The Niche Nine: Our Favourite Albums of February 2017

So, I listen to an absurd, excessive amount of music. According to my last.fm, I’ve listened to 2,357 songs in the last 30 days alone. And a lot of what I listen to is very, very niche. Thus, with the blessing of the other editors here at the Niche, I am launching the inaugural edition of The Niche Nine – a monthly recap of my nine favourite releases of the last month. Is this a music review or a cry for help? You decide.

9. Strand of Oaks – Hard Love

The most notable thing about this album is the variety on display here – ranging from big, bombastic straight-ahead rockers genetically engineered in a government lab to make you dance around your room wilding out on an air guitar, to softer, more down-tempo stuff that reminds me a little of Christian acoustic worship music if Christian acoustic worship music wasn’t consistently awful.

8. Maggie Rogers – Now That the Light is Fading EP

The Maggie Rogers story is just so fun – moving Pharrell to tears during a routine finals week feedback session at NYU! Going viral before lunchtime! Booking club shows and summer festivals across the globe! And this is that rare instance where the hype doesn’t feel overblown in the slightest. Her bedroom folktronica experiments – like “Alaska,” see above, The Track That Made Pharrell Cry – are really fresh additions to the genre that clearly stem more from private, personal experimentation than a practiced effort to emulate anyone else. She’s not the next Ellie Goulding or Lorde or Beth Orton – she’s the only Maggie Rogers.

7. Frontier Ruckus – Enter the Kingdom

This stuff goes down so easy. Frontier Ruckus blends the small-scale, introspective lyricism of Pinegrove, Car Seat Headrest, and Andy Shauf with what would be standard chamber pop backing if not for the feather-light flourishes of Americana throughout. Banjos and pedal steel guitars and organs abound, but never to excess, and always to root the music in a folk tradition that lends warmth and depth and gravitas to a series of weird-kids-in-small-towns vignettes.

6. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)

It’s thrilling to watch Meg Duffy step into her own spotlight after spending years pulling assists for other artists. Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void) is so sweet and soft and self-assured, a demonstration of mastery from someone who has waited a long time to arrive. You can trace a clear line to Duffy’s musical predecessors – Waxahatchee, Phil Elverum, longtime collaborator Kevin Morby – but her fingerprints are all over these songs, reminding you constantly that they are hers and no one else’s.

5. Syd – Fin

Syd has been waiting to break out for so long and it’s thrilling to see her finally arrive with this huge, bold, and fully realized thesis statement. Fin puts a forward-thinking sheen on Velvet Rope-era Janet and spacey House of Balloons love jams, effortlessly and fearlessly establishing herself as a lesbian R&B icon. “Know” is going to be a staple of #WLW playlists for years to come. I’m calling it now.

4. Quelle Chris – Being You is Fun, I Wish I Could Be You More Often

This feels like a punk rock take on 3 Feet High and Rising – a scrapbook of wide-ranging influences and collaborators that all coheres into something completely and totally unique. True to the album’s name, Quelle Chris is a sonic chameleon, picking up new identities with every track and clearly having a total blast doing it. It’s an incredible testament to his skills as a producer, his adaptability as a rapper, and his great taste.

3. Ryan Adams – Prisoner

Hand to God, if someone had played me “Do You Still Love Me?” and told me, like, “This song was recorded by Journey in 1978,” I would have been like, “Oh yeah, totally, that makes sense.” This album is such a straight-up stylistic imitation of that very distinct era of dad rock as to actually be indistinguishable from the real thing. And I am living for it. The opening track is a big, cheesy arena rock stomper à la “Here I Go Again” or “Heat of the Moment,” but the more subdued tracks here would fit right in on The River or Nebraska. 

2. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now

I love Jens with a depth I reserve for very, very few other artists. He’s always felt like a storyteller first and a musician second, narrating people’s lives with an uncommon empathy, and that quality is on display here like never before. “In a world of mouths,” he sings on the first track, “I want to be an ear.” These are bright, sparkling, compulsively danceable pop songs that dive into the lives of Mormon missionaries and cancer patients and reluctant brides. Listen to this on a walk in the park on a sunny day for best results.

1. Einar Stray Orchestra – Dear Bigotry

Einar Stray Orchestra is a tiny Norwegian chamber pop outfit that has never toured outside of Europe, and they just dropped the best Arcade Fire album since 2010, and I’ll care by myself if I have to! Dear Bigotry came right out of left field and blew me away. Very, very few records in recent memory have captivated me right from the first listen the way this album has, and I’ve been stumbling around in an evangelical fervour ever since, begging people to get on board. This album thinks on the scale of Funeral, carries all the propulsive drive of Illinois, and cribs from the wordplay of Night Falls Over Kortedala. You just have to give it a spin. Please. It would make me so happy.

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