Why “The Kid” is an Instant Classic

One of my favorite musical moments of the year comes at the beginning of “To Feel Your Best,” the final track on Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid. After about 25 seconds of bubbling synths, lyricless vocals and cosmic swoops, there is suddenly the sound of horses galloping. It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s one of many little moments on this album that make me think it’s one of the most special accomplishments in years. It represents not only the merging of nature and electronics that is such a part of Smith’s music, but also the journey of life that The Kid describes as the clomp-clomp-clomp of the hooves signifies moving constantly forward.

That sound of the horses galloping says so much without needing any words, and it illustrates the imagination and attention to detail that makes The Kid such a vibrant album. It’s hard enough to tell a story with songs, but to do it almost entirely through sound like Smith does, and to have this much feeling and meaning in it is a monumental feat. It’s made even more incredible by how overambitious and trite its concept sounds on paper: “the story of a life.” I would forgive anyone for assuming it’s impossible to execute on a 51-minute album. But Smith pulls it off, and does it in a way that feels personal while also being completely universal.

What really resonates with me about this album is how its sound has this kid spirit in it — I kept thinking it sounded like what would happen if you let a really smart eight-year-old loose in the orchestra room and they started playing with all the instruments. It is hard to say that without it sounding derisive of Smith’s abilities, but it is meant as a high compliment: her music captures the inner child all of us have, and for an adult to be able to pull that out through her music while still making it sound beautiful and sophisticated is an intricate balancing act. It’s why I loved all of its whimsical instrumental asides, like the opening of “A Kid,” which gradually piles synth sounds on top of its playful beat.

I find that kid feeling especially powerful in 2017, where the political situation and the internet has turned every day into a deluge of bad news as we’re made all-too aware of every bad thing that is happening in the world at any given time. What I’ll remember a lot about this year is that feeling of wanting to disconnect from the constant news cycle, but also feeling like putting my head in the sand and embracing ignorance is even worse. The Kid really taps into a nostalgic feeling, a desire to see the world through unjaded eyes and appreciate life’s beauty, and does it in a way that is wholly original.

And far from preaching ignorance or naivety, The Kid celebrates the process of learning, questioning the world and seeking self-improvement. As its themes move past early childhood into young adulthood, its sound gains a more cerebral touch while also maintaining its playfulness. The most lyrically-driven of these songs, “In a World, but Not of the World,” describes a process I relate to heavily, of finding joy in questioning and proving myself wrong, especially after growing up with certain beliefs I was certain were true. Intellectualism has never sounded this joyous.

Now in my late 20s (which is insane to think about, but let’s move on), I’m still mired in this likely endless process of self-improvement, of trying to do a little better each day and hopefully at some point become decent at life. It’s very internal and solipsistic, and not the kind of thing that would seem to lend itself to music. “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” is a song where barely anything “happens,” as its just some repeated synth noodling with bird sounds over it for five minutes, but it has that feeling of contemplation and pondering the self that describes a lot of how my 20s have been.

Songs like this are also crucial to the pacing of The Kid, which excels at all the minutiae I love to overanalyze in music. Smith shows a cinematic understanding of rising and falling action, separating some of the album’s more powerful moments with ambient exercises that strengthen their impact through context. In this way, The Kid mimics the ebbs and flows of life, which isn’t just a series of constant thrilling events. There are usually long stretches where not a lot is happening (but it’s still sort of interesting in its way), then something major happens, then not much happens again for awhile. In this case, “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” sets up the final three songs, which form an awe-inspiring conclusion.

Which I guess brings me back to “To Feel Your Best” and those horses. After a lot of time spent thinking about the self, the end of The Kid is about making room for someone else, and “To Feel Your Best” is about losing them. What I really love about about this ending is that it is so much more powerful and moving because of everything that came before it. We know how life always ends, but this album creates a relatable journey through childhood that gives this song maximum impact. It’s also ambiguous in the best way: the idea that we start and end life alone after all that growing can be depressing, but I suspect it is meant more in a Zen-like spiritual sense — Smith sees a certain beauty in this universal beginning and end that almost all of us share.

I am honestly a little uncomfortable with how effusively I’m praising The Kid, but I really think this album is going to stick with me for a long time. There is even more I want to gush about: how it’s an actual album that is strengthened from playing it start to finish, how it challenges the listener with its sound and lets you draw your own conclusions, how Smith as an artist is learning and growing in parallel with her story. I imagine its avant-garde (maybe even New Age) style won’t appeal to everyone, but adventurous listeners owe it to themselves to go on this journey that Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has created.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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