This year provided an eclectic mix of talents that saw both some of our regular favourites as well as some newly discovered outfits in the running for favourite albums of the year…
The Dear One – Baltic Fleet
Having been inspired by a 19th Century diary, it was something of a surprise that Baltic Fleet’s new album unveiled a bold, widescreen vision that looked like their best album to date.
At its heart, Baltic Fleet is a largely instrumental project conceived by multi-instrumentalist Paul Fleming, which nonetheless manages to craft an evocative and engaging music soundscape. The Dear One manages to combine the strengths of electronics, guitar, bass and drums on the album. Often the motorik beats and melodic flourishes suggest nods to the likes of Krautrock icons such as Neu! So it’s not surprising to learn that Fleming counts the likes of Neu! as influences alongside Eno, Sigur Ros and Low-period Bowie.
Read the Wavegirl review of The Dear One.
Aftertouch – Princess Chelsea
Aftertouch featured a collection of cover versions by New Zealand’s electropop wonder Princess Chelsea. Adopting a few experimental arrangements as well as straight-up pop sensibility, the album features an eclectic mix of artists, including Interpol, Elvis Presley, Marianne Faithfull, Lucinda Williams, The Beatles and a few choice New Zealand acts added to the mix.
When it comes to Marianne Faithfull, there’s a wealth of songs that merit being covered. But in this case, Chelsea elected for ‘Morning Sun’ (originally a B-side to Faithfull’s 1965 single ‘This Little Bird’). The baroque-folk styling of the original was kept in place albeit with a more electronic approach to the arrangement.
‘Cold Glass Tube’ had a mesmerising quality to the fairy tale lyrics with a plaintive piano and wistful vocals. Meanwhile, the album’s title track is a cover of an unreleased song by New Zealand chiptune/synthpop outfit Disasteradio. The pure synthpop arrangement with killer hooks and airy vocals makes this track one of the standout moments of the album with some neat vocoder effects.
Read the Wavegirl review of Aftertouch.
In The Shadows Of Monuments – Vile Electrodes
As a band, Vile Electrodes have always drawn from the darker end of the electronic palette, but have also deftly eluded being your run-of-the-mill electropop outfit. At times, In The Shadows Of Monuments seems oddly reminiscent of the broody intensity of Joy Division with a nod towards the gothic-pop of Organisation-era OMD. Yet there’s never a moment when the Viles stumble down the hole of pastiche and their sound remains distinctly their own.
Following on from 2013 debut album The future through a lens, the new album presents a more confident approach to arrangement and composition. Title track ‘In The Shadows Of Monuments (Part 1)’ breathes an ominous tone with sparse percussion picked out by Neon’s mesmerizing voice. “The fate of all things is decay,” declares the lyrics on the dark dance-pop of ‘As We Turn To Rust’. Insistent rhythms sound off like a war siren in the darkness, picked out by some evocative composition work. The mesmeric droning of ‘Like Satellites’, meanwhile, gives us an epic, sweeping element to Vile Electrodes.
Closing the album, the slow intensity of ‘The Vanished Past’ paints a picture of lost history. Having a subtle guest backing vocal from OMD’s own Andy McCluskey only sweetens the deal on a song that oozes a warm, engaging tone. “Not everything is as it seems,” suggests the lyrics, which we can’t really argue with.
Read the Wavegirl review of In The Shadows Of Monuments
Orphée – Jóhann Jóhannsson
Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has a particular talent for pulling together disparate music elements to craft sounds that can often lean towards the experimental – or towards warm familiarity.
There’s some striking touches on his soundtrack work for science fiction film Arrival (nominated at the Golden Globes for ‘Best Score’). But 2016 also brought with it Jóhannsson’s latest studio album Orphée.
There’s a distinct classical direction to Orphée and the odd nod to the likes of Erik Satie, but also with subtle electronic elements weaved into the various compositions. Opening track ‘Flight from the City’ has a repeating piano motif accompanied by strings that delivers a reflective musical composition. Meanwhile, ‘A Song for Europa’ weaves in ghostly ‘number stations’ recordings against wistful strings.
Closing piece, ‘Orphic Hymn’ presents an unusual approach for Jóhannsson with choral elements lending an evocative, religious air that runs slight contrary to the album as a whole, but is nonetheless a captivating piece of music.
Read the Wavegirl review of Orphée
Chaleur Humaine – Christine and the Queens
French musician Héloïse Letissier formed Christine And The Queens in the early noughties and initially described her sound as “freakpop”. The outfit gained a broader audience through support slots for the likes of Lykke Li and Marina And The Diamonds, but it was the reworked release of her 2014 album Chaleur Humaine that gave Letissier a broader market outside her native France.
Chaleur Humaine demonstrated a particular talent for composition with some electropop touches. There’s a suggestion of artists such as La Roux among some of the tunes, which includes ‘Paradis Perdus’, a song originally recorded by Christophe in the 1970s (which features lyrics penned by Jean Michel Jarre).
The songs on Chaleur Humaine have a restrained pop quality to them which works a subtle magic on the listener. Certainly ‘Tilted’ (a translated version of earlier song ‘Christine’), with its oddly effective reversed melodies, typifies this approach and is one of the strongest tracks on the album. Meanwhile, ‘Half Ladies’ offers up a particular simplicity of hand claps and a particularly beguiling vocal from Letissier. The brooding electronic tones of ‘Narcissus Is Back’ is topped off with a clipped vocal delivery resulting in a delightfully dark slice of pop.
Stranger Things – Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
One of the most compelling TV shows of 2016 was Stranger Things, a science fiction mystery set in the 1980s that had been inspired by the film and popular culture of the period, particularly the work of Steven Speilberg, John Carpenter, Stephen King and Robert Zemeckis among others.
As part of the series setting, the soundtrack featured original songs of the period. But the choices were from the smarter end of the musical spectrum rather than the obvious cheesy end. As a result, viewers were treated to a soundtrack that included Joy Division, Echo & The Bunnymen, Modern English, The Clash, New Order and Tangerine Dream.
But for the original soundtrack score for the series, Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein (members of electronic outfit S U R V I V E) had been drafted in to compose a particular electronic score. The result was an evocative soundtrack that had nods to the music of John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder among others. There’s elements of the synthwave genre at work here, but Dixon and Stein are accomplished enough not to let their work fall into pastiche or mockery.
Greek electropop wonders Marsheaux returned in 2016 with their new studio album that marked the relocation of its key team between Athens and London.
‘Burning’ features the familiar Marsheaux elements: buzzy, muscular percussion, sweeping synth washes and the whispery vocals of Sophie and Marianthi. Meanwhile, ‘Like A Movie’ owes some of its melodic touches to When In Rome classic ‘A Promise’ (a tune that Marsheaux have previously covered).
Elsewhere, the widescreen pop of tunes such as ‘Now You Are Mine’ and ‘Strong Enough’ demonstrate a confident grip on modern electronic pop music. ‘Safe Tonight’, which preceded Ath.Lon as a single release, has that perfect combo of catchy synth hooks and cascading melodies. All symptomatic of Marsheaux’s talent for warm and engaging electronic melodies.
Album closer ‘The Beginning Of The End’ delivers a brooding cinematic masterpiece whose sweeping orchestral score is the perfect frame for this ominous lament.
As a Marsheaux album, Ath.Lon isn’t necessarily breaking any new ground as such, but they remain far in advance of their contemporaries regardless. Also, as ever, Ath.Lon is a beautifully packaged album with a particularly fetching effort on the Limited Edition release.
Read the Wavegirl review of Ath.Lon
Lost Time – Tacocat
You can’t really go wrong when you’ve got a talent for tunes and a thoroughly eclectic approach to lyrical content. For Seattle foursome Tacocat, this has resulted in a catalogue of songs with engaging hooks and a sharp line in wit.
Their surf-punk style has now brought them Lost Time, a solid collection of songs full of catchy melodies and a simple, stripped down appeal. That included opening track ‘Dana Katherine Scully’, whose plucky guitar tune serves as a tribute to The X Files finest. Scully’s unflappable character is finely summed up with lines like “coz she’s the only one thinking it through/she’s got the shoulder pads no nonsense attitude”.
There’s also some timely feminist themes in much of their output, often delivered in a wry manner by way of buzzy songs such as ‘Men Explain Things To Me’ – a satirical musing on the concept of ‘Mansplaining’.
Read the Wavegirl review of Lost Time.
Minor Victories – Minor Victories
One of the most unexpected albums of the year came from Minor Victories – a collaboration between members of Slowdive, Mogwai and Editors. Their eponymous album featured the gossamer vocals talents of Slowdive/Mojave 3’s Rachel Goswell – which worked its strengths on tracks such as the percussive ‘Give Up The Ghost’ and brooding ‘A Hundred Ropes’.
If there’s a standout track on the album however, it’s the widescreen rock of ‘Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard)’ with its fuzzy guitars and a guest vocal from James Graham (The Twilight Sad). It’s a heartfelt tune of love and loss that deserves repeated plays.
Minor Victories offers some inventive ideas (and guest talents) that hit the mark, but as an album it lacks perhaps a more cohesive vision that restrain the outfit from delivering a solid result. However, on the whole the album scores more than it misses and suggests that there’s enough of a good foundation to build on.
Read the Wavegirl review of Minor Victories.
Life’s Hard And Then You Die – It’s Immaterial
One of the most welcome reissues of the year came in the form of art pop outfit It’s Immaterial’s debut album. Originally released in 1986, Life’s Hard And Then You Die attempted to pull together much of the band’s post-indie period. This included the jaunty tunes of ‘Ed’s Funky Diner’ and the reflective qualities of ‘Space’. Naturally, the album also featured the song that the band are best known for, ‘Driving Away From Home (Jim’s Tune)’ which captured a road movie narrative against a simple musical arrangement.
As an album, Life’s Hard And Then You Die showcased both John Campbell and Jarvis Whitehead’s approach to unusual instrumentation (the album features everything from harmonica to bouzouki) as well as the transition to the narrative-led compositions that would dominate their second album Song.