I like music! I talk about it so much you’d think I was getting paid for it (I’m not). I write about video-game music and I recently discussed my personal ten best albums of the decade. Now, one month into 2014, I’m going to lay down the albums that had me grooving all through 2013.
First, let’s do fifth through second place in no real order:
Janelle Monae’s first full-length release, The Archandroid, was a revelation. Soul, pop, funk, classic R&B… it never stopped long enough to let the listener draw breath. The Electric Lady is no different. It’s perhaps a little poppier, a little hookier, but just as nuanced and endearing. It sweeps from eclectic highs to slow-jam lows, and apart from the radio-station interludes, I don’t think there’s a bum track on the entire album. Beautiful stuff.
Yes, the album is entirely in French. It doesn’t matter. Stromae is a marvel of music, a songwriter and performer who can meld with pop with traditional Latin-American dance and electro and have it all feel cohesive. His lyrics (if you can understand French) are poetic and heartbreaking, but you don’t need to understand a word of French to feel the energy and passion in every track.
I’ve been dancing to Racine Carrée for weeks, and I’m still falling in love with the album day after day. Check it out.
It’s glitch-hop. It’s French house. It’s disco. It’s a bit of dirty dubstep peering in your window. It may only have been a three-track EP (with an additional six remixes) but To A New Earth continues to delight. It’s too light-hearted for dim back-alley clubs – Kill Paris is is best listened to at an outdoor party with a Tom Collins in one hand and the summer sun beating down on the back of your neck. Pure love. Also check out his exceptional 2012 release, THE BEGINNING.
You either love Burial or you don’t. If you don’t, that’s okay. It’s not a crime to be wrong.
Burial has been doing the same thing for years now – grimy, wind-swept, midnight-black, lonely, vinyl-crackled dubstep/2-step – and he’s still doing it well. Every new release feels like a tiny evolution of his previous work: personally, I feel he’s getting a little more dancefloor, a little more cinematic. But the heart of what makes Burial Burial is still there. The feeling that you’re listening to the ghost of a distant rave, echoing down cobblestone streets, while London taxis leave taillight contrails hanging in the mist. Haunting, impeccable, impossible to replicate. Burial, marry me.
And finally, my ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
Okay. This review is gonna be a bit longer than the rest, because… well, shit. Because I started with a paragraph and ended with an article. Because Sunset Blood is just that good.
How to describe it? Disco-funk? French-Electro-House? Retro-electronica? Um. Er. Let’s settle for complex. Yes, it’s a little bit dancey. It’s also full of funky slap-bass lines that make you want to air guitar, while also being a collection of nerdy love ballads with vocals vocodered almost beyond comprehension. It’s got stabby retro synths that feel ripped straight from a Giorgio Moroder track. It’s catchy and danceable and every line of the wicked-clever lyrics is a potential earworm.
Sunset Blood has been described as an 80s album set in the distant, neon future of Los Angeles, 1995. It certainly has that feel. Put yourself back in your late 80s boogie shoes and this feels like a disco evolution, where technology is effortlessly merged with instrumental funk, where songs are sung by robots with talent and soul. It’s got laser sounds and wind chimes. It’s got heart in spades.
Want to dance? Sunset Blood has upbeat, butt-shaking tracks like Ronnie and Supersymmetry that sound like Daft Punk shedding their lizard skins and making love to Bootsie Collins. Want to close your eyes and be transported? Chinatown and HE^RT are downtempo, subdued, dripping with atmosphere, the sort of songs that place you on a balcony overlooking rainswept streets, following the electric arcs of taillights reflecting on the blacktop. Want some cinematic, orchestral grandeur? It Ends Now and The Floppy Disk are magnificent arrangements.
My favourite song? Lovetop, a cheeky little sing-along track that mimics pop structures but, at the same, takes every opportunity to subvert and surprise. If I owned a car I’d play this song with the windows down and smile at every lady I passed. It’s infectious.
The majority of Sunset Blood (apart from a few tracks like Pompey Pirate and Sgt. Tagowski) is quietly confident. It’s bombastic, but in a strangely muted way, like it knows that grandeur is just as impressive with the volume only turned up to six. It’s complex and rewards multiple plays. The lyrics aren’t just elegant and incisive but clever as well.
Is this reading like a torrent of unqualified praise? I can dig up some complaints if I really try. At a stretch, the vocoder vocals are sometimes hard to interpret, and I found I had to spend some time reading the lyrics online before I could properly digest some of the tracks. In addition, I felt the vocal tracks were the real heart of the album, and the 50/50 split between vocal and instrumental tracks leaves the album with some less engaging stretches.
And still, I play it over and over, start to finish. So why is Sunset Blood so damn grabby?
When I look at Starcadian’s bandcamp page, I find a massive diversity of opinion. Not as to whether the album is fantastic – that was never in question – but as to what the BEST aspect of the album is. Some say the lush, intricate classical instrumentals of the closing tracks. Some say the grinding club-influenced Pompey Pirate. Some say the disco love-ballads of HE^RT and Chinatown.
Which means – at least to me – that Sunset Blood has done the almost-impossible. It’s one of those magnificently rare albums that has something for everyone, a coherent collection of tracks with no low points, only distinct highs. Much like The Archandroid, you’ll find one or two songs on Sunset Blood to fall in love with, but you’ll never be able to skip the rest.
Look. Here’s the skinny. Sunset Blood is the sort of album I’ve played on repeat for an entire day of work, inspiring (possibly) some of the best science fiction I’ve ever written. It’s an album my missus played four times in a row while SHE was at work, dancing at her stand-up desk while doing graphic design. It’s an album I took with me to a parkour training session, where a room full of sweaty men leaped off walls and pumped iron to its harder beats. It’s an album I that had my missus and I slow-dancing around our living room at midnight.
Is it perfect? No album is. The second half is beautiful but nowhere near as compelling as the first, and both Sgt. Tagowski and Pompey Pirate feel (to me) out of place. But hey, I listened to Sunset Blood EIGHTEEN TIMES THROUGH in the first three days I owned it. EIGHTEEN. That was weeks ago. I’m still playing it daily.
So sue me if I rambled.
Sunset Blood is available through Bandcamp. It’s eight bucks, and you can preview the whole thing for free. So take a chance.
Knife Party: Haunted House EP
I lived above a paranoid schizophrenic speed-abuser for much of 2011. When he wasn’t assaulting my neighbours or setting fire to their cars, he’d stay up long past midnight screaming at a) his persecuters, b) the voices in his head, or c) the heat. After a few months of being serenaded to sleep by shrieking and the banging of doors, Speedy McTorch’s night-time ravings became like a lullaby. My missus and I learned to sleep through his worst episodes, and when the police finally came to take him away we found the nights unusually, uncomfortably quiet.
If you missed the metaphor, Knife Party is Speedy McTorch.
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Enjoy this article? Why not check out my other book, movie and music reviews? Or if you’re just in the mood to read about music, how about my five greatest pieces of video-game music, or read about my personal ten best albums of the decade?