In Albums Of The Year, A.V. Club staffers write about a record that defined 2016 for us. Maybe it isn’t the year’s absolute best record—or even our No. 1 favorite—but it’s one that, without it, music would have been a whole lot less interesting.
Greys, Outer Heaven
In the wake of the recent presidential election, there’s been plenty of chatter about how this negative outcome will positively affect music and art, with much of the focus on punk rock. It makes sense, given that punk’s always been a conduit for political outrage, whether it’s overt or minute. But as music critic Jessica Hopper astutely noted, this discussion seems to dismiss the fact that not only has there been plenty of great political records in the last few years, there’s been almost too many to list that came out this year.
One of the albums of that ilk that I kept returning to was Greys’ Outer Heaven, a record that explores the intersection between the personal and political while blurring the line between punk and indie rock. On songs such as “No Star,” Greys take a tense, noise-rock song and wring a memorable hook out of it, while “Erosion” shows the band can make a delicate, slow-burning track feel both urgent and impassioned.
As great as the music is, what puts it over the top is the lyricism of guitarist-vocalist Shehzaad Jiwani. Although he’s always been a sharp songwriter—using much of the band’s debut album, If Anything, to fluctuate between self-deprecation and cultural criticism—on Outer Heaven he explores his feeling of alienation. “No Star” opens with the arresting first line, “Don’t shoot, I’m not the enemy,” as Jiwani juxtaposes the greater fear of a trigger-happy America against his experiences as a person of color who calls Canada home. Later on, he uses the song as a means of addressing how, though he has plenty of white allies, they don’t always use the best approaches: “To those who would protect my skin from stick and tone / I don’t need you here to take my words from me.”
Jiwani digs deeper into that idea on “If It’s All The Same To You,” noting over the song’s blast of guitars that, “We’re all one of a kind in our own minds / We’re all perfect angels in our own eyes.” Addressing the relative ease of someone becoming insulated in their own bubble, it’s a call for self-awareness and need for critiques in the pursuit of personal growth. Similarly, on “Blown Out,” Jiwani tackles mental illness and the difficulties of being open and honest when people are increasingly closed. He repeatedly calls out that, “I don’t want to jade you,” a declaration that not only works in the song’s context but also speaks to Outer Heaven’s larger point.
At its core, Outer Heaven does what the best political music has been doing all year: avoiding cynicism and cheap sloganeering. Instead, it explores how the fears and anxieties of the larger world take root in a person, and how they manifest in daily life. It’s a record that doesn’t try to oversimplify things, instead starting a necessary discourse between the band and its listener.