‘Waterfowl’ is a pretty perfect rock album. I spent an inordinate and unnecessary amount of time just now trying to decide which subgenre to place it under, but it’s such a varied and ambitious record that it near enough encompasses all of them. It dabbles in punk, takes brash detours through folk rock and indie, skids its way through shoegaze and math rock, and even chooses to dabble in post-punk and grunge. I ‘reviewed’ it back in February, then because I don’t think I’d properly got across how good the album was, I wrote another post in March just to make sure I was clear how freaking good this record was. Come on, if there was any 2020 album you don’t need further convincing of its quality, it’s this one. It’s actually quite worrying how much I have to spoon feed some of you people. Sort your lives out.
Sometimes, we all like the bells and whistles, don’t we? We like the the 12 piece orchestra attacking their strings as if they were attempting to saw through their instruments, we like the 50 strong school choir in tears as they struggle through their 153rd take of harmonising the singer’s delivery of the line “I’d pull out the curly hairs around my anus for you”, we like budgets in the multi millions just to clear the samples needed for the band to legally present their reimaginings of rock classics (“Shot through the fart, and you’re to blame“), and, whatever it costs, we want every song to have a donk on it. But not every album needs to be ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘, sometimes true beauty and perfectly poised mood can be achieved through stripping things back. Despite what it may feel like sometimes, human emotions are often very lowkey and need small and conscientious appeasements.
I may also act like sometimes like the most important factor for an album to be considered on this list is that it’s revolutionary, that it’s barrier breaking, that it grasps onto the listener’s hand so tight that it draws blood as it yanks you mercilessly through uncharted waters and screams at you to “FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU ONCE KNEW!!”. But in reality, the artists that truly do this, your Phews and your Sightless Pits, are more often than not nestled in the lower reaches of the countdown. Bryde does nothing new on ‘The Volume of Things’. It’s a collection of folky indie ballads of the sort that have been produced since the dawn of time. However, the songwriting is so perfect, the melodies so distinct and the emotions so palpable, that it still remains one of the most effective records of the year. And though it’s scale is stripped back and the general size of the record is a polite “Excuse me” whispered under its breath, that only makes the general presentation all the more perfect. Not just for the general lyrical themes of searching desperately for connections in a world that seems like it’s increasingly designed to isolate, but also perfect for the wider context. It was released at the end of May, two months after we were told to shut ourselves away and never under any fucking circumstances see any other human or you might kill 1’000 people before you know it. It was the most perfect time in recent memory to maybe turn the volume down on the outside world’s overload of bells and whistles and start quietly introspecting yourself.
So this might ‘just’ be a sonically unambitious indie folk record. But it’s probably the absolute best quality that record could be.
So at some point, you’re telling me that everyone sat in some boardroom somewhere, had a quick chat about each other’s spouses, commented on how cold New York was for this time of year, blew the froth off of their cappuccinos before taking tentative sip of the hot beverages, and then decided that was the best album cover for the record. No, no, I’m not saying anything, I’m just asking questions.
God, it feels good to have The Strokes back, doesn’t it? We might laugh now, but between 2001 and maybe 2003 (or maybe, if you’re particularly cynical, between 2001 and later in 2001) The Strokes were the most vital, beloved and freaking exciting band on this pale blue dot we claim to love but have spent the last 200 years destroying. It’s often oversimplified that The Strokes ‘made rock music cool again‘, but there was actually far more to it than that. For a teenager in the early 00s and late 90s, there was really a horrendous paucity of anything that you could feel cool attaching yourself to. The biggest subgenre at the time was (honestly) nu-metal, a horrifically antagonistic collection of incels before the term even existed, angry boys shouting angrily at girls not putting out. The only real alternative, at least in the UK, was to oppose it completely by following fey, quiet and overbearingly polite low key indie by bands like Travis, Coldplay or Starsailer. If you wanted any musical tribe- which, come on, as a teenager is only slightly less important than getting your end away- then your two choices were high tempo and dramatic music made by angry virgins, or slow paced and genteel muted indie. Yeah, probably also made by virgins.
The importance of The Strokes is that they offered an entire architecture for young people to feel cool again. After being told for years by ‘your’ music that the only decent thing to do was really sit in your room moping, either penning inoffensive acoustic ballads or cutting your life into pieces, The Strokes arrived and convinced a generation that feeling good about how you looked or getting drunk in late night city bars was fine. Hey, even sex was allowed, which was obviously a major selling point. Yes, we all know that this came from musically just ripping off early 80s new wave bands, but it sounded good and it was delivered so well! So, yes, I am already well aware that I am always going to be biased for any new Strokes record.
‘The New Abnormal’ isn’t just a box ticking, contractual obligation of a comeback record though. It wasn’t morosely pushed out with no real intention of infusing it with any quality, much like when your mother gave birth to you. Their last album, 2013’s turgid ‘Comedown Machine’, really suggested that any more releases from this band should probably be discouraged. It was a joyless and grim march through obligations nobody was interested in fulfilling, and moved me to ask “When did The Strokes become so depressing?”. The seven year break was obviously just right, as ‘The New Abnormal’ is alive with a feverish dedication. Yes, it might not be 100% original, but that has always been The Strokes modus operandi, and anyway, 99% of all art is just assembling various influences, you don’t get any kudos points if you happen to spot a few. The decision to place Julian Casablancas’s vocals more prominently in the mix also allows the listener to appreciate how he might be one of the greatest frontmen of his era. ‘The New Abnormal’ might technically be new, but there are no great overhauls of the classic Strokes sound, which means it is never really abnormal. But- and maybe this is just the 16 year old Alex who has just discovered The Strokes/drugs/girls talking- it’s an absolutely perfect encapsulation of all the reasons we fell in love with them in the first place.
Perhaps Zeal and Ardor should stick to extended plays rather than full albums. Their debut EP, ‘Devil is Fine‘, was despite its lowly placing, one of the greatest and most arresting releases of 2016. Listen, I only really realised how amazing it was after I’d started writing the list, and I’d already placed it too low. It was a running joke back in 2016 (well, 2017 really), we had a lot of fun with it. You should have been reading back then, it was way more fun. Their full length debut, 2018’s ‘Stranger Fruit‘, was also fucking amazing. Because Zeal and Ardor are amazing and they make amazing music. But despite the general quality, it felt like there were perhaps a handful of songs that were perhaps rushed onto the album without huge amount of thought just to edge it closer to that 40 minutes.
‘Wake of a Nation’ is everything amazing about Z&A condensed into 17 minutes. There’s nothing insignificant here, every song- every second– is an essential piece of the whole, which sees Z&A embrace much more facets to their music- there are moments and musical flourishes on ‘WoaN’ that are almost hip-hop influenced- while never losing sight of the classic ‘negro spiritual’ (eesh…) style that makes them stand out so much in the first place. Perhaps a quick and succinct release is more fitting to truly and respectfully pay heed to the record’s ‘theme’. If you need me to tell you what the theme of a record with that amazing cover art and a song called I Can’t Breathe is then, mate, you should really pay attention to the news every now and then.
Hey, you see that big letter that starts the entry? That big ol’ ‘H” there? I’ve only just learned how to do that. Looks all professional and shit, don’t it? I’m a music journalissssssst…
Aqua Girl- who now seems to be going under the name ‘Meta Girl’ to truly mess with me- made one of my favourite albums of 2018 and was nice enough to let me bark questions at her to promote the release of her follow-up LP back in April. My first impressions were that it was a fantastic record, and it’s only risen in my estimations in the eight months since. Aqua/Meta’s main calling card is her ability to communicate unbelievably raw, tender and honest lyrics in the style of a waiter politely reading you today’s specials but not being so loud as to interrupt the phone call of the other person on the table. ‘the woods’ manages to reinforce the abilities that Aqua/Meta showcased on her debut, but add further elements to her sound and widen the palate of influences. Listen, it’s fucking amazing, she’s one of the most interesting an potentially important artists working at the moment, whatevr her fucking name is,do you really need much more information??
Jesus, again with the need to be spoon fed…
Embarrassing drop of two place for Ms Driver…