Monopoly: 2015 Women In Music Edition

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Corin Tucker’s penetrating vocals. Carrie Brownstein’s ferocious guitar. Janet Weiss’ commanding drums. These three cogs make up one of the more powerful machines in the history of women in music. Of course I am speaking of Olympia, Washington’s rock trio, Sleater-Kinney, who until January of 2015 had spent nearly an entire decade on hiatus. Released in the first three weeks of last year, their eighth full-length, No Cities To Love, was not only significant in that it gave 2015 an impressive set to kick itself off with, but it would some 49 weeks later be seen as the album that ignited the spark that would set fire to a juggernaut year for the female artist. Taking a look back on it now, if I were to take off the albums created by women (or with women as the primary vocalists/writers) from my favorite albums of the year list, there would be very little positivity left to mention in passing, let alone document in detail. To say they played an integral part in making 2015 a memorable year for music would almost be an understatement. Their work was, in fact, essential, and Sleater-Kinney’s booming return was only the tip of the iceberg.

From the opening month onward, releases by women would come in impressive quality, quantity, and variety in genres consisting of a mixture of newcomers and seasoned veterans. No more than two weeks in and we had a roaring R&B record by Dawn Richard, titled Blackheart, that featured an on-fire moment called “Billie Jean” that caused someone like me – the single worst dancefloor impresser in the world – to have the itch to get down. The month closed out with the self-titled debut LP from Natalie Prass, whose “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” would persevere throughout a highly contentious year for personal favorite singles to make the cut, marking as a testament to its enormously unique orchestrations and heartbreaking lyrical palette. She was the first exciting new female talent to emerge in the calendar year, and she would be far from the last. Sarah Lipstate’s instrumental project, Noveller, also unveiled another haunting collection that went criminally overlooked, Fantastic Planet. In the same vein, yet on the electronic end of the spectrum and equally as powerful in its instrumentation, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith rolled out Euclid.

I’ll forever remember last February for giving us deep-cutting, edgy, and direct new records from both Colleen Green, and Marissa Paternoster’s Screaming Females (Rose Mountain). The former’s offering in particular, I Want To Grow Up, singed a lasting imprint to easily become one of my most worn-out waxes of the year. Green has always been a DIY artist, both in production and lyrically, but this third full-length found her traveling to a Nashville studio to share the reigns on the boards with friends Jake Orrall (JEFF The Brotherhood) and Casey Weissbuch (Diarrhea Planet). As a trio they tap into something even more confessionally cavernous than what we’d already heard from Green in the past. The ever-endearing “heart on her sleeve” approach to songwriting remains in full effect, further enhanced by facing the fact that she’s crossed into her 30s now, and the music has matured along with the material. She places her anxieties in front a mirror and punks them into art on “Deeper Than Love”, accompanied by a blistering bass line…

“And that possibility worries me the most
Not harm or abuse or becoming a ghost
It’s the closeness, the intimacy
I’m afraid, it might kill me”

The arrival of Spring 2015 woud usher in what I would argue to be the single most consistent quarter-year’s worth of quality music since 2013. Many artists were releasing either career-best triumphs (Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell), or wise-beyond-their-years debuts (Tobias Jesso Jr.’s Goon). For every substantial record released by male artists during this stretch, there were five times as many mind-numbingly impressive sets by the women, with a few making monumental statements. Nothing caught me off guard more than the sophomore LP from Alabama Shakes. On Sound & Color, Brittany Howard & Co. are fiery in their determination to not be seen as a one-off novelty, refusing to be pigeon-holed and written off as a Black Keys-esque band that would drift away as easy as the Harvey Danger’s or Sixpence None The Richer’s of radio’s past. They had somehow become famous three years earlier, a true lightning-in-a-bottle scenario, and they collected themselves with the new resources at their disposal, emerging again to never look back. If you found yourself one of the doubters of the band after hearing some of the inital singles from Boys & Girls, coming away unimpressed, I insist that you dig into their latest work. It’s undoubtedly some of the more innovative and adventurous music in the American mainstream, and Howard has made herself one of the most commanding female voices anywhere.

Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee

Apart from the obvious earned-its-stripes record from Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit…, the time frame of March-May was abundant with releases that were on levels of either highly impressive or damn-near life altering. Whether it be the under-appreciated gems kept out of the limelight (Sarah Bethe Nelson’s Fast Moving Clouds, Braids’ Deep in the Iris), the sublime pop rhythms from Marina & The Diamonds on Froot, the bonfire-ready folk of This is the Kit’s Bashed Out, or the outright explosion from Philly-bred garage punks Sheer Mag on their second EP, there was some sort of fruitful beauty happening right before our ears as the oblivious mothers of the midwest were busy spring cleaning. Out of all the records during this time, there were two that stood out like the sorest of thumbs to me. Mackenzie Scott’s second LP as Torres, Sprinter, is an energetic and marquee-demanding singer/songwriter record that evokes all sorts of various time periods in the history of music. She lives in the past, present, and future simultaneously. There are moments of quirky, inventive pop (“Cowboy Guilt”), hit-the-ground-running rock (“Sprinter”), calm-before-the-storm ballads (“The Harshest Light”), and simply an epic clinic in closing it all out with a ghostly linger, with “The Exchange”. Then there’s the wonder that is Waxahatchee and their third and most vital record, Ivy Tripp. Katie Crutchfield broke the game wide open for her project with 2013’s Cerulean Salt, and now she’s cementing her status as one of the world’s premier 90s pop-rock throwbacks. When I listen to Crutchfield sink her teeth in, I’m immediately whisked back to the vintage Exile in Guyville days of Liz Phair, and there’s never a moment that I don’t spend unhappy with Waxahatchee. If I ever need 3 minute and 13 seconds of pick-me-up, I look no furhter than “Air”. With Ivy Tripp she’s made one of my favorite albums so far this decade.

“We stand hand-in-hand
Idle in our course
When we are moving, we just pretend
to be strangers lamenting a means to an end”

At the half-way point in 2015 there was already a full calendar’s worth of music from the women alone that was worth spending plenty of time getting to know and adoring to great lengths. Time stands still for no one, though, and we can take comfort in knowing that all of this music is put to tape for a reason. My beach boombox over the course of the summer was consistently dominated by albums from females across all genres. Kacey Musgraves penned a marvelous, true country record called Pageant Material that would make the real legends of the genre smile from ear to ear. It’s full of sly, satirical winks and just plain fun moments without a single dud and it makes you get excited that country has an emerging star to effectively represent its name. Between her and the powerful Jason Isbell, the genre has a fighting chance. At the other end of the world’s musical sounds, Chelsea Wolfe keeps her prolific streak alive and kicking with grueling force on Abyss, a challenging set of songs that, once again, makes me almost consider going goth. If this is what they listen to, I’m all about that lifestyle. Between Apokalypsis, Pain is Beauty, and now Abyss, I’m crowning her queen of the dark world.

The closing months of the year were not as flurry-filled with noteworthy releases, but there was certainly a healthy variety of style and tone from what came to the table. Spread across September I found myself living inside records from Julia Holter (Have You In My Wilderness) and Lorely Rodriguez. The latter operates under the moniker Empress Of, and Me is the title of her talked-about sophomore LP. Each of these records are ostensibly of the pop genre, yet they tinker with loads of scattered brainstorming that proves distinctly of an alternate mindset. Holter, in particular, seems to have more of a desire and focus to take the role of maestro as opposed to band leader. Wilderness must have dozens and dozens of instruments on display throughout its duration. It’s a truly remarkable work that I am still finding new things to uncover with as I listen to it today, some 25 listens in. Also making notable showings were two of my personal favorite female songwriters of the past several years, Sharon Van Etten (I Don’t Want To Let You Down EP) and Joanna Newsom (Divers). Many were wondering how Newsom would manage to follow up such an enormous accomplishment like the double-LP from 2010, Have One On Me, and she did it in tasteful fashion…by not overdoing things. Divers is another intriguing blueprint inside the mind of – whether you like her or not – one of the world’s most unique performers.

“And it pains me to say, I was wrong.
Love is not a symptom of time.
Time is just a symptom of love.”

As a final impression tacked on at the tail end of the year, Greta Kline’s Frankie Cosmos project delivered a wondrous four song, eight minute EP called Fit Me In that boasts some of the most dynamic and hair-raising moments from anything I heard in the previous 11 months. An on-repeat-forever song like “O Contest Winner” makes me not only have great anticipation for Kline’s full-length that’s due on April 1, but it also just plum makes me happy to be alive as a human blessed with healthy hearing. Oh, and I could go on and on and on for another several paragraphs about the smile-inducing fun of Erykah Badu’s “Cel U Lar Device”, but you already feel it, too. The women made 2015 a year to love new music and believe in the existence of the wealth of creative minds at constant work in living rooms, dens, studios, break rooms, etc. We love you all, ladies. Thanks for the sounds.

 

 

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Author: Andy Ferguson

Much of who Andy Ferguson has become can be directly attributed to the summer of 1997, when he stumbled upon VHS copies of ‘Swingers’ and ‘Bottle Rocket’, while almost simultaneously becoming introduced to the Dr. Octagon album, ‘Dr. Octagonecologyst’. Living in a small country town in Indiana as a 13 year-old worshipping artists like Kool Keith and Pavement instantly makes one into more than an outcast. Instead of becoming the cliched friendless and depressed shut-in, he embraced the otherworldly culture that these records and films were presenting him.

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