I can see Morrissey having an alternate career singing lounge jazz. If he had more musicality and less dysfunction, he could have made it on the cocktail lounge scene for sure. He would, of course, be a very a very campy lounge singer, perhaps the kind who specializes in warming up the crown before a drag show. Alternate universe. As it is, Morrissey turned out to be a campy old queen of a very different stripe, and he certainly made his mark with the choices he made. It’s his life to wreck in his own way, after all.
This is certainly the call to arms you need to hear while browsing at Hot Topic. Morrissey encourages you to stick it to the man in the quietest, most unobtrusive way possible. Meanwhile, I would not be surprised to find that ‘shoplifting’ is some obscure north of England palare for acts of a homosexual nature. “A listed crime” you say? Well, no doubt, stealing is a crime, and if you were to confess that you’ve got a sticky set of five fingers, that would be a fine double entendre too. You could be stealing some nice boy’s virtue. Yes, indeed, this is some of the most thinly coded gay agitprop to be seen on English television in Our Year of the Lord 1987 (very much not a good year for gay people.) I’m sure that it was, to those that got it, discreetly incendiary. I suspect that Morrissey’s swaying hips are still enough to set gay sadboys’ hearts aflutter with validation. I mean, it works well enough for those of us who are merely sad and romantically discombobulated without the extra burden of needing code words for it. Morrissey’s brand of bedsitter emo – miserabalism – knows no sexual boundaries (because his fans don’t have sex and when they do they hate it, haha) which may be why he’s never publicly committed to having a sexual orientation. When he quipped that genitalia is a cruel joke, his words rang true. But really, it’s the heart that is a cruel joke, and the genitals are just its unruly henchmen.
So somebody really likes Scandinavia a lot. This is Morrissey, who is not given to liking things a lot. It’s also a very melodramatic song, I would almost even say bombastic. Which are things late-stage Morrissey is very much given to. He likes being pompous is his old age. Frankly, I can understand if you no longer want to see or hear anything about him at this point. A lot of people think Morrissey stopped being relevant a very long time ago and needs to just go quietly already. I would agree except that he still finds time to write the occasional song that just speaks to me and my mental state. Or, failing to be emotionally on-point, he’s still frequently very funny. A lot of us keep coming back just for the wordplay. There’s just not enough articulate songwriting in the world, and nobody writes lines like Morrissey.
Some songs are composed on piano, some on guitar; this one was composed on a secondhand typewriter. That’s because Morrissey is not a musician and doesn’t play any instruments. He could, of course, just go around with a notepad like a normal-person, but in Morrissey’s world, it’s all about the aesthetics. And the image of the poet with his dry toast and his tea and his battered typewriter pretty much defines the aesthetic of The Smiths, and by extension, their fandom. Sad, but proud of it. Devoutly romantic but too socially useless to do anything about it. I too spent my teenage years clicking away on a thrift store typewriter. It’s wildly impractical, but the sound is very satisfying. It’s a great hobby for someone who spends too much time alone and really only sees other people as vague abstractions and doesn’t have any ambitions in life besides appearing poetic. My teenage self was not a Smiths fan. I just lived a Morrissey-approved lifestyle.
I love Morrissey’s references to boys with pretty white necks. It’s both sexy and self-consciously glib. And he has got quite a pretty white neck himself, which isn’t meant to be lost on anyone. The winking and nodding to pretty boys’ bodies – coming from a pretty boy who claimed that his pain is too grand for mere labels of sexual orientation – was naughty and subversive, and as telling as you wanted it to be. Morrissey will probably never ‘come out’ the way some people are still rooting for him to do, nor should he; the business of pinning down personal identity is dreadfully dreary when you don’t particularly care for any of the options. That does allow the singer to remain pliable and easy to project onto, hence the rabid devotion he still commands. The fact that he’s kind of a crappy person doesn’t matter very much to fans who’ve identified with the music for whatever reason. The singer may be a challenge to admire, but the songs remain impossible not to latch onto. We will probably forever be debating just how knowingly Morrissey’s music addresses depression-case gay boys, or romantic-pretender depression-case straight ones, or sad-sack wallflower girls. But there’s one thing that everybody in the fandom relates to: people who’ve learned about the world in cemeteries and libraries experience love differently, with sweaty palms and shaky knees, and being pretty is frankly no reprieve from it.
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Or dreading. Or, more likely, irrelevant and weeks too late to the party. 2017 is over and no one wants to think about it any more. It was a crap year, but crap years often inspire great feats of creativity. At least we had a tide of good music. Oh, so much good music…
1. Pure Comedy – Father John Misty
This is the album we deserve and need. It’s depressing as fuck, its bleakness relieved only by Misty’s signature hyper-articulate mordant wit. After the wedding album comes the hangover album. It’s the work of a man who’s snapped out of his honeymoon haze, looked around and saw the world all gone to hell. If there was one record I leaned on all year, it was this one.
2. Low In High School – Morrissey
You would think that Morrissey, with his nasty eccentricity and tone-deaf statements and complete inability to learn from controversy, has outlived his usefulness as a public figure. Yet he’s still capable of writing some of his punchiest music, and musically at least, he’s still relevant and on-point. He’s still both narcissistic and self-deprecating, angry at the world, romantic, petty, and inexplicably interested in Israel. He may even have matured a little; some of the new songs are quite sexy, as befits a man with some life experience under his belt, no longer pretending to be a celibate little naif.
3. Woodstock – Portugal. The Man
In a crap year, we kind of need a little escapism, a little fun. These guys have been plugging away for years, to little notice, but this year they finally hit the big time. They’ve always had a knack for great catchy tunes, tempered with a little darkness. They’re more catchy than ever, almost too catchy, like a tweaked out parody of catchy. Which is perfect, because we need to get tweaked on something that looks and tastes like pop sugar.
4. Lust for Life – Lana Del Rey
Well, I certainly couldn’t have predicted that Lana Del Rey would become one of the most consistent artists on the scene. She burst out in a blaze of way, way too much hype, and then she went and lived up to it. She likes to toy with romantic cliche in a way that both knowingly ironic and yet sincerely romantic, and she knows her way around retrofitted reference points. On this album she sounds like she’s beamed in from an alternate-universe Summer of Love, and it sounds nothing but timely.
5. Masseduction – St. Vincent
St. Vincent’s hi-fashion aesthetics may make her look like a ‘fun’ artist, but she’s actually a ‘dark’ artist, one who likes to explore the poses we strike in life. She can be depressing, she can be witty, she can be glamorous or scary, she can be all of those things all in one song. She’s one of those increasingly rare artists who work to please themselves, and end up with accolades they never aimed for, because they’ve hit on something pleases a lot of people.
6. Double Roses – Karen Elson
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting for this record for years. Karen Elson’s first album became an instant classic for me in 2010. Now she’s finally back with her gorgeous voice, sophisticated songwriting and gothic folk/chamber-pop aesthetic intact. You gotta appreciate an artist who knows how to make the most of a harp solo.
7. Lotta Sea Lice – Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
Courtney Barnett deftly dodges our elevated expectations. And after the big breakout of her debut LP in 2015, the expectations couldn’t be higher. Instead of trying to live up to the hype all over again, she offers instead an informal-feeling collaboration with fellow deadpan songwriter Kurt Vile. It’s just as articulate and insightful as you would expect, with irreverent observations about the mundane and a sense of friends just having fun. Maybe they should form a band.
8. If All I Was Was Black – Mavis Staples
I have a shameful confession to make: I’ve never listened to Mavis Staples before this year. I know that she’s been a force in soul music for decades, and somehow, I’ve never paid attention. Maybe the thing that pushed this particular record into my conscience is its relevance. It’s an of-the-moment piece of work that’s politically relevant, from a veteran of the civil rights movement who can’t believe she’s still fighting the same old battle. But it’s not a work of anger and indignation, but an openhearted and optimistic one; as befits someone who made her name in the 60’s, Staples still believes that love can heal all of our rifts. And if she can, so should we.
9. The Far Field – Future Islands
I can’t get enough of Future Islands’ retro-synthpop romanticism. Their music sounds like a collage of 80’s New Wave elements, but it’s far too emotional to ever be called a retreat. It’s something beautiful and brand new that sounds like something that’s been around forever. That kind of instant familiarity is what we look for in new music, and we rarely find it, but when we do, it’s like an addition to the family. Samuel T. Herring remains one of the most unforgettable vocalists of the moment.
10. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom – Halsey
Halsey is a young songwriter whose work is both intimately confessional and ambitiously high-concept. On her second album, she writes about the effects of fame (it’s no cure for loneliness) and the challenges of challenges of love, quotes Shakespeare, and ties it all together with a loose narrative about disaffected youth in a near-future world. It’s catchy, modern, and ready for heavy airplay on indie radio at least, but satisfying challenging and personal.
11. Every Where Is Some Where – K.Flay
K.Flay is an artist whose work can be called post-genre. She’s been called – nominally – a hip hop artist, but that doesn’t cover it. She’s pulling sonic influences from all over, but her writing is confessional, almost emo. It’s also her strength. Sometimes dark and laced with profanity, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes funny. She’s part of a new generation of female artists who present themselves as unapologetic anti-heroines, telling their stories, taking pride in their honesty and pain, not afraid to be get weird and ugly. This is her second album.
12. Melodrama – Lorde
Last but not least in the series of outstanding second albums by precocious young women. Who could forget about Lorde? She was the teenage prodigy sensation of 2013 and now she’s almost all grown up. Sure, first love and first fame aren’t exactly fresh topics, and, no, there’s no way anything could be as unexpected and original as Pure Heroine was. But Lorde is approaching those topics with her usual wiser-than-her-years aplomb, and she’s still unique in her eccentricity.
13. Salutations – Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst used to be the teenage prodigy sensation of his time. Now he’s just another nearly-middle aged man who’s not as relevant or as cute as he used to be. That could be a cue to drop off the map. Or it could be a cause for renewed inspiration. It’s frankly great to see a major songwriter, who the emo generation grew up with, becoming mature and staying interesting. Also, what best of- list is complete without a shoutout to Oliver Sacks?
14. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream – Open Mike Eagle
This is the first time I’ve featured a hip hop album as one of my favorites. As you may have noticed, hip hop accounts for a huge swath of today’s pop culture, and it’s something I’m slowly educating myself about. This is a great place to start; it’s free of the aggressive posturing and machismo that makes most mainstream rap (and frankly, most mainstream anything anymore) so unappealing. Open Mike Eagle isn’t here to beef with other rappers or name-check the designer brands in his closet. What he offers is smart, personal, relevant songwriting that cuts across genres. Michael Eagle does standup on the side, and his wit lightens every track (and especially evident in videos.) Also, bonus points for year’s best Bowie shout-out.
And now, a song about being a male prostitute. Why let the ladies have all the degradation? Morrissey based this on the historical reality that young men used to congregate around Piccadilly Circus to sell themselves, before the place turned into a national tourist trap. The male hustlers and homosexuals developed their own underground slang, the better to disguise their proclivities from the law. It was, needless to say, a seedy and desperate subculture, but also in its own way a haven for people who saw no legitimate life path that they could follow, thanks to who they were. No need to romanticize the bad old days when things were worse, but also, there’s an element of romantic appeal to an isolated and sexually confused young outsider i.e. Morrissey and his entire fanbase. You could fancy yourself an outlaw who thumbs his nose at petty mores, a member of an exclusive community, keeper of secrets.