2015: I Know That She’s Right

A standout year for new music—I know, every year produces its share, but 2015 was for me another 1992 or 2004. That I wrote about three albums from this year (the most for a single year in a decade) speaks to it, along with all the great ones I didn’t include: Edge of The Sun, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, FFS, Art Angels—all of them worthy of their own entries, denied primarily for space restraints (this project isn’t called 100+ Albums), each one represented here by a standout track, with “Nobody’s Empire” increasingly looking like Stuart Murdoch’s best song nearly two decades after If You’re Feeling Sinister.

At this year’s end, I even sent out an annual mix CD to friends, something I hadn’t done since 2010 (and haven’t again at this writing.) The first 17 tracks here more or less replicate that mix: a parade of perennials (Marling, Cracknell, Gryner, Sufjan, etc.) with a few one-offs and some newbies woven in (Vampire Weekend’s bassist’s side project Baio; Courtney Barnett cannily channeling The New Pornographers while still sounding like her eccentric self.)

The remaining 20-odd songs are split between good stuff I couldn’t originally fit on an 80-minute CD (Grace Potter’s disco-rock extravaganza, Listenbee’s EDM-folk mashup, the first good Madonna song in a decade) and, as always, gems I didn’t encounter until the following year or two: Susanne Sundfor’s superior Swedish synth-pop, Natalie Prass’ classy, out-of-time balladry, and of course, Carly Rae Jepsen. The much-praised E*MO*TION is more a solid collection of singles + filler than a Classic Album to me, but oh, what singles, especially “Boy Problems”: so blissfully, self-assuredly perfect and sophisticated teen-pop, it nearly got me through the following year.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2015 on Spotify:

  1. Belle and Sebastian, “Nobody’s Empire”
  2. Years & Years, “Shine”
  3. Florence + The Machine, “Queen of Peace”
  4. Destroyer, “Times Square”
  5. Laura Marling, “False Hope”
  6. Baio, “Sister of Pearl”
  7. Calexico, “Miles From The Sea”
  8. Robert Forster, “A Poet Walks”
  9. Sarah Cracknell, “Hearts Are For Breaking”
  10. Twin Shadow, “When The Lights Turn Out”
  11. Emm Gryner, “The Race”
  12. Jose Gonzalez, “Let It Carry You (Dino Soccio Mix)”
  13. Roisin Murphy, “Unputdownable”
  14. Sufjan Stevens, “Fourth of July”
  15. Metric, “Fortunes”
  16. Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator”
  17. Marina and the Diamonds, “I’m A Ruin”
  18. Hot Chip, “Dark Night”
  19. Jamie xx/Romy, “Loud Places”
  20. New Order, “Academic”
  21. Susanne Sundfor, “Fade Away”
  22. Lianne La Havas, “Tokyo”
  23. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Boy Problems”
  24. Matthew E. White, “Rock & Roll Is Cold”
  25. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”
  26. The Weepies, “No Trouble”
  27. Grace Potter, “Alive Tonight”
  28. Deerhunter, “Breaker”
  29. Natalie Prass, “Why Don’t You Believe In Me”
  30. Beirut, “Perth”
  31. Tanlines, “Pieces”
  32. Listenbee, “Nottamun Town”
  33. Madonna, “Joan of Arc”
  34. Lord Huron, “Dead Man’s Hand”
  35. FFS, “Piss Off”
  36. Christine and The Queens, “Tilted”
  37. The Radio Dept., “This Repeated Sodomy”
  38. Ivan & Alyosha, “It’s All Just Pretend”
  39. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, “I Need Never Get Old”
  40. Tracey Thorn, “Let Me In”

Christine and The Queens, “Christine and The Queens”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #97 – released October 16, 2015)

Track listing: iT / Saint Claude / Tilted / No Harm Is Done / Science Fiction / Paradis Perdus / Half Ladies / Jonathan / Narcissus Is Back / Safe and Holy / Night52 / Here

Readers following this project for any amount of time will likely detect my fondness for unconventional, quirky and sometimes just plain eccentric female artists. Kate Bush, naturally, is this category’s prototype and arguably still unmatched master, and one can easily draw a straight line from her to Tori Amos to Fiona Apple to Nellie McKay. Along the way, I’ve connected others whom, while not necessarily as original or perhaps weird nonetheless created spaces for themselves in the music industry while not fully conforming to its norms: Joni Mitchell possibly did this first and best, but don’t discount Aimee Mann, Liz Phair, Sam Phillips, Róisín Murphy or Florence Welch, to name but a few who forged their own paths.

As for artists emerging in the past five years, Héloïse Letissier, who records under the pseudonym Christine and The Queens, is the most promising addition to this list. Based in Paris, Letissier released her predominantly French-language debut album Chaleur Humaine (“Human Warmth”) at age 26 in 2014 and reissued it in America under the title Christine and The Queens a year later, rerecording many (but not all) of its vocals in English, and swapping out two of the original’s songs for three new ones. Complicating things further, this English version came out in Europe the following year with Chaleur Humaine as its title and was a massive hit, charting at number two in the UK.

As an American, it’s the self-titled version I know and love. Upon my first listen in late 2016, it wasn’t Letissier’s voice (better-than-average, if occasionally reedy) or sound (laptop enhanced, 80s-tinged electro-pop) or even playfully peculiar sensibility that caught my ear, although all these things would fortify my interest over time; no, what really struck me was Letissier’s way with a melody. Like Stuart Murdoch or Andy Sturmer or Emm Gryner, she just has a knack for catchy choruses and often equally captivating verses that are approachable and indelible without sounding derivative.

Christine and The Queens’ best known song, “Tilted” (called “Christine” on Chaleur Humaine), is a perfect example. Right at the start, that clipped synth hook (like a snippet of a warped vinyl record) commands attention, along with the “heh, heh” percussive vocal sample woven into the beat. Its bright, brief verses are melodically simple but effective in how their chords carry over to the sing-along chorus: “I am actually good / can’t help it if we’re tilted.” She switches to an irresistibly rapid French rap on the bridge before slightly altering the melody on the final verse: “I’m doing my face / with magic marker / I’m in my right place / don’t be a downer,” she repeats (along with soulful “yeahs” underneath) before it neatly reveals itself as a faultless countermelody to the chorus reappearing on top. “Tilted” is modern nonsense pop of the highest order—in addition to being superbly catchy, it’s also a bold and convincing declaration of self.

Occasionally, Letissier’s melodies absolutely define and drive her songs. I couldn’t begin to tell you what “Science Fiction” is about, even in its English version (its lyrical hook goes, “We’re spinning like Mike and Freddy”), but the agility it wrings out of two chords and her kinetic, razor-sharp vocals (particularly the wordless ones, like “na, na-na, na-na-na-na”) are so infectious it doesn’t matter. Similarly, dramatic closer “Here” sidesteps any pretense of delivering wisdom or revelation for pure, visceral emotion in how urgently Letissier repeatedly sings the song’s title in its fiery choruses.

Letissier’s melodic instinct and mastery of emotional shaping is most deeply felt on “Saint Claude”. The verses are sung in French—translated, it’s yet another song of love and devotion, interesting less for what’s being said than how it’s said, with certain words swiftly repeated in triplicate. However, it’s the ascendant chorus that whole-heartedly soars: “Here’s my station,” she repeats, as if both making a defense and offering an olive branch, but her poignancy develops each time before she reveals, “But if you say just one word I’ll stay with you.” At the minute-long coda, she mournfully concludes, “We are so lonely in this part of town”; although you feel she’s deliberately left out part of the narrative, it’s also difficult not to acknowledge that it’s all you need to hear to understand or feel its effect.

Still, it would be a disservice to overlook Letissier’s lyrical content, for it illustrates her breakthrough as a new kind of pop star. Identifying as pansexual, Letissier writes about gender fluidity to the extent an artist of an earlier generation might’ve done so regarding merely being a woman in a predominantly male profession. Leading off with “iT”, she confronts matters of gender identity head-on: “I’m a man now,” she brashly, almost matter-of-factly declares, “and there’s nothing you can do to make me change my mind.” Later, on “Half Ladies”, she adds, “Cause just when you thought I’d be still a little girl, I’m one of the guys,” sounding more vulnerable but still determined, backed up by gentle Fender Rhodes and finger snaps as the song shifts into its celebratory French chorus (“Laissez passer toutes Half-Ladies!”, which essentially means, “Let them all through!”)

Not surprisingly, the three new songs here are all in English (and the two left off from Chaleur Humaine are in French); more interestingly, two of them are duets. Featuring teenaged Nigerian-American rapper Tunji Ige, “No Harm Is Done” noticeably leans heavier towards contemporary R&B than anything on the album—it’s perfectly fine, but not particularly innovative given what surrounds it. “Jonathan” is far more arresting: queer male singer Mike Hadreas, an inspired choice of a partner (who also performs under a pseudonym, Perfume Genius), takes the entire first verse of this lovely, if straightforward ballad, with Letissier not appearing until the second verse. The other new song, “Safe and Holy”, is, after “Tilted”, her most explicit move for the dancefloor, combining gospel chords with a rock-disco rhythm not dissimilar to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”.

Letissier projects plenty of confidence at such a relatively unseasoned age: she interpolates Kanye West’s “Heartless” on the chorus of “Paradis Perdus”, titles one of her compositions “Narcissus Is Back” without lapsing into esoterica, and crafts music videos that are less promotional pieces than fodder for an art installation (see below.) Fortunately, her saving grace is an approachability one doesn’t always easily detect in art-pop. More than just “one of the guys”, she’s as relatable as a Tracey Thorn or a Jen Trynin. Inviting and inclusive, but also fiercely original, it’s not an easy balance to pull off, or to make appear as effortless as Letissier occasionally does here.

If anything, her second album, 2018’s released-simultaneously-in-English-and-in-French Chris, walks a trickier tightrope, with Letissier both visually and conceptually inhabiting the titular male persona throughout its entirety. Time may even prove Chris to be the superior album, with songs like “The Walker”, “Doesn’t Matter” and “What’s-Her-Name” sporting ever-sharper melodies and lyrics. At present, she carries the promise of Kate in 1982, Florence in 2009, maybe even Joni in 1970. Whether she makes good on it or not, I suspect she’ll be forever foraging her own path, and I eagerly await as to where she’ll go next.

Up Next: This Thing Was Bound To Happen.


“Saint Claude”:

Róisín Murphy, “Hairless Toys”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #96 – released May 8, 2015)

Track listing: Gone Fishing / Evil Eyes / Exploitation / Uninvited Guest / Exile / House of Glass / Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt) / Unputdownable

After Overpowered failed to connect with a wider audience, Róisín Murphy seemed to be in no hurry to put out another album, even as Lady Gaga took its look and sound to the bank a year later. Instead, Murphy went on an extended hiatus: she became a mother (twice), occasionally surfaced as a guest vocalist (most notably on “Don’t You Agree” from the David Byrne/Fatboy Slim life-of-Imelda Marcos concept album Here Lies Love) and released a few alluringly titled one-off singles of her own (“Orally Fixated”, “Simulation”.) Mi Senti, an EP of Italian-language songs, appeared in 2014; the stylistic range across its six tracks spoke to her inclination to experiment and defy expectations, but it was only a mere inkling of what was to come when her next album finally arrived a year later.

Hairless Toys decidedly does not pick up where Overpowered left off; nothing on it is as radio-friendly as “You Know Me Better” or as danceable as “Movie Star”. Its eight tracks sprawl across fifty minutes with most of them hovering around six. When first single and opener “Gone Fishing” dropped a few months before the album’s release, I did not know exactly what to make of it. Murphy’s submerged yet steady vocals fluttered in, out and all around a collage of mechanical beats and synths, all of it layered as to feel peculiar but not entirely off-putting. With lyrics inspired by Paris Is Burning, a documentary about New York City drag culture in the late ’80s (she refers to “The children of LaBeija”, meaning the “house” of performer Pepper LaBeija), Murphy fashions a paean “to building another kind of family nest” for all those stigmatized by their own blood relatives (though the song title remains either a mystery or a pretty obscure reference.) Verse after verse, it percolates on, its hooks not reaching out to hug the listener but creeping along the sidelines, only to occasionally, suddenly, ever-so-briefly emerge before retreating back into the ether.

While certainly more cerebral than anything before it in Murphy’s discography, Hairless Toys is still, at its core, comprised of pop songs—leisurely-paced, heady, at times quixotic pop songs, but ones still sporting hummable melodies and verse/chorus/verse structures. Following “Gone Fishing”, “Evil Eyes” is a slightly sharper entry point for unassuming listeners. An introductory electronic bassline/heartbeat remains a constant throughout, its irresistible strut a solid foundation for Murphy’s dreamily gliding vocals on top (“ho…cus…. / ho-cus, po…..cus….”). It plays like slow-motion disco-funk, graceful but also tense enough that it’s genuinely thrilling when it hits that key change at the bridge at 4:27 and Murphy snaps to attention: “Gonna put those demons in their place!,” she exclaims, as a call-and-response with the phrase, “Get to know them!” (See the song’s bonkers music video below, and in particular, how she chose to visualize this part.)

“Exploitation” clocks in at nearly nine-and-a-half minutes and was still chosen as the album’s second single (albeit in a four-minute edit.) Kicking off with a boisterous, galloping, thirty-second-long synth-and-percussion fanfare, it deftly settles into a subdued thump-a-thon driven by a repeated three-note hook. “Never… underestimate / creative people / and the depths that they will go,” Murphy sings, again forever wafting through a scurrying beat, pausing to ponder the question, “I just don’t know who’s / who’s exploiting who?” in the chorus. The album version’s back half is entirely instrumental, shifting from house music to straight-up trance, the melody gradually dissolving into abstraction over a series of seemingly endless piano chords and electronic noise. Weird as it may be to some (most?), it’s less a line drawn in the sand than Murphy asking her listeners, “Why separate art from pop? Why can’t they co-exist?”

It’s a question Hairless Toys returns to often without making excuses or really any concessions for either side. Combining fat, heavy synth bass with flowery do-do-do’s over what roughly amounts to supper-club funk, “Uninvited Guest” is one of the album’s most playful tracks, particularly in its baritone “whoah, whoah, whoah’s” in the chorus’ background and its cheerful whistling hook; it also transforms into one of the most gorgeous songs here when, at the three-minute-mark, the backbeat suddenly vanishes and an extended bridge unfolds with luxuriant chord changes and lush layers of guitars and multi-tracked vocals, growing more impossibly lovely until the beat resumes a minute-and-a-half later.

“Exile” is arguably even more unexpected a left turn than the back half of “Exploitation”. An honest-to-god, morning-after torch song heavy with twangy guitar, reverb, a little pedal steel and briefly, an eerie, gurgling, horror-film synth noise, it resembles a country death song for a David Lynch film with Murphy speak-singing most of the lyrics rather than sounding off like a siren. And yet, it’s also the most traditional, straightforward tune here (also the shortest at four minutes.) Like much of Hairless Toys, it greatly benefits from extra space to breathe and further ponder one’s surroundings while also both paying homage to and completely subverting an entire musical genre.

While shorter than “Exploitation” by over two minutes, “House of Glass” is almost its mirror image: disclosing its most blatant hook right away, it still sounds tentative at first, a somewhat wispy tone poem. Thankfully, it builds up rather than drifts further apart, becoming danceable midway through. Murphy’s vocals alternately peacefully float through the air (“People / who live / in / glassssss / hou-sesssss”) and cut it like a fine blade (rapidly singing, “Little pieces of a broken dream / Scattered in a million different places.”) Layers accumulate as everything proceeds, from guitar riffs and electro-xylophone runs to drunken, elongated “loo / loo / loo” vocals. The pressure builds, but deliberately, it never really climaxes.

On another album, “Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)” could be a delicate, heartrending ballad, its two chords gracefully buoyed by an acoustic piano or string quartet; here, its simplistic melody merely serves as a skeleton for an atmospheric wash of ebbing-and-flowing synths and various electronic textures, as Murphy’s vocals become less of a focal point and more just another element in the cavernous mix. As for that inscrutable title (what the hell is a “Hairless Toy”?), producer Eddie Stevens supposedly mistakenly heard those words instead of the song’s original title, “Careless Talk”. In a typically quirky Murphy move, it just stuck for both the song and the entire album.

Leave it to Murphy to also place her best song here at the very end. In great contrast to the preceding track, “Unputdownable” is, at the onset, pretty spare—just tambourine, Murphy’s vocal and a repeated, ascending eight-note piano hook. “You are my favorite book,” she sings, and proceeds with a series of clever reading-as-love metaphors: “You’re unputdownable / a story so confounding / the pages turn so easily,” and “I’m fully occupied / reading between the lines.” Sparse synth blips and bleeps materialize throughout, but there’s also an effective silent pause before a dramatic Spanish guitar strum transforms the entire song at its bridge and Murphy thrillingly wails, “Well, I’m left in confusion / by your epilogue.” This occurs again at the song’s climax and if anything, the out-of-nowhere guitar’s even further heightened by the introduction of a backbeat, some cowbell and a tart synth that together transform this into a glorious anthem: “If you’d allow me / to read your mind,” she sings, repeating those last four words over and over as “Unputdownable” simmers to a satisfying yet lingering close.

Rather than coasting on her past successes (and failures) as a member of Moloko and as a solo artist, Murphy chose to emerge from her hiatus with a leap into the unknown. Sure, one can detect isolated bits and pieces of Hairless Toys across her prior discography (parts of “Uninvited Guest” could easily slot into 2005’s Ruby Blue); strung together, however, they’re revelatory, collectively pushing the boundaries of what one could expect from her and, for that matter, of dance-pop in general. If 2016’s Take Her Up To Monto (culled from the same sessions as Hairless Toys) pushed them even further (occasionally to its detriment), her subsequent work with producer Maurice Fulton found a way to render her music as both fresh and familiar—particularly his radical remix of “House of Glass”, which turned it into a lucid slap-bass odyssey Alexander O’Neal could’ve sung in 1987. Releasing four 12-inch singles with Fulton in lieu of another LP in 2018, Murphy remains an iconoclast and, more than two decades into her career, still an artist to watch.

Up next: Post-modern, post-genre, post-gender, post-?


“Evil Eyes”:

Marina and The Diamonds, “Froot”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #95 – released March 13, 2015)

Track listing: Happy / Froot / I’m A Ruin / Blue / Forget / Gold / Can’t Pin Me Down / Solitaire / Better Than That / Weeds / Savages / Immortal

If you’ve ever mixed up Marina And The Diamonds with Florence + The Machine, rest assured, you’re not alone: both of these similarly named acts hail from the UK, adhere to a prodigious tradition of alternative-friendly female eccentrics and put out debut albums less than a year apart from each other. At first glance, the most notable difference between the two is that London-based Florence Welch has an actual band she regularly performs and co-writes her material with, whereas Marina Diamandis, who is Welsh and of Greek descent, is more a solo artist, “The Diamonds” a cheeky pseudonym for whatever musicians she happens to be working with at the time—so much so that, in December 2018, she shortened her professional name to just Marina.

On those first albums, one can pinpoint another major distinction: if Welch arrived fully-formed as an artist with a clear sound and vision, Marina, while making a striking first impression, seemed somewhat scattered in comparison. Both her debut The Family Jewels (2010) and its follow-up, Electra Heart (2012) are all over the place tonally and sonically, trying out many styles to varying degrees of success. With her distinct vocals, lower and less agile than Welch’s, she alternately emulates Regina Spektor’s twee quirk-pop (“Are You Satisfied?”), occasionally comes off as Katy Perry’s weird cousin (“Bubblegum Bitch”), and takes a crack at both Fiona Apple-style musical theatre confessional (“Obsessions”) and Michelle Branch-like power pop (“Hypocrates”). Song titles such as “Hermit The Frog”, “Shampain” and “How To Be A Heartbreaker” only further muddy her putative persona; thus, it’s no surprise Lungs broke Welch in the US (albeit more than a year after its release) while these two records left Marina in the margins here.

Fortunately, her third album Froot proved a commercial breakthrough (debuting at number 8 on the Billboard 200) and an artistic one, too (with Marina writing all the songs by herself.) Taking a step back from Electra Heart’s up-to-the-minute big-beat production, it still utilizes a modern, heavily electronic tableau but it sounds more nuanced–timeless, even. Opener “Happy” right away introduces a more mature Marina: the first minute’s just her singing a slow, simple melody over a lone piano. As the song continues, the arrangement gradually blossoms, adding on a layer of backing vocals and percussion. “I’ve found what I was looking for in myself,” she sings in the chorus, and it feels as if any initial tentativeness is melting away bit by bit. Her confidence shines ever brighter with each line to the point where “Happy” feels like a statement of purpose, a declaration of self.

But it is just an introduction. While Froot feels more uniform than its predecessors, it’s far from unvaried or stodgy. Following “Happy”, the title track is an effortlessly bubbly confection (with that whimsically misspelled title, how could it not be?) It cascades along a descendant melody spiced with “la, la, la’s” and a bevy of nature/food/sex metaphors (“Baby I am plump and ripe / I’m pinker than shepherd’s delight”), all sung playfully (stretching out the title to at least four syllables) like a PJ Harvey gone Top 40. “Froot” is divine nonsense pop at the level of up-tempo ABBA, only earthier and more knowing.

From there, Froot unspools one gem after another, beginning with one of its highlights, “I’m A Ruin”. An airy mid-tempo number with guitars and synths stretched across a wide canvas, it starts off softly but dramatically: both wonder and despair permeate the verses before the call-and-answer bridge leads into the triumphant chorus, where everything clicks into place as Marina sings the title repeatedly. However, the best part is series of swooping wordless vocals that follow and the effective pauses in between: “Yea-e-a-e-ah / uh-uh-huh / woo-hoo / yeah-aah!” she sings, not necessarily mimicking Kate Bush but undoubtedly recalling and nearly matching her great progenitor’s transcendent ebullience.

While careful listeners can still easily play spot-the-influence throughout Froot (“Savages” is not far off from “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”-era Eurythmics; “Better Than That” nails the coolly observed cattiness of early 90s duo Shakespeare’s Sister), it’s unique enough to feel less like a series of pastiches than an artist discovering her own true sound and genre. “Blue” is far more caffeinated than its title would suggest: weaving synths and Marina’s vocals into a shimmering whole (along with a bit of harp, further blurring distinctions between herself and Florence), it turns positively anthemic in its chorus while still carrying a slight, melancholic aftertaste. “Forget” slyly defies expectations with its power-pop flourishes, while “Gold” sounds simultaneously old (handclaps, Farfisa organ) and new (that weird, watery synth hook) as Marina dreamily trills self-referential lyrics like, “You can’t take away the Midas’ touch / So you better make way for a Greek gold rush.”

She blatantly acknowledges/promotes this individuality in “Can’t Pin Me Down”, honing it to a fine, barbed point: “You might think I am one thing, but I am another / You can’t call my bluff, time to back off, motherfucker,” she proclaims; luckily, she has a defiant wit (rhyming “feminist anthem” with “cooking dinner in the kitchen for my husband”), not to mention a catchy-as-fuck chorus to back her up. Both attributes carry over to “Savages”, whose nervy, driving synth-pop perfectly buttresses such observations as “I’m not afraid of God / I am afraid of Man,” and “Are you killing for yourself, or killing for your savior?” Also note how she incorporates and rhymes the title (“Underneath it all, we’re just savages / Hidden behind shirts, ties and marriages”) or the irresistible robotic staccato she deploys for such lyrics as, “You can see it on the NEWWWS / you can watch it on tee-VEEE.”

Froot’s second half has its share of gorgeous, contemplative ballads like “Solitaire”, which allows for some much needed space (usually, the vocals and melodies carry the entire song) and “Weeds”, which blends a sense of momentum in its robust, major-key choruses with instances of breathtaking etherealness (the “bay-be-eee” that follows them.) Closer “Immortal” serves as a near-matching bookend to opener “Happy”: much fuller in sound, but just as delicate and searching, concluding, “I’m forever chasing after time, but everybody dies.” Like all good albums, it completes a thematic and emotional journey of sorts, considering ideas and notions expressed and left behind while looking towards what’s to come.

Although none of Froot’s singles were hits in any traditional sense, it achieved the seemingly impossible task of solidifying a path for an artist often prone to wandering and experimentation. At this writing, we are a little over a month away from its long-awaited follow-up, a sixteen track double LP called Love + Fear. First singles “Superstar” and especially “Handmade Heaven” could easily slot into Froot, but Marina herself has noted listeners might be surprised when they hear the album in full; given her track record, I don’t doubt her.

Up next: A return, a revelation.

“I’m A Ruin”:


2014: Just Some Kid From Boston

Behold, the first year since 1989 where nothing makes the cut for 100 Albums (although 1991’s selection was a compilation.) My top three of the year (Jill Sobule, Future Islands, The New Pornographers) should all make my Top 50 of the Decade list (coming January 2020!), but probably not that list’s top ten, hence their exclusion here.

On that note, I began 100 Albums in 2014 thinking I’d breeze through it in two years or so. I’ll write more about this when I reach the end; just know that as I began foraging through the past, I didn’t overlook the present. Look at all the great tracks from this year: Cibo Matto’s (artistically) triumphant return (not to mention Ben Watt’s, and Erasure’s, and Tori Amos’ and even Suzanne Vega’s!), sterling debuts from Betty Who, Lake Street Dive, Alvvays and Sylvan Esso, breakthroughs from Perfume Genius and Owen Pallett, best-songs-yet from Jessie Ware and Lykki Li, a spooky Lana Del Rey gem and even a collaboration from two of my fave artists (The Both = Aimee Mann + Ted Leo) with a leadoff single named after my hometown.

Still, the 2014 track currently giving me all the feels is “Late Bloomer” from Jenny Lewis’ The Voyager (itself probably a lock for that end-of-decade list.) Clocking in at over five minutes, it’s almost a throwback to classic folk-rock story songs like “Maggie May” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, but filtered through Lewis’ delicately puckish demeanor; it also sports a melody so inviting and generous I’m surprised the song isn’t more of a standard five years on.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2014 on Spotify:

  1. Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
  2. The New Pornographers, “Champions of Red Wine”
  3. Betty Who, “Somebody Loves You”
  4. Cibo Matto, “10th Floor Ghost Girl”
  5. Mac DeMarco, “Salad Days”
  6. Gruff Rhys, “American Interior”
  7. Perfume Genius, “Queen”
  8. Lykke Li, “Gunshot”
  9. Lake Street Dive, “Bad Self Portraits”
  10. Jill Sobule, “Wedding Ring”
  11. Ben Watt, “Forget”
  12. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
  13. Nicole Atkins, “Girl You Look Amazing”
  14. Suzanne Vega, “I Never Wear White”
  15. Stars, “From The Night”
  16. Erasure, “Reason”
  17. Tori Amos, “Promise”
  18. Lana Del Rey, “West Coast”
  19. Sylvan Esso, “Coffee”
  20. Owen Pallett, “The Riverbed”
  21. Leonard Cohen, “Almost Like The Blues”
  22. Spoon, “Inside Out”
  23. Todd Terje with Bryan Ferry, “Johnny and Mary”
  24. Alvvays, “Archie, Marry Me”
  25. La Roux, “Kiss and Not Tell”
  26. Jessie Ware, “Tough Love”
  27. Clean Bandit with Jess Glynne, “Rather Be”
  28. The Both, “Milwaukee”
  29. Broken Bells, “Control”
  30. Jenny Lewis, “Late Bloomer”
  31. Sharon Van Etten, “You Know Me Well”
  32. Royksopp, “I Had This Thing”
  33. Emm Gryner, “End Of Me”

2013: Love Me While It’s Still A Crime

I got married in September 2013 and traveled to Cuba that December—neither has anything to do with music but the latter at least explains why I never got around to compiling any semblance of a 2013 mix until now. Random Access Memories was easily my favorite LP of that year, but Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara’s aim-for-the-fences dance pop effort wasn’t far behind. While I don’t return to it as frequently today, leadoff track “Closer” is the first song that comes to mind when I think about 2013.

Re: 2013, I also recall Haim’s Fleetwood Mac-goodness, Eleanor Friedberger’s disarming ode to being clumsy in love, unusually strong comeback singles from Alison Moyet and Pet Shop Boys, the loveliest Vampire Weekend song to date (though the recent “Harmony Hall” gives it a run for its money), the most blissful melody you’ll ever hear from Washed Out, an epic Arcade Fire disco explosion, a choice cut from Goldfrapp’s better-with-each-year, atypically pastoral Tales Of Us, a Sam Phillips song as classic as anything on Martinis and Bikinis and Laura Marling convincingly staking her claim as a “Master Hunter”.

I didn’t hear John Grant’s “GMF” until the following year; on that first listen, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing (the title is a NSFW acronym), but I knew it was a great, self-deprecating anthem for the ages before it was over.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2013 on Spotify:

  1. Tegan and Sara, “Closer”
  2. Bastille, “Pompeii”
  3. Haim, “If I Could Change Your Mind”
  4. Daft Punk feat. Julian Casablancas, “Instant Crush”
  5. John Grant, “GMF”
  6. Disclosure feat. London Grammar, “Help Me Lose My Mind”
  7. Goldfrapp, “Drew”
  8. Jessy Lanza, “Keep Moving”
  9. Cut Copy, “In Memory Capsule”
  10. Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
  11. Eleanor Friedberger, “When I Knew”
  12. Alison Moyet, “Love Reign Supreme”
  13. Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”
  14. Atlas Genius, “Electric”
  15. Camera Obscura, “This is Love (Feels Alright)”
  16. Pet Shop Boys feat. Example, “Thursday”
  17. Iron & Wine, “The Desert Babbler”
  18. Boy & Bear, “Southern Sun”
  19. Emma Louise, “Boy”
  20. Neko Case, “Man”
  21. Mavis Staples, “I Like The Things About Me”
  22. Washed Out, “All I Know”
  23. Sam Phillips, “You Know I Won’t”
  24. Laura Marling, “Master Hunter”
  25. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Mosquito”
  26. Vienna Teng feat. Glen Phillips, “Landsailor”
  27. Vampire Weekend, “Step”
  28. David Bowie, “Valentine’s Day”
  29. Florence + The Machine, “Over The Love”
  30. Jessie Ware, “Imagine It Was Us”
  31. London Grammar, “Strong”

Daft Punk, “Random Access Memories”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #94 – released May 17, 2013)

Track listing: Give Life Back To Music / The Game Of Love / Giorgio By Moroder  / Within / Instant Crush / Lose Yourself To Dance / Touch / Get Lucky / Beyond / Motherboard / Fragments of Time / Doin’ It Right / Contact

Music saturates our collective unconscious more than and unlike any other art form. Even as film and television references become more ubiquitous and quotes from literature and allusions to all the finer arts persist, none of them carry the weight or omnipresence of sound and song. Just think of every place one can physically inhabit, from inside of a car to aisles of a chain pharmacy—it’s simply in the air, providing a soundtrack to your life, whether you desire it or not. The imprint music leaves behind inevitably spills over to spaces one mentally inhabits as well.

Random Access Memories celebrates music’s presence in both our exterior and interior lives and, in particular, the role it played in shaping the lives of its two primary creators, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, better known as Daft Punk. Formed as teenagers in early ‘90s France, the duo eventually stumbled upon a shtick that immediately set them apart from the crowd on their 1997 debut LP Homework: always publicly clad in face-obscuring helmets and dark gloves, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo rather resembled robots and often sounded like them too, layering vocoder-enhanced vocals on top of sample-heavy electronic dance music. Subsequent albums only further played up this shtick: Discovery (2001) scored crossover hits like “One More Time” and “Digital Love” on the strength of their soulful samples and catchy melodies, but Human After All (2005) was widely accused of being too mechanical and brittle, suggesting that robot-pop, like any other novelty had its limitations.

Arriving eight years later (with only the Tron: Legacy soundtrack in between), RAM initially sounds like classic Daft Punk (roughly half the tracks still have robot vocals) and a completely different band, in part because it almost entirely eschews samples for live instruments. Yes, there’s still plenty of synths and drum machines, but just as much guitar, bass, live drums and piano. Furthermore, it’s the style of live instrumentation that’s key—almost overwhelmingly, RAM studiously recreates late ‘70s/early ‘80s disco and funk, heavy on such period touches as upfront, chicken-scratch rhythm guitar (most of it played by the master of that style, Chic’s Nile Rodgers) and Fender Rhodes electric piano.

When you consider how old Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are, it’s obvious that RAM is an extended homage to the music they grew up with, made even more explicit by the presence of Rodgers and other period figures such as producer Giorgio Moroder and musician/actor Paul Williams (the latter co-starred and wrote the music for Brian de Palma’s 1974 satirical musical Phantom of the Paradise, whose titular character heavily inspired Daft Punk’s look.) But RAM’s impact not only comes from how meticulously it conjures up the past while also drawing on the scientific phenomena outlined in the album title, but also in how it reinterprets it for and places it firmly within the present—not only with those 21st century vocoder vocals but also a renewed energy and the hindsight that, however much of a time capsule it may occasionally resemble, some music actually endures through its omnipresence, continually resurfacing and reintroducing itself to new generations and audiences.

“Give Life Back To Music” opens RAM on an irresistible, all-systems-go high with a vigorous, thrilling instrumental fanfare made up of melodic triplets. One can easily detect an overarching philosophy, not only in the music which switches back and forth between the fanfare and an instantly catchy funk groove, but also the robot-sung lyrics, which consist of the song title and variations thereof: “Let the music in tonight / just turn on the music” reads almost remedially simplistic (like Lipps Inc.’s post-disco smash “Funkytown”), but it’s effective. The following track, “The Game of Love” reprises the robot-vox, but at a slower, more hypnotic tempo falling somewhere between early Sade and Michael McDonald—perhaps the least cool reference I’ve come up with so far, and certainly far from the last.

RAM returns to this formula often with enough modification to keep the whole from seeming monotonous. “Beyond” begins with an orchestral fanfare performed by an actual orchestra complete with the pomp of a big brass section and a flurry of swirling strings before switching to a backing analogous of the groove and vocals of “The Game of Love”. “Within”, meanwhile, is a quiet-storm ballad kicked off by a lengthy solo from Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales before the song proper emerges, featuring the deepest and perhaps saddest robot vocals you might ever hear.

Still, Daft Punk are savvy enough to know when to subvert the formula. Musically, “Instant Crush” sidesteps funk altogether for a new wave homage, bringing to mind The Cars in particular with its analog synths and precise rhythm guitar. This time, the robot vox come from a special guest: Julian Casablancas of post-punk revivalists The Strokes. Filtered through a vocoder, he sounds absolutely nothing like his usual Lou Reed-ish self (even if RAM’s cover is an explicit homage to one of Reed’s albums)—actually, he sounds better: more androgynous for sure, but also more expressive and maybe even more… human? It helps that “Instant Crush” sports one of RAM’s most affecting melodies, especially in the rapidly-sung chorus and again towards the end when Casablancas suddenly shifts into a higher register (“I / don’t wanna start / don’t get upset / I’m not with you.”)

Other times, the robot vocals are deployed in tandem with additional, effects-free vocals. Both the monster hit “Get Lucky” and its less popular follow-up single “Lose Yourself To Dance” are showcases for Rodgers and singer Pharrell Williams—respectively, the songs are blissful, ascendant disco and tight, handclap-enhanced funk, stretched out to around six minutes each to allow listeners and dancers alike to work up a sweat. Each one shrewdly, effectively adds on the robot vocals to sustain interest. In “Get Lucky”, it’s the echo of the chorus (“We’re up all night to get lucky”) that comes after the second one, building and repeating until the bridge returns with Williams’ vocal now serving as the melodic counterpoint to the chorus it was always meant to be. In “Lose Yourself to Dance”, it’s the forever modulating, “Come on, come on, come on, come on,” that locks into the song’s existing groove perfectly while also suddenly opening up its melodic potential and possibilities of where it might go from there.

However, looking beyond the singles, RAM’s most stunning moments are its deep cuts: wild (the less charitable might say self-indulgent) experiments that seem to have been sprung deep from the guys’ psyches. The third track, “Giorgio By Moroder” clocks in at over nine minutes, and not one of them is superfluous. As Moroder himself talks in his distinct Italo-German accent, reminiscing about his early career and how he became an electronic music pioneer in the late ’70s, the background evolves from crowd noise to a simple disco beat to a very Moroder-esque synth hook that overtakes the track until the man himself returns. He says, “You want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and of music being correct,” and after noting, “There was no preconception of what to do,” the music briefly drops out and dramatic strings take over, kicking off an extended instrumental coda full of live polyrhythmic drumming, furious turntable scratching and guitar-hero leads on top. It’s arty, proggy, and deeply idiosyncratic, but also welcoming like a hand held out from its creators trying to describe something rather inexplicable—why does one listen to and make music and, through it, how does one inspire in the same way they themselves found inspiration?

Although a minute shorter than “Giorgio By Moroder”, “Touch” beams in ever further from an hidden, psychological space. Co-written by and featuring vocals from Paul Williams, it casts him as a robot yearning to be a human again (a la Phantom of the Paradise.) If I’ve lost you with that ridiculous, almost mawkish concept, indeed, “Touch” is a preposterous concoction, from its extended intro where what resembles the famous five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is sliced and diced up as if thrown in a blender, to the “Hey Jude”-like “Hold on, if love is the answer” repeated chorus that takes up most of the song’s back half. But “Touch” is chock full of neat little left turns, like how it magically shifts from soft-rock ballad to juiced-up banger in the second verse, or the mid-section boogie-woogie disco playfully harkening back to Williams’ performance of “An Old Fashioned Love Song” on The Muppet Show. However, it’s Williams’ aged, wobbly voice that holds these disparate parts together, suffusing the song with a very human fragility and warmth.

Such tenderness is also felt in “Fragments of Time”; its lyrics not only reveal the source of the album’s title (“Keep building these random memories / Turning our days into melodies,”) but also provide the most cogent distillation of RAM’s reason for being. Vocalist Todd Edwards sings over a wistful, rock/r&b hybrid that seems plucked straight from late 1980, specifically in how it recalls both Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July. It’s a warm, nostalgic sound, highly discernible from most anything else recorded in 2013 but also modified just slightly enough to appear as if coming from the present more so than the past (particularly in the squelchy synths and talk-box solo before the final verse.) In the chorus, Edwards sings, “If I just keep playing back / these fragments of time / Everywhere I go / these moments will shine.” It’s Daft Punk at their most direct, arguing for music as a conduit for nostalgia, sustenance and transcendence.

RAM initially appealed to me in how well it stitched all of its seemingly disparate parts together. For example, the piano intro of “Within” is an ideal palette cleanser after the explosive climax of “Giorgio By Moroder”, the final piano note of “Touch” is beautifully replicated in the first chord of following track “Get Lucky”, and “Doin’ It Right” which simply weaves together staccato, robot-sung iterations of its title with Panda Bear’s clean, legato counterpoint vocals gives one space to breathe before techno instrumental closer “Contact” pushes all levels into the red, relentlessly building towards an apocalyptic finale.

With some time and repeated listens, RAM in my mind became a kindred spirit of and perhaps even a worthy successor to one of my favorite albums of this young century, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You. Almost entirely made up of existing, sampled sounds, it is nearly RAM’s opposite solely in terms of creation; otherwise, it’s similarly obsessed with music and how easily and rewardingly one can utilize it to bring the past into the present while also looking towards the future. As with Since I Left You, RAM is a tough act to follow; at this writing, Daft Punk have yet to release anything else apart from collaborating with The Weeknd on his Starboy album in 2016. Meanwhile, RAM endures and remains another fragment of time having entered the collective unconscious—primarily through spins of “Get Lucky”, but also for those music fans curious enough to delve deeper into it, discovering its secret, strange treasures.

Up next: You can’t pin her down.

“Instant Crush”:

“Fragments Of Time”: