Old People Make Good Music Too

It’s no secret that music culture is obsessed with youth: blogs and review sites often center around “break-out” or “rising” artists and are usually targeting a young, often college-aged demographic of hip listeners. Music is often linked to image and coolness, and young people are decidedly better-looking and cooler than old people. This is accompanied by a similar mini-backlash against older artists, who are frequently dismissed as something like “dad rock” or have their current work ignored in favor of their classics from when they were the young people being covered by the press and listened to by the cool kids.

When I made my albums of the decade list a few weeks ago, I noticed that the top of the list was dominated by older, more experienced artists. PJ Harvey is 45, Fiona Apple is 37 and has been releasing music since she was 19, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine is 52, Björk is 49, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses is 48, Kate Bush is 56, Mary Timony of Ex Hex and Wild Flag is 44. This wasn’t a conscious attempt to zig while everyone else zags — they were just the albums I liked the most from the last five years.

The common theme with all these artists is that they’ve been around for awhile. Most of them have released several albums worth of material, often fading in and out of popularity as they continued to follow their various muses. There is also a general perception with all of them that they’ve already “peaked” with albums they made when they were younger. Their albums on my list all were well-reviewed, but they weren’t appearing on the cover of magazines or whatever the equivalent of that is now in 2015. The statement my list ends up making (largely unintentionally) is that these artists still have something to say in their work, and it’s often overlooked in favor of less interesting bands that either drive more traffic to a website or can be built by whoever is hyping them.

A lot of this feeling comes from my own background as a self-proclaimed “wannabe writer.” At age 25 now, I’ve yet to feel like I have any sort of deep perspective or statement to make in anything I write, because I just haven’t lived enough — I’m still trying to figure everything out. When I write, it’s in an effort to improve my craft, and I feel with each essay or story (regardless of quality) I learn something and get better. I don’t think writing random blog posts is directly comparable to making music, but the general concept of honing the craft and constantly improving is something I think often holds.

Nearly all the albums at the top of my list had that feeling in them: they were works that the artists had been working towards for several years, and often synthesized elements of their earlier work in a satisfying way. Let England Shake tied together so much of PJ Harvey’s music, and felt like something only an experienced artist who knows exactly what she’s doing could make. The Idler Wheel… was Fiona Apple’s most confident album, a distillation of what has made her such a popular musician. M B V  was the result of an over 20 year odyssey, and drew on both My Bloody Valentine’s past while also hinting at their potential future. I’ve written enough about Vulnicura, but it goes without saying that a much younger artist couldn’t have made an album that was drawing from years of love and heartbreak.

Purgatory/Paradise is an album that was almost entirely ignored, but was really ambitious, taking Throwing Muses’ classic sound, smashing it up, and re-imagining it. Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow had incredibly deep storytelling, and was a vastly uncool piano-based album with songs that stretched past 10 minutes in length. It was a real crafted work made by someone who takes their art seriously and is good at it. Maybe the most interesting example is Mary Timony/Ex Hex: it was my favorite album of 2014, in part because I felt it sounded young, even though Timony is in her mid-40s. It was an energetic, fun rock album, made by someone who simply knows how to write a great song, a case of an older artist beating the youngsters at their own game.

My appreciation for these albums is part of a type of fandom that I fear is getting less common, which is being a huge fan of an individual artist and following them on their journey from album to album. I always see their careers as being like a story, and albums like these as compelling chapters in them. As the internet bombards listeners with seemingly infinite music and new artists keep being recycled to feed the hype machine, this context starts to get lost — it stops being about the artists and starts being more about whatever sells day-to-day. Each album is just used to feed discussion for a day or a week (if it’s good) and then is forgotten about because something else comes along so quickly.

It is hard to make this sort of argument without sounding jaded at “the kids these days,” and taken too far it can get into the absurd Rolling Stone territory where dinosaur rockers consistently crap out “five star albums” into their 90s. But I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen a young band get talked up, only to instantly recognize that it has nearly nothing to do with the music — it’s either because they look like a cool band or they fit whatever story a site is trying to sell. They make the “albums of the year” list once, then are forgotten about two albums later, because some other young band has taken their place.

All of this has instilled me with a lot of skepticism for any young hyped-up band, and an appreciation for artists who have proven they make music that can endure. Youth is often exciting, but in terms of actual artistic statements or expression, it’s hard to buy that so many people my age are actually making worthwhile, memorable work. Sure, there’s prodigies like PJ Harvey, who made Rid of Me when she was 24, but that’s not normal. There’s something to be said for the artists who have been honing their craft for years or even decades, like PJ Harvey now, and are still creating music that has real thought and feeling in it.

Favorite Albums of 2012

After another year of listening and reflection, 2011 has held up as one of my favorite music years, mostly because a ton of my favorite active artists put out new albums that surpassed expectations. Albums by PJ Harvey, Björk, Kate Bush, Wild Flag, and St. Vincent all would rank highly on my favorite albums of the decade so far. Add in great albums by some new artists like EMA and it was a year that had tons of music that I still listen to on the reg (youth slang for “regularly”).

So admittedly, 2012 had a tough act to follow, especially because none of the aforementioned artists were going to put out new music. But even given those excuses, I found 2012 to be a pretty dismal year. The few albums I was looking forward to at the beginning of the year almost all fell flat for me. Jack White went full-blown Rolling Stone dad rock on Blunderbuss. The xx’s second album was a snoozer. St. Vincent’s collaboration with David Byrne gave her some good moments, but was mostly marred by Byrne’s old-man ramblings about television. And I also just got plain sick of a lot of artists I had liked before (Beach House, Bat For Lashes, etc).

The good news is, these artists all falling flat on their face with mediocre outings opened the door for some new faces to earn a spot among my favorite albums of the year — a coveted achievement for any artist, given that a place on it usually leads to a significant boost in record sales dubbed “The Noise Made By People Bump” by the music industry. This list represents my favorites based solely on my personal taste and isn’t intended to be any sort of objective ranking (not that any such thing exists, but figured I’d clarify). These are the albums I thought were great in a year that mostly wasn’t.

10. Hospitality – Hospitality

Hospitality formed in 2008, but didn’t release their debut album until early this year. Fortunately, it was worth the wait: Hospitality is a very fully-formed debut of charming indie pop from the New Yorkers, fronted by Amber Papini’s quirky vocals and instrumental work that is more creative and punchy than most allegedly “twee” music. But what really separates this album is its lyrics, which tell realistic stories of life in New York and post-college angst, especially on songs like “Liberal Arts” and “Eighth Avenue.”

9. Goat – World Music

Not much is known about Swedish band Goat: they don’t give interviews and have members that have mostly remained anonymous, even in an era where artists are seemingly constantly tweeting and oversharing things. That may have been why I was so taken with their debut, which lives up to its title by patching together elements of seemingly all kinds of rock music, but does it in a way that is impressively cohesive and also has a mysterious, enigmatic quality. With songs veering from the scuzzy psychedelic riffing of “Goathead” to the funky and almost-pop “Let it Bleed”, I never knew what this band was going to do from one song to the next, which made World Music one of the most surprisingly entertaining albums of the year.

8. Lower Dens – Nootropics

The music of Lower Dens is usually described with adjectives that I associate with boring music: it’s “atmospheric,” “complex,” and “understated.” All of those are fitting, but Nootropics  is also full of creative energy that keeps it from being a drag, with the band’s swirling noise combining with pulsating rhythms to create a product that sounds like no other band out there. And of course there’s Jana Hunter’s voice, a unique instrument of its own that gives every song a haunting, woozy feel. This was one of my favorite albums to just get lost in this year.

7. Cate Le Bon – Cyrk

Cate Le Bon’s second album was released in mid-January, and I feel like it was barely discussed, then completely fell off the map as the rest of the year’s releases rolled in. Which is too bad, because Cyrk is an overlooked gem of an album, a unique singer-songwriter effort with just the right amount of experimentation. Le Bon’s sound perfectly balances folk and indie rock elements, and Cyrk has a quirkiness that doesn’t feel forced and a level of mystery that allows it to hold up to repeated listens.

6. Screaming Females – Ugly

For their fifth album, hard-working New Jersey power trio Screaming Females decided to take things up a notch, enlisting Steve Albini to engineer and dialing Marissa Paternoster’s guitar-hero swagger to seemingly the highest possible level. The result is their best album yet: Ugly has more memorable guitar riffs than pretty much all the other albums this year combined, as Paternoster takes cues from indie rock legends, classic rock gods, and heavy metal titans while also singing with more authority than ever before. It’s an album that lives up to its title by serving as an antidote to prettified so-called rock bands that make “beautiful music.”

5. Nü Sensae – Sundowning

One of my favorite storylines of 2012 was how many great rock albums came out of Canada — I enjoyed albums by White Lung, Japandroids, Metz, and others, while mostly being indifferent to American and British rock. But the Canadian band that made the most noise was Nü Sensae, whose third album Sundowning was the most intense and primal rock album I heard this year. The band added a guitar player to their lineup before recording the album, which added some riffs to go along with singer Andrea Lukic’s crazed screaming vocals that she alternates with sinister whispering. I like rock albums that sound pissed-off and are a bit scary, and Sundowning fits that bill perfectly — it’s a good soundtrack for when you want to punch things.

4. Jessie Ware – Devotion

Jessie Ware is an unlikely pop star — she previously served as a backup singer on an American tour and was hoping to pursue a career in journalism before getting a chance to record a solo debut. On Devotion, she shows that she’s an incredibly talented vocalist who also has a skill that some other singers could learn from: restraint. Ware’s vocals are capable of big theatrics, but she spends most of the album singing in more sultry, hushed tones while backed by sophisticated pop arrangements and silky smooth production. When she does decide to start belting — like on “Wildest Moments” — she makes it count. For whatever reason, Ware didn’t seem to make much headway on the charts in England or America, but this album is still a reminder of how great pop music can be in the right hands.

3. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance

As the guitarist for Deerhunter, Lockett Pundt has spent most of the last few years in the shadow of outspoken frontman Bradford Cox. On Spooky Action at a Distance, Pundt takes a big step out with a cohesive and individual collection of droney shoegaze jams in the model of previous Deerhunter highlight “Desire Lines.” Lockett’s ability to make epic songs while retaining an understated charm is prominent here, especially on longer songs like “Jet Out of the Tundra” and “Remember Our Days,” both of which combine his blissful guitar-work with Stereolab-like rhythms. I can’t say Spooky Action is particularly innovative, but it was some of my favorite pure ear-candy of the year.

2. Allo Darlin’ – Europe

One of my biggest issues with 2012’s music was how it felt like every hyped-up indie pop artist had some sort of gimmick: autotune, production effects, silly lyrics, noise — whatever superficial elements they could throw together that could get them noticed by Pitchfork and the rest of the blogging hype machine. I found a lot of this music incredibly alienating because it was so desperately trendy and calculated. That’s why Allo Darlin’s Europe was such a breath of fresh air — it’s an indie pop album that embraced the genre’s roots in genuine emotion and warmth instead of trying to be in the next iPod commercial. It also established Australian Elizabeth Morris as one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Her true-to-life lyrics, heartfelt singing, and the band’s jangly instrumentation made Europe impossible for me to resist.

1. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

Of all my favorite established artists who released music this year, Fiona Apple was the only one who really delivered. I think it might be because she barely uses the internet or leaves her house, which is why The Idler Wheel… sounds so fresh and timeless. Like all of her albums since Tidal, it feels like an album only Fiona Apple could have made, and it doesn’t feel poisoned by all the outside pressures that made so much music lame in 2012. The Idler Wheel… also is the most authentic Fiona Apple album yet, reducing her sound to just acoustic instruments and some quirky found percussion while putting the focus on her outstanding voice and lyrics. The time lapse between her albums indicates an artist who pours herself into every effort, and that’s what really separated The Idler Wheel… for me this year — it’s the album that felt most important to the artist that made it.

Fiona Apple – “The Idler Wheel…”

Stream it on NPR

If there were any lingering doubts I had about the first Fiona Apple album in seven years, they were quickly erased when she revealed the title: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. The decision to go for another poem title after 1999’s 90-word When the Pawn… was a classic Fiona Apple move, one that made her detractors smirk and made her supporters shake their heads and chuckle to themselves. Seeing it was a sign of reassurance, a confirmation that the Fiona Apple who always follows her artistic muse — occasionally to her detriment — was still around.

Being a Fiona Apple fan is often frustrating. While some artists always seem to be in the spotlight and working on new projects, Apple — a noted recluse who claims to rarely leave her house — falls completely off the radar between albums. This can sometimes give the illusion that she isn’t working or doesn’t care about making music anymore, and at times in the last few years I wondered if I would ever hear new music from her again. The advantage is that when she does finally resurface it feels like an event, and with The Idler Wheel… she’s offered a reminder of how much music has sorely lacked her presence since 2005.

Apple officially returned to the spotlight at the South By Southwest music festival, where her performances of new songs were met with rave reviews for their raw energy and nerves. She frequently sang with her eyes closed, twitching back and forth and, as usual, sang with a tremendous amount of conviction, as if she was excising some inner demon with each performance. Little details like this are what makes Apple so refreshingly different from what music has become now. There are no put-ons or affectations, no musical gimmickry or autotune. She does not hide behind a persona. All she’s done (at least since Tidal) is be herself, and that’s especially true on The Idler Wheel…, which is probably her most Fiona Apple-y album yet.

The Idler Wheel… mostly ditches the sometimes excessive instrumentation that permeated Extraordinary Machine, putting the focus entirely where it should be: on Apple’s voice and lyrics. The music is primarily based around piano and percussion, with a lot of different drums and several sampled sounds used to give the songs Apple’s trademark quirkiness while not stealing the spotlight from her. As usual, Apple’s lyrics are witty and reflective, focusing on her relationships and inner struggles. Her voice used to sound silky smooth on earlier albums but now has a world-weary rasp that serves the songs and subject matter better.

Like all of her albums since Tidal, The Idler Wheel… isn’t making a huge bid for radio play and commercial success, as the spare instrumentation makes the songs more suited for quiet headphone listening than blasting on the radio. Lead single “Every Single Night” is probably the most accurate glimpse into Apple’s psyche so far (and the artistic psyche in general), where “every night is a fight with my brain.” The accompanying music video with Apple wearing an octopus on her head and being covered in snails reminds me a bit of the video for “Criminal,” but with slimy animals instead of creepy sexuality.

Other songs, like “Werewolf” have a sense of looking back, perhaps to early childhood. The most chill-inducing moment on the album is in the last minute of that song, when Apple samples in the sound of children playing on a playground, instantly giving the song a tangible sense of longing for simpler times as she sings the quotable line “nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.” Elsewhere, Apple pays tribute to former boyfriend Jonathan Ames (on “Jonathan”) rather than excoriating him like she may have done when she was younger. Album closer “Hot Knife” is probably the catchiest song on the album, a timpani-backed duet with her sister where lovers are imagined as hot knives that cut through butter.

It’s hard to imagine any member of Apple’s rabid fan base being disappointed with The Idler Wheel…, which is an extremely individual record that shows her talents in top form. Her voice sounds better than it ever has, and the arrangements complement it perfectly. Her lyrics, which I’ve always contended are some of the few in music that stand up as poetry without accompaniment, are as quotable as ever, and Apple continues to have the special ability to make her personal experiences seem universal. This album serves as a reminder that she is one of the most talented singer-songwriters there is, and that her work is always worth the wait.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #9 – Fiona Apple – “Extraordinary Machine”

Listen to the official version on Spotify

I’ve always felt a weird connection to Fiona Apple and her music, even though it never really feels like it was intended for me. Mostly because I think she’s misunderstood — as an artist and as a person — due to various incidents and media portrayals. Apple broke through at age 19 with her album Tidal and was instantly thrust into the public spotlight. The results were some unflattering, extremely public moments — namely her controversial music video for hit single “Criminal”, which showed her parading around in nearly no clothing while looking potentially anorexic, and her infamous “this world is bullshit” speech delivered at the MTV Video Music awards after winning for Best New Artist. Along with some on-stage meltdowns, those moments have colored most of the public’s perception of Apple, who is often seen as a poster-girl for pretentiousness and flakiness.

I had the same preconceptions about her before I seriously listened to a note of her music. I knew the name from the “Criminal” video and I knew some of the songs off Tidal. I assumed, like many others, that not only was she an annoying person, but that her music was also bland. In my mind, I had associated her with that Lilith Fair/coffeehouse style of music that is an over-serious woman playing on a piano while reciting crappy poetry and quoting Maya Angelou.

I still sort of feel that way about Tidal, but she released that album when she was 19. 19! I don’t even remember anything I did when I was 19, but it certainly wasn’t noteworthy and I definitely wouldn’t want the world judging me by it. Meanwhile, Fiona’s music matured from there, and her 1999 album When the Pawn… (which has a 90 word title that seems to consciously stick it to people that labeled her as pretentious) is when her music really clicked for me. It was the complete opposite of what I had often imagined her music being: it was creative, it had tempo changes and often eschewed typical pop verse-chorus structure, and it had some arrangements that really surprised me. On top of that, Apple continued to have that jazzy contralto voice and her lyrics are very smart and insightful with clever rhyming. Definitely not crappy poetry. Predictably, the album sold about 1/3 of the copies that Tidal did.

Fiona’s career and reputation faced another challenge after that, as Extraordinary Machine became one of the more memorable fiascoes of the decade. After recording for the album with Jon Brion (who produced When the Pawn…), Apple was reportedly unhappy with the results, which led to the album being shelved. The tracks eventually leaked online, and the infamous bootleg led to an online campaign called “Free Fiona” that sought to get the album an official release. Eventually Apple enlisted Mike Elizondo to re-record the tracks and Extraordinary Machine was finally released in 2005.

The official version gets inevitably compared to the bootleg version, and I personally enjoy some of the takes by each producer. If nothing else, the bootleg is a fascinating glimpse into the role a producer plays and it’s interesting to see what Fiona disliked about the original version. For the most part, her voice shines through more on the official release, while it’s sometimes buried under the excessively ornate instrumentation of the bootleg.

Regardless of which version you listen to, Fiona’s songs are intact, and they’re arguably the best of her career. They cover the same thematic territory that she usually does — primarily relationships and self-reflection — but her lyrics are wittier and more incisive than before. Musically the album feels like a throwback that doesn’t really belong in this decade, with the sounds of early musicals and more oddball baroque instrumentation sometimes joining Apple on her piano. Nothing on the album comes all that close to the traditional radio-friendly piano pop on Tidal.

There are many highlights on Extraordinary Machine, particularly “O’Sailor”, which gets weakened a bit on the official release compared to the bootleg version that has a slower tempo and a minute more length to create its dreamy atmosphere. “Red Red Red” was overproduced on the bootleg but becomes one of the official album’s finer moments thanks to more subtle strings and a more reflective, down-tempo mood. Part of the fun with the album is comparing and mixing and matching the two versions (I eventually created a playlist of the ideal version using my favorite cut of each song).

Extraordinary Machine is a quirky, individual album that captures Fiona’s strengths as an artist extremely well. It feels very detached from any other albums I’ve heard from the decade and I give Apple a lot of credit for following her own artistic muse and forsaking commercial success that probably could have come easy to her after Tidal. Despite all the hoopla around the album’s release and the artist, Extraordinary Machine proves that she’s genuine as an artist and also possesses a phenomenal combination of voice, lyrical abiity, and imagination. This is where many music writers would call her an “extraordinary machine”, but I’m not going to do that because I have too much integrity.

What I think really draws people to Fiona Apple and has allowed her to create a fervent following is that all of her songs seem to be deeply meaningful to her and are sung with great conviction. Her pattern of releasing music seems to confirm this: with three albums (and soon a fourth) in 16 years, she isn’t one to just churn something out to make money. I think the fact that she takes her art seriously is sometimes confused for pretentiousness. Extraordinary Machine was her only album from this decade, and its long awaited follow-up, with its Fiona-y title “The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do” will finally arrive in June.