Here we are! Away, to the end.
10. Frankie Cosmos – Zentropy
Often I characterize music by how big or shiny it sounds. For a long time, I ascribed big, shiny, and high-production music with more worth than the intimate, grungy, and lo-fi stuff. This was very dumb. Production is a tool musicians use in order to create mood and emphasis around their art. Also, who am I to say where something was composed and recorded? For all I know, Deafheaven, Taylor Swift, and YG might be churning out hits from their living rooms. Alex G, Mike Kinsella, and Frankie Cosmos might rent studios in the south of France for months for their work. Obviously, both extremes are exaggerated! And these artists all record music in the way that allows them greatest creativity within the constrictions of their personal and professional means.
Greta Kline’s music sounds young and simple and genuine, so Frankie Cosmos must be all these things, no? To say so does not give Kline credit for how clever and deep she can be as a lyricist, how deft she can be crafting songs. Zentropy runs for eighteen minutes while still feeling complete and varied. “Buses Splash With Rain” is a two-and-a-bit minutes long song that shifts itself again and again. Opening with Kline’s voice and guitar, the song gains strength with harmonies, drums, and bass. Eventually, it mounts to a K Records-doused dance party. Kline arranges the song so she sings “and this isn’t a party” right as the drums pick up eighth notes, propelling the song to its bounciest. At first blush it sounds simple, but it hits you harder each time and soon you are dancing around the room to a song about terrible, no-good, very bad days.
The Frankie Cosmos album closes with “Sad 2”, a song about the death of Kline’s dog. There are countless twee nightmares that might have attempted the same sort of song, but none had the conviction to sing “I made the appointment to kill my best friend/ There goes my fear of death.” The cover of Zentropy features Kline’s dog and her band’s name in neon type, but the blurry picture becomes more melancholy as you cycle through the album. Sometimes, the dog dies at the end.
9. Protomartyr – Under Color of Official Right
The Legend of Protomartyr – as it was told to me – was that they were four men, three young men and one old man shouting around like some abrasive literary hero, the stench of cheap beer escaping with his breaths. The idea of four guys traveling around the country, playing rock shows, while three guys in their late-teens/ early twenties try to wrangle this charismatic but destructive frontman is wildly interesting. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the reality. Protomartyr seem like normal guys. Their drummer looks very young, and singer Joe Casey does have sort of a sneering presence on-stage, but they are a band, working hard for their music. If you talk to them at a merch table, they are very chill, and that is sort of disappointing.
Through Under Color of Official Right, you can envision that origin for them. Casey’s voice buzzes on a level where you can picture him as a disillusioned artist, shouting at the world around him for both its own ills and the way it doesn’t appreciate him. The band backing him as acolytes for an alternate version of Midwest punk that was too grimy and spacey for popular tastes. Are things really better this way? As the band asks, “And what will you miss/ Alice in Chains played on repeat/ Not feeling great/ You’re twenty percent.” It could have been a brilliant career.
For how messy Protomartyr can sound at times, the band never steps on each other. Casey’s lyrics cut through by virtue of his timbre. Greg Ahee’s guitars fill spaces however he sees fit, be it furious trem-picked chords or singing, simple, sustained guitar lines. Meanwhile, the rhythm section of Alex Leonard and Scott Davidson build a structure on precise drumming and bass lines that connect all the other parts. Somehow, it all still sounds like it could fall apart at any second.
Protomartyr sound out-of-place without sounding outdated or retro. There are references to laptops and the year 2006 which create Casey’s reality instead of dating his words. The album ends with track “I’ll Take That Applause”, a strange almost unintelligible vocal recording giving way to the band’s boldest riffs. Casey repeats the title of the song adding “Cuz I deserve it!/ Audience but vapor in my hand.” The boldness like so many other Protomartyr songs turns grim and bleak when Casey ends the song, singing “nothing ever after” and his band’s music floats away in a cloud of fuzz and feedback.
8. FKA twigs – LP1
There are socially constructed qualities and performances that we are conditioned to think of as sexy. In this conditioning, sexy things are supposed to look and sound a certain way because that is what everyone decided on, more or less (but actually, much less because those deciding forces are not what a large portion decided upon to be sexy, but rather what some shady and imposing beings in power positions decided a large portion of the population should find sexy). When something breaks through and smashes that notion of popular sexuality, it makes its allure all the more appealing. The world is telling you that this should not, nay, cannot be sexy. But, here we are, breathing heavily, temples sweating, craving more.
FKA twigs’ debut LP1 coalesces the sounds and ideas from her first two EPs (called EP1 and EP2 because sometimes things are consistent) but the album never finds it necessary to channel that focus into something traditional. The focus is on twigs’ voice. The cloud nebula of production around it exists mostly to reflect and refract things her voice is doing. The list of collaborators seems perfect for the spacey, primal, echoey, and dark places twigs takes her work – Arca, Emile, Clams Casino, and Sampha all bring something to the table. However, unlike in their other respective producing ventures, their contributions are less signatures. The beats cede the song to FKA twigs and her vision.
What results is a sultry and atmospheric set of songs about intimacy with others and maybe more importantly intimacy with oneself. The single “Two Weeks” with lyrics like “Higher than a motherfucker, dreaming of you as my lover/
Flying like a streamer thinking of new ways to do each other” and its Queen of the Damned video paints LP1 as erotica, the album reflecting the zeitgeist of desire in ways similar to Prince, but the album has a deeper intimacy in mind. FKA twigs opens the whole work singing in ethereal falsettos “I love another/ And thus I hate myself.” More recent single “Video Girl” deals with FKA twigs’ view in the eyes of a world that perceives her as only a former back-up dancer. The album is not a record of basic want and instinct. More importantly and interestingly, it is an album of discovery and desire, letting others in and letting ourselves open.
7. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Perfume Genius’ Put Your Back N 2 It fleshed out Mike Hadreas’ sound from the simple keyboard and voice arrangements of his debut Learning. On the second album, Hadreas’ piano was accompanied with a full band, bending traditional pop tropes with the singer’s experience and emotions. A few tracks were more ambient and amorphous, but piano still drove the album. Going into a new album, I assumed Hadreas and company would expand upon that, maybe bring in some strings or horns or something? Then Perfume Genius dropped “Queen” and I realized I don’t know shit.
Too Bright still uses the same tools as Perfume Genius’ last two efforts, but it embraces the untidy and synthesized elements more than either of the last two records. “Fool” starts sounding like other Perfume Genius songs with a synthesizer switched in for a piano, but halfway in, the other instruments drop out and the synths billow under Hadreas’ voice first creaking than belting out in its highest register. The abrupt changes populating Too Bright sound like rebellions against traditional song structure, taking the concept to a wild extreme. “My Body” rollicks around on a palm-muted bass guitar note and throbbing synth chord until everything drops out, Hadreas takes a deep breath, and a deep horror movie chord strikes while a distorted voice singing what I would guess we call the chorus about the rotting and bloody mess of a body the voice wears. Perfume Genius then follows this up with “Don’t Let Them In”, a song that could fit on his previous two efforts, all tremble and piano arpeggios. Perfume Genius has expanded and branched out. The darkness that existed on earlier work is squirming out of the subconscious, its tendrils rooting around the music itself, turning everything into a beautiful rot, the brightness of a terrible explosion.
6. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
Once I doubted Jenny Lewis. It was 2007, right after Lewis’ band Rilo Kiley released the single “Moneymaker.” ‘What was this?’ I asked myself. This was not the heart-wrenching music I was used to. My reaction did not critically engage the music. It was about Rilo Kiley not meeting my personal expectations, a terrible reason to discount something.
Since 2007, when Lewis and her bandmates split, she released a few albums under various configurations (solo, with the Watson Twins, as Jenny and Johnny). In 2013, Rilo Kiley collected tracks that never received proper release and unleashed them as RKives. The compilation had well-known rarities like “The Frug” but most of the tracks were new to me. The tracks were also organized like an album rather than a chronological record. In 2007 I listened to Jenny Lewis while joking with a room of friends who agreed that Under the Backlight was not what they expected. In 2013, I listened to Jenny Lewis alone and tired, reminded of how sharp her songs are, realizing my fault at Rilo Kiley for not being my memory of Rilo Kiley.
The Voyager is an extension of RKives only in that it confirms that Jenny Lewis’s status as one of pop’s best songwriters. Throughout her work, no one has been better at depicting the disappointments, heartbreaks, trivialities, tedium, and jokes of young adult life. Meanwhile, she cuts the shittier elements of that life to the core. On lead single “Just One of the Guys” Lewis calls out the weirdness of her friends’ impossibly young girlfriends and the perception of women on both sides of the situation. There’s a California-cool sheen over the whole album, but Lewis’ voice makes everything sound present. Lewis was tasked by producer Ryan Adams to write “Wonderwall” by Oasis. The result is the titular closer. It’s the biggest and least specific song on the album, but the chorus lyric “If you wanna get to heaven/ get out of this world” works as a fitting coda. It doesn’t unite or tie up everything that came before it, but it sums up some of the messy feelings that Lewis is so adept at hitting.
5. Makthaverskan – II
Surprises are nice and perhaps nicest when you are at a low point. When stricken with grief or fear or pain or whatnot, like really in the depths of that shit, a pleasantry that you were not expecting can do wonders. It does not have to be immense, it does not have to alter your life, and it does not have to redefine everything in your worldview. Makthaverskan’s II is that pleasantry, a little jumping moment of catharsis, a pick-me-up while things are crumbling.
Sweden’s Makthaverskan emulate the dream-pop and shoegaze that were fading just as the members were growing up. Their genesis was a perfect mix of obsessives trying to capture something that eluded them while also railing against the Swedish scene around them. From this Makthaverskan created soaring and furious heartache pop.
Maja Milner’s voice spits and mixes youthful anger with longing. She gets gruff without alienating. Opening up with lyrics like “Fuck you for fucking me/ when I was seventeen/You knew it all the time/ You never loved me you wanted to own me/ Your time will come, my friend” oozes pathos. Milner is able to mix that with an uncanny relatability. She is voicing what you have felt, what you are feeling, what you will feel. As her voice soars on the scorching “Asleep” the key line “It’s not me you’re dreaming of” is transformed from an on-paper whine to a rallying cry of actualization. You were not expecting. And yet.
4. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Else
To this point, I have tried to limit the amount I have talked about the emo revival in this countdown. For one, the emo revival is not a 2014 phenomenon. Bands who fall into this have released albums before that year. As was the case for emo in its last go-around(s), it is also difficult to nail down (at least at first right? I say this mostly in reference to the bands of the Emo Game didn’t sound that alike but as time passed, newer bands did come out sounding a lot alike). The Hotelier are not doing anything that is stretching the boundaries of rock music. They are a good, verbose, genuine rock band, sort of like a more earnest, early Dismemberment Plan. The Hotelier do their thing very well.
Here’s a video where the band plays a sort-of hometown show in Cambridge. The crowd yells every word with singer/ bassist Christian Holden. This is the energy and devotion comes from the Hotelier resonating with the audience’s own emotions so deeply that their only choice is to obsessively learn, repeat, and shout the songs. The songs are meant to be shouted, while sweaty and crowded with friends, in all their honesty and hyper-sincerity. On the record, the first time a chorus joins into the song, it is to respond to Holden with “We’re all alone!” The album is aware that such a statement is ridiculous, but it doesn’t care. Here are the Hotelier, with songs about funerals for friends and wrenching pet relationships, reaching into the still hopeful and still youthful part of your heart and tugging as hard as they can.
3. Owen Pallett – In Conflict
Owen Pallett’s last album – Heartland – was different from In Conflict. For one it was initially released under Pallett’s former performance name, Final Fantasy, but then quickly changed to his own name. For another, it was a post-modern tale about a character named Lewis created by a person named Owen. Lewis begins talking to his narrator through the tracks of Heartland. Sonically, the albums are not that different, but lyrically, they are worlds apart. In Conflict is a personal account. It is Pallett laying bare his demons on one of his records. For the bulk of Pallett’s oeuvre, arrangement and soundtrack work included, there had been a disconnect. Until In Conflict, the lines between the artistic and the pesonal were not as clear. Pallett’s latest finally merges his lush and complex arrangements with an individual experience. In previous efforts, the conflicts were created by Pallett as forms for his music. Now, the conflicts are the inspiration for his work.
A dreamy track like “The Passions” marries soft organ tones and lilting strings with lyrics of intimacy and relationship frustrations – deciding on drug use as a couple, figuring out what to listen to after sex, dealing with differences between partners. As the track dissipates, “The Sky Behind the Flag” begins, first discussing substance issues, then growing in scope as drums and strings begin to swell. The dynamics reflect the personal.
Pallett’s interviews are never boring, as he is willing to discuss his own music, the music of others, and a variety of other subjects. In this cycle, he seemed more actively open. During the cycle, he gave a track-by-track description to Q Magazine. Outside of the album, there was a desire for disclosure and forth-righteousness. In Conflict does not need these though. Sure, they are considerate and welcome additions from Pallett, but the emotion oozes through the album. The first track released, the stunning “The Riverbed” hints at struggle with its deliberate drums and throbbing violin riffs. There are myriad conflicts through the album, but “The Riverbed” addresses the one of biggest concern. There are wordly expectations and maybe those do not fit your journey and happiness.
2). Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
The first time I saw Killer Mike and El-P was in a bowling alley. This bowling alley puts on concerts and Mike was opening for Big Boi’s tour. It was after Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, an album produced by El-P, so he joined Mike on stage to perform “Butane (Champion’s Anthem).” The song has a simple motif that the duo asked the crowd to sing “Yeah yeah yeah yeah.” It took the crowd a few tries to get it down. Mike and El looked at the crowd, smirking in disbelief that we couldn’t respond in kind.
The next time I saw El-P and Killer Mike was after the first Run The Jewels album. They were hanging out in front of a bar by my old office. They were shooting a video for “36” Chain.” Both seemed relaxed while they waited for whatever production process to finish so they could film. It was strange given how intense and sonically violent the first RTJ album was. That day those chill guys would film a cartoonishly violent video where they beat up Andrew WK and Joan of Arcadia while trying to save a puppet.
Run the Jewels was Killer Mike and El-P figuring out what they could do together and what would separate their collaboration from their solo work. Astonishingly, the feeling-out process was finished by Run The Jewels 2’s opener “Jeopardy.” Two artists were able to combine their talents, enhance those with love and friendship, and take the album wherever they wanted. So secure are Run the Jewels now that they can put Zach de la Rocha and Travis Barker on their album in 2014 without anyone batting an eye. Who else could announce a cat-voiced remix album and have an audience legitimately anticipating its release?
El-P’s production on Run The Jewels 2 is more cohesive than the first effort. It recalls the flow of his own Cancer 4 Cure with some of the grime wiped off (not all, of course). The quality of the beats almost distracts me from how radical and politically sharp Killer Mike and El-P can get. It was months before I realized Mike was saying “We killin them for freedom cause they tortured us for boredom/ and even if some good ones die fuck it the lord will sort em” on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck).” The possibility of violence looms on the album, not because El-P and Killer Mike are violent men, but because they are exploring all their options.
In college, an acquaintance said no one was making protest music except for Kottonmouth Kings. Even if that band were doing protest music, the whole concept just seemed ridiculous. Not only because the band was called Kottonmouth Kings, but also because the message never felt present when he played their songs. Even when they are not being overtly political, Run The Jewels’ message of protest hangs in the air. It has been amplified in Killer Mike’s responses to racial profiling, Ferguson, and a host of other societal ills that RTJ’s existence touches. On the liner notes, the lyrics of closer “Angel Duster” are bleak but Mike and El-P make it somewhat hopeful. It’s not an ignorant hope. It recognizes that the wrong in the world, the forces pointing and laughing. Run the Jewels are still here running around screaming for all who want to scream with them.
1). Ryan Hemsworth – Alone For The First Time
There are two types of voices on Alone For The First Time. The first set are electronically modified and repetitive. These programmed voices repeat phrases like “Don’t you/ hurt me” and “There’s no room for you left in my heart” and “I need you.” The second set of voices are from Hemsworth’s collaborators dropping expanded emotions over Hemsworth’s instrumentals. Both sets of voices are getting at the same idea, the difficulty of being by yourself.
Being lonely and being alone are different feelings. Previous entrants Modern Baseball sing thusly, “Not feeling lonely/ I just like being alone.” There is resignation and reality in being alone. Loneliness is a terrible feeling but being alone is a state. Sometimes it is terrible. Sometimes it isn’t. There are different occasions and circumstances for being alone. Some are driven by loneliness, but some are by necessity.
Canadian producer extraordinaire Ryan Hemsworth uses particular sounds and motifs throughout his solo work and his remix/ production work to develop a signature. However, on his solo work, he dims the lights significantly, muting the bright tones populating his work elsewhere. The cover image of Alone For The First Time is more stark than Hemsworth’s work. There’s a sunniness in Hemsworth that this picture belies. However, the denial of this light never comes across as insincere on the album. Fun and bright people sometimes want to listen to sad songs. For now, you can hear the saddest songs and sit alone and wonder. But later you can have high hopes, fill or burst, break or bury, whichever you prefer.
The swells and twinkles Hemsworth employs on the record could take the place of starry nights or snowy days or futons covered with blankets depending on the experience of the listener. Through their cloudiness, the lyrics on the album manipulate and burrow into your heart. When Lontalius sings “Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone/ There’s no room for me left in your heart” the audience is hustled into accessing their latest or biggest heartbreak and twisting it to fit the song. Our minds become the most unreliable narrators in the face of pop music.
Through Hemsworth’s half-hour heart trip, there is a realization. As “By Myself” fades much like the end of Radiohead’s “Karma Police”, you realize that for the emotions Alone For The First Time marches you through, you’re more-or-less in the same place from when it started. Alone For The First Time attempts to separate being alone from loneliness, but their real-world definitions remain up to individual experiences and interpretations. By myself? I just want to be your shadow? Never leave me alone? Leave me alone? It’s really up to you to figure it out.