I’m not here to argue that the screwball, monkey-pissing-in-its-own-mouth days of early ‘00s Pitchfork are worth romanticizing, but there’s a chance that one of your favorite artists and more than a few writers owe their career to some of those freewheeling reviews. For Broken Social Scene, it’s founder Ryan Schreiber’s review of You Forgot It In People, which focuses on the grunt work of music journalism, a sight unseen in affectionate portrayals of road life like Almost Famous—how it wasn’t all backstage sit-downs and crushing into the back of a van to profile some young punks. That some days, you were just crouched down, fishing through boxes to find the next artist worth following around the country. But if you didn’t dig through the right box, or judge the wrong album by its cover, your favorite band could slip through the cracks.
Oso Oso’s The Yunahon Mixtape is birthed from a different era of music coverage, in which the next great rock band might be found on Bandcamp, in an email inbox, some basement in Philly, or never at all. At that point, the odds of having a career-altering moment have significantly diminished since 2003, or 2010. No one critic or publication has make-or-break power in 2017, at least in the indie rock world (rap’s another story.) And yet listening to Yunahon for the first time this year felt like digging through a box—not necessarily of hopeful promos—but a collection of letters and photos that your best friends who’ve dated since high school might keep stashed under their bed. It feels almost intrusive to assume the perspectives of characters in Yunahon, a fictional town that serves as the backdrop for frontman Jade Lilitri’s lovestruck gem. But this is music that seems designed for far-reaching indie rock appeal, which makes it all the more surprising that it initially couldn’t find a label home.
Lilitri uploaded the “album about a mixtape” on Bandcamp one day in January, a week before we were introduced to American Carnage. In an interview with Uproxx earlier this year, he discussed how the lack of label interest grew so dispiriting that he never expected to break even on the record. “It just felt like it was at a point where I was like, are you doing this to get it out to a bigger audience? Because, if that’s the situation, it doesn’t look like your chances are too good judging by the interest of labels,” Lilitri said. He wanted to “just give it to the people who really care about it.” So he just put it online one day, with no traditional press campaign beyond grassroots social media testimonials and a small handful of bloggers and writers beating the drum. That’s how I first heard about it, right around Bandcamp’s #NoBanNoWall donation day in February.
It’s fitting that Yunahon came into the world during a time when our country seemed like it might cease to exist by March. Oso Oso dropped a narrative-defying, empathetic record that seemed to imagine a place where our own indecision and difficulty to communicate how much we love someone are far greater concerns than world leaders who consistently threaten our livelihood. I think the fact that it felt so far removed from the zeitgeist was what made it the most appealing listen of the year; we don’t need albums to sound like being on Twitter.
Calling it a mixtape wasn’t a way to flatten the stakes, but to recall an era when you could spill your guts out over a carefully curated helping of songs. Even if you didn’t write any of them, the contents, the sequencing, or the way you scrawled its title on the label could communicate the emotions that you weren’t sure how to explain. Yunahon traverses every period of a relationship; it charts the puppy love period when words fail you, to the state of comfort where you’re speaking your own secret language, to the point where words can’t repair what’s been lost.
Much like Carly Rae Jepsen’s cult classic-turned religious text E-mo-tion, there’s nothing sonically innovative or trailblazing about The Yunahon Mixtape. Plenty of great records this year held up The Blue Album as a formative influence, from the irresistible bubblegrunge of Charly Bliss to the earnest goofball wattage of Rozwell Kid, and Yunahon’s no exception. It shamelessly borrows from the late ‘90s/early Aughts indie rock and emo playbook, much in the same way Jepsen dips in ‘80s, synth-laced longing—both found new ways to communicate the pangs of falling in love that are impossible to articulate. And these songs are utterly alive, with tempo changes that snap into place, tantalizing harmonies, and structures that still blow my mind as the listens flip into triple digits. (This is especially true of “The Walk,” a standout track about being dumb in love if there ever was one.)
The term “emo” has been recontextualized so many different ways that it’s easy to understand why some of the bands associated with its so-called revival have mixed feelings. For better or worse, the genre can be linked to a caricatured brand of sadness, if not outright misogyny and more flagrant abuses of power. So when an empathetic, open-hearted record like The Yunahon Mixtape comes along, with so many different perspectives and an intoxication for simply falling in love, you can see where it’s something else entirely. Lilitri conveys this attentive, whirlwind commitment with evasive specificity, teasing out secret codes, favorite nouns, and the fail-safes we put up to delay the disintegration.
In a year when most fired-up polemics lacked the prescience or reaction of political work that came before Trump’s first season in office, I was much more drawn to escapism. Albums that focused on sensations and emotions that are present no matter who’s running the ship, but just intensify and amplify when you’re constantly exhausted or hollering at your computer. The Yunahon Mixtape comes with dozens of moments to drown out the noise. The pre-chorus in “The Cool” which resembles the uplift of Coldplay’s “Charlie Brown” for 15 seconds and never returns; the breakneck sprint of “Shoes (The Sneaker Song)”; the call-and-response on “Reindeer Games”; when “The Secret Spot” cracks open at its most distressed; “ain’t it nice to fuck up and not be in it alone?” These aren’t timely gestures that speak in specific ways to being alive in 2017, and that doesn’t have to make them matter less.