#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 🙂

#3 – Trouble Will Find Me by The National

Trouble Will Find MeLabel:  4AD

Date of Release:  21-May-2013

www.americanmary.com

It’s a grower!  Just like every album by this brilliantly morose band.

Full disclosure – High Violet by The National is one of the albums that changed my life.  I’ve bought this album three times.  I picked up the CD on its release day in May 2010, then gave it away when I bought the deluxe 2CD version on Record Store Day that autumn.  When I finally splashed out for a shiny new record player, High Violet was in the sack of LPs that I picked up on the way home.  It took repeated listens to fully open up to me but High Violet’s all-encompassing sense of melancholy and wistfulness, offset by snatches of dark comedy, is the soundtrack of my soul.

Fair to say – The National’s next album would have a lot to live up to.

Fast forward to 2013, and the Brooklyn-based band is back with Trouble Will Find Me.  Sonically, the template is much the same as last time.  There are plenty of brooding, introspective tunes, with deceptively complex arrangements, and tastefully deployed horns and strings.  Occasional bursts of distorted noise create angst-ridden counterpoints, but overall the noisy bits are fewer and further between than on High Violet, Boxer, and Alligator.  Early reviewers often remarked that the new record sounds “dull” in comparison to its predecessors, but I would argue that it’s simply just a little leaner and more grown-up.  And like one of your introverted friends, it just takes a little while to get to know.  True beauty lies within.

As always, Matt Berninger’s baritone vocals guide the attentive listener through a maelstrom of complex emotions and ideas.  The lyrics to “I Should Live In Salt” are drowning in regret, perhaps because of the protagonist’s inability to relate to family or friends as well as he would like to.  “Demons” is a little more upbeat musically, but the deadpan delivery of words peeks into the diary of a tortured soul.  In the bridge, we learn “every day I start so great, and then the sunlight dims / the less I look, the more I see the pythons in the limbs / I do not know what’s wrong with me, the sour is in the cut / when I walk into a room, I do not light it up / So I stay down, with my demons”.  To me, the lyric sounds like someone that has struggled to believe in something bigger and more profound than his own thoughts, but he remains trapped in his own well of despair.  Or maybe he chooses to stay down with his demons, because it’s the only place that makes sense to him, taking comfort in the familiar?  I love it when songs are so evocative, yet still open to multiple interpretations.

“Don’t Swallow The Cap” was the adult alternative radio single, with a breezy melody (insofar as The National’s catalogue goes) disguising a lyric that once again empathizes with someone that struggles to bring order to the chaos in his world.  “Fireproof” is a sad paean to a long-lost ‘Jennifer’, someone that was different enough from the protagonist (fireproof vs easily scarred, secretive vs an open book) that they were not meant to be together in the long run.  And yet, he retrospectively admires and envies some of her harder qualities.  Meanwhile “Sea of Love”, with its layers of fuzzy guitars and odd time signature, gives the album its title.

The centerpiece of the album is “Heavenfaced”, a pretty ballad that seems to be about the trials and tribulations of maintaining a loving relationship.  It’s a theme that seems to flow through many of the songs on the album.  Like on “This Is The Last Time”, where the exasperated subject muses on whether his complicated relationship with the mythical ‘Jenny’ is worth the effort.  In the first two-thirds of the song, a gorgeous guitar riff and rhythmic drums underpin the story of how “I wish everybody knew what’s so great about you / but your love is such a swamp”.  Later, the song abruptly switches course, diverting down a side street of mournful strings and acoustic guitar as Berninger mourns “Jenny, I am in trouble / can’t get these thoughts out of me / baby you gave me bad ideas”.

The song “Graceless” is built around an upbeat bed of drums and bass, and you may occasionally hear it on satellite radio.  Lyrically it returns to the theme of “Demons”, an introvert’s uneasiness with his place in the world, of struggling with how to tiptoe around other people’s lives with grace and dignity and meaning.  The music is slightly off-kilter and unresolved, providing the perfect foil for the subject matter.

Just like High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me is back-loaded with two of its best songs.  Matt Berninger is notorious for trying to balance his dichotomous “front-man for a major rock band” duties with his steep introversion.  By all accounts in the press, if it wasn’t for an unlimited supply of red wine he would never be able to go onstage.  To me, the words to the propulsive and melodic “Humiliation” are his way of seeing the black comedy in his chosen profession.  I especially love the funny word-play of “As the freefall advances, I’m the moron who dances / I was teething on roses, I was in guns ‘n’ noses”.  The playful, intentional slip reminds me of my favourite track on High Violet.  In the immaculate “England” he sang “you must be somewhere in London, walking Abbey Lane / I don’t even think to make corrections”.  I think Berninger feels both humiliated and energized by the trappings of being a singer in a touring band.  Every moment spent absorbing the audience’s adulation on stage is surely countered by the forced extroversion of meet & greets and soulless corporate handshaking.  Yet I’m sure he appreciates how lucky he is to have a cabal of talented musicians around him that create a safe musical arena where he can wrestle his demons.

The majestic “Pink Rabbits” feels like a second chapter to the previous album’s “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”.  Once again, a complex story unfolds over a loping, melancholy melody.  Berninger revisits the struggles of an introvert to survive in an extroverted world, and to build and maintain relationships with the people he cares about despite his all-too-frequent absence.  “Am I the one you think about when you’re sitting in your fainting chair, drinking Pink Rabbits?”  Listen carefully to the record, here and elsewhere, and you can hear dislocated echoes of calling the American east coast home but recording in Los Angeles.  “You said it would be painless, a needle in a doll / you said it would be painless, it wasn’t that at all”.  Listen to this refrain just once, and anyone with a shred of introversion will have it stuck in his or her head for days.

“Hard to Find” closes the album with a meditation on a past (perhaps a past lover, a friend, or a place to call home) that’s gone but not forgotten.  Every time I hear the line “really not that far away, I could be there in a day” I remember the life-changing trip that I took last year to a faraway land.  Maybe it’s true that the people and places that you encounter on your journey through life are never truly lost, so long as you keep them in your memory.  With a little patience and a few focused listenings, the indelible songs written by The National will likewise lodge in your memory and hopefully find you as they found me.

click to hear “Demons” by The National

#4 – Thr!!!er by !!!

Thr!!!erLabel:  Warp

Date of Release:  30-Apr-2013

www.chkchkchk.net

Blissful disco-dance-rock party from the Californian combo with the willfully obscure moniker.

!!! (or Chk Chk Chk, if you prefer something more easily pronounced and/or Googled) have made a decade-long career out of playing punk-infused, sometimes politically charged, rhythmic rock tunes.  Their previous album releases have made waves in indie rock circles, but never got beyond a cult following.  Perhaps it was high time to take a swing at something with a little more, if not mainstream, then at least some crossover appeal.  After all, dance-rock music is all the rage these days.

The magnificently named new release, Thr!!!er, dials down !!!’s punk inclinations and turns up the knob on sinewy disco rhythms.  Actually, it turns up the funk to 11, then breaks off the knob and throws it away.  The nine new tracks on Thr!!!er (the same number of songs as that other immaculately-produced Thriller album – surely not a coincidence) seamlessly ebb and flow into each other like a 40-minute DJ set.

“Even When The Water’s Cold” establishes the groove early, riding a throbbing bass line and a cyclical guitar lick.  “Get That Rhythm Right” is the rightful heir to the electro-rock throne abdicated last year by LCD Soundsystem.  “Slyd” brings some slinky house synthesizers and programmed handclaps to the dance party.

“Californiyeah” is the stand-out track, with its bouncing bass, funk guitars, and kitchen-sink percussion.  !!!’s ode to California packs forty years of Chic into four and a half minutes of euphoria.

The brilliant breakdown in “Except Death” comes out of nowhere, all funky delay pedals and four-on-the-floor drums.  The falsetto vocals and melody of “Careful” evoke the 1980s new-wave scene – I can’t help hearing the DNA of “West End Girls” in the mix – but the rhythm programming plants the song in the modern day.  The bright and boisterous “One Girl / One Boy” also smartly tips its hat to the decade of legwarmers, big hair, and acid-wash jeans.

Closing track “Station (Meet Me At The)” tries a little too hard to be a splashy up-tempo rock song; instead it comes across more like a slightly less terrible version of New Kids on the Block.  But it’s a rare blemish on an incredibly likeable, danceable album.  Thr!!!er is a lot of fun to listen to on a Saturday night.

click to hear “Californiyeah” by !!!

#5 – Opposites by Biffy Clyro

Opposites (front cover)Label:  14th Floor Records

Date of Release:  28-Jan-2013

www.biffyclyro.com

Hirsute Scottish rockers return with a sprawling double-album of full-throated glory.

Biffy Clyro are the Scottish practitioners of a brand of hard rock pitched somewhere in the same ballpark as Muse and Foo Fighters, accented by a dash of Rush power-trio goodness.  Over a series of indie releases in the UK, they honed their seemingly contradictory loves of punk and progressive rock into something with alternative radio-friendly hooks.  While 2007’s Puzzle was well received, things really started to heat up for the band internationally when their rock-solid 2009 release Only Revolutions was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.

Four years on, and Biffy Clyro has returned with an ambitious new release called Opposites.  The sprawling double-album is split into two fraternal twins, the first half dubbed “The Sand at the Core of our Bones” and the second half called “The Land at the End of our Toes”.  Both mini-albums feature their own artwork, riffing on the surrealist spirit of the main album cover.  But to my ears, and despite the album’s title, there is no thematic segregation between the halves.  On Opposites, the band simply seems intent on exploring a variety of different sounds.

Playing against type, the big radio single is actually a straight-forward, mid-tempo rocker “Black Chandelier”. The title track continues in a similar vein, focusing on melody instead of face-shredding riffs.  The pretty ballad “Skylight” is almost completely devoid of electric guitars, and “Spanish Radio” features bursts of mariachi horns.  From this point forward, let no one ever accuse Biffy Clyro of being one-trick ponies.

But, truth be told, it’s when they get down to the serious business of Rockin’ Out that things get truly exciting.  “Biblical” disguises a surprisingly affecting melody and an undercurrent of regret with layers of squalling guitars.  “Little Hospitals” and “Stingin’ Belle” feature the band’s patented twisting time signatures and a hodgepodge of instrumentation, challenging the head-bobbing listener to keep up to the frenetic pace.  “Modern Magic Formula”, “Pocket” and “Picture a Knife Fight” dial back the polyrhythmic gymnastics for a more briskly anthemic rock sound.  One can easily imagine a festival field or an arena of sweaty lads, joyously punching their fists in the air.

I think my favourite song on the album is “Accident Without Emergency”, a slow-burner that builds to majestic choruses.  To me, it’s the pinnacle of a surprisingly solid set of ambitious, engaging rock tunes.  It’s a rare feat whenever a twenty-track album only features a few missteps.  Fans of melodic alternative rock are sure to find something ear-pleasing among the many facets of Opposites.

(epilogue: Opposites was also released in a slimmed-down, single-CD version that omits six tracks.  I suppose it might serve as a condensed introduction to Biffy Clyro’s new fans, but with the entire 20-track opus available on iTunes for less than $10 the single-CD version seems a little irrelevant).

click to hear “Biblical” by Biffy Clyro