My answer to this question this week is the same as it would’ve been last year, and the year before that, in 2014 or 2004: It’s November, so I’m listening to Ben Folds. There are many songs, albums, and artists that I associate with this time of year—“Paper Bag” by Fiona Apple, Ys by Joanna Newsom, the collected works of Vince Guaraldi, to name a few—but the Folds catalog is the only one that seems to have a calendar date affixed to it. On a dreary day in some long-ago November, I bought a CD copy of Ben Folds Five’s Whatever And Ever, Amen; to this day, the opening “buh-bum” of its fifth track, the seething jazz waltz “Selfless, Cold, And Composed” (the copy desk thanks you for the serial comma, Ben), opens up a cascade of sense memories: the chill in the suburban Michigan air, my car splashing through puddles on Grand River Avenue, the desire to skip Pride And Prejudice rehearsals and just burrow up in “Selfless, Cold, And Composed”’s juxtaposition of snotty pleading and Burt Bacharach pastiche. The song has rolled up and rolled over memories of every November since, becoming my reliable, Proustian musical snowball, an unseasonable metaphor of which I can pin to the years I used it as a combination gateway drug/maintenance therapy for Christmas music. (Sleigh bells ring: Are you listening to the “Selfless, Cold, And Composed” outro?) And there those memories will remain, to be rediscovered at a later date, beneath whatever I pack on top of them in November 2017. (Please be better than last November.) [Erik Adams]
Techno deconstructionist Alessio Natalizia made one of my favorite albums of 2016 with Animals, and damned if he hasn’t already topped it with the brand-new Good Luck. It’s a record that takes the new-wave and industrial elements that have always percolated beneath his grungy basement bangers and brings them to the forefront—particularly on its lead single, “Where Are We,” which features an appropriately disorienting vocal turn from minimal-wave singer Marie Davidson. Over a jittery, compressed dance-punk guitar line and overloaded-circuit bass, Davidson verbally jousts with herself, calling out random locations and observations—“Sitting on a park bench / Political deadlock / Bums fighting in the park / People waiting in line”—in her detached speak-sing, while interrupted at every turn by her own voice inquiring, “Where are we?” like the intrusion of a fractured inner monologue. As Natalizia’s frenzied music builds, so does Davidson’s paranoia: “I can feel something coming,” she repeats with mounting tension, finally slipping into a mocking airplane-boarding announcement that bids the listener good luck on their own journey into this dispassionately banal, technodystopian hell. If “Where Are We” had debuted in 2000 at the height of electroclash, everyone would have been bumping this next to Fischerspooner’s “Emerge,” Miss Kittin’s “Frank Sinatra,” and Adult’s “Nausea.” But it sounds fresh again today, a blast of deliciously cold and sinister air from an album filled with them. [Sean O’Neal]
As we all get older, our musical heroes are going to fall, but I’m having a hard time coming to terms with the death of Tom Petty last month. He has been part of my permanent soundtrack since I was a wee teen, and I don’t even like to think of a world that he’s not in. Worst of all, somehow I didn’t make it to his final Wrigley Field concert this summer (let this be a lesson to all of us!), which I will kick myself for until the end of time.
In light of Petty’s passing, I greatly appreciate all the live covers and songs people are mentioning, but there’s one I’ve been listening to I haven’t seen come up yet. It’s from the album that he and the Heartbreakers were touring for the only time I ever saw them: 1999’s Echo. It was the first Petty record since his solo effort, Full Moon Fever, I gave a ton of play to, and there are songs on there that are as good as anything he ever did. But it’s “Swingin’” that’s haunting me, another one of Petty’s songs that doubles as a short story: “Well, she was standing by the highway / In her boots and silver spurs / Gonna hitchhike to the yellow moon / When a Cadillac stopped for her.” The asides to the “She went down swingin’” chorus are hilarious, as Petty calls out other “swingin’” notables: “Like Glenn Miller!” “Like Sonny Liston!” As another guy who went down swinging, only a week after his last show, Tom Petty could have added his own name to this list of eternal legends. [Gwen Ihnat]
A weird side effect of R&B’s continued exploration of almost ambient textures this decade has been how slippery some of them can be. A few—like SZA’s Ctrl or Solange’s A Seat At The Table—are full of hooks and musically ostentatious moments that mark them as instantly noteworthy. But many more perfectly listenable records fade from memory for almost indescribable reasons, while others linger unexpectedly. Dvsn’s debut, from last year, fell in the latter camp, making a big impression initially before dissolving entirely. But the OVO-signed act’s new Morning After feels infinitely more tangible and fully formed. Its title track is a great entry point, a weird little lament that somehow finds an almost nightclub pulse in its climax. Whether the songs stick around remains uncertain, but it’s been perfect for at least the stretch of dark gray days currently settling over Chicago. [Clayton Purdom]