Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
Much as I may pride myself on keeping my ears as wide open and omnivorous as possible, I’m often struck, as the time of reckoning draws nigh, that so much of the music that really affects me from any given year tends to fall into a few relatively narrow categories. Looking back on the 2017 releases that I’ve spent the most time with and returned to most consistently, most of them can be sorted into two general buckets: emotionally resonant electronic pop made by (relatively young) women – Lorde, MUNA, Sylvan Esso, Kelly Lee Owens – or wordy, wide-ranging critical statements made by opinionated and perhaps over-analytical old (or at least aging) men: Randy Newman, Jens Lekman, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields.
Is there a throughline there? I tend to think of it in terms of personality: if there’s one thing most likely to pique my interest in a new artist, or keep me engaged with a familiar one, it’s in their music’s ability to serve as a tool for human expression, straightforward or otherwise; a means of telegraphing a vivid and recognizable individual identity – whether that individual be a quote-unquote “real person,” a constructed persona or, as it surely is in the vast majority of cases, some ambiguous, unparseable intertwining of the two. Perhaps that quality is more readily apparent in the second group of aforementioned artists. It’s not that those verbose songmen are single-mindedly preoccupied with age and mortality – though it’s clearly on their minds (see: Newman’s heartwrenching “Lost Without You”; Murphy’s “tonite”; Lekman’s bouncy but pensive “Wedding in Finistère”; the entire conceit of Merritt’s 50 Song Memoir) but it certainly informs their outlook, helping to distill a clarity of perspective (and tendency toward warts-and-all honesty) translating into albums that function as poignant, if sometimes roundabout self-portraits. Continue reading →