Saturday, June 26, 2010

Q2: What else could possibly top the first half? Seriously?

Another half a year gone, and seriously, could it feel like I am crusing into my forties more excited about music than I was at 16? There has been some incredible stuff released this year (and of course, some stinkers). Some will not share the feelings I have...after all, it is all subjective. But I think over so many years of listening and being exposed to music non-stop, I have a pretty good grasp of what's good and what is shit. Thus beginneth my judgment regarding the top albums from April through June 2010. And what a list it is(!)...

1) KYLIE MINOGUE--Aphrodite

Alright, technically speaking this album doesn't release until July 5 (a Q3 effort then), but it is rampantly circling the internet as I speak, and is widely available for perusal. So, I will refer to it as the icing on the cake that was Q2 2010, as I will be holding one in my hot little hands within a day or two. Simply put, this is the best dance pop album released by anybody so far this year (sorry Goldfrapp--your album was great too, if a little short), and possibly the best since Pet Shop Boys unleashed Yes just over a year ago. Whoever had the stroke of genius to bring Stuart Price in to oversee the executive production on Aphrodite should be knighted immediately, as it pulls together all the Kylie elements that people admire into one shining package--soaring tunes, pumping beats, electro magic, and above it all, her perky personality. Not bad for somebody who had her somewhat lowly beginnings as a pimply tomboy on a second-rate soap opera nearly 25 years ago! I could do a track by track rundown of how glorious the songs on Aphrodite sound, but I will let the listener discover them for the moment (or read about them on the numerous web forums), and provide a more thorough examination at year's end when I have had more time to live with the album and extol its true virtues. That is not to say that I am making a hasty ruling here--after all, this is Kylie's best album since Light Years, the album that made me love her all over again. I just have a feeling I will be able to articulate my feelings more clearly with time. Way to go Kylie--you've done it again! Now, can you break America again with a more extensive tour this time?

2) LAURA MARLING--I Speak Because I Can

Talk about a record that could not exist in a more distant place opposite the previous entry. I had never give Laura Marling much thought until I heard "Devil's Spoke", and was immediately transfixed by her gloomy ruminations on love. It is a piece of the highest order of English folk music coming from a very talented and wise beyond her years 20-year old. The fact that I am generally not a big fan of this kind of music makes it even more alarming that I would respond to such a dark and haunting album of this genre. Marling's voice is so unique and personal, you feel as though she is speaking directly to you. The arrangements on this album feature surging string sections, bluegrass-y banjo, ghostly choirs, and is so maturely written, it makes Suzanne Vega (someone who I feel has written a great deal of wonderful music) seem elementary in comparison. If you are looking for a true and trasformative folk music experience, it's all right here. Can you imagine how she'll sound in ten years time?

3) JANELLE MONAE--The Archandroid

I didn't pay much attention to Janelle when she released a debut EP in mid-2008. That EP, released by Diddy's Badboy Records, served as the first of a three-part suite based upon the film Metropolis, and is thematically continued with the following two suites on the Archandroid. Sometimes an album comes along that is so sprawling stylistically, it leaves the listener wondering who the artist is and how to quantify their art. Surprisingly, the opposite is in effect here, as Monae's debut album displays a dazzling range of songs and styles that the listener is left in a headspin, knowing more about Monae than a one-dimensional record could convey. The first half of the album could be called the quirky, retro-soul half, featuring songs which flow together effortlessly, like the quickly rapped "Dance or Die", moving into the big-band jump of "Faster", to the Stevie Wonder-soul of "Locked Inside". They are so seamless, they really do blend into different parts of a suite, leaving the listener to wonder where one song ends and another begins. A particular highlight and a should-be chart-topper, "Tightrope" (and its quirky Big Boi featured video) should have created a whole new dance craze, while "Come Alive" plays like a freaky party song for skeletons on Halloween. The second half of the album is more grand and orchestral, sampling Claude Debussy on "Say You'll Go", while maintaining the freaky on the Of Montreal-assisted "Make the Bus". "Babopbye Ya" (much better than its title would suggest) is the epic nine-minute closer, sitting somewhere between a James Bond theme and jazz, and it really shows off Monae's fabulous vocal range to stunning effect. In effect, this is one of the most affecting debut albums by any artist in the past twenty years. Take note NOW.


How ironic that the Scissor Sisters return to fabulousity comes at the same time Kylie unleashes Aphrodite, as both records were executive produced by the ever talented Stuart Price (check out his own band, Zoot Woman--their last album was great). While Night Work may not display the single-mindedness of the Kylie album, I'll say that it functions just as well in many ways, mainly by bringing them back to life after the somewhat lackluster Ta Dah(2006), and back to the dancefloor. "Fire With Fire" has its naysayers, but I recommend it wholeheartedly as an uplifting synthpop anthem, one that sits closely to Price's production work on the Killers' "Human", and shows that Jake Shears can sing an effective song without resorting to falsetto posturing (even if it does resemble Elton John). This album shows a progression from the full-on 70's vibe of the last record, acting more as a bridge between the 70's and 80's--a much more interesting time for music as well. Tracks like "Any Which Way" (which features Minogue on backing vocals) recall the best of disco Bee Gee's, while "Invisible Light" is the best song Frankie Goes to Hollywood never released (and thanks for the Ian McKellen guest vocal--Vincent Price is spinning in his grave). Maybe not as completely great as their first album, but a definite return to form, and a growth and maturation has occurred without losing the fun. Another great party record.

5) MARC ALMOND--Variete

I am surprised at how little discussion and recognition this album has been receiving across the interblogs, as I was sure some diehards were going to at least mention it. So let me do the honors. Marc has returned with what may be his best album since Tenement Symphony, and definitely his most personal work. That is saying something, as he is closing in on thirty years of recording and about twenty albums in that same amount of time. The general sound of Variete harkens back to his mid-80's period, using mostly Mother Fist (the upbeat songs) and Torment & Toreros (the darker, downbeat songs) as sonic touchstones. Marc has said this would be his final album of original songs (although he has now stated that he meant it would be his last album about these decadent types of characters), but hopefully he has more music in him, whatever the subject matter, as these are fantastic songs by an artist in full control of his writing and production. While the cabaret-isms may not be to everybody's taste, some of these songs are quite affecting. The upbeat drive of "Nijinsky Heart" and "Variete" are pure Marc, while "The Exhibitionist" and "Sandboy" portray the darker sides of his performance art. There are some songs that feel like the most important things he's ever written: the autobiographical "Trials of Eyeliner", haunting "Lavender", defiant "But Not Today" and declamatory "Swan Song" will go down as some of the finest songs he has ever written, and are, of course, all immaculately sung. I will have more to say about this by the end of the year, but if you ever liked Marc Almond at all, Variete is some of his strongest work ever, and is a love letter to his life and art.

6) KELIS--Flesh Tone

Another record that arrives in the US the first week of July (although it has been available elsewhere since mid-May), Flesh Tone is to Kelis as Ray of Light was to Madonna. Working with some of today's hottest producers, Miss K (former wife of rapper Nas), has come out of her divorce with a new baby and a new outlook. She wants to go out and have a great time, and Flesh Tone is the perfect album to do that with, albeit with moments of reflection and introspection. Namely, "Acappella" (the first single), a winning melody set to a throbbing trance beat, a song that should erase the memory of "Milkshake" from the minds of the masses for at least a couple minutes. Kelis' newfound sense of self awareness pervades this album and its themes, and now that America has passed the date of the longest war it has ever been involved in, "Fourth of July" can only inspire us to put our cares away and dance. "Home", "Brave" and "Song for the Baby" are equally empowering anthems that will fill dancefloors across the globe this summer. More, please, more.

7) TRACEY THORN--Love and It's Opposite

On the other side of the Kelis album, Tracey releases her third solo album, following Out of the Woods in 2007. While Love and It's Opposite is more downbeat than her previous effort, it features production from the same producer of that album (Ewan Pearson), and contains similarly wonderful songcraft, albeit in more intimate and stripped down arrangements. Let's face it, Thorn could sing me the phone book and I'd be OK with that, but let's just say that the quieter arrangements sometimes lead to more direct magic, as the opener "Oh, the Divorces" will attest to (is your relationship with Ben OK?). While there are no club bangers like "It's All True" or "Grand Canyon", songs like "Why Does the Wind" and "Hormones" do feature insistent beats that allow Thorn's voice to come through more personally. While I have loved both recent solo albums, I am left to wonder what Ben has been doing with all his time (certainly not just running his record label), and think about what wondrous things he may have written since Everything But the Girl went on hiatus over a decade ago. Temperamental was an excellent album, and it would be nice to see Ben & Tracey revisit some of that territory soon. Now that their kids are getting older, we shall see...

8) JONSI--Go

One of the most beautiful albums of the year comes from Jonsi, the lead singer of Sigur Ros (this is the year of solo records, with Julian Casablancas recent effort, Brandon Flowers upcoming record, and other recent efforts from Kele Okerke, Fyfe Dangerfield, and Andy Bell). Just listen to the surge of a song like "Go Do" or the haunting Thom Yorke-isms of "Tornado", and Jonsi's first mostly-English sung album is a real treat, and more direct than anything he's done with his band. The arrangements flutter in and out at breakneck speed, and his soul really takes flight when his music is allowed to sing through his extensively gorgeous vocal layering. Sigur Ros fans may respond negatively to the happiness here, but your soul has to be good and dark not to enjoy what Jonsi puts on display. So good, I even bought it on vinyl.

9) DIVINE COMEDY--Bang Goes the Knighthood

I have come to the conclusion that Neil Hannon cannot be stopped. And I don't want him to be. One of the wittiest writers of our generation, Hannon is an elf-prince of the highest order, penning gloriously silly songs here like "Can You Stand On One Leg" (an ode to his children, I presume). There is plenty great for adults here as well, such as the namechecking single, "At the Indie Disco" (Blur, Cure, Wannadies, etc.), and the seriously haunting "When a Man Cries", which sounds like it really comes from personal experience. "The Complete Banker" wryly points a finger at those who created the recent economic disaster, while "Have You Ever Been in Love" is one of the most lovely little ballads I've heard in a while (I'd love to hear Kylie cover this--could they ever do an album together?). My real favorite gem of the album is the opener, "Down in the Street Below", which goes through a couple tempo changes and even adds ambient street noise at the end. It's knowing stuff without being overly pretentious, as an air of self-deprecation always deflates Hannon's balloons. Brilliant once again. Don't make us wait so long next time!

10) SIA--We Are Born

I always liked Sia, but had a hard time loving her. That has changed with her new album, We Are Born. Her Zero 7 collaborations were fantastic, and while Colour the Small One was a very good album (especially "Breathe Me", which found fame on the finale of Six Feet Under), her last effort, Some People Have Real Problems, was a mostly downbeat affair that seemed directly marketed at Starbucks patrons (it was even released on their label). Somewhere in the past couple years, Sia rediscovered her mojo. Whether it was writing for Christina Aguilera or collaborating with the Bird & the Bee (member Greg Kurstin produced We Are Born--most famous for his work with Lily Allen, Kylie, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Rilo Kiley, Dragonette, etc.), Sia does seem reborn as a more energetic version of herself. While she always penned beautiful and affecting ballads, most of those have been given to Christina for her latest album, leaving only "I'm In Here" as the sole token Sia-ballad. So much the better, as "Clap Your Hands" and "You've Changed", the first two singles from the album, feature great beats to tap your feet, and fun and quirky videos to make you laugh. It's a more celebratory Sia this time around, and she will always have those beautiful ballads to sing in concert. We Are Born comes in like a breath of fresh air.

Other albums of note:

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM--This is Happening
PAUL WELLER--Wake Up the Nation
THE SCHOOL--Loveless Unbeliever
LUCKY SOUL--A Coming of Age
LUKE HAINES--21st Century Man
V.V. BROWN--Travelling Like the Light
KELE--The Boxer
FOALS--Total Life Forever
DEVO--Something for Everybody
BLITZEN TRAPPER--Destroyer of the Void
THE LIKE--Release Me
CLUB 8--The People's Record
YOUNG VEINS--Take a Vacation
KENT--En Plats i Solen
ROBYN--Body Talk Pt. 1*
*This would have likely performed better had it been the full album. Judgment is being withheld until part 2 and/or part 3 are released.

Albums I missed from Q1 and earlier that I discovered late:

LIGHTSPEED CHAMPION--Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You...
This took me by surprise. He's grown quite a bit. Nice if you like Morrissey, Elvis Costello, or Luke Haines.
Excellent Swedish dance/electronic/R&B stuff.
This would have possibly made an earlier list, but it's a bit TOO big--triple discs are hard to take. Still, she is very talented, and has gotten much better to my ears.
Weird. Different. Good.

OK albums:
STARS--Five Ghosts
KAREN ELSON--Karen Elson
DONKEYBOY--Caught in a Life
AQUALUNG--Magnetic North
JAMES--The Night Before EP
HOT HOT HEAT--Future Breeds
HOWARD JONES--Ordinary Heroes

Disappointing albums (I think these need some explanation):

DELAYS--Star Tiger Star Ariel
OK guys, when are you gonna knock my socks off again? Valentine still amazes.
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT--All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu
Rufus' voice needs more than just piano backing--it brings out all his annoying vocal tics
BIRD & THE BEE--Interpreting the Masters: a Tribute to Hall & Oates
If you're gonna reinterpret the masters, bring SOMETHING new to the table
CODEINE VELVET CLUB--Codeine Velvet Club
Fratelli thought he could jump on this bandwagon, which Lucky Soul and the School do better
Do I have to?
This was far too long and boring--the rhythms all blend together--where is the Fatboy touch?
KEANE--Night Train EP
Worst thing they've done by a mile. So talented, and so miscalculating.
KATE NASH--My Best Friend Is You
Mansion Song. Nuff said.
MORCHEEBA--Blood Like Lemonade
Tepid return with Skye back in the fold. She should leave again.
It's funny how I think 70% of the songs from this album are acceptable to great, but the album itself is a trainwreck. Here's a definite case for resequencing of an album for an iPod. (i.e. no Not Myself Tonight or Woohoo).

Needless to say, I am very excited about what the second half of 2010 has to offer with all this great stuff already behind us. Looking forward to: M.I.A., Arcade Fire, OMD(!), Interpol(back on Matador!), Royksopp, Hurts, Hoosiers, Daft Punk (Tron soundtrack), Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Brandon Flowers, Pipettes (an actual release), and supposedly 2011: Lady Gaga, Saint Etienne, and Dubstar!