“Take Care” – Beach House

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Happy New Year!

The year works great as a metric for measuring incremental personal change. The century helps us conceive of human history as it extends beyond ourselves. But the decade strikes a perfect balance, helping us define and analyze coherent mini-eras within our lives. 

It’s convenient that they’re set in cycles of ten, because living through ten of them is as much as any of us can hope for. We confidently abbreviate decades in conversation, omitting their parent century because, for example, we know we didn’t see the 1890s and we’re pretty sure we won’t see the 2090s. The 1990s were our ‘90s, and they will continue to be the only ‘90s throughout our run of things.

Those ‘90s were the first decade I saw all the way through – five years old when they started, 15 years old when they ended. It’s the one decade that’s never going to feel like one decade when I think about it, because I can’t remember a thing about life in 1990, and 1999 feels way too recent. The ‘90s took me from Sesame Street to driver’s ed, from not being able to tie my own shoes to having the same speaking voice I do now. My first concert in the ‘90s was my first concert full stop (Squeeze, then my favorite band, at the University of Hartford in 1991), and my last concert in the ‘90s wasn’t even the first time I’d seen the headlining band (R.E.M., then my favorite band, at Jones Beach in 1999). The ‘90s were my entire childhood, and laid my musical foundation.

The ‘00s took me from 15 to 25. This is my big, defining musical decade, the one no other can ever beat in emotional significance. My first concert in the ‘00s was coincidentally the first I’d attend with Kyla (Fiona Apple at the Oakdale Theatre in 2000), and by the last (I think TV on the Radio at the Boston House of Blues in 2009?) we’d seen more together than I can count. 

The ‘10s, then, are my first fully-adult-throughout decade, 25 to 35, the one that feels clearest as a picture from beginning to end. It was our New York decade, with the first concert kicking off our tenure in Brooklyn (Rogue Wave at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in 2010) and the last being somehow even more of a New York thing (David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway last month). It was a decade full of amazing music, and I was blessedly able to be in a place where I could experience an enormous amount of it. 

There was never going to be a tidy way to wrap up this month-long writing exercise. There’s no one big song of the ‘10s for me, and any of the 30 I’ve already written about could be my favorite on a given day.

So I’m going back to the album that kicked things off, Beach House’s Teen Dream. It was released in January 2010, just as we moved to the city. We saw Beach House open for The National in Prospect Park later that year, and I remember Victoria Legrand’s voice sounding perfectly dreamy. I loved this record when it came out, and it hasn’t lost any of its magic for me. Though they’re a Baltimore band, they’ll always sound like New York in my head.

My favorite song on the record has changed over time, but these days I’m most drawn to “Take Care.” As an earnest expression of romantic love it’s beautiful, but what always gets me is the unexpectedly open-ended promise of the chorus: “I’ll take care of you / if you ask me to / in a year or two.” It’s the promise your favorite music never breaks.

“Ivy” – Frank Ocean

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Frank Ocean has taken the idea of rejecting labels to previously unthinkable extremes.

In the most literal sense, he self-released his debut mixtape in 2011 after getting fed up with his treatment by Def Jam. In 2016 he streamed a relatively lackluster “visual album” called Endless to technically fulfill that Def Jam contract, then less than a day later he self-released his acclaimed Blonde LP as a truly free artist. 

After taking home two Grammy Awards for his official debut album Channel Orange, Frank rejected the significance of that “Grammy winner” label by withholding Blonde from submission to any categories in 2017, saying, “I’d rather this be my Colin Kaepernick moment.” 

Frank rejected the Cooksey name he was given at birth, in doing so rejecting the father who abandoned him only to sue him years later with a frivolous slander claim

Frank has consistently rejected labeling his sexuality, following the 2012 Tumblr post in which he famously opened up about his attraction to men. 

Frank rejects being called an R&B singer. After his debut single “Novacane” received accolades for breaking new ground in R&B, Frank summed up his frustration with that loaded label to The Quietus: “If you’re a singer and you’re black, you’re an R&B artist. Period.” 

Occasionally, Frank rejects being called a musician full stop. He told The Guardian in 2012, “It would be fucking legendary if I just made Channel Orange last year, then put out a best-selling novel next year, then, you know, designed an arena in Stockholm in 2014! I don’t know!” He put it more succinctly to the BBC: “I make pop culture.

Frank Ocean has been called “a mirror to the millennial generation” (not just because he’s made an enemy of uber-boomer Don Henley, though that doesn’t hurt). If it’s true, it’s largely due to his absolute rejection of the labels through which previous generations have systematically wielded authority. Frank will not allow his creative expression to be defined by the old guard’s way of doing business; he will not accept meaningless honors from industry elites whose award shows prop up outdated power structures; he will not keep the name passed on to him by a patriarch who didn’t raise him; he will not allow society to tag him with one sexual identity or another; and he will rebuff any expectations, musical or otherwise, that his rabid fans might hold, no matter how much they plead (or boo Drake).

Frank has earned his position of power through his talent, focus and labor. His independent streak doesn’t seem to come from some broad, political vision of how the music industry or society ought to work – he’s doing what he feels is right for himself, because he doesn’t need to do otherwise. This creates an intense contradiction at the heart of Frank fandom. In rejecting all labels, Frank represents the authentic millennial ideal; yet in deifying Frank and what they want him to represent, his fans have created a new pack identity.

In a way, the cult of Frank represents what’s happening around the world as elites fall and their systems atrophy. There’s an initial sense of populist justice in watching old hierarchies crumble and hearing the voices of old gatekeepers fade. But the collapse of the elites creates a vacuum, and rather than an egalitarian utopia emerging, we’re seeing new tribes form around identity-centric dogma in an escalating war to define civilization’s new rules. 

Frank Ocean is what he is because his music is exceptional. I don’t think Channel Orange and Blonde completely live up to their hype, but I’m not sure it’s fair to expect them to. Frank’s influence on the sound of popular music in the 2010s is undeniable, and his best tracks – “Novacane,” “Pyramids,” “Bad Religion” – are unimpeachable. 

My favorite Frank song is “Ivy.” I don’t have any great reason why it should be more important or meaningful than any other song. It’s a quietly perfect guitar ballad, a humble, intimate gem that reveals Frank’s humanity. Ironically it’s his ability to express that humanity that’s transformed him into a superhuman idol, but I think that says less about Frank, or about millennials, than it says about the state of the world previous generations so brutally pillaged before giving to us. Frank Ocean shows us the possibility of an authentically human future that we might never see.

“Archie, Marry Me” – Alvvays

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Cape Breton Island is in the northeast of Nova Scotia. Waves of Scottish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries created a distinct regional form of Gaelic music on the island that still thrives today, in part due to the Rankins.

The Rankins come from Cape Breton’s small coastal community of Mabou. Five Rankin siblings achieved massive success recording as The Rankin Family in the ‘90s, leading what became a global wave of interest in traditional Celtic folk music. Their second LP Fare Thee Well Love was a legitimate phenomenon, certified 5x Platinum and winning the Rankin Family Juno Awards over Canadian icons like Celine Dion, Neil Young and The Tragically Hip.

While the whole family was musically gifted (there were actually 12 Rankin children total), John Morris Rankin stood out as an icon in traditional Celtic fiddling. In a 1972 documentary called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, a young John Morris helped draw attention to what was seen as a dying art before the mass resurgence that would make the Rankin Family stars years later. 

In 1999, the Rankin Family announced they were going on hiatus. Just a few months later, John Morris’s truck swerved off a cliff into the Gulf of St. Lawrence while he was driving his teenage son to a hockey game, and he died at the age of 40.

Molly Rankin is the lead singer and guitarist of indie pop band Alvvays, and the daughter of John Morris Rankin. Only 12 when her father died, Molly told The Guardian: “At the time of his passing I was really growing as a fiddle player, and afterwards there was this sign of life through me and through my playing that everyone noticed… But it was also a lot for me. I felt like I wasn’t at the stage where I had my own style; I was just trying to retrace his steps, and that became fairly exhausting.” 

Eventually, Molly and fellow Cape Bretoner Kerri MacLellan would join with three other young musicians from similarly remote Prince Edward Island and form Alvvays. Molly doesn’t play fiddle in Alvvays, but she does write traditional Scottish music in a sense, if Teenage Fanclub is your idea of traditional. 

While Alvvays’s shiny indie pop is sonically comparable to other current acts like Best Coast and Cults, Alvvays have quickly proven to be their generation’s preeminent Big Star legacy torchbearers with tracks like “Archie, Marry Me.” This is the kind of song I wish I could write, seemingly so simple and yet achieving that rarest form of power pop perfection. 

Though Alvvays is obviously not a folk act, there’s an undeniable Celtic quality to Rankin’s crystalline soprano that lends a certain magic to their sound. Beyond that, I believe the jangle pop I’ve always been drawn to originated in the unmistakably American marriage of blues and Celtic folk. Look up the 1937 Lead Belly song “If It Wasn’t for Dicky,” which was his take on an Irish lament for a dead cow. It’s basically R.E.M., half a century earlier.

So maybe Molly Rankin just fronts a particularly great indie pop band. Or, maybe what she’s doing is closer in spirit to her father’s legacy than it would appear at first. I personally think she’s helping to keep an important branch of that musical legacy alive.

“Jubilee Street” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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No one has aged more in the 2010s than Nick Cave. At the start of the decade, Cave had rediscovered high-energy post-punk with his Grinderman side project; his goth rock classic “Red Right Hand” was resonating with a new audience as the theme song for Peaky Blinders; and he’d written the screenplay for the Tom Hardy/Shia LaBeouf drama Lawless, which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. 

Then in 2015, Cave’s teenage son fell from a cliff and died. Rather than do press for his 2016 LP Skeleton Tree, Cave agreed to participate in a documentary, One More Time with Feeling, which shows his family’s grief in agonizing detail. In 2018, longtime Bad Seeds pianist Conway Savage succumbed to cancer. And this year, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ 17th studio album, Ghosteen, was released. It’s a thoroughly somber plunge into trauma and the impotence of loss – beautiful, but devastating.

Even a listener who’s not familiar with Nick Cave’s personal tragedies will recognize a major stylistic shift in his lyrics between his 2013 album Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree. The former looks outward at the sorts of local characters and stories that have long been Cave’s trademark, while the latter turns sharply inward and uses stream of consciousness to depict emotional ephemera. It’s hard to guess where Cave will go after Ghosteen, but a return to more narrative song structures feels unlikely.

If that is the case, “Jubilee Street” may represent the final version of Nick Cave in classic storyteller mode. Cave’s Jubilee Street is a red light district that’s been taken over by Russians, and a former madame has turned to shaking down our narrator (“The problem was she had a little black book / And my name was written on every page”). The song builds slowly over a repetitive, four-chord progression, eventually swelling into the sort of high gothic drama no one can sell like The Bad Seeds. 

I’m a fan of both Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, and a selection from either would better represent Nick Cave’s artistic journey in this decade. But as much as it now feels like it’s from another era, “Jubilee Street” is just too good to ignore.

“Oh, Death” – Game Theory

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I wasn’t familiar with Scott Miller’s music during his lifetime. The first time I visited his website, this note from webmaster Sue Trowbridge appeared at the top of the homepage: “I wish it weren’t true, but as much as it pains me to write these words, Scott passed away on April 15, 2013. He was a wonderful, loyal friend as well as a brilliant musician, and I will miss him for the rest of my life. Scott had been planning to start recording a new Game Theory album, Supercalifragile, this summer, and was looking forward to getting back into the studio and reuniting with some of his former collaborators.”

Trowbridge briefly made the entire then-out-of-print Game Theory catalog available to download, and this is how I first listened to Miller’s music. At that point Game Theory hadn’t been a band in almost 25 years. They were a critically lauded Bay Area power pop group with a small but dedicated fan base in the ‘80s, and for whatever reason they never achieved wider fame. In the ‘90s, Miller opted to reboot under a new name, The Loud Family. That group somehow managed to get even less attention, and by the ‘00s Miller decided to call it a career.

In both Game Theory and The Loud Family, Miller made some of the smartest pop music of his or any generation. It’s possible a new record under the Game Theory name could have brought fresh attention to his criminally overlooked oeuvre. Sadly, he committed suicide at the age of 53, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. Work on his Supercalifragile LP had not begun.

Miller may not have had many fans, but the fans he did have include some notable figures in indie pop. Initially an album of covers was considered, but Miller’s widow and The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow decided to attempt something much bolder: making Supercalifragile a reality, using every recorded fragment, lyric and melody scrap available. 

The Kickstarter-funded project was completed in 2017, so amazingly, Supercalifragile now exists. Recorded Miller vocals are present on several songs, while others were completed and recorded entirely by other artists for this album. The Miller-sung tracks vary in quality, with some sounding surprisingly polished and others clearly not ready to be heard. The songs without Miller vocals are uniformly brilliant though, the result of talented songwriters working to complete Miller’s work out of pure love and respect. 

Ken Stringfellow, Will Sheff and Matt LeMay particularly excel on three tracks, “Kristine,” “Valerie Tomorrow” and “Always Julianne,” songs Miller wrote for his wife and two daughters, respectively. But the most powerful may be “Oh, Death,” co-written and performed by Ted Leo. 

“Oh, Death” begins with a verse about a frightening medical episode involving Miller’s wife, and ends with what I assume is a Leo-penned verse that acts as a meta-assessment of this project in the wake of Miller’s own tragic end. I asked Ted on Twitter how much material he’d had to work with on this song. He responded: “Scott left a voicemail of the chorus melody and some lyric fragments. It all sang to me, though.”

The album barely got any attention, but it’s a Game Theory record, so of course it didn’t. Regardless, that we have Supercalifragile at all is an incredible testament to the love for Scott Miller that endures in the pop community he inspired.