Be tormented by me babe.
Album of the Year: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion. Probably my favourite thing about pop music is how it takes emotions and painstakingly reconstructs them as artifice, like a jeweller cutting a lump of feelings into a sparkling gem, or a surgeon dissecting you and building you a more glorious body. That’s what Emotion does. When I first heard the album, although I liked it well enough I wouldn’t have thought it would end up being being my favourite album of the year. But it’s put together with such machine-tooled precision, I’ve come back to it again and again. The lyrics are full of gems: “who gave you eyes like that / said you could keep them” (the tumblr structure of feeling in two lines); “I still love you / I’m sorry / I’m sorry / I love you“; “I don’t want to work it out / I’m not going to work it out.” There are millions of brilliant production choices; one I particularly like is how the fuzzy multitracking of Jepsen’s voice in the verses of “Favourite Colour” snaps into focus in the chorus. And Jepsen’s vocals aren’t showy but are precise: that little catch as she stretches “revelation” over an extra syllable in “I Really Like You,” or the flip from slightly forced flirtatiousness to slightly too open insecurity in the gap between the two lines “if you know what I mean / do you know what I mean.”
These abstract complex feelings, I just don’t know.
There’s a similar aesthetic of emotional vivisection (is aesthetics ever anything other than emotional vivisection?) on Björk’s Vulnicura, although the pain involved in this kind of procedure is more clearly on display. Something I read (I wish I could remember who to credit with this, because it’s a great insight) pointed out that on Vulnicura Björk returns to almost the whole range of musical styles she’s used over the past 20 years, making it a record that reflects on the breakup of a relationship through the aesthetic forms that, for Björk, must be bound up with the history of that relationship.
I don’t like intrusions / if I had my way
I had a weird experience with Rósín Murphy’s Hairless Toys; the first time I listened to it, I thought it was terrible – dated and boring – but, as it’s Rósín Murphy, I gave it another listen immediately after that first listen, and loved it. It is, admittedly, the very opposite of immediate, in that its a very inward looking and withdrawn album. It’s a particular type of withdrawn that I associate with the manicured remoteness of the English countryside. Freud described the psyche as a city in which new buildings are constructed on the skeletons of old ones, the outlines of which can still be seen. But there’s a different, more gothic, psychology of the rural, where the constructions of past inhabitants can’t be seen, but their shaping hand can be felt more diffusely throughout the landscape. This is an eeriness that’s hard to pin down, and a similar eeriness suffuses Hairless Toys.
Angel Haze’s wilderness is starker. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am by how Haze weaves a complex but consistent metaphor around wildness (as threat and as strength) across Back to the Woods. I read Haze’s tumblr, and they often post responses to fans talking about going through stuff where they talk about using these bad times as material or inspiration for getting through or past it. And sometimes on the tumblr maybe that comes across as trite, but on the record it seems completely clear, in the way the fire of “The Wolves” sits next to the nervous flight of “Moonrise Kingdom” and the bliss of “Bruises.”
Kiss one another / die for each other.
These four albums are all, in different ways, about affect, about emotions as feeling, as things that strike you bodily. Which maybe why, when I think about the music I’ve been listening to this year, the term that comes to mind is “pop melodrama.” That term describes, above all, Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer,” a ludicrous overdramatization (which is therefore, of course, precisely the correct level of dramatization) of a summer fling. It also describes Bebe Rexha’s EP I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, and especially its best track, “I’m Gonna Show you Crazy.” “Pop melodrama” also describes Selena Gomez’s album, although the feelings she’s wallowing in are not as easy to name or to dramatize, as in the ennui (but it’s not quite ennui, is it, it’s more despairing than that?) of “Same Old Love“; and perhaps it also describes Sofi de la Torre’s enveloping and disorienting EP Mess. “Enveloping and disorienting” is where pop melodrama crosses into what I continue to think of as the goth-inflected 80s MOR revival, and its more post-punk/shoegaze cousins.
We’re gonna look real good / or we’re gonna look real rude.
Country music is often sentimental, but it also employs the other key element of melodrama: the narrative arc. The country records I most admire, I think, are those that capture a moment as a moment within a story (people talk about country music as storytelling, but I’m not sure that’s quite right; you don’t get, or need, the whole story in a great country song, but you get an instant which is legible as part of a story you don’t know). So Ashley Monroe’s “If Love Was Fair” begins, “I wouldn’t be half lit, drunk / digging round for danger,” and you’re right there, in that moment. That song’s just my current favourite from her very good album, The Blade (the title track is also notable for how it manages to build such a complex set of metaphors out of simple-seeming lyrics). The other country album I really liked this year was Kacey Musgraves’s Pageant Material. I think some people have compared the lyrics unfavourably to her debut album, but lyrics aren’t what I like most about Musgraves, whose strong points are melodies and, especially, her charismatic performance. So “High Time” and, especially, “Pageant Material” are very funny, but the song I’m increasingly obsessed by is “Late to the Party,” where the performance balances on the knife-edge between being wrapped up in someone, and being terrified about how wrapped up you are in someone. Some other country-adjacent stuff I liked this year include “God Knows I Tried,” my favourite single track on Lana Del Rey’s Honeymoon (which really works best as a whole album of melodrama you can wallow in) and Sarah Cracknell’s album, Red Kite, which has a few country moments (although my favourite track, “Underneath the Stars,” is barely country, but, I think, very Sarah Cracknell).
That Sarah Cracknell track is, not surprisingly, very 90s indie; and 90s indie seems to be having a bit of a moment, particularly on Grimes’s Art Angels. I can’t decide whether “Flesh Without Blood” or “Belly of the Beat” sound more like you could have heard them on The Evening Session in 1993. More 90s indie (I say “90s indie,” but isn’t all indie, really, 90s indie?) from Waxahatchee, who appear to be committed to writing pop-punk soundtracks to imaginary 90s teen films. More unexpectedly, perhaps, K-Pop band Big Bang have decided to jump on the 90s indie bandwagon, including an incredibly 90s video. Elsewhere in K-Pop the big 90s revival is the Spice Girls, with pretty much note-perfect recreations on tracks from Stellar and Girls’ Generation, as well as a slightly more general 90s-pop-R&B pastiche from Shinee.
The sweet sounds of Korean pastiches of English pastiches of R&B inevitably make me think of more self-consciously authentic R&B, or what I tend to think of as R&B classicism. I’m inclined to include Kehlani here, although if this is an example of classicism, it’s effortless in a way that makes it very appealing. Some more heavyweight classicism on Jazmine Sullivan’s The Reality Show, which felt weighed down by its fidelity to tradition (maybe I’m overthinking this, and Sullivan is just working in an idiom I just don’t personally find engaging?); the one exception being “Stupid Girl,” which is more openly theatrical. Also at the nexus of classicism and theatricality is Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. I’m not sure this is quite the right word, but The Epic is kind of… cheesy? Not in a bad way, but boy, is the album not ashamed of hitting you with the most obvious ways of eliciting emotion. Still, it’s the most obvious tracks I like most, particularly the songs “Henrietta Our Hero” and “The Rhythm Changes.” I also want to mention, again, the excellent Baby Queens and their sort-of-discoish R&B single “Melody.”
The obvious counterpart to my dubious category of R&B classicism is the, if anything even more dubious, category of R&B experimentalism. But this will probably serve as a name for an identifiable trend of the past few years, R&B influenced music with sparse, electronic production. Sometimes this is alienating, and not always in a good way. On one of my favourite albums of the year, ROSE by ABRA, however, the spare, delicate production serves to provide space for ABRA’s intimate, fragile vocals. The whole album is great (check out the quietly yearning “Feel” and the more propulsive “Atoms“), but the standout track is “No Chill,” which starts out as a quiet confession of vulnerability and builds into a swirl of unapologetic emotional investment. Honorable mention here too to Kelela’s “All The Way Down.”
When you touch my body / got me singing like Mariah.
A more legit subgenre of R&B is R&Bass, which featured some great songs this year. Natalie La Rose’s “Somebody” is good, except it features Jeremih, who can’t sing; and her “Around the World” is even better, except if features Fetty Wap, who really can’t sing. Pia Mia’s “Fuck With You” is a perfectly engineered vehicle for its massive bassline. Janelle Monáe took an R&Bass swerve with “Yoga,” and Iggy Azalea is asserting copyright in the idea of using a knock-off DJ Mustard beat (and also doesn’t know what a sample is?). And at least sort-of R&Bass is the best song from Fifth Harmony’s Reflection, “Like Mariah.” The album is mostly OK but not great, but “Like Mariah” is interesting in the way it makes explicit – and owns – the connection that pop music often implies between female vocal dexterity and sexual pleasure.
From R&Bass to R&Bangers, like JoJo’s “When Love Hurts,” or just straight bangers, like my other favourite album of the year, Galantis’s Pharmacy. Galantis are Bloodshy from Bloodshy and Avant, and Style of Eye (and lots of vocalists who, appallingly, don’t seem to be credited anywhere), two producers known for slightly unusual takes on dance-pop, making an album of EDM bangers. If you like generic EDM bangers, and I very much do, you’ll like Galantis’s take on the genre, which is – I don’t want to say thoughtful, because part of the charm of EDM that they capture is that it’s dumb as a bag of rocks, but it’s made with real care and appreciation for this stupid music and the stupid welling up of emotions it can capture.