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12
Dec 17

My Pop Year: AUSTRA – “We Were Alive”

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Austra’s Future Politics was one of the first 2017 albums I heard, somewhere in the weeks of dread, defiance and hand-wringing around the Trump inauguration. It’s coloured how I hear it ever since. The title announces it as a ‘political’ album, the sleeve signals that the contents are likely to be cryptic. Austra’s Katy Stelmaris embraces our time of heightened nerves, this mode of being – which many lived in well before Trump – where ‘politics’ can exhaustingly infect every gesture. But she also rejects it, insists on ambiguity and a realm of private meaning.

7
Dec 17

My Pop Year: SERGE BEYNAUD – “Akrakabo”

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Serge Beynaud’s Accelerate LP is a danceable feast, showing how Cote D’Ivoire’s coupe-decale is one of those musics which can absorb almost anything, from pop-reggae to trap-style vocal exclamation. It’s potentially exhausting to take on in full, but the quality is consistent – put it on shuffle for a few tracks and ride Beynaud’s ebullience until you start to tire, then repeat next time you’re in the mood.

Lead single and first track “Akrakabo” is always a good place to start. Here the music that’s pulled into the whirl is some sweet West African guitar pop, which breaks through like a grin after two pummeling, bouncing minutes of rhythm. It’s a wonderful moment. If the pace of the rest feels crazed, check the video to see Beynaud and his formation dancers handle it with aplomb (plus the fakest sheikh this side of News International.)

6
Dec 17

My Pop Year: JANA RUSH – “??? ??”

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The titles of Jana Rush’s tracks on her Pariah LP have an enjoyable bluntness. “Beat Maze.” “Chill Mode”. “Frenetic Snare.” She’s been DJing and making records for over 20 years, since she was 15. This is her debut full-length. So I suspect there’s a healthy unwillingness to piss about, or to dress up her music with unnecessary atmospherics. As another of the tracks puts it, “No Fuks Given”. It is what it is.

29
Nov 17

My Pop Year: KELLY CLARKSON – “Love So Soft”

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Writing about Will Young it was hard not to be reminded of Kelly Clarkson, who likewise showed that the first blush of reality TV idols were the best – in terms, at least, of producing stars you can feel vague but huge affection for. I always want Clarkson to do well, and hope her material’s good, despite honestly not knowing a great deal about her. Fortunately the material on her 2017 LP, Meaning Of Life, IS good, almost uniformly strong – this is the track that jumped out for me on first play, and it was the single, but half the record could have been here. Strong in more ways than one, too – Clarkson projects confidence, toughness and wisdom, relishing the role of a soul-pop trouper who’s seen a few things. What comes across in “Love So Soft”‘s chants, squeaks and swagger is a hard-earned, no-nonsense joy in life: a pop music that’s happy in its own skin. Which might not ordinarily impress, but in the year the world’s had, it’s a balm.

28
Nov 17

My Pop Year: SYD – “Know”

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On first listen I liked Syd’s Fin mainly for its Spartan vibe: low-key, late-night R&B synths. Moody and pleasant. My second listen was like my eyes were adjusting to a dark room – songs emerged as ultraviolet blooms. The one that jumped out most was “Know”. How could a track this full of tension and subtle incident have seemed just part of a whole?

23
Nov 17

My Pop Year: MARA BALLS – “Elävä kivi”

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Not the last Finnophone musician I’ll be writing about, Mara Balls is the rock-name of musician and artist Maria Mattila, who’s done stints in a few Finnish hard rock bands and also ran the Yellow House, an underground venue and cultural space in Tampere. As Mara Balls, she makes what I guess would be stoner and desert rock, except I don’t really listen to stoner and desert rock, so I have to find my own reference points: the psychedelic paganism of Julian Cope, maybe. Or more accurately, something Julian Cope would get very excited about.

21
Nov 17

My Pop Year: IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE – “The Chant (Iquo Isang)”

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There seems to be a lot of music around at the moment involving a fusion of more acoustic – I don’t want to say ‘traditional’ – African musics, or African vocal pop traditions, and electronic production. Of course a hell of a lot of contemporary African pop already is hip-deep in ‘electronic production’, if by that you mean hip-hop, EDM, autotune, etc. But that’s not the stuff I’m talking about, which tends to look a few decades back on both sides of the equation, sounding a bit like a collision between a Rough Guide CD and a Warp Records compilation.

20
Nov 17

My Pop Year: KEDR LIVANSKIY – “Ariadna”

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One of the great dangers of listening to music from around the world – as you’ll see, it’s a danger I fall foul of a LOT – is a kind of geographical determinism, At home I’m a tourist, projecting my misty sense of a place I’ve never been onto the music I’m hearing. All I need to know is that Kedr Livanskiy is a young woman from Moscow and bang, I’m off, letting the sound conjure up mountains of snow, roads lined with decaying concrete flats, lives of brittle hedonism and bitter suspicion, and whatever other borrowed images my head’s filled up with since I first saw the video for Elton John’s “Nikita”.

In my defense, the music makes this nonsense a lot easier by being goth as hell. Livanskiy takes rhythms from the 80s and 90s – the dry snap of the drums under “Ariadna” reminds me a lot of vintage electro – and wreaths them in clouds of gloomy synth and a keening, fatalistic sounding multi-tracked vocal. The overall vibe this creates is a kind of hopeless momentum, the drums kicking the song forward as Livansky’s sepulchral vocals swathe them in mourning black. There are lots of ways this could go wrong – beats a little too retro, velvet drapes a bit too smothering, references crossing the line into corny, but mostly her Ariadna LP gets the balance right, and this title track certainly does.

11
Sep 17

The Dan

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Walter Becker of Steely Dan died the week before last, and so I spent last week listening to each of their seven LPs, one a day. “The rim of salt around the cocktail of my taste”, I called them on Facebook: this last week I’ve been amazed all over again by how much I enjoy them and by how divisive they are (particularly among US listeners, where they seem to be a real line in the sand, even though most of my own connections there are strongly pro-Dan).

This is a playlist I made, three tracks from each of their albums. Not necessarily my all time favourites, just the songs that stood out to me most this time through the catalogue. RIP, Walter Becker.

26
Jul 17

21 Lists

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A list in which the descriptions match the wrong entries.

A list in which the order is determined drunk and the descriptions are written sober.

A list in which the order is determined sober and the descriptions are written drunk.

A list in which the reader’s task is to guess what is being ranked.

A ranked, definitive and fully justified list in which the contents have been selected by lot.

A list in which the descriptions are written by ex-lovers of the voters.