Here’s a band I’ve never heard of before. Hot Chip formed in 2000, and I’ve never heard of them in all of that time. Apparently, though, their album A Bathfull of Ecstasy was one of the most acclaimed records of 2019, at least in the UK. What I find out about when I start browsing new releases. Admittedly, I only listened to this record because I liked the title, and I was expecting, I don’t know, club music or something. It’s actually exactly the kind of melodic synthpop that I love, and which I think defines the past decade for me, as far as genres go. So, yeah, definitely check out more of these guys.
If there was one phenomenon that nearly everyone could agree on in 2019, it was Lizzo. She is the sensation we’ve all been in need of in these dark times. Wildly gifted, gorgeous, goofy, glamorous, and most of all, bursting with positivity, she’s the literal antidote to depression. In short, it’s very hard not to love Lizzo, and if you can’t find something about her to connect to, no joke there has to be something wrong with you. The only people who had anything bad to say about Lizzo were the sort of fun-hating cave trolls who take personal offense at the idea of a big black woman being unapologetically herself, having fun, supporting other women and being lauded for it. For the rest of us, she offers a great message wrapped in great tunes, and unlike so much so-called ‘positivity culture’, hers is not pap. She’s not just spouting off platitudes; it’s the hard-won lessons of someone who got tired of being shamed by the world for existing in a shape and color that wasn’t just exactly the correct shape and color designated to earn ‘approval’, and decided that the whole concept of waiting and striving and forcing yourself to somehow become worthy of some nebulous hypothetical approval was bunk, and the only approval a girl needs is her own and that of her familiars, and that without the boulder of self-loathing that women are brainwashed into carrying around life is %10,000 better. It’s not something you learn from an Instagram post. It’s wisdom you learn by living it. The spread of self-love and self-empowerment wisdom might just be the only thing worth celebrating right now.
The Norwegian singer Aurora has been one of my favorite new discoveries this year. I’ve been drawn towards Scandinavia in general lately, for whatever reason. I’ve been listening to a lot of records by Royksopp, Karin Dreijer, Ionnalee, and – of course- Robyn. There’s something, collectively, about their cerebral take on electronic music. Aurora is a great addition to that roster, with her eerie vocals and evocative compositions. Maybe it’s the cold pure northern air that inspires so many chilly soundscapes, or maybe just the depressive effects of so many months spent wearing woolen socks. Whatever it is, it speaks to me.
Thanks to internet culture, and social media, and technology, and, like, the world being what it is, we now have Emo Rap. Which is exactly what you think it is; a genre that combines the fun stuff of rap, such as rapping, with the emotionally heavy stuff of emo, such as suicidal depression. Aka it’s the most post-millennial, post-cultural, post-post-everything musical genre that encapsulates what the youth of today are thinking and feeling. Hint, they’re angry and depressed. All this is exemplified here, by Hobo Johnson, a young millennial Mexican-American Californian who took his stage name from being homeless. I discovered his work because Spotify allows you to see what your friends are listening to, and a lot of them were listening to Hobo Johnson. Apparently, his best known song is about buying a Subaru, which both parodies hip-hop’s gauche obsession with luxury cars, and speaks to the lived experience of the artist and his young fans. (More about that song later.) You may not have to like it – I’m not entirely sure I do – but it’s a product of our cultural moment and fascinating as such.
Not much among this year’s album releases excites me more than the long-awaited return of The Raconteurs. Jack White is always at his best when he brings together a strong team of collaborators, and with the Raconteurs, he’s got not only great collaborators, but also great mates. It has been 11 years since their last album together. A lot has changed in a lot of ways, obviously. Not least, as White himself pointed out, is that everybody’s a lot older now. The wonder boy is a middle-aged man now, and has to live not only with his personal failings but also the collective failure of his generation. It is right on point and right on time to release a song with “I’m not dead yet” as a refrain. That’s about as bushy-tailed as any of us can expect to get nowadays. Well, at least we have The Raconteurs still producing the feelsy blues-rock they’re known for as if no time had elapsed, though there may be more songs about depression and maybe not as many hooky melodies as there were in 2006. And the thing about blues and blues-based music, is that it’s always been about depression and spiritual reckoning. That’s why it keeps on coming around.
Representing the glacial soundscapes of Scandinavia, is my new-ish discovery Jonna Lee. You may or may not know her as the mastermind of the electronic music performance art project iamamiwhoami, or for her collaborative work with Röyksopp. She founded her own record label, To whom it may concern, and has been associated with the avant-garde fashion company Comme des Garcons. She also records as ionnalee, which is the identity behind her fourth album, Remember the Future. She is, obviously, a real renaissance woman. Her music ranges from the catchy nearly-pop-oriented you hear here, to surreal, ambient and mildly disturbing. I don’t know if Lee is entirely representative of the Swedish music scene, but she is definitely the vanguard of what the Swedish music scene is most successfully exporting. It’s atmospheric, conceptual musical art that is also accessible to pop audiences. It’s music that’s emotionally versatile, good for dancing and good for relaxing, equally.
It’s a challenge keeping up with the stream of new releases. There’s just so much that comes out, and a lot of it stays under the radar unless you’re lucky enough to stumble upon it. Amongst all that, it’s particularly hard to predict which new records will turn out to be keepers. It’s too early to call the field at this point in the year, but so far I’ve enjoyed a couple of records enough to play them twice. The National’s I Am Easy to Find is one such record. It is, of course, just The National doing what The National does. It’s an hour of sadness and gloom, which may not be everybody’s idea of a hot summer album. Nobody does sadness quite like Matt Berninger. Nobody takes it seriously, nobody wants to make a career out of being seriously sad. But I still want to hear a really good sad album, and my sad record library doesn’t get much fresh restock. So I think it’s safe to say that this record will find its way into heavy rotation next time I feel like I have something to cry about.