Is Robyn Fenty‘s new opus Unapologetic up in here? No, hunty. I am not part of that circle jerk committee.
I know I promised this post would drop, like, last Tuesday or something but let’s face it – the five of us that read this countdown could probably wait until now. I had all sorts of things going on this week that kept me occupied, which didn’t involve drinking, strangely enough (I’m making for that right now as we speak).
Let’s get on with the countdown.
– #20 –
Push and Shove
Oh fuck. Didn’t we all have high hopes for No Doubt‘s comeback? Even though I could find no real fault with the singles, for some reason, this isn’t resonating as well as their past albums. Push and Shove sounds like the distilled, grown up No Doubt album that we all knew would probably happen but perhaps, weren’t quite ready to embrace. Coming off two sensationally in-your-face Gwen Stefani solo album and No Doubt‘s own blockbuster Rock Steady, there is an expectation for them to keep up the bonkers pop-ska-rock hybrid. It was what made No Doubt special after all.
Having said that, I don’t think Push and Shove was a complete waste of time. The band reunited with Mark “Spike” Stent, who hemmed their last album, and steered the project in a more live-sounding and mature direction. There are some beautiful mid tempos up in here with dreamy synths, crispy drums and vaguely 80s rock glimmers.
Album highlight ‘Push and Shove’ – the jumping collaboration with Major Lazer and Busy Signal – is king. Clock the utterly resistible with its hyperactive exchange between Gwen and Busy Signal. The strong fusion of reggaeton flavours and headbanging rock is precisely what No Doubt should work on fostering in all their future projects. Elsewhere, the project’s second single ‘Looking Hot’ sees the band return to dishing cheeky, effervescent pop with shimmering synths and ska-rock styles. That breakdown with Gwen erratically blurting “oh… oh, oh, oh!” almost makes up for the general lack of personality in all the other album tracks.
Album highlights: ‘Push and Shove’, ‘Looking Hot’ and ‘One More Summer’.
– #19 –
Bright Light Bright Light
Make Me Believe in Hope
I remember hearing ‘Waiting for The Feeling’ a lot when I first started doing breakfast radio this year (which meant we don’t get to pick about 95% of the music we play) and I remember thinking, ‘look – this dude has a nice voice and I kinda like the house pianos up in here but I don’t know if this is next level shit’. After a few weeks of back announcing Bright Light Bright Light on air, I did a bit more research on the London-based independent dance/pop artist and found his album to be pretty decent pop of accomplished standards. Basically, he wasn’t working on Garageband like I was at the time.
Make Me Believe in Hope had the blogosphere spasming with joy over its clean, polished electro pop stylings with meaningful lyrics, which is not to say that it is dull and serious. But rather something you could imagine filling the void left from Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Little Boots‘ last albums. It’s good catchy British pop without the cheese and ostentatious productions. Sonically, although it’s a modern dance pop production, Make Me Believe in Hope gives up nostalgic nods to 80s synth pop and 90s house.
‘Love Part II’ is euphoric in its detailing of finding love again. “You’re not the same as those other waste of space that’s why I have time now for you. You can take these hours and do as you see fit with all my days. And I’ll take your hand and say ‘do what you want with me! And let everybody see that I’m in love again’…” That’s pretty much what I want to say to my future boyfriend after Grindr chat and casual drinks go down well.
Album highlights: ‘Waiting for the Feeling’, ‘Disco Moment’ and ‘Cry at Films’.
– #18 –
Origin of Love
I pretty much wet myself when I heard Mika was teaming up with Nick Littlemore of Pnau for his new album. The Australian dance music producer, who is a well reliable purveyor of dreamy synth pop with elements of 80s nostalgia, is bound to work wonders with Mika‘s vocals and remarkable songwriting abilities. Quality was almost assured on this project, I thought, especially with Greg Wells – who worked on Mika‘s first album – back for the ride.
The Origin of Love is a discerning pop music listener’s album, balancing eager-to-please pop melodies with some slightly abstract tracks. But on the whole, the balance here favours fans of his breakthrough – Life in Cartoon Motion – more than those of his muddled last album.
‘Emily’ – which is the English re-write of Mika‘s French single ‘Elle Me Dit’ – feels like the new era ‘Grace Kelly’ for Mika with confronting and, possibly, self-critical lyrics. “Emily, can’t you write a happy song, get your ass to #1? Emily, are you stuck up? Are you gay? If you are well that’s okay ’cause it doesn’t even matter.”
Elsewhere, you’re treated to the old hyperactive Mika y’all fell in love with years ago in new faves like ‘Popular Song’, a highly quotable ode to the underdogs in high school.
“You were the popular one, the popular chick… standing on a field with your pretty pom-pom, now you’re working at the movies selling popular corn. I could’ve been a mess but I never went wrong, ’cause I’m putting down my stories in a popular song.”
There’s a good deal of maturity in Mika‘s poignant observations of love and its manifestations in every track. Every part, from the life-affirming single ‘Celebrate’ to the minimalist synth-pop ballad ‘Make You Happy’ and piano-based ‘Underwater’ form a fulfilling listening experience.
Album picks: ‘Celebrate’, ‘Popular Song’, ‘Elle Me Dit’ and ‘Make You Happy’.
– #17 –
Of Monsters and Men
My Head is an Animal
I’m pleased that Icelandic folk band Of Monsters and Men received the mainstream attention they did with this album and particularly its lead single ‘Little Talks’, because this project really is wonderful.
I haven’t been so drawn to barefoot-and-dreadlocks type campfire music like this since Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros‘ ‘Home’? The beautiful combination of organic vocals – both male and waify female’s – proved to be supremely effective in Of Monsters and Men‘s story-telling tunes.
‘Little Talks’ is without question the most beautiful song on the album. It might be the gin and tonic speaking now but I knew I would love it deeply from the second I heard its opening bars with them horns, tambourines and ‘hey!’ call outs. Its melodies strangely takes me back to the happy tunes I heard in church when I was growing up.
Can I just quickly say that I also love the animal themes in the two opening tracks ‘Dirty Paws’ and ‘King and Lionheart’? I feel like I’m sitting through some adaptation of Aesop’s fables. It really is good mountain climbing music, which I will mental note should I ever decide to embark on such an adventurous activity.
Album highlights: ‘Little Talks’, ‘Dirty Paws’ and ‘Mountain Sound’.
– #16 –
Look. Even I would shoot me a double take for nominating a neo-psychedelic rock band in my Top 30 albums countdown but Django Django really coloured me impress with their self-titled debut. Once again, it’s one of those unreal Spotify discoveries where you go ‘great – I’ll take a break from listening to vintage Whitney and bolt to the complete opposite end of the spectrum’ – and actually find yourself utterly spellbound.
Django Django doesn’t sound like typical psychedelic rock to me (because this is clearly a genre I know so much about). The British band offers a flavoursome fusion of African-influenced rhythms, synths, shimmering guitars and Beach Boys-esque harmonies into one cohesive package.
‘Skies Over Cairo’ – a completely instrumental track – is an immediate favourite with its snake charmer tune and hypnotic percussions. The driving single ‘Default’ is a foot-stomping jam marrying purposeful guitar strums with bleeps, electronic buzzes, and chopped and screwed vocals in the chorus. Elsewhere, ‘Zumm Zumm’ sounds like a Play School ditty as interpreted by a hipster-lauded band. Expect the unexpected with this impressive fusion album.
Album picks: ‘Default’, ‘Waveforms’ and ‘Skies Over Cairo’.
– #15 –
Girl on Fire
I am not ignorant. I know Alicia Keys tend to craft good albums but have I cared for any one of them bar Diary of Alicia Keys? No, not really. She’s like the overachieving dux in your school who you just golf clap every time she wins an award for “outstanding work” but would never personally invest your attention in finding out any more.
Girl on Fire caught my interest after reading some grandstanding statements from the artist herself saying how she’s embracing a new sound and new attitude. I really wanted to see what the bitch was going on about. Surely this wasn’t about Alicia Keys guzzling Chando all over some crunk track.
The poignant piano-based ballad ‘Brand New Me’ sets the tone for what will follow to be a tender and confident collection of modern soul/R&B jams. “If you notice that I’m different, don’t take it personally. Don’t be mad, it’s just a brand new kind of me,” Keys explains.
‘When It’s All Over’ is an engaging mid-tempo that hears Alicia switch up drum patterns and throw in some muted synths, giving what would otherwise be a tepid mid-tempo more life and innovation than you’d expect. Highlight is actually right at the very end when she gets her baby on the track for a little dialogue. I got so clucky I felt ovaries explode, even though I don’t actually have any in me.
Vocally, it needs to be said that Alicia Keys never disappoints, simply because she just sounds better and better with age – whether she’s belting the house down in the ‘Girl on Fire’ chorus or smoothing it out Sade-style in ‘Listen to Your Heart’, you’re guaranteed an outstanding performance.
Girl on Fire may seem like just another stellar notch in the Grammy-winning artist’s familiar discography but it’s definitely worth investigating if you want to experience quality modern soul.
Album highlights: ‘When It’s All Over’, ‘Girl on Fire’ and ‘Brand New Me’.
– #14 –
Well, this has certainly cleared the room. Ain’t nobody got time for Leona Lewis these days. But regardless of your care factor, Glassheart is without doubt, the Hackney diva’s most interesting and eclectic record to date.
In its finest moments, the project captures Leona‘s preference for love-bled songs and renders it to elements of drum ‘n’ bass, trip hop, and alternative pop. All of which are sonic styles the X Factor siren has never dabbled in before.
I recognise that there’s still this strange tension between the aforementioned innovative new styles and the shackles of tired “Leona-format” balladry that we’ve all heard before in her first two albums – but on the whole, Glassheart just feels like one of those bodies of work that tastemakers are likely to pick apart and re-assemble in a way they see fit, much like the approach to Christina Aguilera’s Bionic.
One would give approving nods to standouts like ‘Come Alive’ – a formidable storm of grime and drum ‘n’ bass – that feels like the album’s true opener once you’ve placated Leona’s conservative fans with the single (‘Trouble’) and two dutiful ballads.
Elsewhere in ‘Glassheart’, a sinister cross-pollination of Leona‘s ethereal vocals with aggressive dub step beats hit the lights with blindingly great results. There has never been a more exciting Leona Lewis uptempo created. It legitimately snatches wigs in the hardest way, from the cold and bemoaning verses through to the head-splitting dance breakdown.
Glassheart feels like a worthwhile investment in establishing the singer’s versatility even if it wasn’t a committed effort from start to finish. The overall quality of the songs on this album is the stronger than any of Leona‘s previous releases, which I think more than compensates for her dwindling record sales and general commercial relevance.
Album highlights: ‘Glassheart’, ‘Come Alive’, ‘Lovebird’ and ‘I to You’.
– #13 –
Idea of Happiness
My pop music living-and-breathing pal Adem, who’s opinion I respect and value, probably swears by this band. I’ve had casual, non-committal encounters with Van She‘s music before but this project – Idea of Happiness – is one I’d happily put a ring on and play during summer for the rest of my twenties. Which is a huge fucking commitment given that this isn’t Nicola Roberts‘ album.
Idea of Happiness is an immaculate collection of sun-stroked dance pop with fluorescent synths and rhythmic patterns that nod to Caribbean music – especially on highlights like ‘Calypso’ and ‘Coconut’. The idyllic island paradise jam ‘Jamaica’ always takes me to a happier place. I distinctly playing it in the middle of winter as I sat on cold concrete slabs outside my work place, thinking, ‘fuck me, it’s like I’m going a holiday through my headphones’ and that’s precisely what Van She has accomplished with this whole album.
Album highlights: ‘Jamaica’, ‘Sarah’ and ‘You’re My Rescue’.
– #12 –
Sweden’s dance/pop raven Loreen captured me at first instance with her bewitching interpretative dance performance of the champion Eurovision song, ‘Euphoria’, which swiftly raced up the charts around the world after taking the crown and even became the first non-UK Eurovision song to make the Top 3 in the UK charts since 1987.
The 29-year old’s debut album Heal is an alluring blend of pulsating dance pop that feel more subtle than what one might initially expect from a Eurovision pop purveyor.
In the current pop market that is already fluent in electronic dance music parlance, Heal speaks a language of its own – shrugging off trendy dubstep inflections in favour of a richer soundscape that enhance its emotive lyrics rather than compete with it. Most tracks on the album are smoothened with waves of atmospheric synths and lush orchestral strings, which really complement Loreen‘s own chilled vocal delivery.
Standouts like the tormented ‘My Heart is Refusing Me’ is a showcase of pedigree dance balladry – just like ‘Euphoria’ – it comes complete with a chorus that formulaically expands after periods of restraint verses. Elsewhere, the ethereal ballad ‘Everytime’ harks to the downtempo gems Anggun used to turn out in her prime.
As far as cohesion goes, Heal serves a masterful blend of crowd-pleasing Eurodance in its obvious singles candidates and more distilled, chill out sounds. It’s essentially a cathartic break up album – as the title would suggest – offering salvation for disparate moments, whether you’re throwing on the Louboutins to dance the tears away or simply staying at home with the cat, blogging your feelings on Tumblr.
Album highlights: ‘Euphoria’, ‘My Heart is Refusing Me’, ‘Everytime’ and ‘Crying Out Your Name’.
– #11 –
Nothing warms the cockles of my heart more than hearing people heap praise on Hipster’s-choice Knowles. Solange‘s relevance continues to upgrade with every tentative record she puts out and her latest project – a concise EP of ethereal indie synth pop: True – is the ‘why’ she is cancelling your faves.
The steps Solange took from the funk-laden and vintage chic Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams to this point feels gradual and graceful. In fact, if you take her last album track ‘God Given Name’ and render it as some kind of bridging track between both records – it would make even greater sense.
True carries seven twinkling tracks that all glimmer with a youthful and nostalgic essence. It’s a sentimental experience to hear candid and wide-eyed lyrics about love and break ups projected on late-80s pop grooves.
Standout jam ‘Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work’ is serving early Madonna realness with frustrated lines, “So baby is that all you got? Tell me if you got some more. I’m thinking of some time off. I’m dreaming of the time that you knew me.”
Elsewhere, the project’s lead single ‘Losing You’ administers straight-forward lyrics and sentiments about a relationship reaching its twilight. “We used to kiss all night but now there’s just no use. I don’t know why I fight it, clearly we are through. Tell me the truth, boy, am I losing you for good?” The beat itself is a musical delight, mixing vibrant African percussions, hand claps and samples over dreamy synths and Solange‘s stylishly reverbed vocals.
I need to see this whole EP soundtracking some arthouse movie about a teen romance set in a trailer park some time in 1987.
EP highlights: ‘Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work’, ‘Losing You’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’.