Nick Triani looks back at his musical highlights of the year whilst pondering if analytics and algorithms have replaced critical consensus.
It’s a stat attack
I’d be lying if I told you that this year left me in thrall to the wonders of music. That doesn’t mean I spent less time listening (I’ve listened more than ever), but life and its many complications seemed more urgent. This led me to seeking out an emotional connection to the music I was listening to. Frivolous virtues were left at the door. What a drag.
In broader terms, popular music has felt like it’s become defined by stats. Artistic merit seen through the lens of popularity at market level rather than if the music’s any good. Music criticism is facing the long walk into no-mans land as the convenience of music foregoes any particular opinion. Is this a bad thing? Not if your gate-keepers are trustworthy and there is some sense of context or a feeling attached to it. But trust should always be hard earned.
Artistic merit seen through the lens of popularity at market level rather than if the music’s any good. Music criticism is facing the long walk into no-mans land as the convenience of music foregoes any particular opinion
It’s a moot point that music criticism is so marginalized. I’d argue we need that contrarian voice more than ever and editors across the media need to be taking more risks rather than heeding the party lines. On his recent retirement, general consensus amongst the Finnish writing community was that rapper Cheek was deemed beyond a critical perspective because he was so popular. I never realized that being popular stopped you being shit at the same time. For me, it would have been encouraging to have heard ONE decent track emerge from such a supposedly credible pop star. But here’s the rub: with capitalism thoroughly interfering with culture and the idea of opinions being unwanted, will we see a whole new music movement evolve away from the conventional music industry? Might this sundown be a dawn for a new movement that finally puts quality over quantity?
with capitalism thoroughly interfering with culture and the idea of opinions being unwanted, will we see a whole new music movement evolve away from the conventional music industry
Thankfully, Finnish music has continued to thrive if you know where to look. People are taking as adventurous steps as ever, especially encouraging as in broader terms Finnish music continued to be defined by low pop-expectations. That the burgeoning underground still managed to supply variety and original pursuits was for me something well worth supporting. More traditional outlets such as Mikko Joensuu, Lau Nau, Circle and the approaching superstar status of Litku Klemetti – all managed to release worthwhile music that engaged and pushed the cause forward. I don’t particularly love any of this music, but appreciated its existence all the same.
My favourite new-found thrills came from SZA’s Ctrl debut. Joyous songcraft, an indie take on RnB with minimalist sound walls, wrapped up in Solána Imani Rowe’s (SZA) larger-than-life personality. Much fanfare was made about lesser pop albums this year, but Ctrl surpassed many by simply being consistency great.
My other favourite discovery of the year was the second EP from Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. I wrote in depth about their enthusiastic The French Press EP , the record’s energy creating its own feverish intensity. It reignited in me a mini revival in my interest for purist indie-rock. Beach Fossils baroque Somersault, Big Thief’s intimate Capacity, Crescent’s shambolic yet poignant Resin Pockets, Spinning Coin’s postcard strum of Pemo, Pia Fraus and their reaffirming Field Ceremony, (Sandy) Alex G’s schizo Rocket and Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s endearingly meandering Lotta Sea Lice all provided hearty evidence that groups playing guitars can still bring some new feeling to the party whilst at the same time reinvigorating a wilting flower.
Most of the music I enjoyed in 2017 was made by women. I don’t mean to split genders or bow to a binary, but I can’t ignore the fact that women seem to have their finger on the pulse of experiencing and expressing life in 2017. Albums by The Weather Station, Phoebe Bridgers, Molly Burch, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Feist all seemed to delve into personal situations and deliver music that was vibrant, original and telling. Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra’s album The Navigator brought a new view of her old New York haunts and the effects of gentrification – whilst also conveying insight into her Puerto Rican roots. ‘Pa’lante’ from the album remains one of the year’s most enlightening and emotional listens.
I can’t ignore the fact that women seem to have their finger on the pulse of experiencing and expressing life in 2017
A late find for me was Aldous Harding with Party. I’ve been addicted to the album these last few weeks, the mood of the record fitting in perfectly with the Finnish winter darkness. Aldous has a very distinct voice which manages to switch between voyeuristic detachment and expressive, discordant intimacy within the context of a verse. The bare bones feel accentuates the darkness, Harding delivering one of the years most powerful releases.
A couple of reissues have also been consuming me whole. Laura Nyro’s first two albums, released in Mono as A Little Magic, A Little Kindness: The Complete Mono Albums Collection offers thumpingly direct versions of More Than A New Discovery and Eli and The Thirteenth Confession. Both sound better than ever and I can’t recommend these enough.
Yoko Ono’s album catalog continues to be re-issued and Approximately Infinite Universe from 1973 really could be the greatest post-Beatles related album release. Strong songwriting, great vocals and a whiff of punk rock – especially on ‘I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window’ – make this one of my favorite old discoveries of the year.
These singles have been the ones that hit the mark for me. Often coming from not so great albums, they all stand tall as special to these ears.
Popular music’s biggest enemy seems to be nostalgia. Unable to forge a new musical language – even some of the recent innovators came back with albums that although good, featured more of the same. It’s true that expectations for releases from older artists have been fuelled by past glories of discovering something genuinely groundbreaking, but this in itself is forged by my own nostalgia – a feeling of things being better before. Even my obsession with buying vinyl is in itself beholden to nostalgia’s grip. Let’s be honest, most people in general terms don’t bother with that anymore.
So LCD Soundsystem came back with another album that sounded great because it sounded like their older records. More of the same. War On Drugs had a few excellent tracks on their new record that played even more to the 1980s AOR gallery. Arcade Fire spectacularly lost the plot with their Everything Now – but still managed to include a few gems despite being unable to deliver anything remotely consistent. Even Fleet Foxes produced a record that was hard to love (at least they tried something different). Grizzly Bear’s Painted Ruins kept their standards high with a pleasing record that had some unexpected turns. But all these bands releases failed to totally re-ignite the ‘special’ spark.
But all these bands releases failed to totally re-ignite the ‘special’ spark
A positive upturn
I found those pleasures elsewhere. Richard Dawson’s Peasant album devised a new narrative about the UK’s current malaise whilst going seriously middle ages on us. Peasant not only contained great songs and skewered arrangements, but storytelling of the highest quality.
A couple of older artists, Paul Weller and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy released great records rather effortlessly – A Kind Revolution and Best Troubadour respectively are fine albums for any time and era. Sufjan Stevens reimagined his very special Carrie & Lowell as The Greatest Gift and managed to wring out even more jewels from the cupboard. Karin Dreijer returned as Fever Ray and brought with her a new manifesto of lesbian lust and kinky, warped electronica. Perfume Genius remained imperious on his wonderful No Shape, whilst Mac DeMarco in all senses matured into an indie Cat Stevens on his rustic yet enjoyable This Old Dog. Angel Olsen offered some outtakes with that amazing voice of hers managing to turn any half-baked idea into gold. Arca’s self titled album found new forms of expression and mystery, a record I kept returning too and experiencing with different feelings every time.
The record I listened to the most was King Krule’s The OOZ. I went into detail on this last month, but as the year ends, The OOZ’s street insights and world-weary breakdown seem to reflect the year better than any other release. It’s an uncompromising listen that encapsulates the 2017 flunk perfectly. It’s the antidote to all out electronic addictions whilst simultaneously demanding our attention to wonder what it’s all about.
It’s the antidote to all out electronic addictions whilst simultaneously demanding our attention to wonder what it’s all about.
Surprise, intrigue, mystery and a sense of adventure have all been in short supply. It often feels that pop music has taken an easy route and this past year managed to hammer the point home.
If 2018 could promise one thing, it’s to forget about how we consume music. Let us focus a bit more on the music itself, with some opinions and good writing in the mix. That would be most welcome.