This is the third article in a three-part series looking back on LGBTQ+ pride month. Below are my top 4 queer albums since 2010. Queerness is a radical act, and it’s important to recognize queer artists who struggle not only against standard industry ferocity but also a queerphobic and abusive milieu. Please consider supporting these artists by directly purchasing their music during this pandemic.
#4: “Halcyon Digest” (2010) by Deerhunter
“Halcyon Digest,” Deerhunter’s fifth studio album, is as empty as the house that the band’s frontman Bradford Cox lived in during his teenage years after his parents divorced, leaving him alone in the house all day for months on end. “Halcyon Digest” is also somehow full with a seeped-in necessity to make every sound last as long as possible. The album is indie rock at its best, with electric guitars, tremolo pedals and dramatic hijinks such as the chorus on “Helicopter,” the second single from the album.
“Halcyon Digest” ends with “He Would Have Laughed,” a tribute to Jay Reatard, a garage rock hero who died in his sleep from cocaine toxicity. The entire album is, in some sense, a tribute to Jay Reatard’s sensibility, with less distortion and more gay sadness, less noise and more relentless surging melodicism. And yet, Cox manages to capture Reatard’s freedom and his willingness to try anything to move an audience — even scratch up his own face and depict himself bloody and red on an album cover. Cox mimics Reatard in a way, creating a queer equivalent album cover that centered Dennis Dinion, a contestant in a drag pageant in Cox’s hometown of Atlanta.
Bradford Cox identifies as queer and has variously described himself as gay and asexual. Queerness can be lonely, but the end of “Earthquake,” the first track on “Halcyon Digest,” explodes with a tremolo-picked guitar soaring into the heavens over Cox singing “How long was heat?/How long was He?” over and over again, and somehow, this makes the world seem much less lonely and more full. “Earthquake” and other tracks, such as “Desire Lines” and “Revival,” are swirling outrages of sorrow for the way the world has left us, all to the tune of Cox’s beautiful guitar textures. “Halcyon Digest” is the perfect expression of an ambiguous queerness: We don’t need to know exactly what we are to know how to create art so powerful that the world bends under our feet.
#3: “Blonde” (2016) by Frank Ocean
What is there to say about this album that hasn’t already been said? “Blonde” is a sprawling experimental R&B album riddled with fascinating soundscapes, such as those on the song “Pretty Sweet,” whose vocals echo behind whirling noise. These soundscapes form the foundation for a complex tale of lost love, with pop love songs like “Pink + White” sitting alongside fragmented stories like “White Ferrari.”
On “White Ferrari,” Ocean sings, “I care for you still, and I will/forever,” and on the word “forever,” a million other voices arrive, falling in tone as nonchalantly as we might fall for one another. At the beginning of the track, Ocean tells us that it’s “bad luck to talk on these rides” over a humming synth tone, one that wavers in just the right way: It feels like we’re looking into the bright light in the afterlife while Ocean drives us out into the distance.
“It’s a good guy, he hooked it up,/Said if I was in NY I should look you up,” he tells us on “Good Guy.” We’re the good guys, having a “poolside convo about your summer last night.” We’re the good guys, and we’ll make it after all, even if the heartbreak doesn’t last. Frank Ocean is our great gay genius, and “Blonde” is an oddity of an alternative R&B album, but it rewards faithful listening in spades: a truer understanding of queer love.
#2: “Twin Fantasy” (2018) by Car Seat Headrest
In 2010, Will Toledo was recording vocals in his car in empty parking lots to have some privacy while making music … privacy he couldn’t have at home. Thus, he named his increasingly popular Bandcamp solo project Car Seat Headrest, releasing volume after volume of lo-fi indie rock hits — lo-fi because he was using the inadequacy of his recording equipment to his advantage. “Twin Fantasy” (2011) was his seventh album, which sold around 100 copies upon release. It was a startling vision of the world, a nervous shake as the voice began to vibrate and transform into a clipped-out scream.
In 2018, after being signed to Matador Records for three years and recording two more albums, Toledo decided, with a newly acquired quartet of a band, to re-record the entirety of “Twin Fantasy” to update it for his 2018 life, having always felt that the 2011 version was unfinished. Now, we have “Twin Fantasy” (2018), and we couldn’t be happier, seeing Toledo’s vision finally completed.
Toledo has at various points confessed that the concept of the album derives from a relationship he was in with an older man while he was still majoring in Religious Studies at William & Mary. Toledo’s perspective on that relationship has clearly changed over the years, as he has made several changes to the lyrics of the songs on “Twin Fantasy” since 2011 to speak more on the nature of good, evil and God. Further changes involve updates to the previous lo-fi incapabilities of Toledo’s original production methods on laptops and audio interfaces. This new and improved production quality is not unwelcome, and the distortions come at all the right times.
Every mysterious idiosyncrasy on this album — from the pumping electronic dance beats of “Bodys” to “the forest adjacent to your garage” on the primarily acoustic indie folk tune “Sober to Death” — is unexplainable, and as Toledo said on “Beach Life-In-Death,” “I couldn’t tell you what it means, but it meant something to me.” In the same song, Toledo sings that “the ocean washed over your grave,” and hearing this album, we sink into the abyss of gay love through declarations of absence, longing and, at some points, insidious victory. May all our graves be washed over with brackish waters. May this album live forever.
#1: “Carrie & Lowell” (2015) by Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens is at once a religious figure, gay symbol and indie rock hero. When Stevens contributed multiple songs to the soundtrack for the 2017 gay romantic drama film “Call Me By Your Name,” including “Mystery of Love,” the LGBTQ+ community exploded with enthusiasm and discourse about what the song means to queer people everywhere, especially in the wake of Stevens’ Oscar nomination for the track. Stevens’ religious convictions appear frequently in his music, and “Mystery of Love” is no exception. The pronouns “Him” and “He” in his songs, thus, begin to inaugurate a complex interaction between queerness and religious fervor: Is he singing about God, or another man?
Undoubtedly, Stevens’ greatest achievement from the past 10 years is “Carrie & Lowell,” an album created in the wake of Stevens’ mother’s passing from stomach cancer in 2012. The album is a manifestation of grief and mourning, one that leads Stevens to explore different depths of his musical capabilities. While previous albums by Stevens led him to Michigan and Illinois to explore the wintry history of those states, Stevens descended into his own emotional processes in “Carrie & Lowell,” distilling them into the echoey instrumental ambient sections at the end of most songs on the album, including “Death with Dignity” and “Should Have Known Better.” Again, Stevens dips into a cauldron of twin religious and amorous fantasy, asking on the track “Blue Bucket of Gold,” “Lord, touch me with lightning” and “Raise your right hand/Tell me you want me in your life.” When Stevens’ voice rises and falls on the phrase “want me in your life,” the body is twisted into a complete grasping desire. A pain falls upon the chest cavity. The twin desires for love and God are entangled and thrown into the abyss, where we lie forever, waiting for our mothers to return from the afterlife.