Our writers present their contenders for best indie and alternative album of the year.
A Crow Looked at Me – Mount Eerie
“Death is real / someone’s there and then they’re not / it’s not for singing about / it’s not for making into art”. The first line croaked from Phil Elverum’s lips is a profound statement on how we respond to life’s heaviest truth, a truth he faces in all its pain on A Crow Looked at Me. Recorded in the six months following the death of his wife, Genevieve, to pancreatic cancer, leaving behind a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, the songs are a raw outpouring of grief. It is even more intimate with the knowledge that he recorded it in her room, with her instruments. Do not expect polished songs that have been revised meticulously and produced in a studio. Expect just him, a guitar, a piano, and a drum machine, shrouded by a lo-fi crackle. It is not entirely musical, but it is not meant to be, it is about expression.
His words here are often blunt and drawn out, like time itself has slowed, every minute is like an hour. They just document the most intimate period of one’s beloved passing; if his knees fail one day, he says “my knees fail”, if he cries another, he says “I wailed”. Also, he often refers to the date he is writing the song – it is a diary of mourning. These archives are beyond difficult to listen to, from conversations with his daughter, to seeing Genevieve in the bed where she used to lie, and taking out the garbage that was made up of her bloodied tissues before she died in his and her parents’ arms. One of heaviest moments reveals that his and his wife’s counsellor and close friend died just two months after she did; the chance of that happening in this absurd world we live in is just incomprehensible.
Yet in between these despondent utterances, Phil offers these profound reflections on death itself. Genevieve may not be in this world in person, but she remains an encompassing presence. On ‘Swims’, his daughter asks him if her mother swims. To that, he replies “yes, she does, and that’s probably all she does now”, because her ashes spread in the waters of the lake they intended to build a family home upon, she is “borne across waves / evaporating”. He poured the ashes onto seaweed, ready to be swept away by the easy tide, so she can watch the sunset, but he does not see her ashes as her, she is the sunset. Genevieve is not dead, but exists around them, immersed in nature, watching over her family like a guardian angel. To some degree, Phil proved himself wrong, this album is one of the most affecting, artistic works in music.
Relaxer – Alt-J
If Relaxer had to be lauded for just one achievement, it would be how it negotiates the hurdle of the ‘difficult third album’. With two essential alt-rock LPs under their belts, a refusal to expand beyond alt-J’s established formula would have earned them a critical panning for complacency. However, an accolade-focused shift ran the risk of haemorrhaging much of their ardent fan base. It’s to the credit of Relaxer that every part of alt-J’s essence – complex instrumentation, lyrics inspired by popular literature, inimitable vocals – has been preserved so perfectly. If they hadn’t been, the album would have been untraceable, since it enters sonic territory never before touched in the history of music.
From start to finish, Relaxer has an all-encompassing experimental spirit rarely seen in music since the 1960s. I don’t know what’s more impressive: that alt-J thought to write six minutes about a Tasmanian devil falling in love; or the fact that the track itself, ‘Adeline’, is one of the most beautiful, tear-inducing compositions of the decade. Despite being avant-garde, alt-J’s lyrics are so earnest that they expose how sanitised the competition is. In a year in which pop artists shied away from all but the most oblique references to sex, the first side of ‘Relaxer’ is an unfiltered exploration of diverse, depraved eroticism that would make Lou Reed blush. ‘3WW’ shuns love for pure physicality, ‘In Cold Blood’ is a binary orgy, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ (anything but a simple cover) depicts a family pulled apart by sex, and as for ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, it should be obvious.
At just thirty-nine minutes, Relaxer cuts all except the essential. Guest appearances from Marika Hackman and Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell are anything but shallow ‘featuring’ credits – in ‘Last Year’ and ‘3WW’ respectively, they’re absolutely critical for the tracks’ multifaceted, non-linear narratives.
Nonetheless, Relaxer is an album built upon precarious ground. With just eight tracks, any let-downs would puncture the album beyond repair, and yet every single one staggers and surprises. Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes was 2017’s other great indie album, but that was, arguably, one fifty-five minute song split into twelve. Relaxer, by comparison, is a kaleidoscopic compilation of eight totally unique tracks that push music in an entirely new direction. It’s scandalous, it’s daring, and it really shouldn’t work – but it does.
Dark Matter – Randy Newman
Aside from a few headlines generated by one of its songs (a satirical ditty about Russian President Vladimir Putin), my choice for 2017’s album of the year didn’t create as big a splash as some of its competitors. Even so, Randy Newman made a triumphant return with Dark Matter, an assured and musically brilliant album that showed a master of his craft on top form.
Newman has always been a quirkier songwriter than most – what other musician alive would open an album with an eight-minute piece, almost theatre in style as scientists and believers face off to answer some of life’s big questions? (And who wins? Gospel music, of course.) It manages to be technically brilliant (both musically and lyrically), amusing and profound all at once. Many musicians would give their right arm for a song like this – Newman has an album full of them.
In this nine-track album, Newman also looks at the relationship between John and Bobby Kennedy on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the aforementioned Putin, a paranoiac (expanding Monk theme ‘It’s A Jungle Out There’) and the unusual fate of Sonny Boy Williamson (look it up – the story is a doozy).
It’s not all light and fun, though – Newman also exercises his capacity to tug at your heartstrings. We have a love number in ‘She Chose Me,’ and two incredibly sad songs. ‘Wandering Boy,’ which sees a father call for his lost child, is a poignant number, an effect helped by the fact it is a solely piano and vocal track. And anybody who doesn’t have a tear in their eye after ‘Lost Without You,’ in which a man with Alzheimer’s recalls his wife’s last days (‘even if I knew which way the wind was blowing/even if I knew this road could lead me home/even if I knew, for once, where I was going/I’m lost out here without you’), must have a heart of stone.
It’s not the loudest or the most contemporary album of 2017 by any stretch – there’s no other album this year that is quite like ‘Dark Matter,’ in terms of sheer musicality, the themes it treats or the emotions it provokes. ‘Dark Matter’ is a treat, and definitely one of the finest of 2017.