St. Vincent doesn’t like to be questioned about where her songs come from. She doesn’t like to be accused of writing about herself. She retorts, rightly, that the presumption of intimacy in songwriting is incredibly condescending and inherently gendered. We may ask a man if he’s writing about himself, but we don’t take it for granted that he does. Songwriter Annie Clark resents the assumption that she’s incapable of purely intellectual writing. That having been said, though, intellectual and imaginative writing, and emotionally intimate writing aren’t mutually exclusive, and it is in fact the tricky balance of being both that marks the songs of St. Vincent, while escaping the skills of most other songwriters male and female. St. Vincent writes incredibly intimate songs that feel like they’re coming from directly inside her head; it also so happens that St. Vincent herself is a fictional persona. We never really know what Annie Clark is thinking and feeling, we only know what she wants us to know St. Vincent is thinking and feeling.
For some of you older folks, St. Vincent may still be considered a ‘new artist’. She is under 40, after all, and has only been making records for about a decade. But really, you should be all on board with her by now. It’s been a very satisfying trajectory, as a fan, to watch such a gifted artist rise from being an indie singer-songwriter who inspires mild respect from the Pitchfork crowd to real rock star status. Because not too many people fill the role of a real rock star – complete with vision, ambition, style and persona – anymore these days. It’s just really, really heartening on a deep-down personal level to witness the birth of a complex and interesting and hopefully long-lasting star.
St. Vincent is a woman of mystery. She doesn’t like to open up her personal life, which is understandable enough. We should all be wary about trying to draw straight lines between art and real life. But she does write such passionate and complex love songs. They’re not even love songs in the traditional sense. They’re not about the usual business of desire and putting the loved one on a pedestal (then tearing them down from it in due time, of course.) She writes songs about looking at a person, seeing them for their good and bad sides, having an intense and ambiguous web of feelings about them. It’s hard to tell when listening to a St. Vincent song if it’s about a loved one or a passing stranger or even just a reflection of herself. A very intellectual approach, I think. I would like to know who some of her muses are, besides that bug-eyed English waif, but of course she’d never stoop to picking her work apart like that.
More of an interlude. An interlude and an outro. In St. Vincent’s world nothing is ever just filler or a toss-off. If it’s on there, it’s been thought about deeply and should be parsed deeply. You can’t say that the album Actor has a grand concept, but it was loosely inspired by Annie Clark’s idea of writing her own music for her favorite movies. So the loose idea is something about identity and the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. Ironically, this was a few years before Clark’s own identity came to include being a tabloid celebrity, so she was writing from the point of view of a normal person. She needs to now make a concept album about how we act out our lives and write out our stories in an age where our inner lives have become our public lives. In the meantime, an interlude.
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.
St. Vincent has been a darling for her last two albums, but let’s go back to before she became well known. A time when, I must confess, I had only the vaguest awareness of who she was. Late to the party again! Well, now I know. It takes a while for an artist to really come into their own, and it takes a while to build an audience, instant-superstar prodigies notwithstanding. And it’s especially hard, sad to say, to break out of the pastel ghetto reserved for Women Who Write Songs and Play an Instrument™. So I’ll admit that the first time I listened to St. Vincent I dismissed her as yet another earnest singer-songwriter type with too many feelings. That was before she really let her freak flag fly, so to speak, but it was wrong of me anyway. The keen and clever songwriting was always there, and Annie Clark has always been too intellectual to lean on her feelings for material. She’s said many times that her work is not confessional and she resents the implication that it is. She is absolutely right and I’m glad that she’s put her foot down on it, because it is an absolute fallacy that women’s creative work must by default be confessional, rooted angst and emotion rather than in the imagination or in the intellect, or primarily a means of working out personal trauma. Those tropes are wearying and dull.
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.