Podcast: Reviews of the New Albums from Halsey and CHVRCHES

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Woah! What a new music Friday we just had. Highlighting the release schedule were Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power and CHVRCHES’ Screen Violence. Kiel Hauck hops on the mic to break down his thoughts on both new albums, keying in on the artistic evolution of Halsey and their journey as one of the most important pop-adjacent artists of the past decade and how CHVRCHES rebounded from their major label debut to re-discover themselves in unexpected ways. Take a listen!

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Posted by Kiel Hauck

The Best Songs of 2020

You can view our list of The Best Albums of 2020 here.

For many of us, our music listening experience in 2020 was vastly different from any other year. I honestly have no memories of jamming to songs in my car, hearing music over the loud speaker at a bar, or enjoying live music with a crowd of people on a warm, summer night. In 2020, my memories are mostly indoors, and very often, alone.

So what songs do we turn to in those moments? What tracks kept us company through the ups and mostly downs of a year lived largely in quarantine? We did our best to build a list of songs that captured the emotional highs and lows we felt, along with tracks that spoke something meaningful or something new. Take a look – and a listen – and let us know your favorite tracks in the replies!

15. AJR – “Bang!”

Here’s a real wild card. I was supposed to see AJR play this spring but then quarantine started. They’re a recent addition to my Spotify, but my brother is a big fan and has been trying to get me to listen to them for about a year or so now (Hi Nick!). He was largely unsuccessful in his attempts, but their radio single “Bang!” was when I hopped on the train. I’m not generally a Top 40 gal, but this song is refreshing. It’s radio friendly but original. Lyrically, it’s about growing up and how difficult that is, but sonically we’re at a party. It’s a promising single for the band’s fourth album and I’m excited to see how it fits in with the rest of it (We can expect that project early next year.) – Nadia Alves

14. The Bombpops – “Double Arrows Down”

“Double Arrows Down” is a raging punk song that focuses on guitarist/vocalist Poli Van Dam’s struggle with diabetes. Focused around an incident of passing out at a gas station due to complications from the disease, the song is equal parts terrifying and filled with rage (“I’m sitting there, in another cold pharmacy chair / Standing by while they suck my veins and wallet dry / I can write all these defiant songs, but my life is still reliant on machines”). The Bombpops portray the terror of this disease against a blazing punk riff and an electrifying pop chorus. The full horror and frustration of the disease is played out against the sound of rebellion, and hope to ultimately battle diabetes to the end. – Kyle Schultz

13. Juice Wrld – “Righteous”

Juice Wrld’s posthumous 2020 album Legends Never Die is a breathtaking view of what was to come from the emo rapper before his tragic passing last December from a drug-induced seizure. “Righteous”, the album’s lead single, serves as a haunting reflection on his mental health struggles and self-medication in an attempt to ease the pain. His words float gently atop the melancholy beat as he ponders on death and the cyclical nature of his addiction. “Taking medicine to fix all of the damage / My anxiety the size of a planet”, he confesses as his voice begins to rise. It’s a track that encapsulates the heart of a gifted artist gone far too soon. – Kiel Hauck

12. Twenty One Pilots – “Level of Concern”

For only releasing one song in 2020, Twenty One Pilots have had quite the impact this year. They released “Level of Concern” in April, when quarantine was only a two week affair and we all were baking sourdough and blending our coffee. Ah, simpler times. Personally, the guys have had a lot going on as well — Josh got married at the end of December, and Tyler and Jenna had their baby. They still found time to give us the perfect song about the absolute stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic, and it’s easily the most on-the-nose song of the year, which is why it makes my top songs for 2020. Plus it’s a bop. – Nadia Alves

11. All Time Low – “Sleeping In”

“Sleeping In” is the best song All Time Low have written in a decade. Seamlessly blending the pop direction of recent albums and the Warped Tour mosh pits of albums past, the song is the personification of the band’s career. All at once oozing in swagger and sexiness, “Sleeping In” is the song that All Time Low were always meant to write. The song manages to find restraint in the verses with a pop-funk mesh (“We got shit to do, you got work / But we fall right back into bed, like it’s all just a game / And we can’t help that, no we can’t help that”) and an all-out punk rock chorus that rivals All Time Low’s best (“If I said ‘I want your body,’ would you hold it against me?”). – Kyle Schultz

10. The 1975 – “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America”

I’ve long held that The 1975 are at their best when their songs are stripped down to an elemental level, which is what makes “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” one of their best. A painful, folksy track about secret loves forbidden by religion reaches unexpected heights thanks to contributions from Phoebe Bridgers. Could anyone else on the planet make lines as simple as, “I’m in love with the girl next door / Her name is Claire” sound as emotional and meaningful through cracking, whispered vocals? When Bridgers and Matt Healy come together during the song’s final chorus, their song of love just beyond their reach becomes magic – and tragic: “Fortunately I believe / Lucky me”. – Kiel Hauck

9. Phoebe Bridgers – “Moon Song”

Though not released as one of the singles from Punisher, this track from the album is my favorite. I mentioned the raw emotion of it in my album review. Generally the freshness of a song will influence how much it sticks in my mind before I toss it aside for something shinier I get distracted by, but this one is a true jewel on the album, Phoebe’s discography, and the year in music. It’s rumored to be inspired by Conor Oberst, but lines like “You’re holding me like water in your hands” is all too relatable in a year where almost all of us have experienced intense loss and a redefining of priorities. I could have chosen any one of the songs from Punisher as one of my top songs this year — the album is truly that great — but “Moon Song” just has a little something extra that takes it all the way to the top for me. – Nadia Alves

8. KennyHoopla – “how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//”

The title track from KennyHoopla’s debut EP is a renaissance song of genre, mashing new wave rock with garage punk and creating a modern dance track with the sensibilities of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The song is an energetic track that sounds ripped from the early 2000’s indie scene. However, the track is also a commentary on the uncomfortable nature of conforming to looking acceptable in society (“Culture is so claustrophobic / Claws to prove it hurts so good / And the party’s over / I’m still on your couch now, love”). The speed at which society moves and changes its opinion is a damaging thing (“How can I rest in peace if I’m buried by a highway? / Pain on the keys, is everybody still breathing? / Weight of my shadow, it gets more heavy, and it scares me, yeah”). The song turns the anxiety of the quickly changing world into a song that works equally on the dance floor as it does on a Midwestern emo playlist. – Kyle Schultz

7. Halsey – “you should be sad”

For the country ballad entry to the genre melting pot that is Manic, Halsey penned “you should be sad”, one of the rawest and most personal tracks of the year. It’s easy to mistake it as a break-up song (that was last year’s “Without Me”), but this is what you write when you’re on the other side, looking back at your ex with a smirk. Halsey tees things up mightily on the pre-chorus with the lines of, “No, you’re not half the man you think that you are / And you can’t fill the hole inside of you with money, drugs, and cars”, before bringing down the hammer with, “I’m so glad I never, ever had a baby with you / ‘Cause you can’t love nothing unless there’s something in it for you”. Ouch. It just might be the most empowered sad country song you’ll ever hear. – Kiel Hauck

6. Hayley Williams – “Crystal Clear”

In Hayley Williams’ solo project, Petals for Armor, she gave us songs about mental health, loss, femininity and new beginnings. Having the album since May really gave me a chance to pick through every track and I can confidently say “Crystal Clear” deserves a place on my top track list for the year. It’s the best closer I heard this year, and the way it brings the album full circle was necessary for something that began in such a dark and spiteful place. Hayley really took the time to truly process the past few years of her life and the decisions she’d made. Finishing it all off with a powerful song about forgiveness and clarity is a great lesson for all of us. – Nadia Alves

5. Taylor Swift – “Mad Woman”

One of the few venomous songs on Swift’s folklore, “Mad Woman” makes use of every line to fight back against an oppressive industry. On a base level, the song acts as a spiritual successor to Lover’s “The Man”, but there is much more to the song than the theme of “a woman scorned.” The song is at least partially a commentary against Scooter Braun, the music producer who bought all of Swift’s master recordings (“What do you sing on your drive home? / Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn? / Does she smile? Or does she mouth, ‘Fuck you forever?’”). One of Swift’s few rage-imbued songs, “Mad Woman” describes the toll taken on women who see themselves being taken advantage of by anyone (“Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy / What about that? / And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry”). – Kyle Schultz

4. The Weeknd – “Faith”

The most exciting stretch of After Hours belongs to the three consecutive songs featuring production from Metro Boomin, culminating with “Faith”. Here, Abel Tesfaye’s vocals become an instrument in the mix as he circles the drain and loses his religion, confessing, “When I’m coming down is the most I feel alone”. It’s a startling lament to an addiction that creates a chasm between himself and others, but the song reaches its thematic and sonically thrilling climax in the final minutes as the entire tone of the song shifts. “I ended up in the back of a flashing car”, he sings as he gently describes the shimmering lights of the cityscape and ambulance siren. The song fades into “Blinding Lights” – the biggest pop hit of the year, which takes on a sinister new meaning in this context. Truly, no one has mastered this sleight of hand trick better than The Weeknd. – Kiel Hauck

3. Marina – “Man’s World”

This has been one heck of a year regarding social justice and reform. Historic protests against police brutality, and in the America election, the choice of our first female vice president —  just to name a couple. Marina has come swooping in from her break after 2019’s Love + Fear to bring us “Man’s World,” a scathing track about gender equality, one of many women to release commentary on the issue. As a woman, the time for artists to talk about important issues plaguing my demographic are always welcome, and Marina has dropped a truth bomb on us in this track. She also put her money where her mouth is by choosing an all-gal team for the track’s production. It’s absolutely my track of the year, with its drop in November completely upending any idea I had of my ranking. – Nadia Alves

2. MxPx – “Worries”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, MXPX were one of the first bands to release an original song about the new reality we all faced. “Worries” managed to melt away much of the anxiety that I felt living through the height of Chicago’s lockdowns and inspired me to leave the quarantine I had been in and venture home for the first time in two months.

“Worries” managed to bypass fears of the disease at the height of the lockdowns in big cities, and express the emotional resonance of a classic MXPX song while inspiring listeners to persevere with enigmatic skate punk verses and a raging punk guitar chorus/bridge (“I’m not worried, I’ll be fine / Just want you to know you’re on my mind / I’m not worried, just worried sick, a little dose of you might do the trick / You’re the cure for worried sick”).

It’s almost solely because of this song that I began to gather myself again and prepare for the rest of the year in Chicago’s early May. Even now, in December, I give this song credit for inspiring me to cast off the fear of the Spring lockdowns and prepare for the return of the every day. It’s also been a constant soundtrack throughout the year as infections seemed to surge again, reminding me that a return to “normal life” is only a matter of time away. – Kyle Schultz

1. Dua Lipa – “Break My Heart”

It’s difficult to choose just one song from Future Nostalgia that fully encapsulates Dua Lipa’s thrilling breakthrough this year, but if “Don’t Start Now” was fan service for the general audience, “Break My Heart” represents Dua’s alt-pop queen potential. Featuring an irresistible interpolation of INXS’ “Need You Tonight”, this dance/disco track feels less like an 80’s homage and more like a doorway into the future of pop music. In short, it’s the most fully realized track of the Future Nostalgia concept.

But as you’re dancing, take a listen to Dua’s growth as a songwriter. “Break My Heart” is about those moments in an exciting new relationship when you’re standing on the edge of the cliff. Is it safe to jump? Who could ever know? “I’m indecisive, but this time I know for sure”, she sings on the opening verse before crooning, “It’s you in my reflection, I’m afraid of all the things you could do to me”, on the pre-chorus. It’s a giddy uncertainty we’ve all experienced set to the most electric soundtrack you could imagine. And in a year as dark as this, it’s a refreshing dose of light and innocence. – Kiel Hauck

Honorable Mention:

Run the Jewels – “Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)”
Billie Eilish – “No Time to Die”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Comeback”
Ariana Grande – “Positions”
Childish Gambino – “Algorhythm”

Posted by Kiel Hauck

The Best Albums of 2020

Mercifully, 2020 is winding to an end. Not that a simple turn of the calendar will solve all of our problems, but as we reach the end of the year, there is a lot to process and reflect on – and maybe even learn from. One thing that has been a constant for the team at It’s All Dead this year is music. Music as a reprieve, music as a distraction, music as a friend. So we take a moment away from the dread to focus on some albums that brought us joy and helped us through the toughest moments of the past year.

A quick note before we dive into the list: Our goal each year is to give a clear representation of the music that mattered to us the most while also reflecting the music that simply mattered. The larger the area in the middle of that Venn diagram, the higher it ranks on the list. Noticeably absent on this year’s list is the album that arguably mattered the most: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

During our team conversations as we began working on our end-of-the-year features, we realized that none of us had spent enough time with the album to warrant it making the list without it feeling extremely disingenuous. Right or wrong, we made the call to leave it off while acknowledging the impact of the album. If you haven’t heard it, take a listen.

So here we go. Take a look – and as always – let us know your favorite albums of the year in the replies!

15. Hot Mulligan – You’ll Be Fine

I feel like I often end up pulling some wild cards into our year-end lists, and this year my wild card is You’ll Be Fine. I meant to write about it when it released in March, but this year took a lot out of me which translated to a lot more listening than writing. For me, that meant returning to this Hot Mulligan album again and again, especially over the summer. It’s quintessential pop punk, which is both right up my alley and easy to get into. They explored more thoughtful songwriting on this album compared to their previous projects, moving closer to a Wonder Years level of consideration in their production. Even though I enjoyed their first album Pilot, this album makes me truly excited for the trajectory of this band: Up. – Nadia Alves

14. Knuckle Puck – 20/20

Though Knuckle Puck have been a growing force within the scene for years, the ominously named 20/20 is their most cohesive and well-structured album to date. Somehow finding the magic of normalcy, the album stands in contrast to the year it was released in and breathes fresh life into a genre that can quickly sound redundant—the midwest pop punk scene. 20/20 reminds the listener not to back away from the problems in their life, but instead reflect and learn on the experiences. Weaving traditional emo punk against some experimental tracks on the band’s signature sound, 20/20 finds Knuckle Puck forging ahead with a fire behind them that can only see the good even when it stares into the everyday horrors we all face.  – Kyle Schultz

13. Stand Atlantic – Pink Elephant

When pop punk is at its best, it allows us to lower our inhibitions, feel our feelings, and join a safe community chorus of fellow voices caught in the fray. Depending on who you ask, it’s been a while since that experience rang true, but Sydney, Australia, act Stand Atlantic are intent on reviving the spirit. Pink Elephant, the band’s sophomore effort, is everything a great pop punk release should be while constantly stretching its wings into new territory. Vocalist Bonnie Fraser unravels the tangles that hold her back, singing “My guts keep falling out / And I’m starting to disintegrate / I’ll carry on / Yeah, it’s just like that” on the album’s opener. Call it a lament if you want, but it works better as a thesis statement on forging ahead. – Kiel Hauck

12. Neck Deep – All Distortions Are Intentional

This is the first and only album on my list that is truly escapist. A concept album about fulfilling our emo dreams in a world where we truly care about others is a necessary course of action that could make true change if we implemented it in the real world. Easily one of the most positive and thought-provoking albums to come from the pop-punk genre this year, All Distortions Are Intentional is another addition to Neck Deep’s maturing discography, and a project by a band that has truly come into their own form of activism and wave-making. – Nadia Alves

11. New Found Glory – Forever + Ever x Infinity

New Found Glory albums are mostly easy to predict: loud, catchy and filled with easy sing-along choruses. Forever + Ever x Infinity excels in that it acts as an album filled with fairy tales. The band lean heavily on their roots of writing songs about relationships, but through a lens of maturity and humor. The result is an album that both reflects on the band’s roots in pop punk, as well as presses forward with an easycore crunch and shining pop choruses (“Greatest of all Time”). Sometimes cheesy, sometimes hopelessly romantic, New Found Glory’s 10th album acts as a perfect followup to the much celebrated Self-Titled album by reflecting on the themes of that record with a middle-aged point of view and the sobering reality that only time can grant. – Kyle Schultz

10. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

Hip hop fans waited patiently for the fourth installment from rap duo Run the Jewels, but RTJ4 actually arrived early. With the release date suddenly pushed forward in the midst of protests against police brutality due to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery, Run the Jewels owned the moment and captured the national outrage. Like all previous Run the Jewels albums, RTJ4 is rife with rattling bass-lines and rapid fire lyrics from Killer Mike and El-P, but this installment feels like pointed protest music right from the jump (“Yankee and the Brave”). Maybe revolution music is a more apt descriptor. – Kiel Hauck

9. All Time Low – Wake Up, Sunshine

Wake Up, Sunshine is All Time Low’s best album in a decade, perfectly balancing the pop sensibilities the band have been striving for with the punk rock buzz that earned them an adoring audience. The album is mature and reflective, but also looks confidently forward with a style that hopefully comes to define the band moving forward. A thematic sister album to fan favorite Nothing Personal, Wake Up, Sunshine highlights the growth of the band (“Some Kind of Disaster”), as well as emphasizes their storytelling ability (“Wake Up, Sunshine”) and features the best song the band has written in years (“Sleeping In”). – Kyle Schultz

8. Halsey – Manic

Manic shouldn’t work. The third full-length album from Halsey is a mess. But like paint crawling itself across the canvas, the idiosyncrasies begin to intertwine, giving unique views of mental illness and the weight of fame as you zoom in and out of the portrait. Halsey’s greatest strength as an artist has always been her vulnerability and willingness to display her deepest fears in a way that feels more than relatable. With Manic, she somehow delivers her most cohesive work despite there being no clear genre. Simply change tracks to switch between country, rock, R&B, and more. The navigation of it all feels as honest and messy as any great therapy session should. – Kiel Hauck

7. Soccer Mommy – Color Theory

Many of the albums that ended up sticking out to me this year dealt with the heavy things. That is in part because I’m a heck of a pessimist, and also because the year we’ve had has been made for us pessimists. With Color Theory, Sophia Allison showed us contrast. With the color triad of yellow, blue and grey, she artfully wove a true story about loss, illness and grief – something too many of us have experienced in some way or another this year. I’m a sucker for her lo-fi sound, and it definitely added some variety to my music this year. Hopefully, Sophia Allison should be in for a great next couple of years as she rises in the indie pop sphere. – Nadia Alves

6. The Weeknd – After Hours

We were merely one week into quarantine and fear when The Weeknd dropped After Hours, an album that eerily captured the feelings of isolation so many of us were (and still are) feeling. On surface level, the album reads like textbook Tesfaye, but closer examination reveals deep and fascinating artistic maturity. After Hours studies remorse and self-reflection on the other side of a hedonistic ride. Here, the blinding lights and shimmering boulevard are blurry and distant – something to long for, but not before a winding back road of questioning and self-loathing. – Kiel Hauck

5. KennyHoopla – how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//

KennyHoopla is the type of artist all musicians dream of being. His newest EP,  how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//, perfectly blends elements of R&B, emo, new wave and pop, among other genres, to create a bridge across the realm of music. Although just a few songs in length, KennyHoopla takes advantage of each moment by weaving an intensely honest record filled with admissions of inadequacy and fantasticism (“dust//”). Delivered with emotional depth and the intensity of a superstar, KennyHoopla sounds vibrantly original and deeply nostalgic. In just six songs, his EP accomplishes more with its time than some musicians do in their entire careers. – Kyle Schultz

4. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor

When I preordered my copy of Petals for Armor on vinyl, I did so with the expectation that it would be both a great album and my top album of the year. While it didn’t quite top my list, it felt like an album that truly mattered – an album she wrote for herself rather than for a mainstream audience. I love Petals, and I think it’s the most important project to come from Hayley Williams. She truly explored and processed a lot of things through the album, and she took us along for the ride and prompted us to be more introspective and openminded when it comes to taking care of our mental health. She brought up a lot of personal feelings regarding loss for me, and in turn, I ended up dealing with some of the things I had pushed away. I’m grateful for that. – Nadia Alves

3. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

English singer and songwriter Dua Lipa showed flashes of what was to come with her 2017 self-titled debut, but chose to shed away any preconceived notions of powerhouse pop with Future Nostalgia, an album bubbling with disco and dance spirit. Everything about it works, specifically because Dua Lipa takes full control of her art in every way without the slightest hint of restraint. 

The album never slows down, even as it veers between lanes, blurring the lines between its influences and Dua’s own original, melodic concoctions. “You want a timeless song / I want to change the game”, she tells us mere seconds into the album. A factory-made pop star she is not. What a fabulous invitation to lean into the experience and dance away the aches of the shittiest year in recent memory. – Kiel Hauck

2. Taylor Swift – folklore

Releasing one career-best album is a crowning achievement for any artist, but to deliver two within a year is something special. Swift’s surprise album folklore perfects her ability to tell a story by blending personal stories and fictional characters in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to tell which is which. Folklore excels as the perfect representation of who Swift is as an artist by stripping away everything that we thought made a Taylor Swift album—the glamorized production values, over-the-top choruses and the electrifying pop elements that have punctuated her recent albums. At its base level, folklore is an indie album of sweet songs (“mirrorball”), but the songs are intimate, intricate pieces of art with as much depth and scope as a fleshed-out pop hit.

Unafraid of the silence between notes, folklore puts the melody and story first and foremost. The album strips away all expectations fans had of who Swift is as an artist by showing them something better. Soft, sincere and honest even when fictional, Swift has reinvented her career by stripping her music to its essentials and finding just as much, if not more, meaning in each song (“mad woman”, “betty”). – Kyle Schultz

1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

This year’s top album was actually quite a difficult and personal debate for me, but after a lot of reflection and back and forth, the bell rang and I lifted Phoebe Bridgers’ hand as Punisher was declared the winner. Her gentle delivery and poignant writing was a welcome break for me this year, a year when I’ve been so up in arms about — well, just about everything. It gave listeners something to direct their sadness and confusion at for 40 minutes and 37 seconds.

Phoebe didn’t shy away from the harsh reality of her life and her past in Punisher, and the raw honesty is what has kept me coming back throughout the latter half of the year. It takes a lot for me to consider an album as the best, and not only is it the best album of the year, it’s the best in Phoebe’s discography. She’s showed her maturity and individuality here, and that counts for everything in my book. – Nadia Alves

Honorable Mention

PVRIS – Use Me
Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
Lady Gaga – Chromatica
Blaqk Audio – Beneath the Black Palms
The Bombpops – Death in Venice Beach

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Halsey Returns to Badlands on 5th Anniversary

It probably goes without saying that I listen to a lot of music. Like, a lot. And it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. But for all of the different albums, singles, mixtapes, playlists, and b-sides that accompany my days, I can typically pinpoint specific “eras” or stretches of my life that are dominated by a specific artist. And while the songs of that artist’s music highlight the memories in my mind, it’s more than that. It’s the overall influence they have over any given stretch that showcases a shift in my listening habits and my enjoyment of art.

For the past five years, Halsey has been that artist in my life.

You can buy or stream Badlands (Live From Webster Hall) on Apple Music.

I was aware of the groundswell taking place back in 2014 when Halsey began to stake her claim as an indie internet darling, but I largely missed out on her Room 93 debut EP. Truly, it was Badlands that won me over – an album that turned five years old this weekend. And when I think of Halsey’s growth and evolution as an artist in that short span of time, it seems like it should have been much longer.

I praised Manic upon its release earlier this year and can spoil for you now that it will almost certainly be making an appearance on our end-of-the-year list. I even love hopeless fountain kingdom, the sophomore album that many critics (and even a portion of her fanbase) found to be uneven and disappointing. Honestly, there isn’t much she’s been a part of that I haven’t enjoyed these past five years. But even now, there’s something about Badlands that still feels fresh and exciting.

There are moments throughout the album, no matter how many times I listen, that still give me goosebumps. This past Friday, Halsey released Badlands (Live From Webster Hall), which was recorded last year during a two-night event in New York City. The beauty of the recording is that it catches those goosebump-inducing moments perfectly through its mixing the sound of the crowd. 

It reminds me how I felt during my first listen of the spacey vacuum of sound in “Castle” right before the beat drops during the first chorus. It reminds me of seeing Halsey in concert a few years ago and how I didn’t imagine a live performance could give me that kind of energy again. It reminds me of that opening three-song stretch of “Castle” to “New Americana” that’s so dark and ambitious – a stretch in which you feel in every moment that Halsey truly has something important to say. And at times, she says it with a sledgehammer.

I get that the album felt cheeky or hollow to some. But there was something about that moment that seemed to announce a new generation of both pop star and music fan, which very rarely coalesces at the same time. It’s a spirit and a movement carried on by the likes of Billie Eilish in recent years. And if you’re not a part of those moments or look on callously from the sidelines, you’re likely to feel that way.

None of that changes what Badlands meant and still means to me. It’s a perfectly imperfect album that reminds me of how I can feel when I let my guard down and feel the music I listen to.

There’s no better example of what that looks like than during the aforementioned concert I attended during Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom Tour when it stopped at the White River Lawn in Indianapolis. My favorite track from Badlands is “Roman Holiday” – a rarely spoken of non-single from the album. The song wasn’t part of the setlist at previous dates and I’d resigned myself to not hearing it that night.

Toward the end of the show during Halsey’s encore, she made a switch and announced she was doing something different. Those unmistakable opening notes of “Roman Holiday” blinked through the speakers, and as my wife can attest, I lost my mind. I lost myself in a way I haven’t at a concert since back when I wasn’t so self-conscious about losing myself in that way. And it’s hard to imagine having another one of those moments any time soon.

I can’t really explain it well with words, and I get that it sounds mushy and forced. But if you know, you know. And oddly enough, that’s kind of what makes the community of Halsey fans so great and makes her music resonate. Badlands was magic, and I’ll take any opportunity to celebrate.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Podcast: Music Therapy During the Covid-19 Lock-In

It’s been a strange few weeks, to say the least. As the country takes measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, we take some time on our podcast to discuss how we’re handling a new reality. Kiel Hauck, Kyle Schultz and Nadia Paiva discuss how music is providing comfort during this time, debate the best band discographies to binge, and share some of the new music released in 2020 that has left its mark. Take a listen.

Like our podcast? Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts and be sure to leave a review.

What albums are keeping you company as you self-distance? Share in the replies!

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Review: Halsey – Manic

In a recent interview with Zane Lowe, Halsey name-dropped The Wonder Years as being an influence on her newest album, Manic. It makes sense when you think about it. Manic is a deeply personal work of art about Halsey herself – her demons, her fears, her frustrations, her trappings. Just as we’ve become accustomed to Dan Campbell writing the kind of lyrics that are so visceral and specific as to paint a very particular picture in your mind, Halsey has fully and beautifully captured this moment in her life. And while it may be highly specific to her own story, you might be surprised as to how easy you can find your own within.

Halsey Manic album cover

You can buy or stream Manic on Apple Music.

Halsey has come a long way since her viral breakthrough into the zeitgeist during the middle portion of the last decade. By the time “New Americana” hit the internet in the summer of 2015, she was lauded as the countercultural pop spokesperson for a new generation. Leaning into the dark synthpop stylings that have now become fully mainstream, Halsey excelled in making great pop songs that could strike a nerve. But one thing she hadn’t done across her first two releases (Badlands and hopeless fountain kingdom) was create a truly great album.

Ultimately, having that notch on your belt doesn’t matter as much as it used to, but there’s something about a cohesive collection of songs that thread together a story. You know it when you hear it, and it can be heard clearly and painfully on Manic.

Throughout the album, Halsey sheds any preconceived notions that listeners might have about her music. Gone are the deep bass lines and buzzing synthesizers. In are quiet tracks with space to breathe, accompanied by acoustic guitars and piano interludes. Gone are the thematic elements of fantasy and grandeur. In are the musings of someone alone in a room, deep in self-reflection, working toward recovery.

On opening track “Ashley”, Halsey sets the tone for what’s to come, quietly reflecting on her past persona and where she stands today: “Took my heart and sold it out to a vision that I wrote myself / And I don’t wanna be somebody in American just fighting the hysteria / I only wanna die some days”. It’s no secret that much of Manic sifts through the fallout of her broken relationship with rapper G-Eazy, but in truth, the songs dig deeper in an effort to uncover truths about herself and how those truths impact her ability to move forward.

While “Ashley” sets the table thematically, the album itself is true to its name, oscillating wildly between genres throughout, feeling like any train of thought that each of us have ridden on many a lonely night. There are still elements of electropop present, as in last year’s single “Without Me”, but Halsey finds room to inject country (“You Should Be Sad”), rock (“3AM”), and alternative pop sounds like those found on “I Hate Everybody” and “Alanis’ Interlude” – an absolutely wonderful track with Alanis Morissette, who happens to know a thing or two about how to put the sound of picking up the pieces to tape.

Truly, there are no weak tracks on Manic, and while you may not reach for certain songs as standalones on a playlist, they all weave together perfectly in the form of an album. And it’s in those non-single moments that we are hit with some of Halsey’s more poignant and personal songwriting. Singing atop a gentle acoustic guitar on “Finally // Beautiful Stranger”, she leans into the uncertainty of leaving the past behind, singing, “Oh, we’re dancin’ in my living room, and up come my fists / And I say I’m only playing, but the truth is this / That I’ve never seen a mouth that I would kill to kiss / And I’m terrified, but I can’t resist”. 

It’s moments like this that harken back to Halsey’s statement about The Wonder Years and the scene that helped form her artistic approach. Listening to Manic is like being brought behind the curtain and realizing that there is no level of stardom or success that separates someone from the demons we all face. On “Still Learning”, she shares, “I should be living the dream / But I go home and I got no self-esteem”. 

Album closer “929” finds Halsey spilling her guts one confessional line at a time in a three-minute stream of consciousness, highlighted by the most heartbreaking moment of the album: “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”.

Still, for all of the self-loathing and questioning across Manic’s 16 tracks, Halsey consistently makes room for grace and a belief that her direction is one of growth and improvement. “I’m still learning to love myself” she confesses near the end of the album. Manic is deeply specific to its creator’s trials and struggles, yet highly relatable. Because we’re all in this together. Halsey’s willingness to be so open and transparent has resulted in an album that could very well set the tone for the next decade of pop.

4.5/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

The Best Songs of 2019

You can view our list of The Best Albums of 2019 here.

As the decade comes to a close, one thing is for certain: The way I consume music and media has changed drastically over the past 10 years. We’ll (probably) always lead our end-of-the-year lists with albums, because there is still power to be found in that full body of work. But I certainly find myself most often jumping from track to track these days.

Thus, our Best Songs of 2019 list is full of tracks that can be fully enjoyed within the context of the album that contains them (if one exists) or completely on their own. This year found each of our writers diving into new sounds and exploring new artists, leading to an eclectic list of songs we hope you’ll enjoy as much as we have this year. Without further ado, take a look – and a listen.

15. Say Anything – “Sediment”

“Sediment” makes the list because of the spoken word at the end. The entirety of Oliver Appropriate focuses on Oliver and his conflictions regarding his sexuality. A confliction that ends up with a murder/suicide. This track is regarding the suicide half, but it’s a peek into Oliver’s mind, and how lonely his self hatred has made him. It’s a show-stopping final track, and an epilogue to Say Anything’s career. – Nadia Paiva

14. Blaqk Audio – “Summer’s Out of Sight”

“Summer’s Out of Sight” is a wickedly hypnotic song. Vocalist Davy Havok croons through a tale of passion and fleeting love. Jade Puget’s bright synth melodies and rich bass express the playfulness of being in love (“I had to crawl the halls to ask when we might meet before you left / You said, ‘Maybe tomorrow or never again’ / But you said, ‘Right now I’m yours”). Although Havok’s chorus is a devastating description of a broken heart (“Hearing you leave out my name makes me want you / You personalize pain”), “Summer’s Out of Sight” is a message about the impact of a relationship and the draw it leaves on someone to find it again. (“I’m searching for the one that tore me to pieces”). – Kyle Schultz

13. Bring Me the Horizon – “medicine”

“Some people are a lot like clouds, you know? / ‘Cause life’s so much brighter when they go”. With that opening line, Oli Sykes at once references his own messy past while serving as a kind nod to a band that has fully transformed into a new entity. In many ways, “Medicine” is a zero sum game that fans of the band’s deathcore past were always bound to hate while opening the door to a new audience and new beginnings. Whether you love or hate this new incarnation of Bring Me the Horizon, there is no denying their ability to craft great songs, genre be damned. And the dirty little secret that has gone largely unmentioned is that pop sensibility was always at the root of the 2010s metalcore explosion. Most bands just aren’t brave enough to bring it to the surface. – Kiel Hauck

12. Wallows – “Remember When”

This is a track that Wallows wrote for another project and scrapped – and yet it ends up being, lyrically, the most poignant track on Nothing Happens. We hear about a past love, and how the good times outweighed the bad. Wallows wishes they could go back and fix every mistake they made, but because they can’t they focus on the better memories. It’s the second to last song on the album, but really ties everything together. “Remember When” is what the end of youth is about – sitting with your friends talking about all the trouble you used to cause. – NP

11. Grayscale – “In Violet”

“In Violet” is an ambitious, beautiful song about life and love. It is a song that describes a funeral as a colorful celebration. Vocalist Collin Walsh finds himself at his lowest point (“I’m out of hope, guess that’s the way it goes / When you burn dark and slow”), but still asks listeners not to grieve a life lost, but be thankful for a life lived (“I’m sick of funeral black / So when I don’t come back / I want you to celebrate / Sing and laugh”). Ultimately, the song is an uplifting message dancing amidst a cloak of intense instrumentals. Heavy drums, shimmering guitars and joyful trumpets set the tone by setting up a dreary atmosphere early on before exploding into waves of expansive, envious sound. – KS

10. Travis Scott – “HIGHEST IN THE ROOM”

Travis Scott could have easily ridden the success of last year’s Astroworld throughout the entirety of 2019, but instead found new ways to own the moment. “Highest in the Room” captures what makes Scott such a unique voice amidst the Soundcloud rap era, with every turn of phrase adding a new angle and keeping listeners on their toes. Delivered as a dark sort of love story, Scott keeps his partner at a safe distance, singing, “You say you love me, don’t you lie / Won’t cross my heart, don’t wanna die”. It’s rather poetic then that Scott and Kylie Jenner, the subject of the song, parted ways just two days prior to its release. – KH

9. Queen of Jeans – “Not a Minute Too Soon”

“Not a Minute Too Soon” is an unassuming track, which is why it makes the list. The album itself is a great study in vintage 60s rock, but this track stands out for its crescendo. It sits as a surprise ballad about three quarters through If you’re not afraid, I’m not afraid, an album about love and loss. Queen of Jeans’ Miriam Devora’s vocals really shine here, specifically, her falsetto driving home the emotion and the guitar gently guiding us through ending a relationship. – NP

8. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – “Just Sign the Papers”

“Just Sign the Papers” is the type of song that country artist storytellers dream of. It’s slow, uncomfortable, rich with visual poetry and is a vortex of emotion. Every small detail shows the stress of main character Aaron West as he finalizes a divorce from his wife. While the music is playful as he reflects on the marriage’s good times (“You were the tail lights, like a lifeline, when the storm arrived”), it slows to a crawl as he pleads to his wife, “C-come on, just sign the papers”. The swell of music embraces the gut-churning pressure of the event, as Campbell portrays West screaming at himself, “Come on, just sign the papers” just to end the event. As depressing as it may be, “Just Sign the Papers” offers the briefest glimpse of hope, as the couple decides to put an end to their gloom. – KS

7. Maggie Rogers – “Light On”

Maggie Rogers’ debut album Heard it in a Past Life arrived early in 2019, nearly three years after her viral introduction to the public at large. It must have felt like both an eternity and a matter of moments for the music student swooped up into a major label whirlwind. Yet for all of the hype, Past Life is nothing if not authentic, peaking with the track “Light On”, which finds Rogers dealing with that rapid rise to fame and the loss of control that comes with such an event. Was there a more emotionally affecting moment in music this year than when Rogers’ channels here inner Alanis as her voice breaks near the end of the second verse? “With everyone around me saying, ‘You must be so happy now’”. – KH

6. Lana Del Rey – “Mariners Apartment Complex”

This was the first taste we got of the new Lana Del Rey album prior to its release, and maybe that’s why it stuck with me all the way to my best songs list. Another reason could be the way she chose the first single so specifically to target the difficulties she’s had with her fame. The song revolves around an interview gone awry, and it’s a jab at the industry as a whole, but it also ends up being a song about putting yourself first. And that’s more important when you’re faced with fame than any kind of criticism you can give the biz. – NP

5. Radar State – “Victims of Fashion”

“Victims of Fashion” is a generational battlecry by Radar State, a super group of members from Kansas emo groups The Get Up Kids and The Anniversary. Both bands gained notoriety in the late 90’s and forged the fledgling emo movement of the early 2000’s. “Victims of Fashion” takes a defiant stance against the emphasis on youth in music and feeling forgotten (“If we don’t go out tonight, we might as well stay out of sight / Kids in line will gladly take our place”). Radar State takes a chance by calling out stagnancy in musicians that don’t evolve (“And if you think that we’re so strange, keep telling us to change / I’m not taking orders from someone half my age / … / This whole scene is getting old / We moved on, but they’re on hold”). Radar State embody the philosophy of punk rock by challenging the status quo with an elegantly melodic, yet brutal piece of garage rock.– KS

4. BTS featuring Halsey – “Boy With Luv”

I joined the K-pop party a bit late, but all it took was one SNL performance to finally capture my attention. I won’t pretend to have a deep connection with the lyrics of “Boy with Luv”, but it’s impossible to not feel enraptured by the sound. BTS have a way of commanding your focus by transitioning between style and delivery throughout their songs without it ever feeling jarring. “Boy with Luv” embodies everything I love about the way I feel when I listen to a great pop song, which means that even with a language barrier in place, I’m inclined to hit the repeat button with abandon.– KH

3. Copeland – “As Above, So Alone”

Even though any and all tracks from Blushing could justifiably be included on this list, “As Above, So Alone” was instantly my favorite track on one of the best albums of the year. Copeland vocalist Aaron Marsh talks straightforwardly about how tough his relationship is, but it’s easy for the sadness of the track to get lost in the bassline that cuts through the middle. It’s imaginative, devastating, and surprisingly easy to keep on repeat. – NP

2. Taylor Swift – “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince”

“Miss American & The Heartbreak Prince” is one of Taylor Swift’s most ambitious songs. It is a story about the upsetting state of American politics told through a story of young love. The gloomy beat and tinkling piano offer a somber and fearful atmosphere amid lyrics that continuously get darker (“American stories burning before me / I’m feeling helpless, the damsels are depressed / Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?”). However, the song is an anthem of defiance. Even as the picture it paints is a dreary one, peppy shouts of  “Go! Fight! Win!” punch through the song brightly. “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” is ultimately a song of overcoming the worst of situations by strength of will in almost any circumstance. – KS

1. Halsey – “Without Me”

We didn’t get a new album from Halsey in 2019, but we got plenty of new songs, none of which were more riveting than “Without Me”. Break-up songs are nothing new, but Halsey took this particular opportunity to craft something deeply personal, leaving nothing to the imagination. “Name in the sky, does it ever get lonely?” isn’t necessarily a line we can all feel on an existential level, but throughout the track, Halsey drills in on the quieter kinds of emotional abuse that too often go unspoken.

When she sings, “Just running from the demons in your mind / Then I took yours and made ‘em mine / I didn’t notice ‘cause my love was blind” it’s a powerful kind of moment that deserves our attention and self-reflection. – KH

Honorable Mention:

Turnover – “Much After Feeling”
Neck Deep – “She’s a God”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Want You in My Room”
Drake featuring Rick Ross – “Money in the Grave”
Issues – “Tapping Out”

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Most Anticipated of 2019: #7 Halsey Blazes Her Own Trail

By almost any measure, 2018 was a year of resounding success for Halsey. Sure, she went through two very public breakups with G-Eazy, but the year also found Halsey making her first SNL performance, appearing in two films (A Star is Born and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies), completing six more legs of her hopeless fountain kingdom world tour, and releasing another number-one single: “Without Me”.

It’s a small wonder that she’s had time to start writing new music, but according to Halsey, some winter writing sessions will give way to her third full-length album, which could potentially drop before year’s end. One of the most subversive pop artists of our time, Halsey has made a name for herself through storytelling, and in an interview with PopBuzz, she stated, “I don’t think I could ever not make a concept record.” Thus far, the format has suited her well.

Never one to play by the rules, Halsey has forged her own synthpop path over the past four years, and every indication is that 2019 will give us all another reason to sing along.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Watch Halsey Perform “Bad at Love” on SNL

This weekend, Halsey made her first appearance on Saturday Night Live, taking the stage at 30 Rock to perform her hit single “Bad at Love” along with “Him & I” with G-Eazy. Since bursting onto the scene in 2014, Halsey’s profile has continued to rise, capped by the release of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom last summer, which peaked at number one on the Billboard 200. Check out the performance of “Bad at Love” below.

Halsey’s unique brand of synthpop offers thoughtful reflection on relationships and life, while often uprooting traditional ideas of sexuality and gender dynamics. As we noted in our Best Songs of 2017, Halsey’s feel for the pulse of modern pop sets her apart from her peers. If you like what you hear from her SNL performances, you can buy Hopeless Fountain Kingdom on iTunes.

Posted by Kiel Hauck

The Best Songs of 2017

You can view our list of The Best Albums of 2017 here.

In a year in which great albums were abundant, it goes without saying that great songs were aplenty. In just a matter of minutes, a great song can do a lot: It can take us somewhere blissful, it can make us think, it can change our perspective, it can help us forget. Our list of the Best Songs of 2017 have a little bit of everything.

Below, you’ll find songs from a variety of genres telling diverse stories. These tracks were anthems for overcoming, therapeutic outlets of emotion, ballads of love, and laments of the soul. No matter your druthers, we think you’ll find something to love. Take a look – and a listen.

15. Jake Bugg – “Southern Rain”

Jake Bugg is an extraordinary talent. Releasing almost an album a year since the start of his career, he has managed to tap into a multitude of genres while maintaining a distinct sound all his own. “Southern Rain” is a folksy ballad that manages to softly tell a story of grieving a fallen romance. However, the dreamlike soundscape and lyrics constantly remind that even in dark times, there is always something brighter just around the corner. For a song that sounds so light, it is dense with the sounds of mandolin, harmonica, keyboards, and the crisp tap of piano. Though Bugg’s lyrics stay melancholy, the music is so bright and hopeful that it promises relief. – Kyle Schultz

14. Harry Styles – “Woman”

“Woman” is one of the most enjoyable tracks on Harry Styles’ self-titled solo album. Regardless of the groovy sonic choice he made, the lyrics themselves follow a thematic trend in this year’s pop music of discussing a failed relationship. Styles’ vocal prowess shines all over the album but “Woman” is smoother than any other song. Reminiscent of psychedelic ‘70s rock, this track is easy on the ears and all around well-configured. It’s a lovely and promising example of what we can expect from post-One Direction Harry Styles. – Nadia Paiva

13. Dreamcar – “All of the Dead Girls”

DREAMCAR, the supergroup of AFI’s Davey Havok and the band from No Doubt, is a surreal project of pop and new wave rock. “All of the Dead Girls” is a true summer song dripping with beach-ready drumming and a bassline that slides beneath any 80’s montage of men playing volleyball. Havok’s sassy vocals describe the make-up clad “dead girls” that will “never blush” as he stalks the beach. For a singer known for delving into the darkest aspects of the psyche, Havok relishes in taking the haunted tangles of relationships into the sunlight for a stroll. Featuring a baritone sax and a cat’s howl, “All of the Dead Girls” is a truly unique song that never takes itself seriously from two bands that always are. – KS

12. Jay-Z – “The Story of O.J.”

Fans that waited with bated breath since the release of Beyoncé’s damning Lemonade would suffer little disappointment in Jay-Z’s 4:44. There’s a lot to parse through, but Jay makes each moment count, and such is the case with “The Story of O.J.” Jay uses clever samples and poignant lines to capture the struggle of blackness in a racist society, regardless of status, wealth or complexion. It’s an artful display of Jay-Z’s success viewed through the lens of a racist America and Jay’s own battle to push his wealth and progress into something even more lasting. It just might be the highlight of his surprising second act. – Kiel Hauck

11. Palisades – “Better Chemicals”

When Palisades left their electonicore leanings in the past for this year’s self-titled release, they didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater so much as they refined the best parts of their existing sound. On “Better Chemicals”, the band forgoes cheeky electronics and samples for tastefully placed programming that elevates the track to another level. Vocalist Louis Miceli Jr. uses the opportunity to showcase his transitional ability that explodes during a chorus of, “Need better chemicals, I know / Cause nothing helps anymore, oh no”. It’s a jarring movement into serious territory for the band and a perfectly crafted track that crackles with rock energy. – KH

10. The Early November – “In Currents (acoustic)”

As one of the first singles after the band’s reformation, “In Currents” was a nostalgic pop song that meshed minimalistic instrumentation before exploding in a torrent of sound in the chorus. It showcased almost every aspect of what made The Early November’s sound so iconic. The stripped-down version on Fifteen Years only features a bouncing guitar and a theremin-inspired synth line that turns the song into an inspirational ballad. The true star of the song, though, is Ace Enders. Enders pushes his voice as hard as he ever has, while maintaining an emotional weight that seems impossible. The result is an acoustic cover that not only surpasses the original, it deserves to be remembered among the top of The Early November’s achievements. – KS

9. PVRIS – “What’s Wrong”

“Don’t need a metaphor for you to know I’m miserable”. That crushing closing line during the chorus of “What’s Wrong” sets the stage for a sophomore follow-up from a band overwhelmed with responsibility and possibility. PVRIS harness the best of their synth-laced melodic pop rock as vocalist Lynn Gunn lays bare her fears in the face of the band’s rise to prominence. “When did I get so pitiful / Just a goddamn corpse in a centerfold”, she laments, vocalizing the struggle of a female lead in the midst of a misogynist scene. It is at once a monumental sonic step forward for a band full of potential and a dark look inside the mind of an artist in doubt. – KH

8. AFI –” So Beneath You”

While other AFI songs have mocked and questioned religion, “So Beneath You” is the most aggressive and militant. Punk rock at its purest, the song teases the band’s hardcore influence. Jade Puget can write some of the most mystifyingly beautiful guitar lines known to man, but sometimes he is at his best when strangling power chords as Davy Havok just shouts at the sky. Rather than mock the idea of religion, Havok instead issues a direct challenge as he croons, “I won’t kneel, I won’t bow / If you’re there God, strike me down, strike me down / You won’t”. Challenging standards and demanding more of their audience than most bands, “So Beneath You” exemplifies what makes AFI such a beloved band and manages to be one of the year’s best rock songs. – KS

7. Lorde – “Hard Feelings/Loveless”

Much of Lorde’s Melodrama is based on the toll fame takes on an artist, notably in their interpersonal relationships. One of the most poignant moments is found right at the end of the first portion of “Hard Feelings/Loveless”, in which she reminisces on a past relationship, stating “I’ll start letting go of little things / ‘Til I’m so far away from you / Far away from you”. What is so impressive about this song is how seamlessly she changes from the topic of her own relationship to the topic of relationships in general in our digital world, and how we don’t always place the value on them that they deserve. It’s relatable and one of the most memorable tracks on a beautiful album. – NP

6. Halsey – “Strangers”

Amidst a brave retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Halsey uses “Strangers” as an LGBTQ love song, dropping the pretense of well-worn pronouns. Here, she and Lauren Jauregui trade lines of longing atop richly-inspired 80s synthesizers. “She doesn’t kiss me on the mouth anymore / Cause it’s more intimate than she feels we should get”, Halsey opens, before Jauregui’s response of, “She doesn’t let me have control anymore / I must have crossed the line, I must have lost my mind”. It’s a delightfully sensual, deeply danceable track of star-crossed lovers and an example of Halsey’s feel for the pulse of modern pop. There aren’t many that do it better. – KH

5. Kesha – “Praying”

“I hope you’re somewhere praying / I hope your soul is changing”, Kesha belts at her abuser on one of the year’s most emotionally powerful tracks. It’s a stark pivot for the artist herself, but an even more powerful statement in a year in which our culture begins to fully realize the deep claws that sexual abuse holds in our society. As the song builds towards its crescendo, Kesha finds the strength to flip the power imbalance that held her hostage for so long: “Cause I can make it on my own / And I don’t need you, I found a strength I’ve never known / I’ll bring thunder, I’ll bring rain / And when I’m finished, they won’t even know your name”. If chills don’t run up your spine, you must have held your head in the sand for the entirety of 2017. – KH

4. Liam Gallagher – “Wall of Glass”

For fans of Oasis, there will always be the eternal argument of which Gallagher brother is the favorite. While Noel has experimented with his sound on his own solo venture, Liam Gallagher’s first solo single is the best song Oasis never wrote. The rich layers in “Wall of Glass” are mesmerizing – the dance club beat, the bobbing bass line, the show-stealing harmonica, the ghostly back-up singers, and the sizzling guitar all hide beneath some of the best vocals Liam Gallagher has ever recorded. It’s a testament that the best sounds aren’t always found by pushing for something new, but by tilling what has already been laid as the foundation of expectation and kicking the shit out of it. “Wall of Glass” sounds like it aimed to be the best rock song of any year in the last two decades and pulls it off with style to spare. – KS

3. Paramore – “Fake Happy”

It’s no secret that Paramore drew inspiration from their experience with mental illness with the track “Fake Happy” from After Laughter. What sets it apart from other songs on the topic is its accessibility. Undoubtedly, many listeners will identify with the lyrical themes but also find enjoyment in the musical quality, most especially in the infectious bridge which puts a smile on even the most downtrodden of us. The music video (directed by the band’s own Zac Farro) shows that idea perfectly, and is the cherry on top of an already beautifully displayed picture of humanity. – NP

2. Kendrick Lamar – “DNA.”

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. begins with a chilling short story before audio from a Fox News broadcast admonishes the message of Kendrick’s 2015 Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright”. Before the clip can reach completion, Lamar bursts through the door with “DNA”’s opening lines of, “I’ve got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”. Throughout the track, Kendrick flexes his varied vocal deliveries over a rattling bassline, juxtaposing earned braggadocio with self-deprecation as he inspects the inner workings of his soul. It’s the perfect opening to the year’s best record and an eardrum vibrating reminder that Kendrick’s talent surpasses his peers, both in execution and in content. – KH

1. Julien Baker – “Appointments”

It’s difficult to fully quantify the progression from Julien Baker’s debut to this year’s Turn Out the Lights, but if you were to point to a single track as an example, it would be “Appointments”. Atop a painfully lonesome guitar and piano, Baker lays out the private battle of depression and the strain it puts on relationships. Yet above all of the excruciating imagery is something more vital and more powerful – a will to overcome. When Baker lets loose with her belted vocals of, “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright / Oh, I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is” at the song’s conclusion, it’s a reminder that some small battles can be momentarily won – a perfectly humble message from one of music’s most exciting young voices. – KH

Honorable Mention:

Carly Rae Jepsen – “Cut to the Feeling”
Vince Staples – “Big Fish”
Taylor Swift – “…Ready for It?”
Acceptance – “Colliding by Design”
Haim – “Want You Back”

Posted by Kiel Hauck