The Best Music Day of 2017
On June 16, three artists released absolutely phenomenal albums
In the opening verse of “Last of my Kind,” Jason Isbell sings the following words, lyrics that may seem perfectly at home on nearly any singer/songwriter/vaguely country/Southern album:
I couldn’t be happy in the city at night
You can’t see the stars for the neon light
Sidewalk’s dirty and the river’s worse
The underground trains all run in reverse
Nobody here can dance like me
Everybody’s clapping on the one and the three
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?
As typical as these lyrics may look at first glance, the rest of the song is a piercingly-introspective evaluation of life (specifically, his). Isbell has always been a masterful songwriter, and the overall impact of The Nasville Sound, the latest project by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit lives up to that reputation. Taken by itself, this album is reason enough to consider June 16 (its release date) a good day for music.
But Isbell and his band weren’t the only artists to release high quality music on the 16th. That same day, Lorde and Fleet Foxes both released long-awaited albums as well. And while it may be worth waiting another week or two to decide which of these three was really the best to come out on this date, each album is an unambiguous success. With three excellent projects hitting at the same time, June 16 is easily one of the best single days for music in the last few years.
Lorde is something of an international pop sensation. This is probably the genre of music that I enjoy the least in general, but her new album Melodrama (in addition to her first) is excellent. The lyrics are generally good, if not terribly groundbreaking, but the instrumentation in these songs sets her apart from her peers. From the rollicking piano notes on “Green Light” to the impressive vocals on “Writer in the Dark,” every song is inventive and interesting in some way.
And the lyrics, if not quite as impressive as the other musical elements, push into new territory as well at times. Lorde has made waves through her candor and personality as a star musician, and her persona shines through several different songs here. Take “Liability,” for example:
They say, “You’re a little much for me, you’re a liability
You’re a little much for me”
So they pull back, make other plans
I understand, I’m a liability
Get you wild, make you leave
I’m a little much for e-a-na-na-na, everyone
These lines are nearly heartbreaking on their own, but the vocal performance behind them adds even more meaning and power. And while “Liability” may be the best example of good lyricism on Melodrama, several other songs are worthy of note as well. “Sober,” and “Homemade Dynamite” are both examples of excellent writing in their own right.
One of the best ways to lazily describe a piece of art or musicianship is to say that it “exceeds the sum of its parts.” I was initially drawn to this moniker, since Lorde has built a beautiful album by combining excellent lyricism and even better musical work. That sells each constituent part of this project short, though. Every part of Melodrama is excellent, and the cohesive work uses that excellence to build an album of the year contender.
“Everything Now” is the perfect blend of accessibility and talentmedium.com
Fleet Foxes is an indie-folk darling, and have followed the indie-folk-darling method of only releasing an album after a prolonged wait. Their first two projects raised expectations sky-high — since they were both so good — but the long wait after Helplessness Blues cooled a bit of the excitement. Crack-Up is a stylistic departure from its predecessor, and eschews tight songwriting and structure in favor of more drawn-out, relaxed songs.
Out of these three albums, this is the one that I’m least sure about so far. It’s an enjoyable experience, but so far I struggled to remember meaningful moments from it like I do on The Nashville Sound and Melodrama. However, I’m not sure that this is necessarily a bad thing. Fleet Foxes have always been a fairly relaxed band, and just because and album lacks accessibility doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
And as I’ve continued to listen to Crack-Up though, I’ve found it steadily growing on me. It has all the elements that made Fleet Foxes’ first albums so good, and the lyricism and songwriting are as strong as ever. Behind the intricately-woven tapestry of sound on each song, mature lyrics serves as a reminder that these songs are just as detailed as anything on the other two “June 16 albums” (a term I’ve decided to use). The songs sound sunny and happy, and often are, but there are also some deeply saddening lines that show the depth of emotion on the album as a whole.
How three different E3 strategies played out over the last few daysmedium.com
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Finally, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit unleashed another fantastic album in The Nashville Sound. It can be hard to keep up with Isbell’s many musical endeavors, but his work with a full band is noticeably different than his solo albums. Perhaps the most impressive part of this project is that it captures all the intimacy and vulnerability of his solo work while adding the full range of sound that only a band can produce.
“Cumberland Gap” and “If We Were Vampires” stand out as the two best songs on this release, and they’re conveniently massively different stylistically. “Cumberland Gap” utilizes the “full band” sound I mentioned a line or two above, and uses the desperation of dying coal country (its lyrical material) to convey a sense of desperation. This quote from Isbell is particularly informative:
“This song is about working class desperation, really,” Isbell says. “It was written as a tribute to the children of the coal mining regions.”
On the other side of the musical spectrum, “If We Were Vampires” is an acoustic ballad about love. Perhaps the most touching and heartbreaking song on this topic I’ve heard in years, it looks at the longest view possible on a relationship. Death comes for everyone, and Isbell grapples with it, here:
If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
Laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone
These two songs are my personal favorites, but there are really no wrong answers on an album this good. As I wrote above, Isbell is one of the best songwriters that I’ve listened to, and his personal connection to Alabama makes it even easier to connect with his music. Honest, heartbreaking, and beautifully written, The Nashville Sound easily ranks among the best music in 2017.
At the beginning of June, I took a look at my list of the best music from this year. My tastes are a little weird and oddly selective, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that this list looked a little barren. I was a little worried though, since there had been few projects that challenged some albums I listened to in January and February.
Fortunately, June 16 delivered three fantastic albums, all three of which are easily contenders for the best album of 2017. I don’t know where each will fall, but my Spotify collection is much richer now than it was a little over a week ago.