Blog Archives

Albums of the Year 2016: 11-7

Mitski: bets on losing dogs, wins at photoshoots (photo: npr.org)

chaleur-humaine

11

Christine and the Queens

Chaleur Humaine

Chaleur Humaine technically counts as an album of 2014, but Héloïse Letissier’s crossover into UK success seemed to come when we Brits needed it most, as if to prove that not every cultural trend in 2016 had to come loaded with shady subtext. Witnessing her accelerated rise to fame since the release of a translated edition of her début has been joyous, her refreshingly spacious take on dance- and synth-pop matched note-for-note by a thumping heartbeat. Chaleur Humaine is an album of self-appreciation beyond Letissier’s own pansexuality: these songs cohere around her own arc of embracing herself, while simultaneously reaching out and inviting others to do the same. Underpinning it all, these are slick and concise pop songs, written (and translated, with varying degrees of faithfulness) with care but without fussiness: the truths are presented clearly and coolly, without recourse to melodrama. This inclusive and unpretentious brand of music was a heartfelt delight for many this year, and only a stone-faced bastard would begrudge Letissier the acclaim she has received. “I am actually good” she presses on the now-ubiquitous ‘Tilted’, and she’s right in so many ways.

“I’m in my right place / Don’t be a downer.”

a-moon-shaped-pool

10

Radiohead

A Moon Shaped Pool

If you really do want to, you can go snooping through A Moon Shaped Pool – and everything in its orbit – in attempts to dredge up evidence to validate the recent gossip (is it their last? Does it hint at what’s coming next? What of Thom Yorke’s marriage?), but there are times when burrowing down rabbit-holes is a pointless exercise. With Radiohead albums, there has occasionally been the risk that the more obsessive fans can’t see the wood for the trees, and while I’m in no doubt that plenty of significance is buried within these eleven tracks, simply listening to them as they are makes for a gorgeous experience.

Really, the true appeal of A Moon Shaped Pool is the music itself: this haunting hodgepodge of tunes, many of which have finally found a home after years of floating about on the peripheries (rare live footage, muddy demos, general rumours from one album drop to the next). They may not sit alongside one another in a way that brings cohesion to the whole, but the collection has scooped up beautiful oddities like ‘Decks Dark’, and demonstrates the breadth of Radiohead’s forward-thinking prowess as it shifts from the throbbing intensity of ‘Ful Stop’ to the steely rallying cry of ‘The Numbers’. While the album largely laps in dreamlike opalescence, the overall sense one gathers from it is that of restlessness: the sound of a group still not settling into an easily-defined routine. Radiohead are as cryptic as ever, but amid the fog of A Moon Shaped Pool, beautiful shapes loom into view, and it’s a pleasure to drift into this album over and over again.

“Just don’t leave / Don’t leave.”

lemonade

9

Beyoncé

Lemonade

Discovering that I loved this album was weird for me at first. I suppose I’m not in the main demographic for Lemonade: I’m a scrawny, speccy white guy who works in a bookshop and spent my teens bopping along to pleasantly anonymous indie-rock. I didn’t fully delve into a Beyoncé album until her surprise 2013 release, but it’s Lemonade which really stunned me into paying full attention, and it’s so outrageously good that there’s little to do beyond joining the rest of the universe in applauding it. No matter how much credence you give the dramatics behind the album’s release, Lemonade makes for a tremendous, tense, and hugely entertaining listen: a rallying cry with all the self-empowerment of Chaleur Humaine but thrice the gusto. Musically, it pushes the envelope of modern R&B by successfully assimilating almost every other genre under the sun, while its HBO release was a masterful demonstration of how albums can be presented and consumed through alternative means.

This album gives the impression of sounding universally irresistible (maybe not for Jay-Z, but let’s see how this whole saga pans out, hoax or not): its combination of Beyoncé’s no-fucks charisma and to-the-nines production is shocking and exuberant. There’s baseball bat swagger, tremulous vulnerability, and a levelling of blame and graciousness in equal measure. Knotty emotions are wrestled with even amid the fiercest cuts: ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ and ‘Freedom’ crack with visceral aggression while plunging into headspinning quandaries, never once deflated by simplification. By the time Beyoncé invites all ladies present to get in formation, there’s no doubting her regal prowess. From open to close, Lemonade dazzles.

“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself back up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”

puberty-2

8

Mitski

Puberty 2

Although there’s apparently little that’s original in the topics covered on Puberty 2 (the uncertainty of fledgling adulthood, relationship angst, the struggle to secure happiness on a long-term basis), what sets Mitski Miyawaki apart from her peers is that she absolutely nails the nuances beneath the blanket terms. The fears and insecurities that she purges over backdrops of fuzz guitar kick against simplification: in her writing she sidesteps the obvious and outlines the full weight of feeling behind each moment of (in)decision. The depression that plagues her is frustratingly nebulous: there are moments when she notices it like a knife in her leg, whereas during others she is fully conscious of being engulfed. This awareness she demonstrates gives significant heft to the songs on which she really lets rip, even as she staunchly avoids definitive catharsis: “I’d better ace that interview / I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die!”

‘Happy’ and ‘Fireworks’ distill the fickle nature of contentment without recourse to patronising Mitski or her audience, the singer’s turns of phrase sharply constructed rather than overwrought. ‘Your Best American Girl’ lingers on the building doubts and quiet acceptance behind a breakup rather than the turmoil of heartache: the verses capture the fragility of late-night worry, while the towering chorus emerges emboldened by honesty (not to mention a wonderful eruption of noise). Each song clicks brilliantly even when the whole sounds deceptively simple: listeners need to look closely to see just how well executed the trick is. There may be no shortage of confused twentysomethings attempting to churn their plight into art, but few have accessed the level of honesty and empathy attained by Mitski on Puberty 2.

“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do.”

22-a-million

7

Bon Iver

22, A Million

(This article is leet-free, because I find it confusing and annoying to type.)

There’s a moment partway through 22, A Million which has lodged in my mind, and I’ve started to anticipate it with each play of the record. At the climax of the dizzyingly beautiful ‘33 “GOD”’, a distorted and barely perceptible voice croaks over the final piano notes: “why are you so far from saving me?” It’s an open question directly lifted from Psalms 22, and more than any one of the many cryptic phrases, declarations and entreaties scattered across the album’s length, this one feels integral to the whole project: the plea at the nexus of the emotional storm Justin Vernon weathered in the wake of the extensive touring for 2011’s Bon Iver.

Vernon is hardly a man forsaken, and when his situation is viewed in a broad perspective, he’s got to be pretty far down a Divine Entity’s prioritised list of people to save. And yet, his cries into apparent silence don’t rankle as first-world problems, but rather as a relatable and sympathetic crisis: the sound of a man whose uncertainties extend to what his own purpose is in life, and why it matters. He struggled through the past few years with writer’s block and panic attacks, recoiling against the rush of fame, and struggling to find adequate ways in which to communicate his fractured mindset to a now-huge audience.

22, A Million breaks down these matters in its form and content. The results frequently break away from the backwoods folk of old, and in place of catharsis, there are ellipses at every turn. Even when Vernon’s lyrics are at their most emotive and striking (“goddamn turn around now, you’re my A Team!”), they are rendered blurry by their context; a shuffled pack of surreal observations. But even if full understanding is out of reach, these songs remain touchingly accessible: once past the clattering abrasions of ’10 (Death Breast)’, the album is shot through with disarming beauty, not least on the gorgeous swells of ‘8 (Circle)’ and ‘#29 Strafford Apts’. It may not be handsome in a straightforward sense, but 22, A Million is a captivating and rewarding listen; an album to hold close in troubled times for the hard-won moments of solidarity it offers.

“I could go forward in the light / Well, I’d better fold my clothes.”

08/01/16

25 Masterworks: Radiohead – OK Computer

My Spin on Masterworks: 22 of 25

Radiohead

OK Computer

Parlophone, 1997

ok-computerHmm… okay. If pressed, I’d say my favourite Radiohead album to date is In Rainbows. It’s a touching, beautifully crafted sequence, and unlike its predecessors, sounds free from all burdens of expectation. There’s barely a trace of grandiloquence in its ten songs, and each one is immediately accessible without sounding comparatively basic by the group’s standards. That said, if I want to marvel at an album’s all-enveloping sonic world, it’s Kid A, no contest: its eerie, otherworldly qualities are still completely transporting. Kicking through my twenties, I’m still finding fresh magic and relevance in The Bends, and this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool is comforting and disquieting in equal measure. Further down the scale, both Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief offer up some sublime moments, but as full-length listens, they’re underwhelming entries. Pablo Honey reflects a young band struggling to settle on an identity, but a few green shoots poke through, hinting at great things to come. I think that about covers everyth – oh, wait. The King of Limbs. I keep forgetting about that one.

Radiohead’s turbulent, ever-evolving catalogue is fascinating to examine. I could happily fill page after page writing about any one of the quintet’s nine existing albums, at least four of which I’d readily class as masterworks, for their own distinctive qualities. So why have I opted for OK Computer as an entry in this series? Or to be more specific, why have I opted to toast the Radiohead album that has been venerated so greatly – and for so long – that surely there’s nothing left to say at this point? Well, it’s precisely because of the deafening clamour of praise surrounding OK Computer that I’ve selected it. The appeal of the album has become slightly drowned out over the years; it’s now saddled with an intimidating amount of hyperbole to the point that it’s surprisingly easy to miss its genuine strengths.

Just as OK Computer is the Radiohead album that’s easiest to praise, it’s also the easiest to criticise. It’s been placed on such a pedestal ever since its release, it has become a clear target for disdain as sceptical listeners attempt to pick holes in what is regularly (and exhaustingly) flaunted as one of the Greatest Albums of All-Time™. In a way, OK Computer has steadily become the album equivalent of a GCSE set text: guitar music’s answer to Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye. It has been studied endlessly, its observations and ideas regarding human nature have remained staunchly pertinent, it’s a work still widely discussed which continues to prove influential for other artists in the form, and the consensus regarding its greatness is so inescapable that it can paradoxically seem to be a bland choice of favourite. Announce in public that OK Computer is among your most-loved albums, and chances are (especially in this age of hipsterism) you’ll be derided (silently, if not out loud) for such an obvious pick.

As such, it can be tough to connect with OK Computer free from the rhetoric and various attitudes swirling around it: the piercing rebuttals, the bewildering superfan theories, the heavy expectations it’s been lumbered with. It’s a shame, because while an album can undoubtedly be enriched by close attention, there are cases in which the works themselves become tiresome to regard; a state in which OK Computer has undoubtedly been put at risk. So I’m not going to try to defend this record’s perceived shortcomings or highlight striking new surprises hidden in its depths. Instead, I want to celebrate how amazing the album sounds on its own terms, because really, it’s a fantastic listen in and of itself.

There’s a lot folded into OK Computer, and a cursory look at its gestation reveals that its conception was something of a perfect storm. Still uncomfortable with their stratospheric rise to stardom, the band continued to recoil against the commercial machinations of the music industry, shirking anthemic songwriting in favour of stretching the rock song into alternative shapes. Thom Yorke exorcised his bewilderment at modern society in his increasingly sharp lyrics, and sketched out his tentative predictions for the coming millennium – many of which are still salient to this date. His words are occasionally impressionistic, but they capture very human concerns in the face of an increasingly cold and detached age. Anxiety over mankind’s uneasy relationship with ever-advancing technology are spotlighted repeatedly, amid bubbling paranoia, mental and physical deterioration (‘Climbing Up the Walls’ and ‘Let Down’), and the western world’s cutthroat emphasis on efficiency and speed. It closes with Yorke screaming at someone (maybe everyone) to “slow down”. Down in blur of sound and noise, the dust, the screaming, and the yuppies networking, his plea rings out, but whether it’s ultimately heard and processed is not clear.

As with every other work that becomes swamped with hyperbole, it’s possible to give the creators too much credit when assessing the quality of OK Computer. Time after time, Radiohead’s members have exhibited a keen intelligence and passion, but their career has admittedly seen its fair share of coincidences and (un)happy accidents too, not to mention the occasional misstep. But even so, without letting those theories get too detached from credibility, OK Computer articulates the paranoia and alienation that has characterised both the pre- and post-millennial years following its release. The band’s deriders label them as miserablists, but in truth, the group subtly locate the valour of the listener amid the confusion and chaos of modern life. There may be anger directed elsewhere (“we hope that you choke”), but Yorke extends words of compassion and solidarity to the everyman lost amid the tumult: “one day, you’ll know where you are”. ‘Airbag’ and ‘Lucky’ go so far as to cast their protagonists as superheroes, “back to save the universe” in the wake of cataclysm. OK Computer offers a sounding board for individuals who feel disillusioned with society and their place within it.

Above and beneath the words, the music remains incredibly powerful. If The Bends was a firm step forward for the group in terms of musicianship, OK Computer found their chemistry in full flow. Ed O’Brien, Jonny and Colin Greenwood outdo one another repeatedly with headspinning guitar gymnastics and subtle, left-field bass hooks. Philip Selway’s drums are spliced with machine-tooled beats and distorted loops to blur the line between human and technology. The results sound mighty, and there are some strange, subtle mysteries still lurking here and there. What the hell is it making that sighing noise during the coda of ‘Karma Police’? There’s the scree of tiny wails and squeaks that unsettle the second half of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, raising a few extra goosebumps in an already-haunting piece. And of course, there are the monstrous shapes and shadows shifting in the background of ‘Climbing Up the Walls’, behind Yorke’s jagged, barely discernible words.

It’s a potent blend of uncomfortable words and questing, forceful music, and instead of the awards and endless discourse, it’s this that keeps us returning to OK Computer. As we know, there’s so much that can be said about this album, and no shortage of commentary or criticism to sift through (ahem). But when all is said and done, the most refreshing thing to do is to cut straight through the wank and just listen to the music, because the strikingly affecting core of OK Computer can be reached with direct engagement. (Re)discover the delicate, crystalline beauty of ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Let Down’, both of which sound as stirring as ever. Check out just how stunning the dense guitar squalls of ‘Airbag’ are, lurching and squealing like rending chrome or shards of glass. There’s the slow-burn wonder of ‘Lucky’, the interwoven humour and grace of ‘Karma Police’, the towering headtrip that is ‘Paranoid Android’. Yes, this is an album of technical mastery and prophetic sentiment, but it’s also abundant in fantastic, creative and passionate songs.

Ultimately, that seems to be the best way to approach OK Computer: listen to it, not as the Greatest Album of the 1990s or whatever, but as the work of a group of people who took the time to articulate their worries for the future and set them to this single disc. Get away from the hype and try to focus on what’s there in the music itself. The punch, beauty, and ache is still there, without the need for any extra noise or commentary. It’s still relevant, still chilling, still wonderful. Stop reading and start listening.

Radiohead

Radiohead, circa 1996 (l-r: Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, Colin Greenwood; photo: thefoxisblack.com)

26/11/16