2017 was… a year. A terrible year for the world; weirdly, not all that terrible a year for the infinitesimal sliver of it that directly involves my life. Mostly, it involved me being busy, making the brilliant decision that I was capable of working 35 hours a week and transcribe off-hours and write about music for money off-hours and write some interactive fiction (in various stages of publication) and work my way through something getting perilously close to a math major. Whenever I tell this to people, they’re not quite sure how I did it. I’m not sure either.
I didn’t listen to as much music outside my day job as I’d planned — transcribing makes that hard — but I do have some. So, while it is still technically 2017, some great songs from the past year, as well as some songs from 2016 I never got around to posting. (More to come.) (They’ll actually come.)
School of Seven Bells, “Signals” and “Ablaze” (2016)
2016 was a year with an album full of transcendent love songs. A lot of years are like this; perhaps every year is like that for those in transcendent love. The last time an album so far outside my current experience captivated me was Vulnicura. The memory is specific: wandering in the cold with “History of Touches,” a slow-motion drift past the exact moment of romantic dissolution, hovering over me and the hand I was holding.
This feels a lot better the other way round.
Cathy Davey, “The Pattern” (2016)
2016 was a year with a new Cathy Davey album. This news wasn’t as world-shattering as I’d hoped; perhaps she’s settled into the Goldfrapp pattern and The Nameless was her Tales of Us. The Nameless was devastating and incisive and, if I could make it so, timeless; New Forest was pleasant but “pastoral” in the way that rings the wrong bells in this world of AnContext.
“The Pattern,” though, is fantastic. Given the relative Stateside obscurity of most Irish artists (and not just Stateside; Ed Sheeran supposedly had to fight to get a dismal ceilidhsploitation track onto his album), I’ve tried to think about how best to share this with you. Some ideas:
Cathy Davey is alt-pop with personality, a rarity anymore. Tales of Silversleeve is a classic of the genre, and “The Pattern” should be: an intro that buzzes, verses that fidget and a sparkling choral swoon of a chorus that could only be her.
Cathy Davey writes about women with complex inner lives. When I blurbed this for the Jukebox I’d just finished reading Colette’s The Shackle. The pattern in that is “The Pattern” as well, a tense state between detachment and desire that, I think, is particularly female. “You’d own an ocean before you own him” could be out of the book.
Cathy Davey does full-throated, lusty swooning better than almost anyone I can think of, save a certain Canadian singer-songwriter turned reluctant teen-popper turned cult alt-pop artist turned subject of 150-page Time Cube fanfiction. There’s a video of Cathy Davey covering “I Feel Love” out there, and thee thing about covering “I Feel Love” is you gotta realize the song is bigger than you, always will be. Summer did, Davey possibly didn’t, but she attacks it, where other singers might not have.) “The Pattern” isn’t quite as gleefully hungry as “The Touch” or “Wild Rum” or “Moving,” but that’s just the subject matter talking.
Amelia Brightman, “Rain” (2016; 2017)
2016 and 2017 were both years with an Amelia Brightman album. The same album, in two years, and in fact more years besides. This track is at least 14 years old — see its appearance in this 2002 tracklisting for Amelia’s would-be debut. (As far as I know, all but four have been released or leaked.) After a couple years, the label released a “preview” of about 30 seconds of it, along with two other albums(Princessa and Marjan Shaki) that were also never released.
The preview’s still sitting on my hard drive for me to periodically imagine lying in velvet in a field at night (I mean, the way the runway’s gone the past few falls I could easily make it happen literally, but…) Meanwhile, Brightman self-released a couple of the tracks, one by one, across a timeline of music platforms: MySpace, ReverbNation, SonicHits, SoundCloud.
Years happened, animosity apparently happened and un-happened, and now there’s an album. The album itself is about what you’d expect for something 17 years in the not-actively-making: totally off everyone’s radar, self-titled as a shrug, full of covers (albeit less obvious than you’d think, though; for every slam-dunk like “Confide in Me” there’s a Nico arrangement or a hidden Alanis Morissette track), occasionally bringing to mind suspicions that a few tracks have Sarah Brightman demos somewhere; perhaps best for pre-existing fans.
But I happen to be one of those pre-existing fans, since I was a teen. Not the most functional teen: just started going to church, was convinced (correctly) that I was bad at church, and decided to take it out on my playlists. I wouldn’t listen to Stina Nordenstam’s “So Lee” because of the line “standing in this fucking rain” — which meant that when I needed it a decade later, it was free of associations. Amelia Brightman’s “Wasted Life” wasn’t released until after my teens, but I know I would have objected to “stoned and distant” then.
“Rain,” though, I could have used as a teen. Both Sarah and Amelia have tracks by this name, and they’re awfully alike. Sarah’s is big, dramatic music for egging on the apocalypse (or reappropriating the guitar line to Gregorian’s “Monastry” for a son about actual religion and not, like, monk fucking) Amelia’s is big, dramatic music for heartbreak that might as well be an apocalypse: teen heartbreak, in other words. Listening to it now means some strange time-traveling, some strong displaced feelings for the thought-forgotten personages of my teens. The second verse helps. A rule of song, call it the “4 Months, 2 Weeks” Rule: any lyric that mentions a specific length of time you’ve missed someone will grow more poignant as even more time passes.
Goldfrapp, “Anymore” (2017)
Corollary: A song whose chorus goes “I can’t wait anymore” is going to peter out in usefulness the more you play it at the beginning of the evening, the more you strut into a night where it turns out you are going to be waiting some more. Those first couple times are pretty phenomenal, though.
Fever Ray, “Wanna Sip”/“To the Moon and Back” (2017)
You want real sadism? Imagine the synth line to this is actually a vocal line, to be performed by a coloratura soprano. No really, try singing it. If you do it right, something approaching joy will come across your eyes.
You can do this with a lot of Karin Dreijer’s music, like “Silent Shout,” to which this is the celebratory counterpart. That synth has about 20 different timbres, 20 different ways to proclaim love.
The small-brain take on Plunge is that it’s a sex album. (What about the Knife isn’t?) The expanding-brain take is that it’s a love album. But there are facets to that. “Wanna Sip” is love as terror, rendered as horror-movie sounds, or like the manifesto describes it: “The song, the lover, is interested in objectifying itself, herself. The lover objectifies herself as music. The song is a prosthesis that extends like a limb into the gut and pulls out the half-digested heart, it’s kind of gothic and kind of a shame.”
“To the Moon and Back” is love as relief: I’m done looking. It’s also love as a joke between friends. Everyone talks about that one line, but not its timing. “Your lips” — OK, standard romantic fare. Pause. “Warm and fuzzy.” Wait, what? Oh, those lips. That one line’s incredibly blunt, yes, but also incredibly sincere — and also the punchline.
Meljoann, “Personal Assistant” (2017)
I’ve read endless thinkpieces this year about Spotify as the end of discovery and the rise of algorithmic swaddling. (Personally, I can’t read them without hearing “ALGORITHMS!” bellowed as it is in this terrible Atari Teenage Riot song.) I get it; looking at Discover Weekly gives me a particular grotesque feeling, of learning how you really come across to others — in this case, as someone who really loves being pitched disemvoweled and ALLCAPS BNDNMS. But there’s nuance there: the fact that people tend only to have problems with algorithms when they’re promoting stuff they dislike, not stuff they love; the fact that most people want algorithmic swaddling and will protest hard — skip, dislike, thumbs-down, rail against in surveys — against anything that’s not pre-screened and familiar from it; the fact that it’s perfectly possible to use Spotify for “normal” discovery.
The reason I heard “Personal Assistant” is Spotify: specifically, wiki-walking through Related Artists. It’s possible it might have happened otherwise; perhaps I’d have found Squick on relatively niche Irish music blogs, which are about the only places who covered it. It certainly could get coverage; it’s PC Music with a lot of Janet influence, a lot of implied Alexa and a lot of convertible air whoosh.
Tara Carosielli, “Holloway Road” (2017)
Another Spotify find. Another algorithm find, even. One in a particular genre that’s promising, if intermittently so: R&B/folk, the kind Bibi Bourelly makes, possibly Maggie Rogers if you stretch the definition. “Holloway Road,” though, is the definition: Imagine a blown-out, somewhat morose, vocodered R&B song played over a Loreena McKennitt track. I didn’t know I needed that either.
St. Vincent, “Fear the Future” (2017)
My sister moved to LA this fall, via cross-country trip. I was there for the last leg of it, to California from Las Vegas (where my aunts live, and where I spent Thanksgiving), a five-hour drive across the desert and one where the three of us — she, my mother and I — traded off the greatest gift imaginable: the aux cord.
This lasted about two hours, through minor discoveries (my sister had never heard Disclosure’s “Control”; my mother didn’t know I also liked Nirvana) and a lot of polite disapproval, until we gave up and compromised on a Lady Gaga playlist. I mean, I tried. Mazzy Star, the most clichedly fitting desert music available, was not so fitting; that School of Seven Bells into Ten Love Songs did not destroy time itself (the verdict: “You really like… waterfall music.”), and the new St. Vincent album, as represented by “Los Ageless,” was just okay.
Were it not for — again — that one line, I would have played this. My selling point to my mother was the whole “she’s kind of like David Bowie” thing — a bit of a cliche, because sometimes cliches make the best selling points — and the “Heroes”iness of this might have resonated. (Except she actually hates “Heroes.” Oops.) It might have heightened the landscape, since this sounds like the tearing apart of tectonic plates. Someone in that car might have been moved by the shameless romanticism of it all. Even if it was just me.
(More to come.)