Sunday, December 24, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017

This list is not a "top ten" per se, but rather a discussion of my favorite albums this year, grouped for their sonic affinities.

Zola Jesus's Conatus made my favorite album list back in 2011, the first year I compiled such a list. 2017's Okovi is an existential cry, a declaration of life determined to live, and sometimes determined to die. It's completely visceral. Nicole Hummel's voice speeds though your veins and resonates in your fascia and marrow. Completely intense, and definitely not an everyday listen. When you go there, be prepared to go there.

Ifriqiyya Electrique describe themselves as "post-industrial ritual" in which the ritual songs of the Banga community of southern Tunisia meet European electronics and amps. Rûwâhîne records Banga musicians performing songs from the annual Sidi Marzûq festival, adding on guitars, bass, and electronics. The music, "adorcist" rather than exorcist in nature, induces possession and trance in its practitioners, and having felt it's influence on my own body, I suspect it could do the same for listeners of the album. One reviewer wrote, "To be honest I can’t work out if this is sacrilege or genius." I completely agree. In any case, it's compelling music, unlike anything I've ever heard before. 

I played Boris' Dear in its entirety for a butoh workshop I gave at Alfred University this fall. At the end of the workshop, a couple of students asked in wonder, "what was that?" That, my friends, was the sludgy sounds of the amazing Boris. Like swimming through sound, dancing through distortion, listening to Boris is a full-bodied experience. That they are still producing such urgent and relevant - and revelatory - sounds 25 years in is something to be celebrated.

EMA's Exile in the Outer Ring is her third album, and her third album to make my end of year music lists. Each album she records (and each song on each album) builds a world - both futurist and firmly in the now, fantastic and based in experience - that feels both real and otherworldly. The world she builds on Exile is one of middle American discontent and alienation ("the Outer Ring") singer Erika M. Anderson knows all too well from growing up in South Dakota. It's a frightening dystopia, but one that EMA doesn't just portray; rather she actively engages it, though quite frankly her prognosis is not good. Really just read this excellent review on Pitchfork by Judy Berman; I can't say it any better than her.

Jesca Hoop's Memories are Now grabbed me the first time I heard it and hasn't let go. Her sound has been described as experimental folk, and Tom Waites was an early mentor (she was his kids' nanny!). She employs delicious and surprising layers of her own voice, guitar, and percussive sounds to produce songs both languid and restless. Deceptively simple, sometime strange, and definitely singular.

Rhiannon Giddens' excellent Freedom Highway, an album of mostly originals that follows up her previous largely covers record, Tomorrow is My Turn (also a year end favorite of mine), takes the listener on a journey of the struggle for black civil rights in the United States. The stakes of the album are starkly illustrated in the liner notes with a reproduction of a slavery sale notice offering a "negro wench" who has a 9 month old child, available "at the purchaser's option." The opening track takes its title from that notice, and ends with the chilling line, "My fingers bleed to make you rich." The album closes with the Pops Staples classic from which the album takes its' name. When Rhiannon Giddens sings - with that voice! - the closing lines to "Freedom Highway," it seems that the 1965 lyrics were written just this year: "The whole wide world is wonderin’/What’s wrong with the United States/Yes, we want peace/If it can be found/We’re marching the freedom highway/And we’re not gonna turn around."

Valerie June's voice, in a completely different way than Rhiannon Giddens, is what first attracted me to her. I loved "Someone to Love" off of her previous album, Pushing a Stone (2013), but I hadn't listened to a full album of hers until this year's The Order of Time, which has a timeless yet unique feel. It's lush, a bit fuzzed out on the edges, "ethereal" according to a number of music critics. A gorgeous and transformative listen.

Miss Eaves' Feminasty is fearlessly feminist, sex positive, body positive, even food positive. She's sharp and witty as she handily takes down internet trolls and street harassers, dancing the whole time. Most of all she's a woman who's fully in control: of her music, her image, her body, her orgasms (and there's a lot on this album!). Audre Lorde would be proud. Who says feminism isn't fun?

I discovered Priests last year via their 2014 EP Bodies and Control and Money and Power. I loved their combination of Selene Vigil-esque vocals over complex DC punk melodies. I eagerly awaited Nothing Feels Natural, and was not disappointed. Though it's their first proper album, Nothing Feels Natural is not just a response to the (Trump) times. Rather, it's a reflection of what the band has been singing about since its' founding in 2012. The times just mean that people are more willing to hear what they have to say.

I admit it. I first hear Downtown Boys' Cost of Living on an episode of Intercepted. I'd heard a track or two from their 2015 release Full Communism, but they weren't fully on my radar until I heard singer Victoria Ruiz talk about how her lyrics on this new album were influenced by Assata Shakur and Nina Simone (via Hair). The album is a bilingual Chicana punk manual for how to survive white supremacy, neo-imperialism, and toxic masculinity. Oh, and it fucking rocks. What more do you need?


Of course lists like this are completely subjective and partial. My perennial favorites Laura Marling (Semper Femina) and Colin Stetson (All This I Did for Glory) didn't make the list, but easily could have. I also loved the following albums this year, but apparently not quite enough to make the cut off: Hurray for the Riff Raff's ambitious The Navigator ("Palante" is a must listen if you haven't heard it yet), St. Vincent's more electronic yet more vulnerable MasseductionMargo Price's sophomore success All American MadeJason Isbell and the 400 Unit's The Nashville SoundRobert Plant's Carry Fire, Systema Solar's very fun (and environmentally conscious) Rumbo a Tierra, and The Black Angels' Death Song. And what about that Sleater-Kinney live album?! And then there's Juana Molina's Halo and Perfume Genius' No Shape, neither of which I gave a proper chance. Ultimately, I guess that's a good thing, to a have a year in which there was no end to good music.

Favorite Songs of 2017

For me, "favorite songs" is truly a separate category from "favorite albums." My favorite songs each year tend to be fluffy-ish one-offs, things I hear and enjoy completely separate from an album listening experience. These songs can and do stand alone. That said, covers often end up on my favorite song lists, and this year is no exception. 

If I had to pick just one song this year, it would be Mac McCaughan's "Happy New Year (Prince Can't Die Again)." The song was recorded at the end of 2016 and released on inauguration day 2017 on Battle Hymns, a compilation ("it is a protest record!") assembled by Quasi with all proceeds split between Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and McCaughan's song is the perfect combination of a "fuck you!" to the shitty year that was 2016 ("Oh, it was a year when everybody died/And it was a year when the adults and children cried/For the loss of their hope, for the loss of their youth") and a call to gather,  celebrate what we can (even if it's only that we can't lose beloved artists a second time), and organize. True, the song's dire predictions for 2017 didn't all yet come true (the sun has not yet turned us all to sand, after all), but a year later, it still feels like a bittersweet balm.

Kevin Morby's "1234" is an original song that manages to cite The Ramones' entire oeuvre  as well as The Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died." Like McCaughan's song, Morby's is an ebullient downer, but all the more profound for that combination. 

Kris Kristofferson's "Turpentine," the stand out track on the excellent Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of The Story, is quite simply crushing. Like Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt," Kristofferson takes a younger person's song about the loss of a relationship and imbues it with the profundity of age and experience. When he sings, "But I'm warning you we're growing up," your heart just cracks open.

Mountain Man's cover of "Love Hurts" on the Our First 100 Days compilation (released on Bandcamp as "One hundred songs that inspire progress and benefit a cause for change") is not terribly profound. But it does what a cover song can do best - offer a new way in to a familiar song, and open up new possibilities for it. (Grandaddy also released a "Love Hurts" cover on the solid Resistance Radio: The Man in the High Castle Album.)

In her surprise release, "I'm Better," Missy Elliot asserts in her signature flow the joy of having come through something - a physical illness? a depression? - and out the other side. When collaborator Lamb intones, "It's another day, another chance/I wake up, I wanna dance/So as long as I got my friends/I'm better, I'm better, I'm better," it's a reminder, not unlike McCaughan's, that reaching out to friends and not isolating is key to getting through whatever it is that ails you (or the country, as it were). Of course the rest of the song is full of braggadocio of the sexual and material success kind (the remix featuring Lil' Kim, Eve, and Trina elevates this even further), but ultimately the song celebrates having survived, a hope I could certainly use this year.

Mitski's "Fireproof," like Mountain Man's "Love Hurts," is on the Our First 100 Days compilation. When I first heard it, I thought it was a good pop song, and then when I heard it was a One Direction cover, I was even more intrigued. In an oft-quoted Billboard interview, the indie rocker said, “We seem to de-legitimize music that has a majority of young girl fans and think of it as having less cultural value.” Her cover mines the song for its pop gold and turns it into 1:49 minutes of fuzzy, pop bliss.

Friday, January 20, 2017

We Must Do More Than Survive

As we enter this new era of the unknown today, we must do more than survive.
We must resist, certainly. We must refuse to capitulate. And of course we must organize, continue organizing. 
But it is also urgent in this time that we live. We must laugh and make art and good food and share it with others. We must grow things, and teach and learn. We must nurture one another. We must function as much as possible in alternative economies. We must analyze our histories so we can imagine new futures. We must resist the impulse to isolate, and challenge ourselves to connect even when it is hard; especially when it is hard. We must train for strength and endurance and find joy in our bodies as we do so. We must insist on our ideals. And we must love. And turn up the volume. And write. And dance.*
Let's get to work.

*Even though Emma Goldman never actually said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution," what she did say is almost better.


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