Sunday, January 7, 2018

Top 10 albums of 2018

Better late than never... These are the records that went on repeat at Discopop TowersTM in 2017. Which was a week ago.

10) Muna - About U

When you're beaten and a friend unexpectedly comes to your defence. When you're silently hurting and someone notices. When you just need to be understood. That's what this album is, but songs.

9) Billie Eilish - Don't Smile At Me

Technically an EP, but longer than most Beatles' albums, so I'm allowing it.

Billie Eilish has a faultless ear for melody, a lean-closer voice and a bucketful of acidic lyrics. Everyone, including me, goes on about Bellyache, where she fantasises about killing her friends. But my favourite (because I actually lived it) is Party Favor, where she casually and callously dumps her boyfriend on his birthday. "I hate to do this to you on your birthday," she coos. "Happy birthday, by the way".

8) Wolf Alice - Visions Of A Life
Good luck summing this one up. Ellie, Theo, Joff and Joel sound like they've raided the musical pick'n'mix counter, grabbing handfuls of grunge and dream-pop and punk shoegaze and anything else that takes their fancy - Ellie even borrows Neil Tenant's deadpan vocal "stylings" on Sky Musings. But somehow it works. You can holler along to Beautifully Unconventional, you can spit at Yuk Foo, you can swoon to Don't Delete The Kisses.

"I think hummus is quite a good analogy for our album," Ellie told me in September. "You get all these different varieties but at the end of the day they're all hummus."

Told you it was impossible to sum up.

7) Kendrick Lamar - Damn
The fire, the fury, the blood, the piss, the faith, the doubt, the humility, the false humility, the Rihanna duet, the breezy, casual competence of it all. At this point, he's basically showing off.

6) Paramore - After Laughter
Paramore's technicolor fifth album completes their transformation into pin-sharp pop stars - but not, like, Katy Perry or anything. ("I can't imagine getting up there and playing a Max Martin song – at that point we might as well just stop," guitarist Taylor York told The New York Times in April).

Instead, they take their cues from the angular elbows and polyrhythms of Talking Heads and Cyndi Lauper, while Hayley Williams picks at the scabs of her depression in a procession of unflinchingly stark lyrics.

My favourite track is Rose Colored Boy - where she rages against an irritatingly glass-half-full acquaintance. "And oh, I'm so annoyed," she hisses, "'Cause I just killed off what was left of the optimist in me". Sad-dancing hasn't been this good since Robyn last released an album.

5) Lorde - Melodrama

Too clever for its own good, Lorde's second album suffers from a surfeit of ideas. When they work (the conspiratorial tongue click on Perfect Places, the submerged vocal samples of Sober) it's glorious. But other tracks threaten to collapse under the weight of their ambition. It's telling that the standout moments are the simplest: Liability and Writer In The Dark.

But you can't argue with Ella Yelich-O'Connor's facility with melody, nor her gothic, awkward, evocative lyrics - somehow cool in their lack of coolness.

"We're the greatest/ They'll hang us in the Louvre / Down the back... but who cares? Still the Louvre" is a stand-out, but my absolute favourite is "I'm closing my teeth around this liquor-wet lime".

A flawed masterpiece.

4) Dua Lipa - Dua Lipa

Was it groundbreaking? No.
Did it rewrite pop history? No.
Was it an unimpeachable collection of pop songs? Yes.

New Rules was the standout, naturally, but you get six other singles for your money, from the self-descriptive Hotter Than Hell to the ridiculously danceable Blow Your Mind (Mwah). And check out Dua's sultry, husky vocals on Thinking 'Bout You for proof that she's set to be the UK's finest pop star.

3) St Vincent - Masseduction

All seedy glamour, giddy highs and unsettling lows, St Vincent's fifth album is as sticky and messy as real life gets.

Over crunching programmed beats, her stories invariably deal with loss of control ("I cannot stop the airplane from crashing," she sings on the title track), with references to mood-stabilising drugs, and a soul-crushing break-up ("how can anyone have you and lose you and not lose their mind, too?" - Los Ageless).

Annie Clark's most personal album to date, it's also her most pop-fuelled. She's ably assisted in this by Jack Antonoff, who also produced Lorde and Taylor Swift's latest albums, but never surrenders her wit, her inventiveness or her fury.

2) Kesha - Rainbow

When life gives you lemons, make a defiantly bonkers hillbilly pop record.

Kesha may not have won her freedom from Dr Luke, the producer and label boss she accuses of drugging and sexually abusing her (claims he denies) but she was finally free to make the music she wanted.

Out go the vocoders and retrospectively creepy lyrics about being drunk and out of control. In come throat-shredding vocals and revelatory songs about resilience, compassion, independence and, er... dating Godzilla.

The back story makes it compelling, but it's the songs that keep you coming back.

1) Laura Marling - Semper Femina

Acres of newsprint were wasted discussing how Laura Marling wrote about femininity from a male perspective. For a start, she abandoned that conceit half-way through (although the record is broadly about female archetypes, from the wild child to the artist's muse). But worse than that, it steers your attention away from the mesmerising beauty of these songs.

The album opens with Soothing, whose prowling, sensuous bassline suggests all kinds of sex, until Marling kicks her lover out: "I banish you with love". On Wild Fire, she channels Lou Reed, while shaming a plonker who tells her "you're at your most beautiful when you don't know you're being watched". "Maybe someday when God takes me away," she drawls. "I'll understand what the fuck that means."

Musically, she's never sounded more relaxed. Under the watchful guidance of Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple) she lets in all sorts of new musical textures - backmasked vocals, sweeping strings, even a guitar solo - that add to the dramatic acuity of her lyrics.

Beguiling and brilliant, it's the best album of her career.

  • Here's a playlist of tracks from the Top 10 albums. You can see numbers 11 to 20 below.

    FYI: The next 10:
    11) SZA - CTRL
    12) Taylor Swift - Reputation
    13) Lana Del Rey - Lust For Life
    14) Stormzy - Gang Signs & Prayer
    15) J Hus - Common Sense
    16) Haim - Something To Tell you
    17) Niia - I
    18) Feist - Pleasure
    19) Jessie Ware - Glass House
    20) Jay-Z - 4:44

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  • Monday, January 1, 2018

    Top 10 singles of 2017

    So it's been... er, five long months since I last updated the blog. But I couldn't resist compiling my Top 10 singles of the year.

    This year's list is extremely pop heavy, even for me, but the choices are determined by my iTunes play counts, which means they represent the songs I actually listened to over the last 12 months.

    So here we go... in reverse order, with a playlist of the videos at the bottom of the post.

    10) Lorde - Green Light

    Max Martin called Lorde's comeback single "incorrect songwriting" but to my mind, that's a compliment. Green Light's awkward lurch from verse to pre-chorus encapsulates everything that's brilliant about Lorde - a pop star who's not afraid to embrace her weirdness (cf her performance at this year's MTV Awards).

    Green Light isn't the best song on Melodrama, but there's something graceful about its clumsiness that kept me coming back for more.

    9) Don't Kill My Vibe - Sigrid

    Rae Morris made it into my Top 20 with the sublime Do It, a song about falling in love with her producer. Don't Kill My Vibe tells the opposite story - of how pop-star-in-waiting Sigrid Raabe was patronised and demoralised by an obnoxious studio boffin. Working with more sympathetic collaborators, Sigrid poured her scorn into this undeniable pop banger - and unwittingly set the scene for the song at number eight.

    8) Praying - Kesha

    Kesha could have come back swinging - she'd spent years in legal limbo, fighting her boss and mentor Dr Luke, who she accused of psychological and sexual abuse. But her response was much more compassionate than anyone expected.

    The star doesn't hide her anger ("we both know all the truth I could tell") but turns it into a plea for redemption. "I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees, praying," she sings. If only we could all be so forgiving.

    7) Little Of Your Love - Haim

    AKA the song that saved Haim's second album. As Este confessed earlier this year, "There was a time where I was like, 'OK, why is every song I’m writing sounding like the theme from ‘Jurassic Park’?'"

    Little Of Your Love broke that curse. Commissioned for (but not used in) the Amy Schumer movie Trainwreck, it relieved Haim of the pressure of following up their first album, allowing them to write a joyous, freewheeling True Blue tribute that's become a highlight of their live set. It also has one of the best videos of the year, which you can see at the bottom of this post.

    6) Mistakes - Tove Styrke
    Tove Styrke released two absolute corkers this year: Say My Name and Mistakes are cunningly detailed songs, employing multiple vocal layers and pixel-perfect production to embellish Tove's seemingly straightforward pop melodies.

    Mistakes is my favourite of the two, thanks to that slap-back snare drum and a delicious portamento in the vocoder refrain. But it would be remiss of me not to mention Say My Name's "wear it out like a sweater that you love" lyric.

    5) Lust For Life - Lana Del Rey ft The Weeknd
    "My boyfriend's back and he's cooler than ever". Lust For Life is Lana's most radio-friendly single since Summer Sadness, and one in which she invites The Weeknd through the airlock of her interplanetary spacecraft.

    It's a curious duet. Despite the chorus's demand to "take off all your clothes" the singers perpetually circle one other - mesmerised, rather than ravenous. But there's something beguiling about their soft-focus sensuality that keeps me coming back for more.

    4) Hard Times - Paramore

    A fluorescent, upbeat pop song about plumbing the depths of depression. "All that I want / Is a hole in the ground," sings Hayley Williams. "You can tell me when it's alright /For me to come out."

    The counterpoint is the point. Taylor York's triangular, new wave guitar hooks and Zac Farro's creative drum fills make the bleakness of Williams' lyrics all the more stark. Radiohead, take note.

    3) Bellyache - Billie Eilish
    The best debut of the year? 15-year-old Billie Eilish fantasises about killing all her friends and going on the run - only to get an ulcer from the guilt.

    Reviews rightly focus on the lyrics, but the music is equally ambitious - switching from peppy acoustic balladry to the gut-churning bass drop of the chorus. Billie Eilish is going places in 2018, and not just to escape the law.

    2) New Rules - Dua Lipa

    How often does someone come up with a new lyrical conceit for a break-up song? Almost never, that's how often. But Dua Lipa found a new angle with her step-by-step guide to avoiding your ex - and it became her proper breakout hit.

    New Rules was the first single to really capture the star's witty, approachable Twitter persona ("It's so cold outside my nipples could key a car rn") but it also benefitted from a super-smart video; which saw Dua being supported by her girlfriends as she struggled to stick to the four-point programme.

    The video rightly became a viral success... and not just for its gif-tastic choreography and themes of female solidarity. Someone "in the know" told me the pastel palette was deliberately chosen to reflect the most popular colour schemes on Instagram. How 2017 can you get?

    1) Bad Liar - Selena Gomez
    The way it interpolates Talking Heads' Psycho Killer. The way the lyrics spill out like an infatuated teenager's love letter. The line "just like the Battle of Troy there's nothing subtle here." The nuance in Selena Gomez's delivery - alternately awe-struck and assertive. The way she tries to deny her feelings ("you're taking up a fraction of my mind"). The melody in the chorus. The counter-melody in the chorus. The line "every time I watch you, serpentine".

    The whole damn thing is perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.

    FYI: The next 10 would have been:
    11) St Vincent - Los Ageless
    12) St Vincent - New York
    13) The Killers - The Man
    14) Kendrick Lamar - Humble
    15) Laura Marling - Wild Fire
    16) Tove Lo - Disco Tits
    17) Dagny - Love You Like That
    18) Foo Fighters - Sky Is A Neighbourhood
    19) Camila Cabello - Havana
    20) Rae Morris - Do It

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