An amazing week, the likes of which we probably won’t see again. The top 4 are all huge masterpieces if you ask me and the number 5 is close enough. There are also no bad albums here. Too compare: the top 4 albums would be the top 4 in any week before. Sadly, this also means some of these will have to go already.
Also, funny that Phoebe Bridgers and Bright Eyes are in the same week, with the two artists (Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes) now having formed a duo (and Obers having a guest appearance on Stranger on the Alps).
8. Crowded House – Crowded House
There is a downside to a week like this, because albums that aren’t amazing may even seem weaker. Crowded House’ debut is decent and I can see how for people with a different taste than mine could head a masterpiece in this, because it is pretty consistent (the only song I don’t like is Tombstone). I only knew Don’t Dream It’s Over before, next to the Woodface album, so I always linked them to a more mellow-like sound; a Beatles for 20-25 years later. This album rocks a lot harder than that and that caught me off guard. No problem, I like hard rock, but this is mostly rock filtered to an ultra-slick 80’s pop filter and I was disappointed how many times Finn sung in that overdramatic eighties style that I just don’t like all that much. The most interesting thing is how Crowded House blends sixties and eighties music. Later in their career they would turn clearly to the former and for me personally that was for the best. Still, there is some stuff to enjoy here and these guys can write a good melody. Don’t Dream Is Over is the obvious highlight (and a bit of an outlier, soundwise), but I also liked Mean To Me and Hole in the River.
7. Yo La Tengo – Summer Sun
Yes, this is the sound of the Summer sun, even on the track Winter A-Go-Go. This is as mellow as it gets. That is sometimes a curse, as there were moments that I forgot the music was playing. There are songs on the track list I know I heard twice, but I couldn’t bet my life on it. Mostly though, the calm sound is a blessing. This album is just very warm and nice to listen too and for the most part it is just fine with me that it floats like a baby elephant. Still, it would be nice to have more tracks like the ten minute Let’s Be Still, where the music seems deeper and more textured. Also, Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo was welcome to shake things up.
6. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
In a way I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning suffers from the same problem as the Crowded House album, even if I like it a lot more: the competition in the week is too strong. There are four singer/songwriter albums competing this week, so there is more directly going against this one. Bright Eyes’ one is easily the most famous of the group and might end up getting the most votes, but in my opinion the other three are huge masterpieces, while Conor Oberst has to settle for just being very good.
I’m not going to make a comparison here with Buffy Saint-Marie, who is really going for something else, but in its existential despair I’m Wide Awake treads the something of the same ground as A Crow Looked At Me (although that one is more direct in its subject and closer to the bone in a way) and especially Stranger in the Alps. Conor Oberst actually performs on Stranger in the Alps and has now formed a duo with Phoebe Bridgers in Better Oblivion Community Center. Obers specializes in a sort of philosophical yet personal despair, brought with uneasy melodies and a voice that constantly sounds like it is shattering into pieces. He does this very well, but maybe the way Bridgers treats her terror with a horrified gasp and a wistful release, just seems less affected and more natural to me, and therefore more touching.
I wouldn’t be writing all this if the album appeared in another week, but this is just one of those coincidences in where two albums that make easy comparison are set off against each other (and I consciously avoid Mount Eerie here for the moment). Yet Bright Eyes deserve more defense than I have given it. What strikes me most is how Oberst indeed seems to teeter on the edge of some dark abyss, but can alleviate bits somewhat by burst of life or moments of beauty. We Are Nowhere and It’s Now is the best track if you ask me, but The First Day of My Life grows more touching with each year and although I initially felt it should have been the first track, I now get its special effect in the middle, as a bit of sunlight when you thought the night would go on forever (poetic words are kind of a must when dealing with Oberst). It is followed by Another Travellin’ Song, that is also one of his best and funnily defiant. I even managed to like Road to Joy by now, which I initially thought would never be possible.
5. The Velvet Underground – VU
The worst you can say about VU is that The Velvet Underground made four better albums. The thing is that this is hardly a worse album than their big classics. What I like most here is how loose it feels at times, something only approximated By Loaded. There is a swagger behind Lou Reed’s performances here, especially on the second half, starting with the great Foggy Notion. I don’t think I ever heard him having so much fun. It is that attitude that makes him get away with something as silly as Andy’s Chest (though heard outside of the album it might work less well). I’m Sticking With You is perhaps taking things a little too far, but before that you have a Velvet Underground album that is not as challenging as their best work, yet certainly more fun (the fact that The Velvet Underground has actually one of the brighter albums of the week is somewhat funny to me).
4. Buffy Sainte-Marie – It’s My Way!
Only a year after The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and in the same year as The Times They Are A-Changin’ we get this, one of the most powerful protest albums I ever heard. Sainte-Marie’s voice is reminiscent of Sandy Denny, a feeling enforced by that this specific folk sound is very similar to the one by Fairport Convention, but Denny never felt the need to come at you with such force. In fact, Sainte-Marie has such power and conviction in her delivery that she matches Dylan at his most furious. Here is a voice that could maybe for a minute inspire fear in the hearts of her enemies. She was banned from the radio of course.
The songs themselves are universally great too, including the few that aren’t outright protest songs. Really, it is a pretty simple album to explain, but that is part of why it is so strong: there is no doubt were she is coming from and were she wants to go. “It’s My Way!” indeed! That song is very close to the later, similar sounding My Way made famous by Frank Sinatra, but the way it is sung and her position as a native American makes it something different. And how great are Where the Buffalo’s Roam and Universal Soldier. A great discovery for me.
3. 東京事変 - 教育
Otherwise known as Tokyo Jihen (and as Tokyo Incidents) – Kyōiku.
Man, this album rocks! From the get-go the band sets a pace and after a few songs you wonder if they will ever let up. There is an energy and looseness here that is more common on a live album. Above all else, this feels like a celebration album. This could be a wrong interpretation: I don’t speak Japanese and for all I know Shiina Ringo might just describe things more desperate than on the Mount Eerie album (the one English language song reminds me more of something the riot grrrrl movement might consider, although a little milder). Regardless the words, the sound is just so empowering. This might become one of my favorite energizers.
Half-way there is a piano ballad that lasts one minute to give audiences some respite, but the next song picks up the pace again. Still, there is some difference in the second half, were more different sounds are tried out and I hear some jazz influences. One track (sorry, I can’t recall which track is which, because of the Japanese song titles) reminds me of Fiona Apple at the beginning, but with birthday party elements, before changing gear midway and become a speed rocker. The second to last song seems to have carnival elements in them. There is a great variety here and the band tries things, but make no mistake about it’s real motive: it rocks!
2. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
Opinions are personal and stuff, but somehow it strikes me as weird that people can not think A Crow Looked at Me as anything other than a masterpiece. Yes, that is a bold statement and should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, grief is such a natural part of life and to me no album or any other work of art catches the feeling of grief in such an unfiltered, naked form. There is no beauty here, nothing to sooth the mind or the soul and no attempt to put things in another perspective. “Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not.”
Of course this album is too much, too painful. Here is a masterpiece I never feel like putting on. But that is very much why it is so valuable. By removing any idea of art (as Phil Elverum literally states in the opening song: death is not for making into art; it makes all poetry look dumb) it is just a guy with a guitar putting into words as good as he can how it is if someone just vanishes from your life. Of course, everybody deals with it differently and not everybody seems to fall into the total despair that Mount Eerie describes, but it’s inevitable that you will lose someone close sometime and A Crow Looked at Me is the pit in your stomach that you are likely feel at least once.
The way Mount Eerie approaches this both lyrically and musically – without a sense of art, feels to me extremely innovative, even if it is an innovation I do not necessarily want to see copied much. One A Crow Looked at Me is enough (I haven’t actually been able to start with follow-up Now Only, or the live After). Yet I think it is important that every now and then a complete black hole of music is released. We may not like to sink into it, but not everything that makes us human has to be liked.
1. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time”. I seem to have strange soft spot for melancholy music and up till now I haven’t actually encountered an album that so perfectly captures the feeling of melancholia as completely as Stranger in the Alps. Sure, this week’s A Crow Looked At Me is sadder, but there the source of sadness is easy to pinpoint, even if that doesn’t make it easier to cope with. Melancholy tends to be more of inexplicable, more indirect and goes with more mixed feelings than straight sadness.
Stranger in the Alps is basically Phoebe Bridgers dealing with the feeling of indeed being blue all the time. Written like this it might sound like a self-pitying album, but other people play too bigger apart in the lyrics narratives to let it fall into that trap. Indeed, Bridgers knows that at least a part of her ongoing sadness is unearned. In Funeral, my number 1 song of 2017, she directly sets her blues in sharp relief to the passing of someone’s kid at a young age (it also contains some lines about a wonderful friendship). If the album itself the ultimate statement of melancholy (if such a thing could exist), Funeral is the album in song-form. Together they put the self-pity of many other such albums to shame, to say nothing of the countless albums that are self-aggrandizing that are completely in vogue at the moment. Forget about all that, Bridgers knows that we all don’t matter, but damn it if we don’t feel things.
Yes, that sounds all pretty bleak and this is far from a happy album, but like all melancholy a feeling of relief or fleeting happiness sometimes creeps in. The biggest relief comes from the beauty of the album, that goes far beyond the words contained here. The arrangement are smooth and wistful, but also beautiful. Bridgers own voice is it’s finest components; I can listen to her sing all day. Certainly, among the huge slew of female singer/songwriters of this day she hardly has any equals on the vocal department. Laura Marling has a greater variety in range and use of her voice and Joanna Newsom is more idiosyncratic and unique, but of all singers only Lana Del Rey (who is really part of a different genre) has to me a voice with such natural beauty.
On my end-of-year list of 2017 I ranked Stranger in the Alps “only” at 9. I didn’t know the lasting impact it would have on me then, but in the time that passed since then, some 14 months, it easily became my most listened album. I put it on rather frequently. It’s biggest competitor for the number 1 spot of that year is this week’s A Crow Looked At Me. An impossible decision; my head gives the prize to Mount Eerie, but my heart says Phoebe Bridgers. Both will certainly end up in my top 10 of the decade.
On a side-note, I nominated this album, but rather low on my nomination list (I don’t rank them on appreciation, but on tip value), so someone else must have nominated it too. I’m curious who did.
A simple overview of my votes:
1. Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning vs. Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me
2. Crowded House - Crowded House vs. The Velvet Underground - VU
3. Phoebe Bridgers - Stranger in the Alps vs. Buffy Sainte-Marie - It's My Way
4. Tokyo Jihen - Kyōiku vs. Yo La Tengo - Summer Sun