Getting closer to the top, part three of our 2010 tunes round-up takes us from obscure gems like Oh and Christine Owman to international superstars Alicia Keys, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. Counting down from 50 to 26.
* * *
from the album Acronym For Friend [self-released; April 2010]
Portland, Oregon’s Oh is an anomaly of the digital age. This enigmatic one-woman outfit has no discernible online presence bar an email address listed in the sparse liner notes of her DIY (and rather wonderful) debut album. This mysteriousness is mirrored in her music, an intriguing sonic collage of tinny synths, cutesy vocals and toy percussion, which peaks on penultimate track ‘Victorious’. A confident assertion of strength and self-belief in the face of adversity, Oh’s voice sounds stronger than anywhere else on the record as it battles with a cacophony of thumping beats and reverb.
from the album Frankie Rose & The Outs [Memphis Industries; October 2010]
As both songwriter and musician, Frankie Rose’s originality radiated throughout her debut album with new outfit The Outs; she’s much too inventive to waste time trying to best the slipshod, girl-gang lo-fi of her former band Vivian Girls. As the gloriously catchy ‘Girlfriend Island’ proved, her heart-bursting drum rhythms, sun-spun chords and mermaid harmonies transcend such expectations to deliver something way more gorgeous.
from the album Twin-Hand Movement [Gnomonsong; July 2010]
The most straightforward song on the debut album from the Jana Hunter-fronted Lower Dens, ‘Truss Me’ is also the most compelling. Everything from the endearing phonetic spelling of the title to Hunter’s astonishingly emotive voice combines to create a moment of heartbreaking intimacy, drenched in a warm cocoon of reverb.
from the album Together [Matador; May 2010]
The New Pornographers are able to conjure up a seemingly endless supply of the fresh, catchy guitar riffs which define their aesthetic with apparently little difficulty. Another constant that they’ve been able to rely on over the course of their ten year career is the awesomeness of Neko Case, their finest moments frequently arising when the husky voiced chanteuse takes the lead vocal. On ‘Crash Years’, Case proves she’s more reliable than the Energizer bunny when it comes to crafting fantastic pop music.
from the album Hello Paradise [Friends; January 2011]
Celebration have never been ones to shy away from experimentation, so the decision to create an album based on the tarot deck (with accompanying ‘electric tarot cards’ in the form of videos for each track) is actually not that surprising. ‘What’s This Magical’ was inspired by the magician card and lives up to its muse, a shamanistic blend of tribal influences and modernism. The ethnic avenues explored on previous releases are stronger than ever here, with sweeping Middle Eastern percussive sounds and dark synths stitched together skilfully by Katrina Ford’s distinctive, hypnotic voice.
from the album Teenage Dream [Capitol; August 2010]
While it was her dubious celebration of California ‘Gurls’ that ruled the airwaves this year, it was the title track from Katy Perry’s third studio album which showed that perhaps she isn’t quite as vapid as we all think. There’s something oddly endearing about Perry’s saccharine romcom lyrics (“You think I’m pretty without any makeup on / you think I’m funny when I get the punchline wrong”) as she celebrates the start of an idyllic romance, while the joyous chorus is almost impossible to not sing along to.
from the album Outlaster [FatCat]
The centrepiece from Nina Nastasia’s fifth album, ‘What’s Out There’ starts out with finger-plucked violin and guitar coiling quietly around sinister opening lyrics, which, whilst quietly sung, brim with menace. Then, almost without warning, there is an eruption of drama as emotive vocals, violin and drums all soar to a moment of thunderous darkness, quickly reined in with tones of hope. Abstract instrumental sounds (squeals, squeaks and bent strings) round out the song, giving it a musical complexity and a maturity and classical precision only hinted at by Nastasia thus far.
from the album Wounded Rhymes [Atlantic; February 2011]
A fun, mischievous pop song with Lykke Li’s talented stamp all over it, ‘Get Some’ plays the Swedish singer’s trademark vocal acrobatics against with furious drums to spin a sex-fuelled lusty yarn. In character of fearless prostitute, Lykke plans to show her lover a great time – and it doesn’t sound like she will take no for an answer! Playing the confident siren suits her sultry vocals incredibly well. With ‘Get Some’, she had us wrapped around her finger.
from the album Hadestown [Righteous Babe; March 2010]
Anaïs Mitchell’s long-awaited recording of her folk opera based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice turned out to be a truly remarkable piece of work. Opening number ‘Wedding Song’ finds Mitchell’s Eurydice asking Orpheus (played by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame) how he intends to provide for her once they are married, setting up the duo’s tragic tale with a hopeful, twinkling introduction. Storytelling perfection.
from the Journal Of Ardency EP [Terrible; February 2010]
Class Actress frontwoman Elizabeth Harper’s voice exudes an icy cool so perfectly suited to new wave synthpop, it’s hard to believe she once upon a time made an acoustic folk record. On ‘Journal Of Ardency’, Harper manages to sound aroused, bored and dismissive all at once as she asks “Why can’t you just say to me I mean something to you?”, while still managing to sound entirely fresh in spite of the onslaught of new wave devotees of late.
from the album The Element Of Freedom [J; December 2009]
Alicia Keys is unquestionably one of the most consistent and reliable artists in mainstream music today. ‘Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart’ is a masterclass in the crafting of atavistic pop music with a modern edge, its subtle ’80s influences putting straightforward revivalists to shame. The vocals on Keys’s studio recordings can sometimes be slightly overproduced, but here every bit of emotion is allowed to shine through as she asserts her determination to survive without the man who has hurt her, regardless of how much she still loves him.
from the album The Waves [Mexican Summer; August 2010]
Among the more claustrophobic tracks on the debut album from San Franciscan duo Tamaryn, ‘Love Fade’ stood out for its melodic core and more straightforward approach. It’s still haunted, still hazy, still teasingly aloof and intriguing, but here Tamaryn come blinking into the sunlight from the nocturnal chill that they more typically inhabit. It suits them well.
from the album Grey Oceans [PIAS; May 2010]
CocoRosie’s fourth album found the Casady sisters beautifully refining their songcraft to create their most cohesive effort to date, an enveloping galaxy of cryptically personal songs wrapped up in all manner of twinkly, soothing sounds. First single ‘Lemonade’ starts out with almost unbearable, glass-sharp chimes, clouds of gloomy piano with echoing bottom-key notes and mournful, wilting-stem jazz trumpets that wallow before an unexpected shift that lets in the sunlight rays of a cheerful, sing-song chorus. The intentionally juxtaposed elements of cold/warm moods and rhythms is disconcerting to say the least. Brilliant, too.
from the album La Sera [Hardly Art; January 2011]
‘Kickball’ Katy Goodman may have eased up on the punkier influences of Vivian Girls with side project La Sera, but she’s not all sweetness and light all of a sudden, despite the poppy, girlgroup-esque sounds of ‘Never Come Around’. Take a closer listen to hear Goodman say an emphatic “goodbye” to a bad relationship (and peep the gory video if you need further evidence) over a melody so addictive you’ll be humming along for days.
from the ‘See Spaces’ 7″ [Moshi Moshi; August 2010]
These days its impossible for any female-fronted electro outfit with even the vaguest of punk leanings to do anything without being inundated with Crystal Castles comparisons. However, London-based electro trio TE3TH are doing a pretty good job of doing things their own way. Breakthrough single ‘See Spaces’ features stabbing chillwave synths repeatedly building to a crescendo before crashing like waves, on top of which floats Veronica So’s borderline apathetic vocals. She may be bored but the rest of us are wonderfully entertained.
from the album Throwing Knives [Revolving; December 2010]
Known for her mesmerising live shows and ability to turn perfectly sunny-sounding instruments like the ukulele into sonic harbingers of gloom, Swedish artist Christine Owman is as much of a visual artist as she is a musician. Her debut album isn’t widely available outside of Scandinavia just yet, but with edgy, interesting songs aplenty at her disposal it surely won’t be long before her name becomes better known. ‘Spelling Words’, featuring guest vocals from Andi Almqvist, rides in on a repetitive bowed-cello rhythm and an eerie, almost vaudevillian feel, giving Owman’s hugely compelling songwriting a lighter touch.
from the album Made The Harbor [Bella Union; June 2010]
Vocal trio Mountain Man gave new meaning to the phrase “less is more” with their debut album. Their stripped back approach to Americana favours sparse instrumentation, preferring to let their beautiful voices do the talking (or singing, as it were). ‘Soft Skin’ epitomises this economical approach to their craft as the ladies harmonise a cryptic domestic portrait, their heavenly lilting at odds with the dark subject matter of the lyrics.
from the album Flesh Tone [Interscope; May 2010]
Kelis’s departure from Neptunes-styled R&B came as a pleasant surprise and gifted her the opportunity to explore different sounds with a number of producers. Written for her baby son, lead single ‘Acapella’ saw her paired with French “superstar” producer David Guetta and was a defiant affirmation of her new creative direction. Its joyful melodies cross-pollinate dance and pop fantastically well, while vocally Kelis is at her self-assured best, confidently owning the glittering pulsations of synth.
from the Color Your Life EP [Double Six; September 2010]
The most melodic and, not uncoincidentally, best track on Twin Sister’s second EP, ‘All Around & Away We Go’ is a pleasingly spacey disco number, not replacing the mellow feel of their previous material but stepping it up a few notches. A subtly driving beat provides a sultry backdrop to the sexy guitars, airy bass and Andrea Estella’s smokey vocals, a croon that adds an effortless jazz feel to an otherwise distinctly unjazzy cut. Alternative pop at its finest, Twin Sister’s bright harmonies and poetic lyrics tell a story sprinkled with glittering synth sounds, providing an ideal pick-me-up.
from the album The Brothel [EMI Norway; March 2010]
Classically trained Norwegian pianist Susanne Sundfør took a huge artistic leap with her latest album, positioning herself as a contender for the avant-garde elite that includes the likes of Joanna Newsom and Hildur Guðnadottir. ‘The Brothel’ balances nightmarish despair and dense, poetic lyrics with the sparest glimpse of hope. It is, quite simply, a stunning piece of music. Frustratingly, it has yet to be released in the UK.
from the Domination Mixtape [Art Jam; June 2010]
Nicki Minaj may have been the female MC plastered all over the headlines in 2010, but Dominique Young Unique also spent the year carving out a niche for herself in the hip hop world (albeit with fewer flashbulbs), including a successful support stint with Dirty Projectors. The production on ‘Show My Ass’ is some of the most interesting and inventive of the year, constantly changing tempo and introducing new sounds, but the nineteen year old Floridian refuses to be outdone, upping the pace of her rhyming as she exclaims that she’s “doin’ it right”. Yes, she certainly is.
from the album /\/\ /\ Y /\ [XL; July 2010]
M.I.A.’s third album was a bold artistic statement, appearing to shun her mainstream success in favour of creativity, yet it was ironically the most commercial song on the record that most grabbed our attention. ‘XXXO’ breezes in with typical M.I.A. attitude and asserts itself foremost as a fantastic and seductive dancefloor filler, and again with its analysis of what constitutes eroticism in the hypersexual, hypercommercial environment we live in.
from the album I Will Be [Sub Pop; March 2010]
German isn’t a language famed for sounding melodic, but Dee Dee and her coven of black-clad ladies turn this impression on its head on ‘Oh Mein M’, one of the many standout tracks on their fantastic debut LP. That said, you don’t need to be able to speak a word of German to guess what the song is about, as Dee Dee’s jubilant voice is full of the joy of new love (the “Liebe auf den ersten Blick” refrain literally means love at first sight). Awash with the usual Dum Dum Girls hallmarks of reverb, girl-group harmonies and ’60s-style guitar, ‘Oh Mein M’ was the perfect soundtrack for a summer romance.
from the album We Are Born [Jive/Monkey Puzzle; September 2010]
For her third studio album Sia finally allowed her goofy side to shine with several less inhibited and way more upbeat pop tracks than we’d previously seen from the Australian singer-songwriter. We’re not going to argue that ‘Clap Your Hands’ isn’t Europop-style dancefloor fluff, but Sia’s sheer glee and sunny, distinctive vocals won us over big style. Standing still just isn’t an option.
from The Fame Monster EP [Interscope; November 2009]
It’s almost unthinkable now that ‘Telephone’ was originally written for Britney Spears, and then imagined as a duet between she and Gaga. Beyoncé’s immense she-wail complements Gaga’s thinner, bouncier tones in a surprisingly natural manner, as if that was the intention all along. Through Gaga, we got to see a side of Ms Knowles that really ought to come out more often. Brilliant stuff.
Tagged alicia keys, anais mitchell, beyoncé, celebration, christine owman, class actress, cocorosie, dominique young unique, dum dum girls, frankie rose and the outs, jana hunter, katy perry, kelis, la sera, lady gaga, lower dens, lykke li, MIA, mountain man, neko case, nina nastasia, sia, susanne sundfor, tamaryn, teeth, the new pornographers, twin sister