Friends, it’s been a Milestone Year. Middle fingers and lots of changes for the better. A “Big One” (subtext: there’s a post all about it below). Put these songs on repeat, it’s been a hell of a good music year too.
I remember when I was still in high school my dad came home from work one evening and looked like death. Some of his colleagues had been retrenched that day. He didn’t know if he was next in line, and that thought was terrifying to our typical middle-class 1980’s nuclear family.
Fast forward to a few months ago, end February, when I was sitting at the small boardroom table across from my then-MD and the HR consultant. He could barely say the words or look me in the eye, and left most of the talking to the HR hit-man. It was a big shock, especially since my employer was so blatant about getting rid of me (the company wasn’t doing badly – three bros in management just didn’t like my girl power). Looking back on it now though, it was fine. Handling a crisis is one of my finer skill sets, albeit one I prefer to use less frequently.
So much of our occupation is wrapped up in our identity. It’s what we do with our time for 7 days every week if you have a 9-5. But somewhere between growing up (read: paying bills), contributing to Nkandla, and the here and now, the workplace has evolved. Suddenly “The 9-5” isn’t a thing anymore. My dad spent a large chunk of his life at one company, and that was wonderful and respected. When he retired he would get a gold watch and feel satisfied for a job well done.
But by the time I entered the workplace things had changed. I made a good move to Universal Music and started in marketing at the very bottom. 10 years ago this was a solid company with a safe reputation and management ran a tight ship. That all changed when UMG bought EMI. Personally and professionally, you couldn’t have brought together two more different cultures. The integration (or not) of these two groups was the hardest professional task I’ve ever had to work through. No one can be productive in an environment with constant bullying, one-upmanship and back-stabbing (and of course, immunity if you’re part of The Boys Club). It turned me into a person I didn’t like being, and I experienced a personal crisis while trying to deal with work stress. This was at a time when many people described the company as toxic. Thankfully, Sufjan Stevens saved my life.
If I could give anyone advice about working in a poisonous environment it would be: “Don’t.” It’ll tear you apart on the inside, and life’s too short to be unhappy. I’m no longer the Marketing Manager at a leading record label and I wouldn’t want to be that anymore anyway. The worst is over and record labels are back making money again, now from streaming, but the power dynamic has never been more flat. When you’re working at a label it’s difficult to have perspective and see the industry as a whole, partly because of arrogance but also because of the pressure. The competition is fierce and there are hungry, innovative companies out there working in the music industry. I’m working with two of those young companies now.
My husband, parents, and friends have all been extremely supportive. Since getting the boot I’ve also been reminded that one’s reputation follows you. By working hard and working smart you will always be looking after yourself. And change is good. These days I spend more time with my family, and I work with people who want to work with me. The old stigma of retrenchment shouldn’t really exist anymore. It happened to me and it turned out to be no biggie. A growing percentage of people worldwide are contractors who work remotely and virtually everyone has a side gig. If you don’t have one yet then maybe it’s time for you to get one.
Whew, 2016. This year of musical loss has been a one where complex records have connected most with me. On the theme of death, David Bowie’s Blackstar, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree were the most prophetic. Sometimes they were a little too sad for me, so I return to them in small doses.
At the top of the year I loved Gallant’s great debut, and the rest of it continued with interesting alternative R&B/Pop releases from Rihanna to Frank Ocean. The production on records from Beyoncé, Radiohead, and Bon Iver fascinated me. It seemed perfect for Radiohead to bring out the sonically mature album that A Moon Shaped Pool is, and I reconnected with my once favourite band again on it. My record of the year is Bon Iver’s 22, A Million with its’ intimate tone and constant unraveling. It has a puzzling sense of timing and I kept returning to it, the one album that always had me putting the volume up, no matter how loud it was (I actually just want to inhale this record).
The genre-bending D.D Dumbo doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before. It’s organic, wise beyond it’s years and Australian. Pop music is again moving towards a more alternative space where it challenges the boundaries of genre… Except for the good Rock, which went back to basics this year with flame-bearers Car Seat Headrest, Lucy Dacus and Margaret Glaspy. I was fortunate to see Lucy Dacus live and her debut No Burden is a calculated statement of captivating stories, live and on the record. Shrug Rock is now definitely a movement and dammit, it sounds great! Car Seat Headrest’s Teens Of Denial is one of the most badass statement-making Rock ‘n Rolling albums of the decade. Angel Olsen made a deft move from a shy singer-songwriter to time-traveling rocker and LVL UP made the most infectiously noisy lo-fi Indie Rock record. Beyonce, the titan of Pop that she is, used all the genres in her album and got away with it because LEMONADE is a masterpiece.
At the most difficult times I returned to simpler, singer-songwriter records. Chris Staples put out the most reassuring lyrical album with gentle storytelling and humour. whilst Pinegrove’s confessional debut Cardinal is a sing-along record that is as relevant playing in the background when entertaining as it is if you’re crying into your whiskey. Don’t judge me.
There are releases that just didn’t make the top spots or that I need more time with: Mitski, Kyle Craft,Michael Kiwanuka, Wilco, A Tribe Called Quest, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Frank Ocean, Big Theif and Solange.
1. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
2. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial
3. D.D Dumbo – Utopia Defeated
4. Lucy Dacus – No Burden
5. Pinegrove – Cardinal
6. Beyoncé – LEMONADE
7. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
8. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
9. Chris Staples – Golden Age
10. LVL UP – Return to Love
I also made two playlists this year of Best Of tracks, or the best of what I’m listening to. You can listen to the first playlist in the previous blog post. The latest playlist is the 2016 Best Songs of the Second Half-Year, which is below. It’s 30 tracks/2 hours of the best songs I’ve found from June/July till now, available on Tidal, Apple Music, iTunes, Google Play and Spotify; and as a best effort (not all tracks) on YouTube, Deezer and Soundcloud.
Looking on the bright side of 2017, I’m thinking of how much great new protest music there will be coming out of the States…
This year is halfway done and already it’s been a great one for music. So with that I give you my first half-year list. Let’s see how it goes. NPR’s Robin Hilton has identified the trend of ‘Shrug Rock’ and I hear a lot of it around (it’s great)! There’s so much diversity on on this list though, I’d like to guarantee that you’ll find something you like… but you’ll have to listen for yourself. There is everything from trippy millennial-speak pop anthems (Beck’s “Wow”) to Paul Simon-esque honey warm melodies and African guitar riff appropriation (River Whiles “All Day All Night”) to alternative R&B beat-heavy hooks with falsetto (Gallant “Weight In Gold”) and a beautiful epic post-rock (Explosions In The Sky “Logic Of A Dream”). Also one band sounding a little like Animal Collective, and another R&B star sounding like she was a heavily influenced by the last Tame Impala record… As always, I do sequence the tracks but feel free to hit shuffle if that’s how you roll.
Just a note on availability, it’s a sign of the times that not all tracks are available across all services.
Listen here for YouTube (30/30), Spotify (28/30), Deezer (25/30) and Soundcloud (16/30) playlists:
Listen here on Apple Music (29/20):
And here for Tidal (30/30):
Like last year, my year has been framed more by songs than full albums. Lyrically it was a magnificent year, and one where so many established greats quietly released new records (Decembrists, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Low). It was also a rocking year for female vocalists and bands, and my Top 30 Best Songs Playlist reflects that.
1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens released the most moving record of the year, a devastatingly sad and beautiful return to his singer/songwriter roots. Stevens unpacks issues surrounding mental illness and the reasons his mother abandoned him with ice cold honesty. Becoming a parent opens up all sorts of emotional vulnerabilities and at least for me, seeing this record performed live was a life-changing experience. For further reading you can’t do better than this Pitchfork interview.
2. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett released the best debut album of 2015, a confident and casual authentic celebration of rock. The raw guitars and basic progressions are the best thing to happen to Garage Rock in a long time. Barnett’s thick Australian accent and direct lyrics encourage the most unlikely singable moments (and my favourite lyric of the year) “I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very funny.”
3. Ryan Adams – 1989
Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 is the best guilty pleasure of 2015. When he sings “That’s How You Get The Girl,” he’s really saying how he lost the girl, and much of the album is this kind of antithesis/call and response that plays with Swift’s original. It’s basically the best pop record turned into the best breakup record.
4. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m going down
Kurt Vile is the most sophisticated slacker on this list. He ditched his electric guitar for a more mellow sound incorporating piano and banjos. It’s a perfect alluring record that balances fun and soothing in a lazy acoustic fashion.
5. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
6. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
7. Olafur Arnalds & Alice Sarah Ott – The Chopin Project
Father John Misty’s cheeky and wry record was constant positive highlight of the year, filled with love and a healthy dose of cynicism. Alabama Shakes’ second record turned out to be a ballsy swamp-Rock statement that they’re edgy and soulful and ready to experiment. Olafur Arnalds and Alice Sarah Ott released the most inviting Classical Pop album of the year. The simplicity in their approach to Chopin come across as effortless and familiar while the acoustic detail they capture with their instruments is an audio feast.
8. Sleater-Kinney – No City To Love
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress
10. Torres – Sprinter
Sleater-Kinney reformed this year to release a tight collection of hooks and melodies. I don’t know their back catalogue but this record starts, goes determinedly forth and conquers in just over 30 badass minutes. The new Godspeed album is the most succinct record of their sound to date, immediately recognisable but more refined. It’s beauty lies in the band favouring a more subtle classical approach rather than their familiar Noise Rock style. Torres released an impressive debut album filled with honest songwriting and raw emotional delivery. She keeps it mature though and along with her minimalist band she created the best Grunge song ever (see playlist).
There are still many of this year’s releases that I’m listening to. I’m not quite into the Wilco yet but I’m a big fan and I’m trying. I’ve just discovered Youth Lagoon and Rhiannon Giddens, both of whom may have made the Top 10. Finally it’s long overdue but I’m also getting into these artist’s records: Natalie Prass, Shamir, Fred Thomas, Joan Shelley, Julia Holter.
Below are the Spotify, Apple Music and iTunes playlist versions of my top 30 Best Songs of 2015. I did sequence them but feel free to hit shuffle if that’s how you roll. Some are from my best albums, most are songs that consistently had me turning up the volume.
Here’s the Apple Music playlist, I’ve just noticed that “Harrison Ford” by Darlingside isn’t available on Apple Music or iTunes but you can listen to it here on YouTube. I’ll add a Youtube playlist next year when all of the songs are available or have videos.
There are so many firsts for this year. This is the first year that I’ve felt really overwhelmed with the number of albums I didn’t get a chance to listen to. This is the first year with a with a toddler in the house. This is the first year I’m posting a Best Songs playlist (see the end of the post), and in some respects, I feel like I had more time for songs than for albums.
So with that introduction, the 2014 albums that went from a blossoming romance to lifelong partners are:
1. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
2. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
3. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
These albums got under my skin. Ryan Adams was
the incredible soundtrack to my first trip to the US (where I also saw him live). Angel Olsen’s beautiful voice held my hand while I made some difficult decisions this year. The War On Drugs was my constant companion through my most challenging professional, and most rewarding personal year. I bought all these albums on vinyl.
All the runner-up lovers, in no particular order
- Beck – Morning Phase
- Hozier – Hozier
- Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
- Elbow – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
- Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
- Weezer – Everything Will Be All Right in the End
- Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
The nice albums that just didn’t stick
- Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
- First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
- Rosanne Cash – River & the Thread
- Jack White – Lazaretto
- Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
Albums that went over my head
- St. Vincent – St. Vincent
- FKA Twigs – LP1
- Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
- Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
- The Black Keys – Turn Blue
Albums I still need to listen to. Some of these may have made THE list, but…toddler
- Lucinda Williams – Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
- Swans – To Be Kind
- Sun Kil Moon – Benji
- Luluc – Passerby
- Rodrigo Amarante – Cavalo
- The Antlers – Familiars
- Tweedy – Sukierae
- Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes
- Flying Lotus – You’re Dead
- Alvvays – Alvvays
- Thurston Moore – The Best Day
- Ty Segall – Manipulator
- Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
- Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
- Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes
- Mogwai – Rave Tapes
- Eagulls – Eagulls
- Robert Plant – Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar
- The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
- Damien Jurado – Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son
- Foxygen – …And Star Power
- The Flaming Lips – With A Little Help From My Fwends
For the rest, here’s my Best Songs of 2014 playlist
I leave you with a 2-hour playlist of my Top 30 Tracks. Technically a Top 29, because GRMLN’s “Of Nothing” isn’t available on YouTube (yes, this is still happening). You can, however, listen to it on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/carparkrecords/07-of-nothing
A last final note…
The Decemberists snuck in two tracks this year from their forthcoming album (January 2015). I thought it was a little unfair to include it into the top tracks because they’ve just come along, but yeah, this is my new crush…
I’ll never live it down if I don’t document the best albums of the year that my son was born in, so here goes…
1. David Bowie – The Next Day
2. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
3. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
4. Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
Low – The Invisible Way
6. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
7. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
8. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
9. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
10. Dawes – Stories Don’t End