On Monday, I discussed some of the TV show music cues I liked from this year. Today I’m providing a list of my favorite albums. I’m not really one for hierarchies. There is a top three (kinda), but after that it’s unranked because what does it mean to be the seventh-best record of the year really? That said, it’s no accident that many of these entries interrogate citizenship in a year profoundly defined by malevolent structures and forces that unequally restrict and allocate who gets to be a citizen and under what conditions. It’s also quite deliberate that many of these albums were self-produced by women resisting the pressure to justify themselves. It’s not a comprehensive list, as undoubtedly soon I’ll unearth a treasure or someone will recommend something. Year-end lists are comforting narratives we craft about our own tastes to cope with the passage of time and I always like returning to the past and finding things I missed in order to challenge canon-making’s ossification. Your music may be part of that unceasing process of discovery, and I look forward to hearing it later.
Erykah Badu – But You Caint Use My Phone (Motown/Control Freaq)
Last month Badu released this mixtape, which she co-produced with Zach Witness. End of the year, and just in time. Badu always sounds warm even when what she’s saying is cold, and peerlessly scribbles in the margins of song form. That’s how she’s able to turn Drake’s “Hotline Bling” into a revision of her 1997 hit “Tyrone” and a character study of the woman on the other end of that booty call. But what resonates most is Caint’s aching heart. Badu pursues a thematic interest in mobile technology through the lens of nostalgia, as though she wants to return to a time when we didn’t constantly use our phones to broadcast out and look in. Smartphones give us the ability to connect, whether we’re touching base with old friends or documenting instances of social injustice that have always been there but social media can differently illuminate. But you can’t unsee Eric Garner getting the life wrung out of him. However, you can channel the anger that comes with that realization into art and community and try to keep who you have and grow with them. That’s probably why she’s a doula. And it may be why so many of her albums’ final songs—“Green Eyes,” “Out My Mind (Just in Time)”—are about Andre or him in relation to other partnerships that fell apart or shifted. And that’s also why their reworking of the Isley Brothers’ “Hello It’s Me,” which concludes Caint, is lovely and bittersweet like divorced parents sharing a slow dance at their kid’s wedding reception. This year Badu came on silly like a LOL cat meme, flirty like a dirty joke told in emojis, weary like a 2 a.m. Facebook lurk, and contrarian like a flip phone or documenting a hate crime in vertical mode. Says the artist in another song that’s hot and cold: “that’s so me.”
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
Rock has a lot of folk heroes. Often successful execution determines heroism, whether it’s getting strangers to chant a chorus with total sincerity or smashing a guitar with balletic force for a photographer. Heroes don’t miss, because men get to be heroes and we often make excuses when they do. We also make exceptions of women when they try, which is why Broad City’s Ilana Glazer offered a great corrective to the “all-girl band” questions that haunt this band by asking them in a recent interview “does rocking hard mean gender equality to you?” But in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein celebrates the virtue of near-misses, which goes hand in glove with the memoir’s other major contribution: fandom’s equalizing potential to the creative process (or: why so many of Sleater-Kinney’s songs are about making music).
Earlier this year, I saw Sleater-Kinney perform at Riverside Theatre. My adolescence did not make room for Sleater-Kinney because I couldn’t hear the electric guitar’s feminist potential or entertain sexist assumptions from boys at shows about my fandom. Our paths finally crossed with No Cities to Love, an “electric” record in every sense, but particularly in how Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss wield their instruments, voices, and words to convey the spark and heat of idealism sharpening into wisdom. One of riot grrrl’s biggest contributions to contemporary feminism was how it prioritized young women’s equal participation in music’s production and reception. “Girls to the front” wasn’t a slogan. Stopping a set to teach fans how to play your song wasn’t a gimmick. It rearranged space to put young women in the middle. Even though I had a birds-eye view of the set, they sounded so close that it felt like I was on stage with them. But the girls in the front—campers from Milwaukee’s chapter of Girls Rock Camp—could make out their chord and drum patterns, sweat, and discarded pics, and take notes. That’s heroism.
Lizzo – Big GRRRL, Small World (Totally Gross National Product)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
At a recent speaking engagement, a UW-Madison student asked Ta-Nehesi Coates what he thought about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, prefacing his question with the explanation that it was one of the first hip-hop albums to deal with race. Coates countered this statement by name-checking Public Enemy before admitting that he hadn’t listened to Lamar’s record, which came out a few weeks before the event. In the back of the hall, this question seemed like a missed opportunity on three fronts. First, shoulda asked Coates about comic books dude. Second, why assume that one of race relations’ most vital critical thinkers has listened to your new favorite hip-hop record? Third, check the footnotes. Butterfly’s sound and collaborators situate Lamar’s flow within G-Funk’s grammar, one of his hometown’s major innovations and a sub-genre heavily indebted to 70s funk’s radical streak as a way to turn living in a police state into art. How do you process Rodney King? Your auntie’s record collection may have answers.
But young people often turn to their immediate context to figure out how to become adults. A necessary part of that process is realizing that some people get to go to college while others end up in prison or profiled or killed, confront the profound injustice at the root of this realization, and do something transformative with that knowledge. And it’s also why listening to records isn’t in itself a political act, but can be a resource for social change. Two records offered that kind of equipment for living this year. In April, Lamar released his third album. Eight months later, Minneapolis-based rapper Lizzo reached the same milestone at the tail end of the year after many year-end lists were drafted. Both are kaleidoscopic, ambitious efforts that impressively demonstrate the range and personality of the talent at their center. Both quote liberally from hip-hop’s past, as well as nod to its proximity to other genres (Lamar has jazz, Lizzo has dance). One rapper productively tests the commercial recording industry’s artistic limits, while the other demonstrates her entrepreneurial acumen by shirking interest from the majors to run her own label. Lamar struggles with hip-hop’s entrenched misogyny, while Lizzo applies an intersectional feminist critical lens to the genre and in doing so opens it up as a productive space for commentary and women’s artistic collaboration. Oh, and they’re both fun, immersive listening experiences. Lamar’s music evokes night-driving as a way to clear an unquiet mind and defy racial profiling. Lizzo’s music sees beyond #SquadGoals to observe how the giddy female energy of slumber parties and their rituals—dance routines, beauty and masturbation life hacks, gossip that chips at hegemony—resemble consciousness-raising sessions. Blast these albums in the dorms, kids. And learn their lessons. You are the future, and there’s work to do.
Empress Of – Me (XL Recordings)
Lorely Rodriguez makes music that sounds like a woman throwing a jewelry box against the wall, or my kind of pop. Me is Rodriguez’s follow-up to 2013’s Systems and her proper full-length debut. Its title may double as a form of clarification. Rodriguez produced this album and released it in a year when Jessica Hopper’s interview with Björk (a kindred spirit, if not a direct influence) spawned a Tumblr archive of images of female musicians, producers, and engineers to demonstrate that, indeed, women make music and authorship cannot be dead until it is equally applied to them. What follows is one of the most exquisitely textured and assured debut efforts of the year, propelled by Rodriguez’s clear, insistent voice. “What do you see in the mirror when you’re feeling restless? Do you see a man who isn’t there?” she asks on the breathtaking “Standard,” negotiating a distorted 4/4 beat pattern before catapulting over it. “Living for the sake of living, I can promise you no one cares,” she concludes on the other side of the chorus. That may be true, and pictures of women working behind mixing desks cannot change that for some people. But I care, and this music sounds like the future.
Grimes – Art Angels (4AD)
Oscar Isaac said in a recent Details profile that “[i]n order to be a leading actor everyone has to be an action star, to a certain extent.” Female pop stars have known this for generations (see also: LaBelle’s intergalactic girl gang drag, Kate Bush in the “Army Dreamers” video, Madonna’s biceps, Beyoncé standing fifty feet tall like Gene Simmons in front of the word “FEMINIST” at the VMAs). To follow up her 2012 breakthrough Visions, Claire Boucher emerged from playing video games in her basement and found the end of world. More accurately, she scrapped an album’s worth of songs that didn’t interest her and commandeered Pro Tools like Imperator Furiosa steering the War Rig and circled back to find that Art Angels’ apocalyptic Jock Jams sound was always there. Extending the Fury Road comparison to geopolitics, I haven’t settled my opinion on Boucher’s cultural omnivorousness. But the decision to work with Janelle Monáe and Aristophanes suggests coalition-building over colonization. And I would’ve left “REALiTi” alone, but sometimes we must destroy what’s beautiful to taste Valhalla all shiny and chrome.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
Here’s something Courtney Barnett revealed about herself in a recent conversation with Kim Deal: Sometimes shy people have so much to say and they don’t talk often because they’re forever turning over phrases in their heads and searching for the right words so they say them all at once. And sometimes they just sit. Barnett shreds too. If these masterfully written songs sound pear-shaped, you may need to lay down because she’s approaching them sideways.
Joanna Newsom – Divers (Drag City)
“Sons of Bob Dylan” appears in the middle of novelty folk singer Wally Pleasant’s 1994 album, Houses of the Holy Moly. Its argument is simple: every singer-songwriter (Lou, Bruce, Neil, etc.) is derivative of Bob Dylan, who was himself billed as the next Woody Guthrie, and the recording industry is always willing to commodify their constructed authenticity. That they’re all dudes is no accident. Toward the end of The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna muses “I just think there’s this certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it’s the truth and when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived.” As someone who is often written off as twee because of her harp, brittle voice, and decorously feminine self-presentation, Joanna Newsom must feel this sentiment in her bones. That’s why it was so punk when she listed her wardrobe’s textures and fabrics to conclude her last album as a nod to the empty closet her lover would get back after their break-up. On this album, she ponders what it’s like to love someone so deeply that you’re willing to watch them die after a long life together through a collection of intricate, masterfully arranged compositions. There’s nothing less twee than spanning time and death do us part. Joanna Newsom is not the next Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Karen Dalton, or Kate Bush. She’s growing into something else: herself.
Shamir – Ratchet (XL)
Mickey Mouse croons to a lover he wants or doesn’t, reads yuh’ to filth, then sashays away. Most parties aren’t as fun as this record, including the records about parties, thanks to Shamir’s magnetic self-possession and Nick Sylvester’s buoyant production. In an alternate reality, Shamir rescues Alessia Cara from the party she’s withstanding in “Here” (an excellent rejoinder to Can’t Feel My Face-core, by the way) and they fire up the smoke machine at his house.
Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl (Sacred Bones)
Album title of the year, no question. And Hval’s ear for composition implies a steady diet of late 90s R&B—particularly the airy presence of Aaliyah’s dexterous soprano—and liturgical music. Its sense of the divine corresponds with its theoretical ambitions, a pursuit that Stuart Hall memorably compared to “wrestling with the angels.” Crafting a concept album about how ambivalence organizes feminists’ daily lives offers listeners few immediate rewards. Feminism is often co-opted to tell comforting narratives about progress and autonomy that privilege the concerns of middle-class white women; essentialize and condescend to women committed to leveling gender inequality without exploiting imperialism; and comply with capitalism’s unequal distribution of resources at work, home, and in public. In the West, its historical narrative is often organized in metaphorical waves, which justifies generational factions, misapprehends political gains’ uniform distribution, and ignores undertow. Finally feminism can bend toward dogma and splinter into contradiction, which often means to apply it is to misapply it. This might be why so many of these songs—“Why This?” the end of “That Battle Is Over”—sound like they are resisting their own disintegration. But this album is so alive with words and ideas—including the radical potential of “soft dick rock” and self-care—that it’s a pleasure to wrestle with it again and again.
fka twigs – M3LL155X EP (Young Turks)
Earlier this year I scrapped a comparative analysis of Under the Skin and Ex Machina, which put Mica Levi’s eerie score from the former in conversation with the pulsing sounds Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow produced for the latter. It never materialized, as the comparison praised Jonathan Glazer’s film to hang Alex Garland’s three-hander and that’s lazy criticism. Also, such comparisons reduce the individual merits of Scarlett Johansson’s and Alicia Vikander’s uncanny valley performances as an extraterrestrial seductress and an Edenic robot. Both offer incisive, particular critiques about what it means to have beautiful female bodies and grapple with men forcing their will upon them. In the real world women distance themselves from their bodies all the time to cope with this trauma, looming or endured. These actresses metaphorize that experience and demonstrate the thrill of sentience scaffolding resistance as their characters wonder: “what is my body if I can’t enjoy it?”
What does this have to do with M3LL15X? For one, the long-form video is a nice pairing. In particular, “I’m Your Doll” will be used in gender and media studies classes to talk about consent and objectification for as long as graduate programs hire hipsters to teach college students about feminism. Ultimately, M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa,” perhaps the name of one of Ex Machina’s discarded prototypes) investigates how sexiness curdles into body horror out of twigs’s boredom and disgust with the commodification of the female form. And it offers an alternative to the post-racial implications of Ex Machina’s ending by imagining a future where black female pop stars rebel alongside artificial intelligence. As an EP, it trades songs for Concepts. But it’s also one of 2015’s best science fiction movies about technology’s fraught relationship with sexuality.
Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet (anticon.)
The best thing about part-singing is the moment when everyone breathes together and blends their voices to create a unified sound that vibrates like a beam of light you can hear. That’s way trippy, but Angel Deradoorian is clearly after this moment because she creates it time and again—most magically with her sister Arlene and Niki Randa–on this beautiful, unassuming record that breaks through the air like sun through windows after a rainstorm. It’s a sound she helped chase as a member of Dirty Projectors, who were basically choir nerds with psychedelic tendencies. But there’s a stabilizing force to part-singing on this record, which Deradoorian wrote largely as a manifestation of her doubt and loneliness as a Los Angeles transplant without a band. And a lesson too: good solo artists always find their way when they collaborate with other musicians.
Carly Rae Jepsen – E*MO*TION (Interscope/School Boy)
This album’s modest chart performance is baffling, but the music critics know about this one like they knew about Kylie Minogue in 2001. Pop music is ultimately about interpreting personal e*mo*tions with your voice that large audiences can immediately identify with and share. For female pop stars this often means “pretend that you like it.” This is why so many women (and Harmony Korine) have complicated feelings about Britney Spears. Such expectations also lay bare authenticity’s contradictory and unequal allocation between male and female artists (see also: Newsom, Joanna). What I like about this record—apart from how its airbrushed synths, resilient programmed drums, and neon-bright sax flourishes bullseye the pleasure center (kudos, production team)—is Jepsen’s embodied conviction as a singer. Listen to how she whispers “I’ll find your lips in the streetlight” on “Run Away With Me,” E*MO*TION’s launch pad. It’s a slyly sexy turn of phrase and an excellent line reading, because even if the song’s subject is undefined (you), Jepsen conjures a real person. As listeners we can only witness the ease of their intimacy within the ellipsis of a pop song, but we can also delight in finding our own specific people to fly with over the city, city. Which is where pop lives anyway.
It’s hard to write a tone poem to your favorite coffee mug, but you’re glad to hold it every morning. Here are some more great albums that found their way into this year’s dark corners and small moments, even though I couldn’t find clever words to describe their charms.
THEESatisfaction – EarthEE (Sub Pop)
Gavin Turek + TOKiMONSTA – You’re Invited (Young Art Records)
Noveller – Fantastic Planet (Fire Records)
Ibeyi – Ibeyi (XL)
Kelela – Hallucinogen EP (Warp/Cherry Coffee)
Björk – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (ATO Records)
Overcoats – Overcoats EP (self-released)
The Selecter – Subculture (Vocaphone Music)
Erase Errata – Lost Weekend (Under the Sun)
Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon (Interscope)
Demi Lovato – Confident (Universal)
Frankie Cosmos – Fit Me In (Bayonet)
Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD/Rvng Intl.)
Julia Holter – Have You in My Wildness (Domino)
Bouquet – In a Dream EP (Ulrike/Folktale)
Last Friday, I was catching up with Off Chances’ podcasts while wrapping up some things at work. As it was around 4:30 and the mix was food-related, I was getting hungry. My appetite intensified after hearing the opening track three times. For some reason, I haven’t gotten around to listening to late jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. I knew of Ashby because James Murphy mentioned her in that generation-defining novelty song that launched his career. Her music is sampled by hip hop artists like Ugly Duckling, Murs, and Pete Rock. And I feel pretty ridiculous that I hadn’t noticed her work on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Billy Preston’s Late at Night, but this blog is as much a repository for lost treasures as anything else. But after stumbling upon the stark, elegant “Joyful Grass and Grape,” I’m hooked. Ashby fans, should I start with The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby?
Since starting this blog, I’ve always prioritized contemporary female musicians who steer away from the traditional rock set-up. Lately I keep thinking about harps, which may only rival the piano as the most conventionally feminine instrument. PJ Harvey foregrounds the autoharp on her bewitching Let England Shake, which gets better with each listen.
After seeing Joanna Newsom at the Paramount last November, it’s clear to me that the novelty of the instrument can eclipse the difficulty of playing it. Detractors may think Newsom’s association with the harp ups her quirk factor, but she’s pretty virtuosic at an unweildy instrument. It requires great strength and dexterity to pluck and strum a harp. It’s a challenging instrument to approach, as you have to straddle the instrument and nestle your head against it to see the strings. You can’t shred on it as easily as you can with a guitar, which has been naturalized as an extension of the musician’s genitalia. It’s a tricky instrument to keep tuned. What’s more, harps are really expensive. Newsom doesn’t use a practice harp from her middle school days to keep in touch with her childhood; the one she’s saving up for costs $50,000.
Ashby showcased her formidable skill with the koto on Rubiyat, which seems to employ an entire musical grammar I can’t yet wrap my head around. Being able to master two tricky instruments and create sublime music out of it? Oh yes, Dorothy Ashby, I’m going to spend more time with you.
So, the cool kids already knew back in 1995 that the answer to the “Oasis or Blur” question was “Pulp.” In 1995, I certainly knew I was supposed to like Sheffield’s underdogs who rose from years of obscurity to deliver “Common People,” which is all the more relevant today as trust-fund kids remove the band’s class consciousness to ape their deadpan sensibility and ironic sartorial statements, which seem to be modeled after what European teenagers were wearing in the 80s according to my high school French textbooks. I did like them, and continued to after their 2002 split.
But if forced to chose one or the other, I’d take Blur without question. Their lyrics were clever, their melodies were interesting, and their influences more varied. Plus, the members looked like a nerdy straight girl’s version of a boy band. I liked frontman Damon Albarn, who had a snaggle tooth and a vaguely simian cuteness that comic artist Jamie Hewlett had to be tapping into when he was designing Gorillaz with Albarn. There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”
Oasis, on the other hand, were doggedly working class Mancs. They also had no musical vision past Lennon and McCartney. Their lyrics, absenting principle lyricist Noel Gallagher’s dyslexia, were of the worst variety of rubbish: the purposeful kind. The Gallagher brothers also forged a rivalry with Blur for publicity and that their episode of Behind the Music confirms they’re despicable people. I like “Cigarettes and Alcohol” well enough. I enjoy singing “Morning Glory” at karaoke, but my enjoyment of the song completely resides in shouting the lyrics, a singular joy I also bestow upon Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” I have no use for these songs as listening experiences — I merely enjoy shouting along with them, largely to drown out the recorded sound. It’s an icky, selfish joy.
But if you’re angling for true Britpop allegiances, I’m closer to siding with Courtney Love on this one. Apparently some time in the mid-90s (possibly during Lollapalooza ’95?), she said that the future of rock music was “Elastica-r-r.” While history and personal drama unfortunately proved that mantle untenable, Elastica were my Britpop band.
I remember buying the band’s self-titled debut at some big box chain in 1995 because I saw them in Seventeen and heard “Connection” and wanted to be a member. I particularly responded to frontwoman Justine Frischmann’s androgynous look and too-cool persona, later finding out that she co-founded proto-Britpop band Suede and was dating Albarn. I already had the short dark hair and wore loose black clothes. I used dry sarcasm as a defense mechanism for being shy and chubby. In my mind, I was as good as in.
The clerk responded to my purchase with incredulity. Perhaps he found them disposable. I’m not sure if the guy was one of those boorish types who think girls shouldn’t play guitars. Their status at the time as a buzz band could have predicted their short shelf life, as assuredly it did for all-male bands like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and countless others. At around this time, shoegazer bands like Ride were aping the Black Crowes. A year later, peer act Lush would release their final album, Lovelife, which attempted to recast the group in a more contemporary image.
Shaking off the record store attendant’s rebuke, I took the record home and discovered a series of short, spiky songs brimming with frank recollections of a nightlife with friends that teems with the possibilities of bad sex and great sex recounted from a distinctly female voice. It was an exciting sound I was just starting to relate to. Revisiting the album this past week, I’m stunned by how fresh it still sounds. But when I was closer to Rory Gilmore’s age, I was just beginning to understand the frisson of sharing closed quarters with a boy you probably shouldn’t be with.
I wonder if the record store clerk and other folks of his station didn’t like Elastica because they knew the band ripped off bands like the Stranglers and Wire, the latter a lauded post-punk band then still pretty obscure in the states. I’d come to discover that the band lifted a riff from the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” for “Waking Up” and Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” for “Connection,” among others.
Frankly, I don’t care. Britpop could be defined as a post-modern response to Great Britian’s pop legacy. A band like Blur pilfered from a variety of influences, eventually branching out to American indie rock. Albarn was particularly influenced by Pavement, whose frontman Stephen Malkmus apparently hooked up with Frischmann at some point. A former acquaintance once referred to Malkmus as indie rock’s Peter Fonda. I only abide by this statement as a counter to Love’s pronouncement that Malkmus was indie rock’s Grace Kelly, which sounds great but makes little sense. However, I do think it’s interesting that Frischmann mentions the actor in “Car Song.” I interpret Malkmus responding to the Anglo interest with “We Dance,” a song that sounds like Suede’s Brett Anderson could have sung it.
Oasis swung for the masses with the Beatles, a safe move because everyone steal from them. Elastica appropriated punk’s terse songcraft and tinny production and was penalized for essentially having the same taste as discerning record store clerks. But if you take out the riff to “Connection,” you still have a good song with smart, funny lyrics. If you take all the reference in “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Wonderwall,” you don’t have much else left. This isn’t to say that the members of Wire shouldn’t have been compensated. Just as I think the Rolling Stones deserved to collect every penny from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled a classical arrangement of “The Last Time,” so do I think Wire and the Stranglers deserved credit. I just think, in the name of credibility, swiping from Wire is hardly a big deal. Bands with dudes in them do it all the time.
I also think my indifference toward Elastica’s musical plagiarism stems from the ubiquitous presence sampling has in my listening practices. I grew up on hip hop and probably justify the band’s decisions through that lens. Thus I’m also interested in Frischmann’s connection to former roommate Maya Arulpragasm, who would later become M.I.A. Then a filmmaker, Arulpragasm created the cover art for The Menace and directed the music video for “Mad Dog God Dam.”
(BTW, Robert Christgau agrees with me about The Menace being underrated. This is one of the few times we’ve agreed on anything. Even when we have, as with Sleater-Kinney’s output, he fixates on sex and Corin Tucker’s voice as the manifestation of the female orgasm.)
Arulpragasm would later vacation with Frischmann and write “Galang,” the song which catapulted her to pop stardom. If that’s the legacy Frischmann’s known for as she continues to retreat from public life, that’s a nice consolation prize. But I do hope people remember her band’s own limited output, regardless of its source material.
So, my friend Curran just told me about this Long Beach-based post-punk band from the early 80s. Apparently they were set to be something of a bigger deal than they ended up becoming. They had a recording contract with I.R.S. Records, who were also home to West Coasties The Go-Gos. Jonathan Demme directed the music video for their single “Gidget Goes to Hell,” which played on Saturday Night Live and later cast lead singer Sue McLane (alias Su Tissue) in Something Wild.
But while I’m sad that I didn’t know about them until today, I’m glad I know about them now. I think you should too. I’m pretty in love with the following clip that Curran sent me, which is of the band performing their song “Janitor” for a TV appearance. Note Tissue’s awkward unperformance performance, the weird voices she affects seemingly at random, and that the song’s main lyric is about mistaking someone saying “I’m a janitor” with “Oh, my genitals.” Are you in love yet?
Just got back from teaching music history workshops with Kristen at Act Your Age for Girls Rock Camp Austin, which “rocked.” I will post about what I learned from the experience tomorrow, but I kinda need to recover and eat some dinner. I happened to have a review of Helium’s 1997 album The Magic City in the pocket. I was obsessed with the album a couple of months ago after I snagged a used copy signed by leader Mary Timony during a rediscovery period prompted by the 120 Minutes Archive. So let’s talk about why Helium was an awesome band and why this album exemplifies that. Because, if indeed this decade will revive music from the 90s, I hope those who rediscover indie rock stalwarts like Pavement pay equal consideration to fellow Matador act Helium.
As a proper follow-up to their debut, The Dirt of Luck, and a sonic and conceptual expansion of their murky sound, 1997’s The Magic City tends to be overlooked despite being well-regarded in its time. However, the band’s prog-influenced sophomore (and final) effort is often cited as a fan favorite, perhaps prompting artists like Ben Gibbard to name-check singer/guitarist Timony in Death Cab for Cutie’s “Your Bruise.” The band’s legacy lives in contemporary acts like Austin’s YellowFever. Furthermore, Timony is still active. It may make more sense to revisit The Dirt of Luck, particularly for the inclusion of breakthrough single “Pat’s Trick” and its accompanying music video. But The Magic City is a clear artistic achievement that deserves further consideration.
Prog evokes ideations of the concept album. Yet it’s hard to ascertain what this sophomore effort is about. Some may think the album is about Timony’s then-boyfriend Ash Bowie. Others may consider her lyrics as evidence of Timony’s affinity toward hippie spiritualism, nature’s ephemera, space, Christian and Pagan iconography, and stoner poetry.
Having revisited Joanna Newsom’s auspicious sophomore full-length Ys, which is also heavily shrouded in symbolic language, it’s still a jolt when she makes mention of an “awfully real gun” amidst the romantic turmoil of “Only Skin.” Similarly, it’s shocking how often the real world intrudes in Timony’s lyrics. Opening track “Vibrations” opines about astrology while reminding the listener that she’s always available for a chat on the phone. Single “Leon’s Space Song” finds her telling an adversary that her Los Angeles friends like her better. “Aging Astronauts” includes weary mention of perennial air travel. “Ancient Crymes” reveals how Timony finds power in being rude and that she’s down for a party. That Timony is able to incorporate the spiritual realm into the mundane is no small feat. She conveys this in large part through the evasive yet surprisingly expressive qualities of her deadpan alto.
The Magic City also reveals itself to be a relic of the album’s cultural wane. Though some carry the mantle of the full-length, less care has been given to sequencing and cohesion. This cannot be said of this album. There’s a concerted effort to project grandeur, primarily through Timony’s virtuosic guitar playing on songs like the 8-minute opus “Revolution of Hearts Parts 1 and 2.” It repeats musical themes and returns to certain lyrical images while subtly suggesting variance with a diverse assemblage of instruments and compositional stylings, indicating the era’s interest in hybridity.
Instrumentals like “Medieval People” also suggests the band had more in common with agit-pop acts like Brainiac (another band in need of a revival) than Yes. However, I’d like to think one of Helium’s key contributions to indie rock in their brief career was that these acts could co-exist on one beguiling album.
Recently, my friend Ivan posted a clip on Facebook of the late, great Electrelane playing “Bells” off their penultimate Axes at a Portuguese music festival in 2007. Since I’ve been mentioning the album’s influence on my feminist development for a while, let’s get into it.
I was already a fan of the group when Axes came out. I reviewed The Power Out for KVRX, perhaps helping in some small way to make “On Parade” a college radio hit.
I only had the pleasure of seeing Electrelane in concert once, but I really couldn’t ask for a better experience. They opened for erstwhile Mr. Lady labelmates Le Tigre at Emo’s right after my birthday in 2005. Le Tigre were fine, but Electrelane were a lightning bolt into my being. Simply put, it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a band so much in control of the chaos they were making.
One thing Electrelane demonstrated for me was the power that emanates from women playing music together. I’m not referring to the novelty of it, as I wish all-female bands and female instrumentalists in mixed-gender bands were more commonplace. I’m talking about women coming together collaborate on a creative project. I believe it to be a decidedly feminist act.
Collaboration is important and should not be devalued. Often women are singled out in music culture and are expected to work alone if they choose not to work with men. I’d argue that this is true in other professions as well. In their seminal book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards mention that several women discouraged them from writing the book together, as it would not be taken seriously. I think much of this is to do with the privilege given to sole (male) authorship, and having women abide by it — if we are to follow liberal feminist principles — ensures professional advancement. I also think it’s bullshit. There is nothing weak or compromised about working with someone on a project. In my experience, it only adds depth and nuance to whatever I’m working on. I also think it helps prove that women and girls can, in fact, be civil and work together rather than tear each other apart for individual advancement. Thus, female collaborations can be politicized acts. Modeling these working strategies in public is a politicized act too. It’s why Kristen at Act Your Age and I do it whenever we can.
Though I do think there’s something distinctively female about Electrelane, I don’t think it’s their sound so much as their approach to creating that sound. There’s muscularity to it, which is bolstered by precision. Being precise may not seem a rock ideal, but it’s how they work together as a unit, even when it sounds like they are in discord or riding musical tangents. It’s the sound of work. To my ears, it’s the coiled fist and dexterous fingers of women proving they can rock even harder and tighter than the men.
And there’s just something so empowering about seeing women work together so well. And while I love Sleater-Kinney and have seen and heard some of their remarkable concert footage, their shadow may be cast over bands like Electrelane who I feel don’t get as much credit for being such a tight musical unit. Lead singer Verity Susman doesn’t have Corin Tucker’s golden wail. Neither Susman nor Mia Clarke channeled Pete Townsend’s showmanship the way Carrie Brownstein did on stage. But that doesn’t mean that these women aren’t their peers. I mean, Emma Gaze is just as mighty a drummer as Janet Weiss. As far as I’m concerned, we should link these bands together more. Maybe put them on a bill together. That’d be a hell of a reunion.
At the time of its release, many critics noted that Axes was largely instrumental. This only seemed exceptional against The Power Out, which offered lyrics written in English, French, German, and Spanish. Indeed, their debut album Rock It to the Moon was scant on lyrics as well. Apparently Susman told the NME that this was much to do with lyrics making their compositions sound predictable and too resolved. While band members considered themselves feminists, they tended not to address their politics through lyrics (though “On Parade” is absolutely about same-sex desire, and their cover of “The Partisan” is meant to be read as a protest against the Iraq War). By creating the songs as instrumentals actually gave the band more room for sonic exploration. I’d concur and often think about how dispensing with lyrics can be used toward political ends.
Sure, lyrics convey information. They also give listeners easy, sometimes profound points of identification with artists. Lyrics can be mounted as evidence. They can also be ignored, though they shouldn’t be. But as valuable as words are, they can also be limiting. They can demystify. They can be too exacting, and therefore obvious. They can fall short of delivering the message they’re attached to as well. And sometimes putting them into verses and choruses and bridges can take away the words’ charm. Instead of telling the joke, they explain it.
Some vocalists have bypassed proper lyrics, opting for gibberish, lists, scat, sloganeering, or free association. Some musicians, like Electrelane, forgo words altogether at times, and I don’t think the decision to do so should be conceptualized as a devaluation of their verbalized ideas. Rather, I think we might be able to argue that systems of language can fail women and girls, both in their musical compositions and in the larger world of cultural interaction.
Also, sometimes talking about being feminists isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to lead by example. Show, don’t tell.
Thus, they turned toward their instruments — which abide by the conventional, masculinized rock set-up, particularly channeling bands like Neu!, Can, and The Velvet Underground — to make loud, abrasive, abstract music that evolves and builds but never tends to arrive at full resolution (or “climax,” to use a masculinist term). Their compositions, and the deliberate stylistic choices they made toward repetition and dischord bring to mind Susan McClary’s seminal Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, which argues against the traditionally masculinized values of structure and resolution in canonical classical music and champions the hypnotic, dissonant, unresolved tonal quality of many female composers’ work.
In Axes, there are no proper choruses or verses. Some songs don’t even reach a proper theme. Others do, either to repeat it at length or vary it slightly with each refrain. A song will stumble upon a melody as if by accident, and then deny the listener a chance to re-engage with a familiar tune. The band has already moved on and will not be returning unless they feel like it. Nothing is fixed. It’s not taking the master’s tools to dismantle his house, but it feels pretty close to me at times. Re-enlisting veteran engineer Steve Albini after his work on The Power Out and recording together in one room domesticates their sound in surprising ways, and roughs up staid notions of female domesticity. Having Susman stab at her piano — once a symbol of proper female socialization — probably helps too.
This lack of emphasis on lyrics and hummable melodies can be really frustrating for casual listeners, especially those looking for the one single to latch onto. Electrelane doesn’t really provide it on Axes, requiring that you listen — and feel — the entire album as a total experience. This is a pretty audacious thing to ask a listener to do, particularly when an album can get cut up into mp3 files. It’s also music that doesn’t make for easy participation. There’s no place to shout “words and guitar, I got ’em!” and thus no easy site of identification either alone with your headphones or with the crowd at the gig. The band doesn’t give many nods of recognition. But I think if you spend time with the album, you’ll find it. Maybe start with “Two for Joy” and work your way through “Gone Darker.” After that, stretch past to the end and let it play to the beginning. That way, you can listen to “Bells” over and over again.
However, I do propose a listening tactic for people struggling to get into this album: play along. If you have a guitar, pile it on top. If you have a flat surface to bang on, tap out a rhythm. And if you have a voice, sing along. Just because the songs are instrumental doesn’t mean they have to remain that way. Remember the feminist possibilities in collaboration and join in.
I love lists. At the end of every year, I dutifully check in with my AV Clubs and my Pitchforks and my NPRs and my Dusteds and whatever other publications appeal to politically liberal youngish people trying to keep up.
There’s a special place in my heart for music lists. Back in my college radio days, we used to devote hours (some of them on air) to dissecting the year-end best-of lists. Having served posts at office jobs that require a considerable amount of editing and fact-checking, and thus allow for some quality headphones time, these sorts of lists now serve as a discursive mix tape that I can alternately love, hate, or dismiss.
Yet, I tend not to make lists. It isn’t a matter of feeling like my opinions aren’t valuable. It’s a resistance to canon formation. I question whether the list itself is a useful tool with which to measure history. There’s something so arbitrary about ranking, so temporal about certain offerings, and so glass-cased final about the results. It seems to render the chosen cultural moments accidental, temperamental, and airless. And often the items deemed worthy on these lists have nothing to do with me or anyone else who isn’t a straight white adult male.
To me, the only use a list has is to argue about it with a group of friends over beer, make another list to counter someone else’s (whether it be drafted by a friend or a respectable publication), or scrawl all over the margins of the pre-existing document. Otherwise, the proceedings seem deceptive and unsatisfying to me. And even though I like to wrestle with lists, I don’t really need proof that good things came out each year. Good movies, TV shows, books, and especially music get made every year.
That said, I do believe in favorites. While favorites can shift with time and gathered experience, I’m a big believer in selecting a defining text that encompasses the year. I don’t remember if I originally thought Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver was my favorite movie of 2006, though I know I loved it. When I think about it now though, I remember calling my mother immediately after the screening I attended because the thought of living in the same house as a grown woman with your mother who might be a ghost was too profound an idea not to relate to her.
I remember how TV on the Radio’s Dear Science captured the hope of change promised by the potential election of Barack Obama, especially in the wake of a demoralizing Bush administration that the band gestured toward in previous, more emotionally turbulent albums.
So what of this year? Well, my choice for album of the year picked me.
Before getting into why I picked the album I did, which I established as my #1 way back in March despite keeping fantastic company with offerings from Bill Callahan, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, P.O.S., Fashawn, Micachu & The Shapes, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, St. Vincent, Bat for Lashes, Speech Debelle, Grizzly Bear, Themselves, Memory Tapes, Janelle Monáe, Phoenix, Taken By Trees, Nite Jewel, Destroyer, Julianna Barwick, Fever Ray, The Noisettes, Atlas Sound, Vivian Girls, Gossip, Best Coast, Dan Deacon, Brother Ali, and so many others, I’d like to be candid for a moment. When I think about this year, I think about how I tried to make it a good one. I believe I was successful and I know I have many people to thank for that. But it was definitely a growing year, and usually not in the certain, considerable, triumphant ways that “growth” often suggests itself as a word.
I started this blog at the end of April. While I made a New Year’s resolution to do it, I created it out of a need to control my feelings about a professional setback that rendered itself more heart-breaking than I thought it would when the decisions were finally handed down. Throughout this year, I’ve often (re: daily) reflected upon my future and who I want to be, worried not so much that I lack the ability to progress toward a career I really want and think I’d be great at, but that I’ll never get the chance to develop and move forward. That’s some heavy shit. It doesn’t translate well into party-time chit-chat either, especially when some of your friends are already on the path you’d like to be on someday.
As a result, I tried to broaden my focus and interests. I tried to get some related things accomplished and made some progress. But I also got comfy and more involved with my current job, read more books, saw more movies, heard more music, hung out with my friends, had quiet nights at home with my partner and our cat, got involved with Girls Rock Camp Austin, co-taught some rad music history workshops, paid off my loan, and threw myself into this blog with abandon. Admittedly, it’d be nice to get paid to put this site together, as I could easily be happy making a career out of it. But it’s been so fun and rewarding to write up these posts and have smart, sensitive people follow along and participate. I’ll gladly pay the money to keep the domain name.
But none of this fucking matters when a tornado is ripping up your house or a killer whale is eating your lungs. And with that, let’s get into Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone.
So, the second time I heard this album, I knew it was the one to beat. And before people cry “safe choice!” or “bias!” I’ll point out that Animal Collective secured many publications’ top spot with a crossover hit back in January. And then I’ll add that Middle Cyclone, much like Merriweather Post Pavilion (and Dear Science before it and Kala before it) distilled the musician’s artistic growth. In this particular case (no pun intended), she honed her considerable writing ability, developed her Gothic noir musical tendencies, piled on catchy melodies and haunting harmonies, and showcased a maturing, perfect alto. The issue of vocal range is one of great importance to me, as it means I can sing along with her. We had some good sessions in my car.
It was also the long-awaited follow-up to Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which continued but further shaded the cinematic work the singer had done with Blacklisted. Fox Confessor was a cycle of post-apocolyptic fairy tales about car accident victims, army widows, and fingerless cannery workers.
As is evident in much of her earlier and subsequent work, animals show up. Sparrows, lions, and foxes make often allegorical appearances, though her gendered connection to nature would take a more literal, weirder turn when she decided to record crickets chirping for Middle Cyclone‘s final 30 minutes. Sometimes cover songs get re-interpreted, as on the spiritual “John Saw That Number” and Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” on her follow-up.
Sometimes Case would show up too, most noticeably on “Hold On, Hold On.”
But Case is all over Middle Cyclone. Whether she’s singing about a love-lorn tornado or a biker’s wife or a convict or an owl, she’s singing from their perspective rather than narrating their lives. She’s also often singing as herself, revealing who that might be with lines about being the dangling ceiling of a caved-in roof or threatening to punch a lover in the face if the word “forever” is uttered in “The Next Time You Say Forever.” I also love her assertion that “heaven will smell like the airport” but that we shouldn’t worry about whether we get proof of it is fair in “I’m An Animal.” However, her candor on the title track moves me the most.
Through the liner notes, we even got more of a sense of who she is. Her deprecating sense of humor is evident, as is her confident sense of artistic ownership and her craftiness with collage art and découpage glue. As this was the year Austin City Limits released their cookbook, I can’t wait to try out her recipe for houndstooth chocolate chip cookies. And let’s not forget how many pianos she needed to make this album. She may be a goddess, but she’s also a kooky lady.
This goddess and kooky lady are evident as one on the album’s bad-ass cover. While it’s Neko on the hood of a car, the image is far from Vargas girl cheesecake. This one is barefoot and holding a sword, but she’s also 38 (now 39) and pretending to be an eight-year-old boy.
In sum, Middle Cyclone was a defining and distinctly female work that came about from age, experience, a clear sense of self, some hard knocks, and even more defiance to overcome them. It was exactly the album I needed to hear this year, often and at full volume.