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Our album of the year is St. Vincent by St. Vincent. Five of us put together wildly different album lists, and this was the common ground, appearing on every single one, often near the top. We were all at least somewhat familiar with St. Vincent’s work before this year, but her self-titled record blows her past, merely good albums off whatever planet she’s from. As gratifying as it’s been to see female pop artists completely take over the charts over the past couple of years, it’s hard not to see St. Vincent as the new-millennium female pop star (which is to say: pop star) for the smart set. Below, Marisa, Sara, Rob, and Jesse piece together what we love about this album from its eleven wonderful songs.
The SportsAlcohol.com 2014 Album of the Year: St. Vincent
From her robotic live show choregoraphy to the growth she shows on St. Vincent, it’s clear that Annie Clark enjoyed her time working with David Byrne. I may have mentioned this before, but I am big into opening tracks. I probably read too much into the chioce of “Rattlesnake” as the leadoff to this record, but who cares when the song is this good. Twilight Zone paranoia fights it way over layers of synths and guitars with a bouncy beat to boot (and, maybe most unnerving of all, apparently based on a true story). It’s like so many tracks on this album: so many great things at once. – Rob
2. Birth in Reverse
St. Vincent is by far my favorite artist prone to adding “in America” at the end of a phrase. I mean, that sounds like a go-to parody move for making your lyrics sound as all-encompassingly pompous as possible. And yet in “Birth in Reverse,” for my money the catchiest song on this record, it functions more as a locator. The song opens with a description of ordinary household activities (of a sort), and the chorus’s description of what she sees “through the blinds,” “a birth in reverse in America,” feels like a zoom-out to a Google Maps view of where-ever the hell you bide your downtime when you’re the lady from St. Vincent. (Bonus points for the phrase “birth in reverse” supposedly coming from Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America.) The view from St. Vincent’s window sounds especially jittery because the music moves at a relentless pace that sounds like a workout video going amok. Whether it’s making a sweeping statement about America or, potentially worse, making a sweeping statement about how we all view the world through a digital lens (see track 5), St. Vincent makes opportunities for pomposity sound palatable, and palatable things sound extremely fucking weird. – Jesse
3. Prince Johnny
True fact: I am the last one to turn in my St. Vincent write-up. That’s because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to sort through all my feelings about “Prince Johnny,” apart from the feeling that I love it. She starts off the song by saying, “You’re kind, but you’re not simple.” The same can be said for the song: It’s pleasant, but it’s not simple. That’s why music writers have twisted themselves into knots trying to describe it, layering on these really purple words, like calling it a “a luxuriant, rhythmic ballad with a melancholic, detailed narrative.” I’m not criticizing. It needs this kind of description. I would add these equally flowery words: haunting, longingly, soaring, enigmatic, elegiac, and heartbreaking. Kind-but-simple words do not do justice.
When I saw St. Vincent at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland this year, we got there late and had a less-than-ideal position in the crowd. Much of my view was obstructed for most of the concert. But, when she played “Prince Johnny,” she climbed atop of a tower of amps and sang it from far above the crowd. I understand that Clark is known for crazy stage antics, but I’m glad she made sure that “Prince Johnny” got a big moment in the show, even though it’s a quiet song. – Marisa
4. Huey Newton
I’ve always thought of politics as incidental to St. Vincent’s music. It’s certainly there, as in the Strange Mercy closer “Year of the Tiger,” but usually it’s subtextual instead of foregrounded. But she must have picked up on something in the air because in a year marked by racial strife and protests against police brutality she fortuitously named a song for one of the founders of the Black Panthers. Newton had no lack of trouble in his short life as an activist: he was jailed (and later acquitted) for the murder of a police officer, and eventually was shot and killed by a member of the Black Guerilla Family, a prison and street gang in Oakland, in a neighborhood he had once helped revitalize. St. Vincent’s music often walks the line between beauty and insanity and nowhere is that more evident than the brilliantly structured song that bears his name. The opening verses, unfolding over a spacey jazz beat as St. Vincent’s voice reaches higher into her register, are ominous and nonsensical, conjuring images of “cardboard cutthroats” and “fuckless porn sharks.” Then it makes a brutal break, a jagged guitar riff crashing in as she shifts into righteous fury, literally shredding everything that’s come before. We’re in “perpetual night” now among motherless creatures and misfits and she’s not afraid to leave us there. Though no explicit political statement is made, it’s pretty clear which lot St. Vincent throws herself in with and it’s not those who are “safe, safe, and safest.” – Sara
5. Digital Witness
If there can be said to be a through line in St. Vincent’s album it may well be a rejection of our current cultural consumption, or at least a pointed critique. Many of the songs sound like observational transmissions from an alien being and that hits its zenith with “Digital Witness.” Is there any mantra that speaks more to the anxieties of the modern age, and damns them more, than “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me, what’s the point of doing anything?” The popularity of Facebook, Instagram, and all the other social media sites we congregate on has turned us all into digital witnesses of one another, less living life than performing it, and St. Vincent means to wrench us away. “I want all of your mind,” she commands, and the song is catchy enough that we’ll readily give it to her. The instrumentation bears some of the hallmarks of her recent collaboration with David Byrne with its swaggering guitar and bright stuttering horns. There’s something pleasingly artificial about the sound, which ends up embracing the synthetic texture of modern life as much as it sends it up. Any musician worth her salt is hyper aware of how she presents herself to her audience and for all her otherworldliness St. Vincent is no different. “Won’t somebody sell me back to me?” she asks at the song’s end but if anyone is in control here, it’s her. – Sara
6. I Prefer Your Love
Clark, queen of the slow jam! It’s a shame that mixtape-making isn’t the way that young people court each other anymore. “I Prefer Your Love” would be a good song to have stashed away for a deal-sealing cassette. Even if the intended could resist the “I prefer your love to Jesus” opening lyric on account of silliness, there’s no way the “All the good in me is because of you” wouldn’t work. Sorry, kids. You’ll never find anything as beautiful on Tindr. – Marisa
Annie Clark claims she’s thirty two years old, but it’s more likely that she’s an ageless visitor from another planet. The clues go beyond her increasing comfort in loosening her human façade and dressing more like one of our new otherworldly overlords. Take “Regret” for example. There is a level of reflection and knowing world-weariness to these lyrics that I just don’t see coming from someone my little sister’s age. Musically, she has experimented more with her sound than most rock stars do during their entire career. “Reget” sees her try out a bunch of new guitar tones and play with rhythm by having the bass line in the chorus go against everything. She also shows off her vocal range here as well just for fun. “Regret” is so next-level, there’s no way she hasn’t been secretly working on her music for at least decades. I bow down to our new ruler. – Rob
8. Bring Me Your Loves
DRONE 1: DID YOU LISTEN TO THIS MESSAGE? ST. VINCENT IS ORDERING ALL OF US TO BRING HER OUR LOVES.
DRONE 2: OH, LIKE, WE SHOULD EACH BRING HER ONE OF OUR FAVORITE THINGS?
DRONE 1: SHE SAYS ALL OF THEM.
DRONE 2: ALL OF THEM?
DRONE 1: YEAH. SHE SOUNDS PRETTY SERIOUS.
DRONE 2: DID SHE SAY WHAT SHE WANTS TO DO WITH THEM?
DRONE 1: SHE WANTS TO LOVE THEM TOO.
DRONE 2: WELL THAT SOUNDS PRETTY HARMLESS.
DRONE 1: I THINK YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THE MESSAGE.
DRONE 2: OH JESUS. THIS SOUNDS SERIOUS.
DRONE 1: YOU SEE?
DRONE 2: THIS SONG IS NOT THAT LOUD IN THE BROADER SCHEME OF LOUD MUSIC, BUT IT STILL SOUNDS LIKE IT’S HAPPENING IN ALL CAPS.
DRONE 1: STOP WASTING TIME, WE NEED TO BRING OUR LOVES TO HER IMMEDIATELY.
DRONE 2: I’M REALLY GOING TO MISS MY PUPPY. – Jesse
I have listened to this album countless times. I have listened to the Lady Gaga song “Edge of Glory” exactly as many times as I’ve heard it in a public place since it was released (I would estimate about ten). Yet every single time I hear St. Vincent sing “…’cause I’m on the edge of a heart attack” in this song, her intonation leads me to expect her to sing “on the edge of glory.” This is embarrassing because St. Vincent is vastly superior to Lady Gaga and annoying because it sometimes actually manages to get “Edge of Glory” into my head, but also, finally, a useful point of comparison, because Annie Clark, as St. Vincent, does all of the weird, inventive, artsy shapeshifting that Stefani Germanotta does as Lady Gaga. Hell, the transition from the stuttering verses of “Psychopath” to the lusher orchestration of its chorus and back again to minimalist beats and angular guitar is more dynamic than most of Gaga’s costumed-up club boilerplate. Of course, 2014 is kind of a silly time to be picking on Lady Gaga; St. Vincent makes it plentifully easy to just listen to something better.
10. Every Tear Disappears
11. Severed Crossed Fingers
A lot of St. Vincent, the album, is hepped-up and robo-dance-y; even the slow jams feel like they’re about to explode into something more menacing (and by virtue of being followed by “Huey Newton” and “Regret,” they do). But the album closer feels like the St. Vincent version of a torch song or a Broadway finale. I know those things sound (a.) contradictory and (b.) not particularly descriptive of a song with so much evisceration imagery. But can’t you just imagine Annie Clark in a semi-robotic pose with a handheld microphone, arm outstretched to the crowd as she warbles matter-of-factly yet emotively about her crossed fingers lying in rubble? (I have to imagine it, because the two times I saw St. Vincent in concert this year, she neglected to play this song.) Lush but unsentimental, glorious and strange: this is St. Vincent closing up a near-perfect record. – Jesse