Small Bill$

Regina Spektor named her first major label album Soviet Kitsch, way back in 2004, but she’s never leaned into it as heavily as she does here. Not that she needs a gimmick to differentiate herself from all of those other girls with pianos, but she’s got a cultural arsenal nobody else does. Why not imagine a metropolis of bears? It is accurate, and it gives a little edge to an otherwise very gentle satire. There’s nothing to imply that there’s anything wrong with spending all your money on chips and Coca-Cola except the tone of her voice, but it’s not what bears should be doing and all of this post-industrial materialistic excess is wrecking their otherwise vibrant lifestyle. Or something. Anyway, it obviously warms my heart a lot.

Skeleton Tree

Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree is such a cold plunge into despair, it feels wrong to be listening to it on a sunshiny Sunday morning. Cave has always been a downer, from the circumstances of his birth to the blessing of his name. But this time he has outdone himself. Through no choice of his own, it must be said. It was ugly karma indeed that struck the man who’d always so gleefully imagined stories of tragedy and mayhem. Nick Cave, like a Biblical or ancient Greek hero, is mourning a son. Personal circumstances are often too nifty an explanation for whatever twisted paths an artist’s creativity takes, but if there’s one thing that’s unlikely to be underestimated, it’s untimely death. What, if anything, Nick Cave will find to write about after this, time will tell.

Sister

I’ve been listening my way through some year-end best-of lists – NPR, Pitchfork – and I notices that plaintive confessional singer-songwriters still predominate. They all sound exactly the same, of course, a they all write about the same thing. What sets Angel Olsen apart as artist working more or less in confessional singer-songwriter mode? It might be that her songs don’t all sound the same; changing tempos and mixing up styles is a good way to make a record that people will want to listen to more than once, so she’s got that going for her. It might be because she has an emotional range beyond ‘plaintive and sad’, or that she’s not always singing in upper register. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I just like her voice. That beings said though, this is a very plaintive and sad confessional singer-songwriter ballad, and if you’re going to listen to that particular genre, it doesn’t get much better than this, and I say that both as a compliment to Angel Olsen and a detriment to the genre.

Sinner’s Prayer

Welp, Lady Gaga is an Oscar nominee now. Our Mother Monster is growing up! I have not seen the alleged cinematic masterpiece that is A Star is Born, but I listened to the soundtrack album, and on its own terms it’s really… kind of terrible. I am still, as a fan, very proud of Gaga for the growth she’s shown in her career. She has outgrown, in leaps and bounds, her beginnings as a purveyor of provocative pop songs. She always described herself as an artist who happened to become a pop star, and that rings true. All that growth, obviously, has to be reflected in her music and writing, and it’s cliche but true that her last album was her most vulnerable and mature. But I doubt that she’ll ever really outgrow her flair for the dramatic, or her flamboyance, or her love for huge choruses and bombastic power ballads and four-to-the-floor hooks.

Siberian Nights

The Kills’ frontwoman Alison Mosshart is singlehandedly keeping the mystique of the rock chick alive. For which I salute her. I need the inspiration of attitude, and rock chick attitude is in short supply. There will always be rock chicks on fashion runways, it seems, because it’s an easy sell. Who doesn’t want to look like they slept in their eyeliner? But there’s never enough rock chicks actually rocking. You gotta actually walk in those Doc Marten boots, you gotta actually sleep with your makeup on and cut your hair with sewing scissors, and crash through life sincerely not giving a fuck, and make music about it. Live the life, girls, live the life.

Shut Up Kiss Me

I like a love song that’s straightforward and makes sense. Nothing makes more sense than “shut up, kiss me, hold me tight.” Angel Olsen is definitely one of the best singer-songwriters we’ve got around right now. She likes to play around with different styles and perspectives, which is, of course, the cream that keeps the coffee interesting. Intellectual polish and unvarnished emotion are kind of a ‘pick just one’ proposition, pop music being very one-track-minded most of the time. You can put My Woman on your playlist of records for smart girls with tender hearts.

Shroud

If you only have time to discover one earnest singer-songwriter, let it be Lissie. You may know how I generally feel about earnest singer-songwriters: they tend to be boring in their earnestness. Lissie is a bit of a music industry outsider. She lives in rural Iowa and doesn’t spend much time making the rounds of music festivals and late night talk shows to promote herself. There’s something of the humbleness of her life that shows in her music, and it makes her writing feel so refreshing. When it feels like even the most heart-on-sleeve confessional songwriters are trying to hit some targeted mark that will earn them a Honda commercial or a minute and a half on the soundtrack of a cable dramedy, real sincerity seems in short supply. I admire a songwriter who can lay out their feelings without descending intro trope, and Lissie is definitely one such songwriter. Because of her modesty, I had no idea that she released a new album this spring. I just ordered it. I have complete faith that it’s going to be excellent.