Mount Eerie is Phil Elverum. Genevieve Castree was the singer’s wife. She passed away in 2016. The next year, “A Crow Looked at Me” came out. The album dealt with her death. It was a massive shift in theme for Mount Eerie, and considered the best album of 2017 by a wide range of critics. I bounced off some of what made it great. It was in the throes, too immediate and visceral. I knew it was good, but it’s not the way I process death.
In 2018, Mount Eerie released “Now Only”. It picked up immediately where “A Crow Looked at Me” left off. It took the breath out of me. “A Crow Looked at Me” was an immediate thing. It was sorrow, and numbness. Those aren’t the things I struggle with after someone I love dies. I’m decent at coping, communicating, at finding some process I can dive into that helps me pace those feelings. They’re still incredibly hard, but I can do them.
What I struggle with are the days after, those moments months down the road when I’m well into coping with it. That feeling of missing someone, I can process. But once I begin to get healthier and move on, I begin to fear I won’t miss them the same way again. Once I’ve dealt with the heartbreak, I can fear that I won’t be able to access that heartbreak the same way, to inhabit that moment of mourning again.
When death is fresh and I haven’t begun to deal with it, there’s a space where it’s so hyper-real that it feels otherworldly. The immediate moments after someone’s death can feel like reading Victorian nonsense poetry, a condition invented by a writer chasing the ridiculous. “They went to sea in a sieve” makes about as much sense.
Later, there’s a moment when you turn and it’s not unreal anymore. The moment isn’t supersaturated. That unreality was just a shield, a space to exist to cope. That dissonance between “I just talked to her” and “I’ll never be able to talk to her again” was a shelter. You can breathe in that unreal, saturated, nonsense moment when it doesn’t make sense because it’s so damn ridiculous. You can breathe there, but once the reality of it begins to take hold, it takes the breath from you. It takes that coping space. Once it’s normalized in your life, there’s no nonsense to it anymore. There’s just the fading of that dissonant, safe shelter where you could still feel that person so close still.
“Now Only” captures that new, echoing, isolated, wrecked place. When I begin to cope, I begin to miss how much I missed someone, how close I felt in those moments of shock, how much I felt before it became normal, how saturated the moment was and how much that marked how important someone was.
And even as I cope with this, as coping becomes the new normal, I begin to catch my breath back. And I feel guilty for catching my breath. The sorrow was a testament. My inability to function was a monument to the meaning of who I lost. To move on is to belittle that. I don’t want to belittle that, to dismiss it. I might chase a moment of that non-function. I miss existing in the shock, and then I miss existing in the wreckage, and then once I stop being able to access these as readily, it feels like I’ve done something wrong, like I’ve betrayed how close a memory was.
To be able to keep going back to those sensations feels like keeping the person I lost around. If time heals, then I’m angry at time. Fuck time. It broke someone I loved. It’s the most obvious thing to resist and be angry at in this moment. And part of healing is to one day realize going back to those feelings, going back to that anger, is becoming more and more about going through the motions of it to salve that guilt for having coped.
To recover is to lose your closeness to those intense emotional pieces that keep you connected to the person you lost. But so many of those pieces are desperately formed in those moments after, when there’s just one of you left and you’re working as hard as possible to fill yourself with monuments, with testaments for how much they meant to you, because each one makes you feel like they’re still there.
To recover is to distance. To hold on is to keep someone alive – to keep that moment when you’d still just talked to them and it hadn’t yet translated that you couldn’t talk to them anymore active. That’s real. It’s also an illusion. A part of you will never give that person up to death, even after that nonsense shelter you built for yourself fades. Over time, that becomes a beautiful place, less visited, overgrown, but calmer, more introspective, less fearful of their death and more celebratory of their life.
You don’t want to think about how beautiful their life was at first because doing so would be to accept their death. You want to stay in that moment when you haven’t accepted it, when it’s not real yet, when death hasn’t yet gotten your approval.
Even as you cope, you never want to lose hold of that place. You never want to lose your closeness to it, but coping is about that place changing, and not needing it as often.
It’s not the missing I have the most trouble with. It’s hard, but I know I can deal with that. It’s once the missing fades, how much I miss the missing, how much I feel I’ve failed for not missing as much as I had.
Thinking about how much they meant, loving the moments you had, is also accepting that there won’t be any new ones. I don’t know that I want to fully accept that, but at some point loving them means celebrating and remembering them instead of keeping myself in a place where I can’t.
There’s a fulcrum that balances these two things. I can know this and yet fear it won’t show up, or that it will develop a different balance than I want. That fulcrum evolves over time, shifts as you process and cope. That fulcrum, that shift from clinging to the act of missing to embracing the act of remembering – it’s a process very few works of art can translate. It’s so internal, and we tackle death in our culture in those moments when our reactions are most dramatic and outward.
There’s a bare handful of works of art that can inhabit that process, that can recognize it, remind us it’s OK to go through, that will always inhabit that painful and needed evolution every time I watch or listen to them. It’s where “Now Only” takes me. A part of me wishes it hadn’t. A part of me is thankful it does. I need to know it’s normal, that it’s not some shitty, inhuman thing, some over-complicated process built from ego. It’s just grieving, and guilt that we’re still here, and pain that things are different now. It’s like the world is missing a color I’ll never see again. Its OK to not know how to handle that. Harder yet, it’s OK to begin learning how to cope with it.
The benefit of creating these playlists is that they help me process and cope. The trouble with them is that I’m a perfectionist. Without the absolute perfect song or emotional progression, the feature isn’t ready. With everything that’s going on in the pandemic, I wanted to create a playlist of calming and happy songs. Maybe it’s a list of impressive dance performances. I’ve got a pool of dozens, but the connective tissue isn’t there because I’m not processing feeling calm or happy. I am in places, but that’s not what I need to turn over right now.
I have half lists titled ‘Exorcisms’, ‘Losing People’, ‘break break please don’t break’, and a bunch of others that feel too dark for the moment. I have lists of animated music videos, horror music videos, protest performances – I have maybe two dozen lists of a handful of music videos each that only exist to be plucked from for other lists. None of them is perfect because none of them speak to what I’m coping with this moment.
What am I processing right now? Anger at how badly mismanaged the coronavirus response has been, at the corruption and profiteering that kills patients and healthcare workers alike. Melancholy at the strange middle ground of staying inside and feeling our daily anchors go numb – a placelessness that’s dangerous and the knowledge that it needs to be resisted.
I made something that feels like an emotional progression to me. Melancholy into resolve into anger, and then? It might not come out the way I want it, in that it returns to darkness, that amorphous sinking feeling, but it also gives me a place to put those feelings. I need a place to put them now.
It’s a strange thing that simply choosing pieces of art and putting them into order acts like a kind of canvass for me…but we all need whatever canvasses we have, however personal, however weird they might feel. We have no other places to put the paths we fear, the emotional progressions we worry we might take. Put them to some sort of canvass so that you don’t hold on to them, share them so you can speak about them, and maybe someone else might be willing to do the same.
Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a phenomenal eulogy that dismantles a dangerous mythology of excess. She’s spent her career clarifying this excess by inhabiting it. She’s presented and idolized the intractable pull that makes us chase it, while simultaneously charting her own chase of it and what it costs. She’s painted haze-filled, sepia-toned stories of enjoying its conveniences and comforts as an enabler of others’ toxicity, while marking down the scars it creates.
Her albums to this point have created a lore-filled American mythology featuring celebrities as our gods and goddesses. That Lynchian, Laurel Canyon-double of her that exists in celebritized excess and 70s-era Hollywood has acted both as siren luring listeners in and specter warning them away. There’s duality and dissonance to her music, a feeling of being lost in a dream-state between the illusion and what maintaining it takes from you.
The part of Lana Del Rey that speaks to this time and generation is that she’s both one of those who’s been holding the guillotine’s rope, and the first one marched out to set her head beneath its blade. Her mythology has always been that of an enabler and beneficiary of excess, seeking to partake in that mythology and the privilege of that excess, at the same time hollowed out and distanced, victimized by what it asks her to leave behind. Her career has charted an evolution from feeling emotions through others to increasingly remembering herself.
Her first single “Video Games” in 2011 repeated:
“It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you
Everything I do
I tell you all the time
Heaven is a place on earth with you
Tell me all the things you want to do
I heard that you like the bad girls honey, is that true?”
Here was someone who compared changing who and what she was for someone else to playing a video game. It came with ease. It was expected, repetitive, and most dangerously – fun.
Compare that to “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it,” the last song on “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”
“There’s a new revolution,
a loud evolution that I saw
Born of confusion
and quiet collusion, of which mostly I’ve known
A modern day woman
with a weak constitution, cause I’ve got
Monsters still under my bed
that I could never fight off
A gatekeeper carelessly
dropping the keys on my nights off.”
In “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” it feels like she’s realized the most responsible action to take – perhaps more for herself than for us – is to dismantle that mythology in front of us. She still yearns for it, she still idolizes moments in it, and she also treats it as toxic.
Critic Izzy Black once wrote about the increasing role of the cinema of excess. This includes movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Bling Ring,” “Spring Breakers,” “Pain & Gain,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Counselor”. Unlike previous films regarding capitalist excess that were either tragedies or satires, these all presented excess that brought their protagonists in on the joke. As Black wrote, the characters “own this absurdity. They’re aware of it and embrace it. They participate in the comedy, as they participate in the irony.”
This risked an issue of endorsing the behaviors in these films rather than questioning them. Lessons aren’t learned. Characters don’t face moral dilemmas. Black argues that these characters present a critique of capitalism not in facing negative consequences, but in getting off relatively free from ethical struggle, remorse, and often consequences altogether. These are films that – instead of calling out the actions of their characters – seek to call out the complicity in their creation and our viewership of it.
Where those films created a reflection of the audience that’s in on the joke, Lana Del Rey created a Lynchian doppelganger of herself who’s lost in it: beneficiary, enabler, and victim all at once. Where does it end and where does that double begin? Well that’s the difficult part for all of us in an age of social media, personal branding, and influencers.
This has always been the line that Lana Del Rey has balanced on. She crafts a mythology of hypocritical iconography. She clarifies its role in complicity to excess, and creates an icon who inhabits that complicity in order to do so.
Her character initially identified with malleability to someone else’s whims. As long as she was benefiting or achieving a desire, some other part of herself could be hollowed. That was the consistent theme of her debut album, “Born to Die.”
We weren’t told whether that was a warning or not because the character was never called out on it. Over time, Lana Del Rey’s albums have become increasingly explicit in identifying the scars this has cost her, and the hypocrisy in the Americana mythology that she both worships and warns us of.
If this is her Lizzy Grant album, then Lana Del Rey is being acknowledged here as her given name’s double, as the complicit, both a shield that’s protected her and the hypocrisy that was utilized to do so. The songs here seem to move on from it because that’s where the evolution is, but they don’t try to shirk their burden.
“Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a sloughing of skin, but not in a way that seeks to escape. She’s still squarely in the ring. The entire album calls out hypocrisies and makes more express the trade-offs her character has made. It is a dismantling of her complicity, perhaps because the artists practicing art of excess didn’t get there fast enough, or weren’t enough in number, or maybe just because that hypocrisy-as-critique wasn’t effective.
Whichever way, the most important part here is that Lana Del Rey’s still inhabiting that evolutionary moment. “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a snapshot of it, and it’s an honest one. She’s now holding that double at arm’s length and assessing it. She still needs to express that dreamlike foray into excess in order to make clear the path to leaving it. She treats the complicity of that double as if a recovering addict, someone who “used to shoot up my veins in neon.”
Whether that character of complicity has been more effective in critiquing it or embodying it seems to vary by perspective, but Lana Del Rey’s career has charted the course of the United States falling into an illusive and dangerous mythology of excess in a way no other artist’s has. As she sings in “The Greatest,”
“If this is it, I’m signing off
Miss doing nothing the most of all
Hawaii just missed a fireball
L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot
Kanye West is blond and gone
‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song
Oh, the live stream’s almost on.”
The featured image is from Consequence of Sound here.
A friend recently asked me if I could only listen to a specific decade’s worth of music for the rest of my life, which 10 years would I choose?
Folks idolize other eras – perhaps it’s the pop of the 60s or the radical shift the 80s represented. Maybe it’s the grunge and alternative movements of the 90s. For me, the answer was simple. I said the last 10 years, and if you ask me next year you can just shift it up a year.
There are a lot of things technology has endangered lately, but art is both stubborn and flexible. It’s easier to make music than it ever has been. More people have access to releasing music, more subjects are acceptable to talk about in music, and we have instantaneous access to a wider variety of artists and cultures than ever before.
2018 was a long, tough year, unbearable for many people in many ways. It demanded a lot, so I tried a few ridiculous things putting this together. Eventually, I decided to share my top 100, but only allow myself a sentence for most. The idea is to give a brief impression of what each album is so that you can find something new that appeals to you.
If you’ve got Spotify, I’ve made a 1,000 song playlist of the best songs of 2018. It contains these and other artists. It allows you to find the artists and albums listed below easily:
These are my top 100 albums of 2018. Prepare to hear me use the word “range” way too often.
100. Extralife – Darlingside Ultra-precious, quiet indie pop that alternates between navel-gazing as an art form and harmonizing about optimism in darkness.
99. Bad Witch – Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor discovers saxophones and tortures them until they give up their secrets, much like David Bowie once did on Outside.
98. Aviary – Julia Holter Experimental orchestro-electro-jazz-pop that sounds like the music they put in sci-fi films to symbolize what people from the future who dress like they’re from the 1930s will listen to.
97. Depth of Field – Sarah Blasko Ridiculously catchy yet intensely moody synth pop that (mostly) dumps the synths for strings.
96. You Never Were Much of a Dancer – Gwenifer Raymond Welsh guitar music in the style of Appalachian folk, aggressively realized in its ambition, speed, and atmosphere.
95. Port Saint Joe – Brothers Osborne The funniest country band out there flexes its muscles across a broad range of country and rock genres.
94. Birthplace – Novo Amor Gentle indie folk that feels like getting tucked in for the night.
93. Oxnard – Anderson .Paak A self-aware rap critique of the dangerous risk Black men are expected to face in today’s America that unfortunately descends into a creepy and misogynist reinforcement of the dangerous role women are expected to fill in today’s America. The lighter sexual fantasies are fine-ish, but it veers too close to hatred later. Half is in the top 50, and half has no place on this list, so consider this an average with an asterisk.
92. Premonitions – Miya Folick
Inventive indie rock that tests a wide range, often echoing Florence + The Machine in versatility, but much more bluntly pop-oriented.
91. Open Here – Field Music Art rock that evokes Talking Heads, playgrounds falling apart, flutes conspiring against you, and lost Beatles songs each in turn.
90. The Midnight Hour – The Midnight Hour
Tight jazz songs soaked in atmosphere with a range of guest performers; just beware an ill-advised CeeLo Green appearance for one song.
89. Mother of My Children – Black Belt Eagle Scout Folk-grunge that builds strength out of vulnerable introspection, contemplating singer Katherine Paul’s indigenous and queer experiences in a world that’s often hostile to both.
88. A Laughing Death in Meatspace – Tropical Fuck Storm Australians get mad about the state of the world and shout about it over powerful, deliberate art-punk, burrowing into hopelessness and frothing anger.
87. All at Once – Screaming Females 2018 was the year for this album, which pretty much gives you exactly what you want out of a punk alternative band named Screaming Females.
86. On Dark Horses – Emma Ruth Rundle Fast-paced slowcore post-punk (yeah, I know) for those who miss early Esben and the Witch or Mazzy Star, even though Mazzy Star came back this year, too.
85. Double Negative – Low Slowcore champions of the world shove what sounds like a brilliant album through a shredder and let you try to reassemble it.
84. Nearer My God – Foxing Emo band gets artsy, borrows pieces of industrial, pop, and folk from various decades, actually succeeds, news at 11.
83. Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett Australian gets mad about the state of the world and tells men off in music that leans into a lo-fi punk aesthetic. It highlights the album’s extremely clever and very legitimate bite (often referred to in Australia as “dolewave” – yes, really).
82. The Horizon Just Laughed – Damien Jurado Indie rock meets lounge music, and I mean that in a good way, like in a really cool lounge that plays indie rock with heart-achingly beautiful lyrics.
81. abysskiss – Adrianne Lenker Soft, floating, often yearning folk delivered in a simple style that alternates between calm groundedness and eerie dissociation.
80. Let Night Come On Bells End the Day – Sarah Davachi
Drone music is composed of tone clusters elongated into slow, hypnotic rhythms, a kind of ambient sound art that evokes prog rock and Gregorian chants all at once – Davachi realizes a clear and surprisingly organic interpretation here.
79. The Other – King Tuff Psychedelic power pop that expertly recalls classic rock in sound, storytelling, and – for better or worse – ego.
78. I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions – Santigold Santigold loosens her laser-precise approach into a more free-flowing album focused on Afro-Caribbean influences.
77. Lush – Snail Mail Patient indie rock storytelling in perfect song structures, though its focus on restraint may make the difference between a good and a great album for some.
76. Recovery Mission – MIDI Myers Disclosure: I’m acquainted with the musician.
A very meticulous consideration of trauma and many of the pitfalls and setbacks that can undermine a process of recovery that never fully ends, housed in an album that at times evokes late 90s Aimee Mann levels of lyrical storytelling.
75. Twerp Verse – Speedy Ortiz The forefront of grunge’s still-thriving evolution starts in the work of Sadie DuPuis and her band.
74. Dans da main – Jean-Michel Blais Beautiful, haunting piano solos accompanied only by spare electronic touches, played by a performer who ditches technical perfection for emotional whirlwinds guarded with a sense of world-weary hesitation.
73. Radyo siwel – Melissa Laveaux Dance, folk, and French pop fused together by Afro-Caribbean rhythms and vocals that often slyly take lead on percussion.
72. Orquesta Akokan – Orquesta Akokan Superb, original, big band mambo music performed by an all-star band of Cuban players, with buttery horns, brilliant rises and falls, and soulful singing by Jose Gomez.
71. El Mal Querer – ROSALIA Emotionally compelling flamenco music by way of Spanish pop and R&B, captured in a concept album about a 13th century toxic relationship.
70. Analogue – ODIE
Stripped down rap that essentially presents a character in honest detail and focuses on everyday fears and inspirations.
69. All Melody – Nils Frahm A mix of live instrument work and electronica that sparks an emotion not always focused on in music: curiosity.
68. Chris – Christine and the Queens
Synth-pop that could have come straight out of the 80s, and that delves into questions about gender roles and presentation. There are both English and French versions included, so listen to the one that helps you understand the lyrics first, but the French one feels more seamless.
67. Cloud Corner – Marisa Anderson Thick, weighty guitars that paint sonic landscapes from folk and blues – with no lyrics, just your imagination.
66. For Ever – Jungle British electro-soul driven by layered hooks, funk loops, and joyful singing about disillusion.
65. Safe in the Hands of Love – Yves Tumor Remarkably produced hip-hop built around sound collage and a poignant, unrelenting confrontation of culture-wide racism.
64. Room 25 – Noname Noname’s rap conveys a simultaneously laid back and documentarian presentation of her internal monologue (even when racing along at impressive speed).
63. Dead Magic – Anna von Hausswolff One of the world’s greatest experimental rock artists makes a variety of instruments feel like they’re eyeing you up suspiciously and just waiting till the pipe organ gets there to start something you don’t want to be around for.
62. Beyondless – Iceage Punk from a band that’s flexible enough to stretch into either commanding grunge or rollicking pop hooks depending on what each song needs.
61. Cocoa Sugar – Young Fathers A band that very consciously tries to elude genre might best be described as experimental rap that’s able to veer from Radiohead-like art rock to Massive Attack’s strangest moments of trip-hop.
60. Icon of Ego – Arc Iris
Arc Iris is a little-known art pop group that fuses just about every genre you can think of smoothly into immensely listenable and consistently unpredictable pop songs.
59. Childqueen – Kadhja Bonet Soul music with complex orchestral backing that feels directly lifted from an alternate history where the music is cooler.
58. 7 – Beach House Dream pop that occasionally threatens to become Phantogram but realizes it wants to lurk in the shadows for a while longer, you just keep on what you’re doing.
57. Temet – Imarhan Algerian rock that draws from blues, yet is upbeat and centers its hooks around a distinctive Tuareg vocal style.
56. Love is Dead – CHVRCHES Powerful Scottish synth-pop that’s reminiscent of Paramore and is very easy to re-listen to over and over again.
55. Loma – Loma Dream pop that marries Americana and hauntology elements, with a focus on slow burn song evolution and clearly demarcated layers of sound.
54. Time ‘n’ Place – Kero Kero Bonito As much art installation as album, full of overly comforting pop music undercut at regular intervals by uncomfortable sound collages, as if you woke up in the 90s and a new episode of Friends was suddenly interrupted by static garbles of an unnerving public access program showing photos from your childhood.
53. Bark Your Head Off, Dog – Hop Along Mostly acoustic indie rock that paints short stories and their characters in moments of both struggle and beauty with incredible depth.
52. Yesterday Was Forever – Kate Nash Some will furrow their brows, but if you want airy Britpop fused to punk, grunge, speak-singing, and diary entries that can veer from George Michael 80s pop to Machines of Loving Grace-style industrial at the drop of a hat, all inside an honest connectional about mental health, there is nothing else I know that’s even brave enough to try.
51. The Drought – Puce Mary Cold and unrelenting feedback and noise tracks built into haunting sound environments by a Danish woman who makes Future Sound of London look tame and passe by comparison.
50. Hunter – Anna Calvi
Aggressive art rock where the instruments themselves can’t help being in awe of Calvi’s operatic delivery, where nearly every song sounds like a James Bond theme if Bond were a woman bent on challenging gender concepts and toppling the patriarchy.
49. Bon Voyage – Melody’s Echo Chamber French baroque pop that suddenly breaks out R&B backing, drumline solos, jazz flutes, electric guitars, and noise electronica in ways that all feel like they genuinely build each song into an expansive yet cogent whole.
48. Exit Future Heart – Dustin Wong, Takako Minekawa, Good Willsmith Wong’s surreal habits, Minekawa’s experimental Japanese pop, and Good Willsmith’s pattern-heavy electronica all accentuate each others’ strengths, resulting in a focused experimental electronica album.
47. Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts Extremely political punk with forefronted vocals that extends into pop accessibility with natural ease.
46. The Lookout – Laura Veirs Chamber pop-influenced folk where each sound feels either very close or very distant, creating a space where every note is resonant, occasionally invoking the work of Sufjan Stevens or Listing Ship.
45. Can’t Wake Up – Shakey Graves Alejandro Rose-Garcia makes the shift from folk to alternative so that he can concoct dreamy mixes of detail and abstraction. Sometimes it sounds like antique cartoon music and other times like someone dug up old Portugal. The Man demos.
44. Heaven and Earth – Kamasi Washington Exquisite jazz that’s cinematic in scope, incorporating everything from Ennio Morricone-style, Spaghetti western choirs to Busby Berkeley dance numbers and Santana-like guitars, though it can all feel a bit bloated and lacking enough attention to the listener at points.
43. Future Me Hates Me – The Beths New Zealander gets mad at the state of the world and politely takes it out on herself near to the point of breaking so that she doesn’t bother anyone else, via energetic and deceptively well-studied indie pop.
42. Your Queen is a Reptile – Sons of Kemet Surging, emotional jazz that calls out Britain’s history of colonialism and declares a list of Black women as queen instead, searing in its delivery and constantly advancing in pace.
41. Criminal – The Soft Moon Traditional industrial music on the near-pop side, like the better moments of Gravity Kills or Stabbing Westward, yet that explores territory of an abusive childhood through concepts that come around to self-analysis and self-care – itself an emotional evolution in industrial that’s badly overdue.
40. Sweetener – Ariana Grande
Grande’s extensive control over the various elements of her brand is rare for women in pop, and allows her to take bigger risks and more aggressive evolutions, creating a broader style of pop that can stretch further than an older Millennial pop front that’s quickly stagnating.
39. Music for the Long Emergency – Polica, s t a r g a z e Polica’s indietronica is melded to Berlin-based orchestra s t a r g a z e, resulting in seamless shifts between electropop and orchestral composition in an album of expertly crafted unease.
38. Only Love – The Armed Hardcore that does a superb job of creating breathing space for each melody and theme to surface, allowing you to understand and identify each even as the noise builds into chaos again – like playing different At the Drive-In songs into each ear.
37. Isolation – Kali Uchis Pop built off Latin roots and an incredibly strong foundation in soul music, dreamlike and hopeful while still socially conscious, aware, and communicating a great deal about having multiple cultural identities.
36. High as Hope – Florence + The Machine What might be the worst Florence + The Machine album is still easily in the top 50 of the year and introduces more than a few masterpiece songs, a testament to just how good Florence Welch, Isabella Summers, and their crew are.
35. The Dream My Bones Dream – Eiko Ishibashi An experimental jazz album with elements of Japanese pop, accompanied at times by drone music, haunting choruses, eerie strings, and a range of found noises.
34. This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet – Moonface The best marimba rock album about the Greek Minotaur forgiving his captors as a metaphor for our daily technological exposure to toxic abuse you’ll find, complete with surprisingly good use of auto-tune, and a natural voice that stakes out David Bowie-esque territory while still feeling very original.
33. Fever – Black Milk Rap with a basis in funk and soul, with enjoyably loose production and relaxed delivery, even when calling out systemic racism and police violence.
32. Cannonball! – Sen Morimoto Experimental rap framed by jazz hooks, with genuinely funny wit, honest internal monologues, and great mood work. It works as both an easy background listen and a rewarding focused listen.
31. At Weddings – Tomberlin Soft indie pop that perches on the balance between acceptance and denial. At Weddings deals with a Tomberlin growing up and rejecting the role her family’s Baptist faith expects her to play as a woman. The songs hover in those moments where you do everything you can just to take another step. “I’m Not Scared” is the best song of the year.
30. Knowing What You Know Now – Marmozets
Relentless mathcore with an incredible range across rock and punk, powered by Becca MacIntyre’s vocals that metamorphose at will.
29. Honeybloom – Choker Mood-heavy rap that leaps from indie pop to math rock influences and varies quickly from minimalism to ultra-modern production.
28. soil – serpentwithfeet Avant-garde, R&B, and electronica all join together in contribution to an album that feels like a deeply personal and progressive gospel.
27. Broken Politics – Neneh Cherry A profound album that starts with a trip hop foundation and extends into a terrific scope of rap, jazz, pop, and indietronica that all center on, well, our broken politics.
26. How Many Times Have You Driven By – Hana Vu Straight up dream pop built off catchy hooks and production that deliberately layers Hana Vu’s unique voice just a little off-center.
25. Remain in Light – Angelique Kidjo A complete cover album of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, redone with Afropop, Caribbean, jazz, and a variety of other influences.
24. Negro Swan – Blood Orange A superb funk and R&B album with a throughline of hope that addresses the common traumas people of color suffer, and the anxieties that grow because of it.
23. In a Poem Unlimited – U.S. Girls Experimental pop doesn’t quite cover it. Each song sounds like it could have been the standout single for completely different bands, yet a variety of echoed themes and sounds tie it all together in a way that feels incredibly consistent.
22. Follow Them True – Stick in the Wheel A re-imagining of British folk that hauntingly connects modern political and cultural battles to those of other eras.
21. Black Times – Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 Seun carries the tradition of his father (Fela Kuti) in intensely political music geared toward protesting foreign imperialism by highlighting the futures and possibilities it continues to cost Africa.
20. How to Socialise & Make Friends – Camp Cope
Australian gets mad about the state of the world and tears into the old boys’ clubs, toxic masculinity, and gaslighting she and her band’s encountered in lo-fi, somewhat minimalist punk.
19. Old Rockhounds Never Die – Odetta Hartman Bluegrass and rockabilly encounter a woman who slices them open, adds in electronic and experimental elements, and replaces all the broken patriarchal parts piece by piece with feminist concepts while she smiles and nods at them with just enough reassurance. This might be the most excitingly meta album of the year, and as the title song states in an observation/mission statement, “Old Rockhounds never die, they just slowly petrify.”
18. Stranger Fruit – Zeal & Ardor Scandinavian black metal in part grew as a rejection of Christianity, so what would have happened if American slave spirituals had followed a similar path? Black spirituals have a long history of hidden meaning, but Manuel Gagneux imagines a blunter alternate reality as a modern take on resistance, fusing black metal to delta blues in what he calls Satanic spirituals.
17. From When I Wake the Want Is – Kathryn Joseph The bones and sinew of Scottish folk resurrected into a stalking indie horror of loss and survivor’s guilt that rivets you to the spot.
16. I Need to Start a Garden – Haley Heynderickx One of the purest folk singers I’ve heard, with a talent for taking very laid back and detailed songs into crescendos that realize their point with a stunning catharsis.
15. DROGAS WAVE – Lupe Fiasco An expansive hip hop album that takes real tragedies and paints heartbreaking alternate realities, from rebel slaves who live underwater and sink slave ships, to a drowned refugee boy who instead grows up to become an Olympic swimmer, and a little girl who dies in a shooting instead becoming a doctor and saving another little girl from yet one more shooting.
14. I’m All Ears – Let’s Eat Grandma Art pop blended with a punk mentality and very plainly delivered psychology, that finally inhabits life underneath that meta, we-live-in-a-cyberpunk-reality barrier that’s been scratched and cracked over the years by Sneaker Pimps, Porcupine Tree, and 18+.
13. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae Funk expertly revolutionized through pop, R&B, and electronica elements in an album about empowering women, people of color, and celebrating the array of sexual identities.
12. Primal Heart – Kimbra Pop that calls on a range of other genres to tackle various doubles that we wrestle with: those that result as a defense from abuse, those that copy what we see in media, those we invent to perform a more idealized version of ourselves online, those we attempt to inhabit to make relationships work, the list goes on.
11. Hell On – Neko Case If screwed-over, out-of-work Millennials who had the rug pulled out from under them are this era’s screwed-over, out-of-work manufacturers who had the rug pulled out from under them, then Neko Case is this era’s Bruce Springsteen, on a determinedly feminist album that at times out-Fleetwood Macs Fleetwood Mac, and echoes in the shape of its narratives a similar masterpiece like Tori Amos’ From the Choirgirl Hotel.
10. Pasar de las Luces – Mint Field
Mexican shoegaze that evokes ethereal moods of quiet lulls in cities at night watching bleary-eyed as if taking a shortcut to dreaming without going to sleep, like an aural cradle for the ghost of a moment warmly held.
9. Lavender – Half Waif A tour through missing senses, places, people, and normalcy, in songs that may evoke Bat for Lashes but are more insistent and alarmed about our dreamy dissociation from gently delivered nightmares.
8. KOD – J. Cole Incisive rap with an expectation of the listener, that runs through experiential victimizations and hypocrisies to build connection with our own yearning to make change.
7. Shades – Vera Sola Needle-precise Americana bent on eviscerating the very idea of Americana, centered on haunting emotional scars left from colonialism and misogyny, and hell-bent on reclaiming Americana, country, and folk for the people it’s erased. (Makes a great companion piece to Odetta Hartman’s Old Rockhounds Never Die at #19 above.)
6. LONER – Caroline Rose Piercing wit delivered by a hugely judgmental narrator on an album that re-purposes a rockabilly skeleton into snarky, poignant, catchy songs, which remain unpredictable even after many re-listens.
5. Be the Cowboy – Mitski There is no singer who so deftly and honestly dissects the experience of coming from a mixed identity. Mitski creates musical monuments out of both emotionally living inside a trauma and dispassionately analyzing it in the recovery – examined through indie rock heavily influenced by grunge.
4. Both – Okay Kaya Patient, stripped down, experimental indie pop that deals with the idea of performing a self that’s more polished than what feels natural. Unexpectedly, it thinks often about how these two aspects might begin to agree.
3. Now Only – Mount Eerie The most honest album about coping with the death of a loved one I’ve heard, inhabiting wrecked places and the unhealthy temptation of staying in those places as a way to not give up on the pieces of that loved one you keep alive.
2. Djarimirri – Gurrumul An indigenous Australian album that was the last Gurrumul worked on before his passing, filled with soaring tracks that evoke senses of discovery, warning, yearning, tension, and awe.
1. EXORCISM – Jenny Wilson
There’s no exact way to start talking about Jenny Wilson’s EXORCISM. It’s a painful maelstrom dealing with the after-effects of sexual assault. Please be aware the rest of this entry will talk about that topic before continuing.
The opening song of EXORCISM outlines an act of rape. Everything else unravels from there. This doesn’t make this a go-to album for listening, but it’s absolutely the artistic achievement of the year.
We often seek music for comfort, and EXORCISM has none whatsoever to offer, at least initially. The first half is about suffering and attempting to cope with a rape. The second half deals a variety of aftereffects, even lasting years into the future. One of the first steps taken here is a common one: staying in emotionally abusive relationships as an attempt to make sense of what happened. This is a dangerous draw if you’ve suffered trauma. If it becomes normal for other people to treat you with varying forms of abuse, then you can begin to justify the act of abuse you suffered as normal.
The music itself is interruptive and uncomfortable. It reminds me of The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, but its order doesn’t feel as if it comes from structure the way that does. It feels instead as if it comes from the chaos itself, applied in a panicked kind of way. Many of the songs themselves are relentlessly anxious and alerted.
This feels far from Wilson’s more traditionally orchestrated – if still experimental – work. Yet it feels more grounded, which in itself is tragic. It’s confrontational in its bluntness, and always driving. Yet sometimes it drives forward, and sometimes it drives straight back into you. Recovering from trauma is an act of taking a step forward and sometimes taking a step back. There are whirlpools in the music that drag you in and reflect a sense of uncomfortable inescapability. Sharp synth choruses build over insistent refrains, as if Wilson desperately urging herself to stay in the healthy mindset that leads to recovery.
This is ultimately an album about that recovery, but not as an achievement or a goal. Too often, albums and songs like that are a before-and-after picture. That misrepresents the recovery itself as a snapshot, something easy to do. When you’re wading through its difficulty, you can look at those snapshots and wonder why it can take you years to recover when a song can do it in four minutes. EXORCISM is an album about recovery as a difficult, often painful process, full of pitfalls and mistakes. It’s an honest representation of something rarely honestly discussed.
“I’ve been called heartbreaker
For doing justice to my own.”
Sometimes a song can feel like getting lost in dappled light. It can lift time and make me feel the texture of the memories I most fear losing. These songs let us exist in two places at once, in two times.
The joy in this is the lightness of unpacking sensations from my past. The heartbreak is my inability to feel them fully again, as in presence. I sit with the sensation not of a moment, but of its memory. The windows into it are always shifting. I can’t climb into it fully, but I can feel the breeze come through, hear the echoes of it float in.
Sometimes a singer like Julie Byrne can take the heartbreak of being contained by the present in a way memory can’t be…and the joy of sensing all that memory floating free. In that moment, you’re sitting there with someone. You’re not alone in the joy or the heartbreak. Someone else is there with you, sharing the same conflicting longing and closure, aching and satisfaction, embarrassment and pride.
“I dreamt of the warmest days of love
Which knew not sorrow nor betrayal
When truth was will in the singing of the gale
But when I lay in a verdant field
None could stay my rising.”
It’s sunny there, and the wind will sway the branches, and if you can find stillness with the longing of your past, you can understand and appreciate it. You can see the elements of a memory, realize perspective you couldn’t in the moment.
Not all memories are good, either. Some are anxious, panicking, moments when someone made you lesser because that’s what kept you. Sometimes, you can reclaim the parts where you grew, without feeling like someone else has ownership or control of them. You don’t hear the echoes of doubt or fear that once were intertwined with the good things you learned about yourself.
You realize not being able to step back into those memories can be good. You didn’t fear losing them, you feared losing the elements that helped you grow to become who you are. You feared losing pain would risk losing the lessons learned from it, even when the lesson learned was to step away from pain.
“I’ve been sitting in the garden
Singing to the wind
Searching for an anchor
I’ve been seeking god within.”
We can hold on to the lessons of strength we each learn from rising back, without having to internalize the doubt or coercion that made us pen ourselves away in the first place. We can hold on to what we learned from pain and doubt, without having to hold on to the pain and doubt. We’re not what someone else tried to make us into out of the anxiety of what would happen if we didn’t reshape ourselves. We’re what overcame that fear and intimidation. But sometimes it takes a spark to think of it this way, to put it all together. Sometimes it takes a song, or sometimes a painting, or a movie, or a play, or conversation.
It takes a stillness in ourselves, imparted by something else to cease our restlessness and look at the memory in joy and heartbreak, in fear and strength, with the breath of panic that you thought you’d put behind you, and the calm to be able to accept that it no longer controls you. That’s what resilience is. It isn’t cold and calloused. It’s turning the panic of incomprehension into the calm of understanding. It takes a stillness to witness who you are and how you got there.
We come out the other side of it, without needing to get lost to anger and frustration. Maybe we even learn how not to get lost in panic and anxiety. We learn better how to get lost in our calmness. Julie Byrne offers a good place to slow the world down, like getting lost in dappled light.
If you like Julie Byrne, try: Dawn Landes for something lively and practical, Marissa Nadler for something darker and mysterious, Patty Griffin for the storytelling, or Joni Mitchell for the imagery.
Have You Heard… is a stream of song and band recommendations, many of which may be new to you. We hope it’s less concerned with celebrity and image, and more concerned with the music and what it evokes.
The feature image of Julie Byrne is from Brooklyn Vegan here.
It’s been a strange year for music, with the loss of legends and one essentially recording his own epitaph. Yet it’s also been a year of gifts – of rollicking country and an unexpected comeback from a band many had given up on, of Mayan hip-hop and gothic folk songs. My number one album of the year (so far) is from a woman whose heartbreaking work I feel stands at the juncture of Nirvana and Neutral Milk Hotel.
So let’s dive in:
10. Gag Order – Vainhein
Vainhein (roughly translating to “heinous vanity”) started off in the San Francisco drag scene as a lip-sync performer. In the last five years, he’s moved into producing original music as Vainhein (or Vain Hein). There’s not a lot out there, but you can listen to the debut album Gag Order on the Bandcamp page.
9. Collect – 18+
18+ maintained near-total anonymity for the first three years of the band’s existence. They’re difficult to describe – a band that takes the way love and relationships are portrayed in modern music and throws the formula out. They seduce in a manner that blends carelessness with deep feeling, through music that’s deconstructed to impressionism almost to the point of falling apart before it finds its way back.
8. Pawn Shop – Brothers Osborne
Yes, this is one of the most eclectic lists I’ve ever put together. It’s a testament to just how diverse 2016’s been in music. Brothers Osborne can push out anthemic country songs at the drop of a hat, but the best part of Pawn Shop is how often they drop the love song pretense on which country too often depends. The album is wickedly varied, stopping to comically sing the praises of the pawn shop or break down into a slow one-part bayou, one-part honky-tonk testament to rum. This is the kind of country I almost never go for, but this album’s just too good.
7. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange
Blood Orange has been carrying Prince’s musical torch for a few years now, so in the year when Prince died, it’s reassuring that Dev Hynes’s band continues to explore a similarly easygoing yet soul-baring musicality. Blood Orange has never found the kind of breakout hits that Prince did – they relent when it comes to that extra edge, that musical and social insistence that Prince brought – but that’s not exactly what Blood Orange is. They slant toward chilled out.
6. Strangers – Marissa Nadler
Strangers is a step back for Marissa Nadler, but a step back for the woman is still better than the vast majority of other music that’s out there. Her July was my choice for Album of the Year in 2014. It was so patiently stirring, a masterpiece of lamenting, gothic folk. Her music sounds like a message from another time, like black-and-white footage of old funeral processions. There’s sadness and importance, even celebration, but it all feels so beautifully removed, like watching (as in her 2014 music video “Dead City Emily”) the silhouettes of lovers dance out-of-focus from behind smudged, scratched glass. It’s always someone else’s sadness, someone else’s lament, and there’s a profound sorrow in not being able to share those pains.
Her music often evokes the frustration of empathy, of witnessing pain in another yet falling short of being able to truly understand and experience it, to heal it. It’s a rare evocation in any form of art: to have your empathy evoked and stilled, to witness yet be frozen, to stand on the shoulder of that passing funeral and yet not know it. The tragedy of people passing in and out of our lives is the tragedy of their moments – the experiences that let us step outside ourselves and into the connection of loving others – traveling further and further away. Yet there’s something to that disconnection that only makes us strain all the harder to step outside ourselves again and again. Nadler’s songs and albums and career are almanacs of connections made and treasured and lost, and so her music rests right against the bones like only nostalgia and closure can.
5. Blackstar – David Bowie
I’m weird when it comes to Bowie. My favorite period rests in his late 90s/early 00s experimentation combining industrial and jazz. Not all of it worked – in fact, some of it was downright bad – but it was supremely different to anything I’d heard before. Bowie’s Blackstar will always be remembered most for how it’s written to anticipate and guide Bowie through a death he knew was coming fast.
Blackstar picks up so many musical threads throughout Bowie’s career, so many stylistic endings left unfinished, yet among those endings, he also starts new ones. He seeks to process what’s come before, to conclude much of it, yes – but he doesn’t end there. He also pushes forward into new realms, starts new musical ideas he knows he’ll never finish. This is the way to go, he seems to say in Blackstar, by saying goodbye and wrapping things up not to conclude this life, but so he can say a fresh hello to whatever life is next.
4. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
Finally. Only the second album Radiohead’s released in nine years shows the time that went into it. For many, this is the first time Radiohead’s broken new ground in those nine years – while 2011’s The King of Limbs was good, it didn’t convey Radiohead’s irrepressible ambition. Maybe they fell off, we thought. Then five years passed. Maybe they disappeared. Then their site went offline. Their social media presence was pulled. Maybe that’s it, we thought. Just like that. And then A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, this whole new challenging, chaotic map of dreamlike and nightmarish places to tour.
3. Tributo a Los 20 Nawales – Balam Ajpu
This is a tribute to the 20 spirits that represent each day on the Mayan calendar. Balam Ajpu is a Guatemalan rap group that’s part of a growing movement of Mayan-language hip-hop. The verses on their album alternate between the Mayan dialect Tz’utujil and Spanish. In Guatemala, 60% of the population is Mayan, yet the country is rarely represented this way – both domestically and abroad. Hip-hop has been one way for the Mayan population to coalesce around surviving elements of Mayan culture.
Balam Ajpu combines hip-hop with a stunning number of styles and instruments. Salsa, reggae, and cumbia are all folded into the songs. The array of musical instruments and the talent behind them here is ridiculous. Guitar, cello, pan pipes, a host of drums, xylophone, and sounds from nature all underlie a patient album about spirituality and social change.
2. Not to Disappear – Daughter
Remember a moment when you failed to cope with the damn unfairness of it all. Now trap it in amber. That feeling of crashing against the shore, when you could barely hold your head up because the lump in your throat was so overwhelming. When you were numb and angry and your tears were the best act of vengeance you had against the universe. When your teeth grit and your lips quivered and your breath caught. When you sobbed and the time of day didn’t seem to matter. Daughter makes music of the moments trapped before catharsis. Thank God, because those moments could use some understanding of their own.
1. Puberty 2 – Mitski
She destroyed me in two-and-a-half minutes. Took me apart suddenly weeping. That was on track four, “Fireworks.” Then she did it again two songs later with “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” If it doesn’t share the same sound as Nirvana’s most plaintive moments, it shares the same character.
“I bet on losing dogs
I know they’re losing and I’ll pay for my place
By the ring
Where I’ll be looking in their eyes when they’re down
I’ll be there on their side
I’m losing by their side.”
Sometimes, it can be easy to feel like one of those losing dogs, still running because it’s what we know, because it’s the process – through repetition – for which we begin to believe we’ve been made. It can be the role we’ve been taught to play in relation to those around us, or the role we’ve been taught by a specific person. It can be hard to break out of being a losing dog, and to break out of the habit of betting on them. Is it an act of care to do so? Is it enabling? Can you create of someone else a losing dog?
These aren’t the questions directly posed to us, because Mitski isn’t a philosopher on her tracks. She’s the character, inhabiting every moment, and we witness every mistake, every want and need, every tiny victory and major defeat. Music often tells stories about experiences viewed through lenses, non-specifically emotive enough to be universal. That’s not what Mitski gives us. Her emotions are hers, her stories are deeply personal. It’s in the personal loss, in the impacts of defeat, in the hardening of herself to the world around, that we find connection. Her struggle to remain soft and loving despite it all is our struggle. Songs here aren’t wasted, they aren’t filled out any longer than is needed. This is an album of bare mental, emotional, and sometimes physical survival. It’s heartbreak as a way of practicing for mortality, and the resistance to heartbreak as a way of denying our mortality, the way each wears us down and builds us.
Marissa Nadler (whose Strangers I highlight above) is how I found out about Mitski. Nadler highlighted her favorite Mitski lyrics in article for The Talkhouse. This turned out to be from “Fireworks,” a melancholic take on…what, exactly? One’s own journey toward entropy? The desensitization of loss, both inside and outside oneself? That desensitization itself is a loss one must desensitize to? A lover’s simultaneous capability for support and inadequacy to heal?
“One morning this sadness will fossilize
And I will forget how to cry
I’ll keep going to work and he won’t see a change
Save perhaps a slight gray in my eye.
I will go jogging routinely
Calmly and rhythmically run
And when I find that a knife sticking out of my side
I’ll pull it out without questioning why.
And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.
I will be married to silence
The gentleman won’t say a word
But you know, oh you know in the quiet he holds
Runs a river that’ll never find home.
And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.”
Mitski Miyawaki sings about surviving through entropy, about becoming a bastion and falling apart, about betting on losing dogs, about being one. I once was told that Led Zeppelin didn’t make songs, they made musical monuments. Mitski does, too…but the focus is anxiety, using, being used, giving in, being unapologetic, forgetting how to apologize to yourself, settling on how you should be treated, remembering how to treat yourself. Here are monuments to the cycle of falling apart and constructing oneself never to fall apart again, and falling apart anew, and constructing anew, ad nauseum. It stops at some point, right? The album’s called Puberty 2, and it’s not named that because she recorded a Puberty 1.
It’s the album form of what 50 Shades of Grey is falsely advertised to be – a space that introduces consensual danger, the heat of the taboo, that lets you inhabit the feeling of violating and being violated, the initial temptation and the inevitable boredom that comes with pushing boundaries, the resulting need to push further – like an addict or a pioneer, who knows? This is heady stuff, and it’s the debut of the band that’s nearly impossible to Google without getting in trouble:
It’s 18+ and their debut album Trust.
The duo successfully hid their identities for a year, using that mystery to propel their popularity. Their second single used crow calls for percussion. They’ve existed anonymously online longer than they have as an identified band. Their album is just as slippery to pin down.
Trust is an album about the suggestion of violation. It’s incredibly unclear about where the line between consensual fantasy and that violation starts and stops. The music itself is about the relationship between control and the lack thereof. How much is fantasy, how much is reality?
It’s not about what’s hidden in the dark just out of your sight. It’s about the experience of stepping into that dark and feeling terror give way to intrigue.
“And his bed was made,
his hair was for you.
The heart was broken, nah,
but there was nothing to do.
But you gon’ fuck it.
Baby gon’ fuck it.
Pretend that you’re happy,
I’m alone as hell,
then let’s go in circles
and then I was here,
but baby you were my world.
Sex for the wishes,
pretend that you’re happy.”
How much of this is conviction? How much is roleplay? The tone is intentionally opaque. Is it enjoyable? Is it boring? Is it torturous? Is that enjoyable? Is it enjoyable for one and not the other? Is it loving then? How much of the control is given away, and how much is taken? The album’s name is Trust – that tells us the territory being explored and, rather than giving us a safe and reassuring answer, 18+ communicates the fine balance on which that trust hangs.
The album’s informed by the same attitude that defines the excess genre (whose narco swing patron saint remains Lana Del Ray). It doesn’t seek to judge an experience from the outside or assess it for the listener. Instead, it seeks to inhabit the experience for a time, to let you see it from the inside out. To do so, it sits uncomfortably on the precipice between electronica’s tight control, R&B’s natural flow, and the dangerous (or is it tempting?) freedom of avant garde.
There are occasions where that avant garde goes overboard. It’s difficult to like every song on the album, and that’s why it’s in the top 35 and not the top 10. It’s essentially a concept album full of singles, which doesn’t quite form a full listen. Still, what it can communicate in the space of a three-minute track is nearly unparalleled, and it’s a hell of a lot better made, more enjoyable, and more…well…accurate than 50 Shades.
– Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez
Feeling dangerous? Read our entire rundown of the top 35 albums of 2014.
This is our most controversial pick, even among the seven critics who selected this list. This artist, after the fame of being Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” had a road into pop superstardom paved out for her. She had the look, voice, and…well, let’s not pretend anything else matters to pop charts. Instead, she released an album that deconstructed pop from the inside out. Thankfully, it bounced off mainstream critics and landed here. Instead of the safety album that was expected, we got:
The Golden Echo by Kimbra!
In our e-mail battle over this selection, our favorite note became that Pitchfork gave The Golden Echo a 4.3 out of 10. We got a real kick out of that. From their review, we really would’ve thought they’d give it a 4.458 or an f(x)=n^3-p, but there’s just no accounting for taste these days.
Look, Pitchfork got one thing right, and that’s comparing Kimbra’s approach to pop to Janelle Monae’s. This is not an album built for review. It’s an answer to the ones that are. It’s an album built for listening, for dancing, for realizing you feel like you’re trapped in the Matrix if you dare listen to ordinary pop afterward.
Most accurately, it’s an album built by Kimbra for Kimbra to celebrate the music Kimbra loves: 90s hip hop, disco, jazz, R&B. The result sounds like the collaboration Michael Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, David Byrne, and Sia never could have made, and that’s before you get to the Kate Bush section of the album. There is no concession here to what the audience might want or expect. It all sounds straight from the artist, unabridged.
Those of us who are fans (three of us put this in our top tens, three of us refused to even list it) have the sneaking suspicion that The Golden Echo will only climb in estimation over time, a breath of cult future pop well ahead of its time. If Kimbra continues on this path, The Golden Echo may one day be viewed as the moment an incredible career made a crucial change.
For now, some will remember The Golden Echo as a 4.3. And some will listen to it with the obsessiveness we only reserve for the artists who most provoke our imagination as to what music can become.
– Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Olivia Smith & Gabriel Valdez
If you want to see what else we’re listing in our Top 35 albums of 2014, take a look.
Radiohead hasn’t released an album since 2011. Porcupine Tree hasn’t made one since 2009. Tool? 2006. At the Drive-In, 2000. This album isn’t like any of theirs. That’s fortunate, since those four bands aren’t much alike. And yet…it is very interested in finding new routes to some of the same places we shared with them.
It’s Sleepwalking Sailors by Helms Alee!
Yesterday, Gabe wrote about building musical monuments by being gentle, welcoming, and singing about bluebirds. Turns out you can also build musical monuments by screaming at the carcasses of your enemies.
Sleepwalking Sailors is the best, most enjoyably complicated metal album this year. It’s filled with ideas from other genres, built from catchy hooks that don’t stay long before they’re yanked out for something new. In its own way, Helms Alee has made the metal equivalent of an indie rock album.
“New West” is a favorite of ours. It announces itself as if we’ve caught it in slow motion, mid action, before turning to balance guitar hooks that shift like sand against vocals only passingly interested in the dominant key. Bridges informed by speed metal lead to vocals that would sound perfectly at home in a Tears for Fears album if every other phrase weren’t screamed. It’s a vocally genius performance that shouldn’t work from Hozoji Margullis (also the drummer), with Ben Verellen on screams.
Joining them is bassist Dana James (who also sings), but it rarely feels as if this is only a three-person job. It’s not just their musical heaviness that would make you think this. Every song travels through genres and architectures, informed not just by heavy metal but by 80s pop, English alternative, post-hardcore, and even swing and surf rock.
Take “Slow Beef,” for instance, and not just because that’s a funny phrase to say. “Slow Beef” opens with a relaxed swing phrase before a moment of thinking it might be speed metal when it grows up. Then it plays off the broader chords of each musical phrase to transition into a two-minute ambient soundscape. At the two-minute mark, there’s a blink and you’ll miss it shift into a detached, drums-and-vocal landscape reminiscent of dream rock bands like Esben and the Witch. It’s bridged to a briefly traditional guitar solo by an intercession of math rock. Underneath attacking guitars and roiling drums, its last minute is gently re-framed by an underlying synth-pop background that comes straight from The Cure.
It should all seem like a seven year-old making up a story on the fly: “And then, and then, and then.” It should be too much too quickly. Instead, it’s all so well constructed, each phrase and shift contributing to an atmospheric whole, that even when the changes in tempo and instrumentation are violently sudden, they feel seamless.
Helms Alee also brings up something crucial about the music industry: indigenous artists aren’t just overlooked, they’re entirely ignored. Some are making the best and most challenging music out there today, folding new techniques and modern genres into musical traditions that survive because of their strengths in telling stories. You can’t lump indigenous artists into a single category and say they share the same approach, but you can look at the industry, wonder why they’re missing on every page, on every site, in every video that gets pushed, and correct that mistake by acknowledging a broader range of fantastic music that’s being made.
We’ll be doing a whole lot more of that in this Best of 2014 list, by the way.
One of the hardest things to capture in poetry is a moment of beauty. Come on too strong, and it becomes cliché. Approach the moment too softly, and no one has any idea what you’re getting at. The key lies not in judging the moment for your audience, but in creating a space that accepts every interpretation they might have. You have to welcome to your most personal moments people you don’t know the first thing about.
Today we feature Bluebird by Dawn Landes.
Never heard of her? Elegant is an understatement. Landes’s ability to evoke emotion in the space of a note change is rare. I remember NME criticizing Bluebird early in 2014 as “too nice” and lacking “grit.” It is too nice. It’s not interested in grit. The song “Bluebird” is about watching a bluebird. “Bloodhound” is about encountering a bloodhound on a forest trail. Sometimes these things don’t need to be complicated. You know how much nice music there is that’s still accomplished and evocative? Not much.
“Try to Make a Fire Burn Again” fills a void I hadn’t realized artists like Jewel and Natalie Merchant had left. A personal ballad about the kind of yearning you bravely keep quiet around company, it perfectly captures the essence of struggling to comprehend a romantic loss. There’s a peace to Landes’s struggle, however, an acceptance that understanding it completely might be counterproductive. It’s a mature quality lost in the industry’s more melodramatic love songs.
“Bloodhound” captures a southern gothic bluegrass that takes most artists into swampy, dark material. Landes keeps it light, and the balance between those darker, gothic hues and the lighter Americana tones feels like the song equivalent of dappled shadow on a warm day in the woods. You can compare it to Patty Griffin or Joanna Newsom, but it’s less self-serious about reflection, enjoying the moment rather than getting wrapped up in it.
The first four songs on Bluebird are as strong a start as any album had in 2014. If there’s a masterpiece in them, it’s the last of these, the soft “Heel Toe.” It treads into the echoing, empty stage sound of Neko Case that makes a song serene and haunting at the same time.
What’s best about Landes is that – while there are a ton of supporting instrumentals here – they restrain themselves from stepping on each other. They don’t overwhelm her voice, there’s zero wall of sound to compete with here. You can tell what each player is doing, the musical space he or she takes up, and appreciate how each instrumental intersects.
And that’s what I like about Landes. Those individual instrumentations, her voice, the clarity of it all, gives her songs a tremendous sensory quality. I can close my eyes and feel so much more than just the sound.
In this, her songs act as musical monuments, if such gentle songs can be called monuments. I can inhabit her songs in a way I fail to inhabit many moments anymore. I’m writing this on a computer looking at a screen. Her songs feel like the wind and the sun on my face, the rustle of the trees overhead, the possibility of quiet moments of peace – even during the frustrating parts of life – that I don’t allow myself as often as I should. Landes gives us bookmarks for individual thoughts and moments, and they allow me to ever-so-briefly transport myself into them.
I compare Landes to more accomplished artists – Jewel, Merchant, Griffin, Newsom, Case – because I think she covers a remarkable amount of territory by creating clear, “nice” music. I like my grit more than most, but I don’t think I could inhabit Landes’s songs if they weren’t this kind and welcoming. There’s no judgment in her music. There’s just acceptance. That’s nearly impossible for an artist to capture.
– Gabriel Valdez
This article is part of our series on the top 35 albums of 2014. Here’s the list as we unveil it.