Numerous people whose opinions I value and respect have been telling me that Strange Mercy is a good record — good enough to rank among the top two albums of the year even — while I struggled to listen to it all the way through. Pop critic Jim DeRogatis seemed to be onto something when he wrote it’s “what happens if you cross the insufferably cute Zooey Deschannel with the Natalie Portman of Black Swan” — a description he’d later retract, noting that it made the album sound more interesting than it was to actually listen to. For me, it remains a spot-on characterization of Annie Clark’s juxtaposing her porcelain doll looks with a damaged femme fatale persona. But by comparing her to two actresses, DeRogatis also calls to attention my biggest hang-up with Strange Mercy: It sounds far too meticulously planned out, and she far too self-aware, to externalize in-the-flesh pain and catharsis.
I realize the record’s glass-like sound quality is deliberate, but because of it, she makes it awfully hard to buy into the damgage. And the way she slyly plays up those looks so that the dark, twisted lyrics are a “surprise” — it’s still using beauty as an advantage, pandering to the stereotypical ideals of what a girl should/shouldn’t look like and how a girl should/shouldn’t act. Without the curls and the flawless skin, the evil-eyed derangement of Strange Mercy wouldn’t be as effective, an important point I think people are gliding over.
You know what though? There were a lot of albums I did really like this year, and instead of going off on another tangent about what an underrated treat that Times New Viking album is, I’ll just say you can see a bunch of them on our magazine-wide top 25 list, and the rest that you can hear on a Spotify playlist, appropriately called Songs That Never Stopped Sounding Good in 2011 (with the glaring omission of Ty Segall until Drag City joins Spotify).