By Biff Hust. “If I woke up tomorrow morning with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am right now.” This is what I kept thinking over and over in November 2016. Now I just repeat the title of my favorite album thirty years ago over and over on a loop: “Nothing’s Shocking.” So it’s no surprise to me that my favorite album of the year consists of loops and samples and repeated mantras all done in an abstract, beautifully disjointed and raw style. Earl Sweatshirt’s opus Some Rap Songs is a combination of the brevity, simplicity, and focus of punk rock and the other worldly, spontaneity and mystical qualities of good jazz. Since this album came out it has been on a loop when I’m in the car by myself; I also put Jeff Tweedy on every now and then to come out of the cold, introspective world Earl creates only to enter a warmer yet just as introspective one Tweedy creates. Both of these albums capture my mood and the palpable yet jaded angst I sense in our society today. These albums are one and two for me this year. Earl gets the slight nod just because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard yet so compelling to listen to. I’ve been singing Jeff Tweedy’s praises for years now and finally feel vindicated that people love his “first” official solo album. Continue reading
By Antony Lyon. Last year, my music listening habits surprised me; now I suspect they heralded the new normal. I make a lot of playlists – thirteen this year by my count. I enjoy the deliberate process of making a soundtrack for the moment, and I spent a lot of my listening time putting them together. My two most-spun albums this year were not from 2018. One was U2’s Songs Of Experience, which is a late 2017 album. Predictably, I listened to it a lot. As with any old friend, I (almost) forgive its flaws and only hear its virtues. As I said last year, it’s not an album that will convert late-period-U2 skeptics, but for the believers among us, it deepens a great band’s legacy. By a mile, my most-spun album is Teenage Fanclub’s Songs From Northern Britain. This 1998 album, a pastoral folk-rock exploration emerging from the Scottish Highlands, received a lovely polishing with a new remaster this year. This remastered edition coincided with a moment in my life, and now the album occupies one of those mystical spaces for me. I’m destined to listen to it on a walk in the Highlands and to weep like a child. I can’t wait. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Typically, great art is borne of terrible times. So in these days when hate is rising everywhere, days when some are questioning the decline of democracy itself, you’d expect that “serious” music—particularly music with a strongly political bent—would be experiencing a renaissance. Yet it’s confounding that two years into this critical juncture in history, we’re seeing so little music that speaks to the moment, that provides a vital commentary on the state of our union comparable to the creative explosion of the 1960s or the literary revolution of the interwar period. Music is still searching for a way to do something new, and the best answer anyone’s come up with so far is to cross-pollinate genres or historical influences in a way that aspires to accomplish a seamless new blend—hopefully obscuring the fact that there’s nothing truly new or original about it.
But while my 2017 list bemoaned a particularly weak crop, I’m happy to say that in 2018, the road is curving back in the right direction. And there are even signs that maybe, just maybe, this historical moment of ours could be on the cusp of sparking the next great creative explosion. My hope begins with this year’s brilliant new evolutionary leap from Leon Bridges. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Time for another vinyl time capsule in our continuing series, The Vintage Collector. I’m making my picks for the essential classic albums you need in your vinyl collection. This time, we’re doing barroom piano ballads, proto-hair metal, sultry lounge standards, soul/blues fusion, and a lost album from a titan of jazz. Continue reading
By Antony Lyon. Nothing I say is going to make you change your mind. You either want to listen to U2’s new album, Songs Of Experience, or you don’t. It really says more about you than it does U2. I have a long record of proselytizing about late-period U2, which says more about me than it does U2, I suppose. Continue reading
By Antony Lyon. This year, in a break with tradition, I’ve left my list unnumbered and included a few releases that violate the “new in 2017” selection principle. So you’ll find both a remastered anniversary deluxe edition and a 2016 album that I didn’t discover until this August on the list. This year I’ve chosen in the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
I listened to a lot of albums once, and I listened to a lot several times. I played some more often than others, but I rarely became obsessed with one. I spent a lot of time making playlists by collecting discovered single songs, rather than committing to whole albums. As a result, I don’t know how to rank these albums in a way that isn’t simply arbitrary. But to give it some sense of order, I’ve organized my reflections in genre clusters.
I don’t really have the wherewithal to bend my listening habits into a broader cultural critique, but I suspect it’s waiting there for someone more ambitious than I. This list is not hashtagged clickbait—“The Music List We Need Right Now!” It’s simply a list of what moved me and kept me moving this year. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Last month, I wrote a piece for this website explaining why I fear we’ve reached the end of music. Those ideas have been floating around in my head all year, and there’s a reason for that: I’ve been largely uninspired by the music that was released in 2017. After years writing about the best in indie rock, Americana, electronic, and hip-hop, I feel like every one of these genres has quietly reached a plateau—a Mobius strip of innovation in the guise of imitation, where nothing sounds new and any creativity by the artist is taking place mostly at the margins. We’ve reached points before in our musical history where a particular genre lost its ability to leave an impact. Think back to 1998 and how listless rock music had become after a decade of mopey grunge excess. The same phenomenon happened with the waning days of hair metal in 1990, or with pop music around that same time period, or with jazz in the late 50s. In each of these cases, the exhaustion of one art form made room for the birth of another, and rock-and-roll or hip-hop or grunge or indie rose to meet the challenge.
This time, though, feels different. Precisely because all of our musical forms have reached the exhaustion point simultaneously. Hip-hop has become stale, relying on minimalist beats and safe, Auto-Tuned choruses to speak to an ever-narrowing audience in clubs and on top 40 radio. Americana, once a refreshing throwback to the past, now feels increasingly forced and cliched after a wave of hipster Lumineer imitators beat the horse to death. After a decade of laughable Nashville radio filler, country momentarily offered a breath of something new by looking to the past and imitating the sounds of vintage 70s and 80s outlaw country—but the problem with looking backwards is that it gives you nowhere else to go. Electronic and EDM, while conceptually seeming like the obvious place to go if you’re looking for the music of the future, instead seem content with confining themselves to a niche of the market, endlessly looping the same sounds and textures and beats with diminishing returns. And rock music? It barely exists anymore, with most indie bands relegating the guitar to an afterthought and established rock stars like U2 doing everything they can to shoehorn elements of other genres into their music in a last desperate bid for continued relevance.
If this is a harsh way to start off a list of the year’s best music, I apologize only up to a point. The albums I’ve listed here are certainly good, listenable music—but are any of them truly great? Will we listen to any of them five years from now, or even one year from now? Looking back to my 2016 list, I can’t help but feel that the very best albums of 2017 wouldn’t have cracked the top 15 of that list. And sure, maybe that’s just a sign of a down year; after all, if we’re only a year removed from such superior work, then we may only be a year away from a renaissance. If so, I think it will require something more than repackaging the sounds of the past; it will require new voices, new ideas, and maybe some new names.
So if inclusion on this year’s list now reads like a backhanded compliment of sorts, then so be it. The true greats, including possibly even some of the artists I’ve listed here, will be more then capable of rising to the challenge—or else they’re not true greats. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. In the closing days of the Cold War, political theorist Francis Fukuyama argued that humanity had reached “the end of history”—not literally, of course, but as a shorthand to explain his notion that, after centuries of evolution, our systems of government had reached their final and logical endpoint in the global triumph of liberal democracy. No other system of government could ever better meet mankind’s inherent social and psychological needs, he maintained, and so we were now at the end of the road. Of course there would always be work to be done in terms of maintaining good governance, passing laws to address new problems, and so on—but the changes would be small rather than big. There would be no more seismic reinventions of government in our future, no viable contender to replace democracy wholesale (as communism and fascism had once tried to promise). History, understood as the story of man’s political progress, had already written its final chapter.
Setting aside the question of how rosy that projection now looks in the age of Trump, you might ask what the hell any of this has to do with this website? Well, I’d like to posit a theory of my own: that in the last decade, we have quietly reached the end of music. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. For a kid whose love of rock music was originally sparked by the early 90s grunge movement, seeing Pearl Jam’s recent induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame was an odd sort of milestone in my own musical journey. Standing there together on stage, trying to find words to capture what the moment meant to their music and to their own personal lives, you could almost see Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Matt Cameron—along with original drummer Dave Krusen!—mentally struggling to grasp the enormity of the past 25 years. There was a childlike shock at being there, as if their adult selves were momentarily jettisoned and replaced with six naive, energetic, swaggering kids from 1991. And from that perspective, the whole thing was no doubt impossible to compute.
But watching on the television, knowing as we do know that, as this was filmed, the world was just weeks away from losing yet another legendary Seattle frontman in Chris Cornell, the induction of Pearl Jam took on a wholly different kind of historical relevance. With so many of their grunge-era contemporaries—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots—lost or fundamentally altered by premature death, and so many others rendered defunct by eternal squabbling, lineup changes, or on-again, off-again breakups, Pearl Jam is now the last band standing. And there’s a monumental lesson in that about the nature of fame, creativity, and indeed life—either as musicians or just as people. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Been taking a bit of a break lately, but don’t worry—S&N isn’t going anywhere! And what better way to come back after a recharge than with a brand new S&N mix? Well, I say “brand new,” but as you’ll see with this batch of tunes, newness can be relative. Because while these songs all come from 2017 releases, you’ll notice an obvious theme: they make what’s new sound old again. Tapping into a vibe that’s distinctly 80s, these artists skirt that creative line between looking back and moving forward. And they prove it’s not so much a line as a spectrum. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Today in our continuing series on the most iconic uses of music in film, we look at two recent transformative illustrations of the music-writing process, along with a small piece of Hollywood history, a slice of brilliant visual comedy, a brief musical interlude in war, and a tribute to a recently-lost icon. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Longtime readers of S&N might notice a surprising name missing from this edition of The Consumer: Ryan Adams. His latest, Prisoner, dropped last month, but I’m sad to say I can’t recommend it. Continuing in the vein of 80s power rock that he explored on his 2014 self-titled album, Adams can still pen a great song almost effortlessly—and having heard a few of Prisoner‘s tracks during his live acoustic tour last year, I can confirm that there are some great songs hiding here. But they’re buried under lackluster production and a muddled mix, resulting in an album that feels like a cheap imitation—not only of its more obvious 80s influences (like Springsteen or Petty), but of Ryan Adams himself. So what have I been listening to instead? Aside from some killer EPs by Middle Kids and Maggie Rogers, lots of contemplative songcraft from the likes of Spoon (pictured above), Laura Marling, Leif Vollebekk, and Rose Elinor Dougall. Continue reading
By Antony Lyon. This playlist takes its title from Leif Vollebekk’s “Into The Ether.” I’ve had his Twin Solitude on repeat for the last couple of weeks. It might be good to think of Quit Putting Me On as the companion piece to Vollebekk’s album. The playlist is roots music on land and under the water. Hope you enjoy it! Click to download S&N Mix 27: Quit Putting Me On. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Time to pick back up where we left off with The Vintage Collector, our continuing series on the overlooked throwback records you need to add to your vinyl (or digital) collection. This edition highlights a team-up of jazz titans, plus some innovative punk pioneers, a progressive French provocateur, a delta blues legend, and a classic rock name you might not know—but ought to sound plenty familiar. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. You thought I got it all out of my system last time? HA! Apparently you don’t know me at all, because while the hate I rained down on Frank Ocean, Sufjan Stevens, Beach House, and The Cure was impressive—and despite what you might’ve read in the comments section, totally warranted—there’s plenty more where that came from. So sit back and let me explain why a few more of the so-called artists that Pitchfork and All Songs Considered keep conning you into appreciating are, if you’re really being honest with yourself, stains on the very soul of humanity. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. January saw a number of new releases from acts facing an identity crisis. The xx (pictured above), Cloud Nothings, Japandroids, and Run The Jewels each come into their third album with the need to refresh their sound or risk becoming stale. What’s fascinating is how they each manage to thread the needle and find ways to say something new without ever abandoning their core. Continue reading
[Editor’s Note: Nicole Funari, who hosts the Movie That Matters podcast, was kind enough to let us post this latest mix from her Badges & Wristbands Records project, in which she visits the many under-the-radar music festivals out there and compiles a mix of the best unknown artists she discovers].
By Nicole Funari. I am a veteran of the multi-venue, multi-day music festival. Each time I attend, I get a sense of place along with an abundant supply of music. The first thing I learned about Reykjavik was that turning the left tap brings pure, cold, mineral-laden spring water, and turning the right tap brings naturally hot, slightly malodorous, geothermal water. It seems appropriate that this tiny island nation bent on being a humanist utopia should have free healthful water to drink and to heat it streets and houses. It has a similarly wide and deep social safety net so effective that Icelanders no longer have the concept of a broken home. Icelanders are proud of their Viking heritage despite being a peaceful, progressive people who believe in elves. Perhaps that’s why their music is both mellow and digital. Two things I hate. Continue reading
By The S&N Staff. Once again, a group of S&N contributors—Hendricks, Mark, Biff, and myself—have voted on our favorite songs of 2016, and we present them to you here as a Spotify playlist for your streaming pleasure. In a year where politics dominated everything, it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of the songs we picked delve into that theme. But it’s still satisfying, nonetheless, to see that two of the most powerful political statements of the year came from A Tribe Called Quest and Drive-By Truckers. To hear East Coast hip-hop and Southern country rock come together on common ground like that speaks to the incredible bridging potential of music, and maybe offers a little hope about our ability to start a meaningful conversation that connects us despite our deep cultural divides. And there’s plenty more here, too, from S&N favorites like Hiss Golden Messenger and Blood Orange and The Range to some under-the-radar artists who deserve far more of our attention, like Lucy Dacus, Pinegrove, Hinds, and Chairlift. Enjoy, and happy holidays! Continue reading
By Antony. My “Year In Music” doesn’t say anything about what was important in 2016. If it did, then Beyoncé would be #1, followed closely by several other powerful hip-hop records: A Tribe Called Quest, Chance the Rapper, Common, Solange, and Blood Orange. But this list isn’t about important things; it’s a record of what I was listening to in 2016. This year, I didn’t seek importance from music; I sought solace. I understand why people turn to music when the world is in upheaval, when they sense a darkness descending upon us. In fact, I’m often one of those people, but for some reason, this year, I didn’t. Perhaps it was because of my necessary turn toward the domestic with the birth of my first child. Whatever the reasons, I only emotionally connected with music that would return me to myself and settle my spirit even if only for a moment. So here’s my list of the albums that made my year in music: Continue reading
By Spencer. I’m going to make a bold statement: 2016 was the best year for music in S&N’s three-year history. And I mean that from top to bottom. The top five in my year-end list is a murderer’s row of absolutely ingenious albums—each of them practically perfect from the first track to the last and displaying both infectious listenability and grand artistic ambition. But whereas in past years we saw a quick decline between the top five and everything else, 2016 presented so many good options that it was damn near impossible for me to even compile this list. Since science has yet to find a way to cram more than 20 albums into a top-20 list, though, I was forced to leave many worthy contenders out. Continue reading
By Spencer. In these first days of the Age of Trump, music is a place we can go to seek distractions and maybe even pieces of answers. Several of our featured artists this month are speaking openly of the open political wounds that have been lingering all year, from black lives to women’s rights to the anxieties of small-town America. And if it still seems a little too early to pick at those scabs and you just need something to take your mind off the state of the world, well, we’ve got that covered too, with some earnest and even whimsical songwriting about less complicated matters like, ahem, love. Continue reading
By Spencer. Picking up where we left off with our series on the most iconic uses of music on film, many of today’s picks use song to play with reality, spanning the gap from indie musical to surrealistic nightmare and looking at masters of the form like Tarantino, Lynch, Anderson, and Hitchcock. Continue reading
By Spencer. It’s a good week to focus on simpler times, so we continue our series on the essential vinyl albums with a look at a couple of guitar gods from very different eras; Kurt Cobain’s favorite Depression-era icon; the godmother of punk; and a team-up of the two greatest drummers of all time. Continue reading
By Spencer. It’s been a while since we’ve done a new Mixologist, but with fall weather finally settling in, now seems like the perfect time for a batch of new tracks from Hiss Golden Messenger, Billie Marten, Amanda Shires, Big Thief, Okkervil River, Hamilton Leithauser, and other recent S&N favorites. These songs capture the vibrancy of the moment, drifting along the line between consciousness and trance. And while this is noticeably one of our mellower mixes, there’s an urgency to these melodies that keep it anything but sleepy. Continue reading
By Spencer. Seems like a good time to revisit The Vintage Collector: our picks for the essential classic albums you need in your vinyl collection (or just your digital library). Today, we’ve got French jazz guitar, proto-punk, sultry lounge music, rockin’ blues, and one of the strangest jazz/symphony hybrids ever recorded. Continue reading
By Spencer. It was a huge September for music, and it’s probably going to take most of October just to catch up. And while just about everyone is currently singing the praises of the new Bon Iver, we’re looking back to some less-heralded new releases from a batch of artists from all over the spectrum: art rock from Hamilton Leithauser, Local Natives, Okkervil River, and Warpaint; folk and country balladry from Billie Marten and Amanda Shires; and punchy guitar rock from Beach Slang and Cymbals Eat Guitars. Continue reading
By Spencer. This website needs a little more hate. Sure, we introduce you to a lot of great music here, and for that, you should clearly be thankful. But there are some other websites out there with somewhat wider readership who are hellbent on convincing you to listen to some truly godawful crap. And gullible as you, o’ hapless internet reader, might be, there’s a decent chance you’ve even convinced yourself that you actually—[head shaking]—enjoy this shit. I’m not just talking about these newer indie bands, either; some of these mistakes go back decades.
Well, it’s time to have an intervention. Because I can’t just keep standing idly by while the arbiters of taste keep gushing with complete impunity over the same overblown, pretentious, boring, hackneyed, obnoxious purveyors of shit music. These artists objectively and demonstrably suck, and it’s high time you realize it. So for those of you who have been suckered into some inexcusably bad musical tastes, I’m kicking off a new series, The Contrarian, that will hopefully save you from yourselves. You’re welcome. Continue reading
By Spencer. Continuing with our series on the essential albums to add to your vintage vinyl collection—or just your digital collection if you’re still clinging to modernity—we’re looking at classic records from jazz greats, blues legends, prog rock innovators, and the original grandfathers of metal. Continue reading
By Spencer. Continuing last week’s Singles Club challenge, several of our S&N contributors are compiling playlists of songs from artists or albums we previously considered great, but whose star has faded over time—such that now you only really need one killer song from them in your collection. This week, it’s my turn, and I’m learning that the real challenge here is staying within the rules. Continue reading