A Year (2015) in Music

IMG_1764

I’m usually pretty serious about keeping up with new music, mainly so that I can create a year end list of my favorite songs and albums, an activity I greatly enjoy. This year I was really on top of my shit until August, when I lost my job and shortly thereafter destroyed my computer by spilling water across the keyboard. Music discovery wasn’t as convenient or fun once I didn’t have work to procrastinate. And it wasn’t as easy once my main mode of internet access was my phone, which was fine for like, looking something up on Wikipedia, but not great for long-term browsing. Anyway, this is all to say that I stopped paying attention to new music this summer, except for things that I was anticipating, and I don’t feel quite right catching up and putting together a year end list at this point because I’d probably get lazy and rely on year end lists that have already been published to fill mine out and that seems dumb.

So, I decided I would write about the new music I really cared about in 2015. What follows is a collection of thoughts and feelings about albums and songs I loved or that were big parts of my year in one way or another. The list is sort of chronological and a lot of my favorite, favorite things don’t come until a bit later, but I will stop explaining and just let you read it.

The album that defined my year more than any other was Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up. (It wasn’t my absolute favorite album, but it’s close to the top and I had in rotation throughout 2015.) It’s kind of painful thinking about how much I related to every song back when I was first listening to this album. I spent much of this year feeling stuck, wanting unavailable people to be my friends and lovers, vacillating between deciding to change my life for the better and falling back into bad habits and old patterns, and wondering what is actually stopping me from doing the things I’ve always thought I was supposed to do, like finding love or pursuing whatever my dreams are. I listened to I Want to Grow Up on repeat for months. When I played it for a friend, someone I’ve known since I was fourteen, he told me that “this sounds like the album you would write if you played music.” His saying that made me feel a tiny bit exposed – like, “Oh, no, are my insecurities so obvious?” – but I was flattered just the same.

Recommended Tracks: Um, all of them? If I have to choose a few then I would tell you to listen to “Things That Are Bad For Me (Part I),” “Deeper Than Love,” and “Whatever I Want.” But again, I also like all of the other songs.

spotify:track:55DqDP28PT95BenbhWToCQ

***

I was really sad at the beginning of the year. (And also maybe the rest of the year? (Haha.)) I thought I couldn’t possibly have another disappointing year when it came to dating or romance, but it all started going downhill pretty quickly. I remember taking the train up to my parent’s house one weekend in January, staring out the window at the frozen Bronx – so basically a lot of chainlink fences, felled branches, and trash covered in snow – listening to Natalie Prass’s “My Baby Don’t Understand Me,” a song about ending a relationship and realizing that the whole thing had been a “long goodbye.” All the while, I was thinking about how things could never work with the person I was seeing at the time, someone who, the more time I spent with him, seemed like more of a stranger to me. The relationship Prass sings about in the song is much more serious than the fledgling thing I was in, but I could relate to the sentiment. By the time Natalie Prass – the album – came out at the end of January, that thing I was wondering about was over. But as I hibernated in my apartment during the coldest weeks of the year, I listened to that album for comfort. I thought was beautiful and heartbreaking and maybe a little bit hopeful and very much something I needed to hear at the time.

Recommended Tracks: The aforementioned “My Baby Don’t Understand Me.” Also, “Why Don’t You Believe in Me” and album-closer, “It Is You,” which sounded to me like it could have been written by Harry Nilsson, a wonderful thing in my book.

***

Yumi Zouma, the New Zealand dream pop band to which I was introduced in 2014, had two songs that stuck with me this year. “Catastrophe” and “A Song For Zoe & Gwen” came out early in the year and I put them both on like 500 playlists.

spotify:track:17SSL9kvysDq9D6YuBMEoP

***

I saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time back in February. I wrote about the show, which I had a lot of feelings about, soon afterward. It was at Terminal 5 and was uncomfortably crowded, but I still felt in awe of the performance and was happy I went. I saw them again last week at Irving Plaza and this second show blew me away. (I was a lot closer to the front, they covered “Rock Lobster” with Fred Armisen, they played a bunch of my favorite songs, etc. Ask me about it some time.)

Anyway, the album! It’s great and precisely what I wanted and expected from Sleater-Kinney. I didn’t connect with No Cities to Love as much as I did with some of their earlier albums – most of which I listened to for the first time years after they were released – but I still played it all the time this winter and returned to it every few months, so it feels very much woven into my year in music.

Recommended Tracks: “A New Wave” (which I have in my head right. now.), “Surface Envy”, “Price Tag”

spotify:track:2audHw8H7pcDViQBXAufEZ

***

I began this year excited for the new Chromatics album, Dear Tommy, to come out. And then it never did! They originally announced a February release date and kept releasing singles but not releasing the album. Which, I guess, has been fine because I’ve really liked the singles. “I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around” and “In Films” were especially in constant rotation for me this year. Chromatics makes the kind of music I want to soundtrack my life.

Also noteworthy: “Shadow” and the multiple covers of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” that they released this fall

spotify:track:6m1pV226xH8IlRhQnSwX1X

***

This is maybe…weird, but when I think about Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, I think about being at the gym. I guess I was going to the gym a lot when I was listening to this album? Every time I listen to it now I feel like I should be on the elliptical machine. Anyway, I love Barnett for her detailed storytelling and humor and general badassness. I think her music, in some ways, reminds me of Jens Lekman who I love for his detailed storytelling and humor. (But probably not badassness. Also, I’m now reminded that I haven’t listened to him in a long time.)

Recommended Tracks: “Depreston” (one of my favorite songs of this year, which is a really good short story in song format), “Dead Fox”, “Nobody Really Cares If You Go to the Party”

***

I crushed hard on Bully early this year and listened to the debut album Feels Like obsessively once I got my hands on it. I was drawn to the raw emotion that courses through the album and Alicia Bognanno’s confessional lyrics. I can’t yet tell if Feels Like will be an album that ages well for me, but I know that listening to it this year was a cathartic experience that I won’t soon forget.

Recommended Tracks: “I Remember,” “Trying,” “Too Tough,” “Sharktooth”

***

I felt like a lot of the stuff I read about Chastity Belt focused on the song “Cool Slut”. I like that song. It’s groovy and anti-slut shaming, which I think it a good thing. But Chastity Belt is so much more than that one song. Time to Go Home was lowkey one of my favorite albums of the year, which I say because I don’t think I even realized how much time I spent listening to it. There’s a casualness, a sort of pretense of not caring, to Chastity Belt’s songs that makes it easy to forget how good they are at what they do. “Is it cool not to care?” lead singer and guitarist Julia Shapiro asks on “IDC.” Many of the songs on Time to Go Home explore caring and not caring, trying and not trying, actions that most young adults perform constantly as they try to figure out who they are or want to be.

When I finally saw Chastity Belt live in May, I was really blown away. To my ears, their performance sounded better than their album recording, which probably says something about the production on their album, but I mention this as a compliment to the women of the band, who struck me as incredibly talented and professional.

Recommended Tracks: “Drone”, “Joke” (a top ten song of the year for me), “Lydia”, “Time to Go Home”

***

No Joy is a band I never paid much attention to before. I listened to More Faithful on the recommendation of a friend who knows my taste well and was ultimately glad that I didn’t dismiss it. It’s a cohesive collection of shoegaze-y rock that feels at once aggressive and introspective. This album was in heavy rotation for me as the season changed from spring to summer and listening to it now gives me this general feeling of hopefulness, something I wish I could feel all the time (but, um, don’t).

Recommended Tracks: “Hollywood Teeth”, “Moon in My Mouth”, “Chalk Snake”

spotify:track:6OlCeqVs99cLAqpAId30Kh

***

I know now that Wolf Alice got a lot of buzz before this year, at least in the UK, but I hadn’t heard of them until June or July. Their debut album, My Love Is Cool, is moody and beautiful and dreamy but also has an edge to it that makes it better and more interesting than most straightforward “indie rock” albums I’ve listened to in the past few years. This is another album that I would not have listened to had it not been for the recommendation of (the same!) friend, so thank you very much, Matthew.

My Love Is Cool transported me; I listened to it a lot while taking long (and hot and sweaty) walks around north Brooklyn this summer, but always felt as if I should be walking around London on a cool night just after it had rained.

Favorite Tracks: “Your Loves Whore”, “You’re a Germ”, “Lisbon”, “Giant Peach”

***

I spent a solid six months in 2008 listening to Beach House’s second album Devotion. When I think of the second half of my junior year of college, the half that I spent in Evanston, Illinois and not in Paris, I immediately think of this album. Though I’ve been a fan of Beach House’s work since then, the albums that followed Devotion Teen Dream and Bloom – didn’t hit me quite as hard.

The two albums that Beach House released this year, within two months of each other, had me feeling like I did seven years ago. When I first heard Depression Cherry this summer, I wanted to play it all the time. And I felt that urge even more strongly when I heard Thank Your Lucky Stars in October. (I actually liked Thank Your Lucky Stars so much that I forgot that I liked Depression Cherry at all until I started listening to it again recently.) Both albums sound exactly like Beach House albums should – nearly perfect collections of ethereal, dreamy rock – but Thank Your Lucky Stars especially connected more with me than their last few critically acclaimed albums.

Depression Cherry Recommended Tracks: “Sparks”, “Beyond Love”, “PPP”

Thank Your Lucky Stars Recommended Tracks: “All Your Yeahs”, “One Thing”, “Elegy to the Void”, “Rough Song”

spotify:track:1Q4jlbtXVPSwLZarmZohAI

***

Julia Holter put out my favorite album this year. Have You In My Wilderness is probably her most accessible record to date, but it’s not necessarily an easy listen. It’s dramatic and emotional, despairing and adrift in one moment, joyful and ecstatic in the next. Engaging with Have You In My Wilderness these last few months has been one of the most intense experiences I’ve had with any piece of art, musical or otherwise, in the recent past.

In “Feel You,” the album’s opener and an addictive chamber pop song, Holter begins by expressing uncertainty in a relationship, in a “mythological” person. From there, she takes us on a journey of personal discovery that alternates between moments of confusion and clarity,  climaxing with “Betsy on the Roof,” in which she asks, desperately, “Won’t you please tell me the answer?” By the time the album resolves with the title track, which feels like waking from a dream to an unwanted reality, I am always desperate for her to tell me the whole story again.

Recommended Tracks: “Feel You”, “Sea Calls Me Home”, “Betsy On the Roof”

***

It’s hard for me to know what to say about Divers, Joanna Newsom’s latest album. Newsom is my favorite artist of all time and I waited for Divers, mostly impatiently, for five years. I fell in love with it, as I have with her three prior albums, within my first few listens. But as someone who has been a rabid fan for so long, I worry that I’m ill-equipped to offer valuable critical analysis of this newest cycle of songs.

Divers fits in with Newsom’s previous work while managing at the same time to feel subtly different, more mature and complex in its themes and composition. It’s her most beautiful album and the plain prettiness of many of the songs can obscure, on first listen, the heaviness of the subject matter. Each song deals with arrivals and departures, or the process of being born and living and dying, and the joy and pain that is implicit in that process. She makes this plain in album closer “Time, As A Symptom”, lamenting – or celebrating? – “the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life.”

Of any album that came out this year, Divers caused me to feel the highest highs and the lowest lows, making it my most cathartic album of 2015. (Also, in my top three favorite albums. It was painful for me to admit that it wasn’t my absolute favorite of the year, but Have You In My Wilderness really felt more important to me.)

Recommended Tracks: “Sapokanikan”, “The Things I Say”, “Divers”, “Time, As A Symptom”

***

Grimes is another artist whose music I’ve never failed to enjoy, but I was actually nervous to listen to Art Angels when it came out. A lot has been written about Claire Boucher/Grimes since her last album, 2012’s Visions was released to much acclaim. And I felt like some of what I read about her in the years in between suggested that she was too fragile and temperamental to release music that wouldn’t disappoint us. I must have internalized this to some extent, because in the weeks before Art Angels’ release, I found myself wondering if I should even bother to care or listen. (Even though “REALiTi (Demo)” had been near the top of my list of favorite songs of the year since it was released in the spring.)

But of course, I never should have worried. Art Angels, to me, is nearly perfect. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before, yet incredibly familiar, which is I guess exactly what I want when it comes to listening to new music (or experiencing any art, really). I could hear Madonna in “Artangels” and the cheerleading chants of my schooldays in “Kill V. Maim”. The sound of “World Princess part II” reminded me of hours spent trying to beat video games like Crash Bandicoot in middle school. But it wasn’t just nostalgia that made me connect with Art Angels. I think that Grimes, better than most musicians working today, is able articulate the struggle we all face in relating to other humans. Hearing her sing a line like “I was only looking for a human to reciprocate” on the song “Pin” hits me like a punch in the gut.

Recommended Tracks: “Flesh without Blood”, “Kill V. Maim”, “Artangels”, “Pin”, “Realiti”

(This is another one where it’s really hard to choose and really recommend listening to the whole album.)

***

There is so much music that I loved (or just plain liked) this year that I didn’t cover here. So I made a Spotify playlist with a lot of it, which you can find below. Happy listening!

spotify:user:haleyflan:playlist:3VCiSi4mPb5dycwsxQgVVi

A Decade With Joanna

I have loved Joanna Newsom since the very first time I heard her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2005, a year after it came out. I was a college freshman training to become a DJ at the campus radio station. I picked the album out of the stacks because I think the handwritten description on the CD cover said something about how she played the harp and was associated with “freak folk,” a genre I found I liked, even if hearing those two words together made me cringe. Little did I know that when I previewed the CD at our listening station, headphones placed snugly over my ears, I would hear the voice that would move me more than any other before or since. 

I must have listened to “Bridges and Balloons” first. It’s the first song on the album. But I know it wasn’t the song that made me fall in love with Joanna and her voice and, especially, her harp. That was “Peach, Plum, Pear,” which had an urgency and a sense of honesty that I found comforting in the loneliness of my first year away from home. I played it constantly. After a while, my roommate made fun of me for playing it so often, telling me that she thought the song was weird. I remember my stomach burning, feeling angry and exposed for loving this song that someone else could not – even after hearing it many times – understand the way that I did. I felt this way often during high school and college, when friends and family would dismiss music about which I felt passionately. It was hard for me to accept that others could have different taste; I thought, during this time, that they just weren’t trying hard enough to like something that I knew was great.

I kept listening to “Peach, Plum, Pear” anyway. And, as has happened with each Joanna Newsom album that has followed The Milk-Eyed Mender, the album unfolded itself for me. With persistent listening, I would find that suddenly, a song would click. This happened with “Inflammatory Writ,” which at first I thought abrasive and now I love for its exuberant piano and playfully clever lyrics. Other songs I liked straight away and they simply have gathered more meaning – layers of meaning – over time.

I remember listening to “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” in my dorm room as I was getting ready to fly home to New York for the summer. It was early June in Chicago and the heat was unbearable. My curtains were open to let the light in. “There are some mornings where the sky looks like a road,” Joanna sang. The song seemed perfect in that moment. I still think of it before I go on plane journeys of any significance.

Months later, in November 2006, she released her second album, Ys. I didn’t know what to do with it at first. It was so different from The Milk-Eyed Mender. So much more lush and serious and complicated, yet only five songs. (At over 55 minutes, Ys is actually slightly longer.) I got to work on it immediately, by which I mean, I started listening to it during every spare moment I had. “Emily,” the album’s opener, quickly became my favorite. It eased my entry back into Joanna Newsom’s world, which suddenly felt much darker and less playful, though still full of magic and mysticism. The songs of Ys illuminated feelings about exploitation and romantic pain and death with words and music that twisted themselves around my insides.

That year, I fell in love with someone who lived far away. He was not someone I should have had feelings for, yet I found that I did. He was sad and unstable and difficult to communicate with.. There were good parts to our relationship. He was clever and funny and interesting and we were attracted to each other. But the distance and our particular states of being – he would cyclically ignore me and then seek me out, while I constantly needed to be needed – led me to some dark, questioning moments. For years. We continued to come back to one another, with no real promise of commitment, until after I graduated from college.

Also during this time, I was grappling with the deaths of two of my mother’s brothers during the previous three years. Jim, the first, died suddenly at the end of 2003, when I was sixteen. Bobby, the second, died in early 2006 after being sick with esophageal cancer for two years. I was close with both of them. I had, up until about a week before Bobby’s death, held out hope that he would “beat cancer” because of a belief that, even though bad things were bound to happen to me and the people I loved, not too many bad things could happen. There must be some kind of balance, I thought. I was wrong. And two years later, another one of my mom’s brothers, Tony, also succumbed to esophageal cancer after only a year of illness.

For years, listening to Ys became a regular practice when I was overwhelmed by emotion. I projected my personal struggles onto the lyrics. I cried when the string arrangements expressed something that I felt, but couldn’t put into words. Joanna Newsom helped me feel my feelings when I had a hard time doing so without judgment or fear.

I was out of school but had not quite graduated to adulthood when Newsom released Have One On Me in 2010. Though I had a real job in Manhattan, I still lived with my parents in the suburbs of New York, where I slept each night in a twin bed with my stuffed animals. The long-distance, on-again-off-again (but mostly-off) relationship I’d had during college had just switched off for good when he started dating someone else seriously. I was shocked and devastated when I found out, which I don’t think any of our mutual friends understood. He had objectively treated me badly and too many things had gone wrong for anything to ever work out between us. But I think, at the time and certainly in the context of this relationship, I got off on playing the victim and I really needed to turn in one final, fantastically dramatic performance. I didn’t understand why, for someone who had always been good at everything I did, I wasn’t good enough for him. I wallowed for weeks, drinking excessively, acting like a zombie during the day, and spending entire nights writing terrible short stories while listening to Joanna Newsom. Drag City streamed three tracks before the album came out and one of them could not have hit at a better time. “Good Intentions Paving Company” was released the week my breakdown began, in early February. It’s a love song, but it’s also a song about confusion and fighting with oneself and eventual endings. It felt serendipitous.

By the time the album actually came out a few weeks later, my heart and mental state were a bit better, though I still had a hard time getting anyone to understand just how I was feeling. Have One On Me traced a relationship from beginning to end, in eighteen songs and over two hours. I spent months – really, eventually, years – living inside of it, letting it heal me. I saw myself in Newsom’s stories about the thrill of recognizing someone to love, hopefulness for the future, loyalty and friendship, isolationism and disappointment, and acceptance that all things end. On weekend mornings I would get in my car, drive to town to get coffee, and then drive around until I had finished my coffee, listening to “In California” on repeat, feeling my heart swell every time the part that begins, “I don’t belong to anyone, my heart’s as heavy as an oil drum” came up. When I got home, my parents would ask me where I had been. I don’t remember what I told them. I was keeping a lot from them at the time.

Everywhere I went, I preached the gospel of Have One On Me. I remember listening to it during a snowstorm, drunk on red wine in my friend’s basement, explaining how each song made me feel. I remember playing it in the car as I drove my youngest brothers to sports practices, describing how clever certain lyrics were. (The only song that seemed to make an impression on them was “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which they called “the bump-on-a-bump-on-a-log song.” My brother Aidan, who was ten at the time, claimed to like it, though I think maybe he only did so to please me.) I remember discussing it in-depth with a man with whom I had a brief affair and listening to it while we made out in his graduate student apartment in the woods of Princeton, New Jersey. Though it’s painful for me to look back at my experience that winter and spring of 2010, Have One On Me now seems like the single golden thread running through it all.

That summer, I moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village with two roommates. I continued listening to Have One On Me obsessively because, even after spending months with it, I still found that I discovered something new and exciting with each listen. Like her previous albums, I would listen to songs over and over again and like them but then one day, in a single listen, they would suddenly make the most sense in the world and I didn’t know how I could have not seen what they were about until that moment. I remember having this feeling particularly with the songs “Baby Birch,” “Go Long,” and “Kingfisher,” which are all lengthy and difficult and emotionally taxing and ultimately, I thought, worth the effort to understand.

I saw Joanna Newsom perform twice that year. The first time was in March, just after the album had been released. I’d never had the opportunity to see her, so I was beyond excited when I got tickets for one of her concerts at Town Hall. I remember sitting next to my friend Jen, alternately grinning like a dummy and tearing up throughout the show. I next saw her in November, two days before Thanksgiving, at Carnegie Hall. The friend who had been supposed to go with me bailed hours before and I wasn’t able to find anyone to take my second ticket. So, I went by myself. I had never been to any public event alone before and I was a nervous wreck. I drank a gin and tonic in the hall before the concert started, obsessively looking at my phone and feeling conspicuous. I forgot all about being alone soon after I sat in my seat in a first tier box, when Joanna and the other musicians started playing. I was moved more then than I had been at the show I had seen months earlier, likely because I had spent so much more time with her new music. During the ninety minutes of the show, I wept openly without anyone there to comfort me. I felt free.

It’s now been over five years since the release of Have One On Me. I continued to keep the album in heavy rotation until last year, when either I had come to know it so well that I no longer had anything left to discover or I just grew plain tired of it. (This is painful for me to write, since I have often said that I would never grow tired of that album.) I knew that a new Joanna Newsom album would be a long time coming. Perhaps three or four years. After three years had passed, I set up a Google Alert so that I would know immediately if Drag City announced news of her new album plans. I spent all of last year deleting Google Alert emails that had to do with Inherent Vice, the Paul Thomas Anderson film that Joanna narrated and also in which she appeared. And then finally, yesterday morning, I refreshed Twitter and at the top of my feed was a tweet from music site Consequence of Sound, announcing that she had released a video for her new song “Sapokanikan” and a track listing for her album, Divers, which comes out on October 23.

I watched the video, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which has Joanna walking around New York City. After some searching, I found that the song’s title is the original Lenape name for Greenwich Village, the first neighborhood where I lived as an adult. It apparently means “tobacco field.” I watched the video again and again, paying closer attention to where she was walking and what she was singing. My favorite part is when she swings through the Papaya Dog on West 4th Street, an establishment that is very dear to my heart. I still don’t have a favorite lyric but as a native New Yorker and a history nerd, I appreciate her references to the potter’s field that became Washington Square Park and Tammany Hall and mayor John Purroy Mitchel.

Joanna has burst back on the scene at just the right time for me. I’m currently facing the biggest crisis of uncertainty I’ve experienced in years. I know that neither she nor Divers will save my life, per se, but I do hope that I find in this album the catharsis and comfort that I have found in her previous. October 23 can’t get here soon enough.

Friday Roundup

Oh man! This week. It was a short week, but a long week. And a cold week. I don’t even remember what I did this week, other than eat everything edible that I encountered and read the following things:

The Rules of the Game: A Century of Hollywood Publicity (The Virginia Quarterly Review)

Anne Helene Petersen – who writes Scandals of Classic Hollywood for The Hairpin, which I very much enjoy – explores the evolution of Hollywood publicity. (If you read this and then fall into the deep, dark hole of Wikipedia articles about old Hollywood stars, call me. I had a similar experience.)

Family Full of Pretty Good Skiiers (The New York Times)
Reading this made me think about how it’s probably every yuppie parent’s dream to have a brood of athletic (or whatever, really) phenoms and at least one person is going to read this article and move their family to a remote compound where they practice fencing for hours on end, expecting results and success without realizing that they’re going to be unfulfilled by living vicariously through their children and also pretty disappointed when at least one of their kids sucks. Anyway, it seems that ‘the Skiing Cochranes’ happened pretty accidentally and that’s cool.

Why You Never Leave High School (New York Magazine)
Haha! So this is why I felt really emotional while listening to Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things? (I don’t feel like I have to justify it – the act of listening to The Execution of All Things – but the reason I did is that I read about someone having a tattoo of the cover, which I now wish I had thought of doing while I was a teenager.)

How Lives Begin (The Awl)
Read this. I thought it was neat.

The McDonald’s at the Center of the World (The Awl)

This is fun. And really made me regret not getting a McHomard while I was on my food tour of Montreal.

And finally, OMG, I don’t even care if this is a duet and it’s for someone else’s album, a new song featuring Joanna Newsom: