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”
13 thoughts on “The Consumer: November Picks”
@Spencer. It always cracks me up the way you intro something with statements that appear to be consensus like with the El Vy…the last few National records were “tired affairs.” I doth protest! Definitely slow and somber in tone, but they’re really beautiful albums that require more than a few listens to enter that world. Despite the differing beginning assumptions, I pretty much agree about El Vy though. I think the second half is much stronger. “Happiness, Missouri” is constantly stuck in my head.
Well, I don’t believe that it makes for good writing to say “I personally think ….” or add the proviso to every sentence that others might disagree. Maybe I feel more strongly about those last couple of National albums than you do, but I think even fans of the band will openly acknowledge that Trouble Will Find Me was a letdown. And High Violet, while it does have some nice moments, was too dreary even for me. I think part of their problem has been tempo — too many mid-tempo songs that start to wear you down after a whole album. Hence, “tired affairs.”
I agree about writing style — I’m always taking out my “I think” statements to make it clearer. Still you have a gift beyond that — “even fans of the band will openly acknowledge” — love it. I’m totally a fan of the band, and I will grant that TWFM is probably my least favorite of the recent albums…but to me that’s like saying, as a Radiohead fan, that “Amnesiac” isn’t their best work. Sure, but it’s still great! Anyway, I meant the comment as a compliment…I like the art of persuasion (even when I’m not persuaded as in this case)!
“but I think even fans of the band will openly acknowledge that Trouble Will Find Me was a letdown”
FALSE! I love that album and still listen to it over and over. I did not love EL VY at first listen but you have compelled me to give it another listen. I think Grimes, Beach Slang and Deerhunter are my favorite latest albums.
Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of love for Beach Slang, but I just didn’t get them. Seemed like garden-variety indie punk to me.
I like Beach Slang, but I don’t know that they are more than a good version of what we know as indie punk.
@Biff. It took me a little bit to get into the El Vy (and I still don’t love the whole thing). Try starting with “Crank the Sun” and listen to the back half first…that’s how I do it
I can’t believe in all of this, you guys let me get away with my Taylor Swift comments unchallenged!
I’m not going to say that Adele is a “headphone album” but listening to it on headphones really makes me appreciate the production. It’s flawless. The details all serve the whole in such an elegant way.
No wonder Adele sold 2.9 million copies in the US in the first week. That’s so staggering…her releasing an album was a global event.
@Antony: Totally a headphones album. And I can now verify that it sounds even better on vinyl. 🙂
What I love most about this album is that it feels like an EVENT. You know? How long has it been since the release of a new album has felt like a common cultural experience like that?
One of the best roll outs I’ve ever seen for an album from her video fooling the Adele impersonators to her Fallon appearance. Just a likable person and good record. Not “21” but good in its own right.
@Biff – EL VY takes some time, but it’s a rewarding listen in my opinion. I may be the only one that loves it from top to bottom. Yes, there are some lyrical missteps but the production is incredible and like anything from Berninger takes some listens for the lyrics to hit.
On the comments about Beach Slang, not sure I agree. It doesn’t feel generic to me. Yes, the guitars sound like Japandroids, but lyrically and vocally it’s got something very cool and different about it. Like if Gaslight Anthem could right a better album. And even if it is somehow generic, I’ll take any good punk record right now. Feels like these times would breed punk rock, instead EDM continues its dominance.
Yeah I did what Antony said and it was a better intro into the album. It’s weird how mood and craving can alter how I hear things. I was not craving a different Matt Berringer and my mood has been all over the place this last month but not one that connected to EL VY until yesterday. I agree with Mark, any good punk is a good thing right now. The times have definitely pushed Hip-Hop to a place it hasn’t been in years, you would think that it would do the same for punk rock, I guess white kids just want space out and dance. (except my kids thankfully, they’re tired of my sad bastard music and don’t get grimes so they ask for the Beach Slang!).
I feel like punk is in a better state right now than either hip-hop or EDM, but maybe I’m not in touch with the cool kids anymore? Punk’s probably in the best spot it’s been, popularity-wise, since the early days of Green Day and Rancid, I’d say. FIDLAR, Titus Andronicus, Desaparecidos, and now Beach Slang have all put out critically-lauded albums this year — to say nothing of the punk acts that have been a little too “punk” for my own tastes. And I’ve actually been on a classic punk resurgence lately, listening to bands like the New York Dolls, Black Flag, and X, and for the first time in my life, “getting” them. (Which, being a lawyer for the federal government, is probably the exact opposite of what those bands would have wanted!) Have any of you you ever watched the documentary “The Decline Of Western Civilization”? If not, do it. Trust me, it’s fascinating. (And Pt. 2, which focuses on the waning days of hair metal, is even better).