Attempting to make peace with the present state of pop radio, slower and sparer and more hypnotic than ever under the influence of what’s now called Spotifycore, I went looking for the calmest albums I could find and came up with a bunch of alternative rock. Intended to soothe the nerves, the four albums reviewed below also disquiet, which I find more comforting than tranquility alone.
Clairo: Immunity (Fader Label)
Clairo makes hazy, silken, electronically altered guitar pop, torn between reticence and feeling. The Atlanta singer-songwriter’s first album is a quiet, scrupulous depiction of concealed infatuation.
Soothing in several ways, Clairo’s music combines acoustic and electronic modes of calm: the fragile, lilting, homemade quality of lo-fi bedroom confessionals, and the warm, shimmering, layered surfaces of trance music.
Produced by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, whose own music shares Clairo’s affinity for meticulous luxury, the album’s mildly serrated rhythm guitar, faded synth clouds, and skeletal piano lines combine to form an airy aural blanket, cozy and immersive, more sumptuous in tandem than each element would sound separately.
Her singing is dazed and plainspoken; she’s talking to herself, bluntly, under her breath. Her trick is to articulate the concrete in unexpected contexts: given the music’s velvet delicacy, it’s a surprise to hear her speaking so directly.
“Sofia,” a dizzy expression of longing for a female friend, generates heartache from the gauzy, pastel interweaving of pattering drums, rosy arpeggiated guitar chords, sudden bursts of electric noise, and a gentle melody that encompasses both playfulness and ennui; toward the end, her voice breaks down, multi-tracked into competing murmurs and sighs — the sound of someone who views her own desires at a distance as she’s losing composure. “Bags” is more repressed and in some ways more typical, as a flat, shiny, melancholy guitar riff underscores a confession she can’t bring herself to utter aloud, except in song. “Can you see me using everything to hold back?” she asks, and the moment stings.
A beguiling mix of songcraft and atmosphere, this album floats lightly, grounded in feeling. Her moods won’t dissipate until they’ve caught you.
Oso Oso: Basking in the Glow (Triple Crown)
Having become one of emo’s more acclaimed songwriters thanks to a string of increasingly catchy Bandcamp mixtapes, Jade Lilitri crafts an album that’s almost unprecedented for emo if not alternative rock: a bright, bouncy, somewhat worried examination of joy as emotion and idea. Energetic and detached, these songs cast revealing shadows on delight and melancholy.
This is not a happy album, exactly, but it does ponder happiness with curiosity, respect, confusion. Lilitri writes from the perspective of someone convinced he should be enjoying his life more than he is, or at least wondering why he isn’t; what follows is a self-examination so total it sidesteps the confessional mode for something weirder and more direct, with song topics that are almost philosophical: why certain things make people feel certain ways, why people have emotions at all. Crucially, these songs don’t imply causality; whether he’s ambivalent about romance or his career, the true subject is yearning itself.
Appropriately, the tunes are punchy and clear, but some nagging hesitation prevents them from completely rocking out, instead of jumping and twitching with frustration. The band sound, a particularly iridescent variant on emo’s signature crunchy jangle, conjures therapeutic warmth from the vitreous gleam of layered electric guitars. If this music soared as automatically as the arena-rock it’s modeled on, the sentiments would rankle; instead there’s a plaintive, clumsy pathos to the lurch.
On “A Morning Song,” rumbling power chords accentuate the chime of a higher, shinier riff with a countryish feel, but Lilitri’s blunt, quavery voice undercuts the song’s momentum, as if he’s stumbling over himself. “Basking in the Glow” captures his unease: by wishing “I hope I’m basking in the glow,” he gives the impression of observing himself as an outsider, lacking access to his own emotions. The lustrous guitar hook rouses and soothes.
This album is a nervous depiction of the daily, lifelong struggle to construct cheer, buoyant and fragile. It’s so stilted it’s devastating.
Lindsey Stirling: Artemis (Lindseystomp/BMG)
As America’s premier pop-classical crossover violinist, Lindsey Stirling has invented her own genre of instrumental music. Techno beats and electronic treatments augment her lead solo violin to produce dance tracks that combine a soaring violin with slick synthetic textures absent from most classical music. As usual with self-invented formulas, theres’s a fine but crucial line between genre exercise and kitsch.
Given Stirling’s five stylistically similar, mostly instrumental, sneakily soothing violin albums designed for dazzling technical showiness and glossy listenability, how might one go about distinguishing them?
Her albums work when they highlight restless melodic motion, and hence achieve a riverlike flow, gliding lightly but with irrepressible rhythmic momentum — a musical depiction of constant reinvention (achieved most sublimely on Warmer in the Winter, her Christmas album).
Sometimes the electronic components are too exactly borrowed from EDM — whether it’s the honking high-energy theatrics of dubstep or, as on this soundtrack to a comic book based on Greek mythology, the gushier, more ethereal (if canned) spirituality of electronic balladry. The predictable rise-and-fall dynamics of EDM (slow verse, gradual build, explosion, start again from the beginning, repeat) — implying as they do a grotesquely overstated machismo enervated by the automation of the regular climaxes — mixes rather amusingly with Western classical harmonic convention. One might call the resulting musical overkill Wagnerian, but really it’s a surreal hybrid of multiple overwrought modes, including movie soundtracks (the title track, “Artemis,” recalls the Star Wars “Duel of the Fates” theme).
Technically, there are no drops on this album, although “The Upside” comes close; Stirling’s violin is not the instrument to be put through such paces — it wants to flutter, twirl, float, loop around, and go kapow rather than march in loud, self-renewing circles. Amy Lee’s guest vocal on “Love Goes On and On,” adducing stars and angels via icy soprano, confirms the album’s commitment to false uplift.
I can’t prove that the album’s grandiosity correlates with its fantasy concept, but the coincidence is there. It’s touching that culturally disparate strains of bombast should find a common home.
Tyler, the Creator: Igor (A Boy is a Gun/Columbia)
In the past few years, Tyler, the Creator has abruptly shifted styles, discarding his signature crude, horrorcore-derived shock-rap for a lighter, prettier, R&B-drenched sound that coincides with candidly romantic lyrics: a lovely development. This album, a song cycle about the end of an affair with a man, is still quite surly.
Tyler’s last album, Flower Boy (2017), signaled his stylistic swerve with muzzy, summery beats, chattering jazz keyboards, cooing background singers; the proliferation of sweet voices other than himself was often so beautiful that his own gruff rapping seemed an afterthought.
Within a similar musical template, Igor is rougher: more menacing synthesizer loops and Tyler’s gruff, percussive flow are at the musical center again. Here the buzzy, standoffish basslines and, multifaceted drum tracks set the mood, while the R&B choruses and fluttery electronic arpeggios play as queasy memories of love lost. The album’s pace is knotted, as the many saturnine elements take time to click so densely together into beats.
The plot isn’t hard to follow — Tyler starts the album longing for his lover, then the lover leaves him for a woman, then Tyler becomes his angry alter ego Igor, who renounces love and raps in a wounded snarl, before accepting the affair’s end, forgiving the ex-boyfriend, and finding closure — but it does bifurcate the album rather cleanly between love songs and hard squelchy beats.
If he’d condensed the same story into an EP, I could imagine it feeling terse and heartbreaking; over the album’s length, Tyler’s tendency to linger on every dramatic moment distends his narrative rhythm, especially toward the end (he segues quite mechanically from “I Don’t Love You Anymore” to “Are We Still Friends?”). The result is an album that feels emotionally true and endlessly discursive.
Igor sparkles and growls, but Tyler hasn’t resolved his conflicting fondnesses for lilt and abrasion — you can tell, because he feels the need to schematize. But he’s working toward a synthesis.