I definitely intended to write more about music on here than I have done. So here’s to better intentions this year, and to the best music of the last 12 months.
Here’s a spotify playlist, though I’d recommend clicking the video links too ‘cos some of them are rather good.
A late-album highlight on a disappointingly uneven new National record, ‘Dark Side Of The Gym’ is a gorgeous, woozy winner, reminiscent of older classics like ‘The Geese Of Beverley Road’ or ‘Lucky You’. A tremulous keyboard leads us in, and like most of the best National songs it sounds gently, dangerously inebriated, a fragile man making grandiose promises that he can’t keep. “I have dreams of anonymous castrati singing to us from the trees” is a wonderfully oblique Berninger-ian line, melting into “I have dreams of a first man and first lady singing to us from the sea,” which conjures a weird, timely and emotive image of a dignified, departing presidential couple (ahem) sailing off into the distance.
Having made her name with an album of sun-flecked country-rock in 2016, Julia Jacklin returned with a EP which demonstrates a clear maturation of her songwriting. ‘Eastwick’ is her best song yet, opening with a striking, sad, witty line about ways of coping with bereavement (“I don’t want my father’s ashes scattered over stranger’s couches”) and evolving from a slow folk jam into an incandescent fuzz-rock finale.
Not a Savage Garden cover, but just about as brazenly pop as that would have been, Fever Ray’s first song in 8 years was an alt-pop banger entirely unprecedented in the context of the project’s previous output (but much more akin to The Knife’s most radio-friendly moments). Both playful (“Hey, remember me? I’ve been busy working like crazy”) and unexpectedly profane (just… listen to it, you’ll see), it’s a terrific track, absurdly catchy and yet deceptively complex in its insistent, syncopated melody.
Michelle Zaumer’s second album as Japanese Breakfast was as eclectic as it was intense, encompassing driving motorik-rock, Grimes-tinged synth-pop, lush chamber pop and, on ‘The Body Is A Blade’, pristine Pacific Northwest indie-rock. Its nuanced existentialism is framed through a reflection of the life of her late mother, and the song’s arpeggiated riff builds to a bubbling climax of synth reminiscent of Grandaddy’s ‘The Crystal Lake’. Zauner is a wonderful songwriter, capable of being very funny (see ‘Boyish’ highlight “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general”) but also quite devastating (“Try your best to slowly withdraw,” she repeats here).
The four Perfume Genius albums have all been so tonally different, and ‘Wreath’ epitomises the atmosphere of No Shape perfectly – an ecstatic, almost transcendent sense of acceptance, sharp-edged with the knowledge of what it took to get there. It’s a four-minute symphony of catharsis, and yet the joy is tempered even here – “I want to hover with no shape” is, quite literally, about wanting to leave the stifling confines of one’s body. The excellent video, comprised of submitted footage of fans dancing to ‘Wreath’, neatly captures the essence of the song and of Mike Hadreas’ music: just be you, even when that seems like a hard thing to do.
Michigan emo band Swordfish released their debut album Rodia this year, and it’s a strong opening statement – they’ve got an instinctive feel for the aesthetics and dynamics of the genre, not just packing in the emotion but also understanding that emo can and totally should be fun. ‘Trenton Garage’ is the best example of the latter, with a sung-shouted caterwaul of a vocal, horns and a huge chorus packed into two delirious minutes; I’m not sure a line this year has made me inexplicably grin like the non-sequitur, “the last time that I saw you smile, I drove us to the SECRETARY OF STATE!”.
Picking up pretty much exactly where Sprained Ankle left off, ‘Appointments’ was the first taster of Julien Baker’s second album and it felt at once familiar and otherworldly. Glacial, heartbreaking and wracked with doubt and loathing, it’s stripped-back and simple and yet something that only Baker could write and deliver. The line which gives the song its title – “suggest that I talk to somebody again who knows how to help me get better / and till then I should just try not to miss any more appointments” – conveys so much, a gruelling battle to get from day to day.
Honing a sunny, tight, instantly recognisable sound that’s somewhere between 80s college rock, Flying Nun bands and turn-of-the-century Spoon, RBCF have already made a huge impression over the course of two EPs. ‘French Press’, the title track from their latest release, is perhaps their best song to date, with guitars that duel, sparkle, chime and interweave around the rhythm section’s taut groove. It’s strong lyrically, too, singer Fran Keaney using a poorly-connected international call to his brother to explore larger themes of interpersonal and geographical disconnection.
Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee project continues to go from strength to strength. Her fourth album, Out In The Storm, streamlined her sound but is an out-and-out break-up record, and ‘Recite Remorse’ sits at the heart of the record both literally and thematically. Over big, spacious synths and a throbbing two-note bass line, she looks back at tainted memories and dissects what went wrong in painful detail. The second verse is so wonderfully, brutally honest about the two of them: “When we were new to each other in the city after dark / you were so condescending / you wrote me in, gave me a part / see, I always gravitate toward those who are unimpressed / I saw you as a conquest, I saw you as a big fish.”
Sydney’s Oslow are arguably the most promising emo band in Australia at the moment, and their first full length was a thing of rare beauty and intensity, influenced by (but not indebted to) both 90s bands like Braid and the fourth-wave likes of Title Fight and Turnover. They have nailed one of the best guitar sounds I’ve heard in a while – rich, thick and piercing – and ‘Everything, Etc.’ is a superb example of their craft, coming in like a flood but creating plenty of space for the guitar riffs and melodies to shine.
The World Is… have never been afraid to push hard at the boundaries of their scene and sound, and ‘Marine Tigers’, the first song to be released in advance of Always Foreign, made their ambition clear. Immense both in length and in the scope of its subject matter, it’s very much a reaction to the current climate of heightened xenophobia in their native United States. Singer David Bello was born to Puerto Rican and Lebanese parents, and the title ‘Marine Tigers’ comes from his father’s book about his experiences as a Puerto Rican immigrant in America. The song reflects on the experience of being “foreign”, but also rounds on prevalent ultra-capitalist, compassion-less values (“making money is a horrible and rotten institution”). Musically, it’s expansive and torrid, stalking in on a huge, forebording six-chord riff, taking in a quieter mid-section before burning out in a maelstrom of horns. Somehow, in the context of this song and of the wider world in 2017, the kindergarten-simple take home message (“There’s nothing wrong with kindness”) sounds profound and revelatory.
London producer and percussionist Georgia released ‘Feel It’ way back in the opening days of 2017, and if your New Year’s resolution was “have more fun” (and why wouldn’t it be?) then this was the song to soundtrack it. A certified banger, it sounds both like a lost radio smash from 2000 and bracingly futuristic. Georgia works otherworldly samples and harmonics over a twitchy beat, before layering thick, blaring synth chords over a fist-pumping chorus to blistering effect.
With his main band on hiatus, Modern Baseball co-frontman Jake Ewald spent most of 2017 on his intriguingly-named side-project. But far from being a distraction or an outlet for MoBo off-cuts, it’s proved to be a vehicle for some of Ewald’s strongest songwriting to date. It’s altogether more acoustic-driven and folk-tinged, though ‘104 Degrees’, from the excellent Motorcycle.jpg EP, is a propulsive exception. It describes a dream-like, fantastical relationship in fast-forward, not with broad brush-strokes but with tiny details that draw you deep into the lives of his characters: the girl “sitting on a bench in Baltimore and reading Murakami”, taking her coffee hot and black despite the heat, admitting to the fact that “counter-culture makes me tired”. The protagonist craves “dull domestication / free from pressure to pursue another love, another touch, another tired conversation” – which, fuck, is surely a perfect depiction of how empty and exhausting dating can feel. SBD’s output takes Ewald’s writing in exciting new directions; it’ll be a thrill to see where he goes next.
First appearing as a show-stealer on their split EP with Camp Cope, and then a few months later as track two on Cayetana’s second album, ‘Mesa’ is a surging pop-punk anthem – four simple chords, spiky vocals and buzzing chords. The lyrics may be on a downer about a relationship going badly (“We can only hurt ourselves for so long”) but Augusta Koch’s vocals are full of character and the song feels totally effervescent, a summer jam to blast out the windows on a drive to the coast.
It might not be the genre you’d most associated with protest music, but Muna use synth-pop as a powerful vehicle for a message of solidarity and empowerment that feels vital and necessary in the current climate, set against the backdrop of an increasingly divided world. It’s no surprise it’s struck a chord with a lot of people – a lot of the sentiments are familiar, they’re not afraid to use stock phrases, and yet juxtaposed to its shimmering synths and mighty beat they feel powerful, touching, and like the very different-sounding but similarly empathetic ‘Marine Tigers’, a little revelatory.
The sinuous synth-pop menace of ‘Los Ageless’ might be the latest entry in a bulky canon of songs about the artifice and darkness of L.A., but it’s also a terrific break-up song – “how can anybody have you and lose you, and not lose their mind too?” is a very good line that graduates to being absolutely perfect when Annie Clark howls it over the descending minor chords of the chorus. The lyrics conjure images of sadness, claustrophobia and death, but the aggressive throb of the backdrop makes it hard to do anything but flail like your life depends on it.
Melbourne’s finest had a lot to live up to after 2014’s Throw Me In The River – wall-to-wall emotional punk-pop bangers, one of my favourite records – but More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me picked up the baton seamlessly. It’s every bit as anthemic and deals with a lot of the same themes (mental health, growing up, distance), but viewed through the prism of singer Wil Wagner’s turbulent relationship with Camp Cope singer Georgia Maq. ‘Birthdays’ comes early in the piece, a genuinely optimistic song about the start of something, and for all their angst the Smithies are really fucking good at optimism. “Spent the morning cleaning my room in the hope you’d ask to see it soon,” Wagner opens, charmingly relatable, and when he sings, “All I want occupying my mind, is ‘what’s the highest thing we can climb before sunrise?'” it’s pretty exhilarating. The positivity is fragile but persistent, even when he foreshadows the bad parts (“I’ll be intense and I’ll be too much”) or gets way ahead of himself (“I don’t mean to put the pressure on / but you’re gonna like my dad, I know you’ll love my mum”). It’s a feel-good song that feels all the better for all of the bad stuff that comes before and after.
Allison Crutchfield’s solo debut feels sonically a long way from the Pixies-meets-punk-pop squall of her former band Swearin’, but her innate sense for hooks and incisive, cutting lyrics remains firmly in place. The girl who once yelled the magnificent kiss-off, “I hope you like Kenosha so much you stay there”, has probably grown up a bit, but over an excellent pitch-shifting keyboard hook and sunny chords she’s still emotionally and geographically displaced. “I keep confusing love and nostalgia”, she admits, and ‘I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California’ is, as much as anything, is about how places become inseparable from the memories that are entangled with them.
Sylvan Esso’s ‘What Now’ frequently hit heights that placed it among the finest electro-pop of the last few years; like Purity Ring’s ‘Fineshrine’ or Chvrches’ ‘Recover’, ‘Die Young’ manages to be an absolutely huge tune without ever leaving mid-tempo. It’s not as dramatic as the former or as emotive as the latter, but its strength comes from its playfulness – the verse ducks and hides around jittery bass and wispy synths, the chorus is hooky and garish, and there’s a terrific delayed-gratification fake-out at 2:15. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics about meeting someone who makes growing old seem semi-alright suit it perfectly: “I had a plan, you ruined it completely,” sings Amelia Meath, sounding somewhere between put-out and relieved.
At End Of The Road Festival in 2016, Kevin Drew made a speech in which he pretty much announced that Broken Social Scene were coming back to save the world from despair. It sounded just a little grandiose, but less than a year later the band almost lived up to it with the very appropriately-named Hug Of Thunder, a fierce, politico-personal and often beautiful album, easily their best since 2002’s You Forgot It In People. Feist takes the lead on the title track and centrepiece, a gorgeous, bluesy, bass-heavy jam which unfurls over five hazy minutes. Her stream-of-consciousness vocal, which seems like a string of disparate memories, reveals much more than it initially suggests; “certain times in our lives come to take up more space than others” is quietly profound, and while it’s often oblique and hard to decipher, the song as a whole feels optimistic and supportive at a difficult time. It ends with a fragmented memory of watching soldiers train at a military base, the imagery capturing both sturdy reassurance and implicit violence.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that emo and indie-rock were considered antitheses of each other – one earnest and high-strung, the other restrained and ironic, or so the stereotypes would have you believe. In truth it was never quite like that, but nonetheless the convergence of the two genres in the last few years has been unexpected and incredibly rewarding. Sinai Vessel’s Brokenlegged and its opening track ‘Looseleaf’ provide an excellent example of the obliteration of that divide – jangly, driving guitar rock, melodically exquisite, structurally dextrous without ever losing its intensity or momentum. It’s probably most similar to the Hotelier’s recent output – it certainly shares their musical DNA and dense, existential lyrical preoccupations – but you can trace it back to Wolf Parade, Modest Mouse and even R.E.M. too.
The most technicolour track on the most technicolour Mount Kimbie album, ‘Blue Train Lines’ is a remarkable piece of music – its synths splitting the difference between jarringly dissonant and sweetly melancholic, the flickering beat gathering momentum like an intercity train pulling out of the city into the fields, and a memorable, excoriating vocal turn from King Krule which endows the song with a wild-eyed intensity and instability. The lyrics aren’t really important here; it’s more the way he delivers them, an unholy mix of New Orleans jazz singer, south London troubador and untamed bluegrass howl. It’s an exciting creative pairing and makes for a relentless, runaway train of a track.
Throughout the stages of their evolution from the self-styled “tweecore” kids of their debut to the far more nuanced (albeit sex-football-and-death-fixated) band they are now, Los Campesinos! have never been afraid to put the pop in indie-pop. This has never been more apparent than on their latest, Sick Scenes, on which arguably the two best songs (‘Got Stendhal’s’ and the mid-tempo post-Brexit despair of ‘A Slow, Slow Death’) almost remove indie from the equation entirely. With its melancholy synths and plangent chords, ‘Got Stendhal’s’ feels like it could have fit neatly on the soundtrack to a turn-of-the-millennium romantic drama – not an insult, honestly. It’s a heady mix of nostalgia, romantic failures (“I assembled former ghosts at a seance”), fatalism (“At least when we’re encased in concrete we’ll be safe”) and mild body dysmorphia (“Trusted hearts pumps blood around a monolith that lets me down”) – classic Los Camp!, in other words.
Thank god for Charli XCX. You just know that if Katy Perry or her ilk had tried to write or perform this song it would have been irritatingly coy or brash and charmless; in Charli’s hands it’s confident but self-effacing, unapologetically libidinous but totally endearing. “I wanted to flip the male gaze on its head,” she said about ‘Boys’ and its hilarious, star-studded video, and she does so with charm and alacrity. Over a warm, playful, bleepy beat, she sings with giddy excitement and amusing exaggeration about the boys in her life, before apologising to her pals for ignoring their messages with one of the best lines of the year: “I wish I had a better excuse / like, ‘I had to trash a hotel lobby’ . but I was busy thinking ’bout boys”, she grins, gleefully riffing on her own reputation.
Life Without Sound was a natural progression for Cloud Nothings, expanding on both the melodic punk-pop and aggressive noise-rock of the last two albums. The slacker-rock anthem ‘Enter Entirely’ is one of their best songs to date and surely set to be a staple of their set for years to come. It’s an excellent example of how to do a lot with a little; the mid-tempo groove and four chords remain unchanged, allowing all the variation to come from changes in dynamics and vocal melodies. The sunny vibes make Dylan Baldi’s trademark nihilism sound less biting than usual; even lines like “I’ve had a lot of time alone, disintegrating / watching all of the hours with a bottle of wine” sound – well, not positive, but at least close to a sort of reconciliation. The slower pace of the song allow space for some exhiliarating guitar-work in the second half; like most Cloud Nothings songs, it turns negative emotions into something weirdly, profoundly uplifting.
The first Alvvays record was a little mini-masterpiece of fuzzed-up, blissed-out indie-pop, by turns rapturous and melancholy, with singer/lyricist Molly Rankin capturing the twists and turns of city living, millennial angst and tentative romance with consummate wit and empathy. ‘In Undertow’, the majestic opening track on Antisocialites, picks up exactly where the first album left off; paint-stripping guitars blast out a sweet, ecstatic, feedback-laden melody while Rankin recounts the awkward, painful fade-out of a relationship. “You find a wave and try to hold on for as long as you can,” she sings – maybe a good idea if you’re a surfer, less so for the couple in this song, who “toss and turn in undertow”. The characters in Alvvays songs might frequently be doomed but they always feel close to home; you get the feeling they might be your friends if you lived in Toronto.
Everyone was dying around Sorority Noise vocalist Cam Boucher (on ‘Disappeared’, he tells us he “lost a basketball team to heaven” in a year), and from this place of grief and pain came You’re Not as ____ As You Think, their third full-length, on which every song deals in some way with this overwhelming loss and his own struggle to keep going. Opener “No Halo” is an extraordinary moment of catharsis; the two-chord throbbing headache of the verse explodes into a savage, blistering assault of a chorus, which lasts just six bars but feels cataclysmic. There might be catharsis but there are no easy answers and no sense of closure; ‘No Halo’ is just a harrowing howl of survivor’s guilt, of the inescapable feeling of somehow not having done enough.
‘God In Chicago’ hit me at a weird time. I was four days away from moving away from a place I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to leave, crashing at a friend’s house, on the brink of considerable adventure but at the same time feeling dislocated and profoundly uncertain about, well, almost everything. And while the characters in ‘God In Chicago’ have a very specific and very different story (it’s an archetypal Craig Finn tale of two people connecting over bereavement, an unplanned road trip and a very low-key drug deal), there was something about listening to this tiny, possibly pivotal but possibly tangential moment in their lives depicted with such tenderness that ripped the floor out from under me. It’s easily the best song Finn’s written in almost a decade, and while it plays out over sombre piano rather than a bar-room racket, it reminds me of why I fell in love with The Hold Steady in the first place. And god, the chorus, when it finally comes, is heavenly. It’s essentially a short story, and I’ll avoid spoilers, but it ends in medias res and you realise what the characters are feeling – that heavy, winded feeling of something special having just happened, and having no clue as to what, if anything, happens next. I guess maybe that’s where I was when I heard this song, too.
Lorde’s always been prematurely nostalgic. On her debut album – released at the age of 16 – she painted sepia-tinted eulogies to suburban twilight drives, house parties and young love, at an age where most people would only barely be discovering those things. Of course, Lorde isn’t most people, and the success of that excellent record propelled her into an entirely different world. The fear was that Melodrama, its long-awaited successor, would have lost the intimacy and charm that made Lorde’s music so special.
Turns out, of course, we had nothing to fear. And Melodrama‘s closing track, ‘Perfect Places’, epitomises the growth in both her songwriting and her range of emotions, but retains everything great – the breathless, tumbling pre-chorus, the glistening production and hooks, her gift for singing both within the moment and removed from it – and yes, that nostalgia. On a song about “graceless nights”, searching for bigger and truer things under club lights on heady summer nights, she can’t help but analyse what her and the people around her are doing. At the heart of the song, there’s “all of our heroes fading / now I can’t stand to be alone / let’s go to perfect places”. The contrast between Pure Heroine‘s closer (“we’re dancing in a world alone”) is striking – there are moments when we’re in a good place, and moments when we’re striving painfully hard for something better. Both are worth being in the moment for. And ‘Perfect Places’ should probably be the last track of the night at every nightclub, for all time.
Captivatingly beautiful and impossibly melancholy, ‘Smoke Signals’ hones in on an elusive mood somewhere between sadness, nostalgia and hope that few songs and almost no words can locate. Phoebe Bridgers gets there via fragments of memory, stolen glimpses of moments between people that say so much more than traditional narrative could have done. The backdrop is sublime, with circling guitar lines and sensual, delicate production which incorporates tiny snatches of strings, voices and found sounds to great effect. The lyrics carry it home, though: “One of your eyes is always half-shut / something happened when you were a kid / I didn’t know you then and I’ll never understand why it feels like I did” might not sound like a lot, but the way it draws you into Bridgers’ memories and leaves you wanting more of the story is remarkable. The imagery is great, too: walking around the reservoir, pelicans circling, “‘How Soon Is Now’ in an ’80s sedan”. The first time I heard ‘Smoke Signals’ was on a cross-country train, looking out at the fast-fading autumn dusk, after a weekend with friends I don’t see enough (read: almost all of them, these days). Maybe that was the best time to come upon it, because this song is for those contemplative moments, and it will make you feel so very, very connected to people and places you care about. And that’s no small achievement.