Battling through a tough year…
2020 has proved to be a grim year for many reasons, but chiefly because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, despite the gruelling impact of Covid both personally and professionally on so many people, many music acts still managed to battle on through.
Here are Wavegirl’s ten album choices that marked the standout long-players for us in 2020.
~ ALBUM OF THE YEAR ~
POLLY SCATTERGOOD – In This Moment
Having carved out a suitably impressive musical path with her own distinct style, Polly Scattergood returned in 2020 on the back of new album In This Moment.
The album has a more intimate quality to it, informed by motherhood and also a period of time spent outside of the UK to absorb a slower, more sedate life outside of the city. Opening track ‘Red’ is a stirring piano-led reverie which is presented as a “clarion call to womankind”. There’s a crystal quality to the shimmering ‘After You’, a more personal affair that was conceived after the passing of a friend. Meanwhile, ‘Pearl’ has a stately beauty to it, even in the face of Scattergood’s raw vocal delivery.
One of the album’s undoubted highlights is the magnificent ‘The End Was Glorious’, a rousing anthemic outing which makes fine use of Scattergood’s ability to carve a vocal melody out of rock.
As an album, In This Moment is a delightful collection of songs that invite the listener to slow down and reflect. It presents a stillness of sorts that resonates long after the album has finished. It’s also perhaps a perfect showcase for why Polly Scattergood is one of our national treasures.
Album Review: POLLY SCATTERGOOD – In This Moment
ELISABETH ELEKTRA – Mercurial
The debut album Mercurial from cosmic pop princess Elisabeth Elektra delivered one of 2020’s pleasant surprises.
Tracks such as ‘My Sisters’ and ‘Inanna’ play around with nods to occult themes, giving a lot of the songs on Mercurial an engaging off-kilter appeal. At the same time, there’s recurrent themes of love and loss scattered across the album.
Describing the boisterous ‘My Sisters’, Elektra offers it as “a cabalistic anthem for witches, sex workers and marginalised women and femmes everywhere.” In action, it’s one of Mercurial’s best compositions with a rallying call riding on sharp melodies and a dancepop sensibility.
Elsewhere, there’s a more fractured quality to the icy pop on ‘Crystalline’ while ‘Hypersthene’ sees Elektra dipping into lush electronica.
Mercurial offers magickal pop perfection via a strong debut from Elisabeth Elektra. If you like your tunes quirky, yet accessible then this release will deliver on all fronts.
Album Review: ELISABETH ELEKTRA – Mercurial
FREEZEPOP – Fantasizer
Freezepop have carved out an impressive catalogue of tunes over the years, excelling in delivering a particular combo of quirky and melodic electropop.
Fantasizer shows Freezepop demonstrating a more thoughtful, reflective approach that embraced ideas of escape.“ Fantasizer is about needing to be somewhere else” as the band described it, “whether that’s a hedonistic purgatory, or just a new corner of comfort deep inside your own head.”
While that could have resulted in a depressingly dour album, Fantasizer instead takes the listener on a journey that manages to light up emotional responses like a pinball machine. The beefy synth foundations of ‘Queen Of Tomorrow’ serve to show off Liz Enthusiasm’s stylish, carefree vocal delivery. ‘Anchor to the World Below’ is a bittersweet affair that bounces between bold synth tones and a polished vocal. Meanwhile, the album’s joyous title track is a captivating narrative on what it’s like to love and lose someone. There’s also a few nods to synthwave care of the lush soundscapes of ‘Memory Disappears’ or the emotional tour de force that’s ‘Heart-Rate’.
“We wanted every second of this album to feel like ‘Wow, they’re really going for it. Because we did” commented Sean Drinkwater on the album’s genesis. The final album is a fitting testimony to that statement.
Ultimately, Fantasizer is an impressive body of work which, arguably, is Freezepop’s finest album to date. The more mature approach to penning songs seems natural and doesn’t rob the band of their ability to deliver witty lines – or indeed their ability to touch the heart. The compositions on this album are warm, engaging narratives that are packed with hooks and well-crafted electronic flourishes.
Album Review: FREEZEPOP – Fantasizer
PARAGON CAUSE – What We Started
Ottawa-based alternative outfit Paragon Cause (aka Michelle Opthof and Jay Bonaparte) serve up an intriguing combination of synths and guitars that captures a history that the band describe as “one of mystery, sadness, hope and inspiration.”
In essence, there’s a raw, alluring quality to the music that features on What We Started. Paragon Cause utilise a mesmerising combination of twilight electronics and guitar riffs that produces shimmering moods, emphasised by Opthof’s laid-back vocal style.
Opening track ‘Lost Cause’ has a warm, dreampop sensibility to it. Yet still serves up darker lines such as “Crushing souls to replace things you’ve lost”. ‘Silent Prayer’ sees Paragon Cause experimenting with their sound, delivering an oddly contrasting tune which features quickfire percussive effects. Meanwhile, ‘Something New’ is a slower, sultry number built around guitar distortion as a foundation against Opthof’s noir narrative lyrics (“Don’t ask the questions you don’t want the answers to”).
The album’s finest moment, however, comes in the form of the euphoric ‘Without You’. The tight, chugging guitars drive the song forward while Opthof’s vocals soar above, with lines such as “Got no time for bitter thoughts to creep and cloud/I’m always at my best” taking on a curious optimism.
What We Started is a wonderfully gritty and emotive album cast against an Americana vibe, which certainly deserves your attention.
Album Review: PARAGON CAUSE – What We Started
AUSTRA – HiRUDiN
Following the release of Austra’s 2017 album Future Politics, Katie Stelmanis took a slower approach to its successor HiRUDiN, an album that Stelmanis has described as “an experiment in vulnerability and collaboration”. It’s also an album that, lyrically, delves into toxic relationships as a theme.
The album starts strong with the bittersweet form of ‘Anywayz’. Elsewhere, ‘All I Wanted’, is a more plaintive effort with its plucked strings and more stripped-down arrangement. The throbbing rhythms of ‘Your Family’ offers a showcase for the (not inconsiderable) vocal abilities of Stelmanis. It’s a raw and fragile moment, encapsulated in some eerie layered vocal effects.
Equally, ‘Risk It’ keeps things quirky with the high pitched delivery of the song’s title. Lyrically, Stelmanis describes the composition as “When you know the one you’re with is bad for you but you’re too scared to quit.”
HiRUDiN delivers an album that’s intensely personal and open, yet throws in some curveballs in its arrangements and flair for engaging melodies. It’s proof that Katie Stelmanis is still a powerful songwriter – and that Austra’s ever-evolving musical journey is not over yet.
Album Review: AUSTRA – HiRUDiN
TWIST HELIX – Machinery
Previously, Twist Helix had demonstrated that the electropop trio could weave in social commentary into their music with an emotional impact. New album Machinery continues that tradition with eleven tracks of pulsating pop that also address contemporary concerns.
As a result, ‘Louder’ offers a euphoric catharsis of the frustration of the ongoing gender imbalances present in the music industry. Meanwhile, the music itself delivers catchy pop hooks and shimmering synths. These themes are are carried over onto the brash electropop banger that’s ‘Vultures’ while the anthemic ‘Frida Kahlo’ offers commentary on vanity, art and the striving for authenticity.
The album bows out with the spirited ‘Good Night Little England’, a powerful polemic on Brexit Britain (“Here’s a song for the North Sea, for all the things that divide you from me”). The song employs a dynamic vocal melody matched with some slick synths that also harbour a brooding, gothic quality.
Machinery continues to demonstrate that Twist Helix are a band that’s continually evolving, but also a band that proudly stick to their strengths for euphoric pop bangers.
Album Review: TWIST HELIX – Machinery
ANNIE – Dark Hearts
Dark Hearts is billed as “the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.” It’s an apt description for a collection of songs that have a cinematic vision to them. The album also sees Annie teaming up with Stefan Storm (The Sound Of Arrows), whose magical pop credentials are well served on the songs on offer here.
From the smoky retro vibe of ‘In Heaven’ through to the immersive intimacy of ‘Corridors of Time’ and the twilight pop of the stunning ‘American Cars’, it’s a captivating body of work.
But the track that will likely resonate most with diehard Annie fans is ‘The Streets Where I Belong’. There’s a bittersweet quality at work here on a song that has a deceptively simple arrangement, its magic working through the lush production and the mesmerising draw of Annie’s narrative (a potted biography of Annie’s own musical journey).
Elsewhere, the album boasts the dreampop leanings on ‘The Untold Story’ (which sounds as if it’s dropped out of a lost David Lynch movie) and the quirky Americana of ‘It’s Finally Over’.
In essence, Dark Hearts is a superb album that embraces a wistful melancholia with some stylishly crafted melodies which, during a fairly glum year, offers a solace of sorts. It’s also an album that shows Annie remains at the peak of her musical powers.
Album Review: ANNIE – Dark Hearts
SHE’S GOT CLAWS – Doppelgänger
Doppelgänger is an album that’s bursting with hooks and crunchy electronic percussion alongside Micci’s distinctive vocal style. The end result is a raw synth-pop selection which dazzles from start to finish. It also boasts the production talents of OMD’s Andy McCluskey on a few tracks.
‘Adulation’, which kicks off the album, explores the idea of being yourself without needing permission from anyone else (“I don’t need your adulation/Don’t dress me up as your fun occasion”). It’s a brash electronic pop tune, given a particularly percussive drive care of Andy McCluskey’s production talents. Equally, ‘Loves Lies Bleeding’ offers up some Numan-style synths weaved into a track that also employs effective bass work from Chris O-Ten.
Elsewhere, ‘Lithium’ is easily one of Doppelgänger’s best tracks. Here, Micci’s vocals have a perfect melodic symmetry on a tune that explores toxic relationships (“I hate you then I love you/I walk away then I run to you”).
Even in an already busy year for music, Doppelgänger is a stunning album that’s engineered for peak synth-pop perfection.
Album Review: SHE’S GOT CLAWS – Doppelgänger
IT’S IMMATERIAL – House For Sale
Although it’s taken nearly 30 years to arrive, House For Sale, the ‘lost’ album from Liverpool outfit It’s Immaterial doesn’t disappoint.
‘Summer Rain’ has an immersive, shimmering aspect to it while ‘Just North Of Here’ tracks closer to the narrative drift that their 1990 album Song dabbled in (“Just north of here/That’s where Heaven is for me”), bolstered by some effective string fills. In both cases, John Campbell’s mesmerising vocals draws the listener in.
There’s more of a groove to ‘Downriver’ with its sturdy synth tones and busy layers of instrumentation. Meanwhile, the shuffling beats of ‘Tell Me Why’ offers up a lush soundscape on one of the album’s finest moments. There’s something compelling about the piano melodies and the delivery of lines like “So tell me why and how come we end up here” which makes this composition pop out.
The touching ‘Up On The Roof’ offers an emotive reverie about loss and memory (“I guess that I still think about it now”) yet with an uplifting quality, which showcases one of the album’s sweetest moments.
House For Sale’s thoughtful and meditative lilt offers an oasis of sorts – particularly during a tough year beset by the COVID-19 crisis.
Album Review: IT’S IMMATERIAL – House For Sale
ROBERTA FIDORA – Black Arrow
Better known under her Curxes moniker, electronic musician Roberta Fidora’s latest project is a curious fascination with the UK’s fledgling attempts to launch its space ambitions.
Black Arrow zeros in on an interview with Marlene Irving, a young engineer involved in the development of the BLACK ARROW – a rocket concept constructed on the Isle of Wight. Written and performed by Roberta Fidora, with Mike James on guitar and Matt Horn on drums, Black Arrow is a haunting series of compositions, some of which is interwoven with experimental sonics and field recordings from what is left of the concrete rocket testing facility.
Fidora is a deft hand at exploring ‘hauntology’, of which Black Arrow is an intriguing example. The end result is a hypnotic journey into a previously forgotten piece of the UK’s aviation industry. It’s also a work that Fidora hopes opens a window on women working in science and technology. “I hope this release builds on what has gone before and gives people another way of discovering or remembering the ghosts of the British Space Programme. I also hope it inspires women in STEM and in music to pursue the work they want to do and to align with the stars that we all strive to reach.”