Category: Music

Overrated, Underrated, and Properly Rated: The Hold Steady

On February 19th, The Hold Steady released their eighth studio album, Open Door Policy. This may not be a big deal to you. But I can assure you that there are some people for whom this is a VERY big deal, because there are some people for whom The Hold Steady is not just a band, but a cornerstone upon which a quasi-religious cult following that counts going to concerts, drinking lots of beer, and yelling “The theme of this party is the industrial age/And you came in dressed like a train wreck” among its sacraments, has been built. I am one of those people.

If you’re still confused, let me start at the beginning: The Hold Steady are a New York-based band that was founded by lead singer Craig Finn and lead guitarist Tad Kubler, two good Midwestern boys from Minnesota and Wisconsin respectively, out of the ashes of their previous band Lifter Puller1You’ve probably never heard of that band, either, but you should listen to “Nassau Coliseum” immediately. in 2003. They were more or less formed as a reaction to the prevailing musical trends of the time — namely the post-punk revival and dance punk2 “At least in dying you don’t have to deal with new wave for a second time” — Craig Finn, “A Multitude of Casualties” — and quickly became a singular force in the New York scene, rejecting all pretenses of style and embracing the big riffs and barroom boisterousness of rock and roll’s roots. They stood out from other rock revivalists not only because they favored Bruce Springsteen and The Band over Joy Division and The Jam, but also because of Craig Finn’s dense, narrative lyrics, which are peppered with Catholic imagery, nerdy musical references, and reminiscences of Finn’s hard partying youth. This formula made them a hit with the critics — 2005’s Separation Sunday placed eighth in that year’s Pazz and Jop poll — and the group also attracted a legion of devoted fans through not only their recorded output but also through their rowdy and joyous live shows. 

The 2010s weren’t especially kind to The Hold Steady. They released two middlingly reviewed albums and their style fell pretty hard out of the cultural zeitgeist and, to hear them tell it themselves, they nearly called it quits. But their shows remained well attended and their fans ever devoted, and eventually the band released Thrashing Thru the Passion, a “back to basics” kind of comeback album in 2019, and then Open Door Policy this year, hailed by some critics as the band’s best album in a decade.

Seeing as how The Hold Steady have become something of a legacy act now and that they’re one of my favorite bands of all time, I thought I’d revive a format occasionally explored by Steven Hyden and determine what aspects of the band are overrated, underrated, or properly rated. I’ll concede that the mere presence of the Hold Steady poster that I’m typing this article under might make me a somewhat unreliable source, but I’d argue that what I may lack in objectivity I will make up for in a deep knowledge and love of this band, which I have seen live four different times across four different cities and two continents. So crack open a beer, drop the needle on your favorite THS album, and let’s get to some ratin’.

The Albums

Almost Killed Me (2004)

There are generally two kinds of debut records: the kind where the artist has already mastered the formula that they will both try to replicate and deviate from for the rest of their career (Is This It, The Cars) and the kind that resemble an artist’s influences and past projects more than what their career would become (Pablo Honey, Kill ‘Em All). Almost Killed Me is certainly one of the second kind, a more refined version of what Finn and Kubler were trying to accomplish in Lifter Puller, and as a result the punkiest and the thrashiest of The Hold Steady’s eight albums. Granted, this band isn’t exactly known for their melodic prowess, but Almost Killed Me lacks even the anthemic choruses that would go on to define so many of the band’s hits, which has almost certainly hurt the staying power for a lot of these tracks. But it’s still a great album that has found its place in the band’s catalog and their live show: “A Positive Jam” is a hell of a mission statement (and one time regular show opener), “Knuckles” shows how wit, humor, and storytelling can be applied to a track that sounds like a barroom brawl, and “Certain Songs” is an early attempt at integrating the heartland rock elements that set The Hold Steady apart from their peers. You’d never introduce the band to someone with this album but it’s integral to understanding where they come from and what they’re trying to do — I doubt that this is anyone’s favorite album, and anyone who insists the opposite is trying a little too hard, like the people who insist that Jeff Tweedy ruined Wilco. PROPERLY RATED.

Separation Sunday (2005)

Separation Sunday is very important for two reasons: it’s the first to feature keyboardist Franz Nicolay as a full member, and it’s also the first where Craig Finn goes really heavy on the Biblical allusions. For a lot of people, The Hold Steady’s success is directly correlated with whether or not Nicolay is a member of the band or appears on a record. As someone who came of age in the inter-Franz era I’ve always had mixed feelings about this but there’s no question that he expanded the dynamic range of the band’s sound and dragged them further away from sounding like bar band Husker Du and closer to hipster Springsteen, even to the point where they end up incorporating the occasional horn section and glockenspiel. As far as the Biblical allusions go, they really let Finn come into his own as a songwriter and let him discover a volume other than shout-until-I’m-hoarse, although there’s still plenty of that on this record too. There are a lot of great reasons to choose this album as your favorite Hold Steady record — “Your Little Hoodrat Friend!”, “How a Resurrection Really Feels!” — but for me it’s always felt a little too unrelenting. It’s got more sweet moments than Almost Killed Me but a lot of the jagged edges still remain. That said, this is the record that made The Hold Steady The Hold Steady, and its status in the band’s mythology is both secure and warranted. PROPERLY RATED.

Boys and Girls in America (2006)

Now this is the album to introduce new fans to. Not only is “Stuck Between Stations” an under-discussed contender for best Track 1, Side A in rock and roll history but the album as a whole pulled off the seemingly impossible by modernizing arena rock in an era where arena rock seemed unsalvageable. It has sledgehammer riffs (“Hot Soft Light”), woah-oh-oh choruses (“Chips Ahoy!”), and even a fucking power ballad (“First Night”). Finn’s narratives become more universal without losing any of their intelligence or specificity,3The Hold Steady have the reputation as a very male-focused band, but the sensitivity displayed towards the female subject of “You Can Make Him Like You” reflects a recurring, almost brotherly perspective Finn takes to women in crisis. Nicolay’s piano comes into its own (the “Stuck Between Stations” breakdown, need I say more), and Kubler is the most inventive he’s ever been in his entire career (the dancey stabs of “Party Pit,” breaking out the acoustic for “Citrus”). This is my favorite Hold Steady album, one of my favorite albums of all time, not enough good things can be said about it, and most people tend to pay it the requisite homage. The less said about “Chillout Tent,” though, the better. PROPERLY RATED.

Stay Positive (2008)

So this list has been pretty boring so far, huh? Three albums, three properly rateds. Well, here’s where I’m gonna start to piss some people off.

There is absolutely no denying that “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis” are two of the best songs of The Hold Steady’s career, or that “raise a glass to Saint Joe Strummer” is one of the greatest lines Craig Finn has ever written. “Slapped Actress?” A shibboleth to separate the real fans from the casuals, a live staple. “Lord, I’m Discouraged?” Probably a better ballad than “First Night” and the vessel for an all time Tad solo. The title track? It rips. But when’s the last time you made time for “Yeah Sapphire” or “Magazines?” Or “Joke About Jamaica?” It’s not that the deep cuts on this album are bad, per se, but they’re just kind of boring, and when they aren’t boring, they venture into territory that the band has no business venturing into. The macabre harpsichord on “One for the Cutters” is the first time Franz Nicolay sounds like the guy he looks like, the synths on “Navy Sheets” are cheesy and intrusive, and “Both Crosses” is a weird, plodding Zeppelin tribute that feels entirely out of place. There are tracks on this record that are on constant replay in the Lovito household, but I gotta be honest, sitting through this album all the way through is a chore. It’s overly mannered and overproduced, an album that tries to expand the band’s perspective but only neutralizes what made them special in the process. But because it was the last one Franz was on before he (temporarily) left the band, it’s always put on a pedestal as the last gasp of The Hold Steady’s prime. Well, no more. The time has come to bravely declare that this album is and has always been OVERRATED.

Heaven is Whenever (2010)

I have a very weird and personal relationship with Heaven is Whenever, the first Hold Steady album I ever bought and the first I ever listened to all the way through. On the one hand, I recognize that it’s not their finest effort and that the one-two punch of “The Sweet Part of the City” and “Soft in the Center” is probably the weakest opening of the band’s career. But I do think the perception of this album is unfairly colored by 1) It being the first post-Franz album (the band’s better with him in it, no doubt, but I don’t know that there’s anything about this record he could fix) and 2) The fact that most critics listening to it were not 16 at the time. I cannot begin to explain to you how much a songs like “Our Whole Lives,” “We Can Get Together,” and “A Slight Discomfort” meant to me, a Catholic teenager who was definitely not partying but who definitely wished he was partying and felt very conflicted about that feeling. They’re not Finn’s most incisive takes on the relationship between faith and debauchery or the healing power of music (“Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Sit down on your floor/And listen to your records” is an all time underrated line, however) but they felt reflective of the community I grew up in, and were the first songs I heard that tried to juggle the contradiction of wanting to be “good” despite that not always feeling “good,” and therefore being drawn sometimes to things you’ve been told are “bad.” It spoke to me in a way few records did; Craig Finn felt like he was singing to me. It’s far from perfect, but it’ll always have a special place in my heart.

On a much less personal note, “The Weekenders”  has secured a staple spot in the band’s live set and is the source of the “The theme of this party is the industrial age” line I referenced earlier, making this album a flawed yet inextricable entry in the band’s catalog. UNDERRATED.

Teeth Dreams (2014)

Coming into this list I fully expected to give this album, the first with guitarist Steve Selvidge, the UNDERRATED tag. I was a big fan of it when it came out (I wrote a 500-word review of it for my college’s radio station) but it, uh… does not hold up. The other big, non-Selvidge news going into this record was that the band brought in Nick Raskulinecz, best known for his work with Foo Fighters and latter day Alice in Chains, to produce, and that corporate rock sheen is pretty unmistakable on this album. Finn’s vocals are put through way too much reverb and processing, and the guitars are at once busy but slightly mixed down. The premise of my UNDERRATED argument was going to be that this album would’ve been better received if the band chose to focus more on songs like “Big Cig” and “Runner’s High” in their supporting tour instead of the snooze worthy “The Ambassador,” but as much as I like those songs, it doesn’t make up for the rest of the album. Not a terrible album, but one bound to be forgotten, ugly album art and all.4It’s worth pointing out that most Hold Steady album covers, like late-era Bruce Springsteen album covers, are hideous. That said, a quick ranking: 1. Separation Sunday, 2. Almost Killed Me, 3. Stay Positive, 4. Thrashing Thru The Passion, 5. Open Door Policy, 6. Heaven is Whenever, 7. Boy and Girls in America, 8. Teeth Dreams PROPERLY RATED.

Thrashing Thru the Passion (2019)

When Thrashing Thru the Passion — a kind of accidental album that features the also kind of accidental return of Franz Nicolay — first dropped, I was a little depressed with how little I felt I connected with it. My guess is that’s just because it felt out of step with what I was listening to at the time and with where I was in my life, because it’s a true “return to form” for Hold Steady Classic, even if it doesn’t hit as hard as their classic albums. “Denver Haircut” and “You Did Good Kid” are vintage quality rockers, and the piano-aided “Blackout Sam” makes a persuasive argument for Nicolay’s importance to the band. So why wasn’t it as rapturously hailed as Open Door Policy has been the past few days? No idea! UNDERRATED.

Open Door Policy (2021)

I like this album, and maybe it’s just going to take a little while for it to grow on me, but it feels a little overrated at this point — the mixing feels a little weird and there’s some stuff going on that makes it feel a little off for a Hold Steady record, kind of like they’re trying to apply the production of Craig Finn’s solo records to the full band.5Quick Craig Finn solo record ranking: 1. We All Want the Same Things, 2. Faith in the Future, 3. I Need a New War, 4. Clear Eyes Full Hearts
That said, “Heavy Covenant” is the Hold Steady song I needed as I transitioned from show hopping Catholic college student to soulless tech company employee five years ago, “Family Farm” is a classic of the form, and the guitar riff on “Spices” makes me want to hear a Tad Kubler grunge side project. So, there’s certainly room for it to grow on me, but for now, it’s a tad OVERRATED.

B-Sides, Rarities, etc.

Navigating The Hold Steady’s Spotify page is a nightmare for a novice because they’ve reissued most of their albums with a plethora of demos, bonus tracks, and the like (last year’s Heaven is Whenever reissue surfaced eight new songs alone). I could bore you with 5,000 words about what my ideal alternate version of Stay Positive would look like, but I’ll just say that any band that leaves “Ask Her for Adderall” and “Girls Like Status” on the cutting room floor has better bonus material than most bands have actual full length albums. And if you don’t believe that, just ask your neighborhood THS fan, who’ll probably whip out the setlist of every show they’ve been to and lament the fact that they haven’t seen “You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to the Dance With)” live yet (it’s me, I’m your neighborhood THS fan). PROPERLY RATED.

The Band Members

Craig Finn

Craig Finn is the reason why people who love The Hold Steady love The Hold Steady and the reason why people who don’t could never get into them. And, look, I understand if nasal talk-singing isn’t your thing, and I get that the whole Elvis Costello “music critics like him because he looks like them” rule could be applied to him as well. But have you ever considered that music critics probably look more like the average middle class schmoe than all your precious pop stars and underground heroes? Did you ever consider that seeing a guy who looks like he should be a high school English teacher get up on stage, literally spit out references to St. Peter and John Berryman and do his best hardcore frontman impression is actually kind of awesome? Have you ever considered that Minnesota should send a statue of Craig Finn to Statuary Hall? Because Hold Steady fans have considered all of these things, making him PROPERLY RATED.

Tad Kubler

Along with Finn, Tad Kubler is probably the one member of the band The Hold Steady would be unable to operate without. And while he’s not as front-facing a member as Finn or Franz Nicolay, he’s ability to evolve his guitar style to the band’s needs has kind of flown under the radar. THS fans know and love him, but the fact that he was left off of Spin’s new age “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list when he absolutely should be on it makes him UNDERRATED.

Franz Nicolay

I love Franz Nicolay and what he brings to the band. He’s a fantastic rock pianist. He’s also responsible for some of the worst parts of Stay Positive and the reason why people knee jerk hated on Heaven is Whenever and Teeth Dreams. For that small speck of annoyance, I am (lovingly) declaring him OVERRATED.

Steve Selvidge

He definitely brought a new dynamic to the band when he joined up for Teeth Dreams, and while we’ve already discussed the issues with that album, I think most people also agree that its problems weren’t caused by Steve Selvidge, and seeing as how Craig doesn’t play guitar live that much anymore it’s probably good to have somebody else up there to play the “duhn duhn” part of the “duhrn duhrn duhn duhn” part of “Banging Camp.” PROPERLY RATED.

Galen Polivka 

The only time I’ve ever really thought of the bass during a Hold Steady is the during opening seconds of “Massive Nights” and in the verses of “Barfruit Blues,” but per Steven Hyden “the bass player is always underrated, particularly if you’re a band that rocks.” Bonus points for having the most Midwestern name in a Midwestern band that has always insisted that they’re actually a Brooklyn band. UNDERRATED.

Judd Counsell

The first drummer who dipped after Separation Sunday and, if The Hold Steady wiki is to believed, never actually toured. As far as 2000s indie rock drummers, he’s not quite Matt Tong of Bloc Party or Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, but he gets pretty close on some Almost Killed Me tracks. PROPERLY RATED.

Bobby Drake

The first album Drake is credited on is Heaven is Whenever, which means that I don’t know who to thank for the drum beat on “Hot Soft Light” and closing drum fill on “Sequestered in Memphis,” but he’s the guy who plays them live, so thanks for them, Bobby. PROPERLY RATED.

The Live Show

“You won’t get it until you see them live” is perhaps the most obnoxious rock fan slogan out there, but if one band can lay claim to it being an undeniable truth, it’s The Hold Steady. Seeing this band live will turn casual fans into lifers and skeptics into true believers. I’ve been to a ton of rock shows where people barely move as they stare at the performers, but THS shows always feel like all out parties, and not the kind of sweaty, aggro, moshy parties a lot of other rock shows turn into. People are there to drink and dance and get accidentally spit on by Craig Finn and accidentally spit on him as they yell his lyrics back at him. That may sound gross, but it’s a goddamn religious experience, trust me.6I should note at this point that I omitted The Hold Steady’s live album, A Positive Rage, from the album’s list, mostly because I don’t have much of a relationship with it and I feel like it doesn’t get much consideration at all in their wider catalog. While a live album for a legendary live band seems like a good idea, so much of the experience is defined by the crowd and Craig Finn’s little pantomimes that it doesn’t really capture what it’s like to be at a THS show, so I suppose its existence is on the whole OVERRATED. PROPERLY RATED.

The band’s complete indifference to music videos

You would think that a band that’s been around for over 15 years would have built up a bit of a filmography but one under appreciated aspect of The Hold Steady is that they clearly could not give a shit about music videos. Most of their videos either feature them miming a performance of their song, sometimes literally in a studio, sometimes near a black and white boxing ring or whatever, but the point is that they’re committed to not having to actually do anything in their videos outside of what they already do professionally, which is oddly charming. The one time they did venture out of their comfort zone for the “Chips Ahoy!” video, you could tell that they were not particularly stoked to find themselves in a cheesy vintage porn parody, giving perhaps the least enthusiastic “woah ha oh ha oh oh oh’s” ever captured in film. To be fair, the concept doesn’t make a whole ton of sense — why is a newscaster on the porn set? Why is one of them dressed like a cardinal? Was this the best the director could come up with for a song about a boy, a girl, and a horse? UNDERRATED.

The Band’s complete indifference to AV Undercover

It appears that the video has been scrubbed from the Internet but back during the Heaven is Whenever promo cycle The Hold Steady went on AV Undercover and brought about the same energy to this performance as they did to most of their music videos. Appearing later in the season and not having a great list to choose from, the group ended up covering Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love” with all the gusto of a visit to the DMV. The host asks them if, seeing as how they’re all 80s kids, they were into Huey Lewis back in the day and Craig goes “uh, no, I was pretty much only into punk rock then” and you can just see the disappointment all over the host’s face. They’ve covered the song live since then so I guess they had a good enough time there but I never liked the guy who hosted AV Undercover, and I love this band. UNDERRATED.

The Postrider’s Top 30 Songs of 2020

2020… I mean, what do you say? Between the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide protests, and a long, drawn out presidential election, the country practically lived through an entire verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in only twelve months. And while our lives were impacted in a myriad of devastating ways, the biggest change for me was the complete shutdown of live music venues. That actually made this list a little harder to compile; it’s at live shows that we build more meaningful relationships with the songs we love and experience them in a more direct way from the artists who wrote them, and also where we might hear new songs for the first time. Instead, I mostly found myself listening to the same songs over and over, but apparently it was a diverse enough slate for me to still compile a list of the best 30 of the year.

It was also impossible not to hear a little bit of current events in the songs I listened to this year. Even though very few, if any, of the songs were written explicitly about the virus, they’re still kind of about the pandemic in various ways, shapes, and forms. Listening always involves some form of projection — we apply our own experiences to what we hear and assume that the artists we love must be experiencing the same thing. And while that’s typically a reach, we do know that, to some extent, they were all experiencing the same things as us this year as the world, shut down and humans globally socially distanced. So while we may not be able to have shared these songs together in the same physical space, we were at least all in the same psychic space, and that has to count for something.

Without further ado, The Postrider’s Top 30 Songs of 2020  

  1. “Mark Zuckerberg” – Nap Eyes

On one level, this textbook indie rocker is a welcome finger stuck in the eye of the titular Facebook founder, whose unscrupulousness and incompetence has hastened the spread of dangerous information and further polarized our nation; Nap Eyes lead singer Nigel Chapman (who’s making a serious bid to become his generation’s Jonathan Richman) stone-facedly mocks Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of hand movement and his dirt collecting hobby as his band reliably plugs away behind him. On another level, the image that Chapman leaves us with — a bunch of teenagers having the time of their life smoking weed in the woods — reminds us to get offline and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. In otherwords, fuck Mark Zuckerberg and go outside. 

  1. “yellow is the color of her eyes” – Soccer Mommy

I wasn’t quite as taken with Soccery Mommy’s Color Theory as a lot of other people (I much more of a Clean person myself), but this elegiac centerpiece is pure 90s-inspired melancholy, and about as successful a revival of the Clinton-era alt rock sound that you’ll find. About the terminal illness of Sophie Allison’s mother, there’s real sadness and malaise here, but a sense of hope and gratitude as well. 

  1. “Run for the Country” – The Replacements

“Run for the Country” — which was included in a deluxe reissue of The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me — is the first of two songs on this list that was written and recorded well before 2020, but not released until this year. And yet, it couldn’t feel more timely. Paul Westerberg pleads through this barroom ballad for his lover to join him in the good old countryside away from the ugly, dirty, crowded city to a place of pastoral bliss, an change in scenery many young Americans sought for themselves as the coronavirus pandemic enveloped the nation’s cities. Westerberg promises sun dappled hills, beautiful sheets of Minnesota snow, and the wind combing your hair — but this is a Replacements song, after all, and Westerberg’s would be farmwife’s unclear decision gives the song a sense of quiet yearning and desperation, turning a sure thing into a series of sweet nothings and impossible promises slurred into the ears of a childhood sweetheart and a hometown bar. Sure, you can always go home again, but what’ll be left for you when you do?

  1. “Isabella” – Hamilton Leithauser

Hamitlon Leithauser wasn’t able to recapture the highs of his and Rostam’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine with this year’s The Loves of Your Life, but he reached literal new vocal highs on “Isabella,” where he uses his falsetto to explore the life of a kind of NYC-bound free spirit that feels very 2000s in its romance and lightness. But The country tinged arrangement, with its standout pedal steel guitar, makes the song feel timeless, and Leithauser is a savvy enough songwriter to realize that the key in making a song like this work is the sense of longing, which he brings home with his trademarked yowls in the coda. Few artists of his era are transitioning into elder statesmen status as well as this guy.

 

  1. “Delete Forever” – Grimes 

Grimes has always emphasized the synthetic nature of her music, giving off the sense that her dark synth-pop is made by a digital avatar rather than a living, breathing person. It was a little surprising, then, to hear her go in a more tangible direction on “Delete Forever,” the high point of February’s Miss Anthropocene. Singing from the perspective of an opioid addict, Grimes sets acoustic instruments like guitar, banjo, and violin against an electronic drum kit and her own vocal samples to create an earthy, desolate atmosphere that makes the listener hyper aware of their fragile physical state and and the fleeting, tenuous nature of life itself. It’s a reminder that we’re just a few bad choices away from ending up in the dirt  — and that for some of us, that coming as close to that point of no return as possible holds a sinister appeal.

  1. “The Steps” – HAIM

A friend of mine texted me once to tell me that she was listening to HAIM in the car with her mother who eventually turned to her and asked “what is this supposed to be, Wilson Phillips?” That comparison may feel a little harsh, but it does reveal a core truth about HAIM which is that they are not, by many traditional measures, a “cool” band. In fact, they’re unabashed embrace of what can sometimes feel like warmed over versions of already warmed over 90s classic rock rehashes has always kind of been part of the appeal! And no song better encapsulates that than “The Steps,” a song built around three different guitar riffs — one rubbery, one acoustic, one pseudo-bluesy — that skips around with a deceptively sunny keep-on-keepin’ on attitude that will make all of our future children roll their eyes. But behind all the “if I go left and you go right” and “everyday I wake up and make money for myself” is a frustrated, determined narrator — one who’s done everything they possibly can to make a relationship work despite a lack of effort or straight up disinterest from the other party. Come for the cheesy guitar riffs, stay for pained, aching verses that threaten to float away from the song entirely, and the killer conclusion: “Do you understand?”/”You don’t understand me”

  1. “Kawasaki Backflip” – Dogleg

I have a complicated relationship with shouty, cathartic, hardcore-adjecnt bands that emerged in the latter half of the 2010s in the sense that, well, I tend not to like them, or at least I don’t like them as much as I should. For every Titus Andronicus and Fucked Up, there’s a Cymbal Eats Guitars or a Jeff Rosenstock that I’ve never really been able to get into, and that ambivalence turns into straight up distaste when you factor in bands with a more pronounced emo influence like Oso Oso and glass beach. I thought I was going to end up in at least the ambivalence zone with Dogleg, but then I listened to “Kawasaki Backflip” a few hundred times and wound up genuinely appreciating it. Maybe it’s the opening drum roll, maybe it’s the guitars that remind me of David Comes to Life, maybe it’s “Will you be the fire on the wind?,” maybe it’s because “Kawasaki Backflip” very accurately describes what it sounds like. Either way, this track provided me with a very welcome respite to the sad folk songs I listened to this year, and made me wish I had the opportunity to listen to this song while standing around in a sweaty club and avoid a mosh pit like I do whenever I see one of these bands play live.

  1. “My Own Soul’s Warning” – The Killers

For years, Brandon Flowers has been talking about how he wants to be the next Bruce Springsteen, and while The Killers have made some slouches in that direction over the years, but they’ve always felt too rooted in synth-pop and new wave to really crack the code — until “My Own Soul’s Warning,” that is. Sure, this song is almost definitely a riff on The War On Drugs, who oftentimes feel like one big 80s Springsteen tribute band, but it’s also an impressive reinvention of The Killers as a synth flecked heartland rock group. They’ve turned away their attention from the neon lights of their hometown of Las Vegas and towards the desert that surrounds it in an effort to find freedom and romance, and in fact realized that songs about trying and failing to find freedom and romance make the best Springsteen-esque singalongs after all. 

  1. “All Tomorrow’s Carry” — Special Interest

“Aren’t we going out tonight?” That’s a sentence that should feel like inviting, even exciting, but in a world where gathering in a bar could spell death for a bunch of people you don’t know, it can sound whiny, selfish, and manipulative. What “All Tomorrow’s Carry,” a driving slice of fucked up dance punk from New Orleans’ Special Interest supposes, is that there’s always been a sense of maliciousness behind that phrase, especially as America’s cities become hollowed out pleasure centers for the upper class at the expense of its lower income residents. The great irony of course is that, fucked up as it is, “All Tomorrow’s Carry” is an absolute banger. Making good on the open verse’s promise of a “kick snare and a driving beat,” this track’s churning baseline and mechanized guitar riffs sound like a city crumbling in real time, all while a warehouse party from hell rages on in the background. Thanks to COVID, we all got a sense of what dystopia might look like. Thanks to Special Interest, we know what it sounds like, too.

  1. “Separate Ways” – Neil Young

Another song that was technically written and recorded well before 2020, “Separate Ways” is the lead track from Neil Young’s Homegrown, which was originally recorded in the mid-1970s after his breakup with Carrie Snodgrass. If I were to do this list over again, I might place it a bit lower — the lyrics are essentially a more eloquent of version of “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” which is actually a fairly original take for a breakup song — but it gets ranked here because of its instrumental. Held together gently by a tight but spacious rhythm section that the guitars, harmonica, and vocals lightly float on top of, “Separate Ways” feels like it predicted the likes of indie folk rock bands Big Thief and their contemporaries, a strikingly modern example of the form 50 years ahead of its time. 

  1. “to Perth, before the border closes” — Julia Jacklin

Speaking of Neil Young, Julia Jacklin kept up her streak of being most effective channeler of the Canadian legend’s style into 2020 with melancholy, basically-about-the-coronavirus-but-not-really-about-the-coronavirus ballad. A song about escaping to the city of your youth, the song’s soft swelling guitars and recitations of “everything changes” felt appropriate for a world where nothing felt certain anymore, and the urban experiences of our younger years felt like a fonder memory. Even the positive spin Jacklin puts on her strategic retreat “I got a feeling I won’t be doing it alone” comes with a qualifier — “It’s just a feeling though.”

  1. “Maybe I” – 2nd Grade

Most of 2nd Grade’s Hit to Hit features earnest but playful power pop nuggets that combine Guided By Voices’s pep and brevity with Wilco’s inherent gentleness and good will. “Maybe I” is probably the most gentle of the gentle tracks, even if it is the lightly stomping percussion that makes it work. Peter Gill’s self-deprecating lyrics and sunsetting guitars are pure Tweedy, while the melody and vocal timbre is pure Beach Boys, making this track feel like a snippet of a lost Pet Sounds track. Ok, maybe that last comparison is a little unfair. After all, Brian Wilson and the boys wish they could write a song this intimate and aching. 

  1. “Without You” – Perfume Genius

This moonlit country song is a study in the contradiction that inhabits all great songwriting, about how even songs that describe satisfaction allude to the onetime absence of such satisfaction, and the very real possibility that such satisfaction will be absent again at some point in the future. “Without You,” about a brief respite from Perfume Genius mastermind Michael Hadreas’s body dysmorphia, attempts to bottle in that satisfaction to but can’t do so without letting a little bit of longing and melancholy slip in, because like all music he recognizes that this feeling is fleeting and ephemeral, as easy to lose as it is to come by. Such is the pain of all pop music.

  1. “IM A FREAK CUZ IM ALWAYS FREAKED OUT” – Black Dresses

2020 was not a fun year — social distancing protocols necessitated by a global pandemic forced most of us to retreat into hour homes nearly 24/7, and a lot of us spent that time at home mainlining social media and news feeds about all of the bad stuff that was happening not only with the pandemic, but also social unrest, a contentious election, and the total upending of life as we know it. “IM A FREAK CUZ IM ALWAYS FREAKED OUT” is the perfect sonic simulation about what it’s like to live in that environment. Blaring guitars pierce through the singers struggle to be nice and “cute and well adjusted,” causing them to become so unhinged that they begin to question how language even works. Adolescent angst evolves with every generation, and while I’m no Zoomer, I imagine that Black Dresses have keyed in on what it means to be wracked with fear, anger, and self-doubt in the extremely online age.

  1. “Boomer” – Bartees Strange

There are a lot of great tracks on Bartees Strange’s debut full length Live Forever and most of them would be worthy of this list, but none of them encapsulates what makes the album so exciting as “Boomer.” Featuring DaBaby style verses over twinkling guitars and an uptempo rock beat before morphing into a Benjamin Booker style chorus, “Boomer” is Live Forever’s proof of concept, the song that demonstrates that country, rap, and rock can join forces for a purpose higher than an “Old Town Road”-style novelty song. Its country-fried outro puts the finishing touches on Strange’s musical mosaic, and hammers home the attitude that makes his bold pop songwriting experiments possible. He’s already seen a lot of shit, he can’t worry about what one song is going to make you think of him.

  1. “Bad Decisions” – The Strokes

Should I be depressed that the one time saviors of rock had to resort to interpolating a decades-old Billy Idol song to write their most memorable song in ten years? Maybe, but I don’t care. The greatness of the Strokes was that they made mindless yet pretentious hedonism sound cool for the first time since grunge, and while this may feel less sexy and dangerous than, say, “12:51” or “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” “Bad Decisions” it’s still a perfect song to bar hop to, back when, you know, you could actually bar hop.

  1. “Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” — 2nd Grade

“Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” is perfect bubblegum songwriting without any other guiding logic outside of taking things to their natural conclusion, even when that seems a step too far. The “A,B,C and 1,2,3” rhyming scheme ending with “G, H, I, and 7,8,9” is almost hilarious in its predictability, as is the insistence that they not only name check Easy Rider star Dennis Hopper, but also Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, and add a motorcycle sound effect for good measure. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of deeper meaning to this song, but does there need to be? It’s catchy, memorable, and efficient, just like all great pop songs are, no matter how mindless their lyrics may be.

  1. “Kyoto” — Phoebe Bridgers

Nearly every touring rock musician ends up writing a song about how much being on the road sucks, a box Phoebe Bridgers checked this year with “Kyoto.” This being a Phoebe Bridgers song, though, it also subverts our expectations of the road song, recounting a phone call the singer has with her wayward father in Japan and how his memory creeps in while she’s looking at all of the country’s landmarks. Much in the way the peppy rock instrumentation and horns conceal what’s a truly sad song, Bridgers ruminates on the way that one’s frustration with the road, and really any job, merely act as a mask for life’s true frustrations, pains, and traumas. We occupy ourselves with them so we don’t have to think about them, but they’re lingering and threatening to ruin our day just the same.

  1. “Fake Grass” – Rookie

At its start, “Fake Grass” feels a bit melancholy — a songwriter’s reflection on the difficulty of trying to find a new home, the barroom piano and Skynyrd-esque slide guitar can make it sound like a lonely drunk’s lament. But right after the singer shrugs “Since we all play guitar we might as well be friends” and the band builds up to the coda, the rest of the group joins in with one harmonized “oooooo” before making space for closing guitar solo, providing us with the unity that the song spends most of its runtime searching for. Finding your “people” can be tough, and you may not even realize you’ve found them at first, but it can lead to something beautiful, like this song. That it demands to be sung in a dive bar while you hold a PBR in one arm and your best buddy in the other only adds to the effect.

  1. “anything” – Adrianne Lenker

Just when you think Adrianne Lenker has come up with every possible combination with which to cascade acoustic guitars over her whispery vocals, she comes up with another way to cascade acoustic guitars over her whispery vocals. Hopelessly romantic, “anything” stands out from the rest of Lenker and Big Thief’s death obsessed catalogue by being hopelessly romantic for once, even if there is a dog bite and familial drama for good measure. But outside of a few verses, “anything” is all sun dried clothing, juicy mangos, and the smell of pine and a campfire, reminisces of an idealized, rustic romance before the relationship’s eventual deterioration. Lenker’s desire to block out the world and lay in her lover’s lap is of course relatable — who hasn’t wanted to shut out the rest of the world and ensconce themselves in a cocoon of domestic bliss — but “anything” is also a confession that to do so is to deny everything in a relationship that isn’t working, to pretend that in a vacuum, everything would work. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a vacuum. Fortunately, Adrianne Lenker can make us feel like we do every once in a while.

  1. “She’s There” – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s best songs are studies in focused intensity — potent combinations of effective lyrical choices and invigorating guitar riffs that mix together for pure indie rock bliss. Their arrangements have gotten a little less ambitious and a little poppier over the years, but as “She’s There” proves, they haven’t lost their fastball just yet. This song is full of regret and anxiety — but regret and anxiety that make you feel weirdly cool, probably because you’re also a “full bottle in” to whatever it is you drink as you obsessively read over old letters and lament the obsessive rolling over of time. I feel like bands from Australia have a reputation for being chill and breezy, but RBCF’s best songs are always about frustration, and exercising that frustration through motorik drum beats and snaking guitar parts. I have no idea what “All my accidents, breathe in time” means, but I know it sounds cool as hell to repeat over and over again before the band loads up for another rocket launched coda.

  1. “Can’t Do Much” – Waxahatchee

Waxahatchee describes “Can’t Do Much” as an “extremely unsentimental love song,” and she’s not wrong — when you gaze into your lover’s eyes, you don’t want to see them “roll around like dice on the felt,” and the song’s title is Katie Crutchfield’s response to the realization that she “Loves you that much anyhow.” And yet the instrumental and Crutchfield’s imagery are so sweet and smooth (“When you see me, I’m honey on a spoon”) that it still creates a sense of invitation and warmth. Pop music is filled with songs meant to sound like perfect little love songs when in fact they’re anything but, but “Can’t Do Much” is the opposite — an attempt to convey frustration and exasperation that none the less comes off as loving and homey because, whether Crutchfield recognizes it or not, those feelings supersede whatever little things may be annoying her about her relationship. As a music critic I’m supposed to value variety, but if every song in the world sounded this rootsy and pure, I wouldn’t be able to complain. 

  1. “Look To” – Ratboys

Printer’s Devil had songs that were deeper and more complicated, but I can’t deny the simple and resonant pleasures of “Look To,” the most straightforward rocker any artist of consequence put out this year. The scant lyrics could really be about anything — the physical and cognitive decline of a parent, the loss of a friend, or just growin’ up and being an adult — but let’s face it: in an election year, “But I don’t want to choose”/“I just don’t know who to look to” resonated with anybody who was frustrated with the political status quo and searched in vain for a satisfying solution. It’s also a formal accomplishment, taking the most satisfying elements of emo and pop-punk (the driving rhythm section, charing power chords, catchy chorus) while shaving away the worst parts (whiny vocals) and mixing them with a dynamic structure (the brief acoustic guitar in the second verse, the thrashing coda) to produce a song that’ll perfectly accompany trashing a hotel room, and make you think at the same time.

  1. “Ladies” – Fiona Apple

While much was made about how Fetch the Bolt Cutters focused on Fiona Apple’s relationships with women, not enough people zeroed in on “Ladies,” her most direct and expansive take on the subject. The track begins with a sense of menace — repeating the same word four times has never felt like so much of a threat — but then the bassline ascends and the piano kicks in, and what once felt like a threat becomes an invitation. Apple encourages the future lovers of her ex to treat themselves to the kitchenware, toiletries, and clothes that she’s left behind at his place, hoping to forge some sort of connection, and an irony sets in. It seems like all these women would be great friends, and yet the only reason they’re connected is because of a man that each of them covet. This should be a recipe for romantic rivalry, but Apple sees it as an opportunity for solidarity — lovers come, lovers go, there’s no reason why the opposite ends of a would-be love triangle can’t be friends. This idea is more or less explored in more serious tracks like “Newspaper,” but on “Ladies” Apple keeps it playful, where she has a field day exploring every facet of her voice and never singing a verse or a chorus the same way twice, a perfect encapsulation why every one of her albums is waited for with bated breath.

  1. “Lilacs” — Waxahatchee 

Saint Cloud was recorded after Katie Crutchfield ended a stint in rehab and it shows — the record as a whole feels richer, brighter, and fuller than many of her previous (still excellent) efforts, and none of the tracks on the album reflects that shift as sharply as “Lilacs.” No longer hiding behind lo-fi production or alt-rock revivalism, Crutchfield adds shades of gray to the portrait she’s of herself she presented to us through her songs for the past decade, synthesizing her Southern roots with the her indie rock chops and finally coming to terms with her demons, and what she finds is that time waits for no man, and the mere process of being in human and living takes a toll on us all. But with that toll and that toil comes the promise of renewal, of filling that vase of lilacs back up with water to refresh them and keep them in full, brilliant bloom. Few songs bloom as brilliantly as this one.

  1. “Graceland Too” – Phoebe Bridgers

Though fiercely progressive in their politics and attitudes, there’s always been something about Phoebe Bridgers and songwriters of her ilk that’s been fairly traditionalist, as well. Whether it’s a song like boygenius’ “Ketchum, ID” or the group’s cover of The Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” you always knew Bridgers had a great country song in her, and she finally gave it to us with “Graceland Too.” Abandoning the rest of Punisher’s modern production choices and choosing to surround herself with acoustic guitar, banjo, and fiddle, “Graceland Too”’s success lies not only in its invocation of the music of America’s past and the King of Rock and Roll as a savior and a guide, but in the way the typically ghostly, distant sounding Bridgers all of a sudden feels very present and alive as she gives all of her love to someone without the ability to love themselves, a modern encapsulation of the misery, desolation, and, yes, hope that country music has explored for nearly a century. 

  1. “Summertime” — Orville Peck

I first heard “Summertime” during an Instagram live performance Orville Peck streamed right at the beginning of the pandemic, before it was officially released and when social distancing felt like it was going to last a month or two at most instead of nearly a year. In that time, “Summertime” morphed from being merely the lead single to Peck’s Show Pony EP to an anthem for a summertime lost, a tribute to the good times and freedom that feel so far away right now. We’ll all meet again, and have plenty of time to indulge in Peck’s vision of spacious, darkly beautiful Americana, but until then, keep on rockin’ baby, keep on ridin’ on the tide.

  1. “Kerosene!” — Yves Tumor

The 2010s were the year of the “is rock dead?” column, and while anyone who pays attention would recognize that rock music is thriving underground and off the charts, I’m not gonna lie, the genre’s taken a few hits. Which is why it was so gratifying, as a longtime rock fan, to hear the experimental artist Yves Tumor record the most straight up arena rock song in years. “Kerosene!” is not a particularly deep or complicated song — it almost feels like an oversell to describe it as a “duet” with singer-songwriter Diana Gordon — but it is powerful, taking square aim at your gut and your groin and nailing the shot. The lyrics are sweet and hot nothings, the production steamy, and the myriad of guitar solos a welcome release of erotic energy that demand to be played to a stadium of screaming fans. It’s a vindication of rock as an art form and the guitar as an instrument, hopefully ushering in a renaissance and reassessment of the form. I mean, it probably won’t. But a boy can dream.

  1. “Janey Needs a Shooter” — Bruce Springsteen

The problem with becoming a legacy artist like Bruce Springsteen is that, at some point, people just want to hear the hits, and the reason they want to hear the hits is because your newer stuff is typically not as good as the hits. So it should be no surprise that Bruce decided to dust off an old unrecorded tune he was working on in the 70s for Letter to You, his best album in 15 years, and given the quality of his 70s output, it should be no surprise that its one of the best songs of the year, and already one of the best of the decade. The best Springsteen songs have always been impressionistic melodramas of the American dream, and “Janey Needs a Shooter” is no different — alienated by the men in her life who represent institutions that could help her but fail to understand her (her doctor, her priest, a neighborhood cop), Janey has only Bruce to turn to, the shooter who knows her style. There’s an open endedness to this song, however; Janey needs a shooter, but that’s all according to Bruce, and Bruce understands her style, but that’s, again, all according to Bruce. Read one way the song becomes just another fantasy and tale of unrequited love, more about the desire to live unreliant on society than actually doing so, a search for an ideal rather than the realization of one, adding that little dose of melancholy that makes these kinds of songs work so well.

  1. “I Know the End” — Phoebe Bridgers

There’s no need to sugarcoat it — the past 12 months or so have felt apocalyptic. A deadly pandemic continues to kill people worldwide, the economy tanked, and America is at its most politically unstable moment since at least the 1960s. So it’s only fitting that the best song of the year dealt with apocalyptic themes, as well. I already wrote at length about this song in my review of Punisher so I’ll avoid retrodding the same ground, but needless to say “I Know the End” is not only a perfect encapsulation of the times in which it was written, it’s also an awe-inspiring work of art, taking a typical Phoebe Bridgers song and slowly building it into a horns-assisted, quasi-metal track centered around the singer’s primal screams. It’s stirring and overwhelming, at once fatalistic and optimistic, and presents the prospect of facing certain doom as a moment for solidarity. Although the myriad of voices who join Bridgers in chanting “the end is near” and the first scream fade away until it’s just bridgers herself, at first ear shattering, and later quiet and hoarse, there’s still some sense of hope in that final scream — that as long as life exists somewhere in the universe, there’ll be something to rage against the dying of the light.

Raw and Haunting, Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher Lives Up To Its Name

Phoebe Bridgers released her new album, Punisher, earlier than expected on Thursday, June 18th. “I’m not pushing the record until things go back to ‘normal,’ because I don’t think they should,” Bridgers said in a tweet that also included a link where fans would be able to donate to social justice organizations. “Here [the album] is a little early. Abolish the police. Hope you enjoy it,” she closed out her message.

Despite her attempts to downplay what’s been one of the most anticipated albums of the year, Bridgers finds herself — willingly or not — at an inflection point in her career, a peak in notoriety and output that’s established her as one of the vanguards of a stacked crop of young female singer-songwriters that began their careers in the latter half of the 2010s. 

Her 2017 debut album, Stranger in the Alps, was released to critical acclaim, and a number of its tracks would go on to be featured in broadcast TV shows like Castle and Lethal Weapon, providing her with an introduction to mainstream American tastes not typically afforded to her peers. In 2018, she’d team up with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus to form the supergroup boygenius, releasing a self-titled EP and embarking on a tour that same year. And then in 2019, she formed another supergroup, this time with Connor Oberst, releasing an album and touring as Better Oblivion Community Center, making buzzy appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and CBS This Morning: Saturday. Not content to make music with just one 2000s indie legend, Bridgers would also go on to record a song with The National’s Matt Berninger for Between Two Ferns: The Movie (which she also made a cameo in), and then recruited Berninger and Fiona Apple to record the darkest, angriest cover of “Silent Night” ever released. She kept the ball rolling in 2020, not only releasing lead singles “Garden Song” and “Kyoto” to an adoring public, but also appearing on four tracks of another highly anticipated 2020 release, The 1975’s Notes On a Conditional Form, where she managed to wring out a quiet, heartfelt track from an otherwise bloated, vapid album. 

What’s striking about Bridger’s past four years isn’t just the quantity of music she’s put out, but the diversity of spaces she’s found herself in. Songs about funerals and emotional abuse don’t exactly scream “network TV,” nor does the music of Better Oblivion Community Center, which plumbed the same territory and whose appeal relied on the name recognition of two cult adjacent figures. Better Oblivion Community Center also highlights Bridgers’ ability to transcend her age group, which opens up doors into other, older audiences. To put it in perspective, the age gap between Bridgers and Berninger is only one year smaller than the age gap between Kurt Cobain and Lou Reed, and the equivalent of Bridgers reaching out to Fiona Apple to record a politically charged Christmas carol would’ve been Apple reaching out to someone like…I don’t know Kate Bush? Joni Mitchell? We’ve seen artists collaborate across generational lines before, sure, but not in the way Bridgers has done it — running the show and outshining the people she used to look up to, it feels unprecedented. It also appears to have brought her the attention and admiration of a number of high profile fans, like ESPN host Katie Nolan and Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang, the latter of whom affectionately parodied Bridgers’s emotional and current events focused songwriting style in a series of tweets. It’d probably be a bit of a stretch to declare Bridgers a “mainstream” artist, but she’s come about as close as any other member of her cohort to something like crossover success. Who knows, maybe if things were back to “normal” we’d be talking about Bridgers embarking on media dominating press tour and declaring 2020 the year “emo folk” broke. But for now, Bridgers will have to settle for plaudits from music critics, the media class, and teenagers on social media.

Punisher certainly warrants the attention. The word “powerful” gets thrown around so much and used in so many different contexts that it becomes meaningless, but it’s still the best way to describe this album. It’s not powerful in the sense that it’s big and overwhelming the way a great metal or hard rock record might be, and not powerful because the lyrics are over the top touching and emotional, even though they can be at times. It’s powerful in the sense that it etches itself onto your mind and soul, almost scarring the listener emotionally through a combination of sorrow, dread, and — oddly enough — hope. This is the kind of album that should come with a label warning you not to play it past midnight, not only because of the scary emotional places it will take you, but because Bridgers’ voice will float around your head like a ghost for hours, even days, after your listen to any one of these songs. It’d feel manipulative, maudlin, even, if it weren’t so effective and if it weren’t so haunting. 

Part of that is likely because so many of these songs do in fact feel like they’re coming from the other side. As gutting as Stranger in the Alps could be, there was still some comfort in knowing the Bridgers was just a girl with a guitar communicating her feelings through well executed but familiar rock and folk structures and sounds. On Punisher, Bridgers expands her sonic pallet, adding subtle electronic tweaks and fuller arrangements that help give her songs an air of the spectral and the otherworldly. The soft bass beat on “Garden Song” makes it sound like Bridgers’ muted arpeggios are signals coming from a far off place, and as Brigders takes us on a tour through a burned down house and a Kafkaesque dream, Jereon Vrijhoef joins in her in the chorus like a spirit mirroring her every move, the kind of thing you always feel is watching you but can never prove exists. That notion of having a silent, invisible listener is touched on again on “Chinese Satellite,” when Bridgers swears that she can “feel you through the walls”/”But that’s impossible.” That sense of finality — that our departed loved ones live on only in our minds, and not on any supernatural plain — makes Bridgers’ songs about the fragility of her subjects all the heavier.

“Chinese Satellite,” which feels like the evil twin of Owl City’s saccharine ode to bioluminescence “Fireflies,” also ends with Bridgers hoping that a tractor beam will shoot out of the night sky and whisk her away to a home that she never knew existed, expanding on themes of escape she began exploring with boygenius’s “Me and My Dog,” which also finds her abandoning Earth above a spaceship. This theme crops up in elsewhere on Punisher in more earthbound forms, like on the tender country track “Graceland Too,” which sees an institutionalized character impulsively hightail it to Memphis, and more metaphorically on “Halloween,” where Bridgers invites her lover to “be anything” before offering to be “whatever you want,” an escape from pre-determined and familiar identity on the one hand, and an escape from the pressure of defining yourself on the other. But this is still a sophomore album from a touring rock artist, which means it’s required by musician law to feature songs about fame and life on the road, the most notable being “Kyoto,” which, from a lyrical perspective, isn’t much different from the other baleful tracks on Punisher (“I’m gonna kill you” Bridgers tells a neglectful father figure “If you don’t beat me to it”), but kicks up the tempo and guitar distortion to something approximating a peppy rock song. Bridgers herself admitted that “Kyoto” was originally meant as a ballad but turned into an uptempo rock track because she was “sick of recording slow songs,” and that somewhat forced origin only hammers home that the kind of travel Bridgers makes a living doing is more of an apparent escape than an actual one; rather than facilitate an improved state of being, it only papers over our existing trauma and turmoil, and even introduces new opportunities for boredom and annoyance to creep in.

Bridgers doesn’t address her own fame as directly, preferring instead to view it through the lens of her own fandom of Elliott Smith on the album’s title track. Bridgers has explained that the “punisher” she refers to in the song is not Frank Castle’s alter ego, but rather a person who fawns over an artist so intensely that they begin to inadvertently “punish” the object of their affections. “What if I told you”/”I feel like I knew you?”/”But we never met” Bridgers imagines herself saying to the late singer/songwriter, who lived in the same Silver Lake neighborhood Bridgers now calls home. This idea of fan obsession punishing an artist is nothing new — Henry Rollins described it as “the brutality of mass acceptance” in regards to Kurt Cobain’s suicide — but Bridgers has observed that the deeply personal nature of her songwriting seems to provoke particular intense reaction from her fans, revealing in an interview that she once had to deal with someone literally chasing her after a gig while yelling “I would never chase you!” It’d be easy to delight in the irony of that if it also wasn’t also terrifying.

I’d like to think that I’d never chase Phoebe Bridgers down the street after a gig, but I can’t deny that I do feel a degree of personal connection with her. The odd thing about music fandom is that while listeners may build their most intense connections with artists as teenagers, the artists with whom they build those connections are rarely teenagers themselves. Instead, the music of their generation is defined to some extent by artists five, ten, even fifteen years older than they are. While I may have some things in common with Patrick Stickles, Jack White, and Craig Finn and respond to their music on a deep emotional level, they’re still 9, 19, and 23 years older than me, respectively. I love those men to death, but those generation gaps of varying sizes will always keep me from relating to them fully and totally; I may think they know some of what I’ve experienced, but not all of it — they’re heroes and idols maybe, but not peers. But Bridgers, who is only two and a half months younger than me, certainly feels like something of a peer, someone experiencing the world at the same stage of life I am. When Bridgers came forward with a number of other women and accused Ryan Adams of emotionally abusing and sexually harassing her, I reacted to it differently than any of the other litany of accusations made against powerful men over the past four years. I was appalled by all of these incidents of course, but something about this one felt more personal. It felt like I was watching a friend go through it, and like a microcosm of some great intergenerational struggle, of Millennials’ search for praise and validation from previous generations that have forced raw deal after raw deal upon us and blamed us for our own shortcomings. 

It wasn’t just that I felt like I knew Phoebe Bridgers — it felt like that she might know me too, and how many other depressed twenty-somethings and teenagers are going to feel the same thing after listening to Punisher? In some ways, it feels like Bridgers may have underestimated our own narcissism — because the truth of the matter is, fawning over an artist has never been about them, it’s always been about us fans, and what kind of unreciprocated support artists can give us. We’re not trying to thank the artist when we obsess over them to their face, we’re trying to win over their affection so that they’ll reciprocate it back to us. It’s a never-ending search for validation, because we want to be told by a person we look up to not that they’re just like us, but that we’re just like them. And if we’re just like them, then we’re as cool, talented, and attractive as they are. We become obsessed with them because we’re obsessed with ourselves.

Of course, it would be a lot easier for Bridgers to ward off this kind of unhealthy fan behavior if she weren’t so damn good at her job. Punisher isn’t a perfect album — “Halloween,” “Moon Song,” and even the title track feel like a bunch of well-written lyrics grasping in the dark for an engaging melody or hook, and unfortunately, they never find one — but its final four tracks are perfect slices of distinct indie rock that make the genre feel alive again. The dreamy but disillusioned “Savior Complex,” with its moonlit strings and beaming slide guitar, recalls Wilco at their most tender, while the intro to “ICU” feels like it could be a Modern Vampires of the City-era Vampire Weekend sample before unfolding into something that more closely recalls Better Oblivion Community Center. “Graceland Too” reclaims the banjo and fiddle from the Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, and every other boring “alternative folk” group of the 2010s, demonstrating how they can be deployed to heartbreaking and devastating effect and in a manner that suggests country may have been the first kind of emo music ever made. 

The closing track, “I Know the End,” is the coup de grâce. Beginning as a typical Bridgers song with shimmering guitar chords and lyrics about an unhealthy relationship, it’s made off kilter by the slightest touches of organ and droning keys, bringing back the haunted feel from some of the earlier songs. Eventually the tempo picks up and Bridgers takes us on a drive through rural California, calling out images of forlorn Americana (“A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall”/”Slot machines, fear of God”), impending doom (“Big bolts of lightning hanging low”), and paranoia (“Over the coast, everyone’s convinced”/”It’s a government drone or an alien spaceship”). She throws in some more references to becoming a ghost (“I’ll find a new place to be from”/”A haunted house, a picket fence”/”To float around with my ghost friends”), all while strings and horns surge around her, recalling Arcade Fire at their most grandiose. Eventually Bridgers embraces all this doom and decay, declaring “No, I’m not afraid, to disappear”/”The billboard said the end is near”/”I turned around, there was nothing there”/”Yeah, I guess the end is near” and the drums kick in and a gang of vocalists joins in, defiantly shouting the last four words of the song over and over, the most fatalistic yet triumphant coda since Titus Andronicus declared “It’s still us against them, and they’re winning” ten years ago. Eventually all the singers let loose one blood-curdling scream, the horns change to a more menacing key and the tempo begins in swing. Bridgers lets out another scream that seems to last for an impossible amount of time, sounding like she’s leading the now careening instrumental ensemble into battle. Eventually the music cuts out, and we just hear Bridgers continuing to scream, but hoarsely and more quietly than before, until her voice gives out with one final cough. 

“I Know the End” is a powerful statement, one that looks at humanity’s extinction with a nonchalance that informs a warrior-like bravery, before descending into chaos and acknowledging that, yes, actually, death and the end of the world are in fact quite scary. Bridgers’ screams feel like they could be the last recorded sound of the last living thing, an intelligent being reduced to its pure will to survive, gnashing away in the dark as forces beyond its control begin to overtake it. Or, it could be the singer’s reminder to us that, whatever power she holds over her listeners, whatever terrible feelings she’s able to replicate within them and whatever deliverance she provides us with, she is still just a person, not a god or a ghost or an alien, not a symbol for us to project ourselves onto. Just an actual, fragile human being who  happens to be good at putting music and words together. And maybe if we realize that about her, we’ll realize that about ourselves, too, and we’ll all chill out a little. I’m not so sure that it’ll work, but I guess it’s worth a try.

How Fetch the Bolt Cutters Became the Album of Quarantine

“I Want You to Love Me,” the opening track of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s fifth studio album, begins with a digital fake out. A chintzy drum machine and minimalist keyboard line take up the first twenty or so seconds of the song’s runtime before making way for some cascading piano notes and Apple’s aching, yearning story of romantic and sexual desire. It’s one of the better Side A, Track 1’s of the last few years, and the way it descends from composed piano pop, to something rawer and angrier before finally unraveling into something that sounds like a combination orgasm/mental breakdown perfectly whets your appetite for the rest of the album. The first release from the reclusive singer/songwriter in almost eight years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters has set the music press ablaze, becoming the first album to receive a perfect 10.0 score from Pitchfork since Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did the same in 2010. Praise for Fetch the Bolt Cutters has been so universal that it currently stands as the highest rated album of all time on review aggregator Metacritic, ahead of other modern classics like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN., D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and Beyonce’s Lemonade. “Instant classic” has become a cliche, but I don’t know there’s any other way to describe Fetch the Bolt Cutters — based on the critical response alone, this is an album that will be talked about for a long, long time.

Apple’s talent as a singer, songwriter, and composer are self-evident, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that people are digging Fetch the Bolt Cutters. But seeing as how little it shares with the most vaunted music of the last ten years, I was still caught a little off guard by the effusiveness of its reviews. Fetch the Bolt Cutters shares little, if anything with hip-hop, electronica, and modern maximalist pop, genres that have made the biggest critical gains over the past ten years; in fact its reliance on instruments like piano and standup bass make it feel almost pointedly unhip. It wouldn’t feel odd to me if a jaded teen saw Apple sitting behind a piano and immediately slotted her in next to Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, or any of the other ivory-tickling women who padded adult alternative radio playlists and your mother’s CD collection for the past ten years. They would be wrong for not realizing that Apple takes these elements, puts them in a box, shakes that box up, throws it off a cliff, and then kicks it all the way home to craft a sound that’s always felt unique, but I could  see why they would reach such a conclusion. And it has so little to do with the kind of music that’s been held up as the most “important” in the past few years that I could also see it being written off as irrelevant to the larger cultural landschape. Don’t get me wrong, she’s always been a critical darling, but what is it this time and place that has led Fetch the Bolt Cutters to be so adored?

To find the answer to that question, let’s take a look at a few other trends and high profile releases from the last five years. In his now landmark piece “Tame Impala, Chillwave, and Other Dispatches from the Vibe Generation,” Larry Fitzmaurice highlighted and explained the popularity of alternative music that featured “an increased embrace of sampling and electronics, a de-emphasizing of guitars, a sonic approach that favored tactile sensuality rather than the bookish sensibilities that pervade 2000s alternative music, and an unabashed love of all things retro.” Fitzmaurice argued that this music appealed to a generation of people who “take drugs,” “spend like crazy,” “open [their] hearts and minds as widely as possible to all non-hateful viewpoints and lifestyles,” and “take more drugs.” Fitzmaurice argues that his (and I guess, my) generation do such things because they’re “not so much seeking answers as…looking for ways to feel something else, to escape the near-constant horror that is public and private life in 2015.”1If only they knew what was in store for them a year later…
 The end result is the popularity of chillwave mainstays like Toro Y Moi, Washed Out, and Neon Indian, as well as indie rock artists who embraced electronic music and 80s nostalgia like M83, The War on Drugs and, most importantly for this article, Tame Impala. 

Fitzmaurice reserves special praise for Tame Impala’s 2015 release Currents, which saw the Australian psych rock project trade in its guitars for keyboards and release “gorgeously textured soundscapes that owed as much to modern R&B as they did to the expensive luxuries of soft rock.” Fitzmaurice lauds Currents for its emotionally intimate lyrics, “stuttering beats,” and “motorik fantasias,” going on to describe the album as sounding like “modernity — bright and nearly monolithic, a gigantic nervous system encased in a protective cell phone case big enough that it’d crush an entire city if it toppled over.”

I don’t know that I like Currents quite that much, but in terms of sheer longevity alone, it stands out as the apotheosis of the vibey mindset celebrated by Fitzmaurice. It not only transcended genre lines by having tracks covered by Rihanna and featured on Donald Glover’s hip-hop focused TV dramedy Atlanta, but it also gave the modern music world one of its rarest sights: an ostensible rock artist selling out massive arenas and headlining major festivals like Coachella. After the release of Currents, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker became a bona fide star, collaborating with Mark Ronson and Camilla Cabello and even producing a track on Travis Scott’s multi-platinum psych-rap album Astroworld. These high profile cameos and Parker’s reclusiveness ratcheted up anticipation for 2020’s The Slow Rush, Tame Impala’s fourth studio album. This excitement culminated in a splashy Billboard cover story in which Parker declared, to the delight of pop fans and lament of rock fans, that he wanted to become a Max Martin style super-producer, seemingly aligning himself with the dreamy, sugary sounds that came to  dominate the 2010s, and setting the stage for what had the potential to be his biggest record yet.

It feels like eons ago at this point, but The Slow Rush was actually released this Valentine’s Day — in other words, about three months ago. And while its trippy, festival ready synths and stretched out runtimes make it feel like another win for the Vibe Generation, it’s hard not to hear a bit of exhaustion from Parker in both his music and his lyrics. His high-pitched vocals feel overwhelmed at points by the swirling instrumentals, and the throbbing, at times gritty low end that defined Currents is softened as well, making some of The Slow Rush’s tracks feel wispy, and trying to find your aural bearings in the thick of all these soupy sounds can feel like grasping at running water.

But perhaps the most striking change made by Parker is the change in perspective of his lyrics, which go from being burrowed deep inside his own head to addressing a significant other in varying states of a relationship’s decay. The romanticization of introspection, escapism, and nostalgia that was ascendant in the 2010s, and that Fitzmaurice’s article even gets wrapped up in, is no longer seen as a viable option by Parker. “Lost in Yesterday” identifies reminiscence as a crutch — “And you’re gonna have it let it go someday/You keep picking it up like Groundhog Day,” Parker sings, before concluding “it has to be lost to yesterday,” revealing the song’s title as not a lament of a past love or life, but as the preferred state of old behaviors. “It Might Be Time” sees him realize his mortality and the inevitable obsolescence of youthful hedonism in the most straightforward terms possible (“It might be time to face it/You ain’t as young as you used to be”), while “Borderline” reads like Parker’s mind racing as the numbing drugs he’s been using to distract himself from his troubles begins to wear off, leading to a line of anxiety inducing questions (“Will I be known and loved?/Is there one that I trust?”) that become impossible to ignore in his sobered up state. These three tracks read almost like a past, present, future sequence for a festival hopping, pill popping Millennial falling back to Earth and realizing that they actually have to confront their own problems and those of the world around them — making it impossible, almost irresponsible, to chase the feeling of “something else” that Fitzmaurice argues that they’re wont to do.

Tame Impala wasn’t the only artist to interrogate the Millennial desire for transcendence and then concede to its limits in 2020. Grimes’ Miss Anthropocene, which was released a week after The Slow Rush, is, according to Claire Boucher (Grimes’s real name), “A concept album about the anthropomorphic Goddess of Climate change,” with each song acting as “a different embodiment of human extinction as depicted through Pop star Demonology.” Trying to interpret that statement may be a fool’s errand, but it feels somewhat consistent with Boucher’s predilection for the synthetic and the transformative, a tendency that runs parallel to the warm escapism of Tame Impala and other vibronauts. She’s a true scion of the digital age — rather than escape her surroundings, she tries to shape them and redefine and reinvent herself through her album artwork as an anime character, a 3D model, or, by singing from the perspective of an angry Earth goddess, into something entirely inhuman. This drive to transcend mere flesh and blood culminated with “We Appreciate Power,” a punishing, Nine Inch Nails indebted rocker that seems to advocate for a kind of forced singularity. “Elevate the human race/Putting makeup on my face,” Boucher sings before ensuring us that “AI will reward us when it reigns” and that “simulation is our future,” in between asking what it will take for us to capitulate. The confidence Boucher seems to have in this techno-fascist future becomes all the more concerning when you remember that she’s dating (and recently gave birth to the child of) Elon Musk, but it’s just another, more Redditized version of the drive to “feel something else” described by Fitzmaurice. For Grimes, uploading your consciousness into a computer isn’t just a survival tactic, it’s also a coping mechanism. What better way to avoid negative human emotions than to become something other than human? 

But in time, Grimes became just as skeptical about her methods of escape as Parker. Blurry headrush “4ÆM” acts as a sonic representation of the inevitable “unraveling” and “falling down” that comes after a late night out (and rather presciently predicts ”You’re gonna get sick/You don’t know when”), and the only English words spoken in the 潘PAN assisted “Darkseid” is “Unrest is in our soul/We don’t move our bodies anymore.” But the real kicker, the high point in the album but the low point for Grimes’ techno fantasies, is “Delete Forever.” Grimes’ rare acoustic-based song, “Delete Forever” sees Boucher singing from the perspective of a junkie on the cusp of experiencing “permanent blue” after doing every drug under the sun (or, as Boucher poetically puts it, having “more lines on the mirror than a sonnet”). It’s not just that the drugs are wearing off like they did in Parker’s songs — they’re actively contributing to this character’s destruction. And the most chilling detail of all is their admission that such a demise might have been part of the plan after all, challenging the listener to “try to tell me now that I don’t want it.”

At first glance, Tame Impala and Grimes’ exploration of these themes should make their music feel timeless, even prescient. Expressing unease and pessimism through a festival or club ready song isn’t exactly a new trick, but it is a good way to help ensure that when we listen to The Slow Rush and Miss Anthropocene 20 years from now, we won’t be hearing the last gasps of two of the 2010s’ biggest artists recycling their old sounds on the cusp of a new decade. And yet, recent events have made each of these albums’ reliance on big, crowd pleasing electronics feel out of step, even obsolete with the current mood of the country. Nobody is going to a festival and going out dancing anytime soon, and try as Parker and Boucher might to ground their otherwise wispy and ethereal music, it just doesn’t sound as good while we try to prevent ourselves from going crazy as we hole ourselves up in our apartments and try to outlast the coronavirus. Tame Impala were writing escapist music aware of its limits, but there’s no level of self-awareness that could make it sound good for our current moment. And with other albums being delayed, it seems like other artists have come to realize that trying to match our current moment is a futile effort. 

And then came Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album almost tailor-made for our new world of isolation and social distancing. Apple recorded most of the album at her Venice Beach, California home, where she assembled a “percussion orchestra” of household items (which ranged from the mundane, like pots and pans, to the macabre, like her late dog Janet’s bones) to act as her rhythm section. The result is a record that sounds raw, claustrophobic, and more than a little stir-crazy, the aural equivalent of a musician banging their head against a wall. Apple digs deep vocally as well, reaching a degree of grit and at times almost unhinged-ness that her earlier work lacked; her yelps, growls, and bellows are tangible enough to make your own throat feel scratchy by proxy. From a resources perspective, almost any of us could have recorded this album in the two plus months we’ve been sheltering in place; the only thing preventing us from doing so is that we don’t have Apple’s innate talent.

The unvarnished, homemade feel of the record is backed up by strikingly physical lyrical imagery. “I Want You to Love Me” sees Apple asking her would be beau to “bang it, bite it, bruise it” and “Shameika,” the following track, evocatively describes the way Apple would “crush the leaves like they had fallen from dead trees/just for me” and slap her leg with a riding crop on her way to school to make herself look tough.2No, I don’t know where a school aged child would find a riding crop, or how they would even know what one is, for that matter. Elsewhere, she dares her date to kick her under the table on, uh, “Under the Table,” to get her to stop arguing with someone else at a dinner she doesn’t want to go to, and, in her most striking bit of imagery, refers to a rack of guitars on a gentleman friend’s wall as “lined up like eager fillies/Outstretched like legs of Rockettes” on “Rack of His.” She almost sounds jealous of them, hoping the man in question will “wail” on her like he does the instruments, before being disappointed by his more conservative lovemaking (or at least, that’s what I think “but it was just a coochie-coo-coo” means). What makes these lyrics stand out is that they see Apple yearning, begging, almost, for any kind of human contact, for any kind of physical sensation outside of what she can produce herself — the reverse of Tame Impala and Grimes’ escapist and transformative fantasies, and a feeling that probably feels familiar to all of us right now. 

Apple expresses a similar longing for nature as well. In “Heavy Balloon,” she claims to “spread like strawberries” and “climb like peas and beans,” while in “I Want You to Love Me” she “moves with the trees/In the breeze.” The rush of people to California’s beaches and New York’s parks after some restrictions on public gatherings were eased in those states seem to indicate that we as a society are similarly wistful for the natural world, and the growing and spreading imagery used by Apple refer to processes that may feel stunted in the era of shelter-in-place. We feel cramped, unable to stretch and grow and feel the cool grass under us, unable to be one with the natural world. We may have written these feelings off as hippy dippy nonsense in the pre-COVID-19 era and sought refuge in the synthetic instead, but now that all we can do is retreat inside our devices, we’re desperately seeking an alternative. We, in many, ways, want to fetch the bolt cutters and break out of our quarantine cages.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters covers a litany of themes across its 13 tracks — namely the way Apple has felt emotionally mistreated by men, and how such mistreatment has affected her relationships with women. But the common through line of all of those songs is a yearning to lean into connection, acknowledging and absorbing all of its rough edges. This runs counter to the vibey strategy pursued by Tame Impala, Grimes, and their peers, who retreated into warm electronic sounds as if into the womb, and whose emotional analysis was more inward looking. It’s not that Apple doesn’t have a sense of self or isn’t interested in self-examination, it’s just that she’s moved on to better things and other needs. And on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she needs other people — needs to touch them and feel them the same way she feels all the plastic, wooden, and metal things sitting around her house; the same way you can feel her pounded out piano notes, improvised percussion, woody bass, and her unvarnished vocals. If the 2010s were defined by a generation trying to “feel something else,” Apple is scoffing at their pickiness and hoping just to feel anything at all. Typical, modern day to day life provides us with an excess of humanity, but now that we’re siloed off from one another, we can’t help but claw at the walls like Apple in the hope that someone will give us something as small and spiteful as a quick kick in the shins. Really, it’d almost be troubling if this album wasn’t universally praised.

So does the rapturous response to Fetch the Bolt Cutters represent the end of electronic incursions into rock and pop and the rise of a new, analog-based movement? We may not get the answer to that question for a few years, and even if we do, it’s not like the world’s biggest pop stars will take after Apple and start banging on the bones of their dead pets instead of teaming up with technologically inclined super producers. But the general “vibeyness” that has so dominated music for the past ten years feels like it may be on the outs, because there’s no use distracting ourselves from life’s harsh realities anymore. Many of us have never been so aware of our own mortality and the fragile security modern society provided us with — we can’t not pay attention to the physical world around us. If the coronavirus pandemic ends up facilitating a full fledged cultural reset, then Felt the Bolt Cutters could be its first chapter. And if we’re going to rewrite the musical landscape from scratch, we could do a lot worse.

I Listened to Every Hoodie Allen Album So You Don’t Have To, Though You Should

When I became single again a few months ago, I warned my co-editors that there was a non-zero chance I’d get back into “frat rap”, as I had been a bit infamous for a few years prior. Turns out, it happened, and here I am, writing an entire article about it in order to bore myself of it and finally get through this phase. Frat rap occupies this special place in our musical world, somehow sharing more with doo-wop than with the jazzy righteousness of Kendrick Lamar or 2Pac, and also somehow making lyrics like, “I met her at my show, then we smashed right after, If we go three rounds then she’ll fall in love faster,” and “mouth my words, don’t say shit, shh, shut up bitch and ride this dick,” sound almost cool and totally not problematic at all coming out of white-as-hell G-Eazy and Mac Miller… almost. Frat rap is pretty silly, what’s not hilarious about a bunch of white guys rapping over 1950s samples about how many women they’ve slept with, while declaring themselves the “James Dean of Rap” (whatever the hell that means)? But, for all that, it’s got an anthemic quality and irresistibly catchy nature that really hit the spot in the early-to-mid 2010s, which I guess some of us are nostalgic for. 1If there is a place on the Internet for me, where people still believe The 20/20 Experience and Random Access Memories are cool, are still excited for President Hillary Clinton, are still playing Minecraft to death, and still consider “Gangnam Style” the greatest music video of all time, please, email me right away. 

This is not to say that I am your stereotypical frat rap fan. I am vehemently opposed to sandals, I do not drink Budweiser (all praise the King of Beers), nor do I own any pastel-colored clothing. I don’t endorse the misogynistic Georgetown frat boy aesthetic, the lyrics that treat women like objects, the college party scene, or white rappers above those they were influenced by. I do not myself get all the women and I have never thrown up from drinking a Kavanaugh of beers, but being a white boy myself, I embrace the trashiness and comedy that encompasses frat rap at its best. Not necessarily as a serious contribution to the compendium of humankind’s contribution to music, but because it’s catchy and it makes me smile. If that makes me a monster, so be it.

To my credit, I have never actually been to a frat rapper’s concert. I just have a bizarre taste in music where I barely care what the words say as long as I can get down and groove along. To quote something that has probably been said at a Mike Stud concert, “It’s all about the production, man.” And I totally agree, dude. So I’m channelling what I’m sure is a deeply problematic sense of music I sometimes like into a definitive ranking of the discography of my favorite frat rapper… the one, the only, Hoodie Allen.

Hoodie, or, Mr. Allen, whatever you prefer, is a University of Pennsylvania graduate and Google alumni who decided to leave that life behind to pursue his passion in pumping out some feel-good beats about partying at the beach house, not having to go to work, and getting it on the low. Hoodie Allen started to make waves when he appeared on Billboard’s Uncharted charts and peaked at #1 on the Billboard Rap charts in 2016. I’ve always surmised and contested that Hoodie Allen is more talented than he gets credit for. He seems to tackle his fame and obscure place in the musical universe without taking himself too seriously, and he has had some clever lyrics commenting on fame, trying to make it, and the prospect of getting laid all over his house. He’s got strong, unique production work to support his lyrics (and decent flow!) and has paired up with some genuinely talented artists like Chiddy, Chance The Rapper, and — though I accept that I may be in the minority in not considering him “genuinely talented” — Ed Sheeran. Hoodie Allen may raise an eyebrow every time I ever say his name in a crowd amongst my friends, colleagues, and fellow bus passengers, but he is nonetheless a relatively harmless, fun, and exemplary frat rapper worthy of your attention.

So if you’re looking to join me in my appreciation for the stylings of one Steven Adam Markowitz, here’s where you should start. Hoodie Allen has eight “albums”, which I quote because this includes his three mixtapes (Pep Rally, Leap Year, and Crew Cuts); one EP (All American), and four studio albums (People Keep Talking, Happy Camper, The Hype, and Whatever USA). I’m excluding his other EP, Americoustic, because it is a collection of acoustic versions of some of his earlier songs and it’s real weird. I’ve listened to all of these albums and ranked them so that you, dear reader, do not have to — though by the end of this, I hope I’ve convinced you that one of these albums stands out and is genuinely a good album worthy of your ear.


#8 – The Hype (2017)

I can’t believe I’m about to admit this on the Internet, but I have an autographed vinyl copy of this album. It’s not my favorite, but it was pressed on vinyl and came with Hoodie Allen’s signature, so why the hell not! I’ve listened to enough of his music for free (most of his content is free to download) so I felt I should throw him 20 bucks, and here I am, that’s in my credit card statement now. The average track on this is better than its predecessor, Happy Camper, but it still loses out simply because it falls flat for not really bringing anything really new to the table — though he does a serviceable Fall Out Boy impression throughout, be it intentional or not. The Hype’s big difference over Happy Camper is that it probably errs towards singing over rapping, taking on a pop rap sound over a frat rap one. It tries to be trappy, and really has no singular hit, instead kind of starting to blend together with much of his later work. When Allen tries to be serious, solemn, and take himself too seriously is when he does his worst work, and that’s where The Hype goes wrong. That said, you can take my autographed Hoodie Allen merchandise over my cold, dead body.

Best Song: “All for Me” has some serviceable pop culture references and I have a whole conspiracy theory that this samples the part of MIKA and Ariana Grande’s “Popular Song” that in and of itself samples “Popular” from Wicked. It doesn’t really feel that special, but it’s okay. Justin Timberlake’s “Señorita” gets a shout out in this song, so, there’s that.

Worst Song: This is a close one, both “Play the Field” and “Fakin” are pretty bad. The production on “Fakin” is better, and though the vocals are kind of trash on both, Wale is featured on “Fakin,” which chocks it up a notch. I think it really comes down to the fact that the chorus on “Play the Field” is literally just “play the field, play the field, play the field, play the field, play the field, play the field, play the field, play the field…”, so that one is probably worse.


#7 – Pep Rally (2010)

His first mixtape, Pep Rally features some tracks sporting the by-then-long-in-decline “Chipmunk soul” samples (ask Kanye West), and an interesting enough rap over a sample of the Black Keys’ “Tighten Up” in a song of the same name. “You Are Not A Robot” is the most famous song on this album and has a vocal sample mixed to sound not dissimilar to the “Pretty White Girl Sings Dave’s Thoughts” bit from Chappelle’s Show. There’s a franticness to this album, as if there’s a lot to get out in a little bit of a time, and he doesn’t quite have his footing yet but needs to go through this to know he can fully get there. But that makes it novel, and does feel like something genuinely new. The production quality on this mixtape is both impressive given its homegrown nature, but its amateur nature still kind of shows through. It’s not as tight or crisp sounding as his later albums, but has some understated upbeat tracks that are indicative of where his music will go at its finest over the course of the next few years. This album does stick pretty close to the average it sets at the onset, never really totally dropping the ball, but only probably once rising above it. I blame some of that on the lower quality sound overall more than I do the talent or production behind it.

Best Song:You Are Not A Robot” is the most memorable song on this album for a reason, the flow over the sample and the mixing makes for a genuine groove.

Worst Song: Going to have to give it to “Words of Wisdom” on this one, though “So Much Closer” was… close. “So Much Closer” is pretty tedious, but “Words of Wisdom” is just a really bad song, and the sample on it is very of an era.


#6 – Happy Camper (2016)

His second studio album, Happy Camper, doesn’t have the unbridled excitement and thrill that makes his hits on All American, Crew Cuts, or People Keep Talking really work; and really only has one really good song. It does try a couple of new things, reaches into some unexplored territory, and that’s why it’s better than The Hype, but it is largely unmemorable even as the sound quality has evolved.

Best Song: Easy choice here, “Surprise Party”. Blackbear’s vocals and Hoodie’s faster crescendo towards the chorus mix and match for a solid banger. Unlike his other top songs, I don’t think there are any particularly clever lyrics in here, or enough to really let them take hold. It’s pretty straightforward about what it is, a song about having a girl over for the having of sex, and that, contrary to the title, “this ain’t no surprise party.”

Worst Song: “Remind Me Of”, it’s kind of poppy in a bad way, and it’s just… repetitious nothing. I also really do not care for “Champagne and Pools”, one of the singles off this album — it insists on itself being fancier or better than I think it at all is. It’s honestly baffling to me how this is was chosen as a single but “Surprise Party” was not.


#5 – Whatever USA (2019)

His most recent album, Whatever USA falls prey to the problems of its predecessors Happy Camper and The Hype, preferring to linger on more boring and repetitive vocals (we’re talking using the same line over and over and over on repeat) with production that mostly goes unnoticed, and never really living up to the enthusiasm and passion of some of his earlier albums. I do think Whatever USA does something well in that it manages to not have a truly bad song, but the flip side of that is that it has no tracks that truly stand out, and does not make a meaningful impact on his larger discography. Or maybe by the time I got to this album, my ears were trained to accept all Hoodie Allen songs as a baseline “fine”, who knows.

Best Song: “Giving Up On Us” flies higher than the rest of this album mostly thanks to Spencer Sutherland’s featured vocals and a slightly more emotional performance and staccato beat. 

Worst Song: This is hard, like I said, they’re all just pretty “fine” on this album, but I suppose “Hell of a Time” is the most plastic and boring, so I’ll give it to that one.


#4 – Leap Year (2011)

Leap Year starts out more relaxed and comfortable than its predecessor, Pep Rally. It takes its time and has a more casual, pool party vibe (which is exactly what the album cover is telling me!), like he’s having a good time and isn’t stressed about it. The production and sound quality have improved to the point where this really does come through in the music and in his voice. It gets a bit louder and more crowded than it needs to in the middle, and I genuinely thought Hoodie Allen was in fact Kanye West at a few points, they sound really similar for a few verses in “Soul On Fire”, so maybe there’s some lingering influence there. “Push You Away”, a softer song in the middle of the album, is probably the first truly introspective and “sadboi” track he’ll have, previewing what will come in some later albums. It’s kind of mellow and haunting, while still giving you a beat you can sing to in the car, and I dig it. It kind of abruptly jumps to a song that proceeds to rhyme “Ibiza” with “pizza” but hey, can’t win ‘em all. The album starts to pick up as it closes with “#WhiteGirlProblems” which is fun enough, but loses the oomph with an underperforming closer in “Dreams Up” before ending with a Elton John-esque song about how he’s handling a girl asking him to move out via a “Moon Bounce” (the piano in this song is actually kind of good though).

Best Song: “The Chase Is On” is an all around feel good song, the chorus makes me want to do that arm roll-ey move that people do when they dance, it’s very danceable even though it’s not quite the most special song on this album; which is actually a pretty good metaphor for this album in the wider context of his entire collection. “Push You Away” is also pretty damn good, it’s like a Shakira song was slowed down and a sad boy is rapping over it. I think my heart is telling me “Push You Away” but my need to dance is telling me “The Chase Is On”, so since I make the rules here, I’m calling it a tie.

Worst Song: I am tempted to say “Flipping Out”, which doesn’t so much have the aesthetic as a chill pool party as it does a cheap luau that someone got high at and is now playing in slow motion for them. But I think “Dreams Up” is probably the worst song on this album, it’s kind of cheap, repetitive, and optimistic in a way that doesn’t quite land.


#3 – All American (2012)

His first non-mixtape release, All American debuted as the number one album on iTunes and skyrocketed him to fame! If you know him from one thing, it’s probably from this album. Despite the fame, he was able to maintain his signature personal and more intimate appeal, regularly interacting with his fans, promising to personally call every fan that bought the album on its first day. This album starts to lean more on Hoodie’s vocals and singing, mostly to its discredit,2Some of the better songs from this album are on his previously-mentioned Americoustic, his 2013 acoustic album… if you want to ruin “No Interruption” for yourself, here you go. Though I’ll admit I do like the acoustic guitar riffs in its beginning. but has a saving grace in “No Interruption”, the lead single which absolutely makes the album and elevates it from its dregs. “No Faith in Brooklyn” is the other single on the album, and if you somehow missed the “No Interruption” love, you may have found something to enjoy in the more sentimental and sappy song here. I think I overdosed on that song a few years ago so I find it a bit boring now, but it is a nice nostalgic listen. There are some other just fine songs in here which I feel do not reflect his best work but are at least serviceable and may even have been your favorites if you were an early fan of Hoodie, like “Small Town”, “Ain’t Gotta Work”, and the Disney-bop-like “Eighteen Cool”. Nonetheless, the production and sound quality are clearly stepping up and he’s starting to get slightly more experimental and emotional, while hitting the mark exactly with “No Interruption”.

Best Song: As if it even needs to be said. “No Interruption” is hands down Hoodie Allen’s best song of all time. I could listen to this song for days and never get tired of it. I know every line and beat and it just pumps me the hell up! It reminds me of such great times hanging with good friends, nodding and singing along to this song before heading out for a great night. It never hesitates to get me doing the signature head side-to-side dance that he does in the music video. Endlessly catchy, it’s the epitome of the best of its genre and of Hoodie Allen: something that takes a boyish, immature concept and glorifies it with a sick flow and a well orchestrated beat, turning it into a semi-parody of itself while making everyone in the room admit they actually kind of like it. 

Worst Song: “Top of the World,” it’s just a little plain with a relatively uneventful build. It also doesn’t say much other than that he’s “makin’ money right now.”


#2 – Crew Cuts (2013)

His third mixtape, Crew Cuts may be Hoodie Allen’s most sensitive album, featuring more reflective slower songs like “Let Me Be Me”, “Where Do We Go Now”, and “Good Intentions”. Hoodie’s singing on this works better than it does in All American and this album probably has his first big featured artists, with Chance the Rapper and Chiddy complementing some of the best songs he’s done. It’s also very well produced for a mixtape, and most of the production value is laudable and unique compared to the more audibly consistent Pep Rally and Leap Year. It’s also probably his “chillest” album, in that no song is a true rager, but mostly ideal for a more moderate yet upbeat vibe, with pretty heavy piano instrumentals scattered throughout; even if the lyrics can be over the top, it’s sung with a cadence not dissimilar to what might be expected from a boy band. Even his most lewd song on this album, “Two Lips”, is weirdly more sentimental than you’d expect. Seriously, listen to this song and think about what he’s singing compared to the instrumental, it’s very interesting. But it works! Hoodie Allen’s unexpectedly pleasant voice actually works even when he’s not rapping and counter to what the lyrics in the songs actually are, the album cover, and its larger genre, it comes across incredibly straightforward, understated, and sedated; rarely sounding douchey at all. 

Best Song: Fame Is for Assholes”, this song featuring Chiddy, chugs along at a pace that works really well with the simple notes over which they’re rapping. It’s probably the most exciting song on the album and Chiddy’s stint on here is fun and fast enough to balance out some of the slower songs throughout the album. It’s chock full of clever pop culture double entendres and is probably the song with the most clever lyricism of Hoodie’s works.

Worst Song: “Reunion”, its chorus-like sample and Kanye West-like processional do not land very well. I really don’t care for “Cake Boy” either but I think its rap is more interesting even if its chorus is worse. “Cake Boy” has a simplistic instrumental not unlike Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” that kind of gives this a feel that it truly is happening in a kitchen with a group of friends banging on pots and pans while Hoodie is spitting rhymes over them, whereas “Reunion” feels too produced.


#1 – People Keep Talking (2014)

This is his masterpiece, his reaction to fame, how it feels to succeed and get what he wanted, and how to stay true to his art in the face of studio exploitation and those around him who want him to focus on them instead of his vision. Okay, maybe I’m stretching it a little, but not really, it is genuinely about all of these things! It’s in all honesty a really good album. People Keep Talking is his first studio album and it lands with the corniness, passion, flow, and excitement you’d expect from an independent rapper who suddenly got to fulfill his dreams. It received acclaim on its debut, and arrived at number 8 on the Billboard 200, has four singles, some great music videos, and so neatly contains the unbridled fun that Hoodie Allen is at his finest. It’s his longest album, but unlike The Hype, it manages to maintain its speed and cohesiveness throughout, never verging on the tediousness of the albums that would follow it.

It opens with the mellow “100 Percent of Something”,  a reflection on his success and how much work it takes to still require some degree of luck to even get close to getting there. Now that he’s there, he doesn’t want to let it go, and can’t help but want more, and closes with a set up for the next song where two fans attempt to call his phone number. This leads into the title track, “People Keep Talking”, where he faces down his so called fans who say he’s changed and has to rationalize them as haters, taking pride in the fact that their girlfriend’s don’t have time for them anymore since they’re too busy listening to his music. His emphasis on being accessible to his fans and not signing to a major label seems to bite him, as he doesn’t charge to meet fans and just tries to put out what people will like, but ultimately finds the best way to keep on doing what he’s doing is to ignore the comments, calls, and criticism. The album manages to coherently stay the throughline on its theme, braggadocious when it needs to be, parodying the record industry with some sketches and scathing lines, and keeping the momentum with underrated hits like “Sirens” and “Won’t Mind” (this song absolutely should be played at every wedding) that are embellished by the shouts, excitement, and pure enthusiasm that deliver in keeping Hoodie authentic to his more humble homegrown roots on top of genuinely great sounding music. Ed Sheeran is featured on the most famous song on this album, “All About It”, and even he gets in on the fun by rapping along. It’s an exuberant ode to being true to what you want and like, reaping the rewards for it, and having a blast doing it. This is not to say there are not melancholy notes; “The Real Thing” ends with a woman calling Hoodie upset that she hasn’t heard from him because he’s been putting his time into the album, a call he immediately deletes. Does fame mean having to leave some part of yourself behind? Or is it a crutch to get away from adult responsibilities that impede on his childish indulgences? 

Is People Keep Talking quite the exploration on the affliction of fame that Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are? Of course not, but the clever rhymes and references intermingled against sketches of fans and producers delivers a satisfying picture of what it feels like to finally achieve what you were looking for: if you can channel out what doesn’t matter, it feels good. 

Best Song: “People Keep Talking” is an all around great song, it’s clever, it’s funny, and it’s really what this is all about. It’s the heart of the album and it cleverly weaves between how to be a good celebrity with the annoyances therein. “Sirens” and “Won’t Mind” are also really great.

Worst Song: Really the only bad song on this album is its last track, “Against Me”, which aims for the sentimental to close it off, but comes across a little overdone and whiny. 

Durand Jones and The Indications Try to Bring the World Together at The Birchmere

Durand Jones and the Indications lay down some soulful jams at The Birchmere (Photo credit: The Birchmere)I already expressed this opinion in my Top 30 Songs of 2019 countdown (will I ever get done with my Best Albums of 2019 article? Who knows!), but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the R&B and soul-based music released between, say 1960 to 1974 is the most beloved music in America, if not the world. Have you ever heard someone say that they just couldn’t get into Motown? Anyone ever tell you that James Brown or the Jackson 5 just isn’t their thing? Ever heard someone claim that Al Green is overrated? Probably not. But why? What is it about these genres that’s so widely appealing? I have a few theories. 

The first is that the genre’s biggest hits are geysers of positivity and ebullience. The Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” is about becoming so exuberant in the presence of your beloved that you have auditory hallucinations of a Berry Gordy arrangement following you around, and “Let’s Stay Together” is so evocative of the feelings of romantic bliss that you forget it’s also a plea to prevent a breakup. Songs within these genres just as frequently deal with heartbreak, too, but they express it in so many shades and complexities that are seemingly unequaled by other genres (I love a good splatter platter as much as the next guy, but imagine hearing “The Tracks of My Tears” for the first time in 1966? You’re not getting that same depth from “Last Kiss.”). Likewise, the production is focused on delivering silky, smooth sounds for listening, making orchestras sound like they’re from street corners and drum kits hit like romantic thunderbolts. But what I really think makes this music so appealing is the completely circular and unhelpful fact that everyone likes it

A snappy drum beat, peppy horns, and heavenly harmonies have the ability to reach across generational, political, and geographic lines, and the reason why it’s able to do so is less important than the fact that it actually does so. It doesn’t matter how old you are or who you voted for, if you’re at a wedding and the band strikes up “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” you’re gonna get up and dance, and so is everyone else because they’d have to be a joyless asshole not too. The idea that music can be a unifying force slid into parody around the time of “Another Day in Paradise,” and while a string of notes may not be able to end world hunger or bring about world peace, it can at least give you and your parents something to agree on for a few minutes, and, for many people, that’s no small feat. 

At least that’s what I got out of Durand Jones and The Indications’ show at The Birchmere in Alexandria last Thursday night. I went to the show with my father and two of my friends a mere two days after the New Hampshire primary and, needless to say, there was an acknowledged political divide in our foursome that mirrored the generational one. 1My dad is a lifelong Republican who hates and will never vote for Donald Trump but is also more likely to be elected president himself than ever cast a vote for a Democrat. My friends and I are Democrats. The political conversation that preceded the show was mostly good-natured, and we even ended up agreeing on some things, but the inevitability of the conversation, itself, was felt discouraging, nonetheless. Maybe it shouldn’t have, and, as someone who studied political science and has lived in Washington for almost 8 years, I should’ve come to expect that politics will be touched on in nearly every conversation I have, but it isn’t exactly comforting to have the fog of a divided America hanging over everything we do. The Indications offered the antidote to this spiritual disease, captivating a crowd of young, old (it became readily apparent to me that I wasn’t the only person who brought a parent to the show), black, white, and everything in between– dissolving the demographic and ideological barriers between us and, for the first time in a while, making me feel like a member of one positive, cohesive force. 

That’s not to say the performance was in any way apolitical. The clear highlight of the night was “Morning in America,” a Poor People’s Campaign-inspired, “What’s Going On?”-style message song that’s not afraid to take aim at Joe Arpaio and the Flint water crisis. The Indications’ most political work can feel a little out of place when taken in with the broader love and romance focus of the rest of their catalogue and, to the skeptical, could come off as just another box to check for an artist aping the trappings and themes of 70s soul, but, heard live, it’s searing and rallying, and you get the sense that Jones really feels what he’s singing as his persona switches from James Brown-style entertainer to a Marvin Gaye or a Sam Cooke pleading for change. Also, it helps that it gives him a  convenient chance to shoutout Richmond and Baltimore and rile up a DMV crowd. 

I’ve written a lot about how crowds atshows can be terrible and ruin the viewing experience, but, in the two times I’ve seen them, Durand Jones and the Indications have brought out the best in their audience. Instead of the attention-seeking jokes or disinterested chatter you here at some indie rock shows, they elicit a good-natured reaction to their music, including gentle swaying, all out dancing, singing along, and the occasional whoops and shouts of encouragement. Instead of cloying and performative, the crowd’s reaction felt spontaneous and participatory, reaching a peak during the halftime hip-hop melody, when Jones left the stage to hydrate and change his shirt, and the band went into an instrumental sampling of “C.R.E.A.M.,” “So Fresh, So Clean, “My Name Is,” “Express Yourself,” “It Was a Good Day,” and “Apache (Jump On It).” The audience did their part, shouting along the required choruses when appropriate, giving the show a looser, house party feel.

The band themselves put in a sweaty, soulful, and dexterous performance throughout the night. Taking the stage without any of the horns that punctuate their studio work and that accompanied them when I saw the band last year, I was worried that some of the songs might feel a little empty and lacking in dynamism. While the live and horn-less transition wasn’t always airtight, it highlighted the work that the core Indications — keyboardist Steve Okonski, guitarist Blake Rhein, new bassist Mike Montgomery, and drummer/singer Aaron Frazer, — put in, giving them new room to shine and leave an impression on the audience. Rather than feeling empty, the group’s sound felt svelte yet feverish, aching and true, full of emotion and musical muscle. 

The reduced line up forced the band to be a bit more economical with their sound, and their reliance on Okonski’s keys to carry the melodic weight afforded them a degree of smoothness and atmosphere. It felt spare compared to their studio work, but that increased space allowed them to build the peaks and valleys that gave their more forceful moments, like the James Brown aping “Groovy Babe” or the impassioned “Walk Away,” extra oomph. 

Great as they are, seeing Durand Jones and the Indications live highlights the fact that they’re actually a very poorly named band. Jones, whose voice and wardrobe look and sound so much like a Nixon-era soulman that he transcends pastiche and reaches a rare level of authenticity, is an exciting and worthy frontman, but the man everyone leaves the venue talking about is Frazer. Of slight build and boyish features, the Baltimore native has an angelic falsetto that compliments and contradicts the inherent physicality of his drumming. This unlikely union comes out in “How Can I Be Sure,” whose pleading coda requires Frazer to push his voice both in terms of range and volume, while also kicking up the tempo through his kit, making for a combination of wailing and flailing that hammers home the songs central desperation and hopelessness. 

He’s such an attraction and such a crowd favorite that I find it hard to keep my mind from wandering towards the possibility that there might be some tension between him and Jones, but their chemistry and very vocal appreciation of each other assuages those fears. They mixed together the best on smooth ode to unconditional love “That’s What I Know About You,” which finds them in silky harmony for most of the verse before tag teaming the chorus. “Sometimes, when the load gets heavy,” Jones tosses up like a wiffle ball, “we lock arms, and we keep it steady” Frazer swings and hits it out of the park. It reminds me of songs like “Bobby Jean,” an apparent love song that’s actually about Bruce Springsteen’s friendship with Steven Van Zandt. I have no reason to believe that “That’s What I Know About You” is about a lifelong bond between Jones and Frazer, but it hammers home their musical bond in structure, if not in content.

The set ended with a two song encore: first with “Is It Any Wonder?,” a sway-inducing slow jam that’s become Frazer’s signature song, and then jaunty, Bill Withers-esque “Long Way Home.” Halfway through the last song Jones delivered a rousing speech imploring us, no matter how far away from “home” we all felt in 2020, to go out and vote in the interest of our marginalized countrymen. “I don’t know about you, but everyone on this stage is voting for Bernie Sanders,” Jones announced to rapturous applause. I haven’t made up my mind about who I want to win the Democratic primary, and I remain a Sanders skeptic for the most part. But the power of the music and the crowd was enough to make you believe in anything, which is probably why politicians are always so eager to book musicians for their rallies. It had been so long since I’ve felt like I was a part of something positive, powerful, and cohesive. Here’s hoping we all get to access that feeling more often in the future.

2020 Grammys Preview: The Nominees Finally Make Sense, But Does the Show Still Matter?

Billie Eilish is nominated in all general categories…can she pull off a historic sweep? (Photo Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Take yourself back to 2010: A 20-year old Taylor Swift has just won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for her multi-platinum smash Fearless, defeating a field of Dave Matthews Band, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and The Black Eyed Peas. I appear before you in your living room, bearing the most boring, least exciting, and least important news from the future — news about the Grammys. I tell you that the Grammys have expanded to eight nominees in the general categories. I tell you that the two favorites to win album of the year are a female rapper not named Nicki Minaj and a 19-year-old who cites Tyler, the Creator as her biggest influence. Also, Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver are nominated. As is Lana Del Rey (you’ll figure out who she is in two years) and Ariana Grande (yes, that chick from Nickelodeon). So is an artist who was nominated for Best New Artist two years ago, even though her album only peaked at 86 on the Billboard 200. Also, the biggest country song of the year was recorded by a gay African-American from Atlanta. Billy Ray Cyrus was added to the remix. 

Would you believe me? Probably not, but that’s the world we find ourselves in today. Last year I chastised The Recording Academy for bringing even more attention to their terrible taste by expanding the general categories (“If you ask a person with bad taste to make a playlist for you, it doesn’t matter if you ask for 10 songs or 20 songs, they’re still going to pick bad songs”) and, considering that The Academy nominated Post Malone and Scorpion for the biggest award of the night, I felt vindicated. But, credit where credit is due, the golden gramophone ended up in the hands of Kacey Musgraves for Golden Hour, a worthy choice that rendered a lot of my other presumptions from that column moot. I didn’t think the Academy would keep it up, though. In fact, I was almost certain this year would bring another embarrassing field headlined by cloying pop acts and artists the industry is determined to make “happen.”

But, shock of shocks, The Academy actually did a pretty decent job with the general categories this year (their rock awards, per usual, are a goddamn embarrassment, but I’ll get to those in a bit). The nominees this year are either legitimately good (Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, Vampire Weekend), middling but impactful (Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Ariana Grande), bad but critically acclaimed (Bon Iver)1I may have made some enemies with this statement, so let me make my feelings about Bon Iver’s career very clear through a quick ranking of their albums: 1. For Emma, Forever Ago, 2. 22, A Million 3. i,i, 4. The sound of snow falling lightly in the Wisconsin wilderness accidentally captured one day while Justin Vernon accidentally left his tape recorder on 5. Bon Iver. , or, because this is still the Grammys, irrelevant but painfully tasteful (H.E.R.). This is a relatively youthful, exciting batch of nominees, but most of all they’re (with the exception of H.E.R., who I feel very bad for), relevant. No Herbie Hancock covering Joni Mitchell or bluegrass soundtracks to a Coens Brothers movie. The Grammys have finally got a nose for what the 18-34 demographic is listening too, and it only took them 62 years to develop it. 

This newfound appreciation for music that people actually listen to couldn’t come a better time, either. Despite the presence of hip names like Cardi B, Travis Scott, and Post Malone, last year’s ceremony was weighed down by a few ill-advised performances like Jennifer Lopez’s Vegas-y Motown tribute and Lady Gaga’s gothed up rendition of “Shallow.” 2The most depressing moment of the night was when the Academy awarded “Shallow” Best Pop Duo Vocal Performance, a niche award that the Academy aired because they thought they might get a reaction not unlike the Hamilton cast winning for Best Musical Theater Album in 2016. Turns out everyone was pretty tired of the song after hearing it all awards season, and no one but the awardees really seemed to care much.If the performers who have already been announced are any judge, the Academy is still intent on making some baffling choices (Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. will be taking the stage together to celebrate…I guess the 34th anniversary of “Walk This Way?” Who books this shit?), but they’ve already announced performances from trendy artists like Rosalia and Tyler, the Creator, a sign that they may be finding smart alternatives to recent holdouts like Jay Z, Drake, and Justin Bieber. And yet, they were only able to net five of the eight Album of the Year nominees (more announcements could come, but, for now, all we get is Eilish, Grande, H.E.R., Lizzo, and Lil Nas X), proving either that their sway isn’t all that it could be or that most artists (correctly) still don’t care. 

So why do I care so much? Maybe I’m just clinging to some utopian idea that music can still be universal — and that some parties can still be crashed. Square as they are, The Grammys are still they same show that gave us Metallica playing “One” to a blacktie crowd, Andre 3000 touching down in a Funkadelic spaceship, and Beck’s weird intro to The White Stripes. There aren’t many outlets where old people expecting something tasteful and classy can get presented with something weird and far out, or kids who only know the radio can get exposed to something just slightly off the beaten path. The power of the Grammys is that they can beam whatever they want into people’s living rooms. I wish they’d take the chance to show us something the mainstream hasn’t seen before more often. Oh well, we’ll always have St. Vincent and Dua Lipa.

Onto the awards: 

Album of the Year 

Cuz I Love You (Deluxe) – Lizzo 

Father of the Bride – Vampire Weekend

i,i – Bon Iver

I Used to Know Her – H.E.R. 

Norman Fucking Rockwell – Lana Del Rey

7 – Lil Nas X 

Thank U, Next – Ariana Grande 

when we all fall asleep, where do we go? – Billie Eilish 

Who/What Will Win: Oddsshark has when we all fall asleep, where do we go? as a heavy favorite, but I’m not totally buying it. There are a lot of things working in Eilish’s favor, sure — she’s a young woman, and the Grammys, like the Golden Globes, love an ingenue, even if that ingenue is a little darker and angstier than typical. But we’re dealing with the new Grammys, who made history last year by giving both Record and Song of the Year to a (kinda, sorta) rap song for the first time ever. Like the “Shallow” presentation, “This Is America”’s triumph felt hollow because it’s a song no one — least of all discerning rap fans — really liked, so what should have been a moment for celebration fell flat. I expect the Academy to be just a step behind again this year when they hand the award to Cuz I Love You, answering all the gripes about hip-hop’s lack of recognition in the general categories by rewarding a cheesey, overexposed pop-rapper and declaring mission accomplished.

Who/What Should Win: I feel very strong that Father of the Bride is the best album of the year, and perhaps one of the best albums of the decade. It captures the millennial experience through decidedly non-millenial methods, creating a rich tapestry of fear, joy, love, and anger that’s understated and maximalist all at once.

Upset Special: A good way to predict these categories is by looking at who’ll actually be performing on Grammy night, which, as I mentioned above, eliminates almost half the field (and the two best nominees, unfortunately). Eilish is of course my second choice after Lizzo, but in Grammy terms, H.E.R. is basically 2020 Sara Bereilles. It’s clear that the Academy really, really likes her and I could easily see the Grammys sending viewers to Google by giving the biggest award of the night to an artist most people have never heard of.

Record of the Year 

“bad guy” – Billie Eilish

“Hey, Ma” – Bon Iver 

“Hard Place” – H.E.R. 

“Old Town Road” – Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus

“Talk” – Khalid 

“Truth Hurts” – Lizzo 

“7 Rings” – Ariana Grande

“Sunflower” – Post Malone and Swae Lee

Who/What Will Win: Hmmmmm. There’s a credible argument for “Old Town Road” winning, now that the rap-never-winning-Record-of-the-Year albatross is off the Academy’s back, but I have a hard time buying that an organization that takes itself so seriously will reward a song that rhymes “cowboy hat from Gucci” with “Wranglers on my booty.” “Truth Hurts” is also in the running, but, seeing as how this is more or less a production award, I’m going with “bad guy,” which stands out from the last decade of pop with its relatively spare beat and whispery vocals — it’s like hearing a track bumping from a car or the apartment above, and I think that effect will win voters over. 

Who/What Should Win: Hard to argue with “bad guy” for the above reasons, but “Sunflower”’s beat is absolutely beautiful and elevates what could’ve been a tossed-off, made-for-movie single to a higher level.

Upset Special: Bon Iver blends folk with glitchy pop, and that kind of cross-genre fusionism could appeal to voters. It’s also one of two songs I can remember from an album I think is boring as hell, so there’s that.

Song of the Year 

“Always Remember Us This Way” – Lady Gaga

“bad guy” – Billie Eilish

“Bring My Flowers Now” – Tanya Tucker 

“Hard Place” – H.E.R. 

“Lover” – Taylor Swift 

“Norman Fucking Rockwell” – Lana Del Rey 

“Truth Hurts” – Lizzo

“Someone You Loved” – Lewis Capaldi

Who/What Will Win: I don’t have a great feel for this category, so I’ll double dip and take “bad guy” to win this one, as well. I can’t see it going to any of the non-AOTY nominees, and I think Eilish is in for a big night (even if I’m still not convinced she wins the big one). Record and Song of the Year have gone to the same artist or song four of the last five years, too, so she’s got that working in her favor.3For those of you keeping score at home: Sam Smith in 2015 (“Stay with Me”), Adele in 2017 (“Hello”), Bruno Mars in 2018 (“24K Magic” and “That’s What I Like”), and Childish Gambino in 2019 (“This Is America”)

Who/What Should Win: Imagine believing, even for one second, that any of these songs are better written than “Norman Fucking Rockwell?” I mean, “The greatest” really should have been the LDR song up for this award, but still! Lana Del Rey basically murders the 2010s indie bro archetype in the first three lines of this song (which may or may not be about Father John Misty), and it says much more about modern life and relationships than all seven of the other nominees combined.

Upset Special: All these H.E.R. nominations are just looming over these general categories, ready to confuse the viewing public. “Hard Place” is tasteful and sounds “big,” and that combination is catnip for Grammys voters. This is also a fun outcome because it would net an award for former Jack White sidekick Ruby Amanfu, one of the song’s co-writers. 

Best New Artist

Black Pumas 

Billie Eilish 

Lil Nas X 

Lizzo 

Maggie Rogers 

Rosalia 

Tank and the Bangas

Yola

Who/What Will Win: Again, Lizzo and Lil Nas X are intriguing picks, but this really feels like Eilish’s award to lose. Does picking all of these general categories to go her way make me feel great about my Album pick? No, but Kacey Musgraves wasn’t even nominated in the other general categories last year, so there’s precedent!

Who/What Should Win: Billie Eilish is by far the best artist of the bunch and one that figures to be a defining figure of the 2020s. She’s the best pick. 

Upset Special: Lizzo, considering she’s also nominated for Song and Record and is battling it out with EIlish for Album. This could be an early bellwether for how all the aforementioned races end up.

Best Alternative Album 

Anima – Thom Yorke

Assume Form – James Blake

Father of the Bride – Vampire Weekend

I, I – Bon Iver

U.F.O.F. – Big Thief

Who/What Will Win: Considering they’re both up for Album of the Year, Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend are your two front runners here. Bon Iver’s Record of the Year nomination would seem to signal that they have a bit more support from the Academy, so I’ll (very reluctantly) pick them to win here.

Who/What Should Win: I made my case for Vampire Weekend above, but I’ll stress my point even further by pointing out that they’re one of the few “alternative” bands from the late 2000s/early 2010s who’ve endured for nearly a decade and gotten better with each subsequent release. I mean, Bon Iver’s lasted a while, too, but I don’t really know that they’ve gotten better like VW has (I also don’t think they were ever really that great in the first place, but I’ll save that for another piece). It’d also be great to see Big Thief nab an award here for their spectral, beautiful U.F.O.F., but they’ll hopefully get another bite at the apple at next year’s awards, when Two Hands, their second release of 2019, becomes eligible.

Upset Special: Father of the Bride is probably the second most likely winner, but for a true upset I’d go with Anima. The Grammys have always gone gaga for Radiohead, and their affinity for Yorke’s past work (his debut solo album The Eraser was also nominated in this category) may sway them to vote for a record from an artist who would otherwise feel too weird and bloopy for the Academy. 

Best Rock Album 

amo – Bring Me the Horizon 

Feral Roots – Rival Sons 

In the End – The Cranberries 

Social Cues – Cage the Elephant 

Trauma – I Prevail

Who/What Should Win: I listen to a lot of music. I don’t know how much exactly, but it’s a lot. I keep a running Spotify playlist of my favorite songs of the year, and, in 2019, it was comprised of 561 songs for a total of 34 hours and 23 minutes. If we do some rough math and assume that I added four songs to the playlist for each album I listened to, that means I listened to about 140 albums released in 2019 (which feels way too high, but it makes me sound super qualified, so just go with it). And let me tell you something: none of the five albums nominated for Best Rock Album were one of those 140. Hell, I didn’t even know any of these albums existed until the nominations were announced. I know I’m not the end-all be-all of music, but that just goes to show how out of touch the Academy is when it comes to these rock awards. I’ll concede that most of these albums charted — some highly! — but they generated absolutely no critical conversation whatsoever, and I’d actually go as far as to say that the disconnect between music critics and mainstream corporate rock radio and labels is one of the most undercovered trends in music right now. Someone with more time and patience could certainly write a really intriguing think piece about it using the Grammys as a case study.

The nominations for this award have become depressingly familiar. You’ve got your melodic, poppy, arena-ready metalcore (Bring Me the Horizon, I Prevail), your stale Black Keys wannabes (Rival Sons), your Cage the Elephant (Cage the Elephant, who now have three Grammy nominations and one win over the last five years), and, most cynically, your artist who recently passed away or band whose front person recently passed away (The Cranberries). 

In regard to that last category, the Grammys have been pulling this shit a lot the past few years and there’s something about it that I find particularly crass. The last three Best Rock Song winners were all recently deceased singers (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Chris Cornell) who probably never got their due from the Academy while they were alive, and the fact that they had to keel over before the voters realized they deserved some recognition tells you all you need to know about this sorry organization. The Cranberries may not have had the staying power of some of their contemporaries, but they helped bring elements of dream pop to the mainstream and maybe should’ve gotten the credit for doing so in the 90s. But they didn’t, and now Dolores O’Riordan is dead, which means the Academy has to pretend like they care and give them a nomination and — because this field is so weak — probably a win, as well, for an album that wouldn’t have gotten a second thought under any other circumstance. It’s transparent, it’s insincere, and I hate it.

Who/What Should Win: Cage the Elephant is a perfectly copacetic band, and, in any event, miles ahead of the mediocre artists that make up the rest of the field. They keep on partying like it’s 2009, sure, but there’s a market for that

As far as artists that should’ve been nominated but weren’t because of the Academy’s terminal lack of curiosity? Any combination of Brittany Howard, The Raconteurs, Julia Jacklin, Titus Andronicus, Jenny Lewis, Charly Bliss, black midi, Empath, Strange Ranger, Strand of Oaks, Orville Peck, Mannequin Pussy, Faye Webster, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, fucking WILCO, and about a dozen other artists who released albums in 2019 would be favorable to the current slate.

Upset Special: Considering their track record, Cage the Elephant isn’t a bad bet here at all.

Best Rock Performance 

“History Repeats” – Brittany Howard 

“Pretty Waste” – Bones UK 

“This Land” – Gary Clark Jr. 

“Too Bad” – Rival Sons

“Woman” – Karen O and Danger Mouse

Who/What Will Win: Alabama Shakes have had Grammy success in the past (they were even nominated for Album of the Year back in 2016), which makes me think that catchy, boogieing, yet undeniably weird “History Repeats,” the lead track from frontwoman Brittany Howard’s solo debut, will take the prize 

Who/What Should Win: I listened to Howard’s Jaime on vinyl on a proper sound-system for the first time the other weekend, and I think it may be the most inventively produced and written rock record of the year. She keeps stretching and redefining what Southern rock and soul can be, and the result is something cosmic, pure and invigorating. She deserves this award and so much more.

Upset Special: Not gonna lie, “Woman” is way better than any song produced by Danger Mouse post-2012 has any right to be — his glitchy take on Motown pairs well with Karen O’s vocals, and, given their respective pedigrees, I expect this to be a competitive entry.

Best Rock Song 

“Fear Inoculum” – Tool 

“Give Yourself a Try” – The 1975

“Harmony Hall” – Vampire Weekend 

“History Repeats” – Brittany Howard

“This Land” – Gary Clark Jr.

Who/What Will Win: “Harmony Hall” is the only track from an AOTY nominee and Vampire Weekend already have a nomination and a win under their belt, so I’ll take them here. 

Who Should Win: “Harmony Hall,” a nervous laugh and grin masterfully disguised as an exuberant festival jam. Like the rest of Father of the Bride, it’s the perfect music to soundtrack a barbecue held in the face of a looming apocalypse.

Upset Special: I haven’t jumped on The 1975 bandwagon yet, but they’re the closest thing we have nowadays to a popular (as in charts and sales numbers) rock band, and I suspect that they could become a Grammy fixture in the years to come. 

Best Metal Performance

“Astrolus — The Great Octopus” – Candlemass feat. Tony Iommi 

“Bow Down” – I Prevail

“Humanicide” – Death Angel

“7empest” – Tool

“Unleashed” – Killswitch Engage

Who Will Win: Ah yes, that one time of year where I pretend I still follow metal. The rock categories have more or less become opportunities for the Academy to reward legacy acts they’ve ignored in the past (see my Cranberries rant from earlier), so I expect them to award doom metal legends Candlemass for the Tony Iommi featuring “Astrolus.” 

Who Should Win: Are any of these other songs about a giant octopus that eats the earth? No? Then “Astrolus” it is. 

Upset Special: Tool’s comeback was a huge story this year (and also kind of highlighted that they don’t have much of a place in it anymore), so I wouldn’t be shocked to see “7emptest” get the nod. I’ve never fully understood the appeal of Tool, a fairly generic sounding alternative metal band who sing about parabolas and the Fibonacci sequence and other boring mathematical stuff, when there are other bands out there writing songs about planet consuming cephalopods, but different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

The Postrider’s Top 30 Songs of 2019

How high, and how often, does Vampire Weekend make the list? (Photo by Ross Gilmore/WireImage)

Life has gotten busy for your friendly neighborhood The Postrider EIC, and I haven’t had as much time to write in the back half of 2019 as I had hoped. Luckily there’s always end of (or beginning of) the year time for me to reflect on and distill the twelve months that were, and I hope this, my top 30 songs of 2019, kicks off an uptick in production from your’s truly.

Looking back on my Top 30 Songs of 2018, I’m struck by the fact that my year in music was dominated by a select cadre of artists. Maybe that’s just the way I listen to music now, because a full 20% of 2019’s list comes from two artists, which is not a thing I did by design. But what two artists are they? Well, the only way you’ll find out is to read on. So jump right in and enjoy The Postrider’s Top 30 Songs of 2019

 

30. “Don’t Kiss Me, I’m in Training” – Dump Him 

Mental health has been a hot topic the past few years — a Wall Street Journal op-ed went as far as to call Millenials “generation therapy” — and, while removing the stigma around receiving help is a good thing, the way the language of self-care and trauma has seeped into art and culture can feel clinical, almost preachy. Dump Him’s “Don’t Kiss Me, I’m in Training” is the rare song that manages to tackle such issues in a way that’s not only catchy, but also emulates the twitchy anxiety you feel when you really want to reach out but feel something holding you back from doing so. Facing a planet in certain doom, Mattie Hamer and Jac Walsh want desperately not to die alone, but how can you do so when the thing you want to be with most (another person) is also the cause of all your woe and pain? Or, as they put it more succinctly, “…I wish I could love you like I were well.”

29. “(I Blame) Society” – Titus Andronicus

A running theme in Titus Andronicus’s music is the inherent cruelty and indifference of the universe and the futility and resultant oppressiveness of the various moral codes humans have tried to construct in the absence of a natural order. They’ve unpacked these concepts through five act rock operas and Civil War metaphors, but sometimes it’s fun to keep things simple: “(I Blame) Society” is a straight-forward punk screed against the institutions that run our lives and set our norms. It maintains +@’s trade mark no surrender attitude, rallying riffs, and power chords, but the secret sauce is how little Patrick Stickles and company care about the futility of the song’s central message, despite their full cognition. Blaming something as ill-defined and intangible as “society” for the world’s ills may only be so helpful, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be cathartic.

28. “Hello Sunshine” – Bruce Springsteen

Artists often threaten to romanticize negative feelings by turning them into pleasant sounding songs and pieces of entertainment, and there are plenty of tropes regarding miserable but brilliant artists that feed into the notion that one must be sad to make anything of worth. I’d hardly call Bruce Springsteen a mope but, on “Hello Sunshine,” he seems to have gotten a little fed up with his own appetite for melancholy. Complaining that he’s “a little too fond of the blues,” “Hello Sunshine” finds Springsteen imploring the bit of happiness that’s entered his life — whether it’s a friend, a lover, or heck, an actual beam of sunlight — while listing out all the things he’s come to love about the lonesome life. It’s a perfect first foray into the kind of cowboy balladering found on Western Stars, and a tender ode to learning to be happy again, even if you’ve “always liked that empty road.” 

27. “Heads Gonna Roll” – Jenny Lewis 

I had my issues with some of the songwriting on On the Line, Jenny Lewis’s L.A. troubador record, but “Heads Gonna Roll” evades the album’s downsides and stands out as an instant classic. An old fashioned classic rock piano ballad worthy of The Band or Procol Harum (it’s even got an organ solo!), “Heads Gonna Roll” unfurls like a finely woven tapestry, packing a full album’s worth of characters and imagery into a five minute track. Lewis pulls the best songwriting ticks from all of your favorite scribes– oddly specific Craig Finni-isms (“Took a little trip up North/In a convertible red Porsche/With a narcoleptic poet from Duluth”/”We argued about everything”/From Elliott Smith to grenadine”), Jagger-esque snipes at fame whores (“I hope the sycophants in Marrakesh/Make you feel your very best”/”Anonymity always made you blue”), and even some classic Springsteenian romanticism (“He took me to a graveyard/I thought he’d kill me there”/But he kissed me on the corner”/”While the nuns of Harlem stared”). It’s a treasure trove for those of us wishing for a little more beatnik poetry in modern rock music– something anthemic, apocalyptic, and elegiac all at once. 

26. “Murdered Out” – Kim Gordon

On ode to coating cars in black matte spray, “Murdered Out”, with its razor blade guitars and baseball bat of a bassline, sounds like a violent parking lot confrontation. Kim Gordon takes full advantage of her first solo album by laying down a track that’s groovier than anything Sonic Youth ever put out, but not without adding plenty of noisy anti-riffs and feedback on top of the locked in rhythm section. She also serves up a classic throaty vocal full of edgey imagery and possible threats, capturing the essence of what made her old band so appealing while keying into something new at the same time. 

25. “Echo” – Fern Mayo 

Wordless vocal choruses have always rankled me — they feel like a cheap way to add in a hook without having to write actual lyrics. That bias kicked in when I first heard Fern Mayo’s spiraling, nervy “Echo,” leading me to write off a good chunk of this song as nothing but needling vocalization with little actual point. Good God was I wrong: the tortured wails that make up “Echo”’s chorus perfectly capture the hopelessness of feeling silenced in a relationship, either by your partner or yourself, and the deceptively furious drumming and churning riffs combine with Mayo’s voice to create the sonic equivalent of Edvard Munch’s Scream. The past decade saw a lot of tracks washed in reverb, but few made used it to such powerful effect as Mayo does here. Her tortured mewls melt into the instrumental before fizzling out in defeat, the sound of a person collapsing in on their self, or clawing out self-actualization bit by bloody bit. 

24. “VIBEZ” – DaBaby 

From “March Madness” to “Black Beatles” to “Sicko Mode,” rap has gone tp some dark, psychedelic, and almost proggy places in the past half-decade, embracing pulsating curtains of synths while still hanging onto the brittle 808s that defined the genre in the 2010s. Enter DaBaby and “VIBEZ,” an artist so playful and a beat so dense and colorful it’s almost jarring. Spitting over what sounds like one of those red rubber four square balls being punched in triplet, DaBaby lets us know just how fun it is to be a famous rapper, spreading smutty rumors about himself and extolling the power of his crew’s vibes. Everything in the track sounds like a party bus on the way to an overflowing hotel room, but it’s the anarchic adlibs that make “VIBEZ.” Instead of filling in the space between the bars, the various “Ooh,” “mmhs,” “yeahs,” and “keewwws” punctuate the beat and DaBaby’s sleazy imagery, making you feel like you’re in a vibed out Suburban all your own.

23. “Don’t You Know” – Durand Jones and The Indications

 

I haven’t done polling on this, but, if I had to take a guess, I’d wager that the most universally appreciated music genre on Earth is Motown, whose sweet melodies and honeyed harmonies pair with sweeping and invigorating instrumentals to create perfect pop bliss. It’s probably impossible to capture the magic of the genre’s 1960s heyday, but, on “Don’t You Know,” Durand Jones and The Indications come pretty damn close. Lifted off the ground by downy strings and puffy horns, “Don’t You Know” sends Jones and satin-voiced drummer Aaron Frazier floating to the stratosphere through the sheer power of their love and devotion to the objects of their affection. Frazier’s falsetto takes the verse, Jones’s soulful instrument takes the pre-chorus, and then the two unite for a chorus that feels like diving into a cloud. The message of “Don’t You Know” is built around the two singers trying to convince you of their devotion, but the persuasion isn’t necessary. A few beatific seconds in, and it’s clear that nothing that sounds this good could be the product of anything but pure love.

22. “Georgia” – Brittany Howard

“Georgia”’s success lies in its apparent simplicity, and its acknowledgement that simple things like a childhood crush really aren’t that simple at all. In fact, they require big, dramatic explosions of sound to properly communicate. Telling a story that combines an innocent childhood crush and perspective altering awakening, “Georgia’s” tender, soulful beat borrows a lot from Howard’s Alabama Shakes’s futurist Southern soul rock before bursting into a full-on supernova of pounding drums and straight, simple, but cosmic guitar notes to simulate the overwhelming effect of young love and the impossibility of grasping such feelings at any age. It’s ostentatious, empowering, intimidating, and transcendent, just like any desire worth feeling.

21. “In Your Head” – Nilufer Yanya 

Miss Universe, Nilufer Yanya’s full length debut, uses indie rock as a base to pull in influences as diffuse as R&B, pop, jazz, and trip hop, but it’s “In Your Head,” the album’s punkiest, most jagged track that stands out as a true showcase for the singer’s unique, husky tone. Through a catchy, scratchy guitar riff and a couple of well placed vocal leaps, Yanya begs and pleads for some confirmation that she’s not imagining a shared attraction and feeling of connection. It’s not just that she wants to know what’s in your head, it’s that she wants to get out of hers, as well, to skip the part where you actually have to talk about your feelings and jump to knowing each other intuitively. Thus far, the technology to facilitate such instantaneous facilitation of desire does not (and perhaps should not) exist, so we’ll have to settle for making ourselves understood through energizing pop-rock nuggets instead. 

20. “Blackout Sam” – The Hold Steady

When Craig Finn sings “Somebody should check on Blackout Sam”on this highlight from The Hold Steady’s return-to-form Thrashing Thru the Passion, it’s very tempting to utter out a mental “no shit Sherlock,” since the character in question is named after what happens when you drink too much and can’t remember what you got up to. But The Hold Steady’s songs have always existed in that moment before you realize that one too many is actually one too many, in between the time when your friends’ debaucherous partying behaviors go from charming to concerning, until it’s too late. “Blackout Sam” is a requiem for a towny known for having one too many, yes, but it’s also an Irish wake: a celebration of a life that’s lionized because it’s impossible to perfect– a kind of towny romance that only really exists on trips back home for Thanksgiving or at St. Patrick’s Day parade. The smart guys like Finn get to leave, but the Blackout Sam’s have to stay and relive it every day, letting it define them and eventually kill them. So gather ‘round and raise a glass to these hometown heroes and local legends with the far away eyes and promise to give each other what they couldn’t get but so desperately needed. To feel, as Finn so poignantly states, “protected and high.” 

19. “Family Ghost” – Jeff Tweedy

The visualizer that accompanied the release of “Family Ghost” zooms in on and distorts a person wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, the image starting to melt into a watercolor painting as the eery slide guitar kicks in. It’s the perfect emulation of how it felt to realize that friends, neighbors, and family members harbor some latent, horrid beliefs and acted upon them in 2016, placing us in our precarious political situation. But Jeff Tweedy doesn’t take aim at these people. Instead, he recognizes them as the symptom of something ugly that’s lingered on in America since its founding– a collective familial specter that’s now been “spray paint[ed] gold” and given a new vessel. He decides to take its reemergence as an opportunity, declaring that he believes women and his children when they discuss the struggles they face, suggesting some kind of perseverance and forward view through his firmly strummed guitar. Tweedy’s resigned, almost hangdog vocals may feel detached or even bemused, but it’s the perfect summation of what it means to “feel so American,” like you’re fighting the same battle for two hundred years. Even if the clothes and slogans have changed, the struggle remains the same.

18. “bmbmbm” – black midi

With their proggy song structures and affinity for all sounds twisted and gnarled, few bands push back against the modern music landscape as ostentatiously as black midi. “bmbmbm,” which is built around a syncopated drumbeat and a guitar riff that fits nicely into the groove, may seem like the UK group’s slouch towards accessibility. But as the drummer’s awkward relationship to the 1 unfolds, and the riff gets repeated to the point where it becomes just another prodding, throbbing noise, it becomes clear that this isn’t any normal rock song — and that’s all BEFORE you hear the indecipherable, ranting female voice that goes on and on and on in the background. Despite lead singer Geordie Greep’s insistence that the song’s subject has a “magnificent purpose,” “bmbmbm” is a screed absolutely dripping with contempt for the kinds of people who think they’re entitled to throwing child-like tantrums and getting their way despite it. That attitude seems to have seeped into nearly every aspect of our current culture, and its proliferation may be unavoidable, but black midi seems to think launching rounds and rounds of ugly sound at it will do the trick, and who am I to argue?

17. “Tricks” – Stella Donnelly 

Directed at the drunk cads who’d heckle her during cover gigs, Stella Donnelly’s “Tricks” is a twirling kiss-off blown through a raised middle finger that harnesses the sunny guitar pop that’s grown popular in her native Australia to biting effect. Donnelly acts as her own hypeman by playing a quick lick after dropping each little insult, and her ultimate request, “leave it alone,” conveys enough annoyance to feel forceful, but little enough to know that she’s not really that bothered by your constant calls for Cold Chisel and Crowded House. After all, you’re out there and she’s already on the stage — let’s not be mistaken about who’s looking up to whom.

16. “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You” – Julia Jacklin

The guitars in Julia Jacklin’s “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You” are dark but glistening, like a river caught in the moonlight. This milky curtain of black drawn by the rhythm guitars and the fuzzy licks played by the lead are the latest and greatest version of a modern artist putting their own spin on the dusky but distorted soundscapes that highlighted Neil Young’s career, and there’s part of me that almost wishes there was a two-minute solo in this song to payoff the tension built through the track’s five and a half minutes. That isn’t necessary, though, because while Young needed long solos to make up for his thin voice, Jacklin’s strong-yet-vulnerable delivery makes her point clear enough. Through her whistle-y warble, she details a relationship that’s deteriorating, not because of betrayal or incompatibility, but because of over-familiarity,  reflecting on the sorrow of realizing there’s no longer a spark and having no better reason to call things off than boredom. There’s no way to feel like the hero in that situation, and the tension in the song’s climax captures the dilemma of doing what’s right for yourself without destroying someone else. Heavy shit for someone with such a pretty voice.

15. “Harmony Hall” – Vampire Weekend 

The world’s first taste of a post-Rostam Batmanglij Vampire Weekend, “Harmony Hall” stood out on first listen for its unapologetically jammy instrumentation, a surprising left turn for a band whose previous record bordered on the symphonic. Despite its bright exterior, “Harmony Hall” is as anxious and searching as anything from Modern Vampires of the City, as Ezra Koenig vacillates between the joy of starting a family and the fear of seeing a group of villains enter the halls of power. That may make its almost celebratory sound feel confused or misplaced, but it lends itself to an exuberant form of concern and protest that can feel like a rapturous release or, at the very least, a nervous, worried laugh one tries to hide underneath dancing and bright music. 

14. “A BOY IS A GUN*” – Tyler, the Creator 

“A BOY IS A GUN*” samples the Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound,” which also served as the basis for Kanye West’s “Bound 2,” but where the Yeezus cut revels in a tumultuous yet opulent marriage, “A BOY IS A GUN*” is based in something grounded and realistic. Essentially one half of a lover’s spat set to a starry-eyed R&B track and some well-placed machine gun fire, “A BOY IS A GUN*” juxtaposes romantic dreams with harsh domestic reality. The instrumental may sound like someone soaring through the sky on the wings of perfect love, but the lyrics get nasty, with Tyler complaining about his lover’s passive aggression, fashion choices, and proximity to his ex all the while conceding that he’s his favorite “garcon.” It’s nasty, almost toxic, but, ultimately, just a thorny reaction to the helpless feeling of having your mood be dependent on the affections and attention of another person. Love… it sucks.

13. “Gretel” – (Sandy) Alex G 

I wasn’t a fan of all the experiments (Sandy) Alex G threw at the wall on House of Sugar, but “Gretel” stands out as a riveting synthesis of his bedroom pop origins and his Daniel Lopatin-esque fascinations with pitch shifting and new age-y synths. Opening with a mish-mash of helium inflected vocals and glitchy drums machines, “Gretel” ekes out an unlikely acoustic riff that pushes and pulls like a tide before dropping into a verse that layers pan flute-imitating keys, electric guitars, and manipulated and unmanipulated vocals that find Alex called to overconsumption and decadence like the fairy tale girl of the song’s title. He ends up shaking himself out of this stupor and tightening things up to make some bold declarations about how he’ll never be knocked off track and “how good people got to fight to exist.” Things end up melting into the same intro passage as before, so who knows if he or his characters actually end up pushing through the world’s temptations. Either way, “Gretel” stands as a bold statement of purpose for a new era in the young Philadelphian’s career.

12. “Jonny” – Faye Webster 

The beauty of Faye Webster’s songwriting is how simple yet evocative her depictions of loneliness are. Eschewing fancy metaphors and overwrought imagery to describe her broken heart, “Jonny” opens with Webster staring at a plain white wall, not asking for much more than happiness and someone to talk to other than her dog. Eventually, as the cool organ/bass/drums trio accompanying her unfurls to include weeping horns and strings, her thoughts turn to her title ex and never leave, leading the song out in a kind of perma-chorus. This elegant turn suggests that, as much as we try to abstract our loneliness and turn the focus to ourselves, it’s more often than not a symptom of a particular person’s absence from our lives. Any sense we try to make of it, any art we try to convey our feelings through, will always be directed at them. To some, that may feel romantic, to others, it may feel hopeless, but I’m sure we can all agree it makes for a hell of a pretty song. 

11. “This Life” – Vampire Weekend

The conversation surrounding Vampire Weekend has always been colored by class and privilege, and though they’ve emerged as one of the most enduring indie rock bands of their generation, there will always be a subset of people who look at VW and see a bunch of Columbia grads in polos playing music that sounds like a rip-off of Paul Simon’s rip-off of South African music. All while singing about people who’d fit right in a Noah Baumbach movie too! Were this five years ago, I might concede that their critics have a point. But ever since the release of “This Life,” it’s never been more evident that VW’s critics just aren’t listening close enough. 

 

“This Life,” which kicks off with a great line about how it’s impossible to run away from your problems even after you’ve left New York (“Baby I know pain is as natural as the rain/I just thought it didn’t rain in California”), is Koenig’s admission that he — and, by extension, his generation — have taken their comfort, wealth, and the progress they’ve seen for granted. But, now, age and parenthood have made those struggles hard to ignore. Buoyed by the band’s catchiest riff since “A-Punk” and an impossibly danceable beat, “This Life” sees Koenig come clean on his naïveté in the face of creeping racism, (“Baby, I know hate is always waiting at the gate”/I just thought we locked the gate when we left in the morning”), militarism (“And I was told that war was how we landed on these shores/I just thought the drums of war beat louder warnings”), and his inability to keep up the footloose and fancy-free pretensions of his youth. The interpolated iLoveMakonnen lines in the chorus are about a personal relationship, sure, but the personal revelation they describe provides the spark for a political one, as Koening reveals that he’s also been stepping out on “this life”/”and all its suffering.” It’s a stark admission that he’s been getting off easy his whole life and that he’s realized he may be too late to actually do anything about it now. Heck, it seems like the only thing he can do is spin it into a happy-sounding song. 

10. “Lark” – Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen lamented being pigeon-holed as a “sad, cartoon country girl” during the album cycle for My Woman, and, while that album had its share of assertive tracks, none were quite as striking as “Lark,” the opener from 2019’s All Mirrors. Despite the grandeur and majesty suggested by its massive strings and orchestral structure, “Lark” is a deeply personal song that sees Olsen filled with wishes and regrets (“If only we could start again”/Pretending we don’t know each other”) but under no illusions that things need to end (“All we’ve done here is blind one another”). The track’s emotional clarity is rivaled only by the bigness of its sound. Even though All Mirrors was largely defined by Olsen’s further embrace of synths and drum machines, “Lark” feels as organic as the great American wilderness. The instrumental steadily rises for the first two minutes or so on the back of a hammering drumbeat and some tense strings before receding to allow Angel to gather herself. After another slow build, it crashes in an avalanche of strings, drums, guitars, and Angel’s vengeful vocals, sounding as if she were an almighty goddess commanding the sonic squall. I mean, I always knew she was a goddess — it’s good to hear her come to the realization, as well. 

9. “Dylan Thomas” – Better Oblivion Community Center 

Built around a snappy AABCCB rhyme scheme and delivered via a punchy folk rock tune, “Dylan Thomas” the song sounds like something Dylan-Thomas-the-poet fan Bob Dylan would write if he were a bit more lucid, a lot more cynical, and much more millennial. Sung by members of the generations old (Connor Oberst) and new (Phoebe Bridgers) guard’s, the track rolls its eyes at leaders who wrap themselves in the flag and the people who give them way too much credit (“The talking heads are saying/The king is only playing/A game of four-dimensional chess”) before descending into a bout of self-pity and self-destruction. The song’s crusty, cynical mindset is refreshing in an era of music where musicians tend to lean on earnestness and openness, and its acknowledgment that the desire to drink yourself to death to brush off the world around you is actually a poorly conceived method of avoiding pain and panic is what makes it more than just a catchy tune. 

8. “True Blue” – Mark Ronson feat. Angel Olsen

“True Blue” begins with a false intro that finds Angel Olsen, accompanied only by an organ, sounding far-off and distorted, as if playing on a worn-down 45,  and like this is just another sad song from the queen of sad songs. But then the track remembers it’s produced by “Uptown Funk” mastermind Mark Ronson, spits out some “fast forward” noises, and snaps into a galloping groove before Olsen chimes back in through her lower register with imagery that could really be about any kind of ill-fated romantic encounter. Her voice steadily rises as the song enters the chorus and the bass becomes rubberier, the guitars more incandescent, and her desperation grows, declaring that she ran to the person she addressing, that they know why, and that she loves the way they look in her eyes. On one level, it’s pure dance floor magic: the kind of easy rocking dance-pop jam that feels rare in a pop landscape that’s all but abandoned subtlety and texture. On another, it’s the best version of what Ronson has described as his “sad bangers.” Olsen’s descent from the sultry disco queen of the verse to the desperate girl of the chorus displays the range of not only her vocal ability but also a genre that could be accused of lacking emotional range. At the very least, it’s an important reminder that even sad girls like to dance, too. 

7. “Drunk II” – Mannequin Pussy 

The thing about drinking to deal with your problems is that it’s not a particularly good idea, and, when you think about it, it just opens you up to a whole new set of problems. Such is Mannequin Pussy frontwoman Marisa Dabice’s dilemma on “Drunk II”, a righteous breakup anthem that’s also the most charging and driving rock song of the year. The more she drinks to forget her ex, the deeper a well of regret and emptiness she falls into, and the more helpless she feels. “And everyone says to me/’Missy you’re so strong”/”But what if I don’t want to be?” she asks. Her answer can be found in every bit of “Drunk II” — from its instant classic riff, furious drumming, and the vicious bass rip that loads up the outro. The band may sound tight as hell, but this is music as pure release, a coordinated attack on the notion of staying composed for the sake of staying composed, a validation of any desperate and despairing moment you’ve ever felt. Dabice may close the song by asserting “I am alone,” but the mere act of rounding up her bandmates to produce something so stunning is confirmation enough that not all is lost, and that solace can be found one power chord at a time.

6. “Unbearably White” – Vampire Weekend 

Yes, I know you all think “Hannah Hunt” and its portrait of an ill-fated couple who’ve run off together is the best Vampire Weekend song of the decade, but allow me to submit “Unbearably White,” “Hannah Hunt’s” self-deprecatingly titled spiritual sequel, for consideration. If “Hannah Hunt” is about two twenty-somethings who slowly begin to lose trust in each other, then “Unbearably White” is about two thirty-somethings who’ve just realized that something they’ve invested a lot of time and emotional resources into has run its course, even if they just can’t admit it’s time to cut bait yet. Featuring the most pensive bongo drums ever recorded, “Unbearably White” opens up with two people avoiding each other — a narrator hikes up a snowy mountain to avoid their significant other’s gaze, their significant other retreats to the bedroom to write on a similarly pristine page — in an attempt to postpone the inevitable “avalanche” of their separation. Despite his gentle tone and the general sad chillness of the song, Ezra Koenig tries to end the song flippantly, suggesting that they should just “Call it a day/”Call it a night,” even though to do so would be “Callous and cold”/”And just unbearably white,” treating the act of ripping off an emotional band aid as some WASPy, bourgeois affectation. But, as he starts this refrain, the instruments behind him begin to twinkle, and he repeats the first half of the first verse as if suddenly remembering how he felt before. Eventually, this deteriorates into a high, searching “you,” that gets repeated and is also the last thing we hear in the song — an unfinished thought delivered by a misty-eyed man who, despite his best efforts, can’t deny that he’s heartbroken.

5. “Not” – Big Thief

The lyrical conceit of “Not” is almost comically simple. Adrienne Lenker gives a fairly comprehensive list of what “it” is not, without ever actually bothering to tell us what “it” actually is. But this constant negation opens the door to some beautiful, vibrant imagery, painting a portrait of a haunting world that defies description, and is, therefore, more defined by what it is not than what it actually is. But “Not” is less about verbal poetry than it is stretching Big Thief’s composite elements — Lenker’s spectral vocals, her and Buck Meeks’ dueling guitars, and a rhythm section that holds everything together with an almost cavalierly loose grip — to their limit, climaxing with a guitar solo that’s raw, feral, and chaotic. Big Thief have spent the last four years releasing records that keep these wild, snarling sounds bubbling underneath a genteel folk surface — on “Not” they finally let them loose, reforming their own identity and just beginning to tap into their potential. 

4. “Superbike” – Jay Som 

90s nostalgia was one of the most identifiable trends of the 2010s, and no song better imitates the era than “Superbike,” Jay Som’s lush lead single from Anak Ko. Kicking off with a jangly riff Clinton Era riff, “Superbike” isn’t about telling a story so much as it’s about setting a mood, evoking the feeling of tearing down the road in its namesake vehicle as the sun begins to set on the horizon. A wordless chorus and cloudy synths add to the track’s ethereal quality, and about two-thirds of the way through it begins to build to a joyous release. That droning guitar solo kicks in and you can feel yourself close your eyes, lean back, and let go of the handlebars, melting with the world around, worried not about past nor future but this single moment, in bliss and at peace. 

3. “The greatest” – Lana Del Rey 

Lana Del Rey has spent most of her career paying homage to iconic American women of the mid-20th century, be they Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, or Nancy Sinatra. But on “The greatest,” the former Lizzy Grant reveals that the one artist she may have the most in common with is…Billy Joel? It may lack the Broadway bombast, but “The greatest’s” elegiac tone and apocalyptic themes make it a natural successor to “Miami 2017” in terms of songs with which to ring in Armageddon. But it’s not just the talk of great cities falling and plaintive pianos that beg the Del Rey/Joel comparisons: lines like “I miss New York and I miss the music”/”Me and my friends, we miss rock ‘n’ roll” bridge the boomer/millennial divide by providing a common place and subject for nostalgia. Time becomes the only variable, although, given Del Rey’s penchant for blending eras of pop culture together, this, too, becomes irrelevant (“The culture is lit and I’ve had a ball,” Del Rey sings before an angelic classic rock guitar solo). Eventually, her voice drops and she begins to fade, offering up hazy observations of the world crumbling around her, sounding like a Twitter feed flickering to death as society crumbles and the Internet goes dark forever. My generation may be as nostalgic as our parents’, but our culture is all digital — what happens when the lights goes out forever? Who or what will tell our history?

Most likely, it’ll be this song. Finding a generational anthem can be tough in this monocultureless world we’re living in, and “The greatest” may just be the closest we’ll get. It’s Del Rey’s “Life on Mars?” Her “Whiter Shade of Pale.” A collision of imagery, poetry, and pop culture references that will come to define what it meant to be a millennial and live through this decade, as well as a moving ballad that doesn’t skimp on the theatrically and melodrama. Our children and grandchildren might not get it, but we’ll always remember how 2019 felt. It’ll have felt like “The greatest.”

2. “Chance” – Angel Olsen 

Something about Angel Olsen’s music has always felt aggressively tasteful and timeless to me. In another universe she’s a Norah Jones-like figure, an artist young enough to credibly be called fresh but with a mature enough soul to reign in older listeners. Olsen plays out that alternate history through “Chance,” the stunning conclusion to All Mirrors, an old-fashioned show stopper that would sound just as good sung Judy Garland in Carnegie Hall as it does on a 2019 Jagjaguwar release. It’s the very definition of bittersweet, as Olsen accepts the finality of eternal love by recognizing its impossibility, choosing instead to focus on the here and now so as not to lose an opportunity to actually get to know the object of her affections. The melody peaks gracefully before swooping down as Olsen begins to describe herself as an actress (“I’m walking through the scenes”/I’m saying all the lines”) before concluding in her wistful coda that “It’s hard to say forever love.” It’s a paradox: Olsen is following the script of a successful relationship, but the fact that she has to follow a script is proof enough that this love is impermanent, as all things are. But if all things are impermanent, what do we have to lose? Or as Angel would put it “Forever’s just so far”/”Why don’t you say it with me now”/”With all of your heart?”

1. “Seventeen” – Sharon Van Etten

It feels like a bit of a crutch to compare any and all singers from the Great State of New Jersey to Bruce Springsteen, but to what other artist should I compare Sharon Van Etten’s epic, moving use of synths and drum machines on a song about youth and the passage of time? To what other voice should I compare Van Etten’s cathartic yowl before the final chorus? Van Etten may be singing about the way she’s seen New York (and herself) change over the past two decades or so, but the Garden State is all over “Seventeen,” which in its pleas to Van Etten’s younger self grasps at a sense of romance and freedom in the face of lurching and churning machines, like a sunset drive along the Turnpike. 

The advice song is a time-honored tradition in rock and roll, but most lack the time-warping introspection of  “Seventeen,” which finds Van Etten addressing a younger version of herself, a conceit that would be hokey if it weren’t handled with such unapologetic gravity. Instead of regretting foolish things she did when she was young, Van Etten laments that she can’t counsel her younger self and show her what she’d grow up to become, but then contradicts this desire by admitting– in a striking bridge– that the younger Sharon would be “Afraid that you’ll be just like me.” Van Etten never unpacks that line, but I think that’s what helps make this song so universal and an instant classic. We’ll all grow old someday, and we’ll all reminisce on our youth. But Van Etten suggests that, in some ways, the romanticized freedom of youth is an illusion, that we’re constantly held captive by the terrifying blankness of the future, that we become what we once feared we would, maybe because it’s destiny, maybe because when you try too hard to avoid becoming something you end up becoming it after all. The only solace we get is knowing everything’s alright in the end. But that’s a comfort only our older selves will ever know, and the time we spend worrying about the future as scared and trembling kids feels wasted in hindsight. How do we bridge that gap and reach our younger selves?

Scream, Van Etten suggests. Scream as loud as you can, so they here you across the Hudson River, so that it rings around in the Holland Tunnel, breaks every window in every neighborhood in that constantly shifting city just past Liberty Island. There’s no way to know if they’ll hear us. There’s no way to know if it’ll help. But we can at least try.

Not Dead Yet: A Raconteurs Live Review

The Raconteurs thank the crowd after performing somewhere. This isn’t from when I saw them. My camera isn’t this good (Photo credit: The Raconteurs)

 

What intrigued me most about seeing The Raconteurs perform at The Anthem was the prospect of observing Jack White — my favorite artist and a man whose solo show I’ve seen three times — operate as part of a unit rather than the unquestioned centerpoint of the show. Even when he was performing with The White Stripes, his only competition was that of his shy, taciturn drummer/ex-wife Meg White (read: not much competition at all). In nine out of ten Jack White performances, he’s the man people come to see, and he knows it. 

That point was evident enough when I saw him at this same venue last year. The projection screen at the back of the stage displayed a studio with a clock counting down to showtime. Eventually, a giant Jack White came on screen to start fiddling with the time, sometimes adding more, sometimes taking it off– all to toy with the emotions of the crowd who voiced their corresponding rapture and displeasure. It felt like a video you’d watch while waiting in line for a ride at Disney World, not only because it entertained you while something that you think shouldn’t take too long takes too long, but because it treated its subject like the lead in a franchise– more mascot than man. Blown up onto a massive screen and serving as his own title card, White was no longer just some guy you paid good money to see sing and play guitar. He was a character, a larger than life entity whose presence was meant to carry a mythic quality. He was, in other words, a rock star.

Turns out being one of four members of a band does little to take the spotlight away from White or his corresponding mystique. While bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler hung back like most rhythm sections do, and guitarist/co-lead singer Brendan Benson didn’t stray too far from his mic, White bounced around the stage, poking and prodding at both his bandmates and the audience to reach his level of energy and excitement, which manifested itself in mad dashes back and forth across the stage and his rambling, old timey DJ comments between songs.  

Like I said, I’ve seen White a couple of times in concert, and he’s delivered every time, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him happier on stage than I did last Saturday night. For as curmudgeonly as White’s antipathy for the press and modern technology can make him seem and despite his (now waning) commitment to musical asceticism, do not be mistaken how much this man enjoys his job and how good he is at doing it. 

And don’t be mistaken by how vital a Raconteurs show can feel in 2019, either. The kind of band The Raconteurs represent — a hi-fi, big budget rock act with more interest in The Kinks and Tom Petty than, I don’t know, Suicide or The Beat Happening — may be much rarer these days, but, while they may be getting older, they’re not obsolete. 

If The Anthem wasn’t sold out on Saturday night it was pretty darn close to it, and the crowd was possibly the loudest I’ve ever heard. The Hold Steady, Titus Andronicus, and Parquet Courts draw rowdy and interactive audiences, sure, but I’ve never heard so many women straight up screaming in my ear like The Beatles had just touched down at JFK. I’ve also been to a few shows by artists past their commercial and critical peaks who all but admit they’re nostalgia act and have to explicitly acknowledge their fans don’t want to hear the new stuff; this was not one of those shows.

Instead, the band’s set served as a persuasive reminder about the strength of their catalogue and even helped some of the more suspect songs from their new album Help Us Stranger take flight. On record, “Don’t Bother Me” and “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness) sound like jam sessions in search of a song; on stage, those exact qualities make them exhilarating displays for the band’s chops. “Born and Razed” and “Sunday Driver” already sounded tailor-made to be blasted out a car stereo, and those exciting, visceral qualities were only heightened when performed live. Classics like “Steady, As She Goes” and “Level” were amped up and lengthened for maximum Jack shredding and singalong potential, and “Blue Veins” featured probably the best guitar solo I’ve ever seen live. 

As a purist, the pedal-to-the-metal-approach, admittedly, didn’t always feel like an asset — rich and dynamic songs like “Old Enough” and “Top Yourself” were flattened out and robbed of their rootsiness by the group’s relatively straight forward composition, while others like “Many Shades of Black” and “Broken Boy Soldier” were conspicuously absent — but nearly every song managed to be rousing and thrilling no matter what other elements were sacrificed in their translation to stage. That seemed to be the whole point, after all. Even when they were performing ballads like “Only Child” and “Now That You’re Gone,” it was clear that the band’s goal wasn’t to communicate or achieve some level of emotional complexity. Instead, it was to revel in the sheer exuberance of making music and celebrate the kinds of cool sounds that four guys who clearly enjoy each other’s company can wring out of their chosen instruments.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that such an approach is self-reflexive and self-aggrandizing, like a magician applauding his own magic tricks. Peyton Thomas alleged as much in his review of Help Us Stranger for Pitchfork. Negatively comparing The Raconteurs to another supergroup, Thomas points out that the kind of emotional rawness and resonance found in a song like boygenius’s “Me and My Dog” (specifically the line “I cried at your show with the teenagers”) is nowhere to be found on The Raconteurs’ new record, and that they “would never lower themselves to the level of their audience.” This is a fair point, and it succinctly sums up what separates musicians from White and Benson’s generation and those of Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers’s (and, I guess, my) generation: the former aspire to be godlike rock stars, the latter achingly relatable citizen songwriters. 

It also sells the power of rock stardom short. “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” may lack the literary heft of a Julien Baker song, but it’s hard to argue that its chorus — a straightforward recitation of “Somedays, I just feel like crying/Somedays, I don’t feel like trying” — won’t resonate with an overworked and mentally taxed audience. And, by the time the band reached the coda, and a crowd of thousands began shouting “I’m here right now, I’m not dead yet” to a stage bathed in orange light, I wasn’t worrying about whether or not the rich and powerful Raconteurs were lowering themselves to my level. Instead, I was thankful that they were elevating me to theirs.

Faye Webster Brings Tight, Youthful Live Show to DC9

This isn’t from the night I saw her…I was too far back to get a good shot. The lighting looked kind of like this though (ANCHR Magazine)

If one trend has defined the last few years of indie rock, it’s been the rise of the under-25-year-old female singer/songwriter. From Snail Mail to Julien Baker to Soccer Mommy to Phoebe Bridgers to Lucy Dacus, the genre is chock full of young women who have put college on hold (or, in the case of Sidney Gish, worked around their studies) to put out records, tour the world, and plant their artistic flags. I’d have to imagine that the most challenging part of this experience is the touring bit; performing in front of a room of strangers is hard enough, and it can’t get much easier with the expectations a Fader cover story or a Best New Music tag foists upon an artist. 

Indeed, the on-stage results have been mixed. I’ve seen Snail Mail twice, and, while their first show was pretty good, they failed to capture the power and immediacy of their recorded work when I saw them take the cavernous 9:30 Club stage. Conversely, Lucy Dacus’s set at the Black Cat a few months ago ranks among the best shows I’ve seen this year, and Sidney Gish’s stint opening for Petal and Camp Cope at Rock and Roll Hotel last year was among the most impressive, considering all she had at her disposal was her voice, her guitar, and a loop pedal. So what struck me about Faye Webster’s show at DC9 on Thursday night was how deftly the Atlanta singer/songwriter balanced her youthfulness with a tight live performance. 

A photographer by trade, Webster has cannily curated her visual aesthetic to almost as fine a degree as her musical one. Decked out in visors and big slacks, Webster could be called  “normcore” if the “norm” she imitates took place in the mid-20th century when her pet passions of baseball and yo-yos dominated leisure time and the stripes and pale pastels of her wardrobe seamlessly blended into the crowd. But her quirks come with a surprising level of street cred: the young Webster began her career at Atlanta hip-hop label Awful Records, and her photography portfolio includes portraits of Killer Mike, Offset, and high school friend Lil Yachty— work that makes for an eye-grabbing Instagram account

Her music sounds like the sonic distillation of that platform, as well. The languid R&B grooves, steamy horns, and weeping steel pedal that populate 2019’s Atlanta Millionaires Club mix together in a sort of unspecifically nostalgic gauze, draping over Webster’s songs the way a filter might be put over one of her photos to give it a “vintage” look. But, where fuzzing up digital photography may have initially felt like hipster nonsense, Webster’s approach in both of her chosen mediums feels unpretentious. 

Webster was only 12 when Instagram was first launched, so to her, these retro stylizations have never felt like reflections of the past, but images of her very real present. It’s no wonder that someone who came of age in an era when digital things were made to look analog chooses to reflect such an aesthetic in most of her work. What may have seemed like an affectation a few years ago now feels an inextricable part of a person’s identity, and that lends Webster an undeniable confidence that eclipses the otherwise absurdly Millenial/Gen Z image of an artist giving out her bandmate’s Instagram handles on stage and describing them as “lit.”

That confidence of purpose seeped into her performance as well, making for a very effective set. After teasing the audience by singing a few bars of the Father featuring “Flowers,” Webster and her band snapped into the groove of “Come to Atlanta,” which seemed to take hold of the crowd, who began asynchronously bobbing and swaying to the beat. I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my young life, and I’ve seen all kinds of music bring people together, but I don’t think there’s anything more universally appreciated than a cool, sturdy groove that can be bopped along too — it taps into something calming and emboldening, granting each of us “flow” and an unearned sense of confidence and swagger that eases most fo our fears of looking like a terrible dancer. The crowd stayed rapt to the rest of the music as well, which, despite the lack of horns in Webster’s live band, didn’t lose much of the appeal of the recorded version. If the brass section’s absence was felt anywhere, it was probably in “Hurst Me Too.” The slow crest of the chorus couldn’t gather enough momentum without horns and strings to have the intended impact, but other horn-heavy tracks like “Pigeon” and “Kingston” transitioned smoothly to the stage.

What wasn’t always as smooth was the transitions from song to song. They were disrupted by tunings, banter, and Webster’s charming gimmicks, which included accepting scratch-offs from the crowd and performing yo-yo tricks to a G-funk beat. The gimmicks were entertaining and impressive, but artists always seem to walk a fine line with stage banter; it seems to embolden the neediest idiots in the crowd to yell stuff at the stage and make themselves the center of attention. I’ve written about my relationship with annoying fans at length, so I won’t dwell on that point, but I will say, when an artist asks for requests, hear’s one, says she’s going to play it, and you keep shouting out song names, you’re not being entertaining. You’re being a massive dick. 

“Jonny,” the final song of the night, was also the most impressive, in terms of both sound and pure stage presence. Dropping her guitar and staring wistfully towards the ceiling, hand over her heart as if she was taking an oath, Webster led her band through a song that felt symphonic even without the full production of it’s recorded version, bringing a dose of very real passion to a night that was otherwise filled with jokes and irony. When the band came back on stage to play the encore, they struck up “Jonny” again, and Webster recited the poem from “Jonny (Reprise)” before just kind of swaying with the rest of her group as they slipped into the coda. If this were a TV show, it’d be the moment where the camera pulls out to a slight overhead shot and the credits begin to r0ll, gently rocking the audience back to real life. It was the kind of outro that reminds us that we’re unlikely to find such grace and beauty in the everyday world, but also lets us think, that somewhere out there, something perfect is in fact happening.

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