A good year for music…
For whatever reason, 2019 seemed to be buzzing with good music from talents old and new.
In this summing up of our favourite albums of the year, Wavegirl looks at some regulars, including Tacocat and Marina, along with some more left-of-field choices, as well as presenting a list of choices that cover a wide variety of music styles and approaches.
~ ALBUM OF THE YEAR ~
CULT WITH NO NAME – Mediaburn
Cult With No Name (aka Erik Stein and Jon Boux) have a talent in crafting stylish pop that strives for an emphasis on mood and reflection. Mediaburn is the duo’s ninth studio album and serves up some of their finest compositions to date.
‘Blind Dogs for the Guides’ opts for a subtle combo of electronic rhythms alongside Erik Stein’s mesmerising vocals. It’s a mood that crosses over on follow-up track ‘Needle and Thread’, which also employs some effective backing vocals from Kelli Ali.
The fragile beauty of ‘In Hollywood You Won’t Find Bel-Air’ showcases Cult With No Name’s particular flair for haunting piano-driven melodies with subtle electronic flourishes. Lines such as “It ain’t CGI, when the trucks roll on by/In a smog that soon filters the sky” offers a pointed reverie looking at chasing an American Dream which is no longer there.
Meanwhile, on ‘She Sells Incels’, the duo dip into a more jazz-infused number – an unusual bucolic accompaniment for a composition that delves into the seedier aspects of modern pop culture.
One of the album’s sober highlights is laid out on the more melancholic ‘By Air or by Sea’. Here, the song’s seascape sounds are bolstered by a haunting violin (care of Blaine L. Reininger) giving this outing a more organic feel.
Elsewhere, ‘Mona’ is a slice of elegant lounge pop. There’s a hypnotic element to this intriguing paean to the world’s most famous painting, particularly the interpretation of its enigmatic smile balanced against our increasingly turbulent world.
‘All This Spite (Comes at a Price)’ seems to be an appropriate commentary on contrarian commentators delivered with polished piano-led melodies that have a ghostly aspect to them.
Our review summed the album up: “Mediaburn offers up a stylish collection of lounge pop perfection that also offers some pertinent commentary on modern culture.”
Further reading: CULT WITH NO NAME – Mediaburn
TACOCAT – This Mess Is A Place
As an album, This Mess Is A Place continues the tradition of Tacocat’s super-surf sounds and witty observations while staying within the raw, unreconstructed approach that’s been part of the Seattle band’s DNA since day one.
‘Hologram’ delights with its tight guitars and clipped percussion. It’s peppered with wry lines delivered by Emily Nokes, including such sharp wordplay as “Don’t take this the wrong way/But you’re doing this the wrong way”. At the same time, the song’s mantra that “Power is a hologram” provides an engaging hook.
Meanwhile, ‘New World’ offers a perky tune that explores waking up in a better world that ends on a beautiful image of “Confetti raining from the sky.”
There’s a sharper edge to ‘The Joke of Life’ which also seems to throw a nod to The Ramones in the mix. The album also serves up some unexpected gems, like the pet-friendly ‘Little Friend’ (which, despite its subject matter, has some surprisingly fierce guitars lurking in the long grass). Elsewhere, the unexpected ‘Meet Me at La Palma’ offers a slice of life moment with much more warmer elements.
Emily Nokes sums up the Tacocat MO (and the new album’s thrust) succinctly: “We can examine some hard stuff, make fun of some evil stuff, feel some soft feelings, feel some rage feelings, feel some bitter-ass feelings, sift through memories, feel wavy-existential, and still go get a banana daiquiri at the end.”
“Ultimately, This Mess Is A Place is perhaps a statement of defiance or a call to arms of sorts” our review concluded, “It’s asking an audience where they stand or, as the track ‘Rose-Colored Sky’ puts it: “If I wasn’t on the battleground/I bet I coulda changed the world by now.””
Further reading: TACOCAT – This Mess Is A Place
TR/ST – The Destroyer Part One
Coming some five years after his 2014 album Joyland, Robert Alfons acknowledges that TR/ST’s output is perhaps slower than many of his contemporaries. The Destroyer sees Alfons reunited with original collaborator Maya Postepski (Austra, Princess Century).
There’s a warmer quality at work here with more of a lean-in to mainstream sounds. The trademark vocal style of Alfons is also softened in places, often being more prominent in the mix. Nowhere is this more evident than the bittersweet pop stylings of ‘Gone’. The uptempo approach and wistful vocals (“Did I ever tell you I need you/To lead me through the fog”) pack an emotional punch. ‘Colossal’, meanwhile, harkens back to the sort of dark, brooding compositions that made up the 2012 Album TRST.
There’s a heavy synth strings element present on ‘Grouch’ which, like ‘Gone’, seems to be a much warmer affair and some fragile moments (“Life and all its lows/Can you heal me, can you heal me/In darkness no one knows”). Elsewhere, there’s some industrial licks on ‘Poorly Coward’ (which at times has the spirit of Depeche Mode lurking in the background). Album closer ‘Wake With’ offers a balmy workout featuring summer vibes that intrigue and charm at the same time.
Our review concluded: “Robert Alfons has exercised patience in the crafting of The Destroyer, an ambitious undertaking that raises the bar from earlier outings. Judging by the material here, that patience has been rewarded by some exceptional compositions.”
Further reading: TR/ST – The Destroyer Part One
MARINA – Love + Fear
“I created Love + Fear from a place that was not influence by ego or validation” commented Marina on the album release, “It came from a soft space in my spirit. But releasing it is pressing those old buttons and I am trying to figure out why. Maybe it’s natural. Maybe artists need egos?”
‘Handmade Heaven’, which opens the album presents ethereal pop tune that touches on themes of a personal paradise or utopia (“But in this handmade heaven, it’s paradise/Bluebirds forever colour the sky”). Meanwhile, ‘Enjoy Your Life’ is a bright pop reverie which ruminates on themes of optimism.
The flamenco flavour of ‘Baby’ presents another fine moment. The rapid-fire lyrical delivery is contrasted with some superb melodic lifts for a sultry pop gem. Equally, the airy qualities of ‘To Be Human’ presents perhaps Love + Fear’s most intimate song – a travelogue of sorts revolving around a theme of common humanity and is, perhaps, a commentary on the turmoil that currently engulfs both the political and cultural landscape at the moment.
Meanwhile, ‘Life Is Strange’ presents a strings-driven narrative whose clipped tones explore the human condition. The more organic ‘Karma’ throws in some acoustic guitar on a tune that lyrically deals with the inevitability of karma catching up on people, while the more on-point ‘No More Suckers’ swerves back to the more arch narratives that Marina explored so well on earlier outings.
The Wavegirl review summed it up: “Love + Fear is a more intimate album that diverts from Marina’s previous work in a way that might disappoint those that appreciate her more obvious pop bangers. But as a musician and composer, she’s clearly not interested in merely filing the serial numbers off of previous outings (something other acts could learn from).”
Further reading: MARINA – Love + Fear
LADYTRON – Ladytron
The news of a new Ladytron album on the horizon back in 2018 led to the perking up of ears across the electronic music community. There had been times when it seemed as if the band were done, particularly since Helen Marnie had branched out on a solo career, which included 2017’s Strange Words And Weird Wars.
But their eponymously-titled 2019 album boasted the breezy melodies of ‘The Island’, ome classic Ladytron squelchy synth sounds on the excellent ‘Far From Home’, the synth noir of ‘Deadzone’ or the bass-pounding delights of ‘You’ve Changed’.
Our review summed it up: “Ladytron serves as a testament to the electropop outfit’s willingness to embrace change, while still staying faithful to their electronic roots. As an album, it presents a strong collection of songs that will likely mark it out as one of 2019’s finest.”
Further reading: LADYTRON – Ladytron
SPRAY – Failure Is Inevitable
Having risen from the ashes of The Cuban Boys (see smash hit ‘Cognoscenti Vs Intelligentsia‘ – aka ‘The Hamster Dance Song’), Ricardo Autobahn and Jenny McLaren reinvented themselves as Spray. Failure Is Inevitable represents their fifth studio album – a collection of songs that bounce around with lyrical commentary on everything from the music industry and relationships, through to disappointment in the future and toxic masculinity. But at the same time there’s a sharp use of killer hooks and a lean-in to the pop end of the electronic music spectrum.
‘Here’s One From The New Album’ is a bombastic number whose witty topic is something that many a seasoned music fan can appreciate. Things don’t let up with the energetic ‘Astronomical’, a charged slice of pop which lyrically explores the quirks of musical fame (“Though we’re damned/It’s beautifully planned”).
‘We Gotta Get Haircuts’ is a euphoric synth-pop number that suggests older bands can impress a younger audience with a new barnet. Equally, ‘Anthologised By Cherry Red’ is a wry observation of the indie record label’s role in revitalising the careers of older bands.
Elsewhere, the topical themes of ‘Get A Load Of This Guy’ tackles the incomprehensible rise of toxic masculinity in online circles, which is given an expert dissection in McLaren’s wry lyrics (“He’ll take time to explain mansplaining/I play it thick so that he can still keep up”).
Wavegirl’s review concluded: “If you’re a fan of the likes of Lola Dutronic or Freezepop, you’ll find much to like lurking inside the tracks on Failure is inevitable. There’s a similar sense of humour along with a talent for sharp, polished electronic pop. While the competition is quite fierce, Spray may have delivered one of the year’s finest albums.”
Further reading: SPRAY – Failure Is Inevitable
A VOID – Awkward And Devastated
From the opening moments of this album with the tumbling percussive tones of ‘Bodies Are Dumb’, it’s clear that 3-piece outfit A Void are keen to present a raw guitar-driven sound topped out with plenty of attitude.
Musically, A Void cite the likes of Sonic Youth, Hole and Babes In Toyland as influences. There’s certainly an element of grunge In the DNA of the band, epitomised by the fuzzy guitars and stark percussion. Camille Alexander presents an attitude and energy that seasoned musicians twice her age would struggle to achieve. The lyrics don’t offer up much in a sense of compromise with Alexander spitting out some lines with a power that’s often striking, but also with a sense that it’s personal as hell.
The likes of ‘She Threw Her Baby From The 7th Floor’ are all snarling guitars and clipped vocals. Its tight melodies and energetic delivery offer up nihilistic musings (“I never asked to belong to this world/That will disintegrate”). Meanwhile, the likes of Éclatée’ seems to be built around a particular venom that’s cast out in a cathartic thrash-out.
The melancholic tones of ‘Glum City’ deliver tightly coiled guitar-driven moments. Elsewhere, ‘A Rose’ offers up a faded slice of Americana in its languid rhythms and simple percussion.
“For those that have a soft spot for that 1990s era of raw guitars and a stark, unreconstructed sound” our review suggested, “A Void are likely to find a welcome home.”
Further reading: A VOID – Awkward And Devastated
ELYXR – Eternal Life Eternal Youth
Musician and producer Kasson Crooker (Symbion Project, Freezepop) envisioned ELYXR as a project to bring onboard a variety of different singers. Eternal Life Eternal Youth sees the first album from ELYXR, a dizzying collection of songs which bounce about from crunchy electronic workouts through to stylish lounge pop.
‘Take Me There’, which is billed as an “anti-love song”, is a stylish pop outing featuring smoky vocals from Casey Desmond of synth-pop outfit CMB. ‘Strange Stubborn Proud’ features a guest vocal from Kurt Harland Larson (Information Society). Elsewhere, ‘Eye For An Eye’ pulls in Katrina Kope (Purr Gato) for a frenetic electronic workout whose angular angst has a curiously hypnotic effect.
The pastel synth tones of ‘Planes’ sees ELYXR offer up a sultry synthwave outing featuring Elissa LeCoque’s (Kodacrome) mesmerising voice. ‘The Last Day of Summer’ offers a shimmering, sunny number with lyrics revolving around the immutable passage of time care of Color Theory’s Brian Hazard.
The bucolic melodies of ‘A Love Song with Consequences’ is augmented by the airy voice of Sonja 3v3t3a (of synth outfit The Planets Won’t Let You Sleep Tonight). At times sounding like Electric Youth meets S U R V I V E, the song nonetheless has some sharper-edged percussive elements that kick in towards the end.
With its subtle, layered electronic pop, combined with Elissa LeCoque’s soulful vocals, ‘Engine’ breathes with a certain sadness that manages to touch the heart.
“Eternal Life Eternal Youth is a useful milestone for the ELYXR project” Wavegirl concluded, “which enables those curious about the concept to experience a broad range of electropop. Although those styles dart around at speed, there’s a curious consistency at work through Kasson Crooker’s steady hand at crafting engaging electronic rhythms and melodies.”
Further reading: ELYXR – Eternal Life Eternal Youth
ZOMBIE-CHANG – Petit Petit Petit
The curiously-named Zombie-Chang offers up some mesmerising compositions on Petit Petit Petit. Weaving in synth-pop elements with bass and percussion, the album also features some collaborative efforts from the rhythm section of Tokyo-based outfit, Never Young Beach. The addition of drummer Kento Suzuki and bassist Keigo Tatsumi for these recordings has given the songs a more organic, rounded feel.
‘Lemonade’ has a crisp synth-pop sensibility with an engaging bass line while there’s a more hypnotic workout on ‘Don’t Be So Mean’ with its insistent synths and bassy groove (apparently a song of choice for R&B artist The Weeknd).
One of the album’s finest moments comes courtesy of the clipped beats of ‘Mona Lisa’. Meirin’s vocal hooks drive the song along and its choppy rhythms craft a simple, yet appealing ditty. That nod to French culture is something that lurks at the heart of Petit Petit Petit, as on the crunchy synth-pop of ‘We Should Kiss’ with its insistent “Ooh la la” vocal rhythms. Zombie-Chang’s first international single release, ‘We Should Kiss’ is an off-kilter pop outing with layered synth elements battling it out with a strident bass.
‘The Reason Is Love’ apparently arose from Meirin’s desire to make a “3 chord band-like” song. The result is an emphatic post-punk workout with some nice percussive touches.
“Petit Petit Petit has more than a few gems popping off the record” we said in our review, “with a strong nod to that post-punk/new wave vibe that the likes of Devo or Blondie explored so well. At the same time, there’s a quirky, unique quality to Meirin Yung’s approach to composition and singing that saves it from being merely a pastiche of older styles.”
Further reading: ZOMBIE-CHANG – Petit Petit Petit
PIROSHKA – Brickbat
Former Lush guitarist and vocalist Miki Berenyi found a new musical home in Piroshka, featuring former Moose guitarist KJ “Moose” McKillop, Modern English bassist Mick Conroy and Justin Welch taking up drumming duties.
There’s a raw approach here with in-your-face guitars. Meanwhile, the lyrical themes offer a reflection on the difficult times we live in, with tracks such as ‘What’s Next’ and ‘This Must Be Bedlam’ inspired by the mess of Brexit.
‘Village Of The Damned’ dives into a more polished sound with plenty of washes. ‘Never Enough’ opens with some electronic elements before delving into a more chugging workout with Berenyi’s airy vocals delivering melodic stabs.
One of the album’s finest moments comes care of ‘Hated by The Powers That Be’, which delivers spiky guitars underpinning a tight workout and some superbly pithy vocals via Berenyi, whose delivery of the chorus makes the hairs on your neck stick up.
There’s a more sedate approach on the sublime ‘Heartbeats’, which suggests elements of Split-era Lush with its immersive depths.
‘Everlastingly Yours’ appears to combine all the best elements of Piroshka. It’s a melodic adventure in sound with some sharper guitar elements, over which Berenyi’s ghostly vocals float (“Nobody here ever escapes with no blood on their hands”).
“Brickbat…” we concluded, “arrives bang on target with a solid collection of bittersweet moments and engaging tunes.”
Further reading: PIROSHKA – Brickbat