Youthquake. This is the Oxford Dictionaries’ recently announced word of the year for 2017, defined as ‘a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people’. Whilst this clearly unsung coinage may seem questionably plucked from someone’s broken conversation or from the depths of twitter, which churns out an endless supply of new terms daily, there is no doubt that the animating spirit of ‘political or social change’ has infused this year’s music. And it doesn’t have to be in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s galvanising roar erupting from the stage of Glastonbury. Indeed, artists have staked out their defiant position in a multitude of ways, quietly uprooting the social stigmas which afflict our generation by, as Corbyn would say, ‘building bridges not walls’. We might start with R&B singer SZA, sounding out her repulsion for the appropriation of the female body in her debut album Ctrl, where a feminist manifesto bursts from the feisty lines of ‘Doves in the Wind’: “the fake chains and the gold names / For insecure, gon’reassure you not to get pussy…You like to throw all kinda shade for the pussy/ See, that’s what pussy niggas do”.
But in addition to carving a fist-pumping space for social import, raw lyrics can also help us make sense of feelings; often albums say a lot more about individuals, rather than issues. One of the most delicate and yet powerful examples of this—and potentially my stand-out album of 2017—is Big Thief’s second album Capacity. There’s a moment on ‘Mythological Beauty’ which cuts deep, holding up to the light embedded shrapnels of complex familial love and sacrifice: “There is a child inside you who is trying/ To raise the child in me” brings back the image of the record’s cover, which shows singer Lenker’s uncle cradling her as an infant, jet-black hair slick on her tiny soft skull. I feel my very heartbeat slowed and then amplified when I listen Lenker replaying a horrific and bloody childhood accident as a means of empathizing with her young mother’s traumatic test of resilience. “You held me in the backseat with a dishrag / Soaking up blood with your eye / I was just 5 and you were 27 praying don’t let my baby die”, she screams, her voice escalating up and over the tempered guitars and soft drums. ‘Shark Smile’ also plays out a tragedy, this time of two young lovers driving a yellow van in the Midwest, enrapt in a vulnerable bond: “Evelyn’s kiss was oxygen”. It ends in a car accident, with one lover dying and the other alive and pleading “Take me, too”. This is 2017 songwriting at its most reflective and sensitive, working through confused feelings and experiences in full-bodied excerpts which I can listen to and be gripped by over and over again.
Alvvays similarly again became a staple feature of my cycle-to-lectures playlist when they released a follow-up to their debut, Antisocialites, taking us to a darker and more uneasy lands whilst firmly keeping hold of their wonderful knack for writing winsome indie pop. Ripples of post-break-up bitterness are caught in between alluring jangly melodies on ‘In Undertow’: ‘When you get old and faded out, will you want your friends? What’s left for you and me?’ Like flicking through a portfolio of individual sketches, Molly Rankin’s impressively wide-ranging vocals lead us through familiar moments, always mingled with a playful touch of fantasy that limits the dampening effect of these rather achy adult situations. Its shoegazy tales of uncertainty, of longing and nostalgia are somewhat reassuring to my all-too-frequently conflicted self, particularly as 2017 is the first year of my twenties, with the liminal tendencies of a ‘too late to go out, too young to stay in’ mindset still setting its roots inside me.
This deeply felt disquiet regarding change—or of surrendering youthful dreams for a stable future—also defines the heart-tugging tunes of the brilliant Rex Orange County’s Apricot Princess. If Antisocialites meditates upon the perils of transition, change permeates Apricot Princess’s lyrics which wrestle with the trials of, in Alex O’Connor’s words, ‘learning which things are good and bad, how they change and why they’re important’. There’s a soulful forthrightness to the album which I think is exciting and which takes a unique stance amongst the rising artists of our generation. ‘4 Seasons’ flits between self-deprecation (‘I saw myself as less and you saw high above me’) and an assertive, authentic sense of his love (‘Now that you’re around/ I pray you don’t go/ Cause since you made me social, I’m no longer eating solo’). Listening to the album lets us into the depths of his compelling coming-of-age story, which simultaneously shade into and deepen mine, providing me with reassuring reminders that emotional contradictions exist and are at times normal; it’s at once angry and sweet, loving and menacing. Poised always on the brink of unpredictability, 2017 was a year in which artists carved new spaces for their own fresh expressions of defiance, love, and nostalgia, as well as bold political statements which resonate not only in the present but will also undoubtedly fuel change in many years to come.
-- Georgina Quach, December 21, 2017