With the end of, hopefully, our last online semester comes another edition of Bwog Staff’s favorite running series. Read up on the music that defined our semester while getting vaccinated and practicing social distancing!
græ by Moses Sumney
“Isolation comes from insula which means ‘island’”
Moses Sumney released the first half of his ambitious sophomore album, græ, on February 21, 2020; when the second part was released on May 15th of that year, “social distancing” was already a term no American could feign ignorance to. The album, a study of isolation and the gray (or ‘grey’) areas of life, not only showcased Sumney’s incredible voice and inventive songwriting skills, but a remarkable prescience in speaking to a worldwide phenomenon of isolation that had only just begun.
Sumney worked with an impressive slate of partners on the album — from Daniel Lopatin and James Blake to Thundercat and Michaela Coel (the creator of the best television show in years) — but never loses his powerful voice, both literally and metaphorically, amongst the music. During a semester I spent both physically close to school and mentally so far from the normalcy I had become accustomed to, Sumney reminded me that life can be beautiful because of those græ areas, not just despite of them.
The Big Freeze by Laura Stevenson
Laura Stevenson’s The Big Freeze welcomed me laid back, arms out, all-in when I most needed it. Nothing soothed my restless dreams of New York or my intense burnout from sophomore fall like her fuzzy guitar and soft, slurred voice. It was her in my earbuds, as I flew across the Atlantic, restarted online classes, washed the dishes. Powerful refrains (“so nice, I am so nice” in “Value Inn”) kept me warm in bitter cold walks, and explosive instrumentals were my company while quarantined in my first apartment. The measured strength of Stevenson’s voice is chilling, as is her honesty and strange imagery. “Their woolen suits are lined with fruit for you”, she sings in “Low Slow” and I understand. Falling down frozen sidewalks and falling for someone was better with Stevenson: I was swimming in pink, surfacing, and diving in honesty I have yet to experience again. And no song holds a candle to “Living Room, NY”, the strangest and sweetest love confession on the album. The line, “I’ll give an arm just to hear you in the dark, saying ‘Living Room, NY’” brings me to tears every time.
Tako Tsubo by L’Impératrice
Did I discover Tako Tsubo due to a moderate obsession with the artist who did the album cover? Quite possibly, yes. So first and foremost, shout out to Ugo Bienvenu. “Tako Tsubo” is the French transliteration of the Japanese term for the heart condition “octopus trap,” the weakening of the left ventricle due to emotional stressors like a broken heart. While this album did not elicit feelings of a broken heart for me, the simultaneously nostalgic-yet-contemporary sound of light synths and funky bass lines were there to keep me stable during this strange transition time back to New York. Tako Tsubo has now gone with me everywhere–walks to Covid tests in the rain, grocery shopping, watching the trees bloom in Riverside–and is somehow always, always the correct mood for the given moment. Personal favorites on the album are “Hématome” (notably a strange theme of blood and hearts in this album), “Souffle au coeur” (…here again), and “L’équilibriste.”
Discovery by Daft Punk
It’s kinda funny, I actually got way back into Daft Punk in January. It was a band I listened to a lot in high school, and back in the day, it got me through so much. In 2021, it felt grounding and safe, so I bopped along, and even wondered when they would release a new album – it was high time…right?
Now, I am nowhere near the biggest Daft Punk fan. I’ve always been a very casual listener, I’m not even that into house music. But their breakup hit me square in the chest. Maybe it’s because of all the nostalgia, maybe because it meant I would never get to see them live, maybe because I just wanted one more album, or maybe their announcement video just really got me. Regardless, in mourning, I listened to exclusively Daft Punk for…probably around a month. Their upbeat instrumentals provided a canvas for me to think on; I spent hours just looping “Contact”; they hummed in my ears as I took my 20-minute walk to campus and back. And ironically, because of the breakup, as I listened to their entire discography over and over again, they slowly became one of my favorite bands.
The album I always came back to was Discovery. Full of the hits that made them famous in the first place, supplemented by equally great instrumental tracks, the songs of Discovery flow into one another in a beautiful, intentional way. Each is unique, but each fits the album’s cohesive sound. The soaring hope of “Superheroes”, the strange melancholy of “Veridis Quo”, the intense energy of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, the fantastic guitar solo on “Aerodynamic”, and of course, the total palette of emotions on “One More Time”, they all weave together to form the silky fabric of Discovery.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) by Taylor Swift
Duh??? I actually missed the train on this album back in 2008, I wasn’t a Swiftie until around the Blank Space era. This re-release showed me how much I missed out, but luckily, 2021 is the new 2008. The title track sounds incredible, and everyone I know is sleeping on “That’s When.” I personally respect how everyone said “hm, maybe you should stop singing about high school metaphors and the cool kids, Taylor” when Lover came out and she just said no. Amazing. Also, I think it’s about time Joe Jonas remembered his mortality.
The Natural Bridge by Silver Jews
I’ve been into the Silver Jews for a while, but I’ve always found it really hard to really understand their music because Berman’s songwriting is often very cryptic. I made use of the internet when available to try to figure out what the songs were about, but many of them have never been public annotated, so I have been left mulling over lyrics every time I listen. Berman’s songwriting often comes off like a brilliant collection of one-liners, witticisms, and cruel jokes (“you’re a negative wishing well” is a personal favorite) but it always belies a deeper meaning. He frequently writes about loss and hopelessness, such as on the opening track “How to Rent a Room,” where he sings from the perspective of a man who has been murdered by his wife, or when he basks in the unholy beauty of human development on “Dallas.” The dominant reading of Berman’s work, both his songwriting and his poetry, is that was dark and downtrodden, but I disagree; it has an underside of appreciation for the beauty of the world that drives even his darkest fears. This record will tear you to shreds (if you can stomach the slacker-ish musicianship), but it eventually becomes a rewarding experience. “Boy asks his dad for a car, dad says ‘first you gotta cut that hair.’ Son says ‘Dad, Jesus had long hair.’ Dad says ‘that’s right, son, Jesus walked everywhere.'”
Visions by Grimes
Yeah, yeah, another article where I talk about Grimes; what a shocker. First, I selected Visions as my album for the semester because after I watched Grimes’ breakdown of her discography, I became obsessed with the process of making it. Like, maybe locking yourself in your room, blocking out sunlight, attaining a mouse’s diet, overthinking everything that’s ever happened, and driving yourself to insanity to attempt to create a masterpiece is the Spring 2021 mood! Jokes aside, I think that the themes, refined/smooth sound, and lyrics of Visions really got to me this time. This album’s about feeling every emotion in the goddamn book, choosing to suffer to achieve an unattainable goal, not feeling like you properly own your body, wanting to be loved and held, and just staying up too late for your own good. It strikes a perfect balance between raw vulnerability and refined simplicity, often giving us repetitive one-liners in a wispy voice that pack so much emotional weight (see: “Oblivion,” “Be a Body,” “Skin,” and “Know the Way,” which all have lyrics that make me spiral). The song “Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U),” in my opinion, is the culmination of the album, as it ties everything together in just a few, repetitive, raw lyrics accompanied by glittery, ethereal, circular sounds that (literally) travel through your headphones. Is Visions about suffering from unrequited love? From the inability to express your true emotions to a person you care about? From being consumed by your own overthinking? From wanting to create something impossibly beautiful? Who knows! All I know is that I’m emotional now. Thanks, Grimes!
December’s Children (And Everybody’s) by The Rolling Stones
My music taste is all over the place but I recently became obsessed with the Stones, probably thanks to Wes Anderson (watch The Royal Tenenbaums!) I’ve listened to a bunch of songs from all over their discography, but this album in particular has stuck with me as an immensely positive listening experience. Man, there’s just something about this one. It makes me want to wear a leather jacket and eyeliner and just sit on a bench all day. (Okay, you know what, I already do that.) It makes me want to Stroll Places With Purpose. It makes me not be sad about the fact that sometimes relationships end and things get shitty. “Get Off My Cloud” is my anthem for just not wanting to interact with anybody or do anything. “Look What You’ve Done” is the perfect bitter-but-it’ll-be-okay song. “Gotta Get Away” is my favorite, probably; it’s slow-paced and Jagger’s voice perfectly balances yearning and self-assuredness. It makes me want to break up with the boyfriend I don’t have, and drive slow in the car I don’t own down the country highway that doesn’t exist where I live. “You Better Move On” feels weirdly country for a British band (admittedly, I don’t know anything about genre), but man, it’s catchy. There are so many lyrics on this album that are just simple and passionate at the same time, which I guess is how I’ve been feeling recently. I guess the Stones are good for when you’re in low-grade emotional anguish but also a badass at the same time. The first one definitely applies to me and I’m working on the second one!
Ungodly Hour by Chloe x Halle
Spring 2021 Lillian said enough of this emo nonsense! No more staring at the street from your dining room table losing your mind! We’re totally cool now! And for the most part, that was honestly true, so I think I have to give the album of the semester title to Ungodly Hour, the arguably most mentally stable album I listened to this semester (see the honorable mentions). Chloe and Halle are on their A-game with this album, especially with their vocals but with everything about the production, honestly—their live performances are also impeccable—and this album captured a lot of the actually-probably-doing-fine energy that I was coasting on for most of this semester. It managed to both be an album I’d put on as background while I did my readings and an album I would emotionally, if not literally, scream along to in the evening while brushing my teeth. I would, and there is no better way to put it, vibe hard to songs like “Tipsy” and “Do It,” but also get briefly overcome by, of all the things, the lyric in “Do It” that goes “Now I’m on the way / Let you know when I’m ’bout a mile away”—like yeah, that is what people do when they’re on the way… Oh, to have something to anticipate… Oh, to be going somewhere… Ungodly Hour has its honest and tragic moments (the back-to-back of “Don’t Make It Harder On Me” to the fictive “I Wonder What She Thinks Of Me” really hit and essentially defined January for me), but it’s definitively not a sad girl album, and, as I guess I was not a sad girl this semester,* it was the perfect fit.
evermore by Taylor Swift
While I consider the album as a whole to be slightly more upbeat than folklore (and more diverse in range), there are some devastating songs that just put into words the exact feelings I’ve experienced throughout the spring semester. I’m thinking specifically of the bonus track songs “right where you left me” and “it’s time to go.” Continuing my college experience at home while it felt like everyone was on campus, was particularly difficult this semester. I truly felt like, within a year, I had not made progress, but remained in a stagnant state. I never changed and just remained right where you left me, right back in March 2020—if you will. In particular, I tend to experience these sentiments when listening to the lines, “they expected me to find somewhere/ some perspective, but I sat and stared/ right where you left me.” I honestly believe that those lyrics provide an accurate summation of what my semester has been and while I can’t change that, at least I can find comfort in knowing others have been in similar positions. Overall, evermore provides many outlets of escapism, like the song “cowboy like me” (which absolutely needs to be written into a book or turned into a movie), set in some sort of luxury resort, detailing the story of two swindlers meeting and falling in love. Another is “’gold rush” which is essentially a daydream about the possible future you might have with someone, only to be harshly brought back into reality; escapism within escapism. It’s nice to think about these songs and listen to them when alone, doing online school because it is an outlet of escapist, emotional support. This album has just been on repeat for the past few months, and it is heartbreaking and comforting all at once.
Kavana by Zusha
Listen, I almost didn’t do this. I was going to be normal, post the Sunset Tree by the Mountain Goats or something. But it wouldn’t be honest. There is one artist who got me through this semester and it was Zusha. This two/three-person band blends classic Jewish music with folk, soul, reggae, and pop, somehow? Their debut full-length album, Kavana, made it to #2 on the Billboard World Albums chart. The word Kavana in Hebrew means intention, and their music reflects that title. It’s like a mildly spiritual constant background music for your life, reminding you are reaching towards something, yearning for something, want something. Mostly wordless melodies, their music gets me through the day whether I’m studying, going to sleep, or bouncing around campus. I initially hated this band for no real reason, but now I’m so attached to their calming voices and genre-blended I can’t study without them. I heard they performed on campus last year and showed up an hour late and high out of their minds, an experience that makes me deeply jealous of upperclassmen and utterly enthralled. The album begins with a song called “East Shtetl” that is OBJECTIVELY too much of a bop to be named after what you envision Fiddler on the Roof to look like. The final song on this album, “child,” is playful and wordless, sounding like what would happen if you put bedtime stories and children’s laughter to music. The music ebbs and flows in this perfect way that is it kind of remains as an undercurrent to my days, gently letting my soul sing even through the most mindless tasks The band’s *vibes* are just so lovely and bold and make you feel like you are in motion yet so grounded. I’m done speaking in paradoxes, please please just listen to this album during finals season, for your own sake.
SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama
I became close with three girls on my floor this year. It became a recurrent theme that when we tried to have a girls night, the guys we were friends with on the floor would somehow become involved and “crash” the girls night. I started a playlist for us when we would finally get a chance away, and one of my friends gave me suggestions of songs to include, one of which was “XS”. I fell in love with the song instantly and after listening to the song excessively, I went ahead and listened to the entire album. I didn’t realize that it would be coming at exactly the right time. Starting college really challenged my relationship with my parents and I just felt extraordinarily alone most of the time, and really falling for someone for the first time was a toxic distraction that only further isolated me from my feelings and understanding the steps I need to take to move forward and be happy. From the lyrics “have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut cuz I have many times,” in “STFU!” and “tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine, I’m all ears, take your time, we’ve got all night,” in “Chosen Family”, Rina helped me appreciate the positives of the past year and gave me the confidence to stop letting other people hurt me. The year is coming to a close and I thought I would be looking back with only regrets and “if only”s, but that’s just not the case. I guess I’ve shed my snakeskin.
Spider-Man: Far from Home (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Michael Giacchino
(Another of those albums belonging to a movie that I’ve never actually watched, but I’m such a big Giacchino stan.) As I’m graduating this semester, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on how my music tastes have shifted. I used to not listen to any soundtracks at all, but slowly I’ve been adding more albums to my library and this is one that has stuck with me this semester. The opener – “Far from Home Suite Home” (nice pun) – is just an amazing amalgam of heroic themes (even the villain theme is so badass) and the album just gets better from there. Giacchino blends the themes in ways that you would’ve never expected. I mean he literally turns the aforementioned villain theme into a sad piece (see “Change of Plans”)! And the way Spider Man’s theme and the villain theme weave into each other in “High and Flighty” is truly a treat for the ears. In a semester where things haven’t exactly gone smoothly, this album has been like a warm hug, giving me the strength I’ve needed to get through it all.
After Midnight by The Manhattans
I picked up this record at random in some junk store because of the album art and I was surprised to fall completely in love with it. I don’t usually listen to R&B, especially not old R&B, but this album just completely struck me. The Manhattans have been around since the 60s and some of them are still touring (?!) Even though I haven’t listened to their entire discography this is probably one of the first genuine no-skip albums I’ve played over and over! It’s an album of love songs, but all of the songs are so soulful, genuine, and so lovely that even though I haven’t had anyone to think of while listening to them, I’ve still been moved—and it’s motivated me to feel like that towards myself. “Shining Star,” the first song on the record, earned them a Grammy when it was released—and rightly so! It’s a song you can’t help but smile and sway along with, just like the rest of the album. Gerald Alston’s vocals are bright and absolutely heartfelt, and you can tell how much he felt what he was singing. Even though you can tell the album was released in 1980 it’s so timeless! I wouldn’t have listened to this album if I hadn’t randomly picked it out from the maybe thousand random records at the store where I found it, and that just reminds me of how lucky I’ve been this school year amid all of the chaos. Even if some moments aren’t so lucky sometimes, I have this absolute banger of an album to lift my mood.
The Question by Anna Tivel
Every Anna Tivel album is a treasure that I could write whole posts about, but The Question is the album with a particularly special place in my heart this semester. This album came out a few years ago, but I fell in love with it again the past few months. Anna Tivel is an artist that my best friends from home and I love, and I found myself returning to these songs as I was trying (and worrying) about making new friends. This was such a comforting album for me this semester because the songs feel like stories told between old friends or letters from a friend on the road. Each song feels like a love letter to a simple, everyday moment, reminding us that even the smallest events deserve sweeping melodies and beautiful songs devoted to them. There is a literary quality to this album that I also love. Each song is like its own condensed novel that you don’t want to end, but as soon as you begin to long for the last, a gorgeous new one pops up. Anna gives each story so much care and depth. I would say my favorite song is “Velvet Curtain,” a song about a janitor dancing in a movie theatre, but “Anthony” and “Two Strangers” are also so incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking. This is one of my favorite walking in the park albums, although you could have a playlist of any of Anna’s music and find you’d walked a hundred blocks without realizing it.
Wasteland, Baby! by Hozier
I have a bad habit of only getting into albums months, or in this case, years after their release (see last semester’s submission, Four by One Direction). I’ve always liked Hozier, but this semester, I set out to really get to know this album inside and out, and I am so much the better for it. This semester had some big emotions. Hozier understands this. He lets us know it’s okay, and with his soulful lyricism and incredible talent, he expresses the emotions so much better than we ever could. The driving beat of Dinner & Diatribes propelled me through what felt like an endless pile of work. Almost (Sweet Music) is such a genuinely pleasant song to listen to, and it’s fun to pick out the jazz standards he references in the lyrics. No Plan mirrored the deep pessimism of winter, midterms, and late-stage pandemic. And To Noise Making (Sing) reminded me to keep at it, despite it all: “You don’t have to sing it nice / But honey sing it strong / At best you’ll find a little remedy, at worst the world will sing along.” And this album was my little remedy.
So many albums, so little time by Solomia Dzhaman.