy for Björk to coast on her ninth album, Vulnicura. Instead, she released her most personal album yet, a heartbreaking and challenging work that is as far from traditional pop as she has ever gone. The result is an album that is classic Björk: it sounds alien, but is also deeply human.

Björk’s separation from longtime partner Matthew Barney sets the stage for Vulnicura, which has the most traditional concept of any recent Björk album. However, her execution remains singular. Bringing back the strings that defined 1997’s HomogenicVulnicura has a sweeping beauty that portrays her heartbreak in majestic tones, with the music becoming more dark and formless as the sadness increases. The chronological narrative gives Vulnicura a sense of momentum, and also adds to its “plunging into the depths of despair” feeling as the listener pretty much follows Björk during and after the separation.

Heartbreak is such a common, enduring theme in music, to the point that many artists sing about it because that’s just what musicians do. I always wonder if some of them have ever really had their heart broken. With Björk, there is no doubt: Vulnicura has too much intense personal energy in it and too many specific, brutal observations. This makes it one of the more difficult albums of the year, but also a vital listening experience that offers a deep, honest portrayal of the artist’s life while sounding like nothing else.

“Vulnicura,” “I Want to Grow Up,” and the Albums of the Decade

This post was initially going to be about my albums of the decade (so far). I put an initial list of 20 albums together, agonized a lot over the order, and had started writing the blurbs when I decided to abandon the whole thing because part of me just felt like it was a waste of time. Most people just want to see the list anyways, so here is what I ended up with at the time I threw in the towel a couple weeks ago:

20. Allo Darlin’ – Europe
19. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
18. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
17. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance
16. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Sea When Absent
15. SubRosa – More Constant Than the Gods
14. Nona – Through the Head
13. Janelle Monae – The Archandroid
12. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
11. No Joy – Wait to Pleasure
10. Colleen Green – I Want to Grow Up
9. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
8. Ex Hex – Rips
7. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
6. Afrirampo – We Are Uchu No Ko
5. Throwing Muses – Purgatory/Paradise
4. Björk – Vulnicura
3. My Bloody Valentine – m b v
2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

(I made a youtube playlist with a song from each album if you’re interested.)

The toughest part of the list was deciding what to do with my two 2015 favorites: Björk’s Vulnicura and Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up. With albums that have been around for a few years, my opinion on them is pretty set in stone, but these two were new enough that my feelings on them were constantly shifting throughout the process. And they both ended up illustrating my problem with making these sorts of lists, which is that my personal feelings get inevitably tangled up with ideas of objective Importance in music, and it becomes this unsatisfying struggle between brain and heart.

These sorts of lists and rankings were basically made for albums like Vulnicura. It’s original, complex, and beautiful, the work of a truly individual artist in peak form. Most of all, it’s very serious, and year-end lists are the natural habitat of “serious art.” The top of my list certainly reflects these biases, and I do have a soft-spot for a well-executed serious album that I feel accomplishes something beyond just being enjoyable to listen to. So I never really thought twice about putting Vulnicura very high on the list, since it just felt right.

Figuring out what to do with I Want to Grow Up was a lot tougher. Originally, it wasn’t on the list at all. As I grew more and more obsessed with it in the last few months, I eventually threw it on there, and then continued to move it up as I seemed unable to stop listening to it. It became kind of the Cinderella story of the list: mentally, I envisioned Colleen Green stunning Wild Flag in round one, scrapping past St. Vincent, beating EMA with a three-point buzzerbeater, etc.

This underdog image fits Green, who is about as far from Björk as an artist can be. While Vulnicura is made by an artist with seemingly no limitations, I Want to Grow Up is all about working within them. Green doesn’t have Björk’s ridiculous vocal range (it’s okay, no one does). Her songs are conventional, simple guitar-driven pop nuggets — far from the lengthy and complex sonic landscapes of Vulnicura. And while Björk always has fantastical imagery in her album covers and videos, the cover of Green’s album shows her just wearing a plain dress with a sad birthday hat on her head.

Those limitations are why I initially didn’t think I Want to Grow Up was as good as I think it is now: it’s an album that doesn’t really present itself as “important” in the way albums on these lists are supposed to be. On the surface, it sounds so much like it’s going to be another one of those 90s revival albums that is fun to listen to but quickly forgotten about. And the subject matter of the songs — Green’s slacker anxieties and difficulties with becoming an adult — can also easily be perceived as trifling or juvenile compared to something like Vulnicura that is so adult. I actually suspect Green wants be underestimated and not taken seriously, so the truths in her music hit that much harder.

Green’s current Twitter bio (@ColleenGreen420, by the way) is “I can only be me,” which sums up her appeal: she may not have the prodigious natural gifts Björk has, but she knows it, and I Want to Grow Up is (somewhat ironically) a very self-assured album made by someone who knows exactly how to use the skills they do have. Green establishes herself as a great pop songwriter on the album, which is stacked with addictive hooks. But I think what Green really has going for her is her personality, and I Want to Grow Up is really a masterpiece of character. Her lyrics are funny, sad, and moving in equal measure, and she writes with remarkable clarity. I get a really strong sense of who Green is through her music, which is difficult to accomplish and a trait I really value.

Most of all, I Want to Grow Up has meant more to me personally than any album in a long time. No album has ever felt like it was reading my mind this way, and I have huge respect for Green’s ability to capture the feeling of mundane slacker terror and self-destructiveness that has been so familiar for me. This is really cheesy, but it actually made me feel less weird and alone, knowing that someone else is out there who is having these similar thoughts. To the extent that music can really be “important,” I think it lies in that kind of connection with the artist, which is why I’ve come around on the innocuous I Want to Grow Up as one of my favorite albums of the last five years.

The comparison with Vulnicura isn’t meant to try to figure out if one album is better than the other — debates like that are why I kind of soured on making a big deal out of the list. I just find it interesting that two albums can succeed with such different angles of attack. It illustrates something I like about music, which is that each artist has their own tools to work with: Colleen Green can only be Colleen Green, and Björk can only be Björk. And each, in their own way, is capable of making an album that feels important and necessary to me, as they each have done in 2015.

Björk and the Cyborg Manifesto

I actually wrote this in college in January 2012 as part of a writing course on the subject of “body modification” (don’t ask). In the class, we read “A Cyborg Manifesto,” and, while it’s a very unwieldy, often difficult to understand essay, I noticed parts of it that reminded me a lot of Björk. One of my hobbies in college was writing really esoteric papers about subjects that only moderately related to the course’s subject matter, and this was probably my crowning achievement in that area. I didn’t post it at the time because I wasn’t confident that it even made sense, or that I interpreted “A Cyborg Manifesto” correctly, but the release of Vulnicura got me thinking about it again and I thought it might be of interest to one or two people in the world. If you are insane and want to read “A Cyborg Manifesto,” you can do so here.

Enjoy.

In her 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway put forth what she saw as an “ironic dream,” a vision of a metaphorical cyborg that “can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” At the center of Haraway’s essay was the image of the cyborg, a cybernetic being that would resist traditional ideas of gender and boundaries between humans, machines, and nature. The cyborg was her image of a being that was not bound by Western ideas, one that “would not recognize the Garden of Eden” because “it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.” Haraway essentially saw the potential for the cyborg to be a utopian force, one that connects ideas that humans had previously seen as being incompatible with each other. As things like gender and the relationship between nature and technology continue to be questioned, Haraway’s theories become important to consider. Perhaps surprisingly, the person that might be the closest to her cyborg image comes from the world of music: Icelandic singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Through her music – particularly her albums Post, Homogenic, and Biophilia – and other forms of multi-media engagement, Björk has attempted to erase the dualities that exist between humans, technology, and nature much in the way that Haraway envisioned.

At the time of Haraway’s writing, Björk was in the short-lived post-punk band KUKL. She rose to fame as a member of the alternative pop band The Sugarcubes, but had her most success after the band broke up in 1992 and she embarked on a solo career. Björk is perhaps most recognizable for her signature singing voice, a robust soprano that is identifiably hers. Alex Ross, a music critic for “The New Yorker,” described it “instantly recognizable. You hear one or two notes from it and you know it’s Björk.” The individuality of her voice, along with her sense of eclectic experimentation, has allowed Björk to become a singer that transcends many genres and segments of listeners, much in the way Haraway’s vision of the cyborg would transcend limitations that humans had placed on themselves. In fact, according to NPR’s Guy Raz, Björk’s voice itself has utopian qualities: “There’s something celestial about that voice, as if it comes from a fantastic and colorful utopian world.” That sense of the utopian is significant in Björk’s work, and is part of how she shares similarities with Haraway’s cyborg image.

Haraway saw the cyborg as a being that could erase dualities, and much of Björk’s music is about that same idea. Peter Webb and John Lynch claim that “she sees herself as a generator of a type of energy that flows in circuits and which crosses time and space, whether pagan or electro, preindustrial or postindustrial.” It’s particularly present on her 1995 album Post, which was named by “Rolling Stone” as one of the 500 greatest albums ever, in part thanks to its ”utter lack of musical inhibition.” It’s perhaps the peak of Björk’s genre-hopping powers, as songs range from the grinding industrial opener “Army of Me” and the big band style “It’s Oh So Quiet” to the epic, jungle-beats driven “Isobel” and string-laden pop songs like “Hyperballad.” Post established Björk as an artist whose music was a unique distillation of genres. Haraway’s cyborg theory was based around shattering dualities, and Post can be seen as the musical equivalent of that: It blurs the line between experimental and pop, avant-garde music and dance music. And the natural emotion that comes from Björk’s voice, along with the sounds which are made by electronics and machines, makes it the closest thing musically to Haraway’s utopian vision of humanity and nature being intertwined.

Björk’s next album, 1997’s Homogenic, would further that relationship between humanity, nature, and technology that Haraway speculated about. After the eclectic sound of Post, Homogenic focused primarily on one style of sound, which was based around darker beats and strings. The album’s sound is cold and machine-like, at times sounding like an imagined soundtrack for cyborgs. She also sought to make an album that was an ode of sorts to her native country of Iceland. In the September 1997 issue of “Oor,” she talked about her thought process for the album:

Well, in Iceland, everything revolves around nature, 24 hours a day. Earthquakes, snowstorms, rain, ice, volcanic eruptions, geysers… Very elementary and uncontrollable. But at the other hand, Iceland is incredibly modern; everything is hi-tech. The number of people owning a computer is as high as nowhere else in the world. That contradiction is also on Homogenic. The electronic beats are the rhythm, the heartbeat. The violins create the old-fashioned atmosphere, the colouring. Homogenic is Iceland, my native country, my home.

Based on her own comments and the interpretations of others, Homogenic can be interpreted as a love letter to her homeland. It clearly represents one of the main dualisms that Haraway theorized about in “The Cyborg Manifesto,” which is the relationship between technology and nature. It’s best exemplified on one of the album’s standout tracks, “Jóga,” which Björk envisioned as being a national anthem type of song for her country. It uses violins and other strings to create a majestic, stately sound, while she sings lyrics like “emotional landscapes/they puzzle me.” The phrase “emotional landscapes” evokes feelings of both humanity and nature, but the song itself is futuristic, with an unprecedented mix of classical strings and modern electronic music. Along with the music video, which showcased the terrain of Iceland, “Jóga,” uses technology to create a musical landscape about nature and humanity, much in the way Haraway hoped her cyborg would.

Homogenic also included the most obvious example of Björk’s ideas of post-humanism in her music video for “All is Full of Love,” one of the singles off the album. The video shows two robots or cyborgs being built, with Björk’s face digitally shown on them. The cyborgs are completely androgynous, without hair or other traits associated with masculinity or femininity. The two begin singing at each other with Björk’s lyrics: “All is full of love/all around you.” Much like Haraway, Björk does not see human emotions and technology being independent of each other. In the video, she envisions a world where there are post-gender cyborgs, but they are still able to feel love and other human emotions, mirroring the utopian image that Haraway had dreamed of. More than any other song or video in Björk’s catalogue, it shows her breaking down the dichotomy between emerging technology and humanity that is also inherently present in her music.

Last year, Björk took possibly her biggest step yet in breaking down the nature/technology dichotomy with her Biophilia project. Designed as a series of interactive iPad apps to go with the album, it was an explicit attempt to connect science, nature, technology, and music into one package. In an audio message that appears on her website, bjork.com, she outlined her ambitious thought process behind the project:

With Biophilia comes a restless curiosity, an urge to investigate and discover the elusive places where we meet nature: Where she plays on our senses with colors and forms, perfumes and smells, the taste and touch of salty wind on the tongue. But much of nature is hidden from us, that we can neither see nor touch; such as the one phenomena that can be said to move us more than any other in our daily lives: sound. Sound harnessed by human beings, delivered with generosity and emotion, is what we call music. And just as we use music to express parts of us that would otherwise be hidden, so too can we use technology to make visible much of nature’s invisible world. In Biophilia, you will experience how the three come together: music, nature, technology… We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovations.

While Björk had always shown interest in the intermingling of technology and nature, Biophilia was an ambitious attempt to literally combine the two. For the album, she created instruments that made sounds based on gravity. Each song came with an iPad app that would feature some type of combination of nature and music in and interactive form, such as the app for “Virus” that allows you to watch the life cycle of a virus and then use it to create your own music. Each song tied human themes like love into ideas of nature (“Virus” compares being in love to the relationship between a virus and its host). Björk even took things one step further, setting up classroom workshops that sought to teach young people about music and science using her apps.

Biophilia can be seen as a culmination of Björk’s career-long efforts to destroy the perceived dichotomies that exist between humans, technology, and nature. When Haraway wrote “there is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic,” it’s not hard to imagine that she had a project like Biophilia in mind. In many ways, it’s a revolutionary album. The iPad app packaging was an unprecedented attempt to turn the old album format into something interactive, and it also attempted to be something more than just music as the project grew into a massive multimedia endeavor. For an artist whose trademark has been breaking down boundaries in music, Biophilia was perhaps her most ambitious attempt at it yet – and the closest that she’s come to approximating Haraway’s cyborg vision.

As Björk said, we really are on the brink of a technical revolution. As technology continues to increase and environmental concerns continue to be raised, at some point the two will need to be combined instead of being considered opposites. At its core, that’s the most important aspect of Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and Björk’s music: The concept of erasing dualities and arbitrary lines. Each, in their own way, sees ways to unite these ideas in the modern world, to embrace technology without losing our humanity. On some level, Björk’s popularity despite being such an unorthodox artist is likely a credit to the ideals she portrays in her music. Haraway’s ideas of uniting people and concepts is something that seems to appeal to many as our society seemingly becomes increasingly fractured. Björk’s work shows the power of erasing these dualities, and the way music and art can be used to do it.

Björk – “Vulnicura”

There’s a simple question I like to ask myself when listening to an album for the first time: “Could someone else have made this?” About 99% of the time, the answer is “yes” — maybe someone else wouldn’t have made literally the same album with all the same choices, but they could have easily approximated it by finding the right influences and adopting a sound that’s been done before. That doesn’t mean it’s bad necessarily, just that it isn’t really breaking new ground (because that’s hard to do), and as a result it’s hard to be blown away by it. The albums that really make me love music are in the 1% “no” category, and have some level of personality or artistry that makes them completely unique.

The reason for my well-documented obsession/fascination with Björk is that she scores very highly on this test. Every Björk album sounds unlike anything else ever made, including artists who consciously tried to sound like her. I also enjoy statistical oddities, and I’ve started to think of Björk in these terms — as an artist, she is an outlier. Her combination of creativity and incredible natural vocal ability puts her on a musical island, where there are no real comparisons except to herself, as illustrated by this box-and-whisker plot. (I’m not entirely sure if I did this right because I haven’t taken a math class since high school.)

Bjork box and whisker

Björk’s latest album, Vulnicura, is what she calls a “complete heartbreak album,” and it details the dissolution of her long-time partnership with artist Matthew Barney in chronological order. The first six songs are labeled with a time period relative to the breakup (such as “9 months before”), with the first three taking place before and the next three taking place after. In this great Pitchfork interview, she expressed fear that this concept was too “boring and predictable,” but the simplicity of it ends up being a source of Vulnicura‘s power. In the last few years, Björk has made fascinating conceptual albums — Biophilia was a science-filled ode to the natural world, Medulla an audacious a capella album — that sometimes got a bit too brainy for their own good. Vulnicura‘s story helps it find that crucial heart/brain balance that Björk did better than anyone on her classic albums Post and Homogenic.

The honesty of Vulnicura is what really makes it a stunning listen. It’s not like other music is dishonest necessarily, but this album takes it to a near-uncomfortable level — Björk spares no details, and the subject matter inevitably gets brutally sad as her relationship evaporates. This peaks with “Black Lake,” the 10-minute post-breakup centerpiece of the album, in which she describes her “soul torn apart” and broken spirit. The chronological concept of Vulnicura really pays off, as it makes the album into a story, and the mood of the songs shifts as the relationship progresses. Opening song “Stonemilker” is a majestic, orchestral track that wouldn’t sound out of place on Homogenic, and portrays the first seeds of discontent as she demands “emotional respect.” Things get progressively darker from there, as she tells the story of their last night together, the aftermath of the breakup, and the effect it had on herself and the rest of her family.

All of this sadness, along with the lengthy songs and the fact that it’s Björk, has already led to Vulnicura being branded as one of those ordeal albums that is a chore to listen to. At least part of what makes it so affecting is that Björk has created such a connection with her fans over the years, and I’ve always thought of her music as this Utopian idea that crosses genre, language, and geographical barriers. That makes it difficult to listen to her reach what seems to be a rock-bottom emotionally. That said, I also found myself inspired by the openness of the album, especially given her celebrity stature — this was not an album that she needed to make to prove herself. Rather, it seems like something she just had to make for the sake of emotional catharsis, which Vulnicura certainly provides. On the closing track, “Quicksand,” she states a possible moral of the album: “when we’re broken, we are whole, and when we’re whole, we are broken.”

Vulnicura really reaffirmed what I am always looking for in music. The whole reason I listen to it, talk about it, and write stupid posts about it is for albums like this, that are able to express emotions and make you feel things in a way that other media simply couldn’t. It’s an album for people who still want music that has intellectual and emotional depth, that challenges you, demands your attention, and makes you think. And there is only one person who could have made it. Vulnicura may be bleak and difficult, but it is also a triumph.

2011: A Retrospective and Look at the Future

As the year comes to an end, I thought it’d be fitting to take a look back at some of the events and debates that stood out for me in the last year.

The death of Trish Keenan

Most of the year-end “in memoriams” will be focused on Amy Winehouse, but no musician death affected me this year like Trish Keenan’s, who died on January 14th of pneumonia at age 42. Keenan fronted the UK dream pop group Broadcast, who, while consistently admired, never really got the level of popularity and acclaim that I felt they deserved. They quietly made some of the most beautiful and original music of the last decade, drawing from their 60’s inspirations like the United States of America and obscure foreign soundtracks to create something completely new.  At the center of their sometimes dark, psychedelic sounds was Trish and her warm vocals, which ensured that there was always a heart at the core of their music.

Trish’s death struck me because of how unfair it was for such an amazing singer to die of something like pneumonia, and because her death seemed to be met with relative shrugs or lack of acknowledgement from a lot of places. Considering her band was responsible for some of my favorite music ever, it was depressing to see it all get glanced over, or to see the band’s plays spike on last.fm before settling back down to normal just a couple weeks later. Her death didn’t just remind me of how life can seemingly end at any moment, but also the inherent sadness that comes with loving a band that nobody else seems to care about.

I named my blog after their debut album in tribute (and because it’s a great name for a music blog anyways), and I’ll continue to preach the greatness of Broadcast everywhere, even if I just get met with shrugs.

The year of “boring”

The biggest ongoing debate in music this year seemed to surround one word: “boring.” Is music today boring? What music is boring? What does boring actually mean in the context of music?

For me, this has been a subject of my attention for a couple years, when I noticed that local indie radio station The Current was playing a lot of music that bored the hell out of me (typically mopey folk). But the issue really came to a head this year when widely celebrated albums by the likes of Bon Iver, James Blake, and Fleet Foxes were branded as “boring” by many people (including me).

One of my favorite music writers, Steven Hyden, wrote an essay about the topic for The AV Club, where he criticized those that lazily use the word “boring” to describe music. I agree with some of what he says, but disagree with some of it as well. For one thing, I don’t think people that call music “boring” are wearing it with a badge of honor, but instead are simply disappointed at the direction music has taken.

But I agree that the word “boring” is dumb to use for music, which is why I’ve struggled a lot with this issue in 2011. Because, as much as I hate saying it, a lot of music this year really was boring. It’s not just that the sound of a lot of these artists is so low-key and passive, but there’s also the sense that it’s all been done before.  More than ever before, a lot of the most acclaimed music this year seemed to be stuck in the past, either fixated on reviving some trend (like the whole 80’s easy listening revival done by artists like Bon Iver and Destroyer that still completely baffles me) or recalling a specific sound and era. Even as I enjoyed some of the music by these revivalists, I still found it frustrating that so many seemed to be swimming in their own influences instead of making something we haven’t heard before.

Lame indie kids schooled by female veterans

While the whole boring music thing was happening, with most of it propagated by the same types of male artists that have always dominated indie music, an interesting trend for me emerged this year: A whole bunch of female artists returned from long layoffs and made some of the best, most original music of 2011.

It started in February when PJ Harvey released Let England Shake, her first solo album since 2007’s White Chalk and likely her best in over a decade. Like all PJ Harvey albums, it was an original, literate piece of work, but it also benefited from a broader scope as her look at war and her homeland felt bold and provocative when so much music this year felt lifeless and limp.  Her contemporary in original female songwriting, Björk, also returned with her first new music since 2007 with the dazzling multimedia Biophilia project. Arguably Biophilia’s music didn’t live up to its ambitious iPad app packaging, gravity-based instruments, science classes, and all the other crazy stuff Björk was up to this year, but it reminded me of how refreshing it is to see an artist actually try something new and attempt to take music somewhere it hasn’t been before.

Elsewhere, all-female supergroup Wild Flag, which included Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of the dearly departed Sleater-Kinney, released what I thought was the year’s best rock album in September. For Brownstein, who has spent the last few years blogging for NPR and appearing on Portlandia,  it was her first recorded music since that band’s 2005 album The Woods. Wild Flag also included Mary Timony who had been relatively under the radar since her mid-90’s work with Helium.  For members with such pedigrees, their debut album was wonderfully unpretentious, a celebration of the greatness of rock music coming at a time when we need it most.

The reclusive Kate Bush even came back with 50 Words for Snow, her first new music since 2005’s Aerial. With its seven songs clocking in at a whopping 65 minutes, Bush’s album was an ambitious work that was remarkably distant from any sort of current indie trends.  Its lengthy songs never wear out their welcome and showcase Bush’s knack for quirky storytelling. The song lengths became an issue for me as a couple songs I didn’t like as much took up about 1/3 of the album, but it also had some of my favorite songs of the year, especially the 13 minute “Misty” about Bush falling in love with a snowman and “Wild Man,” her ode to the yeti.

So what does it say about music that the most ambitious, thought-provoking music this year was made by females in their late 30-50’s?  I’m not really sure, but I do think today’s entitled indie youngsters could learn a thing or two from the artists that helped make indie music what it is.

(These veterans were joined by up-and-comers like St. Vincent, EMA, Tune-Yards, Eleanor Friedberger, etc.  Overall, I think this was probably the strongest year for female artists in a long time.)

Looking forward to 2012

When I started this blog because I was bored over the summer, I figured it would be a fun challenge for myself, but one that few other people would care about.  For the most part I think that’s still true, but I’ve had more activity than I was expecting on it and have already learned a lot (such as that putting pictures of Björk in your posts is a great way to get a lot of google images hits).  I’ve gained a lot of respect for websites I used to make fun of all the time now that I know how difficult it is to write about something so subjective.

For the next year, my goal is to listen and write fairly prolifically, with more focus on new music than I had in the past year.  Hopefully that will lead to more people reading and taking an interest in the blog, and who knows what happens from there.  I’m thankful to anyone who read or took an interest in my writing this last year, and hope you stay on board through 2012.  This blog wouldn’t be possible without you.  Well, actually it would be, but it’d be a lot sadder than it already is.