I Like These New Songs (Pt. 1)

I had a music slump earlier in the year and didn’t feel like writing, so I’m going to catch up on all the stuff I’ve been listening to with a couple quick posts.

The Weather Station – “Robber”

One of my lifelong hobbies is making fun of folk music, since I find almost all of it boring and it’s hard not to poke at the reverence its’s often held in by the snobbier types of listeners. The Weather Station’s Ignorance is the folkiest album I’ve liked in a long time because of songs like “Robber”: this is musically interesting, with creative rhythms, a dense saxophone-heavy arrangement, and lyrics that are thought-provoking instead of the usual woe-is-me stuff that often passes for depth because it’s sad (which equals good, as we all know). Tamara Lindeman’s vocals are the finishing touch — I think they channel Sarah McLachlan, adding to my ongoing thesis that she is a quietly influential figure in acclaimed indie music right now.

Cassandra Jenkins – “Hard Drive”

Along with “Robber,” Cassandra Jenkins’ “Hard Drive” is part of why 2021 is the year of women in their late 30s making saxophone-heavy folk. This song is kind of the oddball on her album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, as it goes with a primarily spoken-word delivery that plays over the saxophone and a repeating piano part, eventually growing into a stirring crescendo over the course of five minutes. The understated vocals allow the lyrics to shine; there is maximum wordplay from the phrase “hard drive” that refers both to the mind and her experiences of literally having a hard time driving (relatable).

Lia Ices – “Earthy”

Lia Ices’ Family Album rounds out this trio of folky albums I’ve been into, and I might actually like it the most of them all even though it slid under the radar with a zero hype January release. After a move to California, Ices went for the classic Laurel Canyon sound, adding a slight tinge of psychedelia (the perfect amount, really) to her piano-heavy arrangements in part thanks to production from the late JR White of Girls. The lyrics are often about her experiences as a new mother, as the title suggests, which is part of what gives this album a sense of warmth and optimism that is refreshing in this field. Given how successful Weyes Blood was with a similar sound a couple years ago, I’m a little disappointed that this album hasn’t reached more listeners.

Chelsea Wolfe – “Diana”

I haven’t been a participant in society’s superhero obsession and largely consider the DC and Marvel movies to be mindless military propaganda that is used to make hordes of viewers obedient slaves of the U.S. government, the Walt Disney Corporation, and Warner Brothers. At risk of sounding like a snob, I believe not enjoying these films makes me superior to others in matters of taste and intellect. That said, Chelsea Wolfe’s “Diana” is inspired by Wonder Woman as part of a DC Comics metal collaboration, and it actually makes the character sound interesting compared to the celebrity cosplay version on screen. I like Wolfe in this more aggressive mode, and she brings her usual tension between light and darkness here, presenting Wonder Woman as a more conflicted and ambiguous personality.

Cold Beat – “See You Again”

I feel like I’ve said all I can about Cold Beat over the years. They’re the best band and “See You Again” is the first single from another new album from them that will surely be great. It’s a slower, shimmering ballad, similar to “In Motion” from Chaos By Invitation, but this time Hannah Lew’s lyrics are the most simple and easily relatable they’ve ever been, a sad but hopeful reflection on drifting away from people that rings particularly true in COVID times.

Here’s Some New Music I Like

Some music releases I’ve been enjoying lately:

Mrs. Piss – Self-Surgery

This is a bite-sized side project of Chelsea Wolfe, who is the reigning queen of hyper-intense, melodramatic rock music. While Wolfe has historically been known for slower, dynamically rich songs, on Self-Surgery she shows a different side of herself by amping up the aggression and tempo with help from drummer Jess Gowrie. It serves as a useful companion to her last solo album, Birth of Violence, which showed the other side of her artistry with a calmer, post-apocalyptic vibe.

Given the band name and imagery, which hints at body horror and trashiness, I actually expected this album to be more transgressive and discomforting than it is. Even when Wolfe is trying her hardest to make her music ugly, she can’t help but let some beauty slip out, and songs like “Downer Surrounded by Uppers” have catchy melodies even while taking on more of a hardcore punk structure. The lyrics of that song are in line with the rest of this album, which is the sound of introverts and weirdos unleashing their inner fury at the world. It’s nice to hear some music that actually reflects the rage that many of us are experiencing right now, and it does it without devolving into performative corniness.

Annie – “American Cars”

Grizzled indie pop veterans will recognize Annie, who turned many jaded indie rock snobs into begrudging pop fans with 2004’s Anniemal and 2009’s Don’t Stop. Those albums are classics in the “pop for music nerds” genre that would later be owned by artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, and now the Norwegian artist is preparing her first full-length album in 11 (!) years. “American Cars” is the first single and shows she still has a mastery of the craft and an ability to add deeper, subtler feeling into her tunes that eludes most of the pop artists you hear on the radio.

Noveller –Arrow

Sarah Lipstate serves as the guitarist for Iggy Pop and also records under the name Noveller. Her new album, Arrow, is a hypnotizing collection of ambient songs that form their own cinematic desert landscapes out of her electric guitar. I often struggle with ambient music because it either feels show-offy or impenetrable; Lipstate’s compositions have thought in every note, and she judiciously uses her considerable skill to make an album that is cohesive and vast. It’s surprisingly thrilling to listen to.

Dummy – Dummy EP

The first release from this band out of Los Angeles is the kind of noisy, motorik psychedelic sound that I’m constantly obsessed with. Over only five tracks, the band shows a lot of different sides of themselves on this promising debut. “Slacker Mask” is one of the bigger jams of the year and recalls mid-90s Stereolab pretty well, as does the opener “Angel’s Gear.” “Touch the Chimes” is a long, meditative droning track at the end that shows the band leaning more into folk. Nothing here is mind-blowingly new, but it’s executed so well that it becomes hard to deny, similar to the Peel Dream Magazine album from earlier in the year.

Bec Plexus – Sticklip

Sticklip is an increasingly rare treat: an album that doesn’t really sound like anything else. Plexus’ glitchy electronic sound and chatty, sometimes spoken vocals are most reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, but the themes and her personality are different enough that this album feels like its in its own world. She has presented this album as a “digital confession booth” with friends apparently writing lyrics about their deepest, darkest feelings, though the lyrics are more abstractions than anything that actually sounds like a straight-forward confession. “Mirror Image” is the major highlight; it’s a completely distinct, avant-garde song that confronts the self in a way that feels like a sci-fi movie.

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. Their lo-fi bedroom songs are slow-paced and unassuming, matching their low-key personality, but Wildly Idle gradually reveals itself to be an intimate and powerful album, anchored by their 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.