By Spencer. Before we get into the year-end blitz of critics’ best-of lists, I wanted to highlight some late entries that just might be popping up on S&N’s own picks for the best albums of 2015. This edition of The Consumer looks at a few listens that are seeing heavy rotation during my November commutes: Adele, EL VY, and Julien Baker.
Adele – 25: Whenever you dare suggest that maybe Taylor Swift’s songwriting suffers from a lack of maturity or substance, you always hear the same excuse: “Well, to be fair, she’s only 25.” How anyone can say this with a straight face after hearing Adele’s 25 is beyond me. For the third album in a row, Adele is doing nothing short of rewriting the rules of what pop music can be, crafting songs of intense sadness and regret that are somehow catchy as all hell. You won’t hear any trite teenage party anthems about crushes or fashion here; the lyrics on 25 are sophisticated adult fare about long-distance relationships and lost years that aren’t so easy to, well, shake off. While the massive singles, “Hello” and “When We Were Young,” are fairly traditional piano ballads—smartly staying out of the way of that godsend of a voice—Adele does experiment a little more on tracks like “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” and “I Miss You,” where looped guitars and lumbering drums spice up the production in new ways.
There’s little doubt at this point that 25 is going to be the biggest-selling album of the year. And that a talent like Adele could ever become our most universally-beloved pop star speaks well of us. It’s easy to believe, in this Buzzfeed-fueled world of disposable entertainments, that we’ve lost the ability to appreciate something substantial. Adele is one small proof that, as a culture, we’re still capable of more.
Adele – “I Miss You”
EL VY – Return To The Moon: The last couple of albums from The National have been tired affairs, worth a couple of listens but not much more than that. Thankfully, lead vocalist Matt Berninger has found a refreshing spark on this side project with Menomena’s Brent Knopf. It’s full of conventional but pretty melodies, made more interesting by some unconventional production—like the epileptic drums on “It’s A Game” or the guitar harmonics that dot tracks like “No Time To Crank The Sun.” Those production flourishes have Knopf’s fingerprints all over them, echoing the chaotic and quirky aesthetic of Menomena’s best work. But Berninger’s devotion to melody has always been The National’s greatest gift, and paired with Knopf, it’s the best of both worlds—offbeat and also strangely welcoming. This is not a perfect album by any stretch, with a few lyrical miscues and some tongue-in-cheek tracks like “I’m The Man To Be” seeming very much out of place alongside the more somber entries. But I’ll say this—it’s not boring in the least.
EL VY – “Return To The Moon (Political Song For Didi Bloome To Sing, With Crescendo)”
Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle: The title of Julien Baker’s debut album is a clear allusion to a nagging kind of injury, and you can hear that pain and frustration throughout these nine hyper-personal acoustic tracks. Recorded in sparsely-produced one-takes, with no more than an occasional hand drum or an overlay of feedback to accompany her chords and her voice, this album is like a window into a young songwriter’s soul. I say “young” because there’s very little subtlety to the emotions or notions on display here—which is exactly what makes it so special. “Everybody Does” is a blunt display of insecurity about the constant fear of rejection—”You’re gonna run / When you find out who I am / You’re gonna run / It’s alright, everybody does”—while the title track openly mocks her tendency to wallow in those kind of darker sentiments with the unforgettable line, “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” Reading this, you’re probably thinking the album is a huge drag, but that’s the thing—it’s totally not. The mood is more contemplative than anything else, and Baker’s gift for chord progressions makes you want to wallow in these songs right along with her. It’s simple, elegant, powerful stuff.
Julien Baker – “Blacktop”