“Seventeen” – Sharon Van Etten

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Sharon Van Etten used to be one of those artists I could count on to have two or three great songs per album. Full LP doses were always a little too much for my taste – folky, lovely, but samey.

I’d still get excited about the prospect of new SVE music, because those two or three great songs were consistently spectacular. Consider “One Day” and “Peace Signs” from 2010’s Epic; “Give Out” and “Leonard” from 2012’s Tramp; “Tarifa” and “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” from 2014’s Are We There. Her cutting lyrics, fiery vocal harmonies and instincts for painting vivid emotional pictures through simple acoustic chord progressions are magical when everything clicks.

Van Etten went mostly quiet for five years after Are We There (a surprise, since “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” had given her the biggest audience of her career). She gave birth to a son, she pursued a psychology degree, and she popped up in a recurring role on Netflix’s The OA. But no new music, until a single and video for a song called “Comeback Kid” were released in support of a 2019 LP, Remind Me Tomorrow

“Comeback Kid” is not folky-lovely-samey. For the first time, she ditched her maudlin folk vibe for synths, heavier drums, and full-on rock star delivery. The whole album was likewise a revelation – not just in terms of energy and variety of arrangements, but also stunning consistency in songwriting. All ten tracks are fantastic. 

To put that another way: in my Spotify 2019 Wrapped report, nine of my ten most listened to tracks this year were Sharon Van Etten. I never expected this.

Aside from the songs being great, I find hearing Sharon’s voice in a new, more alt-rock context kind of addictive. Where she sounds mournful in a folk setting, it’s now clear she has a much broader palette available. The best point of comparison I can think of is Thom Yorke, in that they share an uninhibited, almost operatic vocal gear where they’ll attack a certain note like they’re taking a flamethrower to a mosquito.

The consensus highlight on Remind Me Tomorrow is “Seventeen.” I think they’re all highlights, but I’m not going to argue with that pick. Kyla and I saw Sharon at the Beacon Theatre toward the beginning of her tour, and after playing “Seventeen” and seeing the crowd’s reaction, she had to take a moment to compose herself. “I think that may be the first time people have stood up for my music,” she said, to more applause. “I’m still growing.”

“SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” – Scott Walker

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Merry Christmas! 

Gather the family around and listen to the late, great Scott Walker regale us with a tale as old as time. Yes, it’s the story of Zercon, the Moorish dwarf who served as jester to Attila the Hun, and who became so desperate to transcend his brutal, soul-crushing circumstances that he literally elevated himself into the cosmos and became a brown dwarf star (cruel ironies abound in the Walkerverse), freezing and “drop[ping] into the darkness.”

That is really what this song is about. It’s over 20 minutes long.

Scott Walker actually did include a Christmas song at the end of 2012’s Bish Bosch, his final solo LP. That would be “The Day The ‘Conducator’ Died (An Xmas Song),” which is about the Christmas Day execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu (the refrain is “nobody waited for ‘fire’,” repeated over funereal sleigh bells). I considered writing about that one instead of “Zercon,” but decided it would be too much of a downer.

Anyway, if this gets even one person to listen to “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” on Christmas Day, this has all been worth it. Scott Walker was a true genius, and we’ll never see his like again.

“Monomania” – Deerhunter

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At the start of the decade, Deerhunter was the indie rock act to beat. Their third LP, 2008’s Microcastle, had been a huge leap forward. Psychedelic drones were still a part of their sound, but their songwriting had opened up to incorporate more traditional rock influences. Guitarist Lockett Pundt’s occasional contributions, like album opener and enduring live staple “Agoraphobia,” were even decidedly poppy. The band seemed poised for a breakthrough – the only question was whether eccentric frontman Bradford Cox would allow it.

Bradford Cox grew up in Marietta, Georgia, a queer latchkey kid in conservative suburbia. His distinctly gaunt appearance is due to Marfan Syndrome, the same genetic disorder that may have afflicted Abraham Lincoln. In an interview with Out Magazine shortly before Microcastle’s release, Cox, a self-described virgin, responded to a question about whether he thinks he’ll ever find “the one”: “I don’t. And that’s why I’ve retreated into aesthetic distractions. It’s very clichéd and simple, but I don’t love and respect myself enough to be able to accept that anybody could like me, and nobody can love you if you don’t love yourself.”

So Cox has made music his life, and he is prolific. But while the general trend leading up to the ‘10s was increased productivity and listener accessibility, he remained abrasive and inscrutable in interviews and on stage (one classic example of Bradford Cox being Bradford Cox: during a show in Minneapolis, someone in the audience jokingly requested “My Sharona,” which Bradford proceeded to play for 40 minutes before ending the concert).

Fifth Deerhunter LP Halcyon Digest came out in 2010, and it’s a hook-filled indie pop masterpiece. Maybe the warm response and critical accolades were too much, and so Bradford ensured the follow-up would be something very different: the angry, alienating, aggressively lo-fi Monomania.

The band debuted the title track on Fallon, and it’s probably my favorite TV performance of the decade (aside from Future Islands doing “Seasons” on Letterman, which is everybody’s favorite TV performance of the decade). “Monomania” has four distinct sections with no recurring hook or chorus. The back half descends into an agitated “mono-mono-mania” chant, and it’s all very punk-Syd Barrett. Cox wears a dark wig over his face and bloody bandages on his fingers, and wanders out of the studio to the elevator bank while the band continues to play. In a just world this would be considered a classic, but I’m not sure Bradford Cox would be happy if it were.

“Tightrope” – Janelle Monáe

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Every so often a star shows up who’s so original and fully-formed that her ascent to cultural icon status feels inevitable. Janelle Monáe is the 2010s’ prime example. 

Raised in Kansas City, Monáe had early showbiz ambitions that couldn’t be tempered by her conservative Baptist upbringing. In a 2018 Rolling Stone article, her family tells stories about Monáe as a child that are almost too perfect – how she was escorted out of church for singing “Beat It” during services, how she won a talent show three years in a row doing Lauryn Hill every time.

OutKast found Monáe early on, and Big Boi became her biggest evangelist, convincing Puff Daddy to sign her based on her MySpace page. The influence went both ways – her debut EP, 2007’s conceptually ambitious Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), has a lot in common with post-Speakerboxxx Big Boi productions. Even so, Monáe’s futurist electro-funk style was already well-defined, and her star quality was undeniable.

In 2010, The ArchAndroid LP dropped, and that was that. Janelle made her network TV debut on Letterman, and it’s still jaw-dropping to watch now. There are traces of OutKast in the band’s hyper energy, but “Tightrope” is classic funk. Monáe proves herself worthy of pulling James Brown moves in front of an audience that has no idea who she is. At the end of the performance Letterman asks Puff Daddy to come onstage, who then bows to our new queen. What else could he do?

Throughout the decade, Monáe’s trajectory has only accelerated. She’s won awards from sources as diverse as MTV, the NAACP and GLAAD; she runs her own Wondaland Arts Society label; she penned a protest anthem that David Byrne sings on Broadway every night; she starred in two Oscar-nominated movies in the same year, including the Best Picture winner; she’s a CoverGirl model. There’s only enough room for so many stars in the world, but when you get a Janelle Monáe, you roll out the red carpet.

“Silhouette” – Julia Holter

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Julia Holter makes a kind of music that could be too cerebral to be fun. She holds multiple degrees in composition and studied under avant-garde musician Michael Pisaro. Her early records are highbrow-conceptual, inspired by Euripides and Virginia Woolf. She called her most recent album Aviary after learning that birdcages were considered storehouses for memories in the Middle Ages from a book by medieval literature expert Mary Carruthers. 

I like the heady stuff when I’m in the right mood, but Holter’s pop instincts are too strong to allow her music to feel overly academic. Listen to her records and what strikes you first is her gift for melody. It may sometimes be baked into fussy arrangements and packaged with lyrics that reference Pushkin and Etel Adnan, but her melodies are always there to draw you in deeper.

On her 2015 LP Have You in My Wilderness, Holter made a conscious decision to adhere to more traditional song structures. The result is one of the decade’s best albums, comprised of 10 delicate, baroque indie pop tracks that overflow with melody while still offering plenty of musical and lyrical surprises.

Opening track “Feel You” is instantly warm and inviting, with romantic strings swelling over stuttering drums and harpsichord. Holter’s voice, like her music, is both ethereal and precise, making lyrics like “Can I feel you? Are you mythological?” at once sensual and scientific.

Other highlights include “How Long,” which evokes Nico at her most cinematic, and the unexpectedly buoyant “Everytime Boots.” My favorite is “Silhouette,” which begins with sunny vocal echoes over minimalist keyboards before building to a dense, swirling string crescendo. While Holter has been atypically secretive about the song’s lyrical origins, one Genius.com contributor speculates the inspiration was Sweet Valley High. Not everything has to be highbrow.