Among other things, a year of great break-up albums by female artists…
by Gordon Campbell
Any ‘best of list’ has to be an exercise in wishful thinking, given the splintering of everyone’s listening habits. Even back in the days of the monoculture, the compiling of ‘best of” music lists was meant to be a point of contention – but at least the grounds for the argument were more or less agreed upon. Nowadays though… given the proliferation of musical microcultures, any such list is more than a bit pathetic, and amounts to little more than a yodel across the musical divides. Oh and to be sure, isn’t the very notion of an album something of an anachronism? Check. But maybe… it could be time for the re-discovery of the lost art of listening to an entire album, all the way through. Just putting that idea out there.
So, and with all of the worthy caveats aside, here goes – starting with my pick for album of the year:
St Vincent: Masseduction
There are any number of hall of mirrors meta-ness aspects to this album by Annie Clarke, and that’s not even counting (a) the credit for the “album cover model” whose butt appears on the cover, or (b) this set of satirical Instagram “interviews” with Clarke, scripted by Carrie Brownstein, which provide ironic answers to the eternal questions about say, being a female pop star ( “Playing a show in heels? It does something to your posture that I really like, it also does something crippling which I also like.”) and/or her advice to young musicians starting out. (“Get into the film industry.”)
The album itself is a polished pop artifact by a rock star who seems to be publicly processing – in ironic and non–ironic ways simultaneously – her own tabloid fodder breakups with Kristin Stewart (see “Los Ageless”) and Cara Delevingne (“Pills” and “New York”). In interviews for her last album, Annie Clarke spoke of her deep debt to Lonnie Moore, a writer known for ironically stretching and polishing her autobiographical experiences into something that’s emotionally true, but amusingly distanced. So…to put it mildly, Masseduction shouldn’t be taken as a dear diary confessional, even when (on “Los Ageless”) it seems to be emotionally resonant:
How can anybody have you and lose you
And not lose their minds?
I guess that’s just me, honey, I guess that’s how I’m built
I try to tell you I love you and it comes out all sick
I guess that’s just me, honey, I guess that’s how I’m built
I try to write you a love song, but it comes out a lament
On the page, those lines may look self-pitying, but the delivery isn’t. Same with the stark lines on the subdued, deep-voiced track called “Smoking Section” where Clarke sings about feeling sometimes like an inland ocean, “too big to be a lake, too small to be an attraction.” By the final verse, the narrator is contemplating jumping off a roof to make a point. Even on the upbeat “ Happy Birthday Johnny” the meta-ness of who is actually in play and who is commenting make for dark amusement :
When I said, “let me think, ” and you yelled through your teeth
Accused me of actin’ like all royalty
Always for show, no true charity
You saw me on magazines and TV
But they only knew the real version of me
Only you know the secrets, the swamp, and the fear
What happened to blood, our family?
Annie, how could you do this to me?
Of course, I blame me…
Hmmm. “You saw me on magazines and TV/but they only know the real version of me” is an irony you could spend a whole lot of time unpacking…In the meantime, here’s a live version of the “New York” song, which is old school but affecting in its mastery of the art of smoky piano bar balladry. And then there’s “ Young Lover” with its echoey, descending repeat on that “ I wish your love is enough, enough, enough..” It’s the one track where the comparisons being made between Masseduction and David Bowie’s stylised Last Dance pop extravaganza almost ring true.
Rather than the album’s piano version of “ New York” here’s a BBC solo guitar version, in which she switches the “only motherfucker” line with “only other sucker…” It works beautifully.
Kendrick Lamar : DAMN
This concept album came alive in Kendrick Lamar’s Coachella performance early this year where his command of the stage (not to mention the entire kingdom of hip hop) seemed stunningly complete, even when merely experienced online. At Coachella, his impassioned live renditions of the DAMN album’s standout cuts (“DNA” “ Element” and Pride”) made the studio versions seem like introductory sketches. Yet as the year has worn on, it has been the yearning “Love “ track that has stayed the course – though a line like “ If I minimized my net worth/would you still love me?” probably isn’t a concern that’s likely to keep most of us awake at night. In love and in art, Kendrick is looking for a contender, and feels like being challenged : “ Give me a run for my money…” More than boastful, that comes across as wistful.
More obviously, “DNA” is fierce about the social legacy of race, talent and oppression…with loyalty, royalty, sex, money, murder, all alive inside our DNA, and fast coming home to roost, ready or not.
Waxahatchee : Out In The Storm
I’m not sure what the best entry point is for Katie Crutchfield’s music. (“Air”? “Hollow Bedroom”?) This post-breakup album is her third solid album in a row (after Cerulean Salt and Ivy Tripp) and this time she’s upped the production sound, and made full use of her band. Among other things, the songs deal positively with the feelings of freedom (both assertive and self-destructive) of breaking away in your mid 20s from a mutually destructive relationship. “Silver” is a terrific driving song about her newly found confidence and capacity for survival. “8 Ball” is another great track about fighting and moving on ( I love the way she slowly spits out “You let me take my own damn car/
to Brooklyn, NewYork, USA”) while “Sparks Fly” asserts her connection with her twin sister Alison, beyond and besides any romantic connections in her life.
4. Perfume Genius : No Shape
The general take on this album by Mike Hadreas is that it marks a milestone point where he’s moved beyond the outsider-looking-in pathos and sublimated anger of his earlier work ( eg “Mr Peterson”) to where he’s relatively at ease with his place in the world. As Pitchfork put it, there’s less of Hadreas searching for a queer haven in an alien world, and more of him treating queerness as the wellspring of creativity and originality it has always been. The album’s standout track “ Slip Away” evokes Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” before careering euphorically into a celebration of love and identity.
Initially, the rhythms of say a track like “Valley” may sound like his earlier stuff, but it builds – even on this stark KEXP live version – into a delicately structured exploration of the demands the cis world still places on the behaviour of those outsiders that it affects to tolerate. Next year, keep in mind that Hadreas will be performing in Wellington as part of the Arts Festival.
Future : Hendrxx
Mid year, Future put out two terrific albums in the space of a fortnight, but Hendrxx has lasted better, even though its literal biographical details – like the recollections on “My Collection” of running his drug dealing business from his grandma’s house – should have worn thin, but somehow haven’t. On this album at least, the Atlanta rapper’s range is impressive, with pop songs like “Testify” “Incredible” and “Fresh Air” easily co-existing with the lovely duet he does with Rihanna on “Selfish…” The spectral “Use Me” is also a standout – the video evokes the Moonlight movie – but “Testify” is the hit:
Nadia Reid : Preservation
Nadia Reid’s second album may not have contained a standout equivalent in impact to “ Call The Days” on her debut, but this album offers a more coherent picture of an individual and a career in transition, as she clears the deck of people (“Richard”) of places (“Reach My Destination”.) and of songs (“Hanson St Part 2 / A River”) that have figured in her life to date. Can’t wait to see where she goes next…musically, emotionally and geographically. If this is ‘preservation’ it is more in the sense of taxidermy, for the sake of posterity. Every other aspect of this album seems to be about shedding, and leaving things behind in your wake.
Slowdive: Slowdive Twenty two years after their last shot at recording, the English shoegaze band Slowdive re-united and – against the odds – picked up at the same high level at which they’d left off. ‘Sugar for the Pill’ was a highpoint – an icily distanced but highly emotional song with this lovely, bleak-as-the-moors intro:
There’s a buzzard of gulls
They’re drumming in the wind
Only lovers alive
Running in the dark
Even more so, the opening cut “Slomo” set the mood for what was to come : passion, control, fire and ashes i.e, the dreamy essence of shoegaze, a genre rarely explored with as much discipline as Slowdive exhibit here. I guess that’s what you get from waiting for 22 years for something to come together.
Miguel: War and Leisure
A few years ago, Miguel was the love man who turned “Coffee” into one of the more sexily romantic songs of the decade, and now – like Prince before him – he’s added a wackily personal political dimension to his music. Sure, the result is often still a bit like Mr Smoove Goes To Washington, but the case being made – that sexual politics and politics per se share the same moral footing – seems highly relevant to the era of Trump and Weinstein.
Mind you, “Banana Clip” mixes up the martial/marital imagery in some weird ways… M16 in his lap, Korean missiles in the sky, he’s going to protect her, and stay down, way down etc etc Elsewhere, the attempted fusion of sexy bedroom come-ons with woke politics gets even stranger – on “ Come On and Chill,” the earnest bedroom entreaties are suddenly punctured by J. Cole’s verse about Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem, by Trump talking shit to ignorant white folks and all of the related troubles of “people with the pigment.” This is a mixed bag, but a consistently interesting one.
Kelela : Take Me Apart
Sure has been a great year for breakup albums by female artists… On the title track Kelela is intent on avoiding past mistakes: “Don’t say you’re in love, baby” she says to a new contender, “until you learn to take me apart.” While she’s more than capable of the vocal pyrotechnics expected of modern r& b divas, the fireworks tend to be at the service of some beautifully constructed songs – and while she’s picking up the same kind of love and respect that Solange earned last year for Seat At The Table, the Kelela album has a confident, sensual warmth that seems more akin to 1990s urban r& b…but on the side, there are FKA Twigs elements as well, especially on a confrontational track like “Blue Light.” Here, I’ve picked “LMK” and a terrific live version done for the BBC ,of “Frontline.”
Honourable mentions : Chastity Belt’s I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, Taylor Swift’s Reputation, Bjork’s Utopia, Valerie June’s The Order of Time, Jay Som’s Everybody Works.
Tracks of the year (tie):
“Bad Liar” by Selena Gomez
“Horse Blanket “ by Posse
And six other tracks worth your while:
“The Opener” by Camp Cope
“Safe” by Young Thug
“Different Now” by Chastity Belt (Shot by shot, the video amusingly tips its hat to Temple of The Dog’s “Hunger Strike”)
“New Year’s Day” by Taylor Swift
“Where Are We?” by Marie Davidson/Not Waving
“Love” by Lana Del Rey
Video of the year:
Big Shaq’s “Man’s Not Hot..”
The girl told me, “Take off your jacket”
I said, “Babes, man’s not hot” (never hot)
Best Box Set/Re-issue:
Finally, the winner here has to be Big Star’s Complete Third collection, which came out in late 2016, but I only caught up with it mid-year. It up-ends much of the mythology around Big Star’s beloved 1974 album, elsewhere known as Sister Lovers or Third or Beale St Green. For added confusion down the years, previous versions included/excluded different tracks and arranged them in varying order …
Anyhoo, this 3 CD box set of ALL the various takes and prior mixing attempts only serves to underline just how intent Chilton had been from the very outset in pursuing the path of self-loathing and career self destruction that – paradoxically – culminated in one of the darkest and most beautiful albums ever made. Point being, the meltdowns were not studio accidents by terminally messed-up dopers, but this ambience had been willed into existence from the git-go, including say, on the epic “Kangaroo” – which in its demo existence as a track called “Like St Joan” is just as bleak as the final studio take, and almost as wonderful.
Ditto for “Night Time.” Is there anything quite as, desolately romantic as that “Caught a glance in your eyes/fell through the skies” couplet…The wonder of this album is not so much that hellbent nihilists somehow created a masterpiece, but that so many people sat it out in the studio to finally get to where Chilton and Jim Dickinson were always headed, even if they kept on losing the map.