By Bob Marshall
As Album of the Decade lists continue to roll in during the final months of the 2010s, the top spots tend to be populated by three albums, and with good reason. Kanye West’s masterpiece of maximalism My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kendrick Lamar’s candid portrayal of the Black American experience To Pimp a Butterfly, and Frank Ocean’s experimental and eclectic Blonde all were helmed by creators willing to take risks on a unique musical vision of deep personal importance. Their gambles paid off â€” the resulting albums were acclaimed not only because they sounded unlike anything that had come before them, but also because their influence catapulted their respective genres forward into new territory.
This year, no artist reached for the stars and stuck the landing better than singer-songwriter Angel Olsen. Olsen, who began the decade as a lo-fi folk artist with only an acoustic guitar to accompany her haunting vibrato, has consistently challenged herself with every album to add new instrumentation to aid her in exploring her feelings of uncertainty, isolation, and pain. All Mirrors, her fourth full-length effort in seven years, is Olsenâ€™s most colossal statement yet, pairing symphonic grandiosity with a lyrically moving investigation into heartbreak and what makes it so heartbreaking in the first place. Transitioning away from the hook-forward indie rock of her two previous albums, All Mirrorsâ€™s use of shifting dynamics and emotions sets it apart from a landscape of pop where common practice dictates that songs are either loud or quiet, sad or happy, but not both.
Olsen is hesitant to call it simply a breakup album. â€œIt’s never about a specific person or one specific event, but instead about multiple events that have been similar in a lot of ways,” she told MTV News in October. However, All Mirrors succeeds in encompassing the wide range of emotions that a breakup entails, at times illustrating this spectrum within a single song. â€œIfâ€Šonly we could start again / Pretending we don’t know each other,â€ Angel wistfully reflects over a solitary guitar in the beginning moments of album opener â€œLark.â€ Four minutes later, aided by an abrupt crescendo from her new 12-piece string section, sheâ€™s shouting at her delusional titular ex, who uses love as a justification for abusive behavior, â€œDream on! Dream on! Dream on! Dream on!â€ In Olsenâ€™s evolution from reclusive country-folk bard to rebellious indie-rock frontwoman to spectral orchestra conductor, her music has gotten darker, her songwriting more versatile, and her intention more resonant.
The added instrumentation, helmed with the assistance of co-producer John Congleton, with whom Olsen formerly collaborated on her second album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, and arrangements from composers Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff, allows for added depth and nimble changes between moods. All Mirrorsâ€™s post-relationship experience is one of perpetual change, best captured through self-reflection as the albumâ€™s title implies. Itâ€™s exemplified in the transition from the manic euphoria of â€œI’d do anything for youâ€ on the Cardigans-eque synthpop of â€œToo Easyâ€ to the quivering admission of â€œI like the life that I lead without youâ€ on the achingly fragile ballad â€œTonight.â€ Moving on from heartbreak isnâ€™t as simple as inspirational internet quotes suggest, and self-love and empowerment are not exclusive of regret and guilt. Acceptance is not necessarily without pain.
But heartbreak can both propel us into something new and inform what a â€œsomeone newâ€ might look like. The entire chorus of slow jam â€œNew Love Cassetteâ€ finds Olsen insisting, â€œLove free / Take me.â€ â€œSome people truly are just fucking human vacuums,â€ she told Pitchfork about the track. â€œAnd that song is like: Isnâ€™t it so nice when you meet someone who isnâ€™t?â€ She resolves on the albumâ€™s piano-laden closer, â€œChance,â€ to save herself from being so badly hurt again by avoiding impossible promises. â€œIt’s hard to say forever love / Forever’s just so far / Why don’t you say you’re with me now / With all of your heart?â€
To say this is a clean romantic resolution, however, would be wrong â€” and missing the point. The only finite conclusion Olsen comes to is that honest introspection requires an acknowledgement of change, and change is ongoing. On â€œSpringâ€ she concedes, â€œHow time has revealed how / Little we know us / I’ve been too busy / I should’ve noticed.â€ Instead of finding fulfillment in a relationship, perhaps the goal should be embracing and valuing lifeâ€™s periods of painful transition and hoping that, along the way, you experience something resembling personal growth.
In Olsenâ€™s case, the result of that growth is All Mirrors, a stunning and cinematic exhibition of her evolution as both a musician and lyricist. By writing about change sheâ€™s brought about change in herself, and by indulging in emotional chaos and interrogating her own experiences, sheâ€™s unlocked and employed a brand new language for creativity and introspection and put it to work. While itâ€™s one of the best albums of 2019, its ambition and achievement should also place it alongside other 2010s-defining albums that utilized sound and scale to conceive an outsized vision. Or, more simply, All Mirrors is a gift to those of us who loved â€œThank U, Next,â€ but wished it was a little sadder.
Find all of MTV News’s 2019 Albums of the Year right here.
Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video
YouTube “We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.” That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic…
“We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.”
That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic refrain with clear gospel influences. It’s Monáe’s take on a contemporary protest song, a call for a political sea change, in the vein of, say, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Courtesy of Atlantic RecordsAnd on Tuesday (September), Monáe released a moving music video — or, as she calls it, an emotion picture — that solidified that message. The visual opens and closes with the singer walking along the beach in a beige trench coat and military cap. At times, she can be seen singing into a retro microphone before an American flag; in others, she moves through staged breakfast scenes, with a family reading through newspaper headlines as they mouth her lyrics. The visual flashes through archival and contemporary footage depicting inspirational figures past and present: Where one scene shows the model and activist Jillian Mercado at a photo shoot, another depicts a conversation with lifelong activist Angela Davis.
What rings true without is a hopeful cry for change and for equality, and a recognition of those who have been leading that fight for decades. Monáe wrote “Turntables” for the new Amazon Studios documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, that shines a light on voter suppression, particularly through the lens of Stacey Abrams’s failed bid for the Georgia governorship. “Right now, I am focused on turning the election in our favor,” Monáe told Entertainment Weekly, “and I hope this song can inspire those who are on the ground doing the work.”
Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love
Getty Images/April Blum The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new? Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by…
Getty Images/April Blum
The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new?
Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by genre and can include anything — it’s a snapshot of what’s on our minds and what sounds good. We’ll keep it fresh with the latest music, but expect a few oldies (but goodies) every once in a while, too. Get ready: The Bop Shop is now open for business.
St. Vincent ft. Yoshiki: “New York”
St. Vincent, the intuitive musical goddess that she is, must have sensed our collective need for another quarantine ballad. Enter “New York [Feat. Yoshiki],” a classical arrangement of the standout single from 2017’s Masseduction. An added string section courtesy of Yoshiki, a Japanese multi-instrumentalist, beautifully complements the song’s original piano instrumentals. What more can I say? “New York isn’t New York / Without you, love” just hits different in the middle of a pandemic. —Sam Manzella
Djo: “Keep Your Head Up”
Last year, Joe Keery (of Stranger Things fame) released a glossy solo album under the moniker Djo. It was titled Twenty Twenty, and its sparkling arrangements ended up being quite far removed from the overall vibe of 2020 the year, but who could fault him for his optimism? Keery has also long been a contributing member of Chicago psych band Post Animal, but Djo is simply Joe — and latest “Keep Your Head Up” feels like several Joes ripping open a vortex in the funk-time continuum. This is a groove, peppered with buzzy synths and icy falsetto and an honest-to-god sax part. It’s akin to Todd Terje doing Tame Impala, a lightheaded cocktail rush that feels both clubby and bedroom ambitious. Positively galactic. —Patrick Hosken
Mxmtoon ft. Carly Rae Jepsen: “OK On Your Own”
When Mxmtoon’s Maia said she recorded “OK On Your Own” for the girls and the gays, she wasn’t kidding. The mellow bedroom-pop bop soundtracks a journey of self-reflection after a breakup, complete with the soft ukulele instrumentals that put the 19-year-old singer-songwriter on the map. Is it revelatory? No, but with pop icon Carly Rae Jepsen lending her sugary-sweet vocals to the second verse, it doesn’t have to be. Now I’m just waiting for “Party for Two.” —Sam Manzella
Video Age: “Aerostar”
Pleasure Line, the third album from emerging indie pop quartet Video Age, delivers perfectly escapist ’80s new wave vibes for when you need to get outta 2020 for just a moment. “Aerostar” is its punchy center, a hip-twisting, shoulder-shuffling groove that delivers quirky robot dance commands (“Slide to the left, now! Shimmy to the right!”) over hoppin’ funk synths and a kickin’ drum machine. It all harkens to a simpler time, one where dance floors were actually a real thing. Oh, the ’80s! —Terron Moore
Ruel: “As Long As You Care”
About a year ago, Australian middle-part heartthrob Ruel told MTV News that for him, “songwriting is exaggerating to an extent.” On his latest, the technicolor, soulful “As Long As You Care,” his exaggeration is so seamless, you’d be forgiven for believing the 17-year-old is actually a time traveler. The neo-soul groove he rides propels everything upward, even as the sound cheekily looks backward. “As Long As You Care” has one amazing hook, coupled with sonic candy that makes his upcoming third EP, Bright Lights, Red Eyes (out October 23) one to watch. —Patrick Hosken
Alycia Bella ft. Boogie: “Cue the Sun”
Something magical happens two-and-a-half minutes into “Cue the Sun,” the exploratory new collab between striking R&B voice Alycia Bella and rapper Boogie. After piping in the aural equivalent of stage smoke via jazzy piano and gorgeous vocalizations — “It feel like being lost in the right direction” — Bella’s song enters a more sparkly realm for Boogie’s recitations. By the end, you’re lighter, like your mind’s been cleared of all the cobwebs. Cue the sun. —Patrick Hosken
Carly Rae Jepsen
Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors
Ross Days It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case…
It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case of the New York-based artist Michael Love Michael, who last month self-released their debut album XO, it’s simply not possible, in part because they do so much.
As the former culture editor at Paper magazine, the 32-year-old “Cancer-Leo cusp,” who grew up between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, crafted celebrated profiles of such disparate musicians as Paramore’s Hayley Williams and cyborg sensation Poppy, while also serving up weekly playlists packed with the best bops from Megan Thee Stallion, Yves Tumor, and beyond. One day, it seemed they were stomping a runway in New York in a leather tank top and a cherry pout for the queer designer Willie Norris; the next, they were escaping to a farm to study permaculture at an undisclosed location “out West.”
XO, by design, rejects easy categorization. The collection, which was produced in under a year in collaboration with Michael’s longtime creative partner Rich Dasilva, fluctuates dramatically between glittering power-pop — as on the synth-heavy “6 Jaguars,” which dissolves at the bridge into a biting rap (“They call me bitch if they don’t like me… Does that tell you who I’m voting for, honey?”) — and lush, emotional ballads. Michael’s voice boasts a similarly wide range, whether as a groaning whisper in a spoken-sung segment closing “The Hatred,” or as a looping, crystalline falsetto as they perform as their own backup singer on “Blueberry.”
Their first comprehensive artistic statement, Michael tells MTV News, was intended to dispel any notion of essentialization, particularly as a Black, nonbinary artist making their mark in the industry (in June, they left Paper, citing its treatment of its Black staffers). “I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way of me saying that I have multitudes,” they say. “I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person. And I’m also fierce.”
Ross DaysMTV News: Did you record XO while you were on the farm, or was that all done before?
Michael: I basically worked on it from April until late July, so there was part of it that was finished here, but most of it was done during quarantine in New York, four or five tracks. I started recording my vocals on my iPhone and my computer, and I’m really happy with how it all turned out, because, at least in my opinion, none of it sounds like it was done at home. It has a uniformity, and it sounds kind of expansive in a lot of ways.
MTV News: I really connected with the song “Blueberry,” and there was this sound on it that reminded me almost of a dulcimer, though I couldn’t quite make it out. Given that much of it was produced at home, was there a lot of live instrumentation on this?
Michael: So there’s acoustic guitar, there’s whistling, there are actual finger snaps, and then the rest is electronic. So then there’s kind of the 808 bass drone and there’s that sound, which is like a fake electronic guitar. But I’m glad you like “Blueberry.” “Blueberry” is very, very sweet and comes from a sad place.
MTV News: Would you tell me about it?
Michael: OK, so “Blueberry” is about an unrequited love. When I was a teenager, I had this really intense crush on this guy who was closeted and involved with this girl as a way to kind of conceal, as we all do when we’re going through that journey. But we always had a connection, and it was very kind of the teenage lust kind of factor. And then, after high school, he went to the Iraq War and died.
There are lines about going off to war but also being brave and being who you are. There’s this line about purple hearts beating wild with red, red blood — the idea of a Purple Heart for bravery, while also referencing the bravery it requires to be out as yourself. There’s also the idea that both of us are sacrificing something, my jealousy and my self-reflection, and the blueberry gates became a place I would go in my mind when I would think of him. I wanted to find a way to talk about having a closeted relationship full of young lust and love, and to speak about what’s involved when two people sacrifice parts of themselves to make things work that can’t work, ultimately.
MTV News: What are some other songs on the album that feel special for you?
Michael: This is almost like my second coming out, as an artist and sharing my music with everybody. Even though I’ve been making music since I was 16, I’ve never actually had the courage until now to release anything. “XO” is my favorite track, because that’s the thesis of the project. It’s about overcoming some of my own personal demons to love myself enough to realize I had something to share and something to say, like a love letter to a damaged former self.
“Mother’s Day” is another one that I really love, because it’s kind of strange and cryptic. This one is more about people’s relationship to all things maternal, how you have to be a reciprocal give-and-take dynamic with whatever those things are, whether that’s the earth, someone you look up to who is a femme person or a mother figure. It has echoes of my own relationship with my mother and my grandmother. There’s a line about planting a garden — “Every Mother’s Day, I plant a garden for you / Every Mother’s Day, I water your flowers that bloom” — and that was something I used to do for my grandmother as a kid.
MTV News: Do you have a good relationship with your mom and your grandmother?
Michael: With my grandmother, yes. With my mother, that’s something that’s very much in process. It’s a tricky song. It’s really complex, obviously. But I love it for that reason, and I love that I feel like I’m learning how to be really good at writing about things that are personal broader and nuanced ways. I can be descriptive and I can also not be descriptive, and all of it’s intentional. It kind of reminds me of a St. Vincent, Brian Eno vibe. It feels kind of stompy, crunchy, stadium rock or something.
MTV News: What made now feel like a good time to release an album and share this project?
Michael: It was something that I didn’t intend to happen. I was happy with just having some demo recordings and maybe an EP released on SoundCloud, and then I had friends who really encouraged me to think bigger. Also, I had my own aspirations that I buried because I was trying to be realistic and I was trying to hold down full-time jobs and I was trying to be sort of a traditional careerist, and it’s just like, no bitch. Don’t dull your own shine, don’t gaslight yourself just because society gaslights you.
And so, that’s what kind of really motivated me to kind of come out with it all, and I just feel really grateful for the ability to have unlocked this avenue of creativity. Even for this to happening, for us to be talking about my album for MTV is fucking cool. Everything is luxury now, I just get so excited about everything else because creativity begets more creativity. So I don’t take any of it for granted, it’s so fucking cool.
MTV News: Yeah, I can really relate with feeling vulnerable in sharing something creative.
Michael: This is an exercise in proving something to myself. I really do believe, if you see something missing and you have the capacity to provide or be that missing link, then do that. If you feel empowered and you feel like you can and you have the resources and the energy, do that. Where queer voices are sort of becoming less and less marginalized, people want to hear what it is we have to say. Remember that there are so many people who fought and died for so much of the freedom that I and many of us take for granted. Part of being a person with a voice and sharing it is also being in service to your ancestors who came before you.
MTV News: In listening to XO as a whole, there are songs that are very soft and almost indie-leaning in a way, and then you also have these songs that are very fierce and very hard. I wondered what your intention was, or were you expressing different sides of yourself?
Michael: Well, I love that you picked up on the contrast, because that was the exact point. I definitely wanted to present duality. It’s an introduction to me as a musician and, hopefully, if there ever were any expectations, it surprises, maybe it shocks. Maybe it’s exactly what people expect — I have no fucking idea. I called it XO because I thought of X-O as sort of an expression of contrast, because it’s like hugs and kisses are sort of opposite things, but then so is the idea of being open and being closed.
I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way saying that I have multitudes. I’m a complex, fully realized human being. So it was important for me to show a hard edge and a softer, gentler side, because at the end of the day, I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person, and I’m also fierce. The Cancer-Leo cusp is really that, it’s very that.