Róisín Murphy found fame and notoriety (in Europe, at least) as one half of ‘90s trip-hop duo Moloko. Solo, she released two albums in the mid-2000’s: a song from the first appeared on an episode of So You Think You Can Dance, while the second provided a visual template Lady Gaga would later sneakily take to the bank. Over the past eight years, she’s put out a number of singles and EPs, including one entirely of Italian-language songs. And, all of this is a long way of saying that none of it quite prepared me for her third album, an art-pop song cycle about identity, persuasion, desire, behavior and love (among other things).
Whereas her last album, Overpowered, was the straightest (for her), most immediate pop she ever recorded (it bombed commercially anyway), Hairless Toys makes little effort to appear radio-friendly. Its eight tracks clock in at an average of six minutes each, with the trancelike “Exploitation” extending to over nine. Opener “Gone Fishing” meditates on the classic drag/vogue documentary Paris Is Burning, while woozy, warped electro-country lament “Exile” should definitely be considered as soundtrack fodder for the Twin Peaks revival. Heady, dense, quiet, contained, enigmatic—it’s no wonder this album has mostly fallen under the radar.
Still, by not confining herself to usual three-minute pop song structures, Murphy gives these tunes some much-needed room to breathe. Sublime passages emerge all over the place, like the extended, lush breakdown where the percussion drops out of “Uninvited Guest”, or the jazzy guitar runs that color and lend shape to “House of Glass”, or the neat, beguiling way the music seems to unpredictably contract and expand throughout the title track. The closest she comes to a straightforward love song is closer “Unputdownable”, which wraps a clever reading metaphor around a gently skittering mass of minimalist piano and beats only to all suddenly drop out twice for lone Spanish guitar chords that startle like a breathtaking mountain range or cityscape suddenly emerging out of the darkness. Although often challenging and occasionally inscrutable, Hairless Toys is packed with unexpected moments like these that are more compelling and original than anything else I heard this year.
One of my favorite things about being a music obsessive is occasionally stumbling upon either a great album that I had no expectations for or something initially unassuming that only reveals its greatness over time. I first came to this Welsh artist via my friend Howard, who posted about her third album early on (it’s his #1 of this year); I was familiar with the name but not the music. My initial impression was that of an agreeable listen and nothing much more. Still, the bubbly title track soon became an irresistible earworm and before long, “I’m A Ruin”, with its dynamic shift from verse to chorus and rather Kate Bush-like wordless vocals on the latter part broke me down. The rest of Froot gradually fell into place, beginning with its stripped-down opener, “Happy”, where Marina Diamandis lovingly sings, “I found what I’d been looking for in myself,” with the force of a sheet of ice rapidly melting, revealing a warmth so open and powerful that it hurts. Checking out her previous records, I was startled to discover how much of a departure this one is from them. Eschewing up-to-the-minute (over)production for a more nuanced, timeless sound, Froot continues to resonate more with each passing month: it’s now almost my favorite album of the year.
Favorite tracks: “Happy”, “Froot”, “I’m A Ruin”, “Blue”, “Savages”
I certainly never expected contemporary Scottish post-punk revivalists Franz Ferdinand and venerable LA-bred/Anglophile cult duo Sparks to record an album together; nor did I ever imagine it would turn out this great. Easily FF’s best since their 2004 self-titled debut and S’s most spirited since 2002’s career-redefining Lil’ Beethoven, this exuberant mash-up’s less seamless than last year’s Aimee Mann/Ted Leo collaboration The Both, and perhaps more interesting for that very reason. The opening operatic piano chords of “Johnny Delusional” suggest the Mael Brothers are clearly in the driver’s seat here, but Alex Kapranos and co. are noticeably thrilled to be along for the ride. Both bands bring their A-games to every damn last song, whether they aim to be cheeky (glorious last call “Piss Off”; adoring girls with “Hello Kitty Uzis” on the manic “So Desu Ne”), seductive (“Call Girl”), elegiac (“Little Guy From The Suburbs”) or winningly bratty (“Police Encounters”). Naturally, their penultimate song is an epic titled “Collaborations Don’t Work”; these six pranksters only get away with it by repeatedly disproving such a theory.
Favorite tracks: “Call Girl”, “Little Guy From The Suburbs”, “Police Encounters”, “Piss Off”
A few longtime fans have dismissed this as too much of a pop move from a band who really didn’t need one; as a longtime fan myself, I think it’s easily their best since Feast of Wire because it emphasizes their considerable melodic strengths while still remaining true to the uniquely regional sound they’ve always cultivated. When those beloved mariachi horns kick in on the chorus of opener “Falling From The Sky”, it’s recognizably Calexico, just as the elegant Crowded House-isms of “Miles From The Sea”, the quirky, electro-rock en Español of “Cumbia de Donde” and the slow-building Middle Eastern strings of “World Undone” are all Calexico. Neko Case also contributes to the magnetic, spare “Tapping On The Line” and “Follow The River” is as effective and profound a conclusion as “Find The River” was on Automatic For The People—not that this is anywhere near the level of R.E.M.’s classic LP, but I’d love to think it could have a similar impact on some unsuspecting 17-year-old out there.
Favorite tracks: “Falling From The Sky”, “Tapping On The Line”, “Miles From The Sea”, “Follow The River”
If sophomore slump Ceremonials was cause for alarm that Florence Welch might never match her brilliant debut, Lungs, rest assured it turned out an aberration; nor does LP number three play like a sequel to either record (for one thing, there’s barely any harp on it). Instead, she takes advantage of that old trope that the most inspiring and affecting art often comes from turmoil rather than happiness and thank god, ‘cause her commanding, fiery presence is ideal for such a song cycle. She’s never sounded more alive or direct—cranking up the guitars certainly helps, but so do the stunning orchestral arrangements, especially on “Queen of Peace”, making what was a great tune to begin with (killer chorus, unexpected Motown rhythm) even better. Impeccably sequenced and masterfully performed, it firmly places Welch back on track—I’m now a little more confident she has a Hounds of Love in her.
Favorite tracks: “Ship To Wreck”, “What Kind of Man”, “Queen of Peace”, “Delilah”
Having gotten God Help The Girlout of his system, Stuart Murdoch returns to what he does best, and he’s rarely done it better than on opener “Nobody’s Empire”. Neatly melding the band’s early twee pop with all the groovier, more modern touches that subsumed it on later recordings, it’s an anthem as stirring and powerful as anything Abba or New Order ever did, and it’s the only the beginning. The rest easily constitutes their most consistent set since Dear Catastrophe Waitress—all the more remarkable for packing in everything from earnest stabs at retro disco (“The Party Line”) and flickering Eurodisco (“Enter Sylvia Plath”) to an extended samba (“Play For Today”), a dreamy closer (“Today (This Army’s For Peace”) and of course, the “sad bastard” music they more or less perfected from the start (“The Cat With The Cream”). It’s been almost twenty years since If You’re Feeling Sinister, and amazingly, they sound as vital as ever.
Favorite tracks: “Nobody’s Empire”, “The Party Line”, “Enter Sylvia Plath”, “Play For Today”
Twelve months ago, I speculated if Laura Marling’s fifth album would be her fourth in a row to make my year-end top ten; upon first hearing it last March, I knew the answer right away. Short Movie is not quite her bestalbum, but it might be her most immediate to date. As distinct as each of her other records but also just as identifiable, it’s full of transitions—from the UK to America, from acoustic to electric guitars, from swooning over lost love to gleaning perspective after all the wounds have healed (cue the delectably acidic “Strange”). Her increasingly seamless shifts between hooky pop (“False Hope”, “Gurdjieff’s Daughter”) and spooky folk (“Warrior”, “Howl”) hint that she has a truly great album in her yet to come; so does the multilayered, masterfully building, summation-of-life title track, where she repeatedly concludes, “It’s a short fucking movie, man.” Indeed.
Favorite tracks: “False Hope”, “Strange”, “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down”, “Short Movie”
If his last album (2008’s The Evangelist) saw Robert Forster (the Aussie singer-songwriter, not the American actor) processing the sudden death of his Go-Betweens partner Grant McLennan from two years before, this return to the fold finds him more at peace with his status as a fifty-something cult artist. When he sings, “I Love Myself and I Always Have”, he’s neither arrogant nor boastful, just refreshingly direct and disarming, qualities inherent in each of these ten beautifully crafted but unfussy miniatures. And, at this late stage in his career, he still finds inspiration in seeking out new sounds for his musical palette, such as the spry bossa nova of “Love Is Where It Is” or the Latin accents adding verve to “Songwriters On The Run” and “A Poet Walks”—the latter a charming character sketch-cum-memoir that no one else could have written.
Favorite tracks: “Learn To Burn”, “Let Me Imagine You”, “A Poet Walks”, “I Love Myself and I Always Have”
After The Age of Adz, I lost all hope that Stevens would ever return to the hushed folk he perfected on his best album, 2004’s Seven Swans. Although this record is more like that anything else he’s done, it’s also entirely its own thing by nature of its concept. Crafted in response to his mother’s death, Carrie and Lowell is exactly the about-face you’d expect from the grieving and inconsolable emotional pain that’s a response to the loss of a loved one. The music is purposely stark: lone acoustic guitar and piano (and, this being Stevens, also banjo), occasionally recorded on an iPhone. Of course it’s depressing, bleak and cathartic, but also gorgeous, redemptive and at times, even catchy. It’s a bit of a coup to have as one of your biggest hooks the lyric, “We’re all gonna die”; Stevens reminds us he’s a big enough talent to get away with it.
Favorite tracks: “Should Have Known Better”, “Fourth of July”, “The Only Thing”, “John My Beloved”