In pop and dance terms 2012 has been a bit of a non-event. 2012 had Katy B, James Blake, SBTRKT and Rustie taking once underground ideas and bringing them to the mainstream, and the results were stunningly successful.
Adele had written the record that “saved the record industry”, or at least it seemed that way at the time. Proof the public could get behind proper album by a proper artists, they said, only it turns out that interest didn’t rub off, as album sales tumbled by 7 million in 2012.
2011 even had its own all encompassing hype girl (Lana Del Rey), this year we have the brilliant Jessie Ware, AlunaGeorge, Icona Pop and Charli Xcx, but for all the great music they’ve yet to capture the nation’s attention. Even Lana’s debut was a bit limp, a bit patronizing, and frankly a little insulting. Where 2012 reimagined R’n’B with The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, 2012 had Gotye and surprisingly sincere no.1 hit.
Still, whatever your thoughts of the year so far, there have been some great records, and here are the five finest pop offering.
5. Hot Chip – In Our Heads
Taylor and Goddard are fast becoming Britain’s most reliable songwriting duo. From skittish ironic exercises to hauntingly levelheaded reflections on love and circumstance, this duo have blossomed with each passing record. “Motion Sickness” may just be a new high, it’s not actually In Our Heads best track, but it feels like the band’s defining statement: a love letter to music and modernity, a reaction to the sensation of discovering the new, that dizzying, exciting, and often troubling experience.
The climax is unbelievably moving, and it sets the tone for an album that flits between addictive funk-house workouts and startling insights. “Look At Where We Are” is wonderful love song, full of 90s r’n’b illusions, whose strength comes from its solidarity; with a series of rosy reassuring reflections on roadblocks encountered, and overcome. Hot Chip are naturals, Joe Goddard could write a track as effortlessly enchanting as “These Chains” in his sleep, but this doesn’t mean the collective are content to stay in one place.
“Flutes” looks forward, taking contemporary influences, deep London bass and skipping snapping percussion, and blending it into Hot Chip’s typically summery (Carribean) vintage house palette. Alexis detaches himself sublimely, as he often does, to deliver a devastatingly beautiful in the moment hook “All This Talk Is Getting Me Down, Nothing Is Making Sense In My Brain” and a final concluding thought: “One Day You Might Realize, That You Might Need To Open Your Eyes”. Britain should be immensely proud of Hot Chip.
4. Django Django – Django Django
Okay so I might have pinched Django Django from the indie column, but there is no containing this outfit. These Scots are making bewilderingly brilliant modern psychedelia that can flit between monumental prog and art pop fit for the dance floor in a second. Pop hooks and hummable riffs emerge almost continuously on this record, and they come from the strangest places. Deadpan vocals, snatched vocal loops, bizarre sound effects, insistent synths and great pop riffs sit alongside one another with an assured ease (and that’s just the first song).
Django Django’s debut album amazes in part because it feels so homogenous. These disparate strands and barmy ideas have been tied together in a wonderful cohesive fashion. The ambition alone is intimidating, the talent to actually pull it off, frightening. Whether it’s pop, rock, indie, dance, psychedlia, or some arty in between, this album deserves to be recognised.
3. AlunaGeorge – You Know You Like It EP
Part of me melts every time I hear that opening London stained vocal understatedly rolling across “You Know You Like It’s” deep resounding beat. In the pop classist tradition, AlunaGeorge pull a sense of joyous, almost seductive, optimism out of this swirling immovable melancholy. Aside from being insanely sexy, “You Know You Like It” is a wonderfully contrarian record, rejecting circumstance and embracing self-determination in a wholly natural, nearly-but-not-quite naïve, fashion.
“Just A Touch” is equally exciting, mixing and matching the elastic sliding instrumental of the verse with a wirey and winding Asain-tinged chorus effect. The vocals are high and fragile, and feel like a real throwback to 90s chart pop (only with added integrity). “Put Up Your Hands” is perhaps the least exciting of the three tracks, but it provides a fitting coda to slick EP. Providing one final escapist sentiment. There’s no bringing AlunaGeorge down, and no one’s coming close to topping this EP in 2012.
2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And The Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Ever Do
Yep it’s official, Fiona Apple actually got better. Not just with age, but after a seven-year leave of absence. Going back to basics, combining vocals, piano and basic percussion, The Idler Wheel… is a stripped down, but not sparse record. It is emotionally intense, as gorgeous and exciting as the arrangements can be, there is no escaping Fiona Apple. Is she’s penned in and cornered, or are you claustrophobically trapped with the most harrowingly direct bar room singer imaginable? At times it’s hard to say.
Either way the music is alluring, as brief lyrical concessions and confessions draw the listener in to these warped jazz exercises. Actual hooks are thin on the ground, striking refrains do emerge, but they’re entirely secondary to the uneasy mood of each track and Fiona Apple’s stunning admissions. Uncomfortable but intrigued might be the best way to characterize The Idler Wheel… experience. The second you begin to shuffle a little too uncomfortably on the edge of your seat she’ll pique your interest and reel you back in with a stray: “I Tried To Love, I Can Love The Same Man, In The Same Bed, In The Same City, But Not In The Same Room…I Can’t Cry When I’m Sad Anymore, Tears Calcify”.
1. Grimes – Visions
The subject of Internet and hipster hype for a number of years, Visions, the album Grimes considers to be her proper debut, has a lot to live up to – least of all the brilliant “Vanessa”, one of 2011’s finest pop songs. Few, however, could have expected an album this delightful. By combining vocal loops and unintelligible exclamations, Claire Boucher has created these faint and fragile auras of serene sound. The end result makes the Canadian starlet seem both entirely off her rocker, and like some confounding spirit from the heavens bestowing beautiful pearls of wisdom in between a series of bizarre blurts that are simply beyond our comprehension.
At times Grimes sounds like a Japanese Madonna tripping on sugary snacks and psychotropic drugs. She drifts and floats around, settling only momentarily before being blown away to dance and sway somewhere else. As such, Visions, is easily the most transitory LP on this list. Its finest moments are fleeting by design. “Oblivion” wraps you up, swirls you around, and passes you by. Instead of leaving a deep and lasting imprint, Vision, leaves you with a craving more, and thankfully these faint streams of consciousness never lose their originality. Months later, the rush remains, Grimes never becomes routine.
Even “Skin” the album’s big concluding ballad, Vision’s one moment of lumbering emotional precision, is pitched perfectly – equal parts crushing substance and ethereal escape. Grimes finally appears to have been touched by something immovable, and of course this time its her love who is in transit, and impossible to unlock; “I Hate That Your Leaving, So Why Don’t You Talk To Me, You Act Like Nothing Ever Happened, But It Meant The World To Me”. It seemed impossible just three tracks earlier, but she did it, not only did Grimes produce an illusive, mellifluous, and entirely momentary experience, but she ended it with a piercing and unshakable moment of beauty and sorrow, that lingers long after the initial rush has faded from earshot.