Sunday, 31 October 2010

'10: A Vintage Year for Pop Music

It feels like there must be an article in the media at least once a week predicting (or even lamenting) the death of the (pop) music industry, and in-between, the music press is stuffed full of impending reunions of once deservedly forgotten bands from the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  It would be easy then to assume that “Over is the new It”, to paraphrase Gary Trudeau, but the reality is that, in 2010 at least, there have been some very very good pieces of pop art released, and the year has yet just under a quarter to run. 

Anyways, some notes on a handful of my favourites so far...

Antony and the Johnsons / Swanlights
Antony Hegerty's voice is often likened to Nina Simone's, and while I can hear the similarities, it is a comparison that doesn't quite do Antony's voice justice.  The magic of Antony and the Johnsons is the use of Antony Hegerty's voice as an instrument in its own right, even more so than usual and on their latest album.  It's a powerful and challenging listen, as is evident from the opening bars of "Everything is New".  The album is packed full of great tracks, from the joyous (and stellar) "Thank You for Your Live" to the tension of the title track, with a duet with a restrained Björk also one of the high-points.  Swanlights is an album that in many ways works better on a song by song basis, and I'm not sure it'll win over anyone that didn't like their earlier work, but for fans?  A must.  Here's a link to a small taste of the album:

Connan Mockasin / Please Turn Me Into The Snat
I saw Connan Mockasin once upon a time at the Kings Arms in Auckland, when he was playing with his band as Connan and the Mockasins.  They opened before a hardcore Japanese shock/punk outfit called King Brother and the 1950s style rock and roll of Holly Golightly.  I liked them, but nothing made me rush out and see what they'd been up to.  Connan Mockasin's new solo release is, however, a quite different beast.  It's a strange moody album, that makes me think of late night parties in Dunedin at the very end of the 20th century, slightly inebriated, everyone else very intoxicated or stoned around me, dark purple lighting and crazy, weird, intellectual and/or interesting people in every corner of every room.  It's an album that definitely bares a lot of resemblance to some of the best musical ideas coming out of Dunedin during my undergrad, and times before that too of course, but also the weirder ideas of independent NZ music over the last thirty years or so.  It's a dreamy, sometimes manic, sometimes somber album, full of odd chords and rapid changes in time and key and I love it.  Depending on your mood, it can be a struggle to get through the album in its entirety in one sitting, but every-time I listen to it I find something new, and if you can get past the weirdness, it's rather quite delightful.

Janelle Monáe / The ArchAndroid
It's not often you see concept-albums as mainstream releases by mainstream stars, but Janelle Monáe's debut album, and Suits two and three of her Android Epic not only sold 21 000 copies in its opening week in the US, but it's simply amazing.  Janelle Monáe was once described on NZ's National Radio as David Bowie, if David Bowie were young, black and female, and it's a description that's patently wrong, but yet not too far off the mark.  The Arch Android is a genre defying album, opening up with strong hints of African rhythms, moving the some of the best Michael Jackson tracks he never wrote, to songs reminiscent of 70s prog rock, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, N.E.R.D, the 70s funk of P-Funk et al etc, etc, etc.  Tightrope, was the first single, and she absolutely killed it on Letterman.  Don't believe me?  Then watch below, and trust me, the rest of the album is at least as good.

Finally, how could I not comment on Sufjan Stevens' recent offerings?  Almost back-to-back, Sufjan dropped an EP over an hour long, transitioning from the folk tunes of Michign and Illinoise to something a little more akin to the long jams more commonly associated with 70s rock (still keeping the trademark Sufjan sounds of course), followed by an album that took a u-turn back to his pre-folk days and the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit.  The EP, All Delighted People, is great, with a mix of louder guitars and softer more familiar works, although the second version of the title track is perhaps a little bit of an overkill. 

The Age of Adz, the official album?  For the most part, terrific, but it's an acquired taste, as Sufjan's love for experimentation can make for hard work at times.  The stand out tracks are at least as good as anything he's ever done, particularly (for me) Too Much, and almost upbeat "Get Real Get Right".  The 18 minute epic that is Impossible Soul though, is to me too much of an indulgence of Sufjan's behalf.  Some of it is great, the earlier auto-tune lasted parts aren't too bad, but at times it just feels stretched out and overblown.  Overall though, both releases are good enough to be great upon first listen, and complex enough to really reward further exploration.  Given the US dollar, they're cheap too, just head on over to his bandcamp page:, they are still offering a couple of tracks for free!

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