New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding’s sophomore album “Party” is a sprawling mix of styles, emotions, and intricacies that come together to form a devastating and electric record. The hushed danceable “Blend,” opens the album. Harding’s whispered delivery draws you in, and the bouncing fingerpicking acoustics fit atop the drum machine perfectly creating an unexpected dance-folk track that is as gothic as it is groovy. “Imagining My Man” immediately follows and is a treading piano ballad about the difficulties of opening up to love. While it showcases Harding’s delicate vocal stylings again, there are moments where she painfully cries out lines like “I do not have the answer” that knock the wind out of me every time without fail.
The lead single “Horizon” is the most intrepid song on “Party” as it presents Harding’s trenchant lyrics alone over sparse a sparse piano and saxophone harmony. This manifests itself into one of the year’s most hauntingly infectious tracks. Perhaps the album’s defining moment does not occur until its closer, “Swell Does The Skull.” A duet with Mike Hadreas (also known as Perfume Genius) which features a crushing intimacy. Harding and Hadreas trade off vocals beautifully and leave you defeated after listening. “Party” is a patient, hypnotic, gorgeous folk record and even after months of listening there is still much left to unravel and discover. [Thomas Coogan]
Recommended if you like: Nadia Reid, Big Thief, Weyes Blood
Listen to: “Imagining My Man”
Belladonna of Sadness was a gift in both the literal and the metaphorical sense. In the literal, it was sent to me as a recommendation by my friend Elise. In the metaphorical, Belladonna of Sadness is the sexy-French-psychedelic-nightmare soundtrack of my dreams. Alexandra Savior. At age 22, Alexandra Savior has an utterly unique voice and enough songwriting chops to help write a song for Alex Turner’s band The Last Shadow Puppets, get featured on the soundtrack for True Detective season 2, and be endorsed by Courtney Love and Lina Perry. Those chops are well showcased with a boost from Alex Turner, as Savior spins, in her own words, a “feminist angst horror film feel” of an album, rife with a cinematic quality and enough playfulness to keep you entertained.
My favorite tracks from Belladonna of Sadness are “Mirage,” “M.T.M.E.”, and “Mystery Girl.” “Mirage” was the first song of Saviors’ I ever heard, and it may be the perfect introduction to her. A little nonsensical, a little sarcastic, a little dark, a little flashy, and including gems like “Dress me like the front of a casino/Push me down another rabbit hole/Touch me like I’m gonna turn to gold”, “Mirage” is essentially the Alexandra Savior starter kit while also being my favorite song on the album. “M.T.M.E.” (an acronym for Music To My Ears) is a little more upbeat while also seeming a little angrier. Savior seems to reflect on a relationship where she was left on her own, though in her own words “I ain’t crying, I’m just fine.” Savior takes a refreshing stand on her emotions through her music, forgoing crying to get instead sharp, reflective, and all together, over it. “Mystery Girl” closes out this romp, falling into one of my favorite new musical archetypes: psycho crush, in the best way possible. This is only exemplified by lyrics like “Don’t you try to calm me down” being repeated throughout the song. Closing the album with a haunting composition and eerily well-done vocals, Savior takes a well-earned curtain call at the end of her debut.
Alexandra Savior is over the typical roles of females in music. On Belladonna of Sadness, Savior is a French movie heroine, the final girl, the psycho crush, and the sugary girlfriend. She’s sexy but modest, sarcastic but sweet, and melodic but raging. She observes love, sex, anger, and emotion with a decidedly feminist perspective. All in all, Alexandra Savior is everything at once, and once you accept that, she has you right where she wants you. [Erin Pattie]
Recommended if you like: Alex Turner, The Big Moon, Melody’s Echo Chamber
Listen to: “Mirage”
I first discovered Not Even Happiness while reading album reviews on SPIN, and on a further dive into the internet, it was already being hailed as one of the best albums of 2017. In January. This album is something remarkable: it treads the “singer-songwriter” waters without sounding generic or repetitive, it grapples fearlessly with life’s larger questions, and forgoes metaphor in place of authenticity. Simple compositions, Byrne’s unique vocals, and minimal production create a beautiful album with a film-like presence that can’t help but make you feel a bit like dancing.
My favorite songs on the album are “Morning Dove,” “Sea as It Glides,” and “I Live Now as a Singer.” From the opening chord of “Morning Dove” to the lyric “Life is short as a breath half taken,” Byrne builds a portrait of loss and longing but also of nostalgia and the feeling of moving forward. The imagery of her lyrics create an immersive experience for the listener, and her beautiful guitar outro ends the song with an exhale. Every time I hear “Sea as It Glides,” I am genuinely still surprised it’s a real song. It seems so ethereal and otherworldly, from the instruments to her voice. It’s upbeat but still mellow, complex but not annoying, and makes you feel like you’re on the beach Byrne is singing about in the first place, with the day “melting away.” Of course, the album’s closer, “I Live Now as a Singer” culminates this journey expertly. Byrne sings “And I have dragged my lives across the country/And wondered if travel led me anywhere,” penning a gorgeous finale to an already above-and-beyond album. Being with Byrne throughout the album, and finishing at this place with the final fade out, makes you feel like maybe you discovered something too.
All in all, the album seems to be about self-discovery. You can listen to it on a long road trip through a desert, sitting on a rooftop in a city, or doing anything else equally as angsty, lonely, and comforting. The album is melancholy, arrestingly beautiful, and though it may not outright tell you the meaning of life, it wouldn’t surprise me if it helped someone figure it out. As she assures you with lyrics like “I could not wait to tell you the truth/I have been waiting on you,” something about Julie Byrne’s voice makes you feel like you’re going to be okay. [Erin Pattie]
Recommended if you like: Molly Burch, Julia Jacklin, Frankie Cosmos
Listen to: “Morning Dove”
The most shocking thing about Kelly Lee Owen’s eponymous debut album is that it is her debut. Although the Welsh musician has been in bands like The History of Apple Pie, her techno-tinged sound with hints of dream pop is something entirely new and fully realized. Owens’ reverb-drenched, pulsating electronics carry the album. Tracks only contain a few simple synth patterns, some drums, the occasional strings and layers of Owens’ vocals stacked on top of one another. Do not let the barebone approach fool you though, the directness of these songs is what makes them flawless earworms and perfect for the dancefloor.
Owens and Jenny Hval collaborate on “Anxi.,” which pairs Owens thumping rhythms with Hval’s roaming vocal modulation seamlessly. “Anxi.,” along with the rest of the album, can turn from dazzling coatings of vocals to chilling club-ready techno on a dime. There is an ethereal nature to Owens’ soundscapes that is not associated with dance music often. However, the way that she uses it to dress her beats creates dance music that you can drift into. Even when working in other genres like trip hop with “Keep Walking” or industrial on the closer “8,” Owens can bridge between the disparities and adapt genres to suit her holistic design. Kelly Lee Owens has carved out her own lane on her debut album, and the only thing more exciting is the thought of what she has in store for us next. [Thomas Coogan]
Recommended if you like: Laurel Halo, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Jenny Hval
Listen to: “Lucid”