Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt was one of my favorite records from last year, and I think that it’s going to be a keeper. You can say, derisively, that Moby’s records all kind of sound the same, which, well… yeah. Nobody wants him to make a hardcore punk rock album. We want him to keep making atmospheric dreampop about aesthetically pleasing lite sadness. Because I really honestly cannot get enough of this ethereal moodiness.
Stardom and success has made many a creative get all meta about the how, the why, and the who for of their work. Where does the successful artist stand, in the world, when they no longer have to define themselves by their struggle to be seen? What kind of symbiosis does the artist develop with the fans who consume his artwork? It is all too, too existential. This kind of self-deprecating angst is exactly Father John Misty’s bread and butter, and he may be a slight bit ironic as he ponders these questions, but also he’ll have you know that these questions do weigh heavy upon his brow. He knows it’s what his fans expect. He’s carved out a place for himself as one of the now-rare ‘serious songwriter’ types whose work invites heavy pondering. He knows, too, that ‘take me seriously’ poetic posturing by rock singers is kind of absurd and just really can’t be taken seriously. Thus, pondering about who is he to be in his place and who we are to have put him there. And so on in an indefinite loop.
I can easily imagine Lissie as a folksinger in the 1960’s, singing at sit-ins and protest marches. She has a big voice, an ability to write big choruses, a tendency towards earnestness, and a prairie-girl sense of style. All of which would have put her right at home at Newport Folk Festival or a beat cafe in the Village. But Lissie is right at home right where she is. She’s comfortable enough strumming her guitar, but not afraid of some synths either. What I like about Lissie as an artist is that she doesn’t lean too heavily on any one thing. Yes, she can be earnest, but she can be witty and irreverent too. She can go all country and write something that sounds like a Faith Hill demo, but she can also turn around and do something that sounds more like Sylvan Esso. She can write a catchy-as-all-hell, stadium-ready chorus but then underplays it so it’s not all bombastic. Even her cowgirl vibes she comes by honestly: she’s from Iowa. She could probably sell a lot more records if she chose to squeeze herself entirely into one the many boxes that fit her, but she chooses to not choose a box. That’s really what makes her such an real and refreshing voice.
I’m tempted to go back and retroactively add Neneh Cherry’s Broken Politics to my list of the best records of 2018. But I didn’t discover this record until pretty recently, so I’ll just say that this year it’s one of my favorite new discoveries. ‘New’ is all relative, of course; Cherry is 55 and used to be a member of the trailblazing female punk band The Slits. If she sounds like she sprang fully formed from the digital whirlpool of right now, it’s a testament to her hear for what ‘right now’ is.
Elle King got famous in 2015 for having the rollicking slut-pride anthem of the year. Then she found out, as many before her have done, that sudden fame exacerbates one’s worst impulses to the thousandth degree. King went on the rookie pop star roller-coaster of self-destruction: heavy drinking, burned bridges, self-recrimination, another bender, rinse, repeat, rehab. It took the steam out of her career, but it did give her material for a more mature second album. Facing down demons has always been a songwriter’s right of passage, and Elle King is working to ascend the pinnacles of blue-eyed soul. She may not be up there with Joplin and Winehouse, and if she wants to continue being alive, she shouldn’t aspire to it. But she did make a really good confessional rock album, and hopefully she’ll be able to mine more from her journey.
Is it a blessing or a curse when edgy artists suddenly go mainstream? On one hand, niche artists who happen to fluke into wide popularity often find themselves either pandering to the masses or flailing around to get their original voice back. On the other hand, the mainstream needs regular infusions of weirdness and irregularity to keep it keeping up. If there’s one thing the wider market needs, it’s more queer women’s voices from diverse backgrounds. Enter Janelle Monae, who’s been doing her freak thing out on the edge for a long time, and now she’s got one of the biggest and most acclaimed records of the year. The thing with Monae, though, isn’t that she got lucky with a fluke groove or – god forbid – sold out her aesthetic to become more appealing. She got wildly popular because the world was ready for her. The public didn’t used to take an interest in what a crazy black girl had to say about pushing gender boundaries, same-sex love or being a female artist in a still-very-normative world. Now the tides have changed, and people want to hear as many voices as they can, anything but the same old white-guy angst. The experience of being young, black, gay and creative in a world that is unstable, swiftly-changing and dangerous to differences is suddenly very relevant, and not just to people who’ve lived that particular experience. It’s relevant to anyone who’s come to the realization that the pop cultural figures they’ve been told to relate to are garbage. We’ve been living in a tyranny of forced empathy, being told from childhood that the most valid, universal and important human experience is the puberty-pain of middle-class white males, and we’re fucking sick and bored of it, and we want to learn about other people, and we want to be heard for our own stories. And we want more music and pop culture that reflects that. It’s not a matter of the outsiders storming in at the expense of the old classics, it’s just the Zeitgeist being ready.
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.