Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors was one of the highlights of last year. Olsen pretty much never disappoints. Every few years she comes out with a deeper, richer record that the last, both in music and in writing. Angel Olsen makes the kind of records that inspire usually dry and snarky music critics to reach for poetic metaphors: “Behind the parachute silk and dry ice, the smoke and mirrors, stands a record in high emotional definition, its outline becoming sharper by the second.” went Mojo’s review. It may be because Olsen has the voice of a you-know-what, or because she writes lyrics that don’t instantly fall into boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl categories. She simply defies easy description, and that’s why her records are both so hard to write about and so rewarding.
Where do Nick Cave’s death songs and murder ballads come from? Besides life? Why, from folklore. One may not easily think of Nick Cave, the gutterpunk become man of taste, as a student of folk music, but there’s no older narrative than the cautionary tale, it’s the oldest narratives that inform the blues and folk music that everything else is built upon. Cave has turned to mythology and fables many times in his writing, especially the referencing the flawed gods and humans of Greek myth. He uses some of those broadly shared reference points on Ghosteen, an album soaked through, by necessity, with the very personal. He draws the connection between the myths that trace back through millennia, and the very fresh myths that have been minted in living memory; the fable of the King of Rock and Roll may have been played out by people who still live, but it formed the arc of a cautionary tale that has been played by interchanging players ever since humans first learned how to form the events of their lives into interesting and informative narratives. The lesson is we’re all very small, even the Elvises among us, and we keep blundering into the same mistakes and enacting the same tragedies, over and over, and the only thing we know how to do is keep repeating the same stories about it.
Mark Ronson is a superproducer known for having a hand in some of the most memorable records of the past 20 years. (He helped launch the careers of Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Adele, among other luminaries.) His work as a solo artist hasn’t made much of an impression on me up until now. A producer’s job is to make others shine their brightest, not to have a sparkling personality of their own, and a producer’s album is usually only as good as its guest stars. However, I really enjoyed last year’s Late Night Feelings. Not least because it features a stellar collection of guest stars, from Angel Olsen to Miley Cyrus. I liked the general theme of loneliness and heartache – what Ronson describes as “sad bangers” – and the woozy, lowtempo atmosphere. I smell a divorce and/or midlife crisis behind these songs, and it makes it feel more intimate the usual ‘bunch of stars jamming together’ producer vanity record. The guest vocalist in this case is Ilsey, who is also a songwriter and producer who specializes in making other people’s records better.
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.