2017 has been shit in a lot of ways, but not with regards to music.
I’ve always considered myself rather modest and minimal when it comes to my consumption of music.
True, I have music playing from almost the moment I wake each day until about half an hour after I close my eyes for bed. Every night, I listen in the dark to a sleep mix I’ve created to help lull me off to dreamland.
But my musical tastes aren’t particularly hip. Although I’m familiar with many top-selling artists and bands, I don’t have the music of very many of them in my collection.
I stream a lot of the popular music on Google Play, while most of the stuff I actually buy is much less mainstream and much more purpose-driven with regards to what I expect to be doing while listening to it.
(I estimate a good 60-70% of my collection is music for writing or studying.)
Simply put, I buy the music that makes me feel good, not what makes me seem cool. I also tend to have favourites that I stick with for years, no matter how their sound might change.
Somehow, this year has turned into a feast of new music from some of my long-time favourites that’s kept me returning to the iTunes store again and again. These new albums include the following:
1) Hopeless Romantic – Michelle Branch
I became a Michelle Branch fan during her heyday while I was in university, despite her appealing more so to the younger set.
I liked her because I’ve always enjoyed pop music, and I found her far less flashy and trashy than many of the other pop starlets of the day (so much so, I even added one of her albums to my deserted island list).
Branch later moved over to country music, which boosted the maturity of her sound and gave her some new genre conventions to work with. She also released a country album with her backup singer.
But essentially, Branch has been mired in disputes with her record label for over a decade. She wrote at least two albums in that time that for whatever reason were never released.
Hopeless Romantic is her first full-length studio release since 2003.
Admittedly, I didn’t (and still don’t) love the title track, which was also the first single—a stripped-down, kind of darkly sensual ballad about dangerous love. But there are many other wonderful tracks to enjoy.
Branch’s voice has definitely matured—it’s fuller and much less affected than in her youth. This meshes nicely with the new neo-disco, synthy edge to her customary pop-rock sound.
She doesn’t at all sound overproduced as she delivers mid-tempo pop hooks that are at times punchy and triumphant, at times wistful, and at times a bit of both.
Favourite track: “Heartbreak Now” – an up-tempo song that conceals its downcast theme of unrequited love and obsession within bright, retro-sounding keyboards and a syncopated beat.
2) Native Invader – Tori Amos
I’ve written before about my enduring love for the music of Tori Amos—the alt-rock piano goddess, poet, feminist, eccentric, red-head, and social critic.
Every Tori Amos song—her “girls”, as she calls them—is a gem. Each is infused with so much symbolism and so many literary/mythical/Biblical/cultural allusions, their meaning is often inaccessible to the uninitiated and the initiated alike.
Even without fully understanding their meaning, Tori’s songs are an audial delight of mezzo-piano vocals (often strangely inflected), eclectic instrumentation, an engaging fusion of musical styles, and of course her virtuosic piano playing.
Tori has been recording solo albums since 1991. Her earlier works have covered topics that are particularly relevant to the female experience, including, but not limited to, the inability to speak up for oneself, toxic friendships, toxic father-daughter relationships, sexual assault, and miscarriage.
Meanwhile, some of her later material saw her branching out to discuss God and religion, working, aging, death, politics, war, and society in general.
It now being 2017, with the political climate such as it is, even the title of Amos’s 15th album, Native Invader, is a social commentary. On this album, she tackles environmentalism and climate change, along with the intersection of these issues with corporate corruption, marginalized people, white supremacy, and neo-fascist government.
Overall, it’s a true Tori album that’s as sonically and socially relevant as ever.
Favourite track: It’s always so difficult choosing a Tori favourite, even from a single album (let alone of her entire backlist, which I attempted in the past).
But I’m going to go with “Bang”—a rhythmic refrain inciting us to stand against hatred and become better human beings amidst heavy use of cosmological metaphors and electric guitar.
3) One More Light – Linkin Park
Linkin Park is the favourite band of mine that always causes people to scratch their heads, as if I somehow can’t enjoy a nu metal/rap-rock group without being ironic about it.
I’ve been an LP fan since their very first studio album back in 2000. What’s more, I consider myself a true fan.
That is to say, unlike those so-called fans who are stuck in the band’s original hardcore angst from nearly 20 years ago, I’ve evolved with them throughout every album toward a mellower, more electronic vibe.
(I even stuck with them for their sixth studio album, The Hunting Party, which broke the trend of their gradually softening sound and went full metal that was even harder than their original nu metal. Most of this album I did not like at all.)
Linkin Park’s seventh album, One More Light, resumed their musical progression, this time into straight-up pop, about as far from their original sound as you can get.
As always, the songs contain strong guitar riffs, interesting electronic sounds, and introspective lyrics sung in lead singer Chester Bennington’s high-pitched, raw, emotional vocal.
But there is almost no rapping, no screaming, a female guest vocalist on one of the songs (a first ever for LP), and really nothing that could prevent these songs from being played on the radio.
I like this album because it fits in seamlessly with their ongoing evolution as a band. I also like it because it is the last that Chester Bennington will ever record with them. It might even mark the end of Linkin Park forever.
On June 20 of this year, Bennington died by suicide, having evidently struggled with drugs and depression. Knowing that he suffered in this way seems to offer new insight into the new tracks, which despite their bright, pop-y backdrop have names like “Nobody Can Save Me”, “Heavy”, and “Invisible”.
Favourite Track: “One More Light” – a stripped-down ballad sung by Bennington about regret and self-blame following the loss of a loved one by suicide. It is a tribute to former Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, a close friend of Bennington’s, who also died by suicide.
What new music are you listening to this year? Let me know in the comments.
(Image: J.G. Noelle)