For my money, 2017 was an outrageous year for music. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy, Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s Lotta Sea Lice, and Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory were all released in 2017. And I’ve already published my thoughts about two other incredible 2017 albums, Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up and War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding. All of this is to say that my music world expanded tenfold as a sophomore in college, and five years later I’ve yet to experience another year-long barrage of albums that blow me away quite like that one.
Which album from 2017 have I listened to the most in the last few years now that they’ve all had the opportunity to live in my head for five full years? The answer is actually none of them. The 2017 album I’ve let run the most circles around my brain is Alvvays’ Antisocialites. Chalk another one up for the Canadians.
There’s a pretty simple reason I revisit Antisocialites so much, I think. I like it when people sing well, and I like it when guitars sound cool. That’s about as artful as I can be about this. Listening to music doesn’t have to be complicated. Alvvays deploys a combination of addictive vocal melodies and reverb-drenched guitar sounds to such great effect that you’d be forgiven for thinking there was a lot more going on song-structure wise than the typical verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/solo/chorus/out.
When People Sing Well
“I guess my voice sounds pretty close to a coyote or something.”Bob Dylan
I think I’ve mentioned it a couple other times on this blog, but in the unlikely event you don’t remember every single word I’ve ever written, I feel very strongly that there is no connection between “good singing” and “hitting notes/staying in tune.” Bob Dylan’s self-proclaimed resemblance to a coyote is endearing to me, and I just read a passage in a book about soul music where the engineer for the legendary Percy Sledge song “When a Man Loves a Woman” notes that Sledge was so out of tune during the sessions he thought the windows of the recording studio were going to shatter. If you had to hit notes perfectly and stay in tune to be a good vocalist, I am confident that rock music would simply not exist.
As it turns out, though, Alvvays has a lead singer, Molly Rankin, who does have an incredible voice in the conventional sense of the term. Rankin accomplishes a rare vocal feat: her songs have catchy, memorable verses, some of them even more memorable to my ears than her choruses. And I don’t mean sometimes. I mean that every single song on Antisocialites has a catchy, hook-laden verse that would rival most bands’ best choruses.
“Not My Baby” is a prime example of Rankin’s gift. The song’s de facto chorus “because I’m really not there/I’m really not there” is catchy, no doubt, but it’s the way Rankin sings “no need to turn around to see what’s behind me/I don’t care” or “no need to sit at home with the dial tone/’cause I don’t care” in the verses that play in my head when I think about the song. And in case you thought Rankin would only provide one memorable hook in the verses, she breaks out a second melody in the third verse when she sings “the night is like a fading radio,” and a third melody in the final verse when she sings “you sought an eye/so did I for an island.” That’s three separate catchy vocal melodies that are not the chorus if you were playing along at home. And the song doesn’t sound like it’s shifting modes the entire time, either. It’s simply drifting along in verse/chorus structure, but Rankin is so good at changing her voice around that she’s able to fit all that into a 4-minute pop song.
“Already Gone” might be even more impressive on Rankin’s part, seeing as there’s only one bridge, three verses, and no chorus. And still, Rankin provides four separate vocal hooks: the “main” one on “if there were an ocean”; a truly weird digression on “a vat of chlorine’s close enough I guess,” which is somehow in the same verse as the first hook; a third one during the bridge on “I arrived at the scene…”; and a fourth during that same bridge on “appetite minuscule/middle of the night, drain the pool.” And again, that’s a song that changes chords once. To pull all that off on such a simple song is uncommon to say the least, and very uncommon to say the most.
When Guitars Sound Cool
“It’s a guitar pedal. I know you like them. I’m not sure what they do, I guess they make the guitar sound cool.”Nathan Fielder
Rankin’s voice definitely lends itself to a pop style, and the songs on Antisocialites themselves lend themselves to a pop style, too. So why is Antisocialites an “indie rock” album (whatever that means) instead of a “pop” album (whatever that means)? It’s the guitars, of course. They’re noisy, and they’re aided by a lot of really cool synthesizer work to essentially cover Rankin’s vocals in waves of fuzz. Waves is actually an apt descriptor right off the bat, as the opening track, “In Undertow,” evokes waves lyrically and sonically. The synths open the album, but for most of the song the synths and the guitar are creating one noise, and it’s hard to separate the two from each other. Eventually, the guitar takes over for a solo around the two minute mark, and the synth joins back in for a nice rave-up into the last chorus. “In Undertow” is likely my favorite song on the album, and the guitars have the most to do with that. Rankin’s voice set against clean guitars would be cool, but her voice set against the blown-out guitar is a far cooler juxtaposition, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album.
The guitars and synths take the lead on “Plimsoll Punks,” too. The guitar see-saws between clean arpeggios and fuzzy chords that change the tone of the song multiple times. This tone change happens most notably starting around the 2:20 mark, when a pulsating guitar is added to the back of one of the verses that was not there in the other verses. That leads to an angular solo around 2:45 that’s cut short by a strange 20-second synth interlude, until the full band jumps back in for the last chorus and outro. It’s a really cool song that could have just been fine, but instead is one of the best on the album with the help of a lot of noise.
The final guitar and synth show-off is “Saved By A Waif,” which opens on a church organ synth and then adds a Smiths-indebted guitar riff. The rest of the song uses so many different synth and guitar sounds that it’s hard to keep up. The guitar has some regular chord strumming, some feedback scratching, and some clean riffs, and that’s all in the first minute of the song. The synths, on the other hand, sound like a cheap toy keyboard during the first verse and then take on this intense ’80s sound only five seconds later. The dueling instruments make for the most upbeat song on the album, which is necessary on the heels of “Already Gone,” the album’s slowest track. Good sequencing.
Like I said earlier, music doesn’t really have to be complicated. Antisocialites succeeds on the basis of a straightforward formula of really nice, talented vocals accompanied by hazy, atmospheric guitars and synths. There aren’t many tricks at play, and why should there be? 2017 was a year where artists I love made some of their most ambitious and complex music. Alvvays may have outdone them all in a mere 33 minutes.