Once again, I’m back with more music. Per usual, these songs are joined by no theme, but I feel in retrospect that they all sort of capture that heavy energy of the annual Jan/Feb workload and weather, and that tentative hope for summer as we pass the half-way mark of our school-year-long marathon.
It’s been a long month, so a good playlist has been more important than ever as of late, and I’m hoping you might also benefit from some good music to lean on. So, take my recommendations, throw them away, highlight and annotate them or skim them only half-caring because we're at the point in the year where that’s all that some of us can muster, and I won’t judge you. Regardless of how you choose to read them, here they are:
1. Hang On Me by St. Vincent
Really this is a shout-out to the entire MASSEDUCTION album, with special notice for Slow Disco, Pills, Savior, and--of course--Hang On Me. Now, I know what all of you, or maybe none of you, is thinking: “but I hate St. Vincent! She’s so whatever!” and I used to be in that same boat. Frankly, it’s taken a long time for me to find a place for her in my heart. But, now, she’s firmly rooted in there, and she’s not going anywhere, so let me explain how this came to be.
I first became aware of St. Vincent my freshman year when I had the opportunity to see her live on her tour for this very album, and, while I absolutely adored her stage presence and the show itself, I didn’t take much more than a passing interest in her music. I didn’t think about her again until last year when one of my all-time favorite artists Sleater-Kinney released Center Can’t Hold, an album that Annie Clark (St. Vincent) produced. And I didn’t like the album all that much. Not that I am anti-pop by any means, but I knew St. Vincent for the very distinct, pop-y, vibrant, sex-heavy energy of MASSEDUCTION that I don’t really gravitate towards, and I could feel it shining through Sleater-Kinney’s typical punk in Center Can’t Hold. However, this brought St. Vincent back onto my radar, and I decided to give her another try.
MASSEDUCTION seems on the surface to be the cut-and-paste pop effort I first took it for (I was a pretentious 9th grader, I’m so sorry, I’m trying to evolve) with its provocative, all-caps title and neon album cover ft Annie bent over in a cheetah leotard; it seems like a plea for attention, a gimmick, but because it’s overkill, as I came to appreciate, it’s smart, self-aware. And, to smash any lingering predispositions I might’ve had against the album, it opens with one of its strongest, softest, most honest songs of the whole endeavor, Hang On Me.
Hang On Me comes out as a whisper, and the lyrics admit fault, desire, and ask only a simple request: that the subject of the song feel safe enough to release into the singer’s support. Though MASSEDUCTION does then go on to deliver all the glittery, fun tracks she seemed to promise initially, she lays the groundwork with Hang On Me and makes clear the honest intentions for the album. By the end of the 13 tracks, I found myself accepting her request and leaning on MASSEDUCTION, both the pop anthems (Pills, Young Lover, Savior) and the ballads (Slow Disco, Hang On Me) for support through the winter months, and Annie earned the full respect I used to so haughtily snub her of.
2. Brother Sport by Animal Collective
Again, this is nothing new. The final track of Animal Collective’s arguably most popular album Merriweather Post-Pavilion, released in 2009, has made a comeback in my life as of late because it truly is one of the best songs of all time, absolutely, hands down, ever. If you know me, you know I’m pretty much spewing about a different Animal Collective album every month, constantly cycling through them and back again… but guys. Come on! While MPP isn’t my all-time favorite album of theirs, Brother Sport was, I think, crafted by the hands of God themself.
Though the album version is only 6 minutes, a sharp cut from the 11-minute version released earlier as a single, it’s quite a journey. To some, this might seem a long song even in its cut form but I promise, if you just let it play, you will never want it to end. As has defined Animal Collective for the many, many years of their career, Brother Sport is an idiosyncratic combination of glorious harmonies, abrasive noise, and inspiration from all genres that mingle in the hands of Dave Portner and Noah Lennox and come out reborn as something completely natural despite defying all musical rules.
I don’t really know how to summarize this song, but… play it loud. Play it in your headphones. In your car. Wherever. Play it alone, or with friends. It’s literally pure, honest, heartbreaking euphoria. I don’t even know how to talk about it. Oy gevalt.
3. Golden Chords by Deakin
I’m not straying far from the last with this one, a 2016 production by Josh “Deakin” Dibb of Animal Collective, or, as is his solo-artist name, just Deakin (though no--Dibb did not help out on Merriweather Post Pavilion or Brother Sport. He was actually on a break from the band at that time, taking advantage of the band’s formative open-door policy.) Dibb is one of the more mysterious of the Animal Collective members, often seen even as the band’s most expendable since he’s taken so many periods of leave.
This album--Sleep Cycle--is his only released solo work, and it was met with high expectations in the wake of a semi-major scandal: Dibb raised nearly $25,000 to fund a festival/recording trip to Mali in the early 2000s, with promises of an accompanying picture book, only to then provide next-to-no update for the next seven years. He donated all of his funds to charity, then eventually recommitted to the trip--this time almost entirely self-funded. While this initially enraged fans, Dibb admitted later to Pitchfork that “the extended delay was mostly the product of chronic, near-paralyzing self-doubt about the quality of his material and vocal performances.” I mean come on… it’s heartbreaking.
Yet, it was this exact “chronic, near-paralyzing self-doubt” that gave birth to Sleep Cycle, an album in which Dibb works through his anxiety one tentative track at a time. Golden Chords is lined with the acoustic oscillations and natural ambiance of many other Animal Collective works (reminiscent of Man of Oil) grounding the aching lyrics (“You're asking ‘is that something I'm not anymore?’ I tried to shake these broken chords till they turned gold... stop believing your being's been shattered and distorted cause brother you're so full of love”) in a tranquil scene. I really recommend you look up the lyrics to this song if you find yourself interested. As an anxious person, I can say I’ve found some reassurance in the music of this other anxious person as he tries to work through his own doubts, and I’m sure you might too. It’s like a much-needed hug in a song.
4. Someone New by Helena Deland
I don’t have much background on Helena Deland, but I’ll give you what I have. I found her song Claudion, a sugary bedroom-pop lofi single, last year while browsing Spotify’s Music of Montreal playlist. At the time, I didn’t investigate further, but earlier this year the title track from her recent album Someone New came onto my Discover Weekly playlist. I was surprised it was the same artist, this track taking a more acoustic sound than Claudion, turning away from lofi and towards a folk-inspired, gentle, indie direction. Deland’s vocals have the same easy, unstrained range of Billie Marten, and against the bumbling backtrack of Someone New, her voice really shines. As an aside, the chorus of Someone New sort of brings to mind a sweeter rendition of Mega Bog’s Diary of a Rose--another good song---though I’m not sure why.
Really, this song doesn’t go much deeper for me than its palatability and the simple beauty of Deland’s voice. It’s not a revolutionary song, nothing extraordinarily new, or exciting, but it's just so nice I find myself sending it to friends relatively often. The grace with which she hits her higher range and then drops lower than I could comfortably speak, her vocal control, it all adds up to just a very satisfying song.
5. The Great Undressing by Jenny Hval
OK OK OK OK calm down I know it’s a /strange/ /provocative/ title but it’s a really cool song. The Great Undressing comes at the half-way mark of Jenny Hval’s 2016 concept album Blood B*tch which is… about vampires…. Now, I know Twilight is having a bit of a renaissance right now and I will not lie to you, I did rewatch the whole saga, and I AM currently reading Anne Rice’s 1976 Interview With the Vampire, so forgive me. And I love a theme. So when I saw Jenny Hval had a vampire-themed album… yeah… I was excited. Hval is an artist I’ve been loosely familiar with for a few years since first hearing Spells, her most popular song, and recently dove back into (I’ve been having a winter full of revisiting artists and listening through full albums rather than curating playlists and seeking individual songs, as I’m sure you can tell by now).
On Spotify, she’s described as a “mercurial combination of folk, jazz, spoken word, and electronic music” that is “equally unconventional and approachable,” and “her delicate vocals contrast with provocative statements.” Blood B*tch as an album has the moody, gothic, seductive energy of most vampire stories; it follows Hval through a transition from human to vampire (Ritual Awakening, Female Vampire, In The Red) chronicles the novelty of her new existence (Conceptual Romance, Untamed Region) and explores the desires that consequently come to light (The Great Undressing, The Plague, Secret Touch, etc). Under this fantastic guise, Hval explores her own questions of identity and sexuality. It was inspired by 70s horror, exploitation, and the goth and metal scenes of her hometown.
The Great Undressing is my favorite song of the album, as it signifies her shift into fully embracing this new reality, and the song carries this energy. It’s ambient and layered like a club beat as she speaks self-doubts (“you must be disgusted’) and steps into her power (“i’m self-sufficient, mad, endlessly producing”). It begins with a recording of a conversation Hval had with a real friend discussing the concept of the album itself (“What’s the album about Jenny?” they ask, “It's about vampires.” “No!” “Yeah” she laughs, “Well, it's about more things than that but, a large theme of it is—” “That is so basic. ‘It's about vampires!’” “It's about blood…”) And then the song begins, changing as soon as you get comfortable, layering, moving, pulsating, wondering. It’s a really fantastic work taken with the album as a whole or on its own, and her unique, almost gossamer quality is so captivating you won’t even mind the cliché of the subject matter (not that you’d know the vampire motif was there without knowing beforehand of the album’s concept.) So, my Twilight fans and Twilight haters, go forth and give it a listen.
And there you have it. The 5 songs/4 albums that have come out as favorites this past month. It’s a slow, soundscapey mix--there’s not much to scream to, or dance to, except maybe Brother Sport and some of the later half of MASSEDUCTION--but it’s been a long, slow few months, so that feels fitting enough. Hopefully, you’re at least a little intrigued or have discovered at least one song you like, and maybe it’ll be enough to make this final push of spring semester just a little easier.