Margaret Atwood was the first to say that “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It’s infuriating that any man continues to speak after they hear this. This clear divide in gender is worthy of every feminist movement’s rally to close this gap, and Idles is the guerilla punk group that bears down on honesty against the fascists that keep this world divided. “Mother” splits itself into two attacks that target equally septic groups: the talking heads drugging the working class and the pervasive, sexually violent men. Idles brandish a tightly wound style of punk; cascading wildly against the times we live in: the times of body shaming and classism. It’s liberating and confrontational with every utterance of “mother!” and “fucker!”, spewing the freewheeling type of joy you’d get from punching a Nazi.
Sufjan Stevens has had one of the busiest years of his storied career. A soundtrack. A collaboration album about planets. And a collection of B-sides that illustrated why Carrie & Lowell is just as powerful when stripped to its basics. But the out of the blue single “Tonya Harding” found Sufjan returning to his appreciation of American folklore. Whether it’s the harrowing D major version or the lullaby Eb major version, “Tonya Harding” creates a portrait of the ice skater that is intimately close, lucid and starry-eyed. It’s a stoic performance, one that mirrors the ice skater’s grace, and uniquely translates tabloid celebrity into an American fairy tale. It’s the type of songwriting that blurs out any judgment for past actions and opts for a faith in the growth of character. A swelling of strings and bells all are frozen in place as Sufjan’s halcyon interpretation of American legends radiates a deep love for the people behind the myths.
Do we really need a song celebrating boys in 2017, let alone dreaming about being with them? Does the video featuring multiple boys with problematic histories deserve our time and energy? Do boys really need another pedestal to stand on, especially in music? With any other artist, I’d say no. But Charli XCX’s “Boys” is less of a celebration of the quintessential “boy” and more a celebration of being able to express this bubblegum lust. Charli XCX limits boys to objects and excuses she can discard and play around within her mind. The production from Jerker Hansson and Cass Lowe aides in this sparkling appreciation of obsessions with the use of glittery synths and low-key snares that are punctuated with the infectious use of the Super Mario Bros. coin sound. “Boys” is almost juvenile in its simplification, but the ease in which she objectifies boys makes it universal in her infatuation, without the horribleness of actual boys.
Love is a hard thing to recover when someone is gone. It’s like losing a portion of the self, the whole person, the identity you had. Vulnicura was a record that Björk recorded following the separation from her partner, and it’s full of confrontations with the abyss that consumes losses of love. “The Gate” is the first single to be released following her previous, heartbreaking creative arc. And with it, she emerges from that abyss. This single is full of love not restrained to a physical form. Airy flutes and particles of static float around Björk’s unmistakable vocal delivery. But instead of pain in her voice, there’s yearning. A yearning beyond romance for actual connection with everything. It’s a love that gushes outward and is mirrored in Arca’s production as the experimental climax comes alive with otherworldly vibrations and balloons into bizarre territories. “The Gate” is a story of reaching out with a caring touch, fumbling in the dark, and finding a utopia that only exists within the self.
Cycles tend to become more apparent as an artist enters the twilight of their careers. The more albums they produce, the more you can see what ideas they return to. Xiu Xiu’s career started with obscene and blaring noise with a disturbing sense of tenor. Morphing as noise-makers and avant-garde songwriters, Xiu Xiu seemed to have returned to the noisy pop-opera of their beginnings. Aged in the sun. Explicit in baring it all. As if returning and polishing their material to a clear vision is magnifying the truly grotesque moments. “Wondering” rattles with the same quaking voice that Jamie Stewart has provided every Xiu Xiu record, while the shrieking electronics thrust in a sexual death. Stripping Xiu Xiu down to its core elements causes them to coagulate into an austere pop. Confronting it is as rewarding as giving into its visceral pleasures.
Fermenting in the lonely clubs of London, Zoo Kid, also known as DJ ID Sports, also known as Edgar the Beatmaker, also known as Lankslacks, also known as King Krule, has been molding genres together for years. Always shrouded in a shadowy neon, the music of King Krule has hidden behind the precocious personalities of Marshall. But “Dum Surfer” is the scrambling of all his identities into an incoherent story. Punk and jazz swirl together into a thudding, trippy beat and he recalls a drunken night where his brain fizzed into a ghastly mush. With his grotesquely husky voice howling through each verse, Marshall’s slew of production choices tumbles together into a gloomy thrash of a scene. It’s his characters sewn together, oozing out their personalities, without losing each distinct vibe they gave off. The shroud of mystery they possessed is gone. All that’s left is the gonzo, hip-swaying tunes of Archy Marshall.
Mount Eerie is an artist that means everything to me. The songs of Phil Elverum are ones that I’ve let into my home and my body, ones that have transformed me. In 2015, Phil Elverum’s partner, Geneviève Castrée, gave birth to their daughter, and then four months later was diagnosed with inoperable stage 4 cancer. In 2016, she passed away. “Ravens” is the song where Phil Elverum pulls you into him and Geneviève’s life during this aching time. You see the time before this as well. He takes her to Haida Gwaii and they play in a hermetic and spiritual land of fog. And then when she died he takes you there with his child. It’s a crushing realization that grief doesn’t halt the purposes of everything before it. The clothes of a spouse given away appear on the bodies of neighbors. Berries are still collected even when there’s no one to gift them to. Haida Gwaii maintains its presence as a place that they discovered before they had their child. And yet he returns there knowing the grief will emphasize this absence. It’s uncomfortable. No. It’s emotional annihilation. Filled with simple strumming of a guitar and the sound of medical machines pushing out air. It’s something that can’t be unheard, an unreciprocated gift that I don’t know what to do with, but I’ll continue to support an artist who’s grieving when their art helped ease the grief that I’ve had in my life.
Frank Ocean released five singles in 2017, each with official or unofficial remixes or alterations. But it was the first of the singles of 2017 that showed that not only had Frank Ocean perfected the pop song, but he had perfected his artistic vision for what a pop song could be. A rippling beat that is unconcerned if its sung or rapped over. Denying the identity of a rapper or singer, he accentuates his identities in his relationship with his partner. Defying masculinity. Indulging masculinity. Denying black stereotypes, but embracing blackness. “Chanel” shows that it’s not either/or. It’s and/and. Identities aren’t erased, they’re embraced; combined fluidly from moment to moment. Frank’s voice doesn’t try to hide these parallels. They can’t. His prideful flexing of wealth isn’t undercut with the inescapability of harassment too many black men face. And he’s not just another case of harassment. His macho partner shares his hidden feminine side. But is willing to physically fight others as a front. There’s balance in Frank’s performance as he sustains the cadence of a rapper while his voice metamorphoses into a longing for consolidation. Consolidation of identities without losing any of them. Consolidating vices without sacrificing the wholeness of himself. Consolidating desire without losing love. “Chanel” dwells on many ideas, and it’s not perfect. But its flaws reveal the machinations of a pop star who reached a point of mercurial perfection by focusing on the dualities of his identity.
Hunter S. Thompson was the symbol of a blackhole commenting on its time and place. Realizing the crumbling of a culture that birthed him, he drugged himself into oblivion until his objective reality could match his desired subjective one. He couldn’t escape the fall of a generation, but he could survive its decay. And with his famous aphorism “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”, a generation of lost millennials have attempted to hone their personal vision of loss into a way of surviving life. The best at doing this is Lil Uzi Vert. In 2016, he was purple haired, obsessed with fashion, and his relationship with longtime girlfriend Brittany Byrd was coming to its ugly ruin. On the road with The Weeknd’s Starboy: Legend of the Fall tour, face-timing producer TM88, he asked for a pack of beats and for them to be epic. The sixth one was chosen. “XO TOUR Llif3” was born. Released after a leak and its premiere performance in London, Lil Uzi Vert brought a gothic, drugged out nightmare to the public. The lyrics detail a star in a relationship on the fringe, dealing with drug addiction and suicidal inclinations. The hook soars melodically through chiming bells and an emotionally stricken hook, screaming “All my friends are dead/Push me to the edge”. Never before has an artist from this generation taken a song fit for intimate agony and blown it up into a thematic production without losing its potency. The bridge of “XO TOUR Llif3” briefly posits that “I cannot die because this my universe”. This is the line that will be stamped on Uzi’s lost generation. Even when facing a drug crisis, suicide, and personal grief, Lil Uzi Vert can survive it’s harshest moments and proclaim ownership of it all.
As the internet provided connections between individuals around the world, it also muted a part of us. The price we paid for finding others is the harsh reaction of cutting off portions of ourselves. To put yourself online requires you to confront the toxicity of humanity. This decline in sentimentality has been slow, but there have been pockets of joy that almost feel like jokes when in an environment that’s continually embraced schadenfreude. Enter PC Music, a London based record label that emphasized the plastic and tangible connections the internet and music have provided. It’s a label specializing in a sub-genre of electronic and pop music that is unfettered in its happiness, somewhat souring in its approach. It’s overjoyed to the point where it mocks real sentimentality, real emotion. SOPHIE, the shrouded maximalist producer, produced a compilation and a good portion of the music that defined PC Music’s ironic sound. But 2017’s “It’s Okay to Cry” sheds her identity as the mystery, unfeeling auteur. SOPHIE’s voice is here, a hushed, autotune falsetto. Her face is embraced on the cover. The song opens with pianos and synths slowly coaxing out rhapsodic explosions. Drive away the lies, cut to the core. The final 30 seconds, joyously sheds any idea of false feelings, as shooting stars whirl around SOPHIE’s voice trembling with power. “It’s Okay to Cry” is less of a defense of emotion and more of a dam of pathos opening. It’s a single that is a gentle reminder without being weak in its sentiment. And this sentiment is something that was desperately needed in 2017 and will continue to be needed in 2018. Don’t avoid sharing emotions. Cry for your hurt. Cry for your joy. It’s okay.