I wasn’t there when Neneh Cherry’s debut album Raw Like Sushi was a critics’ darling in 1989. I wasn’t around to question why, instead of becoming an R’n’B sensation, Cherry only made four more albums. As far as I’m concerned, Neneh Cherry is a brand new artist fresh off the boat from Sweden. I only found out about her new record Broken Politics because some critic thought it was one of the year’s best. And much to my surprise, it was. It takes a special kind of giftedness to write a sexy slow-jam about deep vein thrombosis, but Cherry does it. (Go ahead look up Deep Vein Thrombosis by Neneh Cherry, I’ll wait.) Imagine my surprise to learn that this gifted rising star is a woman of 55 who had her shot at pop stardom in 1989, decided it wasn’t for her, and has been quietly honing her chops on her own terms ever since. Obviously, I regret not paying attention sooner.
My blog doesn’t always reflect my listening habits in real time, so you probably didn’t know that I had been listening to K.Flay just about every day in 2018. Yeah, her and Yaeji. Blood in the Cut was a suitable soundtrack for a mental breakdown. Kristine Flaherty is by no stretch of the imagination a good singer, which is painfully apparent when she performs live, and her white lady rap skills are no match for Debbie Harry’s. Her strength lies in her confessional songwriting, and her trainwreck-next-door charisma. She will remind you, painfully, of yourself at your worst times; or of your most dysfunctional friend, the one who can never quite stop spinning her wheels. There are a lot of confessional female singer-songwriters these days – a lot! – becoming critical darlings by laying out their feelings, but most of them belong to a tradition of ladies being sad in a genteel and harmless manner, acceptably doe-eyed and acoustic and vaguely reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. K.Flay belongs to a much smaller contingent, the ones who fly their “fuck you I’m a drunk slut” flag loudly and proudly and trace their lineage to riot grrrl and punk rock and old school hip-hop. Being sad isn’t a genteel conversation with an acoustic guitar, it’s a lonely and drunken journey of dark nights and splitting headaches and barely remembered sex with ugly people. For some people life is a quest to wring themselves into some kind of shape, and a drive to redeem your shitty experiences by bleeding it all into art. That’s what being a rock star stems from: just being a fucking rock star, even if you’re homely and can’t sing.
I just realized that I haven’t been doing much to introduce new artists lately. That’s partly because of the hassle of updating my playlist format as I change over from iTunes to Spotify. Like, seriously, that shit is tedious. But trust that I have very much been making a big effort to keep up with and take note of new releases and exploring new artists. (This is something that using Spotify gives me a leg up on, so yay for that.) From here on out, I’m going to be more actively filtering more new content in with the old faves. Today, here is someone I discovered last year, and if y’all’s public playlists are any indication, a lot of you are in love with her too: Kacey Musgraves. Okay, she’s not exactly an unknown off of the street here; she’s won a basketful of Grammy awards, and her album was one of 2018’s most acclaimed. Still, she’s a relative newcomer who didn’t break mainstream until recently. I think she represents what I hope is the future of country music, and not just alt-country or roots-country or whatever you want to call it, I’m talking about what they actually play on the radio. That future is young, female, empowered, and progressive. We really, really need this next generation of young artists to wipe away the pandering beer’n’tractors cliches and the stink of unwashed MAGA hats. Mainstream country music has for far too long been a last bastion of glorified toxic masculinity and thinly coded bigotry. We need young artists like Musgraves who can write tuneful songs with mass appeal, minus the redneck posturing, and with something relevant and positive to say.
Remember when MGMT was, like, the next big hot thing? And then it turned out that they were too weird and eccentric to be major mainstream hitmakers, and the press was all like, “where did they go?” Well, they didn’t go anywhere very far. They just stayed weird. Little Dark Age is their first record in five years, and an aptly titled one at that. It’s not going to recapture the freak popularity of Kids, but nobody is asking for that anyway. It’s exactly what you signed up for as an MGMT fan; it’s humorous and spacey and catchy, psychedelic pop with a spring in its step. I don’t know if it’s going to become one of the most remembered records of the year, but certainly it was one of the most welcome upon arrival. It’s happy music for unhappy times, and honestly, that’s actually a lot to ask for.
It’s nice to see that Robert Plant has repented some of his old ways. Not so much the rampant plagiarism, which is what he should be repenting for, but definitely his old desire to be as ear-piercing and bombastic as possible. If anyone had to lay their money down, back in the day, it would have seemed like a good bet that Plant would be one of the ones who didn’t age well, still whipping his shirt off and screaming about his juicy lemons at the age of 700. Yet here he is, looking quietly dignified as he croons pastoral songs with lots of strings and harpsichords. Also you have to admire his refusal to hit the nostalgia circuit. A Led Zeppelin reunion stands to collect what has to be about a year of God’s salary. It takes a pretty big man to not jump all over that payday. It’s just nice to see an old god do well and not act stupid.
So it seems that St. Vincent got saved from what she wanted, but she’s not going to be anyone’s savior. Or something. I doubt that it’s a conscious throughline. Maybe you can hear the artist growing as a person, though I personally don’t parse St. Vincent’s lyrics all that closely given that she’s adamantly not a gut-spiller. You can certainly hear the person growing as an artist, though. There’s a difference between the sound of a relative beginner who’s still building her sound, and a confident artists who’s very clear about who she is and what she wants to sound like. Her latest record was so universally praised and acclaimed it feels obvious to say that it was one of the year’s best and a new height for her blah blah blah, but it really was. Here is an artist in full control of her aesthetic, and that’s a marvelous thing to behold.
Bjork’s Utopia was one of the most acclaimed records of 2017, but not by me. Nobody has been stopping me on the street to ask why I didn’t love the new Bjork album, but here it is anyway: too many birdsong sound effects and woodwinds. Yes, I know I was just saying that I’m in favor of woodwinds and want to hear more of them in general, but a word to the wise, woodwinds should never be combined with birdsong sound effects lest you summon the vengeful spirit of Enya. When I put on a Bjork album, I don’t want to hear Music for Yoga Studios. Bjork is nothing if not an edgy artist, and if anybody can make it work with the nature sounds and overall spirit of optimism, it is she. But if her last record – which I adored – was the Big Breakup Album of her career, this is her Buck Up Sister and Put Yourself Back Out There album, and I’m happy for her that she’s gotten herself to that point. You’re still young, Bjork, you’ve got so much to offer and I promise you, you’ll find love again, with someone who truly deserves and appreciates you. Now get back to making music that’s dark and discomfiting.