2017 was a really great year for metal and extreme music. The political turmoil of the past year has led to a lot of bands to return to making political and angry music. We saw name-making releases from heavy music up and comers like Jesus Piece, Bell Witch, and Code Orange (If someone told me that in 2013 that Code Orange Kids would drop the “Kids” from their name and be nominated for a Grammy in 4 years I would have laughed in their face). 2017 also saw some excellent releases from genre mainstays like Boris, Converge, Obituary, and Krallice, still proving that they can make excellent and innovative music decades into existence. Here are some thoughts on 10 albums from the past year that I highly enjoyed, and hope you can too.
Not So Much to Be Loved As to Love- Jonathan Richman
On Friday I caught Jonathan Richman at the Sco. This show was unlike any other that I had seen this year as Richman seemed pursued to entertain above all else and boy, did he entertain! Jonathan Richman’s signature naïvité was now joined with a 66 year old wisdom, and how lucky were we to have him bestow it upon us. Between displaying his unequalled dancing skills he played many beautiful songs, all seemingly centering on reflecting upon his past youth which made me laugh and cry. This song, the last song he played that night, summed up much of what that night was about: talking of self pitying depression walks and angst and being lovesick and reflecting that perhaps he might have gotten a little caught up in himself a bit. Instrumentally, his arrangements have all the appearances of what a jolly and positive Phil Elverum would sound like.
2. Save Me A Place- Fleetwood Mac
I will fight any foe who dares question Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk as their crowning achievement. Yes, it is the album where they overstep their boundaries, try too many things, and spend a million dollars recording drums in the bathroom but how many post-punk influenced soft rock records are this good or even exist? This song’s raw and beautiful autoharp strums and longing vocals from Lindsey Buckingham all add up to create an even more affecting post heartbreak song than anything on Rumours. In contrast to the lushness of that album this song’s spare production and unsettling pitched down harmonies only serve to emphasize the song’s desperate refrain of “I’ll come running if you love me today”.
3. Halcyon Age-Vansire
The newest installment in the best Vansire song sweepstakes, Halcyon Age’s new keyboard dominated sound. Vansire, a band fronted by Oberlin’s own Josh Augustin and Sam Winemiller, has been putting out records for the last three years, achieving some major success with their song ‘Eleven Weeks.’ Now they break out of their dream pop bubble, embracing Chillwave and some vaguely eighties synths that make you wish Mac Demarco was back in his Salad Days. Referencing heroes such as Jim O’Rourke and Daniel Johnston, the song shows how Vansire has gone widescreen and with this song they are showing that almost any move they make will be the right one.
4. Sunday in Savannah-Nina Simone
Not Atlanta but Savannah. Nina Simone starts off by announcing she is going to sing about Savannah instead of Atlanta. “I think that he wouldn’t mind” says Simone. Simone is speaking of Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated just days before this concert was recorded. Unlike much of the sound of 1968, Simone takes a gentle pastoral route to express a sense of mourning. Evoking a Sunday spent in church, Nina Simone alludes back to the roots of King’s life in Georgia and the type of Sunday that King would never again witness. Swelling up into a cathartic “Amen!” Simone yells into the abyss of 1968 with hope and gracing the statement with the beauty that only her voice could conjure. A song for hope in dark nights of the soul.
5. There But for the Grace of God Go I-The Gories
The Gories straight up slap. A punk band unlike any before that informed all after. They didn’t even have a bass player! Sounding like demons who took over an abandoned Detroit car factory, the Gories simply sound how great bands should. The rowdy and unkempt riff holds together the song, the gang vocals, and primitive drums are simply perfection. You can see why the White Stripes so thoroughly ripped them off. Also a great title.
With the release of My Woman last year, Angel Olsen cemented herself as a powerful force in music. Multifaceted, rich, electric, My Woman burst away from the minimalist style of Olsen’s previous folk albums, while incorporating the same tender and honest lyrical and vocal style. In Phases, the recently released collection of demos, covers, and never-before-released tracks, Olsen pulls a thread through much of her work, revealing tenderness, nostalgia, and a strange sense of confidence. Olsen’s lyrics have always been honest; speaking to love and loss, masterfully crafting narrative and metaphor. Like a chameleon, her voice is ambiguous and symphonic, reflecting and intensifying whatever mood the song conveys (this also comes across in her recent duets with both Alex Cameron “Stranger’s Kiss”and Hamilton Leithauser “Heartstruck”, both of which I highly recommend). Whereas Olsen’s previous albums are more stylistically cohesive, what is cohesive about Phases is Olsen’s lyrical genius, her stunning voice, and her personal growth. Phases places Olsen’s history on show for all to hear; it is a curated collection of Olsen’s musical process.
Phases is organized chronologically, literally into Olsen’s musical and personal phases; the album opens with her two most recently recorded songs—“Fly On Your Wall” and “Special.” “Fly On Your Wall,”which was previously included on the Bandcamp-only, anti-Trump fundraiser Our First 100 Days, utilizes deep bass and drums, building up to a crescendo that showcases Olsen’s voice in the lyric “A love never made is still mine/If only real in my mind.” Olsen demonstrates a certain type of confidence found in honesty by siphoning musical power from admission of vulnerability: “I found a feeling inside/Or should I say it found me/I turned into someone I/Never imagined I’d be.” Olsen’s unwavering voice and open lyrics tells us that she’s confident in her ability, her emotions, and her music–old and new. “Special,” a new song recorded at the same time as My Woman, languishes in this same electricity, unapologetically pulling the listener through seven and a half minutes of emotional movement. The song relies on Olsen’s dynamic voice and guitar. Beginning with both vocals and backing low and subdued, as the song expands, piercing guitar notes build toward a slow, almost psychedelic ending.
The next two songs on the collection are “Only With You” and “All Right Now,” demos of releases off of the 2014 release Burn Your Fire For No Witness. In their minimalist, solo style, they both lament and confront past loss. Olsen takes the strength discovered in “Fly On Your Wall” and “Special” into emotional vulnerability on “Only With You.” In “Only With You,” she places the raw, tender emotions associated with the loss of love directly in front Despite this pain, Olsen is still herself—singing, as though a mother would to a child, that she does “not have to reach out/To somebody new” because it’s “always been right” in “All Right Now.” In this chronology, Olsen creates a narrative of self-reliance, demonstrating how this quality has been present since the beginning of her work. “Sweet Dreams,” “California,” and “May as Well” are also all re-releases of work off of Olsen’s previous albums, tenderly and earnestly calling to a sense of nostalgia for listeners. The raw, rougher sound of these songs translate well to Phases, calling back to Olsen’s earlier work. “Sweet Dreams” and “California” are playful, sinking into a solid, rhythmic pattern that makes you want to sway, even if the songs aren’t particularly upbeat. “May as Well” uses just one acoustic guitar, not the full backing of “Sweet Dreams” and “California,” but this rhythm is still very much present in the mellow cadence of Olsen’s voice.
“Sans” and “How Many Disasters” are previously unreleased songs that demonstrate, perhaps better than any other set of songs on Phases, Olsen’s quiet honesty. On these two tracks, her voice very much seems as if she’s on the verge of tears; she invites listeners to be part of her vulnerability, as if we were experiencing these emotions simultaneously. On “Sans,” Olsen earnestly tells us of the pain of being in “the darker hour when you’re far away from home” with a low, constant strumming of electric guitar while singing along with a high voice. Following “Sans” are “Sweet Dreams” and “California,” two rollicking, poetic folk ballads from her 2013 release Sleepwalker. Following is a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest,” to which Olsen perfectly adapts to her own sweeter, more folk inspired style with acoustic guitar and coy, playful vocals. She also covers Roky Erikson’s “For You” and Hoyt Axton’s “Endless Road.” Olsen manipulates these classics and puts her own twist on them; they become stunning and otherworldly, both feeling like vintage classics and modern contemplations, ultimately her own.
Phases seems like Olsen’s manifesto—in releasing this compilation, it seems like she is laying herself out without any pretention or assumption, for listeners to view her candor and raw emotion—this is who I am and this is where I have been. Whereas her past albums focus on one distinctive sound each,Olsen lays out her musical phases to create personal narrative in Phases–one that is proud of her folk roots and her rock future. Phases is an album of introspection and honesty, not just for Olsen, but also for the listeners she invites into this intimate space.
I’m so excited to announce that we are starting the blog back up again. One of the coolest things about WOBC (at least to me!) is the way in which people talk about music. People have shows about everything: from hip hop to krautrock and every little thing in between.
As the semester wraps up I thought it would be worthwhile to put the ideas of our DJs in writing. I thought it would be cool to reach out to the station and look for criticism for our very own blog. In the past, this space has been pretty active; the blog has been used for workgroups to share what they’re listening to, for individual DJs to produce audio stories and write essays, and so much more.
But it has certainly been a while! That’s why the blog is back. From now until further notice, we’ll be semi regularly publishing essays, playlists and interviews about music of all kinds. Look forward to reading music criticism from your peers and members of your community. If you want your voice to be heard reach out to Sophie at firstname.lastname@example.org. I cannot wait to hear your ideas.
There is so much to look forward to! The future is bright!