Favorite Songs & Albums of 2017 (So Far!)

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone)

So listen – I’ve only listened to 29 albums this year. This is embarrassingly small for me, who tries to do 2-4 new releases a week. But what can I say! I spent the first few months of the year working on my thesis and looking for a job (both successful!). But, I still wanted to talk about my favorites. I regret that there are many albums by bands I love (Gorillaz! Pissed Jeans!) that I haven’t had a chance to spin yet. I wrote my annual halfway point critic-y sister post over on The Filtered Lens, but here’s my purely personal post of the songs and albums I’ve loved so far this year. Up first – songs.

Favorite Songs of 2017 (So Far):

#25. “Is This the Life We Really Want?” – Roger Waters

(review)

Waters, both in Pink Floyd and solo, was never interested in subtlety. And any remaining subtlety has withered with age. This track, which sounds like a “Wall” cut, bemoans all of the injustices of the Western world – journalists facing danger, schoolgirls facing danger, the Earth facing danger, and fascist leaders not facing danger, all with savage profanity and an angry whisper. If this isn’t a call to arms, then what is?

#24. “Hard Times” – Paramore

After a few years dabbling in adult rock and a general grown-up alternative sound, the folks in Paramore looked to new wave inspirations for their fifth album, “After Laughter.” The best example came early, in single “Hard Times,” a completely rousing and bouncy joint that sees the group willfully eschew adult alternative for a Devo inspiration.

#23. “Everything Now” – Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire’s slow transition from existential indie rock group into bouncy disco band has had many factors, from a shortening in members to an acceptance of fame. And it soldiers onward to “Everything Now,” one of the most outwardly danceable songs the band has ever produced. Although still not an optimistic song, the production from one of the Daft Punk men robots sure heralds their new turn.

#22. “Firing Squad” – Power Trip

The thrash/heavy metal band Power Trip spent a long time recording their sophomore album – five years. And it was worth it – the dudes in the band are riff machines, and it’s prevalent throughout their album. In this track, the lead single, the guitars hit an incendiary rhythm that doesn’t let up past one of the highest, most excruciatingly shrill guitar notes this side of Dave Gilmour’s solo in “Money.” Rock on.

#21. “Ignorecam” – Pissed Jeans

The dudes in Pissed Jeans – only dudes since their ~2012 reformation – are one of the only dude bands that fully recognize their place in music, as a bunch of dudes. They did it just fine on their absolutely stellar 2013 album “Honeys.” They continue on this song, sung from the point of a dude camgirl-watcher who gets off on being ignored. Not sure why exactly they felt the need to give the voice to this group of men, but it’s a killer (and tongue-in-cheek) song either way. Singer Mark Kovette usually sounds like he’s guzzling whiskey mid-song, and his throaty, guttural vocals sound especially so here.

#20. “Pink Up” – Spoon

Admittedly, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Spoon. While I recognize their immediate legacy in the indie-rock movement, they have never really done it for me. But their new album gets permeated by a completely pleasant pseudo-avant-garde track in “Pink Up.” It’s what the avant-leaning indie movement of ~2007 did best. It’s a perfectly enjoyable track that twists and turns but never loses it’s deeply pleasant rhythm.

#19. “Continuum” – At the Drive In

(review)

After 17 album-less years, ATDI finally saw Hell freeze over and blessed us with “in•ter a•li•a,”and while it’s far from perfect (‘perfect’ here meaning “Relationship of Command”), it has plenty of killer, gut-punching tracks. “Continuum” is driven almost entirely by Cedric Bizler-Zavala’s screamy vocals, which have only gotten stronger over time. The climax of the song, which literally jumps from a whisper to a scream, is one of the best bridges of the year.

#18. “Passionfruit” – Drake

And here I thought I was done with Drake. After three straight releases that I absolutely couldn’t listen to (two of which were loooooong, too), Drake came through with the music-heavy ‘playlist’ “More Life.” One of the breakouts is single “Passionfruit,” which starts with a sobering minute-plus synth rhythm (sobering, despite the DJ literally cutting in to tell people to drink more). It’s a pleasant track that sounds a lot like “One Dance,” but smoother, more digestible, and, well, fruity. Keep it up, Drizzy.

#17. “DNA.” – Kendrick Lamar

(review)

Lamar might be the only person in music currently challenging Beyoncé in the combo of mixing ambition, stage presence, and popularity. “DNA.” is a dirty, rapid track that showcases the two things Lamar does best – boasts and vulnerability. He also tackles another target – Geraldo Riviera. Riviera naturally said some pointless, racist stuff about Lamar in the past, so Lamar responds to it directly, even including a soundclip of Riviera’s comments for all of us to hear. Savage? Jury’s out, but it’s great either way.

#16. “Bad and Boujee” – Migos ft. Lil Uzi Vert

Migos aren’t exactly upstanding guys, and it feels bad to support them. But this song has been stuck in my head since January and there’s nothing I can do about it. Migos excel in simplicity; the rhymes here often sound like poetry written by (filthy) kindergartners – but it’s all in the rhythm of the vocals. The easiness of the song isn’t laziness but a calculated exercise in infecting listeners with a rhythm that’s bound to survive past the year and into the ‘classics’ hall. And it was a #1 to boot. Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,

#15. “Nightmare Logic” – Power Trip

I’m not up to date on this year’s metal albums, but no song I’ve heard has had a more commanding central riff than this title track. The riff is so simple that it seems criminal how catchy it is, but that seems to be Power Trip’s MO. And although the lyrics seem to invoke a fight against an other-worldly evil being, they can be easily (and probably intentionally) applied to the resistance felt in our own country. This song is the fierce shot in the knee we all need this year.

#14. “Cut to the Feeling” – Carly Rae Jepsen

How good was Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album “E•MO•TION?” She released a follow-up EP of cut tracks, and still had some gold leftover. This track, cut from both the album and the EP, is pop powerhouse. Jepsen practically smothers us in her voice, piercing through the music to belt the song’s title. Also, “Cut to the Feeling” feels like a description of the lyrics to every song she’s ever written.

#13. “Shining” – DJ Khaled feat. Beyoncé & JAY-Z

Khaled has a habit of bringing in some of rap & R&B’s best talents and bringing out the best in them, even over his simple beats. “Shining” is no exception, although the features make it worth the while. HOVA’s verse is on par with his verse in last year’s “I Got the Keys,” breathing energy into his limping* career. But Bey owns this tracks, singing at full volume and rapping a verse. It’s just a winning combination.

* – 4:44 is great, I wrote this bit before the album dropped and was kinda predicting it to be less so.

#12. “Run” – Foo Fighters

After a lackluster conceptual album and tour fatigue, Foo Fighters took a well-deserved break. And I, personally, thought that their glimmer was fading fast. But they returned recently with “Run” (no relation to their previous single “Walk”). The song stands as arguably the heaviest in their discography, with a riff boarding on metal and Dave Grohl’s screamed vocals. It’s whiplash in song form, in a way the Fighters haven’t delivered in a while. Also, the video is a masterpiece.

#11. “Governed By Contagions’ – At the Drive In

(review)

Boasting a title that sounds like it came from an ATDI song name generator, the band exploded back into the scene after 17 years with this single, a punk-induced blast that effectively uses both of the band’s singers. It’s as blood-boiling as anything in their back catalog, and appropriately dense. It’s also likely the best track on their new album. Turn the volume all the way up.

#s 10-7. “Talk to Me,” “Legend Has It,” “Call Ticketron,” “Hey Kids (Bumaye) [feat. Danny Brown]” – Run the Jewels

Okay is this fair? Maybe, maybe not. This is my blog, I do what I want. Run the Jewels have made a habit of putting out albums that flow like long suites. Their new album, “Run the Jewels 3,” opens with a surprisingly light track called “Down.” But then they kick it into high gear with “Talk to Me,” loudly announcing the album’s title. Their first two albums saw them justifying their own existence through searing political tracks. But this release sees them recognizing their popularity and rapping more about themselves. It’s less dark (though still dark), and often more fun. My personal favorite from the album, “Call Ticketron,” is just about the experience of seeing Run the Jewels live. Also, props to Killer Mike for some of the year’s best lines: “We are the murderous pair / That went to jail and we murdered the murderers there / Then went to Hell and discovered the devil / Delivered some hurt and despair” (“Legend Has It,” which also has a great video). Here’s a fun parting fact: both El-P and Killer Mike are 42, making the combined age of Run the Jewels 84. Legends.

#6. “call the police” – LCD Soundsystem

I have very mixed feelings about the publicity stunt that was the “break-up” and “reunion” of arguably-one-man band LCD Soundsystem. That said, James Murphy’s first single in seven years is exactly what you want from a Soundsystem song – nearly eight minutes, lacking a palpable central chorus and rhythm, and still inherently danceable. His lyrics are usually either completely targeted, or all over the place – and this song is the latter. Murphy sings like he’s throwing darts at a dartboard filled with “gentrified Brooklyn problems.” It’s a ton of fun stretched out over a long time, and it stops abruptly right as it becomes tedious. The true James Murphy way. Dance yrself clean.

#5. “On Hold” – The xx

The xx have never been the most upfront band. Even in the reformed group’s ‘new’ approach, they’re still very muted and emotionally vulnerable. And this is the exact reason why I, personally, don’t care for them. But for this track (the album’s lead single), Jamie xx takes a sample of a Hall & Oates song and exploits it as one of the song’s central rhythms. It’s an inherently catchy song that transforms a familiar rhythm into something else entirely. It’s a very groovy song, but one that repeatedly catches you in it’s cold, cold subject manner. The lyrics are just sad as all hell.

#4. “Sign of the Times” – Harry Styles

This song was a bold move, and one I deeply respect. At 5:41, the track is longer than every song in the One Direction discography (one remix matches it). It’s a somewhat bold lead single, one that signals an immediate shift away from the group he is permanently entwined with. And what a song – a piano ballad that’s vaguely about war (“Dunkirk” in theaters July 21st!) but also about personal relationships. It’s no secret that Styles was one of the better voices of the group, and it gets put on full display on this lead single. It’d be fun to watch the guy let loose if it wasn’t so emotional.

#3. “HUMBLE.” – Kendrick Lamar

(review)

The biggest jam of Lamar’s “DAMN.” was also its leadoff single. The song, less than three minutes, is a searing indictment of various things wrong with pop culture today. He touches on photoshopping models, billionaires giving talks and, vaguely and perhaps ironically, the luxury of millionaire celebs. And he does so with a ferocious energy, like he’s being paid word-per-second. The track is incendiary, the musical equivalent of a long string on fire, leading up to a bomb. Tense, direct, and catchy, it showcases Kendrick at his peak, truth-spewing form. And since I’ve done it a few times already – it has one of the best videos in years.

#2. “Fragments” – Blondie

(review)

The fun thing about doing pieces like this on my personal blog is being able to talk about any random album tracks I please, and there’s always ones that I love. This time around, it’s the final track on Blondie’s good new album “Pollinator.” The song is a left-field choice for my #2 of the year, for sure. It’s two seconds shy of seven minutes, and is a cover of a song written by a movie blogger. But Deborah Harry and co. just own it. It’s a new-wave song in the fullest – a slow intro that drags the listener long enough that they expect it to stay a sad ballad. And once that expectation is passed, the band locks in and jumps the tempo to practically double. Blondie don’t need to be putting in this much energy in 2017 (Harry just turned 72, for chrissakes), but the fact that they do makes this song so supremely entertaining. And the band stays locked in for most of the song’s runtime, before bringing it back in for a slower finale. I didn’t think we needed new Blondie in 2017, but we did.

#1. “Green Light” – Lorde

(review)

The first thing you should know about this song is that hitmaker Max Martin told Lorde her songwriting on this track was “incorrect.” She respectfully ignored his advice and released the song anyways. And man she dominates this song. The first minute sounds like old Lorde, piano ballad about meeting people in bars and what not. But once that off-beat piano kicks in, her whole history gets thrown out in favor of an excessively danceable tune that matures her teenage ennui in a very natural way. This song is the equivalent of a night where you went out a little too long – where you had a little too much, and got a little too emotional. But it’s also the morning after, when you realized that you don’t really care all that much after all. It’s three simultaneous emotions packed into one, and the pure volume and energy of the song make it difficult to handle. The proper response to this happens near the end of the song, when all instruments but the synth drain out in a supposed bridge, but one that Lorde ignores and keeps singing at high volume. This is a track for the bored teens, the 20-somethings who feel stuck, the 30-somethings who have to accept that life isn’t working out the way they want. It’s restless, fidget-y, and sleepless, but optimistic in a way that only Lorde could pull off. In other words, it’s 2017 in a song.

Favorite Albums of 2017 (So Far):

#10. Feist – “Pleasure”

Sparse, minimalist indie-pop isn’t usually something that barks up my tree, because I personally find it leaning more towards uninspired than emotional. But “Pleasure,” Feist’s first album in six years (and released only weeks before her appearance on the new Broken Social Scene record), feels intentionally lacking, like pieces have removed. It’s sparse to the points of actual silence, and yet the album has an undercurrent of something much bigger and darker. It covers a lot of ground, a lot of emotions and situations that are begrudgingly necessary in our own lives. This is a long way from an iPod commercial.

#9. Drake – “More Life”

Dammit, I like Drake again. His last three albums lost me completely – “Reading This” was frustratingly downtempo, “What a Time” was a cash grab and “VIEWS” was a painfully unlistenable act of showing you the table you’re going to put all of your emotions on, but then not actually doing it (as well as an exercise in the dangers of adopting another culture’s styles). But the common missing link in these albums was any remotely interesting music. Here, Drizzy incorporates music entirely, from the flutes in “Portland” to the sobering synth in “Passionfruit” that sounds like a tamer, better version of his inane and appropriative “One Dance.” Drake himself seems relaxed and in focus, more so than usual. And although this isn’t an album – it’s a ‘playlist’ – it’s still one of the better releases in his catalog.

#8. Foxygen – “Hang”

Foxygen are a pretty weird group. At their core, they’re early Rolling Stones imitators. Their music is very loose and fun, while being artfully destructive. But they do exist in 2017, an age where you can say “let’s spend the night together.” Foxygen exist more as the wet dream that exists in some Rolling Stones & Velvet Underground mix. This album, one of their better releases, is a large orchestral ensemble suite, although the band still officially credits only two members. Tracks like “Follow the Leader” and “America” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a more experimental prog-classic rock album, while maintaining a certain loose energy and heavy production that couldn’t have existed then. It’s a rare balance, and they haven’t always pulled it off in the past, but this album is a real gem.

#7. Slowdive – “Slowdive”

At it’s heaviest and loudest, shoegaze can be one of the most physically draining and ear-ripping experiences (My Bloody Valentine were regularly voted one of the loudest live bands and, well, Deafheaven). But at the other end of the spectrum are bands like Slowdive. They, like MBV and the Jesus + Mary Chain, regrouped for the current shoegaze revival and released their first new album in 22 years. The album retains shoegaze’s wall of sound, but through a dream-pop filter. The tracks on this album (especially “Star Roving”) fill you with a loud but warming sound that somehow reaches down into you like cocoa on a snowy day. It’s a summer-y album for people like me that don’t really like summer albums. Don’t feel like going outside? Let this be your sunshine instead. Note: headphones required.

*Doctors recommend a daily dose of sunlight. “Slowdive” has not been verified by the FDA and should not be considered a long-term replacement for vitamin D. Also don’t yell at me for calling Deafheaven shoegaze. “Sunbather” is.

#6. Roger Waters – “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

(review)

This album title has a simple answer – no. Waters was never very subtle in his decades in Pink Floyd, and he has been even less so in his solo work. In fact, Waters is more direct in his lyrical attacks than any young punk band you’ll ever see. This album is chock-full of specific ailments the world faces. Waters (and all of Pink Floyd) is deeply anti-fascist, and with the rise of fascist and fascist-adjacent politics, Waters immediately followed suit. Although much of the album is acoustic and subdued (think “Mother”), his anger is broiling over the pot and onto the stove. Sure, at one point he refers to an unnamed world leader as a “nincompoop,” but most of his attacks land hard – he chronicles governments killing journalists, the indifference to women being murdered, climate change and police brutality in one verse. Waters is just as angry as ever. Also, happy 40th, “Animals.” You’re aging well, unfortunately.

#5. Power Trip – “Nightmare Logic”

I’d call this the best metal album of the year – to be fair, it’s the only one I’ve listened to so far. But it’ll probably stay that way. Power Trip take the best components of heavy metal and thrash metal and boil them down into songs that are straightforward but punishing. Metal bands can often be a little silly, but Power Trip demand to be taken seriously on this album, with grave political songs and mind-blowing riffs. The songs on this album are often somewhat basic, but they approach simplicity with a renewed energy, something most metal bands avoid (by either rehashing the same ideas, or trying to be overly conceptual). The rhythm in the title track barely stretches across more than one note, but it’s as effective as the best Motorhead classics.

#4. Lorde – “Melodrama”

(review)

From synth to industrial to piano ballad, Lorde’s sophomore album hits practically every point. The beauty of the album lies easily in how much of a sophomore album it feels like. Her first album was about life as a bored New Zealander teenager, minimalist and bleak; this album shares the sentiment, but from the POV of a 20 year old who has deeper experiences. Lorde’s choice to show those advancements through music rather than lyrics is brilliant, as it gives the album a whole depth that was intentionally missing from her debut. It’s a completely separate and distinct record, one that takes the already palpable emotions from her first record and translates them into different terms. This record is plagued with uncertainty about the future – it just switches between worry and carelessness. Lorde seems wise beyond her years, and this album shows.

#3. Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

(review)

K-Dot’s last full album was, need I say, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The modern masterpiece will almost definitely go down amongst “The Chronic” and “Stankonia” on the list of all-time best rap albums. Lamar presents himself on that album as a deeply flawed person, but does so in an otherworldly manner. On this album, he falls back down to Earth to compete at a fair level. The album is grittier, dirtier, and grounded more in velocity and realism than ambition. But don’t mistake that for a lack of creativity, because Lamar brings the heat. The album is full of intense boasts and rapid-fire rapping, from “DNA.” to “HUMBLE.” As always, the features are sparse, mostly centered around a solid Rihanna duet. And the album climaxes with a track that gives the oral history of the time Lamar’s father met the man who founded Top Dawg, the label Lamar is on – and then reimagines their interaction as a violent one. Lamar’s verses about addiction and personal demons actually feel more suited to this gritty album, and while it’s no “Butterfly,” it’s still a damn delight – sorry, a DAMN. delight.

#2. Mount Eerie – “A Crow Looked At Me”

The fact that I made it through this album in one pass is amazing. The fact that I did it over a drink is downright impressive. Only in rare circles of indie-folk do you find music this depressing and, when you do, it’s usually unwarranted and/or fictionalized. This isn’t. This album is the chronicles of folk/metal singer Phil Elverum losing his wife to pancreatic cancer shortly after she gave birth to their first child. The album acts as an extended news clip from a small-town station, a prolonged eulogy, and an admission of guilt over feelings Elverum maybe wanted to ignore. The album is entirely acoustic, and was structured chronologically from the immediate aftermath of her passing to acceptance a year later. The album’s songs are largely devoid of rhyme and structure, and are just thoughts thrown onto a page. Elverum describes the simplest of tasks – taking the garbage out, collecting her mail – with an emotional intensity that an average listener cannot relate to. It is extensively brutal, emotional, and honest. The entire album resembles a Mountain Goats song boiled down to it’s core and re-worked to be even more honest and unfiltered. If you think you can handle this album – then go for it. Elverum himself says there isn’t a lesson, that it’s just life. But even that can be overwhelming.

#1. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 3”

Run the Jewels have nothing left to prove. The two rappers, Killer Mike and El-P, spent the group’s first two records using their respective underground statuses to reach newfound fame. And now, both men (each 42 years of age), have hit that status. So their third album is less political and more vocal flexing. When you have both El-P and Killer Mike onboard, some narrative boasting is exceptionally enjoyable. They spend much more time on this album rapping about their own status as newly-christened throne holders. And they do it with flair – Danny Brown, Tunde Adebimpe, Trina, BOOTS, Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington make appearances. RTJ have spent their first few years existing on a kind of fringe – a band more political than most current popular rappers, with a intensity not suited for radio. This album sees them join the ranks of current rappers and outdo nearly all of them immediately. The album follows their previous works, in that often songs blend together in one long suite (as you saw above), resulting in a constant crush of beats, El-P’s otherworldly one-liners and Killer Mike’s energy. Truly, a match made in heaven.

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Highly doubt anyone’s still reading (I didn’t), but if you did, thanks and remember to smash that like and follow button (did I do that right). Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll have listened to, you know, a bunch more albums. Also remember to check out The Filtered Lens for occasional reviews from me and great takes on film and TV from others. See you in December!

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Lorde – “Melodrama”

Photo Credit: Genius

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Green Light,” “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” “Perfect Places”

The first album from New Zealand singer Lorde, 2014’s wonderful instant classic “Pure Heroine,” was a bit of an anomaly. Lorde’s lyrics shadowed the fact that she was literally a teenager – they coupled the life of suburbia with the dreams of luxuries she heard about in Drake and Kanye songs. But musically, the album couldn’t have been further from what a bored teenaged pop singer usually creates. The album was a quiet blast of minimalism, with short, mild songs more in the realm of The xx than anything else. It was a refreshing turn for a young singer. But it also left people wondering whether her follow-up would try to replicate the style, or whether Lorde would grow her music.

Unsurprisingly, Lorde grew. The album’s opening track and lead single, “Green Light,” is a tongue-in-cheek look at this. The opening line, “I do my make-up in somebody else’s car,” could easily come out of a Lorde parody song, and is sung over faint piano. But within a minute the song does literally grow into a big, extremely danceable pop song. This album, in certain ways, could not sound more different than “Heroine.” While Lorde sounded comfortable in that album’s small sound, here she often sounds like she’s trying to free herself from a restraint (often successfully). “Green Light” lacks a breakdown because Lorde sings over it at the same volume she was already going at. On this album she has both more range and more bite. On “Writer in the Dark” she coolly sings “I love you till my breathing stops / I love you till you call the cops on me” over two menacingly out-of-tune piano notes. On “The Louvre,” she surrounds herself with the most orchestral music she’s made, which makes the painful quietness of immediate follow-up “Liability” all the more real.

But the best example of this newfound, punching-up attitude is found on the first half of “Hard Feelings/Loveless.” The “Hard Feelings” portion of the song expands into industrial territory – yes, industrial territory. Lorde’s vocals completely disappear for a noisy interlude that wouldn’t have felt out of place on “Pretty Hate Machine.” It’s a real punch in the gut to hear it halfway into a pop album. It’s worth noting that Lorde worked with Jack Antonoff on this album, a man who isn’t new to elevating female singers and pushing them in new directions. The album, as a whole, is far more musical than before. There are multiple songs with instrumental fade-outs and moments where Lorde gives way to the music behind her. She’s not hidden, though – she still dominates every song in her own ways.

“Melodrama” might be the most appropriately-titled album of the year. While it is taken from a song, the whole album has an umbrella of melodrama to it. Lorde, now 20, seems stuck in the same lyrical ennui that birthed her first album. But here she is more direct while also more unhinged. Gone are the references to diamonds and luxury, the metaphors and vocal inspirations taken from other genres (except the way Lorde sings the chorus in the excellent “The Louvre”) She’s bored in relationships, counting the days until it ends. She’s alone in clubs, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. “Melodrama,” even more than “Heroine,” shows the personal troubles and misunderstood complexity of being a young woman. And although she may be native to New Zealand, the general ‘stuck’ feeling throughout wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a Midwestern act. Many of the album’s songs could easily be translated into the music of a young but learned country singer.

Lorde’s growth as a singer is completely natural on this album, and it isn’t even necessarily a growth that would usually be called “maturity.” Her image was so well solidified on “Heroine” and it came off so earnestly that this album feels more like a reaction, rather than a separate entity. And on a bigger and simpler note, it also proves that Lorde isn’t going to be a one-off (not that we were particularly worried). “Melodrama” is a surprisingly well-rounded package, one that highlights and intensifies the emotions she had already conquered, while also pushing her volume and ambition levels far past what listeners were used to. A week removed from Katy Perry’s disastrous push into new ground, we get the album we might deserve – a pop singer pushing herself to the edge of her capabilities without intentionally going overboard.

-By Andrew McNally

Sorry Guys, Women Won Music (Again) in 2014

Man, us men really spent the year treading water. As 2014 comes to a (well-deserved) close, and we discuss the best and worst in music, one thing in evident – women really lead the way. Women released better songs, better albums and had more progressive things to say than men did. So although men can boast, dick around and talk big, it was women that paved every path this year. Aloe Blacc was the man? Well Beyonce was Flawless. From Laura Jane Grace to Ariel Pink, Wiz Khalifa to Mish Way, both men and women helped women become the beacons of music in 2014.

2013 was an exceptional year for women in music, too. I almost wrote this article last year, but I was then too devoted to keeping this blog strictly reviews. It’s amazing to think it was only last year that unknown teenager Lorde nearly overtook Robin Thicke for biggest song of the year. But where 2013 was all about new acts establishing themselves in new niches of music (like one Crutchfield sister in Swearin’ and the other in Waxahatchee, both redefining punk), 2014 was all about the big names taking sides and taking stances.

2014 began on December 13th of last year, when “Beyonce” dropped unexpectedly. Not even the album’s guest stars knew there was an album coming out. Only Beyonce could have a release that huge, that unannounced and that coherent. It would go on to champion a year full of feminism and sexuality where women dominated, with only minimal exceptions.

Women Dominated Albums

“Beyonce” may have been the year’s best album (if you count it), but it was one of just many great albums from women. Charli XCX and Nicki Minaj followed in Beyonce’s path and released December albums – a month usually reserved for contractual-obligation Christmas albums. Tinashe and FKA twigs released two of the year’s best debuts, two R&B albums that establish each singer’s other-worldly confidence. And speaking of other-worldly confidence, the year’s best album unabashedly went to St. Vincent. Annie Clark’s guitar-drenched songs of surveillance and snakes were nothing else we heard all year, in both scope and confidence.

Taylor Swift did something usually disastrous for musicians and switched genres (Remember “Forever“?). But she went passive, attacking armchair critics on “Shake it Off,” not coincidentally one of the year’s best/biggest songs. “1989” was a big mess of a pop album that convinced many people (myself) that there really is more there than angry break-up songs.

Another one of the year’s best albums came from Lana Del Ray, who listened to criticisms and improved her music in every way. “Ultraviolence” was dark, brooding and seductive – a 60’s minimalist pop work that’s ready to defend itself from Youtube comments. With songs like “Fucked My Way to the Top,” Lana owned her identity, to the chagrin of many. In comparison, Sam Smith provided one of the year’s best songs – “Stay With Me” – but struggled to find his own musical identity, with a lackluster debut and less of a personality than his minimalist pop peers.

And this brings us back to last year’s minimalist dear, Lorde. Lorde didn’t release any music in 2014 save one song, “Yellow Flicker Beat.” But the song came from the soundtrack to the recent Hunger Games movie, a soundtrack she was assigned to curate. That, itself, is a huge deal for anyone – especially someone still in their teenage years. And, she chose people of a like mind – CHVRCHES, Tove Lo, Tinashe, HAIM, Bat For Lashes, Charli XCX and Grace Jones (!!!) all make appearances.

Women Dominated Songs

“I got one more problem with you, girl”

“I go on too many dates / at least that’s what people say”

“Fuck the skinny bitches in the motherfucking club”

Women seemed to rule the radio this year, too. The year’s best songs and most provocative lyrics belonged to women. Let’s look at these three examples – Ariana Grande dominated the charts this year, with no bigger song than “Problem,” with Iggy Azalea. It was a horn-blasting, bombastic pop song influenced by DJ Mustard’s production but without any unnecessary DJ attachment. Taylor Swift tossed critics askew in a side of her we’ve never seen before, and Nicki Minaj rallied against pro-look pro-anti-feminists. “Anaconda” was one of the year’s best songs – she took a comedically remembered hit from ’92 about the male gaze and repurposed it into a song about female body positivity. What’s better than that?

Elsewhere, there was the female talent showcase of Jessie J/Grande/Minaj on the excellent “Bang Bang,” a song that’s just about bangin,’ and it’s great. It’s just a fun, upbeat pop song that shows off some talent. Grimes’ only contribution to 2014 was “Go,” a crazy, pseudo-steampunk song that reflects your every mood when you listen to it. Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” might not be one of the year’s most revered songs, but it tied Janet Jackson for most weeks at #1, and it’s just another notch in her book.

Women Owned Feminism & Sexuality

So let’s talk about the most important woman of the year, alright? Laura Jane Grace, of Against Me! In 2012, after Against Me!’s miserably regressive “White Crosses” album, Tom Gabel announced that he was going to start living as a woman, Laura Jane Grace. Grace joined Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, among others, in a year where the transgender movement finally came to a public eye. So Against Me!’s 2014 album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” opened a wide audience to a previously closed movement. And while the album had some weak points, tracks like “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Unconditional Love” and “Drinking With the Jocks” illustrate Grace’s struggles with gender identity in the way of some of Against Me!’s most abrasive lyrics yet.

And while we’re on punk, two of the year’s best feminists were Mish Way and Meredith Graves. Mish Way’s band, White Lung, released one of the year’s best albums in “Deep Fantasy.” The album is heavy and real from start to finish, but it’s centered around its second best song, “I Believe You,” a song that’s written from the POV of a surprisingly understanding friend of someone who’s admitting they’ve been sexually assaulted. The song is both musically and lyrically the heaviest thing they’ve done, and it’s one of the year’s most important minute and 42 seconds.

Meredith Graves, of Perfect Pussy, had a busy year. Perfect Pussy’s debut, “Say Yes to Love,” was secretly modeled off the line, “Why do we say yes to love?” The album has a feminist tone throughout, with Graves frequently taking on the established male punk precedent (if you can hear the vocals). Punk music needs a reason to be energetic; Graves and co. don’t hold back about that reason.

Outside of the band, Graves published essays on being a woman in the music industry, comparing Andrew W.K. to Lana Del Ray, and on male pattern violence after Mark Kozelek made an unnecessary, public feud with the War on Drugs.

On the sexuality side, it’s easy to say that sexuality in music as all about confidence – whether it’s outward, like Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,”  Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” – or sultry and subversive – FKA twigs “Video Girl,” Tinashe’s “2 On,” this year was full of strong, confident women, and it’s been a joy of a ride. Keep it up, 2015.

There Are Always Exceptions

Of course there’s exceptions. With Azealea Banks finally getting to release her excellent debut, “Broke With Expensive Taste,” came some harassing, homophobic Twitter rants that diminished credibility. (I won’t link to them – know that they’re out there).

She also started an ongoing feud with 2014’s most problematic female, Iggy Azalea. For those of you reading this, by now you’re surely at least familiar with the name – she had a number of huge hits in the summer – “Problem,” with Ariana Grande, “No Mediocre,” with T.I., and her own songs “Fancy” with Charli XCX and “Black Widow” with Rita Ora. I have to admit, from a music standpoint, I think they’re all great songs. But I wish I didn’t know anything about her when I listen to them. Azalea is Australian by birth, British by upbringing, and whiter than a jar of Hellmann’s. But she raps in a fake, black Southern accent (see: Atlanta) to mimic those who “influence” her. She’s trying way too damn hard and yes, it’s really racist. And yes, she has dropped the N-word.

Lana Del Ray also sparked some controversy by saying she would rather talk about space travel than feminism. The degree to which it’s just to fit in with her old-money, Gatsby-befriending persona is debatable, but it’s something that was said and can’t be forgotten.

Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus also made trouble with some serious, continuous cultural appropriation, done for their own “artistic benefits.” Both artists have remained silent when asked by fans to stand up for actual black issues like Ferguson.

But Here’s What Men Did This Year

Men accomplished little this year, in terms of music (and most other things). As always – exceptions. Pharrell’s “G I R L” album was a great, feminist work (and acted as an unintentional apology for “Blurred Lines”). Perfume Genius’ song “Queen” was one of the most honest, heartbreakingly rattling songs of the year. Patrick Carney, of the Black Keys, had a year spent on the offensive where he called out people like Jack White for their actions. And, artists like John Legend and J. Cole led the movement to recognize the need to acknowledge Ferguson, with ?uestlove adding that we need more Bob Dylans and Rage Against the Machines – artists with political motivations. But for every Run the Jewels, there’s at least one Eminem, so let’s look at men being men:

Eminem. Eminem released a song where he threatens to punch Lana Del Ray. Why? To what purpose? Eminem is 42 years old, and his fight for relevance includes threatening the most passive, pacifistic singer you can think of? That’s not intimidating. If Eminem wanted to stay popular, he’d retire and let his record speak for itself. Or, he could actually focus on the quality of his music, since he hasn’t had a good song since “Lose Yourself” (arms spaghetti) and his 2014 contribution was a Shady greatest hits compilation no one asked for.

Mark Kozelek. Sun Kil Moon’s 2014 album “Benji” was remarkable, but the 47 year old singer is also fighting a losing battle with aging, as he started a one-sided, unnecessary feud with the War on Drugs, a band that has looked up to him, and has taken no part in this imaginary feud. It all culminated with the admittedly silly and meta but still homophobic single, “The War on Drugs Can Suck My Cock.” The fact that these attacks are unresponded to amounts to nothing more than Kozelek trying to prove his manliness and yelling at a crowd that isn’t listening.

Ariel Pink. Human clickbait Ariel Pink’s 2014 album, “pom pom” made a lot of year-end lists. I didn’t listen to it. Ariel Pink called out Grimes, for some reason, calling her “stupid and retarded,” insults I never realized people used after the age of 12. Pink said he was contacted by Madonna to record for her new album only to say she’s been on a big downward spiral. Madonna’s publicist said he was lying, that she had never heard of him. Downward spiral? Meet Ariel Pink.

Robin Thicke. Thicke! Thicke was quiet in 2014, but he wasn’t trying to be. Black metal bands be damned, the creepiest album of 2014 went to “Paula,” Thicke’s in-depth, hyper-specific public apology to his ex-wife. First week sales counts: USA – 24,000. UK – 530. Australia – 158. 158 copies in Australia didn’t crack the Top 200.

Phil Rudd. For a band that sings constantly about manly stuff like rocking and violence, AC/DC’s first controversy didn’t come until this year, when drummer Phil Rudd was arrested for trying to hire a hitman to kill his wife. The band was as shocked as it’s fans, where was this rock and roll stuff in 1977?

Future killed the good fortune he’d set up with one of the best albums of the year, “Honest,” by admitting he cheated on Ciara and by guesting on the atrocious “Pussy Overrated” with Wiz Khalifa. Jack White did interviews where he groomed his image by verbally attacking respected artists like Adele, the Black Keys, and even Meg. Chris Brown got arrested a few more times, and had the gall to release a song about disloyal girlfriends. I could keep going on about men in music, but these are the biggest examples. Most of the best music of the year was done by women, and women made the bigger stories. They’ve had to, because to be anything less than extraordinary is going to get them shelved under male musicians. Let’s keep this going. 2015 should be the return of Adele, and Beyonce might even give us another album. We’re starting on the right foot.

-By Andrew McNally. Inevitable responses can be directed to amcnal817@gmail.com. Article can be reprinted or referenced, with citation. Feel free to remove links if ya do.

Lana Del Ray – “Ultraviolence”

ultraviolenceGrade: A-

Key Tracks: “Cruel World” “West Coast”

“Ultraviolence” is a slow album. It’s easy to overlook the album as a long, long wick attached to a room full of fireworks, burning slowly and ending before the big bang. But to look at “Ultraviolence” like that is to ignore the music’s subtleties, and the complexity of the album’s subject matter. “Ultraviolence” is a dark record, one that examines a woman who tries to ride her way to the top, but never excels past being “The Other Woman” (as evidenced by the final track). Given Del Ray’s recent, questionable comments on feminism, the album isn’t a critique on women in society today as much as it is a semi-personal narrative. It helps to strengthen the cinematic quality of the album. And it doesn’t hurt that Del Ray’s vocals are stronger this time around, rationing out a few strong performances across the album.

The album’s opener, “Cruel World,” is also the longest, at 6:39. It’s a building and intricate song, one that sets the tone by really taking it’s time to get to an engaging climax. It’s a slightly captivating song, and an unexpected one to open an album, even for Del Ray. What follows is a number of polarizing songs – sometimes engaging, other times putting up a strong barrier. Nearly all of them are a medium tempo, which should be a distraction or even a boredom, but when almost every song has it’s own identity, it doesn’t even matter. The only real exception is the excellent “West Coast,” full of tempo changes and a low-key funk that isn’t present anywhere else on the record.

Del Ray’s lyrics focus on struggling to find your identity and struggling to find success, accepting defeat in both. They’re typically dark – with titles like “Old Money,” “Pretty When You Cry,” and, of course, “Fucked My Way to the Top.” They call back memories to the pratfalls of luxury in the 20′s-50′s, even with modern references and a decidedly more provocative and profane tone. And her vocals are stronger; she’s allowed herself to open up and expand her range. “Shades of Cool” finds her in a high pitch, alternating between beautiful and off-setting. “Money Power Glory” is another track where her voice flourishes in big, grand ways. She’s often cooled down, but the rare times when she wants to take control – she does. These rare moments highlight the album’s otherwise restrained times, both benefits.

The album is bolstered by fine production, as well, courtesy mainly of Dan Auerbach (singer for the Black Keys and producer of everyone). The production is borderline cavernous, adding a faint echo and an ungraspable dark feeling throughout. It’s slickly produced – but not to the point where it’s actually pop.

“Anti-pop” isn’t a phrase, outside of a long forgotten Primus album, but it’s almost something that could describe Del Ray. With meandering tempos, cinematic music, dated lyrics and often 5+ minute lengths, her songs aren’t designed for radio. Yet they’re distinctly pop, a type of dream-pop. It’s melodic, and catchy, but in a low-key way. It isn’t possible to dance to this (as we now know, thanks to SNL). Like Nico long before her, and Lorde shortly after, Del Ray’s pop music is one of depth and density, not one of rapidity and popularity. You probably have a strong opinion of Del Ray, good or bad, and “Ultraviolence” isn’t going to change that. But it’s a strong pop release, ripe for analysis, and an improvement over her still notable debut. Like her or not, Del Ray’s strongest quality has been her ability to establish a persona in no time. And “Ultraviolence” really runs with it.

-By Andrew McNally

Lorde – “Pure Heroine”

(Photo Credit: http://www.ddotomen.com)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Royals,” “A World Alone”

Taylor Swift is twenty-three years old. Lorde, an up-and-coming singer from New Zealand, is seven years younger than her. But Lorde’s sound is already established and much more mature than Swift’s is. And she’s ousted Jake Bugg as 2013′s best new sixteen year old artist (sorry Jake). Lorde’s various singles and her “Love Club EP” have all been released within the last year, and have been strong enough to give her the meteoric rise to fame she’s enjoyed over the past two months. Her full-length, “Pure Heroine,” delivers on the minimalist pop her early singles have promised.

Fans of her hit “Royals” notice a medium tempo and a very relaxed attitude, and it’s consistent through the album. Opener “Tennis Court,” one of the three previously established songs on the album (the others being “Royals” and “Team”) sets the tone, with Lorde singing about arguments and iPhones over a synth drone. “400 Lux” sets a little more of a melodic tone – more rhythmic and a little faster, before transitioning into the minimalistic and extremely catchy big hit “Royals.” “Ribs” is a dreamier song, with both Lorde and the backing beat building up to a reverb climax that sounds like more of a finale. The next few tracks succumb to the minimalist idea too much and, although certainly not bad, aren’t as catchy or memorable. “White Teeth Teens” brings the tempo back up before leading into the great finale “A World Alone.”

Joel Little produced the album and is listed as a co-writer on six of the album’s ten songs, but Lorde still contributes enough of her own self to be a surprise for a sixteen year old. Her voice is impeccable, sometimes melodically beautiful, sometimes just a little gritty. And her lyrics are very poetic and mature, especially given what our other teen stars have given us lately. Lorde has been very influenced by royalty, and her mature look at the world is refreshingly original (and probably honest, “Royals” was written in 30 minutes). Musically, she took influence from Lana Del Ray, and that’s a little too apparent at times. But for the most part, pop, R&B, even doo-wop gets mixed together and watered down into some great minimal art pop. It’s tough to say whether Lorde will become huge, or if her music will eventually disconnect from audiences, but for now she’s given us a pretty solid and memorable debut.

-By Andrew McNally