Here are some albums I enjoyed this year and why.
1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
That’s what this album is about. It’s wonderful.
Tune: “John My Beloved”
2. Beach House – Depression Cherry
One of the biggest mistakes anyone ever made in modern popular culture history, in my estimation, is either not initially producing and releasing the original scores to every single John Hughes film ever made (there are some, of course – Home Alone is one example), or, if anyone did, deciding at some point not to continue stamping them out on whatever medium was most popular at any given moment over the last 25 or so years. Forget about Simple Minds and Yello or whatever shit you think was the iconic track from those movies; the real driving force, the true beating heart, of every John Hughes flick is the score. Find me another movie where each synth-y note is that perfect. They are gorgeous.
All of which to say that while Depression Cherry is not, by a wide margin, the second coming of a John Hughes film score, it gets us very close at certain points. Which I guess is probably how you might describe every Beach House album. That kind of perceived repetition, to some people, could be a knock against this band. Who wants to listen to the same fucking album every time, some people might ask? But some people are idiots. I will re-up on that synth dream.
3. Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon
I’m trying not to think too much about why this year I so enjoyed wispy escapist cloud music like this, because probably it implies that I’m wispy and escapist and cloudy. Though, even if that is the case, that’s totally fine. Because who’s to say, really, that being un-wispy and un-escapist and un-cloudy is any better, especially if being all of those things meant you couldn’t sit back and enjoy Lana Del Rey whisper noir L.A. fairy tales like she’s letting you in on some big hush-hush California sunshine conspiracy? I mean, who else is doing that these days? True Detective? #nothanks.
Tune: “God Knows I Tried”
4. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
When most of what you hear if you exist in the world, walking around and taking even half an interest in mass pop culture, is produced by computers that are programmed to sound like pianos or whatever, you tend to perk up and notice a record whereupon an instrument is creaking and breathing for once. Which is what happens here. Instruments are breathing all over this Natalie Prass album. Prass herself has such a porcelain voice that it could have been overwhelming to put it in front of a precision orchestra. Luckily, someone knew what the fuck they were doing when they produced this, so it all sounds pretty terrific, even when it veers wildly into a strange Disney singalong finale.
5. Emile Haynie – We Fall
Very early in “The Denial Twist” Jack White warns everyone to “make sure to never do it with the singer ‘cause he’ll tell everyone in the world.” Probably that is true. It is apparently also applicable to folks with other professional titles, like producers. The story goes that Emile Haynie, producer for Lana Del Rey and Kanye West, among others, put himself up at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. for a few months after a breakup. In that time, he put together this album. It’s not perfect. There have been better breakup albums. But to think that someone ended it with this guy and then he went off and got fucking Brian Wilson to back him up on the opening track of his musical fuck-you reply… I mean. Yeah. I like that.
Tune: “Fool Me Too”
6. Miley Cyrus – Her Dead Petz
There seems to be an unspoken rule in pop culture that musicians and/or singers are allowed one coming-of-age album, but no more than one. Any more than one coming-of-age album comes off as self-indulgent and unnecessary and like, can’t they just grow up and move on already and sing something simple with generalized lyrics that I can fucking dance to or cry over or whatever. Taylor Swift’s 1989 was apparently her coming-of-age record, but let’s hope not. Let’s hope she’s got something stranger in store for us next time, but perhaps that was it. Justin Bieber’s Purpose was hailed as a decent outing not simply because he stocked it with some legit bangers, but because his year-long public atonement has finally culminated in an album-statement that summarizes it all for us if we haven’t been paying attention, and will serve as the kind of marker we all like to point to in retrospect to say, see, this is where Bieber grew up – definitively. It’s nice and clean and simple and straightforward.
Which is why I enjoy that Miley Cyrus, fresh off the massive success of her coming-of-age album, went ahead and put out yet another, bolder, coming-of-age album. Her Dead Petz is clearly a total mess. It’s way too long – 23 tracks, one for each of the years she’s been alive, presumably. It’s way too strange. It’s way too much information of all sorts. And yet it’s kind of terrific for those exact reasons. Because it is such an unapologetic total mess.
In fact, it’s almost the perfect album for a 23-year old who hasn’t quite figured out where they fit artistically, mentally, or perhaps even sexually. Twenty-three, man: a great year surely, but also kind of a confusing one in many ways, if memory serves. Probably especially so if, like Miley, you hang out with Wayne Coyne, a rock ‘n roll Gandalf who rides around in a giant plastic bubble half his life. I mean, under the circumstances, what else could Miley do but release this sprawling, glittery pile of mental wreckage? There is a song about her finding her blowfish had died and how, subsequently, she couldn’t enjoy eating sushi with her friends. There is a song where she simply recounts what bothered her most about her previous boyfriend (“gooey” pda, apparently). There is another song called “Bang Me Box” which is pretty much about exactly what you think it is probably about. But, y’know, why not? Who says any of that’s not allowed?
There is also a song where Miley tells us that “they say love grows, but I’ve only seen it die/ I’m too young to feel like I’m running out of time”. It’s the kind of thing that, if you’d found it on any other coming-of-age album, you’d think was exactly right for a coming-of-age album. Which, of course, it is.
7. Bully – Feels Like
I just miss this kind of stuff. This is the Hole album we never got. And I’m not sure there’s been a better opening track (“I Remember”) on an album since The Libertines threw “Can’t Stand Me Now” in our faces.
8. Ryan Adams – 1989
I was waiting for this thing. I was watching all the little videos Ryan Adams was posting to Instagram and Twitter in advance of its release. I was looking forward to it. When it finally dropped, I enjoyed it.
Then I started to read all the #hottakes on it. And so I suddenly wondered, despite how much I kind of liked it, whether it was really actually shit. Or, whether Ryan Adams had mansplained Taylor Swift’s record to us all, just to be sure we really understood it as a collection of songs about heartache and loss, rather than simply pop smash hits. I wondered, too, if this album truly meant that cool was dead. I wondered whether if anyone but Ryan Adams, the Saddest Man On Earth, had created this re-make, I would have given it even half the time I afforded him.
Maybe all of that is true. Yet, as strange musical copycat projects go, this was likely one of the tamest and least offensive, so perhaps it's actually not worth worrying too much about. The bottom line: The good songs remain so, and Adams doesn’t do much to improve the bad ones, apart from “This Love”, which sounds as though it was always meant to be a Ryan Adams song.
The only knock I have against it, truthfully, is that it was an exact song-to-song cover of 1989, and as such was never bound to be that great, for the simple reason that 1989 was very, very good, and by welcoming a straight comparison like Adams did, his album could never emerge from its shadow. What if Ryan Adams had instead written a killer, likely pretty morose, album and said: this is what I made after listening to 1989 for a while? Wouldn’t we then, ourselves, return to 1989 to see what we’d missed, to reinterpret it to see what Adams heard? Wouldn’t we wonder then, how he’d heard so much sadness in the original pop album? Maybe. Ultimately, this is the downfall of Adams’ 1989: it’s not challenging. It’s not demanding of you, it just simply says: “Hey, remember that album you like? Well, here it is again kind of. See what I did there?” And it’s like, well, okay, but I’m not learning anything from this. There’s little agency given to the audience to think about what they’re hearing, or have heard. Adams does not ask us to re-engage with our world and see it differently, which I like to hope art is about most of the time.
Tune: “This Love”
9. Algiers – Algiers
The best way I can describe this album is to say it lands somewhere between Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm and Death’s …For the Whole World to See. It’s absolutely the most political album this side of To Pimp A Butterfly, and not something the rock side of the spectrum has seen/heard lately. To read an interview with Algiers – or simply to visit their website – is to hear/read thoughts about systemic racism, the capitalist structure, the history of music, colonialism (hence the band’s name) and philosophy. Which, frankly, is a breath of fresh air. There is a school of thought that music has become less political of late, and while I’m not sure that’s true, it does seem as though fewer people are aware of it. Algiers also, for the record, happen to have put out a pretty great album. Likely, had I had more time to absorb it before writing this, it would be higher on this meaningless list.
Tune: “And When You Fall”
10. All of these others were ok, too:
• Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon
• Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
• Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
• The Social Experiment – SURF
• Foals – What Went Down
• Grimes – Art Angels
• Chris Stapleton – Traveller
• Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
• Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars