The Niche Nine: Our Favourite Albums of July 2017

You know, I was looking forward to July. I’d been looking forward to July for months and months, because I knew that July meant new Arcade Fire. I had high hopes. High, high hopes. Reflektor may have been uneven and bloated, but Funeral and Neon Bible and The Suburbs all remain peerless classics. So I was like, okay. So they went a little overboard in 2013, trying to cement their reputation as The Greatest Rock Band Currently Doing It. No big. This new album is a nice, reasonable 45 minutes; looks like they’re working within a strong, focused theme. What could possibly go wrong?

So imagine my surprise when I popped my headphones in on the morning of the 28th and got about three songs deep before it dawned on me, slow; wait a second, I thought to myself. This… this sucks? This sucks and is bad? 

I mean, even at its worst, Reflektor wasn’t… bad. There was just too much of it. They didn’t need to go back to the drawing board; they just needed a good editor to trim the fat. But Everything Now is like… it’s like pop music made by people with a deep contempt for pop music in a callous effort to prove how vapid pop music is. I certainly don’t object to Arcade Fire going pop – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” still rips, y’all – but there’s a difference between “going pop” and “satirizing pop music by making bad pop music.”

So, tragically, the new Arcade Fire album sucked, and doubly tragically, this month was thin on indie releases because nobody wanted to compete with Arcade Fire. Thin on big rap releases, too, because nobody wanted to compete with JAY Z – although the less said about 4:44 and its weird misogynistic and anti-Semitic overtones, the better.

So that’s why I really only have seven new releases to recommend this month. Fortunately, all of them are really, really fucking good. I’ll toss in a couple of other releases from earlier in the year, though. Just for posterity. To hit that Niche Nine. Let’s get started.

9. Pallbearer – Heartless (March 2017)

A couple years back I blitzed through every album on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time – in part for educational purposes, and in part to break down my resistance to certain genres. Like, I was never a huge country fan, but after plowing through the best of the best on the RS list, I really can’t argue with the greatness of Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams. In an age where our music is increasingly curated by algorithms so that we’re only being served music that sounds exactly like what we already listen to, I think it’s important to branch out.

That being said, Pallbearer is a doom metal band from Arkansas. If you claim to have any existing knowledge of the Arkansan doom metal scene, you are lying to me and to yourself. But you don’t need to be well-versed in this most niche of niche genres to appreciate what Pallbearer is laying down here: a velvety, yearning vocal flowing atop an unrelenting, choppy sea of dense, dark guitar, periodically peppered with bright flashes of solo showboating. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard, but it borrows enough from the greats and adds enough individual flourish to be just as warm and familiar as it is original and innovative.

Anyway, I for one can’t wait for some dude at a show to ask me like, Do you like Father John Misty? And then I put on my shades and I’m like, Sorry… don’t know who that is… I only listen to Arkansan doom metal.

8. Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley

I’m reminded of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s classic F♯ A♯ ∞ when I listen to this. Not so much music as a series of conceptual soundscapes, layering obscure vocal samples over dreamy, formless loops, pulling in horns and drums and bells, Every Valley is a really gripping and immersive listen.

7. Avey Tare – Eucalyptus

I’m going to scream; I just hopped over to Bandcamp to pull an embed link and saw this adorable self-description from Avey:

Conceived on Hawaiian mornings, written on a sunlit bedroom afternoon in Los Angeles, practiced in the dark early hours of the California twilight, recommended listening for dawn or dusk.

I really can’t say it better than that. This music is warm and sunny and cuddly in a way that recalls the lovely one-off AnCo single “Man of Oil.” Deakin is credited as a recording engineer, and the songs here ring not unlike last year’s excellent “Sleep Cycle.” Also noteworthy is the contribution of Angel Deradoorian, who clearly made the right decision by getting the hell out of Dirty Projectors Dodge when she did. David Longstreth wishes he could make solo music this good.

6. Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life

Her best yet, maybe? My judgment is clouded by nostalgia and by the permanent impact of binging Born To Die on an infinite loop in my freshman year of college, but Lana seems to have outdone herself here: doubling down on the persona she’s worked so hard to build while extending her self-concept in ever-bolder ways. And it’s just plain fun, too, in so many places: sweet duets with Stevie Nicks and The Weeknd and Sean Lennon, lush and satisfying balladry on “Love” and “Cherry,” and, throughout, a resilient clinging to truth and community in this sad post-Obama epoch.

5. Haim – Something to Tell You

The wait is over, and Christ, was it worth it. Wall-to-wall hits! Instant classics! Melodies that dig the fuck into your brain and refuse to leave! These songs manage the impossible task of sounding new and revelatory while also commanding your attention like they’ve always been there, like they’re a part of our collective musical lexicon stretching back forty years and you’ve never not known them. I would die for each and every Haim sister and I’m not afraid to say it.

4. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

This is by far the best music Katie Crutchfield has ever produced. And I know my fucking Waxahatchee. I’ve seen her live three times and I’m going for a fourth in August. I’ve racked up a combined 230 spins on American Weekend, Cerulean Salt, and Ivy Tripp since the year began. And still, immediately, on the very first listen, I knew: she had outdone herself.

At least part of this is a new approach to recording, which throws a fair bit more studio sheen on her always-solid songwriting. But there’s so much confidence here, so much exploration of her vocal range, that I can’t just chalk the shift up to a higher production budget. This is what artistic growth sounds like, and it’s formidable. I was going to cap this off with a cheesy line about how Katie herself is a storm, but I’ll spare your dignity and mine. Just trust me: it bangs.

3. Bedouine – Bedouine (June 2017)

I almost don’t want to lead with Azniv Korkejian’s extraordinary backstory, because I went into this album blind and her singularly lovely singing and songwriting won me over right away. Korkejian is a descendant of survivors of the Armenian genocide, born in Aleppo and raised in an American compound in Saudi Arabia before her family unexpectedly won the Green Card lottery and moved to Boston. And her work – this beautiful, beautiful album – is a testament to the inestimable value of opening borders, of welcoming immigrants and refugees, of providing young people with the resources they need to pursue the arts and let their creativity flourish.

This music floats along with the gentle, acoustic assurance of Connie Converse, with a deep, gorgeous vocal that instantly recalls Feist and Joni Mitchell. But the comparisons feel useless, almost, because Korkejian doesn’t need them; she is a giant all on her own, on her very first try.

2. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet

God, I love – I love – when you can tell thirty seconds into an album that it’s going to be a classic. Not so much building on last year’s wonderful Psychopomp as reinventing the wheel completely, Michelle Zauner blows her ambition up to space opera proportions here and digs deep into the musical legacies of Slowdive and Burt Bacharach to produce a fierce expression of self that easily stands among the best records of the year. “Diving Woman” is a superb opener, layered and dreamy and forceful, and she proceeds to trip skillfully through three-minute sixties-leaning doo-wop, edgy takes on Beach House-y dream pop, and, with the horn section at the end of “Machinist,” even kinda recalls that one video where Kermit the Frog sings LCD Soundsystem while Miles Davis improvises in the background. Zauner is an incredibly prolific artist – I think she wrote something like a hundred songs for Psychopomp, and only seven made the final cut? – and if this album is anything to go by, we have a lot to look forward to.

1. Declan McKenna – What Do You Think About the Car?

I was fully prepared to hand Best of the Month to Japanese Breakfast until about two days ago, when I put on Declan McKenna’s debut without knowing the first thing about him. And, like.

Holy.

Shit.

I read somewhere recently – God, fine, I read on Pitchfork – that “when Lorde released Pure Heroine in 2013, critics could not get over the fact that a teenage girl could contain such galaxies.” And that is the only way I can describe Declan McKenna: as perhaps the only young musician truly on the level of Pure Heroine-era Lorde, in terms of sheer talent and work ethic; as a teenager who contains galaxies.

To be clear, this music would be impressive coming from anyone. It certainly pulled me in before I knew a single thing about him. But he’s eighteen. He’s eighteen, and these songs were written when he was fifteen, sixteen, a slight, skinny kid who wears nail polish and glitter and told the Standard that he doesn’t identify as straight or gay, that he has “a lot of friends who don’t identify as a boy or a girl.”

In other words, he was a fifteen year-old, gender non-conforming queer kid immersed in a community of kids like him when he learned of the suicide of fifteen-year-old trans girl Leelah Alcorn. And that news was still raw when he penned “Paracetamol,” an ode to Alcorn and to all of his friends dangling on that same precipice: a boy, fifteen, with a gun in his hand; a girl, fifteen, with her head in a noose; a girl, fifteen, although she isn’t sure.

When he hits the chorus on that song – his voice cracking high above an explosion of synths, singing oh, won’t you let me finish?, he’s making a desperate plea to a broad, intolerant you, begging for the right to just keep living. You drive me insane, he sings; the world will keep on turning even if we’re not the same. The lyrics look hollow on paper, a little platitudinous, a little Macklemore-y. But in the mouth of a fifteen-year-old waking up every day and facing this impossible, hateful world and watching his friends do the same – like, fuck.

And “Paracetamol” isn’t even the best song on the record. That honour goes to the much-celebrated “Brazil,” a devastating take on FIFA corruption that easily stands among the greatest protest songs ever recorded. But this thing, honestly, is the kind of bold, unrelenting rock record that fellow Brit Harry Styles wishes he could make. There’s “Make Me Your Queen,” a hand-to-god masterwork of songwriting in the vein of Mitski’s “I Don’t Smoke” that sees McKenna searching for love in the hands of an abusive partner. There’s a brilliantly executed Fox News takedown (“Isombard”), a catchy bit of millennial rebellion (“The Kids Don’t Wanna Go Home”), and an opener (“Humongous”) that sees him contemplating his place in the universe: I’m big, humongous, enormous and small/And it’s not fair that I am nothing.

Like, oh my god. I just want the world for this kid. I am going to be fucking evangelical about this record. Please clap.

 

 

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