20: School of Seven Bells SVIIB
My interest in School of Seven Bells dates back to their debut album Alpinisms back in 2008. The attraction then, as now, is their Cocteau Twins-esque sound. Simple as that.
Ben Curtis, one of 3 founding members, passed away at the end of 2013, after writing most of the songs for SVIIB and recording a few with the other remaining founder, Alejandra Deheza. Deheza took another 2 years to prepare the band’s swansong. Having lost Curtis, she planned for this album to be the band’s last. The final words of the final chapter show strength despite her loss.
This is the night
who we are
This is our time
and our time is indestructible
19: John K. Samson Winter Wheat
Samson came to my attention thanks to clever pop songs with his band The Weakerthans (check out “Civil Twilight” if you don’t know them). His first solo album put him atop my singles list for 2012 with “When I Write My Master’s Thesis.” I found myself wondering if he was/is the Sting of The Weakerthans. I concluded that he was/is the Paul Westerburg.
Winter Wheat is all about lyrics—clever lyrics, thoughtful lyrics—it could be Billy Bragg or Michelle Shocked at their most playful, the basics of smart lyrics with minimal instrumentation and production. The songs are simple, plaintive, observant. My first time listening through the album I didn’t expect it to rate inclusion on my albums list. The third time through I knew it probably would.
18: Solange A Seat At The Table
Solange has not received proper respect from me in the past. She came to my attention as a punchline, but thanks to the Fabulous Clinton (who is fabulous) I gave Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams a chance and found myself utterly charmed by the girl group pastiche of songs like “I Decided” and “T.O.N.Y.” Later I heard her version Dirty Projectors’ “Gun Has No Trigger,” an unlikely favorite of mine and a seemingly odd choice to cover.
Why do I think I know anything about what Solange is going to cover? I think that’s the point of this album: enough white privilege, male privilege, Rich Jones-centric culture.
She’s never tried to be Beyoncé Jr. in any of the music I’ve heard. There was likely pressure from her dad to repeat her sister’s successes (she was a member of Destiny’s Child at different times). Note to self: stop expecting things from Solange.
A Seat At The Table garnered enough year-end praise (Pitchfork named it the #1 album of 2016; another 10 publications/websites included it in their top 20) that I gave it a second chance after initially finding it cold, un-relatable. The album is much better if you have no expectations of what a Solange album should sound like. Raphael Saadiq provides a through line with his flavor of neo-soul as co-producer – it’s evident but not overpowering.
By the way, I have never, to the best of my recollection, touched another person’s hair without also touching much more of their body (let’s say grabbing the back of someone’s head while also in contact with their mouth). Women of color routinely write about experiences of their personal space being invaded by white people touching their hair. I have discussed hair of color before (corn rows, and I was 19 and from Gwinnett county) but there was no touching. “Don’t Touch My Hair” is one of the 2 singles and its genesis is from some microaggressions she endured while attending Coachella last spring (in the audience; she performed in 2014 and will again this spring). Here’s my question: am I missing something? Should I be grabbing at hair?
17: Frank Ocean Blonde
I wasn’t big on Ocean’s acclaimed Channel ORANGE. I tried, but it didn’t hit me. Its year-end list placement (Time ranked it the #1 album of 2016; another 12 publications/websites included it in their top 10) prompted me to listen at all. It clicked right away.
Frank Ocean - 'Nikes' from DoBeDo Productions on Vimeo.
Its sparse sound frames the vocals, giving them and the lyrics more emphasis, more strength. It’s R&B with interesting texture. Another album about empowerment from a musician of color: maybe that’s the real theme of my 2016 lists.
Frank Ocean "Pink + White" from Almas Jezovski on Vimeo.
16: The Head And The Heart Signs Of Light
Unlike Solange and Frank Ocean, this album from The Head And The Heart seemed like what I expected. It’s comfortable that way. White privilege in action: the white pop band from Seattle gets a head start in front of Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Solange… the system works.
There’s a bit of Fleetwood Mac, a dash of Eagles and Heartbreakers in this album. It’s a mainstream pop/rock album. It’s Dockers rock™: music to shop for khakis by (that is, it will be playing at Nordstrom Rack or JC Penney or Banana Republic when you shop for pants).