Good albums of 2016, part 2

The Kills – Ash & Ice


Descriptors like “mature” or “confident” are classic faint praise, so I’m going to have to come up with something better, because this is actually a great album. The Kills have always stuck to their guns, and that doesn’t change here, but this is the album on which they become more than themselves. One way to make transcendence work is to keep doing your thing so hard that it ends up having no choice but to become something else, to embrace your chains to the point that they stop being chains. This is a Transcendence Album.

The songs tend to open with out-of-context techno beats (on “Let it Drop” this almost amounts to trolling) before the guitars whip them into shape and the neck-breathing vocals draw them close. But this doesn’t turn them all into the same thing; in fact, the songs are wildly diverse to the point that the album almost feels incoherent. It jostles left and right between radically different tones – distant disco on “Hard Habit to Break” gives way to harsh soul on “Bitter Fruit,” and then to a weirdly dazed march on “Days of Why and How.” The second half brings the slowness with the arhythmic blues of “Hum for Your Buzz” and the passionate (negative) simplicity of “That Love,” alternating with the punchy desperation of “Siberian Nights” and the menacingly dense “Impossible Tracks.” And there’s never a big moment that brings things into focus; it builds intensity only to jealously hoard it. There’s nothing inaccessible about it, but it’s inconvenient enough that you have to take it seriously.

But there’s a deeper level on which the album coheres, on which all of its twists and shards are ultimately one thing. It aims less to slash or bludgeon and more to get under the skin, or even to haunt, to get too close for comfort. “Silence is the loudest shot.” For starters, this is an album about the meaning of constraints. It “wants strings attached, unnatural as it feels.” At the same time, it claims to be “easily led,” “by whatever you like,” but its stylistic stubbornness suggests that this is more like a horse being led to water and refusing to drink. Staying where you are, or giving yourself to someone or something else, or holding onto something regardless of whatever else happens are all choices, and every choice is a constraint. “I never took off my chains; they never took my colors.” And there are a lot of different chains in this world: loyalty, compulsion, circumstance, intimacy, fear, and death. “Doing it to Death” is really the opposite of what you would expect – far from being a passionate commitment, it’s practically resigned, the loopy rising-and-falling guitar line evoking the nausea of eternity. “When the waves come, you face them, and you know we can’t stop it now.” But you can also just keep doing it, “night after night after night,” even if “the plans we’re making are the shape of things that never come.”

Maybe you can tell that I don’t actually have this figured out all that well. That’s the thing about an album like this, though. You can keep coming back to it and keep getting turned around in different directions, and you don’t even have to be looking for anything. The gorgeousness of obvious closer “Echo Home” fakes a serene and uplifting ending, because it’s not actually the closer. It’s followed up by the extreme crescendo of “Whirling Eye,” which doesn’t feel like any kind of ending at all. It just keeps building up intensity towards nothing, like the whole thing is just the pressure drop presaging the real storm.


Tegan and Sara – Love You To Death


The extent to which I still care about this band is somewhat of a mystery. I mean, they’re among our best living songwriters, that part’s not confusing or anything. But they’re literally a top-40 pop act right now, not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m sure they’re just doing what’s right for them, and while I try not to be haughty about these things, I really don’t care about that kind of music. I guess that’s the thing about faith, though. Once you start believing in someone you end up going places you wouldn’t have expected. So actually the real mystery is why this band ever got inside me at all. It’s not so much a matter of not being 19 anymore as it is that I was kind of never 19 in the first place. If you follow me. And I think this album forms part of the answer, because it’s so heavily produced that it almost loops back around to the beginning.

Instead of being giant and blurry, the arrangements have a ton of empty space in them, so the vocals end up doing a lot more work. It’s not just that it’s vocals-focused, of course it is, but the more complex cadences and harmonies create most of the songs’ structures all on their own. The quick ups-and-downs on “Dying to Know” do the usual work of a guitar line; the steady rising progression on “White Knuckles” is what keeps it in the air. “100x” is pure piano-and-vocals (and the piano part is barely even there), which they haven’t done since, fuck, I don’t know, “Clever Meals”? So part of what this does is take what are at first impression typical “heartthrob” sentiments and bounce them off at right angles. “100x” is a purely sincere, unadorned song about being unable to communicate sincerely. “Stop Desire” is about the opposite of what it says, which means it’s actually about helplessness – “I’ve tried, but you’re fuel to my fire.” “Faint of Heart” is about inner strength, “Boyfriend” is an ideological inversion, “BWU” rejects most forms of commitment while also making impossible demands, and “U-turn” is a reversal into the same direction it was going in the first place.

But it’s the first feint that turns into the hardest hit: the album never seems to follow through on its title. The implication is pretty provocative, but death itself never comes up – “Dying to Know” is just a breakup song. Except that if someone leaves you and you never see them again, then they are, from your perspective, as good as dead. So, just as nobody ever actually experiences death for themselves (death is by definition when you stop having experiences), the subject is never broached here because it’s inherently in the background of everything; it has always been there. Hence the album ends not by holding on to the light to get through the night, but by holding on to the night itself. So, y’know, write all the love songs you want, because you’re not getting away from this. You’re embracing the darkness whether you like it or not. “Real love is tough.” (More later.)


The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset


As the title implies, this album is a bit of a slate-clearing. It’s got a fresh, modern sound that isn’t trying to recapitulate anything and the lyrics are full of casual references that situate it firmly in the present. The band is rock solid, and holds everything together with zero friction, regardless of how weird it gets. But what “Hit Reset” is actually about is the fact that you can’t just do that. This album picks up right where the first one left off – the opener is the explanation of what “we were called sluts from the time we were five” refers to, and is, I believe, the most explicit that Kathleen Hanna has ever been about this particular aspect of her life. So the album starts by putting itself in a double bind: the past is what you are, but you can’t let it define you, and it goes on to try to figure out how to make this possible. It’s not that it’s hopeless, you can say things like “I Decide” and “I’m done with your ‘better person’ bullshit,” and that can work, but it’s still complicated. In terms of the universe, the present is simply the accumulated substance of the past. As such, “hitting reset” doesn’t actually do anything – it’s a concept. But it’s a necessary concept. Precisely because past events are fixed and inescapable, we have to be able to reinterpret them as needed. We can’t do anything else.

So the album progresses by leaning hard in both directions (“hello trust no one, or give it all away”), attempting to find a viable middle ground. “Roses More Than Water” addresses the line between living and surviving – you can’t be so focused on roses that you try to live without water, even though living is what matters and surviving isn’t. That tension is always going to be there. “Time Is Up” uses an ironic verve to attack the idea that there’s nothing left to do, “Rather Not” is an anti-torch-song that yearningly rejects yearning, and “Mr. So and So” delivers a classic rant with a dead eye on the specific parameters of the current situation. The band is so tight that it’s almost hard to notice, but these songs are really all over the place. There’s No Wave on “Be Nice,” mostly-straight dance-rock on “Hello Trust No One,” and a half-hardcore / half-new-wave rush on “Record Breaker.” And there’s a similar diversity of emotional angles: “Roses More Than Water” is full of doubt, “Let Me Go” has a soft determination, and “I’m Done” is pure face-yelling. Which itself demonstrates that there’s a lot of different stuff that has to be dealt with, and you’ve gotta give it everything you’ve got. In which vein it bears repeating that Kathleen Hanna is an amazing vocalist. She does a crazy amount of different things here, and everything from ranting and sneering to sincere pleading to confident calm to manic desperation is all totally gripping, and she makes everything work musically to the extent that it all comes across as straightforward good singing without blunting any emotional edges.

The album ends with an unexpectedly hard dive into pure sentiment, which brings the album’s contradictions down to their most immediate and personal level. Reflecting the opener’s ambiguous declaration that “at least I made it out at fucking all,” it engages hard with the fact that figuring out what to do has the prerequisite of being able to do anything at all. It’s a depressing ending, but it manages to force itself towards hope. Contradictions aren’t always stifling, and there’s at least one that can push you out of anxious stasis: the ridiculousness of imagining that you can actually transcend your situation, and the truth that you already have.

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive


Thao Nguyen’s thing used to be just that she wrote country songs that were actually good, but at this point she’s a pretty long way from Kansas (or wherever). This album branches out in terms of genre – a lot of it has an underlying hip-hop infusion, to which “Meticulous Bird” commits fully – and in terms of just being moderately difficult in general. This was already happening somewhat on the previous album, We the Common, but this one goes over the edge. The opening is broken and jerky, like it’s deliberately attempting to throw you off right away. “Slash/Burn” doesn’t do either; it moans and jitters. The vocals at the end of “Guts” rise up into a physically painful siren screech. “Give Me Peace” has actual static noise left in the background. The vocals on “Endless Love” push too hard and lose their structure. Most of these songs don’t actually have endings, everything just stops at what feels like a completely arbitrary point. This, along with the fact that all of these songs poke out in different directions, means that the album has no flow, but it is coherent. It’s overproduced in the opposite of the usual sense of that term: instead of being overwhelming and bland, everything is sparse and jagged; each individual instrument pokes out with obnoxious personality (instrument credits include “space flute,” “toy piano,” “robot oscillator,” and “PCM41 accident”). When it’s quiet, it’s anxiously sparse; when it gets loud, it’s uncomfortably crowded. The rhythms are all inconsistent, and the vocals cry out without hooking in – none of the choruses are chorusy; the thing that would normally be the hook on “Fool Forever” is dragged out and blurred into oblivion. And there actually does end up being one solid ending: “Endless Love” finishes the album off by forcing it down into resignation and despair.

So, like, “conventionally,” these are all “bad things,” but you know how this works, right? Music isn’t about being “good,” it’s about not being boring, and this album is extremely not boring. Nothing here feels like you’d expect it to. “Meticulous Bird” is weirdly threatening, like a reverse stalker. The individual parts of “The Evening” don’t sound good, but altogether it’s a total jam. “Give Me Peace” is so calm and unpolished that it’s blatantly uncomfortable. Actually, there’s a rather high proportion of annoying noises in general, but they resolve themselves into great-sounding songs. Also, this all happens without coming across as “experimental” or anything. This isn’t an intellectual exercise that you appreciate from a distance; the disparate scraps are all fused together and pushed forward by unceasing passion. The synthesis of doubt, rage, and terror on “Nobody Dies,” the wild, unjustified hope underpinning “Fool Forever,” the victory-through-defeat on “Endless Love,” and of course the dark, bloody talons of “Meticulous Bird” all strike out cleanly and without restraint. Through it all, the album never takes its eyes off the basics: peace and love. “Do you still see god in me?” For being so obviously writerly, it also feels humble and earthy, like it was made out of whatever happened to be at hand (despite the fact that it’s obviously a bunch of weird synths and stuff). Bridging this gap isn’t easy, but it’s kind of important, because we really do have to do both things. We have to figure out how to get to transcendence without magic. “This is how the goods get stolen / No science, just devotion.”

I don’t make “best of” claims for, uh, reasons, we don’t really need to get into that right now, but I do think that this is a significant artistic achievement, and anyone who can’t recognize that should not be trusted as to what kind of music is good. Probably.


Garbage – Strange Little Birds


This one surprised me a little bit. I mean, we all know that Garbage is actually a great band and not a lol 90s relic, right? Right? Okay. Even with that said, there’s nothing perfunctory about this album. It uses the good side of professional-sounding-ness to create something big and exciting and new. It’s dramatic and melancholy in a way that’s not particularly fashionable right now, while still burning with the kind of fire that the gods tend to destroy people for possessing. It tears viciously at the sky and paws desperately at the ground, “beautiful like shards of glass.”

It’s actually impressive how intensely down the whole thing is. It rocks, it’s even fucking metal on occasion, but it also just keeps diving the entire time. The opener is weirdly minimal and raw, like it’s the first song written by a teenager and recorded in a bedroom. “If I Lost You” knows it’s supposed to be happy, but it’s not, and it stays subdued the entire time. “Night Drive Loneliness” lashes out from inside a dark room, tearing apart dull anxiety with aggression, even if it has to be self-directed. “We Never Tell” is determined and unyielding, but in the midst of destruction regardless; “So We Can Stay Alive” follows up not by surviving, but by embracing the horror: “we might cheat death if we worship it.” Even “Magnetized” is not really magnetic – being pulled around by mere forces is not an uplifting situation to be in. And you’re kidding yourself if you think “Amends” is going to close the album by reconciling anything at all.

But the album also uses the good side of self-consciousness to make its trauma hit with honest directness and not come across as wallowy or overwrought. “Ideas die on the vine, and I feel like a fake” actually means something coming from people who have made this many albums and are genuinely famous. So there’s the quiet desperation of not being a kid anymore and knowing that there’s a rapidly-approaching limit on how much you’re ever going to be able to do – “I’m all grown up; there’s no one around to fix me now” – but there’s also the strength of having established a presence in the world, no matter how incomplete and compromised – “you gave an inch; I took a mile.” And there’s also the power of depression: the ability to go this far down contains a strength of its own, one that no amount of glib positivity can even begin to approach. “They can break our arms, but we will remain intact”; “they don’t burn like we do,” because we “learn more when [we’re] bleeding.” Even though we’re doomed.

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