We already knew Grimes could write a killer pop song, but ‘Art Angels’ proved she could deliver 14 of them in a row. 'Art Angels' was not so much the sound of an artist trying to fit into the pop landscape as one trying to shape it in their own image. The best album of the year, from the most exciting artist of a generation.
Contrary to the prevailing notions, the philosophical antithesis of poptimism is not rockism, but auteurism. Even our most celebrated border-defying visionaries — from Kanye West to Taylor Swift to Beck — employ departments of collaborators, contractors, specialists, and secret weapons. In that respect, Art Angels is the opposite of a pop album: Claire Boucher didn’t delegate or commission anything here; she outsourced a couple of key features (Aristophanes on “SCREAM”; Janelle Monáe on “Venus Fly”), but wrote, composed, performed, recorded, produced, and engineered everything else herself. That is not, in and of itself, some inherent virtue. We’ve got more than enough isolated GarageBand mechanics generating infinite universes of myopic, monotonous music. Art Angels is not myopic or monotonous — it’s spacious as a stadium; as polished as a Porsche on the showroom floor. It feels alien at points, but it doesn’t seek to alienate anyone: Even at its most combative, it’s asking you to fight alongside it, not against it.
In that respect, Art Angels is very much a pop album. And it kinda sounds like pop music, too! But pop music doesn’t sound like this. Art Angels leaves me scrambling for comparisons, and returning not with E•MO•TION or 1989, but Yeezus and Nevermind. Closer still: Art Angels reminds me of Garbage’s self-titled debut album — a genre-agnostic postmodern blur of dance music, shoegaze, new wave, industrial, alt-rock, trip-hop, and whatever the hell else was at hand — with Boucher playing the roles of both Shirley Manson and Butch Vig. Garbage was seen as something of a sweet but insubstantial confection upon its release, but that album turned 20 this year, and its anniversary was justly celebrated — not so much because it eventually signaled some alternative direction for popular music, but because it was (and remains) defiantly singular: the product of strong personalities, creative individuals, and technical wizards blending previously incompatible sounds into an unexpected, immediate, wholly other new one. It rejected definition and reached listeners just the same — and over the course of two decades (and counting), it stayed with many of those listeners, and found lots more, too.
Of course, Art Angels is both weirder and more urgent today than Garbage was in 1995. It’s better, too. And if you don’t think it’ll be here 20 years from now, you’re wrong. By then, it’ll be seen as a blueprint, early evidence of a new paradigm: experimentalism as populism; processed synthetic sound as raw human emotion; studio-genius auteur as universal pop star; singular as plural; future as present. In 2035, Art Angels will sound just as good as it did in 2015. And in 2015, nothing sounded better than Art Angels.