1. Pinegrove – Cardinal
Cardinal is an album for those who feel lost. Evan Stephens Hall – vocalist and lyricist – writes songs like the stream-of-conscious musings of a hyper-self-conscious 20-something college grad who’s acutely aware of where and how he should be and where and how exactly he actually is. Take “Old Friends,” opener and initial sucker-punch of the album: it starts off with the narrator”walkin outside labyrinthian over/cracks along under the trees” in a town he ” know[s] . . . grounded in a compass.” There are intimations of romantic trouble – “I kept sayin i just wanted to see you/sayin what’s wrong with that?” – that quickly turn explicit in the second verse, with the speaker seeing “your boyfriend at the port authority” (notably and amusingly, “a sort of fucked up place”), coming back from her place, and detailing his reaction: “I feel like we could forget about it/I feel like I could mellow out/I don’t feel undone in a big way/there’s nothing really bad to be upset about.” I don’t feel like I’m overreaching when I say that this string of lines captures, acutely, the talking-down that occurs when you’re trying to get over something (or, perhaps, when you feel like you already have) and an event occurs that reminds you that are most assuredly not over it. The reasoning with yourself – “there’s nothing really bad to be upset about” – and the wish to remain calm – “feel like I could mellow out” – sound, reader, like something straight out of this hyper-self-conscious 20-something college grad’s brain. Maybe you can relate. All of this, including a repeating refrain bemoaning the fact that”every outcome’s such a comedown,” culminates in, well, some sort of epiphany, the kind that seems blindingly obvious to someone on the outside, maybe, but that gets lost when you’re caught up inside your own head – inside one of your, as Hall puts it, “solipsistic moods.” So, yes, that “epiphany”:
“I should call my parents when I think of them.
I should tell my friends when I love them.
Maybe I should’ve got out a bit more
when you guys were still in town,
but I got too caught up in my own shit.”
Read almost any review of this album, and you will find the writer remarking on this moment. That’s because it’s one of the more arresting parts of the album, partly because of how it comes on unexpectedly (and is all the more moving because of it) and partly because it exemplifies the casual confessional tone of Hall’s lyrics. For all of his self-conscious ramblings and all of his heightened vocabulary and all of his words (and, yes, there are a lot of words on this album: it’s overflowing with them), Hall still comes out – perhaps can only come out – with something so simple, lines that could be slandered as sentimental or cliche or perhaps just naive but that are nonetheless, well, true. Cardinal is partly, maybe even mostly, about the tortured labyrinth of thoughts that emerge within solipsism and about the struggle to get out of it all. Hall may have a rich inner voice, but the conflict of the album comes from trying to translate that voice into something outside of himself: into an actual connection with someone(s) else, yes, but also just into a simple fucking conversation that isn’t layered with an awareness of awkwardness or of saying something wrong. (The centerpiece of the album is called “Aphasia,” after all, a condition that impairs the “production or comprehension of speech.“)* And perhaps this is where my writing on this album sheds more light on myself than the music. Maybe the reason I’ve listened to Cardinal so much and continue to listen to it is because of how intimately I can relate to it all. And yes, this album/band checks off every box of “Things I Love in Music”: a guitar-heavy sound reminiscent of “indie rock” mixed with 90s alt-country, super literate lyrics, a unique vocalist whose strength lies in melodic lines that sound like casual conversation but that reflect a polished sense of melody. But I’ve come back to it over and over and over again mostly because it’s an album that provides solace and guidance. Am I really “lost”? No, not quite: I have a stable job; I have stable friendships (although I could definitely use more); I know where I’m going and what I’m doing with myself. Yet despite these things, there is still, ever-present, a feeling of drift, of negotiating within myself where I am and where I could be, whether that be mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or just in my relationships with others. Call it what it is: the existential drift of being 23. So when I put this album on for the umpteenth time and I hear Hall sing about “walkin’,” well, I know that feeling. Walking, always. Striving, always.
*Then, too, there’s that romantic conflict mentioned in the very first song, which seems to come back in the penultimate track (and, in my opinion, the best), “Size of the Moon,” a song that dwells less on language and more in memory (nostalgia?), another side-effect – or maybe cause – of solipsism.
2. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
And Kanye West releases yet another album that is wholly unique. Say what you will about his public persona, Kanye never fails to release an album that is undeniably Kanye: filled with inner conflict, stellar collaboration with other artists, production and musical choices that bend the rules of mainstream rap music, and, yes, a disturbing undercurrent of misogyny, an analysis of which would take up a whole other post. While I will not defend the grossest of Kanye’s lines on this album, the most infamous being the much talked-about reference to Taylor Swift, I will note that if one actually looks beyond the headline-grabbing portions of the album, one will find a Kanye that is just as tormented as he was on Yeezus. Yes, the sound has changed – indeed, TLOP seems to incorporate all of Kanye’s past sounds while reaching for something new – but the inner turmoil – the guilt, the womanizing, the questionable dedication to matrimony, the simultaneous hatred and love of fame – remains. That is what continues to fascinate me about Kanye’s music: the rawness of it. He’s not quite Knausgaard, but he shares a fascinating willingness to put himself out there and to admit his ambitions, as well as his faults, while in the course of trying to fulfill them. For all his faults, Kanye remains a fascinating figure for me. TLOP as an album reflects the scattered, contradictory impulses that drive the man who made it: it veers wildly from tone to tone, with many songs feeling on first listen as if they’re unfinished or at the very least undercooked. The transition from opener “Ultralight Beam,” one of Kanye’s very best songs (and, ironically, one that he barely even appears on), into “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” illustrates this “inconsistency” well enough: Kanye goes from one of his most religious songs ever, and one of the most “fully-formed”-sounding of the record, into a song that starts with a line about having sex with a model who just “bleached her asshole.” (I’ll take this moment to acknowledge Tom Breihan’s great, “premature” assessment of TLOP at Stereogum, wherein he discusses the influence of religion on this album, specifically the effects of the pull of sin and the guilt that arises from it. It’s by far one of the most interesting assessments of this album that I’ve seen, but, then again, I’m typically drawn to well-written, well-thought-out pieces on Christianity in pop culture.) Yet for all of this, the album still feels like it works. The “scattered” sound of the first 2/3 of the album only make the last third, starting with “FML,” all the more powerful, all the more engrossing in their bleakness. Like all of Kanye’s albums before this, TLOP has moments that provoke sheer exuberance at how brilliant the music can be*, but while those moments do keep me coming back to listen, I’m drawn back the most by the combination of the music and the unflinching look at Kanye himself and all his foibles. Say what you will about his public persona or about the lyrical blunders, Kanye’s music as a whole overwhelmingly shows that he is, underneath it all, very much still a human being. It’s that pulsing undercurrent of humanity that keeps me coming back and that instills The Life of Pablo with what power it does have.
* Pretty much everything about the music in “Famous” fits this description, as well as Chance The Rapper’s verse on “Ultralight Beam,” as well as that beat on “Real Friends,” as well as that Arthur Russell sample on “30 Hours,” as well as . . .
3. Mothers – When You Walk a Long Distance You are Tired
I saw Mothers play in Chattanooga in January, and I knew by the time they were done playing that their album would be one of the best of the year. I was right. Their song “It Hurts Until It Doesn’t” became, over the course of the last four months of 2015, an all-time favorite of mine. Its inclusion on here only strengthens an already strong album. Hailing from Athens, Mothers’ music possesses a poetic ambiguity reminiscent of that other Athens band, arguably the Athens band, R.E.M., specifically the R.E.M. of Chronic Town and Murmur. No, Mothers does not sound “jangly,” but they do have the mystery of early R.E.M.: just as on Murmur, there is emotion here, a deep emotion, that can be felt beneath the layers of symbolism and allusive lyrics. Not that it’s all ambiguous: Kristine Leschper’s lyrics can also be startlingly direct, as in the end of “It Hurts Until It Doesn’t,” when she repeats over and over: “I don’t like myself when I’m awake.” When You Walk . . . is a heavy record, one that feels deeply personal, with lyrics crafted in the shadow of specific, heartbreaking events. Yet there is nonetheless an uplift to be found by the end. Closer “Hold Your Own Hand” is very much in line with the rest of the album, but its ending is one of the few moments on the album where something like true catharsis shines through: an acknowledgement of past pain and a potential hope for the future. The balance of the two makes the conclusion feel, above all, earned, with the album as a whole feeling like the type of journey alluded to in the title. Yes, there is tiredness, but there is also relief. Were you to find this album at the right time, I would imagine it would feel more like the latter than the former.
4. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, for You are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
The 1975 are a divisive band, the type of band I’d be slightly embarrassed to admit among certain company that I listen to as much as I do. Their reputation as a “boy band” is well-established and, honestly, well-earned, given the image projected in live performances. One could also, understandably, view them as unbearably pretentious, especially given the title of this album and the views espoused by frontman Matt Healy in interviews. Yet, damn it, this album is actually good. And yes, I thought the last one wasn’t too shabby either, but I Like It . . . is undeniably a huge leap forward for a band pigeonholed for the past few years as merely a pretentious pop group. (A stereotype that, notably, doesn’t really take into account the EPs, made up mostly of electronic pop music that bordered on ambient at times, released before their self-titled debut.) This album contains multitudes, switching from a rip-off of Bowie’s Let’s Dance-era sound to borderline cheesy-sounding 80s ballads to long (and I mean long) stretches of ambient/electronic reminiscent of Jon Hopkins (a noted influence on the album), Four Tet, and the like. It is impressively diverse, and what is even more impressive is that, on the whole, The 1975 pull it all off. Is it too long? Yeah, probably. But this is both an album and a statement, one which could not be made if this album were not what it is. It’s exciting to see a band try to pull off something like this, whatever its flaws – the number of which are, to my mind, surprisingly few. The 1975 simply don’t give a fuck about your expectations. You should listen to this album with that in mind. You may find yourself enjoying it far more than you ever expected to.
5. Kevin Devine – Live at St Pancras Old Church (May 2015)
Is it cheating to put a live album, made up entirely of songs already released on studio albums, on a list like this? Maybe so. But Kevin Devine has long been my favorite artist – someone whose music not only speaks to my experiences and everyday emotions in life but whose own self makes me want to be a better person. In his music, Devine acknowledges the struggles of living fully aware in an age of distraction, of striving to do better in an age of disillusion, of trying one’s best to connect with others when there are so many impediments to doing so. Off the stage, in the several times I have talked to him, he has maintained a graciousness, an air of kindness and openness and humor, that makes one feel that you could tell him everything and receive an understanding ear – as well as just the type of wisdom you need to hear at that moment. (Indeed, I’ve seen him do this, several times.) Live at St Pancras Old Church is, frankly, a stellar collection of some of Devine’s best songs: “You’ll Only End Up Joining Them,” “Between The Concrete & Clouds,” “Redbird,” “Carnival,” and “Brother’s Blood.”* And that’s not counting the 16 bonus tracks included on the digital edition, an abundant of riches in themselves. While Devine has always had an incredibly tight backing band (called, yes, The Goddamn Band), he and his songs are still just as good, in some cases even better, when performed solo. I truly believe Devine is one of the best songwriters of our time, and the solo performances on this album are solid proof of that. Performed solo, it’s the words that are front and center, and Devine’s lyrics have always been stunningly good, detailing in spot-on detail relationships of all types: the relationship one has with one’s self, with family, with friends, with lovers, all remarked on with a clear understanding of how those relationships impact areas of politics, religion, and society as a whole. Maybe an album like this works just as well as other albums – Brother’s Blood, Bubblegum, Put Your Ghost to Rest, and Make The Clocks Move, to cite numerous examples provided by others – as an entry point into his discography. But whether you start with this album or start with one of the others listed above, I will simply say that you should listen to Kevin Devine in whatever way you can.
*I’ll note here that the video of “Brother’s Blood” linked above is quite possibly my favorite live video of all time.