The Lemon Twigs / Photo by Rebecca Miller
Maybe we're all just getting older, but with every tragic, often shocking passing of an icon this year, it feels like the past is fading into the distance, faster and faster, while the world around us in the present feels increasingly uncertain. In recent months it's been hard to focus on anything but the emotional pig's sty that was 2016, but there is a substantial silver lining: This was phenomenal year for new music. Existential anxieties aside, it was a banner year for hip-hop and R&B, from the slam dunk return of A Tribe Called Quest to Beyoncé and Solange exploring the themes of race, family and love on two of the most important pop records of the decade. This year gave us both the unsettling arias of ANOHNI and the rise and fall of G.L.O.S.S., demonstrating the grace and power trans and gender non-conforming artists achieve when unencumbered from (or in spite of) staggering prejudice. Even riding the more frivolous side of the airwaves, new-ish groups like The 1975 and Fifth Harmony injected a sorely needed dose of sex and drama into the global pop scene. Music may be the original safe space for outsiders, but while we're fed the constant, unfiltered message that everything is crumbling around us, we all need the solace and peace of music more than ever, and in that regard, 2016 absolutely delivered.
While going through the annual panic of ranking my favorite recent albums, I noticed a pattern emerge. A lot of the music I had turned to in my most vulnerable moments—post-election, after moving to a new city, during a mild case of heartbreak—were built on the soft rock stylings of the 1970s, featuring abundant slide guitars, layered vocals, and plush piano stabs. Not to assume or diminish the intent of these artists (after all, no one likes to be pigeonholed), but the similarities between their current records are striking. Weyes Blood's Front Row Seat to Earth uses the soothing tones of Carol King and The Carpenters to craft a singer-songwriter record unlike anything that's come out in recent memory. The 28 year old singer also appears on Drugdealer's full-length The End of Comedy; it's the new, and most solid record from Michael Collins, who's recorded during the past decade as Salvia Plath, Run DMT, and various other psychedelic pseudonyms. Brooklyn five-piece Pavo Pavo's under-the-radar debut album, Young Narrator in the Breakers, pulls from pulp sci-fi imagery and AM radio rock to create a fresh take on recent indie pop, while Long Island brother duo The Lemon Twigs—who somehow managed to end 2016 as both hyped and slept-on—go full tilt on their debut Do Hollywood, having nurtured their glitter and glamor and uninhibited rock 'n' roll pomp until fully matured, pouring it all into an an astonishingly sophisticated collection. And the D'Addario brothers are still not out of their teens.
I'm not a big fan of nostalgia, especially the imagined kind that predates the listener's (or creator's) own existence by a solid decade. But these albums felt different, less like a revisionist fetish for the past and more like an acknowledgement that a glance backwards can sometimes be the best way to inform the next step forward. Like some sort of antidote to the Make America Great Again regressiveness half the country evidently pines for. A fantasy, yes, but one that is rooted in an exploration of love and theatricality, not in exclusivity and destruction. It was exactly what I needed, and I welcomed this mini revival of one of the most diverse decades in popular music history with open ears.
Natalie Mering, the LA-born musician who records under the name Weyes Blood, has been bubbling under the surface for years, first as a member of the Portland experimental collective Jackie-O Motherfucker, then as a collaborator with Ariel Pink, and finally as a solo artist in her own right. Her voice is ultra rich, and it anchors the listener through her third album, Front Row Seat to Earth, its ghost-like aura hovering between that sweet spot inhabited by Carly Simon and the aforementioned Karen Carpenter. "Used to Be" could be an outtake from Simon's Tapestry, it's so rooted in intimate soulfulness, and "Generation Why," the single Front Row… revolves around, could almost be an ABBA song—if it were being played on an old eight-track, and then thrown to the bottom of the sea.
Mering also lends her considerable voice to Drugdealer's The End of Comedy, which, like many of Michael Collins' many musical projects up until now, is imbued with a certain wink-wink humor. Even the album artwork is almost a pastiche of the singer-songwriter records of yore, down to the thinned-out art-deco font and photograph of Collins, shaggy-haired and glum, peering out of a burnt orange halo. "Suddenly," one of the two songs featuring Mering, is an ultra-smooth mix of glassy piano and warm saxophone that could pass for Supertramp if it weren't for Mering's smoky contralto. It could easily slide into parody, but it doesn't—like these other records, it's elevated by a level of integrity that staves off any glimpse of a rip-off.
Elsewhere Pavo Pavo are probably the most conventionally indie group on this list, their style of off-kilter, analog-synth-driven space rock more than inventive enough to set them apart from their peers. Like the soundtrack to a government film about interplanetary travel released in 1974, songs like their infinitely infectious "Ran Ran Run" and the laid-back flow of "Wiserway" are equal parts psychedelically transportive and evocative of the 21st century Brooklyn where they were written.
Of all these bands, The Lemon Twigs are the group that are perhaps the most aware and deliberate in their nostalgia. Do Hollywood is a masterclass in glam rock—not only do Brian and Michael D'Addario (the two brothers who write and perform the band's music) deck themselves out in clothes worthy of only the fabulous T. Rex groupies, but their total grasp on the music of the era, coupled with their young age, belies hours and hours of teenage obsession, like a modern-day version of that scene in Almost Famous when Zooey Deschanel leaves Patrick Fugit all her dog-eared records, whispering in his ear, "Look under your bed, it'll set you free." The Lemon Twigs have released two videos, for singles "These Words" and "As Long As We're Together," both deliciously over-the-top in a retro, iridescent way that still feels weirdly fresh. And those aren't even the most intense or ambitious songs on the record: "Haroomata," for one, takes Sparks' most indulgent moments and push them to the limit, alternating between a standard piano ballad and what can only be described as demented circus music.
Perhaps these albums may be the start of something new, a fresh interest in the dulcet shades of some of the best rock music history has to offer. Maybe these records and their common ground will be an isolated blip, but in a year we'll be discussing, culturally, politically, and personally, for years to come, these records have made their mark. And hopefully, when one day I look back at what is surely the beginning of a tumultuous era, what I'll remember won't be the anxiety, doubt, or unease, but both the current crop of music that soothed me, and the rose-tinted decade that inspired it.
Cameron Cook is a writer living in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.