#1: Emma Ruth Rundle – “Marked for Death”

December 26, 2016 Leave a comment

Possibly the most satisfying feeling I get as a music fan is hearing an artist I like become an artist I love. After showing potential with all of her previous work, Emma Ruth Rundle finds her voice as a solo artist on Marked for Death, a stunning album that is brimming with intensity and musicality.

Rundle’s development as an artist has been fun to track for the last few years. I first heard her playing with her band Marriages, and on their debut, Kitsune, she showed a gift for creating gloomy, heavy guitar riffs. But her singing mostly took a backseat on that album to her guitar and was used as an instrument to blend in with the music — it was much more about the atmosphere and mood than the lyrics or Rundle herself. Her solo debut, Some Heavy Ocean, went in more of a folk direction while retaining her ambient style. It was one of my favorite albums from that year, but I sensed Rundle had more in her.

Last year, Marriages released Salome, which put Rundle in a different role from her previous music as a more traditional rock frontwoman. This was when I began to notice her singing and lyrics, which became much more integral to the music, and I noted in last year’s year-end extravaganza how Rundle’s passion and intensity as a singer made that album work.

On Marked for Death, all of her skills crystallize on one album, and the result is spellbinding. While it takes the form of a traditional singer-songwriter album, nothing else quite sounds like this. It all comes back to Rundle’s abilities as an ambient composer: while I feel a lot of folk focuses on lyrics at the expense of sound, the gloomy, haunting landscapes she creates with her guitar make Marked for Death an album that would work even if there were no lyrics or vocals.

Rundle is my favorite kind of guitarist: her instrument feels like an extension of herself, and it’s used on this album to build an atmosphere while creating a cohesive whole with her voice and lyrics. It lurks out of the spotlight and supports the vocals, until it springs out of nowhere like on “Protection,” where it shatters the quiet with a massive, scuzzy riff. Even on the acoustic finale, “Real Big Sky,” Rundle’s guitar has a heaviness to it that gives the song an apocalyptic, doomy feeling.

This album sounds so good (which I know is non-descriptive, but like… it just does) that the lyrics and vocals almost feel like a free bonus. But it’s in these areas where Rundle shows the most improvement from her previous music. Her voice works on a similar level as her guitar: she sings in quiet, hushed tones, but then will show the true power of her vocals when the music gets loud, like at the end of “Heaven.” Her lyrics are obsessed with death and the afterlife, with a lot of religious themes and symbolism, which fits her sound and leaves room for interpretation for the listener.

It’s hard to describe why this album works so well (if you can’t tell), but it started to make sense to me when I watched this performance of Rundle performing in the Oregon woods in a rusty old truck. It’s a perfect setting for her music because it underscores her naturalness as a performer. Marked for Death is so original and different, but it’s not an album where the artist is self-consciously trying to sound like nobody else has ever sounded. Rundle is just being herself, and this album firmly establishes her as one of the most unique and compelling artists in music today.

#2: SubRosa – “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages”

December 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Most bands make “songs” and “albums.” SubRosa create entire universes. The metal band’s third full length, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, continues down the path set by their earlier work, with a sound that is massive and unmatched in scale. Their signature combination of doom metal guitars and violins is otherworldly in a literal sense — when I listen to this band, I feel like I’m in a fantasy world, far from earth.

But while SubRosa often sounds not-of-this-world, their music speaks to what is happening on this planet right now. Inspired by the Russian dystopian novel, “We,” the album’s long, winding pieces grapple with major themes of free will, identity, and the intersection of suffering and happiness. The album closer, “Troubled Cells,” is an explicit statement by Rebecca Vernon on the plight of LGBTQI people in her Mormon church, but it’s done in an allegorical way that is nuanced and speaks widely to other disenfranchised people. “Wound of the Warden” is told from the point of view of a puppet-master, who sneers at his underlings that believe their lives and choices matter — it can be interpreted as a religious fable, or as a commentary on government control and surveillance.

This is a grim album, with lyrics that are every bit as crushing as its heaviest guitar riffs. But amid the chaos and doom, SubRosa find moments of humanity and beauty, and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages strikes a surprisingly optimistic message: that the world is harsh and unforgiving, and the people in it are stronger because of it.

Categories: Best of 2016 Tags: ,

#3: Kristin Kontrol – “X-Communicate”

December 23, 2016 1 comment

In a just universe where actual pop songcraft was rewarded over celebrity, every song on X-Communicate would be a hit. Of course, Donald Trump is going to be president, so we don’t live in that universe. But Kristin Welchez, who formerly fronted Dum Dum Girls, can take solace in knowing she has made her most complete album yet, on her own, and further established herself in my mind as a low-key pop genius.

X-Communicate feels like a pop clinic, put on by an artist who has listened to it her whole life and has memorized the recipe of a memorable song. There is a virtuosic feel to its verses, choruses and bridges, and to Kristin’s vocals, which have range and expression that she couldn’t show in Dum Dum Girls. The album doesn’t stray much from traditional pop structures, and it doesn’t really break new ground, but this is by design: Kristin uses the nostalgic sounds of the past to make an album that is a celebration of the pop song as a form of personal expression.

#4: Bat for Lashes – “The Bride”

December 22, 2016 Leave a comment

One of my favorite quotes from any television show is from Seinfeld, when Jerry is trying to beat a lie detector test and asks for George’s help. George gives this piece of advice: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

When it comes to musicians — and disproportionately women musicians — there is often an assumption that the singer is being “confessional” and sharing experiences from their own life. Artists who do this are applauded for being honest and real, for putting every piece of themselves into the music.

While I admittedly love albums like that too, I think it has become overemphasized, and it doesn’t give music enough credit as a storytelling medium, or the artists enough credit as weavers of fiction instead of people singing out of their diaries. And it doesn’t give fiction credit for sometimes being more truthful than reality.

The Bride is a work of pure fiction by Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, which might be why it got a fairly muted critical response compared to her usual work. But while this album is all “lies,” Khan believes them. She commits fully to her story of a woman whose husband dies on her wedding day, and in unraveling her story gradually through the album, she finds real truths and moments of deep sadness and humanity.

This album is audaciously slow-paced, requiring a level of patience that I’m not sure many listeners have, and I’m sympathetic to anyone who thought it was boring. But I really admired how it was so self-contained and how dedicated Khan was to telling her story on her terms, even though she had to know not many people would meet her halfway.

#5: Angel Olsen – “My Woman”

December 21, 2016 Leave a comment

Prior to 2016, I had written off Angel Olsen as one of those no-fun Americana/folk artists that is clearly talented but doesn’t quite grab me with her music. That said, I’m a very generous, fair person, so I gave My Woman a shot to see if Olsen could win me over.

Well, she did, and My Woman might be the album that surprised me the most this year. I did not expect Olsen to bust out this garage-rocky, psychedelic sound, to have this kind of charisma as a performer, or to have songs that have such legitimate pop hooks. On “Shut Up Kiss Me” she channels Gwen Stefani (but like, in a good way) and pretty much sounds like a rock star, while “Intern” shows her pure ability as a singer and lyricist who can still sell the hell out a ballad. It all builds up to “Sister,” a nearly eight minute jam that seamlessly melds indie rock, traditional singer-songwriter, and the folk/lo-fi style she was initially known for.

Olsen expands her sound and style on My Woman, but does it in a way that is very true to herself and retains what made people like her in the first place — it’s a big album, but it often feels very small. It pulls off a delicate trick, which is satisfying her existing fans while also pushing herself artistically and winning over new ones like me.

#6: Littler – “Of Wandering”

December 20, 2016 Leave a comment

My favorite album of last year was Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up, which I ranted about endlessly because I felt it was such a great, simple rock album that also articulated what it feels like to feel lost and stuck in that not-quite-an-adult territory. Philadelphia’s Littler is cut from the same cloth, and Of Wandering finds similar pathos and humor in the mundane aspects of life.

There’s nothing too fancy happening on Of Wandering, but the simple riffs and songs are the right fit for the lyrics, which are often about screwing up, struggling, and not knowing what to do. Singer Madeline Meyer sets the tone early on opener “Knife Sucker,” when she declares “I still suck at my life.” One of the other highlights, “Tectonics,” has one of those lyrics that is something I’ve literally thought verbatim: “I want to be good at a lot of things, but I don’t know how to go about that.” Those self-deprecating lyrics give Of Wandering a scrappy, underdog charm and make it one of the most endearing rock albums of the year.

 

Categories: Best of 2016 Tags: ,

#7: Rev Rev Rev – “Des Fleurs Magiques Bourdonnaient”

December 19, 2016 Leave a comment

The shoegaze tag on Bandcamp is a mess. Most of the bands that use it don’t really know what shoegaze is, and even the ones that do are often these heinous genre mash-ups, where they’re like “wouldn’t it be cool to combine shoegaze and EDM.” No. It wouldn’t be. Shoegaze is great. Shoegaze doesn’t need to be “improved upon” by your weak attempts at innovation. When I go to the shoegaze tag on Bandcamp, I want to hear shoegaze, not not-shoegaze.

So I have respect for Rev Rev Rev, a band I found on the tag that plays straight-up shoegaze. They don’t really add new wrinkles to the genre or even attempt to innovate in any way. But they nail the guitar sound that makes me love this style of music and have the right vocals and songcraft, none of which is a trivial accomplishment given how many bands attempt the My Bloody Valentine impression and fall flat.

The Italian group sounds like the usual suspects of classic shoegaze bands, with a more heavy and psychedelic take on the genre that most closely resembles You Made Me Realise era MBV with some of the repetitious elements of space rock. The band mixes in some lighter dream pop elements, but for the most part it’s really loud guitars with light vocals. As it turns out, the formula still works, and it takes some skill to know not to mess with it.