Posted on December 21, 2021
This is one of my favourite posts of the year, as hard as it is to narrow it down to one song a month (or sometimes two, if I really can’t choose). It’s so easy for time to make things blurry and for songs to transcend time that I love being able to see exactly when songs impacted my life and what they meant to me. I kind of love the idea of looking back one day – sometime in the future – and knowing which exact songs I connected to, rather than just having a vague sense of which artists and albums I loved.
So, here is my soundtrack for 2021. I’ve made a playlist on Spotify so you can listen along here if you’d like to.
1. it’s time to go by Taylor Swift
The bonus tracks from Taylor’s album, evermore, started to circulate at the end of 2020 when people began to receive their physical copies but they weren’t released ‘officially’ until the beginning of 2021. It was a really hard choice between ‘right where you left me’ and ‘it’s time to go’ because they’re both such stunning songs but in the end, ‘it’s time to go’ won by a hair. The instrumentation is so delicate and vulnerable, just like the emotions she describes in the song. And the stories she’s telling are heartbreakingly sad with lyrics that may be some of her most poignant, including, “When the words of a sister come back in whispers that prove she was not,” “That old familiar body ache, the snaps from the same little breaks in your soul,” “Fifteen years, fifteen million tears, beggin’ ’til my knees bled,” “I gave it my all, he gave me nothing at all, then wondered why I left,” “He’s got my past frozen behind glass but I’ve got me,” and “Sometimes givin’ up is the strong thing, sometimes to run is the brave thing, sometimes walkin’ out is the one thing, that will find you the right thing.” It’s Taylor at her most vulnerable, something that is such an honour to be allowed access to, and it brings me to tears almost every time I listen to it.
Favourite Lyrics: “That old familiar body ache / The snaps from the same little breaks in your soul / You know when it’s time to go” AND “He’s got my past frozen behind glass / But I’ve got me”
2. Skyscraper by Demi Lovato // Forgive Or Forget by Sarah Close
I stumbled upon this song again when I was doing research for my Daisy Johnson song. I spent a lot of time watching fan videos on YouTube, listening to the songs that other people associated with her: the style of music, the instrumentation, the lyrics in the songs, the emotional undercurrents. And one of those videos used this song. It’s been years since I last listened to it and I’d forgotten how powerful and emotive it is. I love how it acknowledges the pain, whatever pain you find yourself hearing in it, but is ultimately empowering and uplifting, putting the real focus on overcoming that pain. Just listening to it makes me feel stronger; it definitely a good song to listen to before trying to do something difficult or painful.
Favourite Lyrics: “You can take everything I have / You can break everything I am / Like I’m made of glass / Like I’m made of paper / Go on and try to tear me down / I will be rising from the ground / Like a skyscraper”
I fell in love with this song from the first listen. I’ve listened to Sarah on and off for several years (she actually went to the same university as me) and I love her writing. Her lyrics and melodies are just gorgeous: rich but light, catchy without driving you absolutely bananas. It’s so good. I love the imagery, like “Just like in a film, now I’m standing outside your door, in the pouring rain, with a speech that I wrote between watching movies on the plane” and “So now I’ve shown up at your door, will my key work like it did before? And when I look inside, will your love be just the same?” They’re so vivid, like you’re right there in that moment she’s singing about. I loved it straight away and couldn’t stop singing it. I even did a little cover of it on Instagram…
Favourite Lyrics: “Should I forgive or forget, relive or regret? / I know I’m willing to change / So tell me, do you feel the same? / ‘Cause I won’t retrace all the mistakes / If you’re willing to change / I’m telling you, I feel the same” AND “So now I’ve shown up at your door, will my key work like it did before? / And when I look inside, will your love be just the same?”
3. Riser By Dierks Bentley (written by Travis Meadows) // Plan For Paris by Betsy Lane
I know that this would be considered a Dierks Bentley song since he released it but, to me, it will always be a Travis Meadows song. I first heard it when I saw him play at a Tin Pan South show while in Nashville for the first time and it was one of those moments that just sticks with you, one of those memories that somehow remains in perfect condition, like it’s been frozen in amber. The room seemed to be holding it’s breath, completely enraptured by his voice and his lyrics. And when he finished, the room seemed to snap out of its trance and gave him a standing ovation.
This song has meant a lot to me ever since but it was in March that I learned about the extensive surgery Travis Meadows had (at the time) recently gone through and the recovery he was working towards. A gofundme, A FundRiser, had been set up to support him and his family, which I immediately donated to and shared on all of my socials. He’s an incredible songwriter and just an incredible spirit. His music has given me so much that, although I wish these weren’t the circumstances, I’m grateful for the opportunity to give something back.
Favourite Lyrics: “I’m a riser / I’m a get up off the ground, don’t run and hider / When pushin’ comes to shovin’ / Hey, I’m a fighter / When darkness comes to town, I’m a lighter / A get-out-alive-r, of the fire, survivor”
I’ve loved Betsy’s music for a long time, so long that I can’t actually remember when I first heard a song of hers. But she’s a gorgeous writer and it was very cool to finally meet her when she came to the UK on a mini-tour in 2018 after years of listening to her music. She’s just the loveliest and the EP she was releasing at the time was great. But this song, although a step in a new direction, is on a whole new level: it’s a beautiful combination of her warm, intimate storytelling and exciting, new pop production. It’s feel-good and catchy and I absolutely love it.
Favourite Lyrics: “…I wish we could just / Go back to Paris / Catch a train through the south of France / Cross the border into Spain / Learn how to dance / Under the sky of the Spanish moon / Baby, hold my hand, I’m following you”
Note: My friend and frequent collaborator, Richard Marc, released his first single, ‘Put It In A Postcard,’ at the beginning of March but given that I cowrote the song, it felt weird to put it on this list when that isn’t the point of this list.
4. Mr Perfectly Fine (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault) by Taylor Swift // Love and Great Buildings by Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness
As excited as I was for Taylor re-recording her albums, I didn’t feel a hundred percent good about it until Taylor herself made it clear that it’s been really rewarding and fulfilling – so far, at least. I hated the idea that it might be upsetting or taint her feelings about her previous work since it was something she was ultimately forced to do if she wanted to own her back catalogue. So I’m really glad that it doesn’t feel like that. It’s amazing and kind of surreal how she can sound just like her teenage self, how the album sounds so close to the original release. There are multiple songs I could choose from for ‘the one’ but ultimately ‘Mr Perfectly Fine’ came out on top (although ‘We Were Happy’ was a close second). Not only is it super catchy and has this really great, dynamic energy, but I love the balance of heartbreaking and then absolutely scathing lyrics, like, “‘Cause I hear he’s got his arm ’round a brand new girl / I’ve been pickin’ up my heart, he’s been pickin’ up her / And I never got past what you put me through / But it’s wonderful to see that it never phased you.” It’s emotionally complex, like the situation, but still such a jam. And the final chorus, with the switch from “Hello Mr. ‘Perfectly Fine'” to “Goodbye Mr. ‘Perfectly Fine'” and the key change, it’s a hugely satisfying end, lyrically, musically, and emotionally. I love it and played it over and over again.
Favourite Lyrics: “It takes everything in me just to get up each day / But it’s wonderful to see that you’re okay // Hello Mr. ‘Perfectly Fine’ / How’s your heart after breaking mine?” AND “‘Cause I hear he’s got his arm ’round a brand new girl / I’ve been pickin’ up my heart, he’s been pickin’ up her / And I never got past what you put me through / But it’s wonderful to see that it never phased you”
I heard this song on a TV show (I can’t remember which one now) and just fell in love with the concept. The imagery is gorgeous (with phrases like, “My heart is an apartment building on the verse,” “The market shifts can cause storm systems to converge,” and “Brick and plaster, beams and broken windows”) and I love the production, both for the sounds used and for the energetic, almost euphoric feeling it evokes. I spent many days with it basically on repeat because I just really needed that energy. My only quibble with it is that almost every single rhyme is a perfect rhyme (‘verge’ and ‘converge,’ ‘optimistic’ and ‘realistic,’ ‘endure’ and ‘cure,’ etc) and having just spent a semester learning about, discussing, and experimenting with techniques like different types of rhyme, that really stuck out to me. It felt a little clunky and I thought there could’ve been some stronger, more interesting rhyming in what is otherwise a really cool song.
Favourite Lyrics: “Love and great buildings will survive / Strong hearts and concrete stay alive / Through the great depressions / Yeah, the best things are designed to stand the test of time // Love and great buildings will endure / Blue skies and bloodlines are the cure / For the great deceptions in a world that’s such a blur / We’ll stand the test of time”
5. Coming Up For Air by Signals In Smoke // A Love Song by Ladyhawke
There’s something about this song that I just can’t quite explain. It’s so beautifully simple. I love lyrically dense songs, songs that you could turn into a feature length film, but what I love about this song is that it doesn’t need to do that. The lyrics are uncluttered, guiding the emotion but leaving you to fill in the details yourself. But they’re intimate and uplifting, enhanced by a deeply emotive and beautiful melody. The production is rich and atmospheric and enveloping; and the colours and textures I feel in it are just gorgeous (I don’t know if that response to music is part of being autistic or some form of synesthesia or something else entirely). It’s just stunning.
Favourite Lyrics: “It ain’t over, love / This I swear / We’re coming up for air”
I freaking love this song. I listened to so much Ladyhawke during the last semester of my Masters but this song won the top spot with ease. I love the energy (and the colours) of the arrangement and the production – there’s something so pleasing to my ears about synth-pop music – and I love the story it tells, or at least the story that I interpret from the lyrics. To me, it reflects the contradiction of what real love is, that it is both easy and hard to truly love someone. With lyrics like, “You’ve opened my eyes to the oldest tale of time,” alongside the gleaming production, the song embodies the ease of love, proven by the fact that we have been falling in love as long as we have existed. The song is a celebration of that love. But then it also contains lyrics like “I’m falling down, too much to drink again / You pull me up and tell me how it could end” because sometimes love is having the tough conversations and making the hard choices. And we always come back to the same line: “This is what a love song sounds like.” Both of these instances are expressions of love, of the love stories we write and the love songs we sing to one another. That’s what I love about this song, that it allows these two ideas to coexist (just as they can and do in real life) in such a beautiful way.
Favourite Lyrics: “This could be my life, but it’s only words / To make me feel right when the meaning’s blurred / You’ve opened my eyes to the oldest tale of time / This what a love song, love song sounds like // I’m falling down, too much to drink again / You pull me up and tell me how it could end / This is what a love song sounds like”
Note: My friend and frequent collaborator, Richard Marc, released his second single, ‘Close To You,’ at the beginning of May. I cowrote it so I’m not officially including it on this list but you guys should check it out because Richard is really awesome.
6. good 4 u by Olivia Rodrigo
This song is such a jam. As I said in a post a little while back, I struggled to get into Sour, I think just because she was everywhere and everyone was talking about her and I just felt a bit like it was being forced down my throat and my natural reaction to that is to be perverse and do the exact opposite of what I’m being pushed to do. Maybe that’s a bit childish but I think it worked out in the end because if I’d listened to the album then, I don’t think I would’ve liked it. After giving it some time, I did listen to it and I do like it; I think it being my choice made all of the difference. I like a good handful of the songs (most of them album tracks, which isn’t unusual for me) but this one is just irresistibly fun. I love how it toes the line between righteous anger over being treated badly (“It’s like we never even happened / Baby, what the fuck is up with that?”) and pettiness (“Remember when you swore to god I was the only / Person who ever got you? / Well, screw that and screw you”) – because, let’s face it, we’ve all been there in some way or another. We’re allowed to be angry and call people out for their bad behaviour (I’m talking on an emotional level – society often has other opinions) but we’re also not always our most mature selves when we’ve been hurt by someone and I think this song reflects those two states of emotion well. I also love the swearing but I think it only works because it feels natural and emotional and not at all affected. It’s hugely relatable (I can definitely see a significant relationship of mine in it) and very cathartic to sing along to. I’m a fan of the arrangement and production too. I love the rhythm of the bass, the arrangement of the backing vocals (they’re fantastic, album wide), and her vocal delivery is fantastic: she’s so expressive in her singing and there isn’t a line where it feels like she’s ‘just’ singing.
Favourite Lyrics: “And good for you, it’s like you never even met me / Remember when you swore to God I was the only / Person who ever got you? / Well, screw that and screw you / You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do” AND “Well, good for you, you look happy and healthy / Not me, if you ever cared to ask / Good for you, you’re doing great out there without me, baby / Like a damn sociopath / I’ve lost my mind, I’ve spent the night / Crying on the floor of my bathroom”
7. Way Out by Richard Marc & Jaz Beeson // Renegade (feat. Taylor Swift) by Big Red Machine
This song is so freaking catchy that every time I hear it, it’s stuck in my head for days afterwards; ever since I first heard it, I’ve been waiting impatiently for it to come out so that when people ask me what I’m singing or humming or whatever, I can actually point them to it. The melody is just perfect, smooth and rich and beautifully matches the moody production. It’s a hard call but it may be my favourite production from Richard’s EP. The different elements just work together so well and I love how it builds, especially in the bridge with more and more layers of backing vocals. It’s just so atmospheric. By the time we land in the final chorus and that building tension falls away, it’s like breaking the surface and taking a deep breath after being underwater for too long. I love both Richard and Jaz as singers but there’s something about the tone of their voices in this song that just gets me every time. They sound so good together; their voices really compliment each others.
Usually, I like detail in lyrics but there are definitely exceptions and this is one of them. There’s something really cool about the way it sounds like you’re listening in on a conversation between two people and, because it’s their conversation, they don’t need to explain the details to each other because they both already know. So, even if we’re left out of the narrative loop a little, there’s a really gorgeous sense of intimacy about this song that I don’t think could’ve been achieved if it hadn’t been a duet.
Favourite Lyrics: “Leave me in the fallout, tell me when you come down, can you find a way out, way out?”
This song leaves me feeling very raw. I really relate to this song but in lots of different and confusing ways. Sometimes I feel kind of called out by it; I can imagine a relationship coming to this (given everything I deal with, I’m sure I’d be difficult to love). But I can also see my relationship with myself in the song. “There was nowhere for me to stay, but I stayed anyway” reminds me of how many times I could’ve given up but haven’t; “And if I would’ve known how many pieces you had crumbled into / I might have let them lay” and “And if I would’ve known / how sharp the pieces were you crumbled into / I might have let them lay” makes me think about how this journey (with my mental health and the discovery that I’m neurodivergent and managing all of these things) always seems to get harder and what it would’ve been like if I’d known where I’d be a year, two years, five years down the line when everything started to unravel, back when I was a teenager; “Is it insensitive for me to say / ‘get your shit together, so I can love you?'” and “Is it really your anxiety that stops you from givin’ me everythin’ / Or do you just not want to?” make me wonder what it is that makes it so hard to treat myself with kindness and patience, why I’m so hard on myself; “You fire off missiles ’cause you hate yourself / But do you know you’re demolishing me?” reminds me – painfully – of how much damage I’m doing to myself, some unwillingly but some willingly. And so on and so on. It’s a lot. It makes me very emotional but, even though it’s hard, it’s important to me too; songs that describe how you feel, especially when those feelings are complicated, are so rare and so special. It’s a beautifully written song and despite the heaviness of the lyrics, it’s very soothing to listen to. The melodies are exquisite and Taylor’s voice sounds incredible. Justin Vernon is definitely my favourite of her duet partners. Their voices sound gorgeous together.
Favourite Lyrics: “There was nowhere for me to stay, but I stayed anyway” OR “Are you really gonna talk about timin’ in times like these? / And let all your damage damage me? / And carry your baggage up my street? / And make me your future history?” AND “Is it insensitive for me to say / ‘Get your shit together, so I can love you?’ / Is it really your anxiety that stops you from givin’ me everythin’ / Or do you just not want to?”
8. Alibi by Kalie Shorr // Darling by Halsey
While the whole of Kalie’s EP, I Got Here By Accident, is fantastic, ‘Alibi’ is such a vibe. The arrangement and production – the warm tone of the guitars and the bass, the satisfying punch of the drums, Kalie’s soft but striking vocals – creates this fantastic energy and the melodies are so catchy; the song is frequently on repeat in my brain and I’m not complaining one bit. I love it. And I relate to it so much: I would do anything for my friends (grand theft auto, arson, and accessory to murder may be a bit far but hopefully you get my point). “If someone’s breaking your heart / Hold my beer, I’ll fight ’em” is a situation I’ve been in and I’ve absolutely said both “Tell me who to hate, yeah / You don’t have to worry / I don’t have to meet ’em / I believe your story” and “If you’re in trouble, make it mine,” although probably less eloquently. So this is definitely my friendship anthem. I was even writing a song along a similar theme when it came out.
Favourite Lyrics: “Anyone can be your best friend at a party / But if you dig a hole, then I’ll bury the body / No questions, I won’t ask why / I’ll be your alibi” AND “If you asked / I’d pick you up when you’re drunk downtown / Or go burn down your ex’s house / It’s like that / Completely unconditional” AND “Tell me who to hate, yeah / You don’t have to worry / I don’t have to meet ’em / I believe your story” AND “If it’s for you, it’s not a lie / If you’re in trouble, make it mine”
There were multiple songs I could’ve chosen from Halsey’s newest album: I love every song but I do love ‘Bells in Santa Fe,’ ‘Darling,’ ‘1121,’ ‘The Lighthouse,’ and ‘Ya’aburnee’ in particular. But in the end, ‘Darling’ is the one that just gets me every single time. It sounds beautiful, with the delicate guitar and heartfelt vocals (as well as gorgeous backing vocals), and the lyrics are stunning, with – I have no doubt carefully chosen – really emotive imagery, like “Really can’t remember where I left my spine / Carrying my body in a bag for dimes / hidden in the pages of the New York Times at home” and “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 any time I’d like.” Making sense of our mortality and our place in the world is a massive subject and very personal for a lot of people, myself included, but listening to this song always eases my anxieties a little, even if I still don’t have the answers I want.
Favourite Lyrics: “Ever since a little girl, I found it sweet / Drivin’ past a graveyard on a lonesome street / All the little flowers gave me somethin’ to believe in” AND “Couldn’t really tell you where they’d leave a stone / To visit me when I am dead and gone” AND “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 any time I’d like”
9. Radio Silence by Natalie Hemby
I had fallen in love with this song before I’d even finished listening to it that first time and I just love it more with every listen. The lyrics, the vocals, the arrangement, and the production… they’re all so incredibly beautiful, so perfectly matched to convey the emotion of the song. Trying to hold onto something, like a friendship or relationship, even as you can feel it slipping away from you is so deeply sad and so painful and even though you know you should let it go, you can’t help longing for what it once was. I can relate to this song on so many levels, to so many people and experiences in my life. It frequently brings me to tears but usually it’s more a relief cry, down to listening to a song that so perfectly describes a feeling I’ve had so many times.
Favourite Lyrics: “I tried to reach you through the growin’ static / I tried to replicate the fading magic / Did everything to keep the signal from dyin’ / 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 dyin’ / All I got was radio silence”
Note: My friend and frequent collaborator, Richard Marc, released his fourth single, ‘Nashville,‘ on the 1st September. I cowrote it so I’m not officially including it on this list but you guys should check it (and his previous tracks) out because he is absolutely awesome.
10. Like A River Runs by Bleachers
I absolutely love this song; I think it may be my favourite Bleachers song, which is saying something given how much I love ‘Wild Heart,’ ‘I Wanna Get Better,’ and ‘What’d I Do With All This Faith?’ to name a few. I just feel it so deeply and I really relate to many of the things that Jack Antonoff has said about it. As I said in my post for National Album Day 2021, “it just resonates so strongly in all the right ways.” The production is fantastic and fits so beautifully with the emotion and with the lyrics. And the vocals are exquisite. Listening to it, it feels like Antonoff’s voice is coming from inside my own head somewhere, which only makes it feel more personal, like he’s speaking my feelings into life. Lyrics like “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” all hit really close to home. The chorus is especially stunning, uplifting and deeply emotional at the same time: “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.”
Favourite 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” AND “The summer’s gone and I’m alone / And I get the feeling that you’re somewhere close” AND “And if you see me in the darkness / I hope you know I’m not alone”
11. All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault) by Taylor Swift
‘All Too Well’ has always been at the top of my list of favourite Taylor Swift songs and while I loved the idea of the ten minute version, I don’t think I ever really thought we’d hear it. So while I don’t like the circumstances that brought us to the rerecordings, I am grateful for the positives that have come out of the whole mess. Like the ten minute version of ‘All Too Well,’ not that it feels like ten minutes when you’re listening to it. As much as I love the production of the 2012 version, I think it was important that they were different because they have very different emotional undercurrents and the production for the ten minute version matches the feel of the longer story, in my opinion at least. I’m also very pleased that it was Jack Antonoff who produced it since he is my favourite of Taylor’s collaborators.
I could talk about this song forever but I’ll try to be concise. The lyrics are beautiful, some of her best, and they tell us so much more of the story than the original cut. It connects to so many songs on the album, even more than it did before, and really broadens our understanding of both that time and what came after. I also love how naturally it flows through different phases of emotion (the fondness, the longing, the loss, the confusion, the shame, the anger, the pain, the invalidation, the grief…) without losing its way. And I think part of why it means so much to me (apart from my original attachment to the song and the album) is because of how, emotionally, it mirrors an experience I had. Lyrics like “And I was thinking on the drive down, any time now / He’s gonna say it’s love, you never called it what it was / ‘Til we were dead and gone and buried / Check the pulse and come back swearing it’s the same,” “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath,” “You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine / And that made me want to die / The idea you had of me, who was she? / A never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you,” and “Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it / I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it” all bring back memories of that person and that time and while it was heartbreaking and traumatic, it is part of who I am. I think being able to pour all of that emotion into a song – and a song that good – is an incredible feat.
(‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version)’ was pretty much always a shoo-in for the top spot but I also really love ‘Nothing New.’ I love that we finally have a female-female duet and it’s such a beautiful song. The lyrics “I’ve had too much to drink tonight / And I know it’s sad / But this is what I think about,” “How long will it be cute / All this crying in my room / When you can’t blame it on my youth,” “How did I go from growing up / To breaking down,” “I know someday I’m gonna meet her / It’s a fever dream / The kind of radiance you only have at seventeen / She’ll know the way and then she’ll say she got the map from me / I’ll say I’m happy for her then I’ll cry myself to sleep,” and, of course, “And will you still want me when I’m nothing new?” all hit so hard. I definitely relate to it, both on a personal level and on a working-in-music level. I am kind of grateful that she didn’t release it on the original album because I think it would’ve been devastating, knowing that Taylor was feeling that way. I found ‘The Lucky One’ upsetting enough.)
Favourite Lyrics: [buckle in, folks!] “Oh, your sweet disposition and my wide-eyed gaze / We’re singing in the car, getting lost upstate” AND “I might be okay, but I’m not fine at all” AND “Wind in my hair, I was there / I remember it all too well” AND “You taught me ’bout your past, thinking your future was me” AND “And you were tossing me the car keys, ‘fuck the patriarchy’ / Key chain on the ground, we were always skipping town / And I was thinking on the drive down, any time now / He’s gonna say it’s love, you never called it what it was / ‘Til we were dead and gone and buried / Check the pulse and come back swearing it’s the same / After three months in the grave” AND “And I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to” AND “‘Cause there we are again in the middle of the night / We’re dancing ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light” AND “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath / Sacred prayer and we’d swear / To remember it all too well” AND “Well, maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much / But maybe this thing was a masterpiece / ‘Til you tore it all up / Running scared, I was there / I remember it all too well / And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest / I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here / ‘Cause I remember it all, all, all / They say all’s well that ends well, but I’m in a new Hell / Every time you double-cross my mind / You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine / And that made me want to die / The idea you had of me, who was she? / A never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you / Not weeping in a party bathroom / Some actress asking me what happened, you / That’s what happened, you” AND “Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it / I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it / After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own / Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone” AND “I’m a soldier who’s returning half her weight” AND “Just between us, did the love affair maim you, too?” AND “Just between us, did the love affair maim you all too well? / Just between us, do you remember it all too well? / Just between us, I remember it all too well”
Note: My friend and frequent collaborator, Richard Marc, released his fifth single, ‘I Don’t Know,’ at the start of the month. Again, I worked on the song with him so, again, it’s not officially on this list but I love it and it’s a great song; you guys should definitely check it out (along with his now complete EP) because Richard is just awesome.
12. All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault) by Taylor Swift
Yes, I’m still absolutely in love with this song. It’s been on repeat – in real life and in my head – ever since it came out. I’m not surprised at all.
Will there ever be a year when I actually keep to the twelve songs a year rule? Probably not. It keeps expanding every year, both in songs and in favourite lyrics. I’m not complaining; I’ll never complain about finding more music to fall in love with. Having said that, I am aware that these posts can get long! But I hope it was fun or interesting or both and, again, here is the playlist link if you’d like to listen to the songs I’ve talked about.
Category: favourites, music, special interests, university, video, writing Tagged: 2021, 2021 in songs, all too well, all too well ten minute version, andrew mcmahon in the wilderness, asd, autism, autism spectrum disorder, autistic, autistic adult, betsy lane, big red machine, bleachers, demi lovato, favourite lyrics, favourite music, favourite songs, halsey, jack antonoff, jaz beeson, kalie shorr, ladyhawke, lyrics, mental health, mental illness, music, natalie hemby, olivia rodrigo, production, richard marc, sarah close, signals in smoke, songs, songwriting, special interest, special interests, taylor swift, travis meadows
Posted on October 16, 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:
But I like having a new album to look forward to and fortunately, there are always more.
Category: autism, emotions, favourites, music, response, special interests, video, writing Tagged: agents of shield, album, album review, albums, amidst the chaos: live from the hollywood bowl, and now we're shining, apart together, bleachers, concept album, crossroads, daisy johnson, evermore, evermore deluxe, evolve, fan video, fanvid, fearless, fearless (taylor's version), growth, halsey, human, i got here by accident, if i can't have love i want power, iichliwp, imagine dragons, inspiration, jack antonoff, kacey musgraves, kalie shorr, ladyhawke, lyric analysis, lyrical analysis, lyrics, music, musical growth, natalie hemby, national album day, national album day 2021, olivia rodrigo, onerepublic, open book, open book: unabridged, pins and needles, production, production analysis, roseanna, ryan tedder, sara bareilles, sarah close, sensory, songwriting, songwriting analysis, sour, star-crossed, strange desire, synesthesia, take the sadness out of saturday night, taylor swift, tim minchin, wild things, zane lowe, zane lowe interview
Posted on September 19, 2021
The time has come to sum up the final semester of my Masters. I am done. That’s sort of unbelievable. Given everything that’s happened since I started the course in September 2019, the end of the Masters always felt so far away and although I have lots of plans, I do feel a bit lost now that all of the work is done. Maybe it’s because I haven’t received my final grade or because I haven’t actually graduated yet; maybe once those things happen, the experience will feel a bit more… finished. It was always going to be weird – I’ve been going to this uni on and off for the last seven years – but knowing something and actually feeling it are so different.
So, here is my final semester review.
The final semester of my Masters course involves a largely independent project called the Major Repertoire Project and as long as you’re developing your songwriting skills and knowledge in some way, you can pretty much do whatever you want. People have done projects exploring identity, exploring their heritage, writing song cycles or musicals, digging deeper into their own songwriting and pursuing an artist project like an album, experimenting with newer applications of songwriting (such as in various therapies), and so on. It’s a fascinating module because everyone ends up doing something so different and so interesting. And after a spending a year or two focussing on their craft, the songwriting is so incredible; the final works that I’ve heard are amazing. It would probably take a month but I would happily listen through everyone’s projects.
For my project, I chose to explore my experiences as an autistic woman through songwriting, attempting to translate those experiences both through the lyrics and storytelling and the execution of the song, from the structure to the arrangement to the production and so on. I wanted to write songs that autistic individuals would hopefully relate to and that neurotypical individuals would hopefully gain some insight from. But while the overall goal was to create a body of work, a large part of the project involved researching our chosen area – Autism, in my case – responding to the research (sometimes that was through practice and sometimes it inspired specific songs), and reflecting on my songwriting process and how it was evolving during the project.
The module officially began in the second week of May but I’d already started working on it: I’ve been thinking about this project ever since I applied for the Masters so I was super excited to finally start doing it. But I’d barely begun when I started getting debilitating migraines that lasted for days at a time and resulted in several ambulance visits because the pain was so bad. We eventually traced the source back to one of my teeth: the emergency dentist thought the nerve was dying and diagnosed an abscess. I was top priority for an extraction and given antibiotics (which I had to have a second round of when it flared up again midway through the semester). Fortunately my university granted me an extension – giving me back the time that I’d lost – but it was a flexible extension in case I suddenly got pulled in to have the tooth taken out and needed some recovery time. Due to the long waiting list (and bear in mind that this was the waiting list for emergencies), I still haven’t had the tooth taken out and while the antibiotics and some good painkillers have prevented any more similar episodes, I’ve still been dealing with some tooth pain and migraines. So that hasn’t been ideal.
We only had four classes over the semester but since everyone was researching something different, they weren’t exactly classes. They were more group discussions where we’d talk about how our research and writing was going, whether we were struggling in a particular area, what we could do if we felt like we weren’t fulfilling one or more of the overall objectives, and so on. We had individual supervisors for the more specific guidance and problems whereas this was more general and we were able to share with each other what we’d found helpful, etc. These classes were online but we were finally able to come into the building. With most of the other courses finished for the summer, it was pretty empty and I felt safe there; you had to test negative just to get in the building and with no one around (pre-COVID, it could be a bit of a crush at times), my pandemic anxiety was a lot lower than it usually is when I’m out in the world. Being there after so much time and getting to see some of my friends again made me positively giddy! And there were some friends that I was actually meeting in person for the first time, which was just wonderful! I’m really going to miss it; I mean, I’ll pop in now and then for events and stuff but I’m really going to miss it being part of my day-to-day, week-to-week life.
Anyway. My supervisor was truly awesome. We had fortnightly and then weekly sessions and she was fantastic, not only with the academic stuff but with helping me to manage my anxiety, the things that tripped up my neurodivergent brain, and so on. And while we worked together well, we also had a lot of fun: we went on some epic tangents and there were multiple conversations that we had to mentally bookmark for later in order to actually get our work done. We got on really well and our sessions were always fun and thought-provoking, as well as helpful. I hope that this isn’t the last time we get to work together.
I obviously know a lot about Autism already so, after finding sources for that information, I started writing songs about my experiences and researching Autism further. Having the foundation of knowledge that I did, I think allowed me to research both more deeply and down different avenues since I didn’t have to spend so much time on the basic knowledge. And some of that research, from academic papers to anecdotal stories to art made by autistic individuals, sparked some really interesting song ideas (for example, I ended up writing a love song after watching Love on the Spectrum, which I found both upsetting and deeply depressing as an autistic person).
I don’t want to give too much away about the songs because I hope to release them but, over the semester, I wrote eighteen songs with a handful more that still need finishing. For the most part, I wrote alone – first because it was more convenient and then because I felt like my experiences were conveyed with more clarity that way – but I did work with a few different people, when I was struggling with a concept for example. I wrote with a couple of my friends – Richard and Luce (known as LUCE) – but I also wrote with new people that I’ve met during my time on the Masters – Luke (known as leadmetoland), Phill Vidler, and Katherine Moynihan – which was fun and exciting. It was nice to do both: I love cowriting and the back and forth of ideas but doing so much writing by myself really restored my confidence; I’ve spent so much time cowriting over the last two years and really not that much solo writing so I was nervous when I started to write alone again but after a while, it started to feel really good and that was really exciting.
But while I didn’t manage to write with Richard as much as I’d originally hoped to, we had many production sessions, mostly over Zoom. While I’d never considered the production unimportant, the project evolved to a place where the production was just as key to the representation of my autistic experiences and the emotions attached to them as the lyrics conveying the story or message. So the two of us spent a lot of time working on every little detail. While I’ve always been involved in the production choices of my songs, I’ve also always been aware that Richard knows a hell of alot more than me so I was happy to defer to his judgement. But with this project, for the first time really, I was taking the lead on production decisions – on occasion, I had the whole arrangement and production planned out before the session. But I felt more like a producer than I ever have: I was coming up with ideas that actually worked from idea to execution; I was able to pick out specific instrument, arrangement, and effect details in a way I haven’t been able to do up to now; and so on. Along with the songs themselves, that’s something I’d really proud of. I really feel like I grew as a musician and as a producer.
I absolutely loved working on my project. To be researching and writing songs about something I’m so passionate about was just so creatively invigorating. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard though. There were, of course, periods of doubt, insecurity, and anxiety over the academic elements and whether I’d be able to do as good a job as I desperately wanted to. Plus, some of the experiences I was digging into were pretty raw and writing those songs did get difficult, especially since I was suddenly doing the project without the support of my therapist, something I’d put in place to help me manage that. But apart from one bad bout of depression, my mental health was – somehow – reasonably stable (apart from my day-to-day, ongoing anxiety). As I said in my previous post, I think it was the constant creating (and creating things that I’m really proud of) that did it, that kept everything on a reasonably even keel.
Having said that, my chronic pain was almost constant, worse than it’s ever been. There were periods where my knee, for example, was so painful that I could barely walk and my back so painful that I could barely move. My Mum (once a massage therapist) said that it felt like I was storing rocks in my muscles. It certainly felt like they were made of concrete. Maybe it was my anxiety around the project, I don’t know, but the pain was keeping me up at night. I also struggled on and off with my hands and wrists, presumably from all of the typing, piano, and guitar playing I was doing. God, my various health issues are like freaking buses sometimes. I’m still waiting for physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, have been for months. I’ve just started with the Pain Clinic but one appointment was never going to change anything before the Masters ended. So all I had were various painkillers that were only sporadically helpful.
But my biggest ongoing obstacle was my difficulty concentrating, which I’m assuming is due to my (still untreated) ADHD. Staying focussed on my work was very difficult; I exhausted all of my energy trying. It felt like my concentration was so delicate that the smallest distraction would shatter it and then there was no way to know when it would come back; I felt like I was clinging onto it by my fingertips. So I couldn’t stop (really not healthy, I know). I couldn’t waste a second of it. That was super stressful and I often ended up sitting at my computer for hours and hours; there were multiple fourteen hour days, some successful, some not. People kept telling me to at least take a day off now and then but I just couldn’t. I was too scared of losing my concentration when my hold on it felt so tenuous.
During the semester, I also had a few other commitments; it was awkward timing but they were all great opportunities:
In the last month, my approach reached a new level of intensity. I was working constantly, quickly when my concentration was good and agonisingly slowly when it was bad. But I didn’t stop. I even worked while I ate. I know that’s not a healthy way of doing things but I was just so terrified of getting a grade I wasn’t happy with, that made me feel like I was letting everyone down, myself included. If I wasn’t working, I felt guilty so I just kept working.
Finally it came time to try and distill all my work down to the most important points for the final presentation. My god, that was hard. Months of research, almost twenty songs, and a lot of reflection on my creative process all into an hour… Or, as I said, the most important points. But figuring what those important points were was a real struggle. Throughout the whole Masters, I felt like the module objectives were designed to trip me up – not me specifically, of course, but anyone reading them. Reading them felt like trying to interpret another language that you barely understand so I felt like I was just waiting to discover that I had it all wrong. Maybe it was my autistic brain, I don’t know. My supervisor was great regarding this anxiety but two years of feeling that way made it a hard feeling to exorcise. So I just did what I know how to do and worked through it, hoping it would be enough. And on the 6th September, I had my final assessment. Two tutors watched my presentation and then, after a brief discussion, they asked me a couple of questions, both of which were pretty straightforward to answer. And that was it. The project and the semester was over.
According to the usual rules, the results will be released in twenty working days, although I don’t know if that will apply given that my assessment was so much later than everyone else’s and they all received their results the day after I presented. So I’m just waiting to hear. I’m trying not to stress about my grade but, as I said in my previous post, I’m finding it hard. I’ve been working relentlessly – with so many obstacles to navigate – and the idea that that still wasn’t enough to get the Distinction I want so badly does upset me. I mean, I’d get over it in time but, yeah, it would be distressing. I just really hate the idea of thinking, “I could’ve gotten a distinction if I wasn’t autistic or had ADHD, etc.” I know that that’s not a healthy way to think but the standards and expectations I have for myself are somewhat warped, something that I think is due to the late ASD diagnosis and the clash between twenty-ish years with neurotypical standards and then having to adjust those expectations in accordance with what I now know is a neurodivergent brain. It’s a mess basically. But I’m waiting for the results – they should be out on the 6th October – and hoping desperately that it went as well as I hope it did.
While the ‘project-for-assessment’ is over, I definitely want to keep working on the songs, write some more on various elements of my autistic experience that I just didn’t manage in the timeframe, and then, hopefully, release it in some form. That’s the dream. I’m so proud of so many of these songs and I really, really want people to hear them and hopefully find strength or comfort in them. We’ll have to see because these projects are just so expensive to put together, from the production work to making music videos to all of the marketing.
And while this is a topic for another post, it should be acknowledged that the semester ended on a very sad note. I found out the morning after my presentation that my Granny had died. Between that news and an intense semester’s worth of work and my brain is just at overload. I can’t tell if I’m not feeling anything or feeling everything. I don’t really want to get too deeply into all of this, partly because I’m not ready and partly because, if only on my blog, I want to keep this semester and this project separate. I really just wanted to mention it in the context of all the emotions I’m dealing (or maybe not dealing) with right now.
So that was the final semester. But there’s still a couple more chapters in this story, so to speak. Graduation will hopefully go ahead as planned – in person – in November and then who knows? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
My apologies if this post is a bit all over the place: everything’s really hitting me and I’m just exhausted but I wanted to get this out while it’s still fresh.
Category: adhd, anxiety, autism, covid-19 pandemic, death, emotions, family, heds, meltdowns, mental health, music, research, sleep, therapy, university, writing Tagged: adhd, adhd inattentive type, anxiety, anxiety disorder, asd, assessment, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, autism awareness, autism in women, autism spectrum disorder, autistic, autistic adult, autistic student, chronic pain, classes, collaboration, concentration, conference, coproducer, covid test, covid-19, cowriting, deadline, death, dentist, depression, ehlers danlos syndrome, emotions, exhaustion, extenuating circumstances, final assessment, final presentation, final project, focus, friend, friends, gad, generalised anxiety disorder, grades, graduate, graduation, grandmother, grandparent, granny, grief, heds, hydrotherapy, hydrotherapy referral, hypermobile ehlers danlos syndrome, inattentive type, loss, major repertoire project, masters, masters degree, masters degree in songwriting, masters degree year two, masters part time, mental health, mental illness, migraine, migraines, musicology, musicology conference, neurodivergent, neurodiversity, online classes, pain, pandemic, pandemic 2020, pandemic anxiety, part time masters student, physiotherapy, presentation, producer, production, research, research conference, research project, self worth, singersongwriter, songwriter, songwriting, songwriting competition, songwriting process, songwriting project, special needs dentist, specialist dentist, tooth extraction, tooth pain, trd, treatment resistant depression, university
Hi! I’m Lauren Alex Hooper. Welcome to my little blog! I write about living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD (Inattentive Type), and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), as well as several mental health issues.
I’m a singer-songwriter (it’s my biggest special interest and I have both a BA and MA in songwriting) so I’ll probably write a bit about that too.
My first single, ‘Invisible,’ is on all platforms, with all proceeds going to Young Minds.
My debut EP, Honest, is available on all platforms, with a limited physical run at Resident Music in Brighton.
I’m currently working on an album about my experiences as an autistic woman.