National Album Day 2021

Today is National Album Day and this annual blog post is one of my very favourites to write. Over the year – since National Album Day last year – I’ve written about my favourite albums or the albums that have given me a lot to think about. Albums are so important to me – both as a listener and as a singersongwriter – and once I get lost in the world of an album, that world just gets bigger and bigger. I find more and more layers, more and more things to think and talk about.

This year, the day has a theme and that theme is celebrating women. Most of the albums I’ve written about in this post are the works of women but there are a few albums written and recorded by men, partly because I started writing this post before I knew that there would even be a theme and partly because I really wanted to talk about their work – as I said, I get very excited and enthusiastic about songwriting and albums and music. These posts just get longer and longer as I listen to more music, as I learn more about music and songwriting and what goes into each album. Sometimes my enthusiasm just gets away from me and suddenly I’ve written an essay where I meant to write a paragraph…


Apart Together by Tim Minchin (November 2020) – I was very curious about what this album would be like, given that 99% of what I’ve heard of his has been comedy. But one of the things that makes this album so fascinating and so clever is how he incorporates humour into the songs: through wickedly funny lyrics in the middle of otherwise serious songs, like, “And wake up in four hours or so / Soaked in relief to find I am alone / With the wrappers of Pringles and Snickers / For which to atone” in ‘I’ll Take Lonely Tonight,’ a song about staying committed even when you’re lonely (or as Minchin himself says, “trying not to have sex with other people,” in his typical irreverent style); through exploring pretty profound emotions but in fairly ridiculous scenarios, such as the plane crash he sings about in ‘If This Plane Goes Down’ where he examines the shallow and the deep parts of himself (“If this plane goes down / Remember me as someone who tried / To find a balance between self-loathing and pride / Dug too hard for love at times,” for example); and via wry, self-deprecating self-reflection throughout ‘Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long,’ where he sings about where he’s come from and where he thinks he’s headed, but always coming to the conclusion that he’ll ultimately be known for his tendency to ‘talk too much and stay too long.’ This mix of humour and depth makes the album very unique, in my music library at least; I think it’s a hard skill to master. And he has such a unique voice as a writer that, even when he abandons all humour and leans deeply and sincerely into raw emotion, as he does in the final track, ‘Carry You,’ the lyrics are absolutely identifiable as his. I also felt that the instrumentation and production were both extremely cohesive with each song’s lyrics and as an album as a whole. It’s a great album and I can’t wait to hear him perform some of them when I see him live in a few weeks.

Favourite Tracks: ‘Absence of You,’ ‘I Can’t Save You,’ ‘Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long,’ ‘Leaving LA,’ ‘I’ll Take Lonely Tonight,’ ‘If This Plane Goes Down,’ and ‘Carry You.’

Open Book: Unabridged by Kalie Shorr (December 2020) – I was really surprised when I saw that I hadn’t included the original version of Open Book in last year’s National Album Day post when it’s one of my favourite albums ever, but then I realised that I’d written about it in my post about my favourite albums of the 2010s. I’m also in the middle of writing a post about the whole album, like I did with folklore (although hopefully not quite as long as that one turned out to be). So, that being said, I’ll leave you to read my previous post and await my upcoming post. However, I do want to briefly talk about the tracks that were added to the album for the Unabridged edition: ‘My Voice,’ ‘Eighteen,’ ‘Out of It,’ and ‘Lying To Myself.’ I love all four of these songs and I love how they all bring something different to the album.

‘My Voice’ is full of defiance and self-empowerment, a call to be yourself in an industry that’s constantly trying to make you into something else. If there’s such a thing as a ‘Kalie Shorr lyric,’ then “The only time I’m gonna be boxed in / Is when I’m six feet under in a coffin” is most definitely one. ‘Eighteen’ is heartbreakingly vulnerable (the bridge in particular – “I see you out with younger versions of me / While I’m trying to find who I used to be / I’m terrified that you and I will always be / Chasing eighteen” – gets me every time) and it almost always brings a lump to my throat: I can’t help but think of my own messy relationship and break up from around that age. ‘Out of It’ echoes back to the Awake EP and its title track but this time, Kalie isn’t getting sucked back in to her ex’s drama and it was so cool to see that growth. That’s something I love about songwriters who write autobiographically (for the most part at least): as a listener, you get to see then grow in so many ways, as a writer, as an artist, and as a person. And that feels like a real privilege. And finally, there’s ‘Lying to Myself,’ which questions a past relationship and whether it (and everything that came with it) was ever real, simply and perfectly summed up with the chorus line of “Wеre you lying to me or was I lying to myself?” They’re all stunning lyrically but this one has truly gorgeous descriptions, like “I pickеd out all my favourite things you said / Then like a delusional architect / I built you up like a house of cards” and the evolution of “And I helped you up on that pedestal / Damn, you looked incredible” into “You liked it up on that pedestal / ‘Cause damn, you looked incredible” (goddamn, if that doesn’t take the wind out of me every time I hear it – she could be describing my own relationship). The production of these songs fits in beautifully with the production of the original album songs but there was also something… more about them. Now that her next project is out, I feel like you can hear how those songs were trying to reach for that sound even though they stayed inside the sonic universe of Open Book.

The one thing that I’m not sure about – even now – is how the tracks are inserted throughout the original tracklist. I felt like that original tracklist was so perfect that adding the other songs into that was a bit jarring for me. But having said that, I’m not sure that having all four of them at the end would’ve been the right approach either so I’m not sure what the right thing would’ve been. I think it’s a really interesting way of doing an album re-release or deluxe edition; I think it’s just something that’s stuck with me because I thought the tracklist for the original version of the album was just so good.

Since I haven’t had the opportunity to specify which of the songs on the album are my favourites, I couldn’t help myself and included all of my favourites, even though I’ve only talked about the added ones.

Favourite Tracks: ‘My Voice,’ ‘Messy,’ ‘The One,’ ‘F U Forever,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Eighteen,’ ‘The World Keeps Spinning,’ ‘Big Houses,’ ‘Out of It,’ ‘Gatsby,’ ‘Lying To Myself,’ ‘Vices,’ ‘Lullaby,’ and ‘Angry Butterfly.’

evermore by Taylor Swift (December 2020) – This album obviously came as a complete surprise given that folklore (a pretty massive surprise in itself) had only been out about six months and describing it as folklore‘s sister album feels very fitting. And it definitely felt like a winter album somehow, in my opinion at least. I read one review that said while folklore is the better album, the strong songs on evermore are stronger and I think, in general, that holds true; folklore is definitely more cohesive but there are more songs that I love on evermore. But then evermore is a lot more experimental: less common time signatures (like in ‘tolerate it’ and ‘closure’), less common song structures (‘ivy,’ and ‘marjorie,’ for example), less conventional production choices (such as the very different sections within ‘gold rush,’ the choice to include a sample of her grandmother’s singing on ‘marjorie,’ and the percussion in ‘closure’), and so on. Some of these choices I really liked and some of them kind of knocked me out of the song because they felt jarring. But then that’s bound to happen when an artist starts exploring new territory.

While I think I’m still adjusting to these fictional songs, I loved the stories Taylor was telling: the heartbreakingly refused proposal and all of the history that led to that moment in ‘champagne problems,’ avenging a murdered friend and getting away with it in ‘no body, no crime (feat. HAIM),’ the complicated process of moving past a relationship in ‘happiness,’ the lessons she learned from her grandmother in ‘marjorie,’ learning to walk away in ‘it’s time to go,’ and so on. They’re all so rich and beautiful and totally absorbing. I still believe, as I did with folklore, that there are personal details and elements and feelings within many of these songs, even if the narratives aren’t true to her own life. Most of us are familiar with feelings of longing (”tis the damn season’), wanting someone you shouldn’t (‘ivy’), the non-linear processing of a broken relationship (‘happiness’), feeling under-appreciated no matter how hard you try to make a person happy (‘tolerate it’), having to make the hard choice (‘champagne problems’), and feeling like you’re in your own little world with someone (‘cowboy like me’). In my mind, exploring these emotions through fictional stories allows Taylor to go deeper into those feelings than she could if people were dissecting them through the lens of her personal life. There are songs that could be interpreted to be about Taylor’s experiences, such as ‘ivy’ and ‘cowboy like me’ being about a special relationship that she’s desperately trying to keep to herself and protect and the possible references to previous relationships in ‘coney island’ (lyrics alluding to moments in her relationships with Jake Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, Harry Styles, and Calvin Harris) but then there are songs that are clearly about her own life, including lyrics that refer explicitly to events we know about or detailing moments she’s talked about in the past: ‘long story short’ reflects on the events of 2016 and finding Joe Alwyn; ‘marjorie’ is, of course, about and a tribute to her grandmother; and there are clear references to Scott Borchetta in ‘it’s time to go.’ But whether truthful, fictional, or a mixture of both, she tells the stories beautifully and the lyrics are stunning.

Favourite Tracks: ‘champagne problems,’ ”tis the damn season,’ ‘tolerate it,’ ‘no body, no crime (feat. HAIM),’ ‘happiness,’ ‘ivy,’ ‘cowboy like me,’ ‘long story short,’ ‘marjorie,’ ‘evermore,’ ‘right where you left me,’ and ‘it’s time to go.’

Crossroads by Roseanna (December 2020) – I love this album and not just because it’s my friend’s debut release (although I love that about it too). Between the beautiful lyrics and catchy melodies, her gorgeous vocals, and the glossy, polished production, I feel wrapped up in this little world she’d created. It kicks my Synesthesia-like responses into high gear: it feels deep purple and some of the songs just shimmer. It reminds me of autumn evenings, heartbeats, and the Northern Lights. I love it and I highly recommend it.

Favourite Tracks: ‘Shell,’ ‘3rd August,’ ‘You,’ and ‘How Does It Feel.’

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) by Taylor Swift (April 2021) – While I was excited for the re-recordings, a part of me was a bit anxious about them too; the idea that it might’ve been a distressing experience (given that it was something she felt she had no choice but to do) was upsetting so I couldn’t feel completely good about it until Taylor herself made it clear that it has, so far, been a really positive and rewarding experience. I’m really, really glad that that’s how she feels about it; I was and am much more excited for them now that I know that she feels that way.

I had a bit of a mixed reaction to this album on first listen. I’m super sensitive to sound (a part-gift-part-curse of my Autism Spectrum Disorder) so, to begin with, all I could hear were the differences. They were tiny differences, yes, but still overwhelming: some of the songs (‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’ and ‘You Belong With Me (Taylor’s Version),’ in particular) felt faster even though they weren’t (I counted); the levels of the instruments felt different even though, when I played them one after another, I couldn’t figure out how they were different; I could’ve sworn that there were different emphases in the vocals but, in reality, there didn’t seem to be. The vocals in particular were difficult to process initially: my Synesthesia-like response (I see – and feel – colours, feel textures, and some other sensory stuff that I’m still trying to figure out) to them was very different to my response to the original album vocals and that was quite startling. It was very confusing and for a while I felt like my hearing had gotten all screwed up. It took a few listens before it all started to even out (although I can still hear all of those things). And I can hear differences: as fantastic a job as Taylor does of re-creating her teenage voice, there are still moments when she sounds distinctly adult (I felt like this was actually most prominent in ‘The Best Day (Taylor’s Version)’); some of the instruments have a slightly different sound, or even just tone, to their original counterparts, like the piano in ‘Forever & Always (Piano Version) [Taylor’s Version]’; while ‘You Belong With Me (Taylor’s Version)’ is the same tempo as the original, I noticed that there’s an extra string pluck in the guitar/banjo part, which I think is what makes it sound faster; and I also noticed that there were a few backing vocal changes (I miss the repeat of “silence” in ‘Forever & Always (Taylor’s Version)’ – somewhat disproportionately, I think). I’m not trying to nitpick – I just notice these things and tend to notice them straight away. And now that I’ve had time to listen to it and absorb it, I love it and think it’s incredible (and somewhat surreal) how Taylor and her team have managed to recreate an album so similar to the original, over ten years later. The production is gorgeous and I love sifting through all of the layers that make up each song because so much goes into each track. Her vocals are just lovely and I’ve found myself enjoying songs that I hadn’t liked as much before a lot more because of that. My favourites on each album are actually quite different and given how sensitive my ears are, I think that’s valid because they don’t quite sound the same. But that’s given me the opportunity to love some of the other songs and that’s something I really didn’t expect.

While I do feel it listening to the songs I already know, hearing the ‘new’ songs – the Fearless era songs that we haven’t yet heard (apart from a leaked demo or snippet on YouTube here and there – really reminds me of what an amazing songwriter Taylor always was. It’s easy to say at this point in time but these songs were written when she was between sixteen and eighteen years old (approximately – I believe some of them she wrote even younger). The melodies are so natural and satisfying and her lyric writing was already so sophisticated. Some of the lines are just breathtaking. And there’s something really cool about the production: they absolutely fit into the Fearless sound but they feel more polished somehow, a little glossier. They actually kind of remind of the Red album’s country sound.

So, my first experience of the re-recordings was a bit rocky but I’m hopeful that, now I have some idea of what to expect, the next one (Red (Taylor’s Version), historically my favourite Taylor Swift album – although she does make having a favourite extremely difficult) won’t feel quite so… chaotic, I guess. Hopefully, my first listen will be a lot smoother.

Favourite Tracks: ‘Hey Stephen (Taylor’s Version),’ ‘White Horse (Taylor’s Version),’ ‘Breathe (Taylor’s Version),’ ‘Tell Me Why (Taylor’s Version),’ ‘You’re Not Sorry (Taylor’s Version),’ ‘Forever & Always (Piano Version) [Taylor’s Version],’ ‘The Other Side Of The Door (Taylor’s Version),’ ‘You All Over Me (Taylor’s Version) [From The Vault],’ ‘Mr. Perfectly Fine (Taylor’s Version) [From The Vault],’ ‘We Were Happy (Taylor’s Version) [From The Vault],’ and ‘Bye Bye Baby (Taylor’s Version) [From The Vault].’

Wilds Things by Ladyhawke (June 2016) – I listened through Ladyhawke’s whole discography during my Masters project but this album was my favourite. I was hooked from ‘A Love Song,’ which is still my favourite song on the album. I also loved the production, although I do think the electronic style didn’t quite work for a few of the songs; sometimes it was just perfection and I utterly adored it but, on certain songs, it felt a bit incongruent. The only song I actively didn’t like was ‘Let It Roll’ but I’m pretty sure that that’s because it was in an advert or something that I heard over and over again until pure overexposure made me dislike it. But other than that, I really enjoyed the album. It’s uplifting and energetic and, if nothing else, I’m grateful to the introduction to ‘A Love Song’ because I absolutely adore that song.

Favourite Tracks: ‘A Love Song,’ ‘The River,’ ‘Wild Things,’ ‘Chills,’ and ‘Wonderland.’

And Now, We’re Shining by Sarah Close (March 2020) – The thing that always pulls me right into Sarah Close songs is the catchiness of the melodies. I swear, she could turn the phone book into an earworm. That, and the detail of some of her lyrics, are my favourite things about her music. She’s so good at balancing a more abstract statement, like “If it was me, I’d be kinder” or “Why is everyone trying so hard to be so cool?” with beautifully detailed lyrics that make you feel like you’re right there in that moment, like, “In your car fighting tears on the roadside, remember drives we used to take to nowhere,” “Now you’re backtracking like I’m keys that you forgot,” or “Thursday morning, I’m sat in the window seat, facing the exit ’cause I’m nervous we’re ’bout to meet.” I also love the pop production. It’s not that different to what I’ve been leaning towards so it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s part of why I like it so much, because it’s the way I hear my music too.

Favourite Tracks: ‘If It Was Me,’ ‘You Say,’ ‘Almost,’ and ‘Stay.’

Sour by Olivia Rodrigo (May 2021) – I’ll admit, I find the extreme hype around Olivia Rodrigo and other young artists releasing their first albums kind of tiring: I don’t particularly like having music essentially forced on me by the music industry and/or pop culture. It’s not really about the artist themselves, it’s about the way the world instantly insists that they’re the best thing since sliced bread. So I didn’t listen to Sour for quite a while. I felt kind of overexposed before I’d even heard it so I waited to listen to it until I could listen with an open mind. There were bits I liked: the relatability of ‘brutal’ (I mean, “Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” is painfully real; had I heard it as a teenager, it probably would’ve hit me like a fucking train); the rawness of ‘traitor,’ evident in the lyrics, vocals, and production; how much she swears; ‘good 4 u’ is an absolute jam (and the “goddamn sociopath” lyric is such a ruthless shot to the jugular, which I just love); some of the details in the lyrics are beautifully real; ‘jealousy, jealousy’ is super powerful and probably even more so for listeners younger than me; and the harmonies are just gorgeous. But there were, of course, some things I didn’t like, mostly stylistic: the production could be awesome but there were several occasions where I thought it sounded kind of muddy, like in ‘brutal’ for example; her songwriting style is consistently super wordy even in the softer songs, which I found a bit exhausting after a while; and she has a tendency to do what a songwriting tutor of mine calls ‘Yoda-lyrics,’ where the writer twists a lyric to make it fit, like “your apathy’s like a wound in salt” from ‘good 4 u’ (the non-Yoda-lyric being “your apathy’s like salt in the wound”). So, yeah, mixed feelings but I like it for the most part.

Favourite Tracks: ‘traitor,’ ‘1 step forward, 3 steps back,’ ‘good 4 u,’ ‘enough for you,’ ‘favorite crime,’ and ‘hope ur ok.’

Evolve by Imagine Dragons (June 2017) – I hadn’t listened to Imagine Dragons for a while; somehow they just fell off my playlist. But then, when I was looking through Agents of Shield fan videos earlier in the year – I was trying to write a song from Daisy Johnson’s point of view and was trying to get a sense of the songs people were associating with her – Imagine Dragons songs kept coming up and I got hooked again. I love the epic sound of the songs and the intensity of Dan Reynolds’ vocals. Between those two things, they give the songs so much conviction and emotion, regardless of the subject matter. I feel like they always deliver with songs that make you feel like a goddamn superhero – something we all need from time to time, I think.

Favourite Tracks: ‘Whatever It Takes,’ ‘Believer,’ ‘Walking the Wire,’ ‘Mouth of the River,’ and ‘Start Over.’

Amidst the Chaos: Live from the Hollywood Bowl by Sara Bareilles (May 2021) – I was so gutted that I never got to see this show live so when this album (and the show in the empty venue) were announced, I was so excited. It was the next best thing and would keep me going until a real show was a possibility again. And it really does feel like listening to a concert; if you close your eyes and turn up the volume, you can almost imagine yourself there.

I feel like opening with a snippet of ‘Orpheus,’ with the section that emphases the lyrics, “We will not give up on love now” and “We did not give up on love today,” is like an opening statement for the show. I really love that: that that was the atmosphere, that that was what she wanted people to be feeling going into and during the show. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but I think that’s a really cool way of starting a concert. ‘Fire’ feels like the actual opening song and it’s so big and bold and full; it’s a good opener. Sara’s vocals sound incredible and the strings are just gorgeous. Her exclamation of “Holy shit, we’re at the Hollywood Bowl!” is just so Sara and made me laugh out loud. ‘Poetry By Dead Men’ has such a beautiful arrangement and melody and Sara just sounds so amazing. Again, I snorted with laughter when, between songs, she announces, “This is what I look like standing up!” She’s just so giddy about performing and about performing at The Hollywood Bowl; it’s really quite adorable.’Eyes On You’ has such a great energy live; all of the songs do. There’s something about live music that is so vibrant and while the instruments all sound great and the sound engineer is clearly doing an excellent job, the energy of performing live just adds such a special magic to a song. I wish I could explain it better than that. I love ‘I Choose You’ and it was so cute that there was a proposal during the song; I can’t believe something like that – people getting engaged at your concerts or using your songs for really big occasions like first dances and so on – ever gets old (I can only hope that I get to experience something like that someday). It was cool to hear her talk about her experience at the Women’s March and the thought process that led to the writing of ‘Armor’; hearing both that introduction and the song itself must’ve been amazing to hear live. And it was lovely to hear her talk about falling in love. When the audience cheered, she was like, “I knowwww!” That was very cute and made me smile. And I loved how much everyone cheered when she talked about Waitress; I love how invested everyone is in it because it means so much to her (I mean, that’s not the only reason – it’s a fantastic musical – but I think it has a special meaning to her fans because it’s special to her, because musical theatre is something she’s wanted to do her whole life). Her performance of ‘She Used To Be Mine’ was incredible and the crowd was absolutely silent, like they were so absorbed that they’d forgotten to breathe. It’s an amazing song and she sings it so beautifully; it gives me shivers. Then the spell is broken and the audience erupts into applause, applause that goes on so long that Sara is clearly very touched by the reaction. I was so happy to see that ‘Uncharted’ had been included in the show since the song means so much to me and I love this performance of it: I love that you can hear her smiling as she sings; I love how everyone sings the first chorus so loudly that Sara doesn’t need to sing; and I love how joyful a performance it is. I wish I could’ve been there; I wish I could’ve seen her face when everyone sang that first chorus. I bet that’s not something that ever gets old either. ‘No Such Thing’ is such a gorgeous song and it transitions so beautifully into ‘Satellite Call.’ It’s a mash-up that never would’ve occurred to me but it really works, thematically, musically, and emotionally. I absolutely love her introduction to ‘Brave,’ especially when she said, “As a songwriter, the greatest thing you could ever hope for is that your song kind of becomes part of… that it belongs to everybody else and that’s how this song feels to me and I couldn’t be more proud.” I think that’s very true. Performing ‘Brave,’ she sounds absolutely amazing; she truly has a one-of-a-kind voice. And that’s again highlighted in her performance of ‘Gravity.’ There’s something about the way she sings that song that shows off how incredible and unique her voice is: when she sings it, her voice just sounds so beautiful and so atmospheric – you can feel every little shift, every little flicker of emotion in her voice – and I really can’t imagine a time when it doesn’t hit hard. And just when I think she can’t sound better, she closes the show with ‘Saint Honesty’ with off-the-charts incredible vocals. She’s an amazing performer and my only sadness is that there isn’t a visual to go alongside it, as there was with Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse.

I really love it as an album: I love that she gave us all a chance to experience the Amidst The Chaos Tour; I love that she included songs from so many different albums and projects; I love that we get to hear her incredible performances; and I love that the song introductions and audience interactions weren’t cut out. She’s so personable and she balances the funny and dorky moments with the more serious and sincere ones so well. Those moments at concerts, when the artist stops to talk to the crowd and you can’t help but feel like they’re talking to you alone… They’re so special and leaving those parts in allows us to have a little bit of that experiences, even if we couldn’t go to a show, whether that was due to COVID or not. It’s a beautiful album and I love listening to her sing, listening to her talk to her audience, listening to her love every second of performing. It’s another project that makes me so proud to be a fan, so proud to look up to her.

I could easily justify including every track in my list of favourites because it’s like listening to a whole concert and the whole thing is just fantastic but I will try to follow my own rules (for once) and pick out just the stand out tracks (based on the performances rather than the songs themselves as this is a live album, although it’s probably unlikely that I can keep my feelings about the songs out of it entirely).

Favourite Tracks: ‘Orpheus / Fire,’ ‘I Choose You,’ ‘Armor,’ ‘She Used To Be Mine,’ ‘Uncharted,’ ‘No Such Thing / Satellite Call,’ ‘Let The Rain,’ ‘King of Anything,’ ‘Brave,’ ‘Orpheus,’ ‘Gravity,’ and ‘Saint Honesty.’

Strange Desire by Bleachers (July 2015) – I’ve heard various tracks from this album over the years but I’ve never sat down and really listened to it. So, before Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night came out, that’s what I did. And I just loved it, almost every single song. I loved the epic-ness of ‘Wild Heart,’ the production (it’s very much the sound I’ve always associated with Bleachers: big, emotive sounds, bright colours, and huge, open spaces), the vocals and the vocal effects, the big yet so eloquently stated message and then all of the little details in the lyrics, like “So put the shotgun back in the glove / Come on and wait another year for the / Dream far away / To come home, to be brave” and “They boarded up the windows / And the doors to my house / No one will ever read the letters / Or the lies that I told / From the years I was changed / By crooked hearts.” I love it and it was stuck in my head on a loop for days afterwards. ‘Rollercoaster’ really showed off how gorgeous Jack Antonoff’s voice is, although I did think the bridge felt very similar to ‘Closer’ by Tegan and Sara. I loved the concept for ‘Shadow’: “The song is about a New Yorker article I read about how everyone has a shadow, or a lesser version of themselves that only they can see,” but ultimately, that there will always be people who will love you, shadow and all. I’ve always loved ‘I Wanna Get Better’: I love how big and epic it sounds, I love the chaotic production that matches the tumbling emotions, and I love all of the imagery and the depth of each line (“And I’ve trained myself to give up on the past ’cause / I froze in time between hearses and caskets,” representing a very bleak time in his life: “There was 9/11, my sister died (of brain cancer in 2002 at age 13) and my cousin died in the Iraq War (in 2003). So a lot happened in a short span of time. It was an end to an age of innocence. I had PTSD and rarely left the house, and I disassociated from everyone for a long time,” for example). And what he’s said about the song only made me love it more, such as, “It had to be perfect because I was condensing all of me into one song,” and “The message is heavy, it’s not dumbed down… I didn’t write this song thinking to myself, ‘Well this is what I wanna say, but this is what people can handle.’ I just wrote the song and recorded the song. And I didn’t say to myself, ‘Well I want to have all this distortion in my vocal, but on mainstream radio that’s not really what people are doing right now.’ I did it anyway and thought, ‘Well, if the radio plays it, then I can be really proud of it, ’cause then I can feel like I’m a part of something that is pushing things into a different place.‘” I love the slightly mellower sound of ‘Wake Me,’ and the simplicity and sincerity of the lyric. I love the lyrics in ‘Reckless Love’ (like “I keep finding my way to the harshest words,” “I would burn my dreams away,” and “If you don’t let go you’re gonna break me”), especially the bridge. As much as I love ‘I Wanna Get Better,’ I think ‘Like a River Runs’ has to be my absolute favourite; I just really, really feel it, both in the song and what Antonoff has said about it. It just resonates so strongly in all the right ways. I love the production, I love the sentiment, I think the chorus is great, and I just love the lyrics: “When I fall asleep I can see your face / What I lost in you I will not replace / And I could run away, I could let them down / But I will remember your light,” “The summer’s gone and I’m alone / And I get the feeling that you’re somewhere close,” “The rhythm of your wild heart / It beats, been beating since you’ve gone,” “And I know you’re gone but still / I will remember your light,” and “And if you see me in the darkness / I hope you know I’m not alone / I carry you with every breath I take.” It’s a stunning song and I absolutely love it. The only song that didn’t really do anything for me was ‘I’m Ready To Move On / Wild Heart Reprise.’ I just found it a bit too weird and I don’t really understand what the purpose of it is. And then I loved the inclusion of the live versions of ‘I Wanna Get Better’ and ‘Rollercoaster’; they were a really cool addition and just make me want to go a Bleachers show so badly. The energy is almost tangible, even as recordings. 

Favourite Tracks: ‘Wild Heart,’ ‘I Wanna Get Better,’ ‘Wake Me,’ ‘Reckless Love,’ ‘Like a River Runs,’ ‘I Wanna Get Better (Live in Boston),’ and ‘Rollercoaster (Live in Boston).’

Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night by Bleachers (July 2021) – I really like this album even though it’s a bit left field of my usual tastes. Arrangement and production wise, I loved the sounds he chose: the horns and saxophones were a gorgeous addition and an interesting choice since they aren’t an obvious choice in anything that even vaguely resembles pop music. There was a real warmth to every track; they had a lovely velvety sound. I was reminded of rich, warm colours like burgundy, purple, navy, and gold. What I do find frustrating is how difficult it is to make sense of what he’s singing, a combination, I think, of his style of singing and the production choices made around his vocals; he’s almost unintelligible at various points. I had to look them up just to understand what he was saying. After that, I had a clearer sense of the songs and they all started to grow on me, not just the ones I’d felt naturally connected to. He has some gorgeous lyrics and explores some really interesting ideas but, just from listening to it, I doubt I would’ve got that and if I hadn’t wanted to like it, I don’t know if I would’ve tried so hard to. So I think it’s a shame that the lyrics aren’t clearer because some of them are really beautiful – like, “So I rip floorboards from our place, black out all our windows and then I kick them from their frames,” “These steps toward faith, I can’t imagine it, pack my suitcase up ’til I can’t bear it, who am I without this weight on my shoulder?” “Just don’t go dark on me,” “Are my hopes finally gonna waste me? Am I the worst compass I could know?” and “I don’t know what to do with this faith” – and I wouldn’t be surprised if people move onto something else that’s easier to absorb.

Favourite Tracks: ’91,’ ‘How Dare You Want More,’ ‘Stop Making This Hurt,’ ‘Don’t Go Dark,’ and ‘What’d I Do With All This Faith?’

I Got Here By Accident by Kalie Shorr (August 2021) – I don’t usually include EPs in this list but I love Kalie’s music so I couldn’t leave it out. I’d heard ‘Amy,’ ‘I Heard You Got A Girl,’ and ‘Love Child’ before the EP came out but hearing them with full production and in the context of the other songs was a completely new and gorgeous experience; they all fit together so well. As expected, the songs are full of fantastic lyrics: “Do you want the other half of my sandwich, ’cause I know how much you love my leftovers, you love my leftovers,” “I heard you got a girl, she’s everything you need, sort of funny how, she kinda looks like me,” “I’m afraid that you’ll leave, I’m scared that you’ll stay, and I don’t know which one would be worse,” “Where I heard Rhiannon for the first time, my sister singing along for the last, now she lives in the sky with the radio waves, comes down when I play Fleetwood Mac… 1975 on speed dial, and Rumours in my blood,” “Tell me who to hate, yeah, you don’t have to worry, I don’t have to meet ’em, I believe your story,” and so many more. Her songs are so characteristically her: the stories she tells, the details in the lyrics, the plot twists, THE MULTIPLE PLOT TWISTS, the melodies… I could keep going; she just has such a distinctive voice as a songwriter. Also, as I said on Twitter when the EP came out, I have huge respect for Butch Walker and his production on the project. It’s so cohesive. The guitars in particular are just utterly gorgeous. They just make my autistic brain so happy, so calm in the chaos of everything around me: they have the same frequencies as magic and joy, orange skies and tears of relief. It’s a strange thing to try and explain.

Favourite Tracks: I don’t think I actually have any specific favourites (although ‘Alibi’ is an absolute jam); I just really love the project as a whole. It’s so cohesive, lyrically and musically, and although I have my favourite lyrics, I don’t feel able to pick any song above another because they’re all really good and all consistently really good. And they’re just so Kalie, something that the ‘Love Child’ visualiser shows in such a beautiful way…

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power by Halsey (August 2021) – (This one is going to be long because I have a lot of thoughts so please bear with me.) As one YouTube comment reads: “It’s the kind of album a queen sings while she declares war.” It’s a very apt description. It’s so cohesive (yes, it’s a concept album but not all concept albums feel cohesive) and so lyrically complex, deep and thoughtful and powerful. I have to admit that, despite the album being out for several months now, I still don’t feel like I fully understand it; I still feel like I have so many layers to peel back.

During her interview with Zane Lowe, she says that feels like she’s finally perfected the concept album – she considers all of her albums to be concept albums – even if it’s to a lesser degree like Manic, which she describes more as having a motif but still fundamentally being a concept album. Lowe comments that all of their albums sound like they’re a complete thought, rather than a selection of random songs thrown together, something Halsey said they would never do: their albums will always have some sort of central theme or throughline to them (I thoroughly appreciate this since I’m the same when creating music projects). The concept for this album was described as “the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth” and “the dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore,” the societal idea that you can be sexually desirable but not a mother or maternal but not sexually desirable – an idea that Halsey addressed when announcing the album, “…me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully…“; it’s not a pregnancy album but an album she wrote while pregnant about her experience of pregnancy and the related issues of womanhood, motherhood, and so on. It could have easily been a girl power/female empowerment album but Halsey is crystal clear in their Zane Lowe interview that it isn’t, pointing out that the only times they talk about femininity, it’s in a negative context: describing the girl as a weapon in ‘Girl Is a Gun’; telling herself to “be a big girl” in ‘You asked for this,’ something that is often said condescendingly, to invalidate a female opinion; ‘honey’ describes a turbulent relationship, detailing the positive and negative qualities of both parties; ‘Whispers’ sees her cruelly list the reasons why she wants to be loved but never will be; in ‘The Lighthouse’ she plays the part of a siren, luring men to their deaths and revelling in the power she has over them, and so on. It’s only a ‘girl power album’ in that she, Halsey, made it but it’s ultimately too nuanced a concept – with lyrics delving into themes including feminism, bodily autonomy, the patriarchy, institutional misogyny, as well as Halsey’s more personal experiences – to be portrayed in a way that could be described as neatly as ‘girl power.’ There is so much to this concept that I feel like, while I like and appreciate the songs as songs, I’m still making sense of them in their wider context. This is something I love about Halsey – how thoughtful and thought-provoking their writing is, whether that’s through lyrics or poetry – but it’s something that I do, at times, find challenging: as an autistic person, I do have a tendency to take things literally and so sometimes I feel kind of stupid for not understanding themes or ideas that other listeners immediately pick up on. That’s something that I really liked about Manic, I think: the songs were still held together by a central idea but it was a bit more… straightforward, if that makes sense. The idea of ‘finding Ashley again after being Halsey for so long’ felt easier to understand and, in some ways, feel a part of. I’ve found that the more complex the concept or narrative that Halsey works with (hopeless fountain kingdom and If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power being the biggest examples of this), the more separate I feel from their music and from the fandom, kind of like, ‘well, if you don’t understand it, you don’t deserve to be here.’ It’s confusing and more than a bit draining sometimes.

Having said that, I do really like the songs, even if I’m still figuring out all of the layers and connections. The lyrics and melodies are as impactful as ever. Listing all of my favourites would take far too long but there are a good handful that just take my breath away every time I hear them: I think ‘Bells of Santa Fe’ is beautifully written, from “Don’t call me by my name / All of this is temporary” to “Jesus needed a three day weekend / To sort out all his bullshit, figure out the treason” to “Don’t wait for me, don’t wait for me, wait / It’s not a happy ending”; I love the verses of ‘Easier Than Lying,’ especially the first with the lyric, “I’m only whatever you make me / And you make me more and more a villain every day” and how that idea is developed through that section; ‘Lilith’ is super interesting and I love the power behind the lyric, “And by now, I don’t need a fuckin’ introduction,” something I also love about the lyric, “I come loaded with the safety switched off” in ‘Girl Is a Gun’; I love pretty much everything about ‘Darling’ but the bridge absolutely gets me every time, especially the lyrics, “I’ll kidnap all the stars and I will keep them in your eyes / I’ll wrap them up in velvet twine / And hang ’em from a fishin’ line / So I can see them anytime I like,” which I think is such an excellent example of what a fantastic songwriter Halsey is; I feel similarly about ‘1121’ in that I just love every lyric and how emotionally raw it makes me feel; ‘honey’ took a while to grow on me but the melody is just incredible and I will probably have it stuck in my head somewhere forever, or at least until she writes something even catchier; the chorus of ‘I am not a woman, I’m a god’ – “I am not a woman, I’m a god / I am not a martyr, I’m a problem / I am not a legend, I’m a fraud / Keep your heart ’cause I already got one” – is so explicit and unapologetic that I can’t help but feel drawn in by it and the verse lyrics only add to that feeling; I absolutely love ‘The Lighthouse,’ the character that Halsey embodies, and the way they weaves the lyrics to create such visceral emotion in a song (to the point where I could probably write a whole blog post on it but I won’t); and ‘Ya’aburnee’ feels like the perfect closer, in its structure, its stripped back production, and the profoundly beautiful lyrics, like “I think we could live forever / In each other’s faces,” “And if we don’t live forever / Maybe one day, we’ll trade places / Darling, you will bury me / Before I bury you,” “So take my pockets, take me whole / Take my life and take my soul / Wrap me in a wedding ring / You know I swear I’d give you anything,” and so on (in her Zane Lowe interview, she talks about how this song contains some of her favourite lyrics and how it’s both a love song to their partner and their child, something Lowe had pointed out previously: the impressive and intriguing way Halsey can write a lyric that could be addressed to themself, their partner, their child, or their listener and that that distinction is left open to interpretation). 

Having said all of this, I do think their lyrical style has shifted slightly since Manic, most notably in the way that they seem to be favouring metaphors over detail. There are very few lyrics like the vivid “Your eyes, so crisp, so green / Sour apple baby, but you taste so sweet / You got hips like Jagger and two left feet / And I wonder if you’d like to meet” and “I grab your hand and then we run to the car / Singing in the street and playing air guitar” in ‘Finally // beautiful stranger’ or the anxious chorus of ‘3am’ or the heart-achingly raw “And I remember this girl with pink hair in Detroit / Well, she told me / She said, ‘Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die / ‘Cause we need you,’ and honestly, I think that she lied / And I remember the names of every single kid I’ve met / But I forget half the people who I’ve gotten in bed / And I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee / And hoped that my father would finally call me / And it’s just these things that I’m thinkin’ for hours / And I’m pickin’ my hair out in clumps in the shower / Lost the love of my life to an ivory powder / But then I realize that I’m no higher power / That I wasn’t in love then, and I’m still not now / And I’m so happy I figured that out / I’ve got a long way to go until self-preservation / Think my moral compass is on a vacation / And I can’t believe I still feed my fucking temptation / I’m still looking for my salvation.” This isn’t a criticism per se because every artist grows and develops and each project requires a slightly different approach but there was something so raw and real about the writing on Manic that I do miss on this album (although, of course, it also has things that I love that weren’t present on Manic). And while I think I preferred the production style on Manic (just a stylistic preference), I think the production of this album is fantastic. ‘The Tradition’ and ‘Bells of Santa Fe’ are cinematic and ominous; there’s a heaviness and dread to ‘You Asked for This’; ‘Girl Is a Gun’ and ‘honey’ are wild and energetic; ‘1121’ feels very vulnerable; there’s a confidence and swagger to ‘The Lighthouse’; and ‘Darling’ and ‘Ya’aburnee’ are gentle and intimate. All these songs sound very different but they somehow manage to exist in the same sonically cohesive bubble.

She says something really interesting during the Zane Lowe interview that I’m still thinking about all of this time later. Lowe commented on how their four albums feel reflective of their growth: out of the  deeply conceptual albums of Badlands and hopeless fountain kingdom came Manic, where they seemed to find a real sense of their identity, and now we have If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, which he said felt like the final step before being able to share your truth and your story and your life with another person, a sentiment that Halsey agreed with. Halsey herself goes on to say that, while it isn’t true and is antithetical to the album (but as a real thought it deserves it’s own space), they felt like they had to say everything that they wouldn’t be able to say once they became someone’s mother; they had to get rid of all of the stories of guilt and insecurity and self sabotage and so on before starting over in this new chapter of their life. They say that they had a moment of panic at about six weeks pregnant about whether they had to be or were going to be boring now, given that so many things that they self identified with aren’t traditionally compatible with being a mother. They talk about a realisation about themselves and their future growth: “Oh, I’m holding on to my trauma because it’s part of how I define myself and I’m never really gonna grow unless I really let go of that trauma.” Lowe suggests that the album is a purging of sorts and Halsey agrees. That whole discussion – about identity and growth and purging oneself of certain parts of the past and certain things that inform who we are – has been really thought-provoking.

And finally, I also really liked the discussion of the title, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,’ given how interesting it is and how it isn’t directly referenced within the album itself. Lowe and Halsey talk about how it isn’t a ‘likeable’ title – this idea that if she can’t have a relationship, she’ll work and she’ll be ruthless and hardened and so on – but that it’s more of a starting point, something steadfast that she ends up developing away from because suddenly there’s this baby to consider; ultimately, she chooses love. She says that, “The irony is that the most power I’ve ever had is in the agency I have in that I chose love. That’s what’s given me the most power.” And that statement kind of takes my breath away because we know from what they’ve shared about their life that they’ve been through a lot and it hasn’t been easy; it would be much easier to abandon the idea of love out of a warped sense of self preservation but here they are, working through their shit and choosing love anyway despite the difficult things that they have experienced. They’ve found the comfort and power of taking their life back, making it their own, and putting themselves first, and that feels like an incredible process of growth that we’ve been given the honour of witnessing.

So, to end this incredibly long section on just one album, I feel like I didn’t fall in love with If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power in the same way that I did with Manic (which is totally fine – different albums resonate differently with each of us) but there’s a lot I love about it. It’s grown on me steadily and I think it will continue as I unravel more of the stories and ideas that makes this album so complex and thought-provoking. There’s a lot to admire about it and about Halsey and as much as I love listening to the work they’ve already put out, I also can’t help but look forward to whatever they choose to explore next because I know it will be completely unexpected and completely incredible.

Favourite Tracks: ‘Bells in Sante Fe,’ ‘Girl is a Gun,’ ‘Darling,’ ‘1121,’ ‘Whispers,’ ‘I am not a woman, I’m a god,’ ‘The Lighthouse,’ and ‘Ya’aburnee.’

Human by OneRepublic (August 2021) – While there were songs I liked on Oh My My, I much preferred the more classic soundscape of Native and their previous albums so when Ryan Tedder said that this would be their “most OneRepublic album” up to now, I was really excited and I can absolutely hear that; sonically, it’s definitely reminiscent of Native and Waking Up in particular, although it does incorporate some more electronic sounds (it reminded me of 1989 by Taylor Swift in that sense). The songs (‘Distance’ and ‘Savior,’ for example) are big and epic, which really reminded me of Native; that was something I always really loved about that album. And I think the newer electronic sounds were worked into the arrangements well. The melodies are just ridiculously catchy – if Tedder should be known for anything, it should be his ability to craft a melody so catchy that you’ll most likely remember it for the rest of your life – and Tedder’s vocals are as flawless and emotive as ever. But having said all of that, I was a little disappointed in the lyrics. There were some great lines but I felt like the majority of the album was made up of broader, more general statements. For example, “I’ll keep a message of you if you call, of you if you call / And choke on the memories” in ‘Choke’ from Oh My My or “Heart still beating but it’s not working / It’s like a hundred thousand voices that just can’t sing” in ‘Feel Again’ and “I’ll light your fire till my last day / I’ll let your fields burn around me, around me” in ‘What You Wanted’ from Native all feel deeply emotional with very distinct imagery whereas I didn’t get that same feeling with this album. I really enjoy listening to it but I don’t get that emotional lift that I get from some of their other albums, Native in particular.

Favourite Tracks: ‘Distance,’ ‘Rescue Me,’ ‘Savior,’ ‘Wanted,’ ‘Better Days,’ and ‘Ships + Tides.’

star-crossed by Kacey Musgraves (September 2021) – While I loved a lot of Golden Hour, I can’t help but feel like Kacey Musgraves has been slowly losing the thing that made her so unique back in the days of ‘Merry Go Round’ and Same Trailer Different Park. That feels like a very negative note to start on, which I don’t like doing, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking for a while and it’s something that makes me really sad. I’ve loved songs from all of her albums: nine on Same Trailer Different Park (I loved ‘Silver Lining,’ ‘Keep It to Yourself,’ ‘Stupid,’ and ‘Follow Your Arrow’ especially), five on Pageant Material (I think ‘Family Is Family’ and ‘Cup of Tea’ were my favourites), and seven on Golden Hour (I loved ‘Oh, What a World,’ ‘Love Is a Wild Thing,’ ‘Space Cowboy’ – although the grammatical error in the title still really annoys me… – and ‘Rainbow’). When I liked Golden Hour so much more than I’d liked Pageant Material, I’d hoped that it was just the difficulty of writing a second album after writing such a great (and wildly successful) first one so I was looking forward to this one: Golden Hour was a great third album, she’d had a lot of time to write new material (apparently she’d written forty songs to choose from), and she’d lived a lot of life so I felt like the chances of a strong album were good. But personally, I do feel kind of underwhelmed.

She’s described it as more country than Golden Hour multiple times but I don’t hear that at all – it’ just too shimmery, if that makes any sense at all. To me, it sounds much more like a glossy pop album that occasionally dips it’s toe into country; how it was actually possible to classify it as a country album, I don’t know. I’ve also seen her talk about Greek tragedies and a three act structure to the album, neither of which I would’ve naturally heard in the album: the three act description only made sense once I heard her break down the tracklist. I’m not trying to undermine what she’s saying or how she perceives the album but it just kind of reminds me of when the concept in a concept album isn’t clear enough so that, even if the songs are really good, that overall connecting theme gets lost.

When it comes to the songs, I have pretty mixed feelings. I liked how ‘star-crossed’ very effectively sets the scene for the rest of the album but then ‘good wife’ feels like an odd blend of Christian-pop and RnB. I really liked the imagery in ‘cherry blossom’ but the lyrics still felt a little simplistic compared to her usual writing; the lyrics to ‘simple times’ just felt like a stereotype of the 90s and they kind of made me cringe; and I liked ‘justified,’ mostly because it felt like there was more emotional depth and the lyrics felt stronger. I was kind of put off by the production of ‘breadwinner’ and then the chorus just made me cringe, particularly the lyric, “He wants your dinner.” I don’t know; it just makes me feel weird and uncomfortable. I really liked ‘camera roll,’ even though I don’t generally like songs with such technologically up to date language; I find it tends to date a song. But there were some lovely lyrics in this one, like “Chronological order and nothing but torture / Scroll too far back, that’s what you get / I don’t wanna see ’em, but I can’t delete ’em / It just doesn’t feel right yet, not yet” and “All the best, that’s all that’s left / Cruel evidence,” and it just felt much more Kacey than so many of the other songs. I really liked the chorus of ‘what doesn’t kill me.’ But then I really didn’t get on with ‘there is a light.’ I couldn’t work out what the arrangement was trying to do, the metaphor wasn’t one of her best, and the lyrics just got too repetitive. And while I like what Kacey has said about ‘gracias a la vida,’ I’m not convinced that including it on the album was a good decision. Given that it’s all in Spanish, the production is constantly changing, and that it’s unclear why it belongs on the album without her explanation, I don’t think it’s a strong closing track.

So, while I like the songs I like, I just feel a bit disappointed because we know what a great writer she is. Back in her Same Trailer Different Park days, I considered her one of my favourite artists but I just don’t enjoy her music the way I did back then. I’m not jumping ship as a fan but this album just hasn’t got me in the way some of her previous have. Mainly I’m just a bit sad because I was looking forward to it and looking forward to seeing her tour again but I’m not sure if there are enough songs that I like and if I like them enough to justify the cost of a ticket.

Favourite Tracks: ‘star-crossed,’ ‘cherry blossom,’ ‘justified,’ ‘camera roll,’ ‘hookup scene,’ ‘keep lookin’ up,’ and ‘what doesn’t kill me.’

Pins And Needles by Natalie Hemby (October 2021) – Since this album has barely been out a week, these are very much my first impressions of it; I haven’t had time to have a really thorough listen and really explore it yet. But I couldn’t not mention it on National Album Day when it’s an album I’ve been looking forward to for so long. There’s a lot I like about it. ‘Heroes’ has a great power chorus. ‘New Madrid’ has a catchy, emotive melody  and I love the imagery in the lyrics: “And a heart that hasn’t moved in years,” “Remember when we made the Mississippi River run backwards,” “Shifting pieces, pretending we can’t feel the rift between us,” “And the ground we tread will bury us someday,” and so on. They’re just stunning. The only thing that bothers me is the way the emphasis is on the wrong syllable of ‘Madrid’ (on ‘Ma,’ instead of ‘drid’). I love the imagery and the metaphors in ‘Pins and Needles’ and the internal rhyming in the chorus is so satisfying: “You got my number, my thunder / And it’s your thumb that I’m under.” Ugh, so good! Again, I love the imagery in ‘Lake Air’ – “We were silhouettes / Ghosts in the rain / And we almost froze / When we left our clothes / By the water bank,” “I breathe you in / And kept you there,” and “There’s a certain sound / When the world disappears / And your heart is beating / So hard it’s all you can hear,” for example – it’s all so vivid, like you can see it playing out in front of you. I like the twist in the final chorus of ‘Banshee.’ I LOVE ‘Radio Silence.’ It’s easily my favourite song on the album and possibly my favourite Natalie Hemby song. It’s so sad but so, so beautiful and there’s such wistful longing there; I find it so deeply relatable. The main electric guitar sounds so sad, so lonely; it was the perfect choice of instrumentation for the song. The chorus is one of the most emotive choruses I’ve heard in a long time: “I tried to reach you through the growing static / I tried to replicate the fading magic / Did everything to keep the signal from dying / All I got was radio silence.” It captures the feeling of a friendship or relationship slipping away so perfectly and I just love the metaphor of reaching out only to get radio silence in return; it’s as lonely an image as the feeling of someone you care about fading from your life. The lyrics are gorgeous – “I wasn’t ready for / The way you shut the door / And left me standing in the frame” is one of my favourites – and the lift into the chorus hits in just the right way that it takes my breath away every time. The final chorus, doubled with different lyrics – “I tried to reach you through the growing static / I tried to replicate the fading magic / Did everything to keep the signal from dying / All I got was radio silence / I tried to tell you that it’s gonna get better / I tried to put the pieces back together / Did everything to keep the signal from dying / All I got was radio silence” – adds a new layer of emotional intensity and ends the song beautifully. And her vocals are just perfect. It’s a stunning song. I love the imagery in the lyrics of ‘Pinwheel’: “Pinwheel, my head’s spinning / Tilting all the world in a colourful collision / Pinwheel, visions always blurry / Everything’s a wash, like pictures in a hurry,” “Carried all my dreams by the handle / Heavy as an anvil,” and “Maybe I’m a ten cent amusement / And maybe I’m a weapon and you don’t wanna use it,” and so on. And although I can’t quite explain how, the production sounds like a funfair: all the bright colours; the loud, strange noises; and overly sweet or salty smells and tastes. I can’t explain it; that’s just the sensory experience that comes to mind when I listen to it. And I really like ‘Last Resort,’ for the most part. I loved the guitar; it was such a gentle, soothing sound. And again, I loved the imagery in the lyrics (she’s an incredible lyricist): “When you’re wandering / Lost in your own land / I’ll clear a long road / That you can follow / Lead you to right where I am,” “Caught in the storm / When the shelters you build / Fall without warning,” and “In desperation / Please remember me / When hell burns brighter / I’ll put out the fire / That burns in the bad memories” are my favourites. And the instrumentation is gorgeous too. I particularly love the electric guitar between the second chorus and the bridge; it’s just such a beautiful sound and it’s so emotive. My only issue with it is that, as far as I can tell, this is a song about how you’ll always be there for someone, steadfast when all else fails. But the chorus line of “I’ll be your last resort” sounds more like the narrator is saying that they’re happy to be the other person’s last choice and that doesn’t really jive with the rest of the song as far as I can tell. I feel like it should either be saying something like, ‘I’ll always be here, you never need to ask’ (or ‘I’ll always pick up when you call,’ if you want something that fits with the rhyme scheme) or the song needs to explore why the narrator is okay with being this other person’s last choice, why they’re still always there if that’s the case. Other than that, it’s a beautiful closer.

Favourite Tracks: ‘New Madrid,’ ‘Pins and Needles,’ ‘Radio Silence,’ ‘Pinwheel,’ and ‘Last Resort.’


I like to listen to albums as full albums – from start to finish and in one go, if possible – but I don’t always have the time to do that when life gets busy. So I do have a bit of a backlog on my list of albums to listen to, plus the upcoming albums that I’m looking forward to hearing. Some of these are:

  • It’s Hard To Be Human by Kina Grannis
  • At War With The Silver Fish by Laura Jane Grace
  • Petals For Armor by Hayley Williams
  • Mercury – Act 1 by Imagine Dragons
  • Hurts 2B Human by P!nk
  • Thrive by Cassadee Pope
  • Red (Taylor’s Version) by Taylor Swift
  • 30 by Adele
  • The Shires’ upcoming fifth album
  • Maren Morris’ upcoming third album

But I like having a new album to look forward to and fortunately, there are always more.

International Women’s Day 2021

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, I thought I’d share fifteen awesome fictional women that have inspired me or empowered me or made me feel seen in a world where I often feel invisible. Originally I thought I’d do a list of awesome women from real life but with everything I’ve got on my plate right now, I didn’t feel that I could do a good enough job in time. And given that these would be real people who just might see what I’d written (unlikely, yes, but still possible), I’d hate to do a rush job; I’d want to be able to dedicate some serious time to it to make sure I did these women justice.

This post will involve spoilers for the characters and the books or TV shows they’re a part of so if you don’t want to have a story spoiled, please skip the character and move on to the next character!


1. Sephy Hadley (Nought & Crosses, Knife Edge, and Checkmate by Malorie Blackman) – The story of the Noughts & Crosses trilogy (now a series) takes place in a world where the dark skinned Crosses are revered and the light skinned Noughts are reviled. Sephy is the younger daughter in a prominent, privileged Cross family and, naïve to the racism she’s been largely sheltered from, she’s confused and frustrated when her childhood friend, Callum – a Nought whose family lives on the poverty line – starts pulling away and taking his frustration with the way he and all Noughts are treated out on her. As much as she loves him, their conflict and her difficult home life result in her escape to a boarding school, where she becomes involved in politics and the fight for equality, becoming a Noughts Right activist. But all of her plans are destroyed when she is kidnapped by the Liberation Militia, a terrorist organisation that Callum joined after she left for boarding school. Despite (and sometimes due to) her privilege, she suffers deeply, both due to her own destructive decisions and the destructive decisions of others. She struggles with her mental health, with the guilt over certain choices she makes and the resulting consequences, and how to prevent past mistakes from irreparably damaging the future. Forced to grow up fast and face some major challenges, she does deal with a lot of insecurity but it all comes from a place of such deep, unconditional love: for Callum and for their daughter, Callie Rose. Pretty much everything she does is due to her desire to protect Callie Rose but past trauma causes her to make mistakes, often making their relationship a contentious one. It’s been a long time since I read the books but I always felt for Sephy, admired just how vast her love for Callum and Callie Rose was even when she wasn’t good at showing it and I empathised with how she was constantly trying only to make things worse. The conversation where she finally manages to make things right feels just as special and cathartic as if you, the reader, are experiencing that redemption yourself.

2. Ros Myers (Spooks) – Ros was one of the first TV characters that I fell in love with and whose storyline I found myself seriously invested in. After playing a vital role in foiling a coup against the Prime Minister led by her boss and funded by her father, a prominent figure in the government, she transfers from MI6 to Section D of MI5 (the unit the show follows). Given that she makes no effort to connect with the rest of the team (earning her the reputation of ‘the ice queen’), it takes a while for her to find her place there but eventually her impressive skills and unwavering loyalty (especially to Harry, the head of the unit) win her the trust of the team and eventually the position of Section Chief. She’s not a straightforward character and that was something I always found fascinating about her. Her willingness to sacrifice anything and everything to protect her country is beyond admirable but it did, on several occasions, conflict with her other most dominant trait: her loyalty. At one point, she betrays the team because she thinks she sees a better solution to the problem they’re facing and at another, she is forced to sacrifice the life of a teammate to protect a room full of people the world probably couldn’t function without, even though many of them are pretty awful human beings. Plus she frequently puts herself in serious danger without a hint of fear or doubt. Her dedication, her loyalty, and her strength… they’re all traits I hold in the highest regard. She also has this unshakable sense of purpose, this absolute certainty in what she does; that’s definitely something I’d like to find (or build, if that’s the way it works) at some point in my life.

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3. Emily Prentiss (Criminal Minds) – Criminal Minds follows the BAU, the Behavioural Analysis Unit, a team that use psychological profiling to track down and catch criminals, most commonly serial killers. Despite arriving under somewhat of a cloud, Emily becomes an integral, irreplaceable part of the team (one of the things that’s really nice about the show is that each of the team have slightly different relationships with one another and Emily is no different in that regard; each of her relationships with the team is unique and I could delve into the details of each one and why they are the way they are because I find that really interesting but I won’t – otherwise we’ll be here forever). She’s tough and stubborn and positively allergic to bullshit, willing and definitely able to defy those in power or positions of authority when necessary; she’s a force to be reckoned with. Bonus points for being hilariously sarcastic. She’s incredibly intelligent and a brilliant profiler, but she also cares as deeply as she thinks. She’s compassionate, both with her team members and the victims they work with, and she clearly feels things very intensely, from long ago traumas to the haunting outcomes of many of their cases; while she prides herself on her professionalism and her ability to compartmentalise, she isn’t afraid to be vulnerable with the people she trusts. Despite some fairly wonky writing at times, she’s an interesting and multifaceted character, one that we see grow a hell of a lot over her time on the show: we see her go from an awkward and insecure new agent to a highly respected agent and eventually to Unit Chief, something that, for me at least, felt particularly satisfying given her loyalty to the team and her commitment to what they do. And as much as I love her for all of these things, I think what I love and admire most about her is her absolute, unwavering loyalty to her team. For example, one of my favourite storylines involves an enemy from her past reappearing and threatening the team to punish her for her part in what happened to him. Instead of telling the team and putting them in even more danger, she goes rogue and attempts to take him down herself with dire consequences.

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4. Helen Magnus (Sanctuary) – I’m honestly not quite sure how to sum up Helen Magnus (played by Amanda Tapping) in one paragraph. At the beginning of the show, we know that she was born in England during the Victorian Era and is 157 years old due to a dangerous biological experiment she and her Oxford colleagues conducted on themselves (while they were in their thirties). As well as being an M.D., she has doctorates in Teratology, Cryptozoology, Xenobiology, and Biology, and is the Head of the Global Sanctuary Network, a series of facilities that tracks down, protects, and learns from the unknown and extraordinary creatures and people that inhabit the world, described in the show as Abnormals. She heads the Sanctuary in Old City which, in addition to its scientific functions, both serves as a permanent and temporary residence for many Abnormals. Despite being born in an era where women were at a distinct disadvantage, Magnus was always strong-willed and forthright. She’s beautiful, enigmatic, and incredibly intelligent (an expert on multiple subjects, fluent in several languages, and the foremost authority on Abnormals, just for starters); she’s also an excellent diplomat and commands the attention of every room she walks into. She is or was personally acquainted with multiple famous historic figures, including multiple world leaders, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, and Dr Martin Luther Kind Jr. Louis Pasteur was a close friend of her father and was her godfather. She’s at ease and confident in high pressure social situations, comfortable taking charge with a no-nonsense approach that most likely stems from her Victorian upbringing. She’s also well trained when out in the field, extremely competent at multiple forms of hand to hand combat, comfortable with a wide variety of weaponry, a skilled pilot, and technologically savvy. While she stays true (and proudly so) to her traditional English heritage (a dedicated tea drinker with great distain for coffee, her preference for staying busy, and so on), she is driven by her desire to learn, about anything and everything, in order to help and protect Abnormals. Her longevity has been a real asset in that regard, not that she ever takes a break; she frequently works through the night, entirely dedicated to the task at hand. But despite the advantages of her longevity, she has long considered it a curse as it ultimately means she will outlive everyone she knows, everyone she loves. This has caused her immeasurable pain and explains her guardedness (although that likely originated from her Victorian upbringing). But she never gives up; she never stops fighting or looking for a solution. She was one of the first television characters that I saw as a role model: I deeply admire her, her passion for knowledge, her drive to help people… She makes me want to be the best possible version of myself and to help and give the most I can. (I have actually met Amanda Tapping briefly and I did try to thank her the impact Magnus has had on my life but I was so overwhelmed that I don’t think I did a very good job; all being well, I do have another opportunity coming up, pandemic permitting, so hopefully I’ll be able to make actual, eloquent sentences this time.)

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5. Alexandra Udinov (Nikita) – As hard as it was to choose between Alex and Nikita herself (if I included every awesome female character I love, this list would’ve had us all running for the hills due to it’s length so, at the very least, I tried to stick to one character per show/book/etc), Alex just won. I love them both but I think I connected to Alex in a way that I never quite did with Nikita, even when I didn’t agree with her actions. Anyway, context… After the murder of her prominent Russian family when she’s only thirteen, Alex ends up a victim of human trafficking and a drug addict in the US where Nikita tracks her down and gets her clean. In an attempt to give Alex a reason to live, Nikita reveals that the rogue Black Ops division that trained her were behind Alex’s parents’ death and together they attempt to bring the unit down. But it’s obviously far more complicated than that. Alex is a really interesting character because she’s gone through so much and yet she’s still so young; she’s always been defined by others and never been able to figure out who she is on her own terms. Hiding all of her vulnerability behind a tough exterior as both a coping mechanism and a form of protection, she comes to define herself by her pain (of which there is a significant amount) but the more she learns about her parents and her childhood as well as the best and worst of the people around her, the more she starts to realise that that isn’t a sustainable way to live and how it’s preventing her from moving forward in her life. And so she has to learn how to fight through and process her trauma, learn to let go of the parts that are damaging and how to use her experience to find her place in the world.

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6. Samantha Carter (Stargate SG-1) – A member of SG-1, the front line team for the US Air Force classified organisation Stargate Command, Samantha Carter (also played by Amanda Tapping; this was pre Sanctuary and Helen Magnus) is the resident genius, an astrophysicist and Air Force Officer who progresses from Captain to Colonel during the timeline of the franchise. Stargate Command has multiple SG teams travelling to other planets using a device known as a Stargate, which creates a wormhole that connects to the Stargates on other planets, to form alliances and attain whatever technology they can to defend themselves against the dominant, malicious species in the galaxy, determined to control as many planets as possible. Carter is usually the one to save them – the team, the SGC, the planet – whenever they get into trouble, something that happens to them relatively often as the flagship team. She’s often forced to choose between the two sides of herself: she’s incredibly intelligent, curious and keen to explore and learn, but she’s also an impressive soldier and pilot, more than competent with weapons and in hand to hand combat. This combination quickly earns her great respect among those involved in the Stargate project, although it does cause conflict on occasion. She’s also intensely compassionate – her first instinct to be kind and to help. She very close to her three teammates and would do anything for them. One of the ongoing storylines revolves around her relationship with her commanding officer, Col. Jack O’Neill: they slowly develop feelings for each other but when they’re eventually confronted about them, they agree to ignore them to keep the team together (the Air Force would never allow them to have a relationship and remain on the same team) and continue doing the jobs they do so well. However, that’s easier said than done, especially when they repeatedly meet parallel universe versions of themselves who are together, who didn’t have the Air Force regulations standing in their way. Sam Carter has always meant a lot to me, with her core drives to learn and to help being the same as mine. She’s also always inspired me, inspired me to be the absolute best that I can be (she actually inspired me to study Physics when, until then, it had just been a hobby) and to remember that there’s a solution to every problem, even if it’s not always easy to find.

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7. Ellie Linton (Tomorrow Series by John Marsden) – The series begins when a group of teenagers go on a camping trip in the Australian bush and come home to find that their country has been invaded. Everyone they know and love has been captured and the only safe place for them is their camping hideaway, locally known as ‘Hell.’ It has the potential to be a bit of a cliché – kids forced to be heroes – but with such a focus on how emotionally complicated and morally complex the situation is, it never feels predictable or stale. The story is narrated by Ellie as she writes down everything that happens to them, an idea they quickly adopt so that, maybe, what they go through and sacrifice won’t be forgotten or lost in the chaos of it all. She documents everything from her emotional turmoil, and the conflicts within the group to their attacks on the enemy, the losses of people they love, and the devastation over what’s happening. She feels everything incredibly deeply and although there are, of course, periods of time where she has to shove her emotions aside, she is profoundly affected by what she is forced to do and what happens to her throughout the war. It’s never explicitly stated but it’s clear that she’s dealing with a serious amount of trauma. Fortunately for her, she’s strong willed and determined despite the often overwhelming fear and uncertainty; she never, ever gives up, even when it seems that there is nothing left to do. Regardless of the almost inconceivable odds against them, she still believes (or forces herself to believe) that she and her friends can make a difference and that’s more than a little inspiring to me.

8. Olivia Dunham (Fringe) – FBI Agent Olivia Dunham begins working in a new, highly classified unit after a series of strange, science or technology based events start happening, many of them fatal for the people involved. She works with Agent Astrid Farnsworth, Dr Walter Bishop (a genius but mentally unstable scientist specialising in fringe science who, until ‘the pattern’ started, had been institutionalised for nearly two decades), and Peter Bishop, Walter’s estranged son, who is brought in as a civilian consultant by Olivia to essentially look after his father, although he proves his intelligence and wide range of skills, making him just as valuable to the team as his father. Olivia is driven by a strong sense of justice, working relentlessly to solve every case and while she keeps her own emotions tightly under wraps, she is compassionate with victims and loving with her sister and young niece. Throughout the seasons, we learn about her traumatic childhood and how that has informed who she is and through alternate timelines and parallel universes, we see how things might’ve been different. This also gives Olivia a chance to re-evaluate her life and what she really wants. This show is so complicated that it would take thousands of words to properly explore her character but I loved Olivia from the start because of her strong sense of right and wrong and because of how unbelievably hard she worked because getting justice for the victims of the fringe events mattered, even if no one would ever know the truth due to the classified nature of the work. It was never about credit; it was always about the people and how every single one mattered, regardless of who they were or how important society believed them to be. They were all important to her. But beyond that, I loved watching her evolve over the course of the show. Fundamentally, she was the same person with the same core values but slowly, she became more open, more trusting, more loving. Having been pretty much alone and self reliant up to becoming part of the Fringe team, it was actually quite emotional to see her lower her guard and let people be a real part of her life, even if there were some (serious) bumps in the road. At the beginning of the show, she didn’t really have anyone and by the end, she had so much more than I think she ever thought possible. There was something really beautiful about that, about how much life can change and change you, often for the better.

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9. Olivia Benson (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) – After twenty two seasons of Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay), it’s hard to know how to sum her up. From a Detective in the Manhattan Special Victims Unit (that primarily investigates sexual offences), she rises through the ranks to where she is now, the Captain and Commanding Officer of the unit. Watching her become Captain was incredibly satisfying and emotional because she gone through so much and worked so damn hard; she’s come so far and she’s earned it beyond a shadow of a doubt. She’s grown so much and become so self assured, so confident in her abilities. It’s been an amazing journey to watch. She’s incredibly strong, determined, and resourceful, probably a combination of a painful childhood and everything that’s happened to her while she’s been on the job; she’s been in more dangerous, traumatising situations than one can count. Having said that, the show and Mariska’s performances do a good job of normalising therapy and showing the positive effects it can have. Olivia is also very intelligent (for example, she speaks multiple languages including Italian, Russian, as well some French and Spanish) and has become very skilled at dealing with people within the Justice system, has the respect and reputation and knows how to wield them to get the best outcome for the people they’re trying to help. She’s deeply empathetic and she’s always been good with the victims of their cases, gentle but empowering, helping them to regain their confidence and agency. At her very core, she’s driven to help people – I’m not sure what she’d do if she couldn’t help people – and I think that’s why she’s lasted so long in a job that often burns people out in just a few years. She’s been a big inspiration to me ever since I started following the show, for all the characteristics I’ve just mentioned. If I can be half as good a person as she is and do half the good that she does, then I’ll be happy.

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10. Daisy Johnson (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) – As I said in my post about Daisy, I could write a thesis on her and her character arc (if you want to read my mini-thesis, head to that post). I loved her right from the beginning. She’s funny and smart and tough but she also feels her emotions deeply and is incredibly driven, often by those deep emotions and her sense of what’s right and wrong. From a hacktivist living in a van to a loyal, dedicated agent and superpowered hero (she’s able to manipulate vibrations, to the extent that she’s caused earthquakes as a result of losing control of her emotions), she grows up and goes through a lot but in the end, she finds family in her team and a place to belong in SHIELD, two things she’s spent her whole life searching for. To quote myself from my previous post: “She’s not perfect, of course – she makes her fair share of mistakes and bad decisions. Sometimes she hurts the people she loves. But while every blunder becomes a part of her, she doesn’t allow them to define her. She’s defined by the future, by what she does next. She inspires me to be the same. And above all else, her motivation is to help people and that’s something that’s never changed; it’s something that’s at the very core of her and I find that really inspiring too.”

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11. Cassie Stuart (Unforgotten) – I’ve loved Nicola Walker for years, loved the various characters I’ve seen her play, but I think DCI Cassie Stuart is my favourite. She heads a team within the Metropolitan Police Service that we’ve now watched investigate multiple cold cases (although this seems to be more of a coincidence than by design, i.e. they’re not a cold case unit but the cases featured have involved crimes committed decades previously). These cases are not only difficult due to the loss of evidence over time, the deaths of people involved, and so on, but also because they’re often interviewing family and friends who have been grieving (or, maybe worse, hoping) for years, which is obviously a lot of emotion to be on the receiving end of. Cassie is a fantastic detective, smart and experienced, but she’s also extremely compassionate: she feels it all and that makes these cases unbearable at times. There’s so much more I could say about her but that’s the thing I admire most about her, how compassionate she remains in the face of such pain and distress, both because that’s what the other person needs and because that’s just who she is. She cares about people and while that makes her who she is, it isn’t an easy burden to carry. I relate to that on a visceral level, as a person who has always cared deeply about others, sometimes to my detriment. But having said that, I wouldn’t change it. Nor, I think, would Cassie, not really. It takes a lot of strength but caring that much, it makes the world so much bigger and so much more vivid and real in a way it could never be if you didn’t.

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12. Aza Holmes (Turtles All The Way Down by John Green) – I was so excited when I learned that John Green was writing a book with a main character struggling with OCD and I absolutely loved it, loved Aza and really related to her, to how she thinks and how she processes the world. Aza is sixteen years old, trying to manage school, friends, and life in general, while desperately struggling with constant anxiety about bacteria, infection, and dying from Clostridium Difficile Infection (also known as C. diff). She describes the anxiety as ‘thought spirals’ or ‘invasive thoughts,’ over which she has no control. The only way she’s able to manage it is to check and clean a permanently open cut on her finger, proving to herself that she doesn’t have C. diff. We struggle with a lot of the same things, from the littlest things to the biggest things: with ‘thought spirals’; with her sense of identity (she describes her search for her self as opening Russian dolls, looking for the final solid one but never finding it; with relationships (“I can’t have a normal life if I can’t kiss someone without freaking out.”), which is actually pretty comforting since there are so many stories where a relationship is the thing that makes a person’s mental health better; with the loss of her father and how much it affects her, even years later (“And the thing is, when you lose someone, you realize you’ll eventually lose everyone,” “I remember after my Dad died, for a while, it was both true and not true in my mind… My father died suddenly, but also across the years. He was still dying really – which meant, I guess, that he was still living too,” and how she imagines the moments they should’ve had, so clearly that sometimes she forgets that they didn’t happen), which is so painfully real for me. I was deeply affected by the breakdown of Aza’s mental health, having experienced similar downward spirals myself, where my mental illness has me doing things I would never rationally do. And the climb back up was similarly moving because it was so agonisingly relatable: “Everyone wanted me to feed them that story – darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it too.” She feels so fragile after everything she’s been through and her thought spirals are still there, her life suffocated by her anxiety. At one point, she says, “I could never become a functioning grown up like this; it was inconceivable that I’d ever have a career,” and that is one of the hardest and scariest parts for me when it comes to managing mental illness and disability. But over time, Ava starts to accept the reality of her mental health (“I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon, because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life,”) and slowly, things start to improve, which we notice in the way she thinks about herself and her life: “You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.” Real progress is often slow and subtle and we don’t even necessarily notice it at the time but it is progress. And seeing the progress she makes gives me hope. I’m pretty sure this paragraph is a bit more chaotic than the others but that is just because I relate to Aza and her experiences so strongly, even if the actual events aren’t that similar. But it was like my thoughts and feelings were being put into words and that was such a profound experience. I don’t think you can really know how important it is to have a character you relate to until you can’t find one. Reading the book made me feel less alone. It made me feel seen. It made me feel understood. And I’m so, so grateful for that.

13. Ginny Weasley (The Changeling by Annerb, a Harry Potter series fanfiction) – In the original books, I preferred Hermione to Ginny but then we obviously saw a lot more of the former. While rereading old favourites from my fanfiction days (I both read and wrote it during my teenage years but revisited it a few years ago as a relaxation strategy), I discovered this story, where Ginny is sorted into Slytherin instead of Gryffindor. The story creates real depth around the houses and the traits that define those within them: for example, we learn about what ambition, loyalty, conflict, and rules mean to Slytherins, from both positive and negative perspectives. This life-altering moment, this complete change in how she’d expected her life to pan out, obviously has a dramatic effect on her development as a person and how she experiences the events described in the series. She’s strong willed and reserved: she knows the value of secrets, knows it so well that she becomes an incredibly skilled Occlumens and Legilimens. But she’s also deeply loyal and takes her responsibility for others very seriously, sometimes to her own detriment: that’s one of her consistent qualities, that she always puts others ahead of herself. She can think twenty steps ahead in every direction so she’s prepared for any possible circumstance and outcome, a skill that saves multiple lives throughout the story. She’s also beyond passionate about quidditch, the one thing that seems to make her feel completely in sync with the world and with herself. That’s another one of her consistent qualities: she gives her all to everything she does. This, I think, is what I admire most in her and something that I try to emulate whenever and wherever possible.

14. Marisa Coulter (His Dark Materials) – It’s been years since I read the books and if I’m honest, I don’t remember them well (I mean, I did read all three in four days). And when the TV show was announced, I wanted to give it a fair chance where I wasn’t constantly comparing between the show and the books so I didn’t reread them beforehand. Set in a world world where all humans’ souls manifest as animal companions called daemons, Lyra, an orphan living at Jordan College in Oxford, sets serious change in motion when she goes in search of her missing friend. Given the complicated nature of the His Dark Materials trilogy, there is so much more context that I could include here but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it there as this post is about characters more than the fictional worlds they live in (unless it’s absolutely necessary to include extra context for my thoughts to make sense). As much as I love Lyra in the TV adaptation, there is just something (many somethings) about Mrs Coulter (Lyra’s absent mother) that are just utterly fascinating, that have completely captivated me from the beginning. I swear, I finish every episode and say, “Ruth Wilson should’ve won an award for that episode.” She might be a villain but to call her something so commonplace is almost insulting for she is far more nuanced than that. She’s exceedingly intelligent, beautiful, and enigmatic, effortlessly commanding the attention of every room she enters. To anyone watching, she seems utterly composed and yet, under the surface, she is, without a doubt seethingly dangerous. She is ruthless in her pursuit of power, whether that be political or over a single person. Control is everything. She retains fierce control over her emotions and on the few occasions her control has slipped, the explosions of repressed emotion are almost painful to witness (something I think we can put down to Ruth Wilson’s incredible acting skills). She has even managed to exercise all but complete control over her daemon, a golden monkey, which is to say that she has all but complete control over her own soul, something no other human seems capable of without unbearable pain and distress. In the present, she presents as unconcerned by the separation from her daemon but, with such a tight grip on her emotions, who knows what she truly feels and one has to wonder what she experiences every time she punishes her daemon for offering affection. Why does she do it? What does it say about how she feels about herself? Is she punishing herself for giving into the temptation and sin that result in Lyra and her own ruined reputation or is she doing all that she can to suppress any expression of emotion in order to succeed in their brutally patriarchal society? Is it both? How did she even manage it? There are so many questions and so few answers. We know she had an awful childhood, we know her affair with Lord Asriel (Lyra’s father) damaged her reputation possibly beyond repair, we know she’s had to fight for everything she has, even the things that people think they’ve given her… This obviously doesn’t excuse the terrible things she’s done but make for a fascinating character and for fascinating discussions around what makes people who they are and do what they do. Clearly, she’s not a role model but she is a pretty incredible example of the complexity of human beings, of the damage sexism, discrimination, guilt, and self hatred can do, of how people choose to wield the power they have (and if we didn’t know she was powerful before, her display of controlling the soul consuming spectres – something that was previously unheard of and yet something she seems to do effortlessly – has proven that), and how far someone will go to get what they want. She’s a character I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, one so complex that she may be impossible to completely unravel. I think her self control is what I think most about, what that must be like – not that I’d ever want to emulate it. If she can control her emotions so fully – control her soul so fully – what does that make her? What does she feel? Does she feel at all, apart from those rare moments where her emotions seems to erupt out of her like lethal molten lava? What does that do to a person? Are they even a person anymore? I would’ve thought it would make a person feel powerful, would feel satisfying to have that much power over yourself, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a safe road to head down. For how long can you follow it before you can’t turn back? As I said, a complex character and so, so many questions. But I think that’s good. We need characters that challenge us and challenge our thinking. That’s one of the great gifts of art, in whatever form it comes.

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I just had to include this quote because I think it sums up Mrs Coulter so well: “She’s also a deeply intelligent complex woman in her own right, and her suppressed rage and cruelty clearly stem, in large part, from her own history and experiences. Her hard exterior is clearly a necessary result of a life lived in a deeply patriarchal society—the only way she gains any modicum of respect and power for herself is to behave, at all times, as though she were a man. Her iron-like self-control and vicious repression of her emotions are all clearly a means to an end, and the few moments when her icy veneer breaks are all the more terrifying for both their violence and their rarity. Even her relationship with her daemon is different. Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey is the one daemon in His Dark Materials that doesn’t speak or have a name, and often functions as the id that reveals the hidden cost of her iron control over her own demeanor. (And its loving interaction with Lord Asriel’s leopard Stelmaria in the first season’s final episode is an admission of an entirely different type.) It’s the constant visual evidence that she’s not as removed or in control as she seems. Externally, she knows the façade she needs to present to the Magisterium, Asriel and everyone else around her. Internally, she’s often barely hanging on, as evidenced by her violence toward her monkey—and by extension herself. Mrs. Coulter has even trained herself and her daemon (after what must have been years of nightmarish experimentation) to push through the pain of separation, so much so that they can now both function at great distances from one another. Since HBO’s His Dark Materials has largely underplayed the primacy of the human-daemon connection in the name of budgetary restrictions, this ability (and the constant suffering it entails) perhaps does not seem as big of a deal as it ought to. But it really is. This is a woman willing to put herself and her very soul through tremendous torment in the name of getting what she wants.” (x)

15. Emily Byrne (Absentia) – The TV show, Absentia, was one of my 2020 discoveries and I instantly found myself invested in Emily and her story. An FBI Agent with a husband (also FBI) and young son, she goes missing while tracking a serial killer and is eventually declared dead in absentia. However, six years later, she’s found alive, having been tortured but with almost no memory of who abducted her or what happened to her. She’s deeply traumatised and reuniting with her family is emotional and painful: her husband has remarried, her son has no memory of her, and she and her brother had serious issues between them that aren’t magically solved by his relief that she’s alive. The FBI relaunch their investigation into her abduction while she struggles to regain some sense of normality (side note: it’s one of the only shows I’ve seen that is truly invested in representing a character’s mental health, showing the effects of her trauma, the triggers both expected and unexpected, the steps forward, the slips back). When the investigation starts to suggest that Emily kidnapped herself and was the accomplice of the serial killer she’d been chasing when she disappeared, she goes on the run in an attempt to find out the truth and consequently prove her innocence. Stana Katic is incredible in the role: Emily is tough and determined and doesn’t give up for anything; she’s relentless. She’s stubborn and more than a little reckless, a trait I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she possessed before she was abducted but one that I’m sure was heightened by what she went through. She’s also incredibly resourceful, sometimes unbelievably so. But despite the fierceness she presents to the world, she’s still a gentle person at heart. She loves Flynn, her son, more than anything and would do anything for him; as they reconnect, you can see how much pure joy she gets just from seeing him. On a related note, we see such a range of emotions from Emily: most likely due to her trauma still being so fresh, her emotions are unbearably raw and right on the surface all the time. She ricochets between them with alarming speed. But despite said emotions, she’s still strong enough to fight her way through it all, face her triggers, evade the FBI manhunt, and begin to unravel the mystery of what happened to her. I can’t say that I relate to her because I’ve never been through that sort of trauma but I have been through some shit and her strength really inspires me. Her ability to balance being tough and being gentle, her willingness to do anything for the people she loves, the willpower she possesses to move forward with her life despite everything that’s happened to her… I just really respect the hell out of her.

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So that turned out far longer than I’d expected or intended it to be but I hope it was interesting. There are many more amazing female characters that I could’ve included but given how long this post became, I thought I’d stop at fifteen. But it’s awesome that there are so many great women in the media for us to look up to, to inspire us and motivate us and make us feel seen. There’s a way to go – marginalised groups are still very much underrepresented in fiction, especially mainstream fiction – but things are improving and I’m hopeful. And I’m grateful for the wonderful characters we currently have.