In the late ’90s, the media attempted to shame George Michael for a decision he (and thousands of others) made: publicly coming out. To respond to the attempted shaming, he stepped out with a video for “Outside,” flipping the narrative while adding another classic queer tune for pre-Pride repertoires.
As much as I love Robyn — “Dancing On My Own” will make it onto any number of my Pride-related playlists — there’s a gray area in the world carved out for alternative artists:
Unsurprisingly, before the rise of mainstream pop artists like Hayley Kiyoko, Years & Years and Sam Smith, there was a whole queer subculture whose music defined and continues to define many a queer youth. These queer albums are a testament to the vast spectrum of being just that: of being queer, openly or quietly, from inside of the closet of a recording booth, or a stage swathed in silk and glitter and sequins that never come off.
These 10 records — and it was hard as hell to limit it to only that — are just a piece of a soundtrack for the queer kids who’ve always felt slightly off-kilter, those of us who see name, face and lyrics we can’t recognize in ourselves. They provide an alternative to “gay icons” who are far from that and an oasis of medicine for the most lost of souls.
Where ANOHNI’s last album Hopelessness delved into the difficulties and the suffering of a broken world and fractured society, it was with her last project, Antony & the Johnsons, that she released I Am a Bird Now. Hopelessness is a beautiful protest, and a leap, musically, from everything she did with her former project. I Am a Bird Now invoked those feelings of being an outsider, of not belonging.
I Am a Bird Now follows the personal narrative of someone who is lost (“Hope There’s Someone,” “For Today I Am a Boy”) finding her wings (“Free At Last,” “Bird Gerhl”). The striking cover of the record is a photograph of Candy Darling, a transgender actress and Warhol Superstar whose light was taken out long before it should have been. It’s a photograph of her on her deathbed by Peter Hujar, looking as beautiful in death as she had in life. I Am a Bird Now is a stunning album, with layered vocals, harmonies, and orchestral climbs that pique the senses.
Karin Dreijer’s latest offering as Fever Ray passed me by until recently when a friend explained the reason behind the record’s name, Plunge. While criminally it slipped under my radar, I was thankful to hear “To the Moon and Back” when I did. Plunge is an uninhibited, unapologetic musical essay on queer sex and desire. As one half of electro-synth duo The Knife and with a previous solo outing with her 2009 self-titled album, Dreijer is no stranger to critical acclaim.
Still, it’s with Plunge where she speaks her truest self. Plunge is a record of queer re-awakening, of finding not what was lost, but what’s been shrouded by misplaced shame. Tracks like, “An Itch,” “A Part of Us” and “This Country” approach returning to the world of dating and fucking from the viewpoint of a queer woman. Plunge is filled with lyrics examining the comfort of queer spaces, the fear all of us, as queer people, live with and wants that are refreshingly outside of the male gaze.
In standout track “Werewolf,” CocoRosie — the band name of sisters, Sierra and Bianca Casady — has an opening that says it best: “In a dream, I was a werewolf / my soul filled with crystal light / lavender ribbons of rain sang / ridding my heart of mortal fright.” Only one of the sisters, Bianca, openly identifies as queer, but the freak-folk tracks on this 2007 album all feature variations on a theme of otherness and outsiderness down to the obscure instruments and opposing vocals.
Whether tracks like the opening “Rainbowarriors,” “Animals” or even “Werewolf” itself were written to stand beside the queer agenda or not, CocoRosie’s drag aesthetics and art étrange storytelling are a great comfort for lovers of the avant garde.
Due for release at the end of August, Anna Calvi’s third album, Hunter, promises to be the musical embodiment of completely and entirely letting go. If the recently released “Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy” and three sold-out European shows are anything to go by, those promises are hardly going to come up short. With this album, Calvi is preparing to take the concept of gender, of sexuality, of binaries and of boundaries, and it’s shaping up to be one of the best records of the year.
Known for her skills with the guitar and bold vocals, *Hunter” mixes influences from all walks of life, but mostly, the influences come from the primality that is allowing yourself to be yourself. Heavy bass lines are mixed with synths and tracks like “Wish” that have vibes of dance floors, and “Indies or Paradise” interlaced with birdsong allow Calvi (and those of us listening) to paint a canvas derived from hers, and one we can share.
Omnion is the first release by Hercules & Love Affair that doesn’t use queer talent alone. The album in itself is a nuanced and sexually forward record full of queer odes and anthems tinged with spiritual themes. In an interview with Billboard, Andy Butler talked about the factions within the LGBTQ community, as well as our allies, asking why it’s so hard for us all to come together.
In that, he described Omnion.
Sharon Van Etten and Faris Badwan (The Horrors) both appear, as well as regular collaborators, Rouge Mary — a viciously talented chameleon vocalist from Paris — and Gustaph. Omnion is a disco album created to get to the root of self-care, of pride and of togetherness. “Running,” “Wildchild” and the title track “Omnion” are my picks for top tracks, but the message here is individuality.
Due to the fact that crooner John Grant is a former member of HALA, it’s only fair to follow up the last record with Grant’s debut solo album, Queen of Denmark. When you see John Grant for the first time, you see Ron Swanson. He’s a bearded chap with a heart of satin and a voice that will melt the eyeliner from his or your face. His lyrics are relatable, ironic and sometimes brutally honest.
On Queen of Denmark, Grant confronts the depression that comes from being raised in a religious, homophobic home (“JC Hates Faggots”), feelings of alienation (“Sigourney Weaver”), unlove (“It’s Easier”) and love (“Caramel”). Queen of Denmark is a masterpiece of queer art.
Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) is one of the better known artists on the list, but I’d feel strange not including a record like Masseduction — not when the “dominatrix in a mental institution” narration is so fucking relatable. With Masseduction, Clark examined the spectrum of sexuality, power and vulnerability in losing yourself to love and to life is such an intensely — but not exclusively — queer experience.
Clark herself has spoken of *Masseduction’ being the most personal album she’s ever done, and while each in the past have been from a different internal storyteller, it’s with this album that her overall vision comes to light. Songs like “Pills” are appropriate accompaniments to modern-day existence, and there’s a sense of rebellion when one takes their medication to it. Similarly, tracks like “Smoking Section” and “Young Lover” that examine both sides of life and death are tied up in the enthralling k-hole that is this queer-as-fuck record.
For Pride month, St. Vincent also re-released a track from the album, “Slow Disco,” remixing and rebranding it to be a gay dance floor anthem. And yes, dancing to it alone will fill that space in your soul.
This one time at a sleepover, I woke up a friend because I was singing “I U She” in my sleep. If someone is going to be singing in their sleep, and they’re gonna wake you up with it, let it be a Peaches track for the ensuing memories. Out bisexual artist Peaches turns misogyny on its head by confronting the oft male-driven narrative of hip-hop, house and electro and just being an all-around badass.
Fatherfucker was one of the first queer albums that got to me. It was, like Fever Ray’s Plunge, a testament to the open sexuality of a woman, and not just a woman, but a queer woman, like me. Peaches never once held back in anything: not her performances or her lyrics, or gussying it up like a drag Abe Lincoln on the cover of this record. This is Peaches standing up and saying she’s here and she’s queer.
Mykki Blanco’s music isn’t the sort I would have turned myself onto. In fact, it was because of his guest spot on Tegan and Sara’s The Con X, covering “Knife Going In” that turned me onto him, and I’m so glad. Blanco is an openly genderqueer rapper whose lyricism is more than just poetic. Mykki is his most personal of records and it shows. French performer, producer and creative Woodkid invited Mykki to his home in Paris and encouraged him to write more personal material. Like I said, it shows.
The track in which Woodkid features, “Highschool Never Ends” (“you know what my love's about / fucking with my head, let my heart bleed out”), is a 5-plus minute epic and alongside other tracks like “Loner” (“I don't need your pity please leave me alone”) and “You Don’t Know Me” (“I know you don't me, you don’t know me that way”), the record as a whole amounts to the isolation and condemnation of the queer experience through different eyes.
The artist’s most well-known song, “Queen,” is the second track on Perfume Genius’ third album. It provides a cutting commentary to the state of the political world right now, while also helping its listeners to feel fulfilled and whole again, or finally, if they never have been. As soon as the chorus kicks in (“no family is safe / when I sashay”) followed by the familiar, almost comforting chimes, there’s a rush that hits the body — a rush that can only be caused by good music.
“Fool” splits in two like gender, like sexuality, like the mind. “My Body’s” dysmorphic dysphoria is rampant and touches every nerve. “Grid,”is a synth-driven tribute to the AIDS epidemic where the voodoo screams of pain toward the end of the song are only too fitting. Lastly, “Don’t Let Them In” has some of the most beautiful, queer lyrics I’ve heard or seen in my life:
“In an alternate ribbon of time
my dances were sacred
and my lisp was evidence
that I spoke for both spirits”
A queer music journalist who runs exclusively on coffee and good tunes, Em is convinced she belongs in a David Lynch film with the French subtitles turned on.