Rivers Cuomo stated that “Tired of Sex” was a song about finding the “ideal woman”. What is the ideal woman? Pinkerton fails to explore this from any viewpoint that isn’t inherently masculine. This isn’t a flaw. But it leaves a hole.
Enter Mitski Miyawaki. And her single “Your Best American Girl”. It took until 2016 to find a songwriter as strong as her to explore the “ideal woman”. There is no self-pity in her voice. There is no wallowing in sadness. Simply a poetic representation of failing to fit a preconceived standard. These standards feel wholly bigger than the world, but the plainspoken nature of Mitski finds them emotionally imploding. Guitars cut a nerve. There is very little analysis, just raw purity. Conflicts that go back generations and impact all of us. Preconceived notions that weigh a ton until we acknowledge them, confirming in ourselves a stronger sense of identity. Mitski provided a masterwork in lineage catharsis. – T. Pennington
The title track from Elysia Crampton’s enigmatic collection of beats takes its time. It’s a slow build to nothing in particular: no drop, no climax, and no sense of relief. Her titular exploration of the self-contained darkest hour ranges from menacing (in a sinister sense) to spooky (in a kitsch sense). The synths that open are, alone, not particularly ominous. But then the pitch-shifted maniacal laughter enters. Then the collage of sheet metal banging and bell dings. A gust of wind, deep-voiced mumbles in the distance – a gate creaking. These flashes of uncertainty swirl around like snapshots of Hell, a dozen incomplete pieces of horror that bounce around until the fog dissipates and all that’s left is the reality of the nightmare. At that point, the song’s just begun, and now that the picture’s clear, everything that felt cute and non-threatening feels like a taunt of inescapability. The beat lurches forward, dragging with it all the samples in a faster, disorienting pace; a sinkhole that grows more powerful through every wince and struggle. – Zach W.
Oh, my God. How to describe “Ten Songs for Humanity”, a track whose title would suggest it’s a mere opener to an album, nothing more than a prelude to the real meat of the piece, the hors d’oeurve of all hors d’oeurves. I assure you, “Ten Songs for Humanity” is no amuse-bouche. It’s deceptively small – less than four minutes of tranquil bliss, but what it brings? Immense. Lasting. Press play: the command of a lifetime, of an era. Humanity has evolved for 2016 years, and James Ferraro has aurally surmised it. Brought it to life, given it a voice, if you will. Granted it charm when so many write off our current state as one of blind consumerism and negativity and corruption and evil. But not on “Ten Songs for Humanity” – where the voice is one of angelic, synthetic choir intertwined with new age muzak. And God, is it ever glorious. – Zach W.
Earlier this year, I reviewed The Life of Pablo. I said that Kanye West’s relationship with the album was unhealthy, at best, and that he may have mental issues. But at least with The Life of Pablo, he can make art that serves himself. That he can rely on.
Now a year later, after being checked out of a hospital for a mental breakdown, statements he made preceding this are viewed in different lights. His mental health could have affected his rants on stage, on Twitter, and even during his songs. “Ultralight Beam” proves to be a prophetic song, proving that as Kanye slips in a culture that’s quick to turn on him, he will rely on support wherever he can find it. Spirituality, faith, love, and community. “Ultralight Beam” really barely features Kanye. Chance the Rapper shines with a necessary and brilliantly positive verse. “When they come for you, I will shield your name/I will field their questions, I will feel your pain.” This single is a ceremonial representation that passes the torch to a younger generation. It’s chilling how Kanye can bend the spiritual choir into a metaphysical battle for strength in hard times. But in times where darkness can be felt as much as seen, we need songs like “Ultralight Beam.” – T. Pennington
There’s been a pretty clear consensus in the rock community that “Old Friends” is special. But Pinegrove’s standout single from their debut Cardinal has been talked up and misrepresented as this opus that tackles the philosophy of the mind and the mentality of a solipsist. Greatness can exist without grandeur, and “Old Friends” proves that. Built around trudging guitar and sparse percussion, the track is a simple, honest take on making time for loved ones. In a sense, it’s about the finality and imperfection of life; of being so overwhelmed with your own life that you forget to include others. The unchanging iteration of every outcome being a comedown is a heartbreaking depiction of beating yourself up for your mistakes, or for not calling your parents, or for not perfectly handling a break-up and its lingering aftermath. To sum it up in a neat write-up can undersell the true weight “Old Friends” carries, but to listen to it again and again can act as a sobering realization of what we’ve let slip. Evan Stephens Hall accepts this self-blame through painful sincerity, and it’s that adorned, humbled acceptance that propels the track into emotional universalism. – Zach W.
Lemonade was an album that grieved – went through the claustrophobic alleyways of denial. Smashed through walls with anger – sank into depression. It was a cinematic stroll through her worldview, tactile and precise. But it lacked a certain accelerant. It lacked an escalation. “Formation” is, without a doubt, the pinnacle of Beyoncé’s career. The snapping of elastic bands intertwine with a synthetic yet meteoric rise in beat. It’s unabashedly an affront on sensibilities, confirming one’s identity. She never limits her success or individuality to race, but revels in its empowerment. The song on its own became full of mini anthems: “I twirl on them haters ”, “Cause I slay ”, “When he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster ”, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”. These quotables aren’t just funny hashtags; they reveal a sense of bravado that too often only gets accredited to masculine artists. In one songs, Beyoncé not only proves she can be as provocative as any male artist, but that she can intertwine it into her own personal narrative and still end a triumph. – T. Pennington
HOPELESSNESS was the most disappointing release of 2016. Overwrought with insincere moments of political intimacy, the album used hot topics as a crux in lieu of authenticity. But part of the reason ANOHNI’s debut fell so short was because it had been impossibly propped by a career-defining track – something that couldn’t be matched. “Drone Bomb Me” encompasses all that HOPELESSNESS strived to be: the meta-sentimentality of finding beauty in being blown up by a drone bomb, the poignancy in barebones lyricism (“explode my crystal guts” may be the most difficult-to-shake imagery of the year), the juxtaposition between the racked emotionality in ANOHNI’s voice and the glistening production provided by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. It all culminates into a track that, in any other context, would function as a dance number leading to head-bobs and full-body movement. Instead, with ANOHNI’s gut-wrenching pleas to be destroyed, the track is a sucker-punch of unwanted momentum and implicitly evil catchiness. When the drums pound away and the synths glide by, and you’re left singing “blow me from the mountain”, the duality and audacity of “Drone Bomb Me” becomes crystal clear. – Zach W.
In a ranking of singles from 2016, it’s impossible not to include something from Lil Yachty. Despite his divisiveness (with his critics citing his unintelligibility and nonsensical, non-serious approach as his detriment), no artist has exploded this year the way Lil Yachty has (God damn). His albums aren’t memorable, but that’s because he’s a singles artist – the kind of artist that makes big statements and giant leaps in quick succession, never able to sustain that momentum for an LP-length of time. In truth, this spot could have gone to “Wanna Be Us” or “1Night” or “Minnesota”, but at the end of the year, “Broccoli” is the true anthem to positivity, to fun, to expressing yourself and indulging in you (God. Damn). Although Lil Yachty is the feature to D.R.A.M.’s track, both share the space evenly, a harmonious spotlight of exuberance and ecstasy. It’s a bit of a challenge to pull highlight lines from the track when almost every line is memorable – whether that’s due in part to its catchiness, its overt sexuality, or its awkward explicitness (Gahhhd Damn). “Broccoli” feels like a hyper-ode to the hip-hop stereotypes: the mistreatment of women, the glorification of drugs, the romanticized view of partying. But through sheer buoyancy, D.R.A.M. and Boat flip these topics on their head, at least making them laughable along the way. When D.R.A.M. sings, “In the middle of the party, bitch get off of me”, it doesn’t intend to offend (GOD DAMN). In another setting, under the helm of two artists with less charisma, these lines could fall flat as more misogyny and degeneracy fueling a genre; at the very least, it would be a line to empower masculinity. But between the images of D.R.A.M. acquiring a taste for salmon and capers and Lil Yachty randomly blowing into a recorder that matches his bright red dreads, it’s hard not to look the other way, shed your sense of seriousness, and sing along. – Zach W.
Before Blonde, there was a part of Frank Ocean that still felt connected to us on a base, human level. His music was something to connect to, with Playstation interludes and conversations with his mom. Stories about drug addicts and affluent teenagers. It was reality, if not an ugly one. But when “Nikes” dropped, it was clear a massive eveolutionary step was taken by Frank Ocean. Creatively, he was operating on a different level. The beat is a melting aura that is resuscitated with the puncturing of sharp snares. The obviously pitch shifted vocals felt young, epicurean, and reckless. Name dropping Pimp C, A$AP Yams, Trayvon Martin. These were attempts to still connect with us. Along with the discussion of drugs and relationships. A hedonistic youth is painted for us within the first two minutes.
But as the song evolves, organs lift the song upward and carried Frank’s mentality with him. And by the third minute into Blonde, Ocean emerges with a divinely supernatural sounding quality. His music is removed from the hype, removed from the press, and removed from his fans. His mindset is cogitative and set in the present, revolving around his plights as a person without feeling drenched in the pathos. This new emergence sheds all preconceived notions of his career. The articles speculating his sexuality and his connection to Odd Future are inconsequential. Within the final minute, the light guitar work devolves back into the trap-influenced origin. Spiritual chimes are now sequenced drums. This song is a diptych, peerless as a pop song, and illustrates the endless nature in which Frank Ocean can approach pop music.
During the music video of the song, Frank can be seen wearing Nike Decades. The shoes worn by Heaven’s Gate, the cult who committed mass suicide. A comet passing by was their insight to God. What do their inclusion in the music video represent?
Does it matter? The level of detail Frank Ocean has provided shows his mastery of his artistry and his unrivaled work in pop.The single acts as a mural, full of ideas, brimming with life, ready to unravel as the album continues. – T. Pennington
There’s warmth in relationships, in sexual dominance and of control over oneself and those they’re surrounded with. There’s bliss in pain and of overcoming that pain. There’s warmth in self-love, but as Josiah Wise devastatingly asks, “How can I touch somebody/Who won’t even touch themselves?” In essence, who can be loved when they don’t love themselves? How selfish is it to welcome a lover into your world when your world is bound to hatred and depression? You may want the proverbial oceans to overflow with the love you feel and the love received, but they’ve long overflowed with suffering and loathsome self-deprecation. That can’t be unwritten.
And yet, in spite of this, there is light. The love lingers like a light, despite the memories of the decayed. There’s a horrific polarity between absolute darkness and absolute lightness. Wise, scrambling to find the light, becomes more consumed by the dark. “Can’t draw you no warm bath no more” is a chilling reminder of the fondness lost, the recollections of clarity that cannot be remade. Above all, the light of “four ethers” is a Biblical manifestation of hope told through a narrator forever damned to the inclination of hope – not the reality it can bring. This flickering light is slowly disappearing at the spread and acceptance of an ever-growing darkness.
The Haxan Cloak, purveyor of darkness, elevates serpentwithfeet’s inner monologue. When Wise explodes from frustration and disbelief, a crescendo call roars defiantly. When Wise tangibly bears the burden of being queer, of finding it impossible to hold all that fills him, silence responds, leaving him alone, just as those around him have left him emotionally despondent. There’s no consistency in sound. Just as there’s no consistency in life, or in the warmth of another human. No, the percussion doesn’t maintain, the strings aren’t guessable and patterned. Serpentwithfeet is scattered, anxious, fearful. Everything around him mirrors it. The dramatic swell of love is blinding, overpowering.
But who are we if not a shadow of those we love – a reaction to the things we hate, a desire to avoid becoming the undesirable, the good, especially the bad? “I know you learned some fucked up shit from your mother…I know you picked up some fucked up habits from your father.” Life, given movement by Wise, desires to be filled up with impossibilities, comforting though it is. Accepting of suicidal tendencies, of God or of love at its most deplorable, “four ethers” is a love letter during the Apocalypse, in spite of the Hell happening around and within. Because although we may not understand it, or may not feel we deserve it, who could do without the four ethers? – Zach W.