It's the last day of 2019, and as such, here are the notable records of the past year:
In Australia, the rolling political unpleasantness is tackled by feral larrikin mashup artists; in metropolitan London, though, they do things differently. As is the case of Article 54, a crack team of London live music veterans led by Rhodri Marsden, charting the arc of the ongoing Brexit situation through the medium of lush 70s-style disco. Luscious soul strings, funky clavinet licks and wah guitar, along with ostensibly peppy yet slyly subversive lyrics and samples apparently culled from countless hours of talkback radio. The trajectory of the situation itself is evident in the arc of song titles: beginning with the ebullient Piece Of Cake, breezily asserting that “saying goodbye is easy as pie”, and ending on a more downbeat note with Hard Is Better, itself fading out into the sound of street protests. Freedom Of Movement, a 1970s-style light-music track chiding the foolishness of Britons who aspire to vamoose to Lisbon or Toulouse or set up home in Budapest or Rome, sounds Scarfolkianly redolent of the cheery propaganda of totalitarian regimes; Let's Go WTO, meanwhile, sounds almost like an old radio ad jingle for car insurance, while Backstop and Canada Plus wouldn't sound amiss in a Sardinian nightclub in 1982, and Alternative Arrangements has a groove worthy of Luther Vandross. Ironically smooth sailing.
Tired: Scandinavians making chillwave electropop dreaming of Caribbean beaches. Inspired: Mongolians making instrumental hip-hop dreaming of Brazil. In this case, Bodikhuu, who works as a construction crane operator in Ulaanbaatar, but spends the winter, when it's too cold to work, making beats in his apartment with an Akai MPC and a stack of old Brazilian records to sample, and releasing his tracks digitally into the Mongolian hip-hop scene. Rio/Bodianova assembled from two such self-released EPs, consists of lush, intricately layered tracks infused with samba and bossa-nova, not a world away from J. Dilla. The image of the fabled Brazil of Bodikhuu's imagination permeates every track, with its tropical heat and breezy languor. The chill-out record of the summer.
No huge surprises here: if you loved Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut, this delivers another package of the same. Expect music with echoes of Slowdive/Mazzy Star/Julee Cruise/Cowboy Junkies/&c., androgynous vocals singing of longing and desire, catchy melodies, and track titles like Don't Let Me Go, Pure and, umm, Hentai. Cry follows on from Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut without any major changes, and without the mist of ambiguity that shrouded it, Greg Gonzales' songwriting persona has coalesced into a bit of a softboi cliché; yeah, he's constitutionally incapable of commitment and yet obsessively in love with you, likes porn and blowjobs, and yet finds tenderness and beauty in sleaze; a tender pervert for the generation who grew up on Vice Magazine, permanent austerity, climate catastrophe and cheap cocaine. Though I guess if you prefer more psychodrama with your libidinous pop, there's always Of Montreal.
Herndon's previous albums combined academic experimentation with generative composition using Max/MSP with a raver's love of of electronic dance music and critiques of the interplay of technology and society; this next one is a bit of a divergence, having been arguably the first commercial album composed in collaboration with an AI. For this project (which also formed part of her PhD thesis), Herndon and her collaborators trained a sound-generating neural network named Spawn, and gathered groups of singers around its microphones to sing around it, drawing on the sacred and folk song styles of her native Tennessee, and then got it to gradually synthesise what it learned. We witness the AI learning, emitting choral drones and glitchy syllables and converging on an otherworldly song. This is intermingled with actual dancefloor bangers made using Spawn's input, with collaborators like footwork maestro Jlin.
Hubble, formerly one half of electropop duo Arthur & Martha, makes a solo debut with an album of warmly analogue music, half instrumental and half pop; at once a virtuoso showcase of electronic sound and a love letter to legendary practitioners such as New Order, Kraftwerk and OMD. Hubble is not merely a veteran pop songsmith but also has her finger on the (metronomic) pulse of this genre, and as such ends up hitting all the buttons. Highlights include the bittersweet pop of Are We Still Alone, the cubist pastoral of Atlantis Palm like a ride down the changing voxel landscapes a video-game Autobahn, the waltz-time electronica of Hunt For The Blood Red Moon, and Kick The Habit, arguably the best glam-rock anthem ever written from the point of view of a lapsed nun.
As a musical artist, Jenny Hval has a reputation for fusing ethereal pop sounds with an intimacy and a sometimes visceral frankness, as evident on previous albums like Blood Bitch and Apocalypse, Girl. Her latest album is thematically a gentler affair, eschewing the body horror and (most of the) sex in favour of meditations on love, “love”, death, intimacy and other corners of the human condition, over beds of synth washes, clubby baselines, trancy arpeggios and programmed/sampled beats reminiscent of Dubstar, Decoder Ring or early-90s Momus. Hval's voice weaves in and out of the mix, singing in reverb, or whispering confessionally, sometimes joined by three other collaborators, including Melbourne's Laura Jean, and occasionally teasing the border between chillout and ASMR. The title track sits in the middle and borrows the conceit of The Velvet Underground's The Murder Mystery, with Vivian Wang talking about the word “love” on the left channel and, on the right, Jean about childlessness and regarding oneself as a supporting character, over ambient synth pads and arpeggios; the beats resume on the following track, Ashes To Ashes, an upbeat pop song about dreams of death. It doesn't have any lines as immediately memorable as Apocalypse, Girl's “I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit”, but it more than makes up for this in its enveloping lushness.
The group's new album, with Annie Clark of St. Vincent producing, takes a departure from the punk-rock purism of their previous albums and towards a more electronic sound not too far from Le Tigre; more programmed beats and the odd synthesiser mixing in with the spiky guitars, live drums, handclaps and vocals. Thematically, The Center Won't Hold engages with the situation of the world in 2019, from social media to economic precarity, from the political situation in the US and abroad to the importance of personal bonds in the uncertain world, making a humanistic stand.
There is a bit of a shoegaze moment taking place in Sweden right now, and these two bands are examples. Star Horse have been around for a few years, though have only released their debut full-length album this year, and are on the poppy side of shoegaze, sounding somewhat like Secret Shine, all ethereal vocals floating above a wash of processed guitars. If they don't get the support slot at the next Slowdive gig in Sweden, it will be a crime. Meanwhile, Spunsugar are a young band based in Malmö, and sound exactly how the name suggests: crunchy, drum-machine-backed shoegaze à la Catherine Wheel, with a touch of baggy and whatever Curve and Caligula were, and if you listen carefully, a hint of metal; clear vocals floating on an ethereal reverb haze over jangling guitars and fuzz. At the moment, they only have one four-track EP out, but with any luck, they should go far.
The London dark-psychedelic ensemble's most recent album continues their line of uncategorisable yet compelling works (not to mention clever titles), and shifting it up a gear. The opening track, I'd Rather, Jack. begins like a grimdark Radiohead, before escalating into a postapocalyptic soundscape of the usual elements; grindcore chugging, spaghetti-Western guitars, coruscating synths, mournful mariachi-meets-Taps trumpets, Reznorian drones, though with nothing dominating the mix, but instead slowly building and twisting into unsettling yet compelling textures. Further on, Fortean Steed brings vaguely elfin ethereal vocals and picked acoustic guitars over an aurora of synthesiser textures, evoking a liminal state when the veil between this world and another is at its most diaphanous. Following this, VISITOR begins with pulsing synth arpeggios, soon joined by hair-metal guitar shredding and Ottoman/balkan-style drums, building to a cinematic crescendo over its eight minutes, and the closer, Gladiators Ready, ends the album with a rave in a wasteland (think Giorgio Moroder as the Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road and you'll have an idea). Brutalicious!
The Undies' second act continues into its third album, and shows no sign of losing strength. There's luscious dreampop (the opener, Feels Like Yesterday with its chorused strums and indiepop harmonies, and Dunes, with with guitars and delay floating over a chunky drum loop), vaguely kraut-ish indie-rock anthems (Bells, with its motorik crunch and harmony choruses, and Hooky, whose title may or may not come from its high-played bass guitar), techno synth pulses and those guitars, not to mention an anthem to the subjective experience of hanging out and partying, Melbourne-style (in this case, Seven Day Weekend, which threatens to turn into techno before the fuzzy riffage kicks in).
With honourable mentions going to: Agent Blå, Morning Thoughts (the Gothenburg band's latest, like a smoother, softer Makthaverskan); The Ballet, Matchy Matchy (soft-spoken indiepop about the travails of being single and gay in New York as if sung in a bedroom over a drum machine; like Magnetic Fields meets The Postal Service); Caterina Barbieri, Ecstatic Computation (luminous soundscapes of analogue arpeggios and reverb, made on modular synths); CHAI, PUNK (a slight misnomer, as it's more slightly skronkier-than-usual J-pop, with the usual Big Melodies underscored with driving bass guitars, and choppy sampling work reminiscent of early Shibuya-kei); Duncan Barrett, Seven Temples (the frontman of Tigercats turns his attention unexpectedly to ambient music, and it's pretty good somewhat new-agey with touches of IDM; layers of pulsating, shimmering synths weave in and out, over subtle field recordings, the odd rainstick and, in places, Barrett's trademark kalimba); Be Forest, Knocturne (Chiming minor-key guitars and pounding drums; like shoegaze/post-rock taking The Cure's Disintegration as a starting point); Bodywash, Comforter (post-Cocteauvian dreampop (or “cream pop” as they call it) from Montreal, nudging tentatively into pad-and-beat-driven electronica, a bit like Love Spirals Downwards' drum'n'bass turn or the German shoegaze band Malory); The Boy Who Spoke Clouds, Fields (the swansong from Melbourne's Adam Casey's solo project; languid compositions for guitar, organ and electronics, in the local post-rock tradition); The Catenary Wires, Til The Morning (Amelia and Rob return with more indiepop ballads for grownups, with their customary wit); Death And Vanilla, Are You A Dreamer? (the Malmö haunto-poppers were robbed when they weren't tapped to write the soundtrack to Midsommar; nonetheless, here's a new album, full of retro-styled hypnagogica that's almost gentle and reassuring); Haiku Salut, The General (a score to the eponymous 1920s Buster Keaton film, breaking the clichés of what a score to a silent film should sound like); Hot Chip, A Bath Full of Ecstasy (a luminous, euphoric affair, of coruscating dancefloor anthems and Autotune-driven quiet-storm numbers; a love letter to the power of dance music to connect people); Jens Lekman & Annika Norlin, Correspondence (a series of songs, alternately composed by Lekman and Norlin in correspondence with each other; witty and thoughtful); Parenthetical Girls, The Scottish Play: Wherein the Group Parenthetical Girls Pay Well-intentioned (if Occasionally Misguided) Tribute To the Works of Ivor Cutler (what it sounds like: Zac Pennington reëmerges with a set of covers of the late Scottish absurdist's oeuvre; with cover artwork by David Shrigley, no less); Seablite, Grass Stains and Novocaine (catchy indiepop from the Pacific Northwest, not that far from Rose Melberg's oeuvre); She Past Away, Disko Anksiyete (synthpop for goths, in Turkish; file alongside Cold Cave); Le Superhomard, Meadow Lane Park (lighter-than-Air Europop, like the aforementioned French Band fronted by Dusty Springfield or perhaps an ice-cool continental Saint Etienne; in places sounds like Dots And Loops-era Stereolab, in others, Apricot Records indiepop); U-Bahn, U-Bahn (angular Little Band-isms from Melbourne, with a tightly-wound DEVO-esque sensibility, though owing more to The Models than Kraftwerk's The Model); Vanishing Twin, The Age of Immunology (languidly hypnagogic, post-Broadcast, library jazz acoustic gtr, clunking bass, twinkling west-coast synths and Cathy’s vocals waxing Trishesque).
2019 was also a good year for rereleases; the obvious ones were Stereolab coming back from hibernation, reissuing their entire catalogue with generous liner notes and an abundance of bonus tracks (luxury vinyl optional) and touring it; though other than that, there was early-80s Melbourne new-waver Karen Marks' long-unavailable electropop gem Cold Café, queer pagan transgressives Coil's ice-cool club-techno soundtrack to the first (just about legal) gay sex education film made in Britain, and My Favourite's expanded version of the final album and arguable masterpiece of their first incarnation, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives.
Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Alice Hubble, or Jenny Hval.
There is a Spotify playlist here.
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