The Best Albums of 2017

Okay, so that title is misleading. These aren’t necessarily the best albums of 2017 – who am I to judge? – but they’re certainly the new releases that I enjoyed most this year.

(Presented alphabetically by artist.)

I’m Only Dreaming by Eisley

By the end of the album’s very first song, it’s clear that I’m Only Dreaming is a special record. You want proof? Album opener ‘Always Wrong’ rides deliberate melodies that transform into stratified harmonies while the serenity of springtime seems to bloom right out of the speakers during in ‘When You Fall.’ If those don’t do it for you, try the majestic closure of ‘Brightest Fire’ or the tranquil tenderness of ‘Rabbit Hole.’ Few albums this year offer a single song as brilliant as any of these and yet I’m Only Dreaming has them all and more, including what is perhaps the album’s greatest passage as the second half of ‘Defeatist’ unfolds across a looped melodic line, tracing out a verse that hits maybe a little too close to home:

“As the dust falls down, I usually give up so easily. I let my head hang down before I even see a truth that’s plain as day staring back at me. I’m a defeatist, but I don’t have to be.”

I’m Only Dreaming is that rare album that grabs you from the moment it begins and never lets go; it’s bright and warm and surprisingly existential. The end result is that with this release, Eisley, on the heels of significant lineup changes, has created what is likely their best album. Continue reading “The Best Albums of 2017”

Writing Young

A decade ago I sat in a collegiate music composition class and listened to a professor explain how, in order to write a truly great song, it was necessary to hone an idea over and over, fully exploring it and discovering the best way to implement it. Young people, he posited, struggled with this because they have too many ideas and want to work each of them into every project. They lack the ability or willingness to be patient, to refine, to focus, to reduce. Besides the fact that this is a pretty condescending stance to take in front of a classroom of young people who want to write music, it also – irony alert – feels like a rather unrefined position. Presumably he was trying to convince us that writing music was work, except that it felt an awful lot like he was saying writing music was for other – better, more dedicated – people.

To be clear, there is some truth in what he said. There is absolutely benefit to honing one particular idea and refining it into its purist form. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a lot of ideas in one song, or that the desire to combine a number of ideas is somehow detrimental to any one of them. It just means that, if you want to include a lot of ideas in one song, you had better be able to give each of them the attention that they need. It’s also worth pointing out that young people are just as capable of this as their seniors – if not more capable, considering that the vast majority of “great” songs and albums were written by young artists.

In fairness, the overarching concern that this professor had is a good one: to really make a song work, you can’t simply string a couple of ideas together. You need to truly understand those ideas and how they fit with one another. How a song’s elements relate and what makes each one successful in achieving its goals have a huge impact on how the song will turn out. What our dear professor failed to understand is that there’s no age barrier to focus and drive and deep thought. You don’t have to have had a certain number of birthdays to write a good song, you just need to have the ideas and the commitment to putting in the necessary work. Which, come to think of it, is not all that different from what you would need to teach a collegiate music composition course. In retrospect, maybe Mr. Professor wasn’t being a dick in an effort to discourage us from writing music; maybe he was afraid that we were coming for his job.


This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

Hey Millennials: This Isn’t How They Said It Would Be

Look, the world feels an awful lot like it’s going to shit right now. And a fair number of Baby Boomers – the people who have been running this shit show for a while now – are pretty sure that not only is the world ending but that it’s all millennials’ fault. No seriously, it’s all millennials’ fault. Upon reading such buffoonery, I am tempted to join the army of bereaved souls who have written screeds against the wrongs done to my generation by our elders, the general point of which can usually be boiled down to something like: “What the fuck, Baby Boomers? This is your fault.”

We millennials were promised a world – by you, Mr. & Mrs. Boomer Parents – that we could shape as we saw fit, where a liberal arts degree wouldn’t be useless and where any job was attainable so long as you cared about it. If this idyllic world that we were promised ever really existed (spoiler alert: it probably didn’t), it sure as hell was gone by the time I became an adult. The result is a fairly-justifiable desire to set pen to paper and lambaste the teachers, counselors and, yes, even parents who misled an entire generation of idiots (read: people like me) into thinking that we could really be whatever we wanted when we grew up as long as we wanted it badly enough. As if the road to success wasn’t littered with the desiccated corpses of countless others who also wanted it really, really fucking badly. Continue reading “Hey Millennials: This Isn’t How They Said It Would Be”

Tessa Violet – Halloway

When discussing Halloway, the late-2016 EP from Tessa Violet, the natural inclination is to focus on the album’s jaunty electropop feel. While it’s true that ‘Dream’ moves along on the back of a bouncing hook and that ‘Not Over You’ sounds like the musical lovechild of Tillian and Carly Rae Jepsen, these salient points do not address the most compelling aspect of Violet’s most recent EP: ‘Haze,’ the malevolent instant-classic at the literal center of Halloway.

There’s a long history of pop musicians getting bored with their vanilla personas and trying to diversify; what usually follows is an attempt to don the black hat and try on (the appearance of) some villainy. I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. ‘Haze’ is dark and troubled but authentically so. This may be the first pop song I’ve ever heard that sounds truly sinister. It’s sparse and baleful, its melody driving towards an ominous cadence even as the delicacy of Violet’s vocals contrasts with the surrounding gloom, heightening the dramatic tension. ‘Haze’ thrives on that contrast. Compared to oft-overdone heel turns that rely on sonic violence or aggression, Violet’s approach is casual, nonchalant and dispassionately calculating. It also hints at a sense of victimhood, revealing the self-doubt that lies behind so many good villains. Honestly, it’s pretty fucking great. And so is the rest of Halloway. If you love pop music and you weren’t keeping an eye on Violet prior to this release – and I certainly wasn’t – you should be now.


This article was originally posted at Type In Stereo, where you can find lots of my random musical thoughts, like, for example, how ‘Haze’ is probably the only song to reference both Shakespeare and Fifty Shades of Grey in the same line. So that’s something.

This Is Ours Now

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There was a time when Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut was the only album I listened to for an entire calendar year. Literally. That seems like an exaggeration, an overreach of the figurative use of “literally.” It’s not. I was ten during the summer of 1997, when ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ took over every radio station on Earth, and by the time I was 11 – and after pilfering my dad’s copy of Third Eye Blind – the album had effectively taken over my listening life.

It’s difficult to articulate how much I’ve listened to that album and how interwoven it is with the fabric of my personal identity. I spent my formative years – when I sat on the precipice of adolescence, beginning a never-ending existential crisis of self-discovery – listening to it almost exclusively. Third Eye Blind is light and cheery on the surface and dark and tormented beneath; those layers and that depth were incredibly appealing and important to me at a time when I was starting to learn about my own depth as a person.

Art is a mirror and as I grew and changed, I saw myself reflected more clearly in Third Eye Blind than in anything else in my life. In it I found more than just some semblance of understanding or solace; I found the same violent emotions, the confusion and isolation, that felt so prominent in my own life. I found a voice – both sonic and lyrical – that was as odd and broken and magical as I felt. I found myself.

That discovery – that there was something beyond my fingertips that I understood and that understood me – was critical. An awkward kid, I struggled with the complexity of growing up, especially with the crossing of that adolescent threshold over which everything becomes suddenly new and beautiful and painful and strange. I didn’t know how to process the changing infrastructure of my life and when it came to interacting with my evolving peers I was maladroit at best. For a long time I was lonely and confused and uncomfortable in my own skin. In my self-doubt, I leaned on Third Eye Blind, burying myself in its rhythms and patterns. Throughout my ungainly growing pains I endured the hazards of emotional awakening by telling myself that even though I had never been so alone, just as Stephan Jenkins intoned on my favorite song, I had never been so alive. Continue reading “This Is Ours Now”

The Best Albums of 2016

This post was originally included in a group discussion at Type In Stereo.

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5. Letters to Lost Loves by Tyson Motsenbocker. There were a handful of albums contending for this final spot, from PUP’s rambunctious The Dream Is Over to Panic! At the Disco’s surprisingly enjoyable Death of A Bachelor but I’m going to go with a more subdued choice in Letters to Lost Loves. Motsenbocker’s debut full-length is slow and thoughtful with the kind of earnest, singer-songwriter melancholia that I thought had faded into history. For some, the album’s lack of high-octane punch will undoubtedly create a barrier to entry, but they’ll be missing out on some truly great songs like the windswept ‘House in the Hills’ and ‘In Your Name,’ an elegiac crisis of faith written in the wake of Motsenbocker’s mother’s death. Relative to the other albums on this list, Letters to Lost Loves feels simple but that simplicity can be misleading; there’s something special here, something powerful.

4. Passengers by Artifex Pereo. Over the course of their three-album career, Artifex Pereo have managed to seamlessly blend a wide variety of stylistic genre elements into practically each of their songs. Case in point: after I introduced the band to one of my friends with Passengers, he suggested that the album sounded like a cross between Deas Vail and The Fall of Troy. Which it kind of does. And which is completely ridiculous (and awesome) because those are extremely disparate bands. That ability to be all over the sonic map without ever feeling out of place may be Artifex’s greatest gift and it’s in full force on Passengers. Songs move from violent, screaming breakdowns to delicate falsetto to frenetic, noodly riffing in a few moments and none of it ever feels forced or hackneyed. The strong song construction continues beyond the music as there are solid lyrical ideas here as well, even if they’re often buried in a poetic style (‘Enterprise of Empire,’ for instance, condemns the violence and destruction of American imperialism). With so much going on, this is a record best served by active listening; there’s plenty of material to hold your attention as you sit with your headphones on tight.

3. dear me by Owel. Do you like pretty things? I like pretty things and my god if this album isn’t just gorgeous. dear memight be the prettiest album I’ve heard in a long time. Owel exists in this small sonic space at the edge of post rock where they continue to do their own thing in the most beautiful way. Jay Sakong’s otherworldly vocals and his preternatural feel for melody are truly phenomenal but everyone in this band is killing it on this record, from Ryan Vargas’s diverse beats to Jane Park’s emotive string arrangements. dear me is definitely Owel’s most cohesive and continuous release to date and it offers a damn near perfect introduction to one of the scene’s brightest young bands.

2. To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere by Thrice. I’ll admit, I was skeptical. While there are exceptions, reunion albums rarely go well and when I heard that Thrice was ending their four year hiatus with a new album, I worried that we’d be getting something that fell short of the high standard that the band had set with their previous work. Instead it turns out I was stupid to doubt Thrice, a band that’s been remarkably committed to the integrity of their craft since I was fucking up Spanish verb conjugations in middle school. From the opening acoustic chords of ‘Hurricane,’ which brilliantly presage the thunderous wall of sound that follows, through the final disconsolate lament of our digital lives in ‘Salt and Shadow,’ To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere is fantastic. In fact, it makes a strong case for inclusion on the short list of Thrice’s greatest releases. It is really, truly good to have these guys back. (And cheers to them for taking Gates on tour and giving us this incredible moment.)

1. Parallel Lives by Gates. When I wrote about Parallel Lives earlier this year I looked at the album with a grand, sweeping approach. Let’s flip that perspective today and focus on one song: album opener ‘Forget’ which happens to be one of the single most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I’ve had the good fortune to, as either a listener or a performer, be a part of some truly beautiful music. I’ve seen Sigur Rós perform ‘Untitled 1,’ I’ve reviewed albums built around beauty, and in college I was fortunate enough to sing Biebl’s ‘Ave Maria’ in the world’s largest effing cathedral. This not-so-humble bragging is all to say: I know a thing or two about beautiful music. And there are few songs whose beauty more consistently moves me than ‘Forget,’ a track that still gives me goosebumps every single time I listen to it, despite that count now reaching into the hundreds. It’s a magnificent song; it breaks me with its soft, strong serenity only to swell up and reaffirm that this breaking is not only okay, but exceptional, a sign that there is beauty and meaning in the world, and in my life. If that kind of emotional response doesn’t convince you of a song’s greatness, then I don’t know what will.

Violet Days – Your Girl

I am nothing if not a (wayward, powerless) arbiter of pop music. Over the years I have advocated for indie darlingsuniversally acclaimed megastars and criminally underrated savants. And now I’ve got a new addiction: ‘Your Girl’ by Violet Days.

I don’t want to get too technical here but, guys, that song is awesome. It’s got smooth hooks! It’s got booming bass! It’s got catchy programming! It’s got basically everything you’d want in a pop song these days (sorry). I’ll be very excited to see what Violet Days does next because, for at least one (wayward, powerless) critic, songs like this are just about the pinnacle of contemporary pop music.


This post originally appeared on Type In Stereo.

Owel – dear me

Goddamn if this album isn’t beautiful. From the moment it begins, with three twinkling strikes of a xylophone, Owel’s dear me is a gorgeous, sweeping ode to the power of beauty in music. Each song across the album’s 66-minute runtime brims with tenderness and passion; when, for instance, vocalist Jay Sakong sings the titular syllables of ‘Pale Soft Light’ during that song’s bridge, the words are delivered with such warmth and delicacy that it borders on onomatopoeic.

But there is, of course, more to beauty than elegance. On dear me, Owel diversifies accordingly. Songs like ‘I Am Not Yours’ and ‘Annabel’ – whose lyrics are dark – are both powerful and bold while ‘Not Today’ is rhythmic and pulsing. And yet, throughout every song on dear me, the lingering sense of beauty and wonder remains.

dear me

As with their self-titled debut, Owel’s greatest successes here come when they explore the natural dramatic tension between subdued, dreamy gentility and boisterous, soaring catharsis. It’s easy to see the influence of bands like Sigur Rós, Tides of Man or even Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World, but to lean too heavily on these comparisons is unfair – what dear me achieves at its peak is wonderfully unique.

As the album winds down, the listener’s journey concludes with the same three xylophonic notes that began it. I’ve written before about the power of cyclical composition and how it begs for immortality, but there’s another side to cyclical works: they’re self-contained, worlds unto themselves. And dear me truly does a masterful job of carrying its listeners away into its dreamy, beautiful world. It’s a world I want to live in, often. I imagine I will.


Banner photo by Dimitry Mak.

This post originally apppeared at Type In Stereo.

Artifex Pereo – Passengers

There’s an old Jerry Seinfeld bit about the hazards of choosing a cold medicine. “This one’s quick acting, but this one’s long lasting,” he notes. “When do I need to feel good, now or later?”

Weirdly, this is not so different from some of the listening choices that we make. Some albums use shortcuts to jump right to the pleasure center of your brain so that you’re hooked immediately; they make you feel good now. We most commonly associate this tactic with traditional pop music but the reality is that every sub-genre has these “pop” shortcuts in its language. (If we’re being honest, Saosin is just pop music for hardcore kids, right?) None of which is meant as a knock on pop music, either. Good pop music is fucking awesome.

Comparatively, there are albums that don’t necessarily hook you right away or fully reveal themselves on first listen; they make you feel good later. These albums, these slow-burners, often inspire tremendous fan attachment but within a smaller populous. They take time and effort because their initial impenetrability satisfies a different and inherently more marginal musical desire than the instant gratification of what we’ve deemed “pop.” These albums, by chance or design, require listeners who value commitment and persistence over ephemerality and accessibility.

The unspoken punchline of Seinfeld’s joke is that we actually don’t want to have to choose between feeling good now or feeling good later. We want both. And that’s what makes albums that grab you immediately but also have the depth to hold up over time so special. Even though it’s early in the album’s life cycle, it sure feels like Artifex Pereo’s Passengers belongs in that category.

Passengers

Passengers knows its audience and hits in all the shorthand, instantly gratifying ways that an album like this should: there are violent breakdowns, frenetic riffing and wailing vocals. But there’s also depth lurking underneath it all, with complex structures, exploratory lyrics and hidden instrumentation waiting to be discovered through repeated listening and the passage of time.

I won’t pretend that Passengers is for everyone. Admitting that genres are becoming increasingly irrelevant, let’s throw some modifiers at this: Passengers is for fans of experimental, forward-thinking prog or post-rock. But if you find any of those elements appealing, then this album is worth a listen because it sure feels like Artifex Pereo have made a record that you’ll be able to enjoy right now and for a long time to come.


This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

Parallel Lives

Two of my best friends are brothers; one is a comic artist and the other a musician. We used to play in a band together. Bands, actually. The most successful was probably our high school band, a pop-punk/screamo outfit that consistently covered both Finch’s ‘Letters to You’ and the Limp Bizkit version of George Michael’s ‘Faith’ [cringe]. In later years, when our college band was in full swing, we were more purposeful (and more pretentious) in our efforts to make, you know, music. That particular band – which idolized groups like The Receiving End of Sirens, Thrice and Gatsbys American Dream – was an artistically rewarding project but also, rather predictably, unsuccessful in most tangible respects. But we loved it, and few things bring people together more than making music.

After college we scattered. I moved to the Oregon coast while the musician relocated to New York and the artist eventually settled in Detroit. We saw each other only on vacations and holidays and soon the time of our music-making receded into the past. But we stayed in touch and, all these years later, we’re still close.

A year or so after our diaspora, I saw an advertisement on Absolute Punk for a band recruiting a singer and I immediately felt pangs of longing for those days when I could swing a mic and scream my lungs out until I was empty and exhausted and satisfied. But I wasn’t a singer anymore, not really, and I was on the wrong coast anyway: the band was in New Jersey. With a little prodding I convinced the musician, newly of New York, to audition for the spot. He had never been a singer before but he had talent and passion and a better feel for songwriting than I had ever hoped to have. All of that was abundantly clear in the demo that he put together as his audition tape. He got the job.

And that’s how Kevin Dye joined Gates.

Parallel Lives

Obviously I love Gates. I’m also terribly biased. Whatever. When the band released Parallel Lives earlier this year, they delivered an album that was universally praised (by people far less biased than me) and deservedly so. It’s an astounding record full of beauty and boldness and the kind of unwavering honesty and depth that will bring you back and back and back again. As the album unfolds with soaring crescendos and crisp harmonies, different themes start to emerge and resonate, each with their own unique contribution to the experience. And among the many stellar moments of Parallel Lives, I find myself particularly drawn to the album’s final, eponymous line: “All we seem to be are parallel lives caught crossing.”

That line – as well as the song and album around it – suggests that we are no different from the countless people who live, nameless and faceless, on the periphery of our lives. It suggests that the only places where we are unique, where we can find meaning, are those few places where, by chance or design, our lives have crossed with someone else’s. That suggestion is true and troubling and, in its own way, absolutely beautiful. Who would we be if we had been born elsewhere or in a different time? Which of the people that we hold so dear would have been excised from our lives? And then, since we were born where and when we were, how lucky are we to have lived the lives we’ve lived, with all the crossings and connections that have made us who we are?

I can’t recommend Parallel Lives strongly enough. It’s an incredible record and I couldn’t be more proud of Gates and all that they’ve accomplished. I hope that you’ll give this band and this album a chance to cross into your life, to see what unexpected things they may weave there. Because, for my part, I’m endlessly fortunate that among all the chances and fates of the world, my life – which could have remained forever parallel to so many crossings – crossed with the paths of Gates and, long ago, an artist and a musician.


This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.