#1 – Bad Blood by Bastille

Bad BloodLabel:  Virgin / EMI

Date of Release:  4-Mar-2013 (UK),    3-Sep-2013 (US/Canada)

www.bastillebastille.com

A new UK indie synth-rock songwriting talent emerges from the shadows, intent on capturing our melodic and rhythmic hearts.

I am not a morning person.  Some days, it takes a 12-volt car battery and booster cables to zap my zombie ass out of bed.  On the morning after a late-night hockey game, you might need to augment the booster cables with a marching band.  I have a dual-alarm clock that mercifully allows me to listen to music for a while before that antagonistic beep-beep-beep signals the start of another working day.  It helps whenever the first song on the radio at 5:55 am is interesting and inspiring.

One morning in the summer of 2013, the local alternative rock radio station switched on at the usual time.  As I was slowly roused from my slumbers, I was intrigued by a brilliant new song.  It began with a booming chorus of male voices, then a singer with an English accent sang an impassioned melody about staying optimistic while the sky is falling and the world around you crumbles.  The synth programming and verse/chorus dynamics were augmented by propulsive drums and a ping-ponging Peter Hook bass line.  The disc jockey didn’t announce the song title or artist, and it was far too early in the morning to cue up SoundHound, so I had to wait a week or so to hear it again and discover who it was.  But that whole week, the melody and rhythm and chorus of voices were stuck in my head.

That early-morning serenade was my introduction to the song “Pompeii”, by a new British alternative synth-rock band called Bastille.  Bastille began as a solo project by an immaculately-coiffed musician named Dan Smith in 2010.  But as a series of singles, EPs and live performances began to attract attention he drafted in some band mates on drums, bass and additional keyboards.

It took me awhile to track down the debut Bastille album.  Bad Blood wasn’t released in North America until later in the year, so I had to order an import copy of the LP online.  It might have been available at the time on iTunes, but collecting music on physical media is far more rewarding to me.  When the LP arrived, I placed the platter on my record player and settled into my comfy loveseat for a good, attentive listen.

The first thing you notice about Bad Blood is that it deftly balances 21st century production techniques with classic pop songwriting.  Many songs feature the kind of modern synth loops and electronic percussion you might expect to hear on European synth-pop records by Chvrches or The Sounds.  However, at the core of each song is a soaring, anthemic melody that builds on the continuum of British pop traditionalists like Paul McCartney, Coldplay and Keane.

It’s easy to get caught up in the yearning of “Things We Lost in the Fire”.  The percussion gives the song momentum, while layers of strings create a dramatic atmosphere.  Dan Smith’s impassioned vocals deliver lyrics like “We were born with nothing, and we sure as hell have nothing now”, juxtaposing the upbeat music with an undercurrent of regret and loss.

The album’s title track ruminates on an acidic breakdown between childhood friends, with punchy layers of keyboards and programming.  “Bad Blood” is not a lyrical masterpiece, but the melody and bouncing cadence are impeccable.  Smith once again looks back with a sense of regret to his (not too distant) youth on “These Streets”.  Carefully integrated snippets of ascending piano and synthesized percussion borrow some of the playful hooks from Brian Wilson’s toolbox.

The pretty “Oblivion” seeks to one-up the piano balladry of Keane, the inherent drama escalated by a particularly mournful cello.  “Flaws” is a frolicking self-examination of the things that we may not like about ourselves – how we might choose to face our flaws and perhaps go about resolving them.  Lines like “you have always worn your flaws upon your sleeve” neatly mirror the way in which virtually every song on Bad Blood freely exposes its widescreen, melodramatic heart.

Presumably inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks projects, “Laura Palmer” is a sweeping melodic and rhythmic tour-de-force that matches Coldplay’s best festival-ready moments.  Despite the creepy inspiration of the song, one expects to hear fields full of punters singing the glorious refrain of “Can you feel it?” for years to come.  By contrast, “Get Home” closes the album with somber restraint, multi-tracked vocals over a simple bed of keyboards and synths.  After an exuberant night on the town, the song suggests it’s time to collect your wits and slink home before the rising sun exposes your flaws.

If you read some of the critical reviews of Bad Blood, you’ll no doubt discover that this album has some shortcomings.  The layers of clever programming and indelible melodies of “Weight of Living, Pt. II” cannot fully compensate for the generic lyric that even the perpetually bashful Chris Martin would likely chastise for being ‘a little too broad’.  Elsewhere, Smith has an unfortunate penchant for dragging out words into extra syllables to suit the meter of a song (‘flames’ has two syllables, ‘I’ has four, ‘words’ has five, and ‘night’ incredibly has six).  And it is certainly true that, by trying to amp up the drama in each song to eleven, the overall sonic diversity of the collection of songs ultimately suffers.   Chalk most of the flaws up to youthful ambition; one strongly suspects that by the time they make their third, fourth or fifth albums Bastille will have grown substantially as artists. Taken in context, this debut album is still quite extraordinary.

I mused at the outset of this ‘Best of 2013’ exercise that the three musical things that capture my attention are melody, rhythm, and that elusive X-factor.  Bad Blood triumphantly nails all three categories.  I kept coming back to this record in 2013 again and again, and enjoyed every listen. The whole point of pop music is to connect with people, to share common ground, to have a musical conversation about life and love and regret and anxiety.  It is this critical quality where Dan Smith and his friends truly excel.

Just as I might have suspected after my gleeful mid-summer awakening, “Pompeii” remains the most compelling song on the album.  But the coalescence of panoramic melodies, persistent rhythms, and ear-catching electronic sounds throughout Bastille’s debut makes Bad Blood my favourite album of 2013.

click to hear “Pompeii” by Bastille

click to hear “Bad Blood” by Bastille

click to hear “Laura Palmer” by Bastille

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#2 – Random Access Memories by Daft Punk

Random Access MemoriesLabel:  Columbia

Date of Release:  17-May-2013

www.daftpunk.com

If this album doesn’t make you lose yourself to dance, then call a mortician.  Because you are dead.

Daft Punk have made a relatively short, but highly influential, career out of bringing dance music to club mavens and indie rockers alike.  Over a series of singles that were released on albums like Homework and Discovery, they popularized an engaging mix of house, funk, electronic and techno music.  In the ensuing years, electronic dance music (or EDM) has become a mainstream phenomenon – ‘the kids’ today can’t get enough of acts like Swedish House Mafia and Deadmau5.  When word leaked out that Daft Punk were putting the finishing touches on a new album, the EDM world was set alight in anticipation.

So what have they done?  Daft Punk has returned with… a remarkably human, disco-infused dance-rock record.  Once again they have confounded the critics by releasing an album filled to the brim with warm keyboard sounds, live (or nearly-live) acoustic instruments and organic-sounding vocals.  In doing so, the two mysterious Frenchmen in the wacky robot helmets have made the best album of their career.

Random Access Memories is a collection of brilliant melodies and rhythms that marry the streamlined soul and funk of ‘70s groups like Chic and Sister Sledge to timeless melodies and 21st century production values.  The Parisian duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have wisely chosen a variety of guest vocalists and musicians to help them realize their goal.

Daft Punk enlisted the talents of indie rock star Panda Bear to breathe life into the all-electronic, mid-tempo “Doin’ it Right”.  Paul Williams appears on the theatrical, grandiose “Touch”, a complex menagerie of synthesizers and playful beats.  Bangalter has been quoted as saying that “Touch” forms the emotional core of the album.  Todd Edwards brings a soft-rock flavour to “Fragments of Time”, with a hint of Steely Dan sophistication.

The Daft duo’s emphasis on creating something electronic yet red-blooded and emotional is never more evident than on “Instant Crush”.  By processing his voice, they somehow make Julian Casablancas sound, well, like a human being.  I double-dog dare you to sing a Strokes song at karaoke night – his singing voice is ridiculously hard to mimic.  Yet I find myself singing along to “Instant Crush” whenever it comes up in the playlist.

The Vocoder vocals on “Give Life Back to Music”, “The Game of Love”, “Beyond” and the somber “Within” also sparkle with life.  As with the best moments of Kraftwerk’s career, the electronic voices sound incredibly human, emotional, and affecting.  It doesn’t hurt that nearly every song features an earworm melody and crisp production.

But of course, the stars of the show that everyone knows are Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams.  “Lose Yourself to Dance” is built around the sparest of guitar figures and the snappiest of drum loops, yet comes across as the best six minutes of ‘Soul Train’ you’ve ever heard.  And what else needs to be said about the absolutely perfect pop single “Get Lucky”?  The biggest hit of the summer of 2013, you heard it blasting from every dance club, car window, and sporting event.  “Get Lucky” was released in at least two other official versions – a radio edit and an extended mix – which did nothing but expose the absolute genius behind the album track.  Every hook is perfectly executed, every instrument in exactly the right place.  Nile Rodgers provided the insanely catchy guitar loop, Pharrell delivered the exuberant lead vocal, and the Daft crew added the funky bass and robotic je-ne-sais-quoi.

This album isn’t without a few blemishes.  “Giorgio by Moroder” starts out with two minutes of monologue from the legendary Giorgio himself, but despite all the bluster about “freeing your mind” the ensuing song never really delivers the payoff of a coherent melody.  The demure instrumental track “Motherboard” feels a bit out of place in the company of its stylish siblings.  Still, with so much joy and soul crammed into one album it’s hard to quibble.  Program out one or two tracks on your iPod playlist and the rest of the album still hangs together remarkably well.  Sequencing was obviously very important to the visionary Daft duo.

Receiving nearly universal acclaim, Random Access Memories was about as much fun as you could have in 2013.

click to hear “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk – if you haven’t heard it enough times already 🙂