I cannot imagine a life without music.
It is the transportive soundtrack to my commutes, my 5 am morning exercise sessions, those moments when I am out amongst the crush of Sydney crowds and want to carve out a world of my own and a thousand other times big and small when I need to lose myself in melody and words.
Unlike many people my age who find a refuge in the nostalgia-laden songs of their youth, I am a man of the here and now (though not without a very much still-present love of ABBA, Duran Duran and countless other artists of the ’70s and ’80s) who delights in finding new music artists and songs via a plethora of blogs that I immerse myself in whenever I get the chance.
What makes the current music landscape so compelling is just how much wonderful new music is out there.
The internet has democratised, as it has with so many creative endeavours (thought not without some negatives), the ability of artists from around the world to get their songs to a diverse and receptive audience, people like me who lap up their inventive melodies and clever lyrical observances of the human condition.
It’s a golden age of new music, and frankly 20 songs doesn’t even begin to do it justice but I’ve had a shot at listing the tracks that really made an impression on me, songs that refused to be relegated to the “That’s nice but …” category and steadfastly occupy a high-rotation, very special place in the soundtrack of my life … well, this year’s version of it anyway.
“Fire in the Water” by Pond
If you like your bands to be quirky, very much possessed of their own, very distinct identity and able to weave in retro influences like they are completely their own, then you are going to love Western Australia’s Pond (Urethra Franklin, Kirk Kobain, Spready Hazel, and Gary; names may be a tad nom de plume-y).
Striding forth from hometown Perth possessed of an ’80s music sensibility, and some off-the-wall influences – the bigger groove, SYZZURP!, and the turbule of water left behind a duck – Pond have nailed their freak flag masterfully to the mast with “Fire in the Water”, a new song that comes with an appropriately imaginative film clip.
The video, which shows the band wandering through a range of fantastically fun Tokyo scenes, came with some typically off-kilter inspirations:
“We got lost a lot and kinda just followed Nick around because he kept wanting to find this rainbow bridge which I don’t think ever existed. The original idea was Nick turning into a jellyfish, floating over the buildings looking down on all these people eating ramen and sushi but that idea didn’t really fly.” (Consequence of Sound)
“Fire in the Water” has been released to herald the imminent re-release of last year’s The Weather, ahead of a concerted push into the USA where, if there is any kind of wacko god, they will find brilliant success.
“&Run” by Sir Sly
Good god but this song has a way of insinuating itself into your earworm and your dancing shoes and never ever leaving and frankly, one listen and you won’t care a bit.
L.A.-based band Sir Sly (singer Landon Jacobs, Jason Suwito and Hayden Coplen) have crafted a gem of pop song that urges us all to “kick our shoes off &Run”.
And if this is the soundtrack, and your day can go even remotely as idiosyncratically as the one depicted in the soundtrack, then why not listening to the song at all.
We Are:The Guard winningly describes the song as “certified weirdo pop bop” and it is all that and more, a gorgeously offbeat piece of pure pop that makes you smile and induces this sense that life can be a whole let banal that you may have become accustomed to.
“Shadow” by iZNiik
Ah, the great and glorious mystery that is iZNiiK, an artists who seems to exist only through the amazingly catchy music he creates as Billboard points out:
“There are mystery producers who wear helmets and color-coordinated outfits to hide their faces, then there are mystery artists who literally say nothing, post nothing, and otherwise don’t even exist other than through the music … Good luck finding anything about this person. Even iZNiiK’s Twitter is a ghost town.”
A blank, riddle and enigma all rolled into one he may be but good god his music is the catchiest, most funky R&B-influenced stuff out there.
“Shadows” in particular catches its creator’s penchant for samples of music, pop culture elements and inventive vocals, a melange of irresistibly catchy influences that dares you to play it only once.
You may as well get ready for the fact that you’ll playing this over and over and over and … well, you get the idea.
“Dancing” by Kylie Minogue
Aussie pop icon Kylie Minogue has been sitting comfortably high up in the pop charts, and in the affection of many a gay man and heterosexual since 1987 when “The Loco-motion” became the biggest selling single of the ’80s in her home country.
During that time she’s mostly stuck to avowedly chart-friendly material but occasionally she has struck out on a somewhat offbeat path such as her collaboration with Nick Cave (“Where the Wild Roses Grow”), her fabulously-catchy Impossible Princess album, and now her decidedly country-tinged 2018 collection, Golden, of which “Dancing” was the lead single.
Reflecting some fairly sage and introspective lyrics about mortality and going out with a bang – equally it could simply be a play on words about clubbing but the deeper lyrical interpretation rings more true – “Dancing” is effervescent, upbeat pop that captures that wonderful Scandinavian dynamic of being both giddily bright and cheery while also melancholic and knowing.
It’s sophisticated pop that rings true on all kinds of existential levels but which gets you up and dancing too which is, when you think about it, is pretty much the best way, unless you’re a moodily-ruminative French philosopher, that you naval gaze for any length of time.
“All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
“All the Stars” was a big hit from the soundtrack of a hugely-successful film, Black Panther, which was a brilliantly-executed breath of fresh air into the very white and formulaic superhero genre.
Featuring American rapper Drake and American singer SZA, it’s an atmospheric slice of epic pop that sings loftily of the stars coming closer even as it laments the disappointments of romance and possibility.
In that respect, it expertly and moving reflects the themes of the film which inhabited both resoundingly victorious and disastrously dark places to narratively-pleasing effect.
Both film and song really go into hard on the duality of life and are all the more powerful as a result.
“So Low” by Editors
Birmingham-based English band Editors know to strike a powerful emotional chord.
“So Low”, anchored by dusky, emotive vocals and a minor key tremble that becomes a rousingly-melancholic choral masterpiece in the chorus before going hard and heavy to dramatic effect, is the kind of song that you cannot listen to without being profoundly moved.
This is pop with a pulse the size of Texas and a heart that beats loudly and on the biggest of sleeves, and it comes, as you might expect from the kind of emotionally-intense experience from which great life epiphanies emerge:
“I wrote the words to ‘Hallelujah (So Low)’ when I got back from a trip with Oxfam, visiting refugee camps in Northern Greece,” frontman Tom Smith said of the track. “It was obviously an incredibly moving trip, seeing people living in dust, surviving only on the help of others was very moving.
“Musically the track hung on the relationship between the acoustic guitar and the drum machine, that was part of the track from my demo, it had something special very early on…then when Justin came up with his outrageous guitar riff we knew we had a winner. It’s the most “rock” we’ve ever been and it’s exhilarating.” (NME)
“Stock Image” by Miya Folick
Someone else who knows a thing or two about taking life on with life and upbeat exuberance is Californian Miya Folick, raised Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist, who delivers up a luscious slice of inspiring pop in the colour-infused lushness of “Stock Image.”
All about “the conversation that you have with yourself when you’re feeling lost and your color has faded” (Pitchfork), the song is all soaring, gloriously emotionally-resonant vocals piercing the Justin Raisen-produced electropop, full of an invigorating need to mix it all up anew:
“I wrote it from a place of feeling shallow and gray and wanting to feel full! Vibrant!”
Miya Folick succeds beyond measure, offering some of the brightest, happiest pop you’re likely to hear anywhere as Pitchfork notes:
“‘Stock Image’ is wholehearted pop joy, co-produced by Folick, Yves Rothman, and Justin Raisen (Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time, Angel Olsen’s My Woman). Opening with lilting chimes and vocal coos, it quickly floors the gas to reveal an exuberant 1980s pop heart and a bassline with the same propulsive thrill of Robyn’s ‘Dancing on My Own.'”
Need to go somewhere exquisitely, resoundingly technicolour uplifting; look no further than this amazingly alive song which transform you in just one listen … but honestly, who in their right mind will stop at just one listen?
“Friends” by NONONO
The world at the moment seems to constantly give us the impression that the only thing it’s eminently capable of is misery, death and despair.
But as Swedish alt-pop group NONONO (Stina Wäppling, Tobias “Astma” Jimson and Michel “Rocwell” Flygare) reminds us with celebratory abandon, in “Dancing (Mumbai Wedding)”, from the album Undertones (released 28 September) it is also able to summon the most beautiful of romantically life-affirming moments, so good in fact that we have to ask ourselves if we’ve fallen into some kind of exquisitely-wonderful dream:
Now we would go dancing
Screw our sorrows in the break of day
Tonight, we’ll get drunk in the name of
This wholly remarkable song, all jangly upbeat melodies and effervescently-happy lyrics is actually the result of one of the dark events alluded to in the opening paragraph coming hard against something wonderful, as Stina explains (Vents Magazine):
“‘Dancing (Mumbai Wedding)’ is about catching a beautiful moment and how much more powerful and clear such moments become in the presence of darkness and grief. I wrote the song under a wedding in Mumbai India, during the celebration of my friends love. Eight years earlier I had been in the same city but then horrified and stuck in the middle of a terrorist attack. My sister and I were at one of the places where they opened fire; holding each other tight in a corner we tried to become as small as possible. Under three sleepless days there were no safe places, only a constant readiness and our bodies jerky twitching from the sound of another fire gun or another bombing. There has been a life before Mumbai and a life after. Above all life feels more fragile now and very unpredictable. Thus, when I’m back at the same place with only time as a distance, all my senses are elevated. All life and every emotion feels brighter and the two weeks that we are celebrating love becomes luminous in contrast to the dark stain in my memory. I am somehow miserably blissful, happy about the beauty of being a human and the capability to love and at the same time painfully aware of the fragility of those moments. I wanted to capture that feeling in a jar, save it and keep it as a reminder – that’s how ‘Dancing (Mumbai Wedding)’ came about.”
“Queendom” by Aurora
As an artist who released a 2016 debut album called All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend and has been described as a “Norwegian prodigy” (Triple J), Aurora is clearly not afraid of going there.
That’s reflected in “Queendom” which tackles bigotry head-on with a song that she describes thus:
— AURORA (@AURORAmusic) April 16, 2018
Musically there’s an extravagantly otherworldly sound to the song that is never less than propulsively-upbeat and declarative, awash in a gloriously-uplifting beat and melody that fits the inclusiveness of the lyrics to a welcoming tee.
“Yeah Right“ by CHINAH
Hailing from the capital of Denmark, Copenhagen, CHINAH is a three-piece band (singer and songwriter Fine Glindvad, guitarist Simon Kjær and electronic musician and pianist Simon Andersson) that knows its way around a highly emotionally-evocative tune.
Take “Yeah Right” from their forthcoming debut album due to drop later this year, that bristles with a gloriously-dark melody that prowls and stalks you, vocals light and airy and yet replete with all kinds of beautiful, portentous intent.
Or as We Are: The Guard rather poetically puts it …
“The song is without a doubt the Copenhagen trio’s darkest offering to date, with beats and sub-bass forming beneath Fine Glindvad’s vocals like electrical storm clouds. Zigzagging synths and a solo from guitarist Simon Kjær, meanwhile, both rain down like neon lightning, resulting in a kind of experimental pop tempest that we can’t get enough of.”
There’s a gothic grandeur to its distorted, robust fragility, a sense of being drawn into a tale replete with lines as epically-imaginative as “You’re my fear and my candy” that is relentless but deliciously laid back all at once.
It’s one-of-a-kind, brilliantly-original music and it will own your soul in all the best ways.
“Panic Attack” by Elohim feat. Yoshi Flower (DENM remix)
Falling in love the good old-fashioned, boots-and-all, head-over-heels way is a pretty wonderful experience.
Just ask English singer/songwriter/record producer Uzoechi Osisioma “Uzo” Emenike, known professionally as MNEK, whose song “Colour”, featuring American actress and singer Hailee Steinfeld (soon to be in Bumblebee, what looks eerily like a good Transformers movie) is all about the technicolours wonders and glory of falling in love.
To be fair, if you haven’t fallen in love quite this completely and absolutely, you may not totally relate to the lyrically exuberant celebration of love sweet love but you surely can’t just sit there – go on, just try and do it – while this wildly joyful song does it’s ever-escalating danceable thing.
The melody is off-kilter Caribbean, augmented with all sort of blissfully-lovely distorted bells-and-whistles and the two sound like naturals together, aglow in love’s rainbow-washed glow.
This is love writ large and visible from space and lordy if MNEK and Steinfeld don’t make it feel the best thing ever.
“Missing U” by Robyn
It may hard to believe but one of the most innovative pop artists ever, and yes, I do mean ever, Sweden’s Robyn has hadn’t a single all her own for eight long years.
Sure she’s collaborated with heaps of other artists – Neneh Cherry, the late Christian Falk, Todd Rundgren and Röyksopp – but a song that’s just hers? You have to go back to 2010’s AMAZING Body Talk LP.
Happily, her new single, “Missing U” returns Robyn to her cring in the disco roots as Variety happily notes:
“Before ‘Crying in the Club’ was the title of a Camila Cabello song, it was Robyn’s entire ethos, if not registered trademark. In the eight years since the Swede released a proper solo album, no one has quite recaptured the combination of b.p.m. and pathos she perfected in the run-up to the turn of the last decade. Now she’s back with ‘Missing U’, the abbreviated title of which suggests the university-level course in loss and regret it delivers.”
Does it deliver? Oh how it delivers as Variety once again beautifully explains:
“[The song is] basically the sound of a bass drum being struck steadily for pretty much the entire 4 minutes and 51 seconds. But there’s not a lot of skimping in the rest of the production, which cycles through bittersweetly grandiose synth loops to meet Robyn at the depths and heights of her despair. It’s the partial handiwork of longtime collaborator Klas Ahlund, who worked on both her self-titled masterpiece ‘Robyn’ (2005) and the EP-combining patchwork ‘Body Talk’ (2010), along with Joseph Mount of the electronic music group Metronomy. And it’s a welcome return to somewhat traditional pop form after her mid-decade collaborative efforts took her in more experimental directions.”
Now all we have to do is wait for the eighth album to appear which hopefully won’t be eight years hence because Robyn’s music is, for all its pathos, a highlight of anyone’s day.
“I’m Good” by Wafia
An Australian singer songwriter of Iraqi-Syrian origin, Wafia, or Wafia Al_Rakibi to her friends and family, has crafted a superlatively-good post-breakup song.
Experiencing something of an epiphany about her ex, which let’s face it happens to most us, just not this eloquently, she details all the reasons, to a brilliantly-insistent beat, why she’s so much better with the person who put her through hell and was no good.
Now, you don’t usually feel that great in the aftermath of a failed romance but in this instance Wafia is fairly cock-a-hoop, striding the streets of her neighbourhood with the sort of confidence that comes from having dodged a giant heart-shaped bullet.
Not at all possess this breezy joie de vivre after the end of love less-than-sweet love, and let’s be honest maybe Wafia didn’t until this therapeutic song poured from her, but if you’re stuck in the bluesy mess of romance gone wrong, especially if it was with someone who was way less than ideal, then this song is your ticket to clear-eyed 20/20 hindsight and sweet, sweet release.
Sass your way to healing people!
“3 Nights” by Dominic Fike
Lordy but this track, and the 22-year-old Naples, Florida-resident artist who gives it seductive life, is the stuff of emotionally-resonant musical catchiness.
“3 Nights” may have been criticised by Pitchfork as “harmless to fault” and “neither soothing nor pleasant” but honestly, it’s an infectiously-fun piece of what We Are: The Guard says “oozes with a kind of laid-back vibe that’s nothing short of infectious”.
The song is a sweetly-honest musing on the unrequited love, the lead track on Don’t Forget About Me, Demos, released on Columbia Records after a reported $4 million signing follow the mind of bidding war that creative types of any stripe dream of being inside of.
With just this song to go on right now, Fike has a bright future, possessed of a charmingly-dusky voice, a lyrical ability to playfully explore relationships in all their messy glory, and a knack for melodic beats that burrow under your skin and stay there, much like the object of his attraction.
“Marry Me” by Farao
Have you ever longed to erase all your memories, Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-like, and move on with life like the past never happened?
Norwegian artist Farao aka Kari Jahnsen certainly has, or at last had back in 2015 when she was interviewed by Noisey about her debut LP, Till It’s All Forgotten, and while it’s now three years and another album, Pure-O, later, it’s fair to say that the artist from a small village of just 500 people, remains as in touch with her emotions and how they can bless and pay havoc with your life in equal measure.
“Marry Me”, one of this year’s explorations of the human condition, remains as on point, with some luscious disco-influenced pop underpinnings, as her previous work, reflecting on how something as rose-tinted lovely as marriage can have some darker undertones:
“‘Marry Me’ is about the neurotic impulse to want to possess a person through the institution of marriage, ultimately trying to escape yourself by attaching to others.” (We Are: The Guard)
The good thing is that as you ponder the truth of these words, and come on we’ve all known someone for whom this is true, you can dance too, a happy, ahem, marriage of introspective lyrics and upbeat music that works an absolute treat.
“If It’s Over (ft. Charli XCX)” by MØ
Losing someone you love with all your heart, can be a devastating blow; in response, you can either fall into a great big tub of ice cream and mountains of pizza, never to emerge until it’s all self-therapeutically eaten, or, and this seems like the healthier approach, take a leaf out of Danish singer-songwriter-record producer MØ’s book of life and rather stridently shrug your shoulders and declare “If it’s over then it’s over, I don’t want you back”.
Karen Marie Aagaard Ørsted Andersen, as she’s known to family and friends, is coldly-dismissive; clearly hurt has happened but she’s chosen to taken the decision by her lover to end things as gospel and definitive and is refusing to playing any kinds of games in the emotionally-horrific aftermath.
She is, according to GQ, a passionate person who dives headfirst into life, and “If It’s Over” reflects that, replete with the kind of heady moving on vibe that many of us wish we could replace the ice cream and pizza with (tasty though that all is).
The song reflects a life philosophy that, according to the artists herself (again from GQ), rests liberatingly on the idea that “If I’m not myself it’s not gonna work”, a heady antidote to the cloying need to cling tightly to someone or something when it’s obvious it’s done and dusted and there’s nothing to do but move on with life and carpe diem the hell out of things, broken heart be damned.
“Rank & File” by Moses Sumney
Hailing from Los Angeles, Moses Sumney, apart from possessing a wholly memorable name, is adept at serving up seductively blissful R & B.
In the case of “Rank & File” however, the impetus and sound are different, inspired, so says We Are: The Guard, “by a protest rally that the Los Angeles artist attended following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.”
The subject matter, and the passion behind it, has imbued this track with an electrifying energy, which feels like a musically-set conversation about one of the most pressing issues of our time.
Sumney has succeeded brilliantly in delivering an upbeat, listenable track that roils and twists with what Pitchfork calls “martial protest music framed in a booming call-and-response style.”
It’s message is vitally important, the music driving and impelling and Sumney is an impressive artist of our time combining political messaging with the perfect delivery time that can’t help but get people to sit up and take notice.
“Baby I’m a Queen” by Sofi Tukker
Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern, the New York-based members of musical duo Sofi Tukker (no prizes for guessing the derivation of the band’s name!) have got gloriously-imaginative attitude to burn.
Everything from the bristlingly exuberant chutzpah of their songs to their vibrantly colourful, fun-filled videos radiate the kind of strong sense of artistic self that makes certain artists utterly unmissable.
How strong their identity is immediately obvious in the danceably-upbeat in “Baby, I’m a Queen” which Hawley-Weld describes this way:
“It’s sending a message that I’m ready to say, ‘I’m not being belittled by default in relationships.’ It’s embracing the crazy, chaotic nature of ourselves and emotions, which is really important right now.” (Variety)
The song is in-your-face fast-moving synth-dance heaven and the clip – well, if you’ve ever wondered what it would look like if a beauty pageant ended in a full-on paint fight, you now have your answer.
“Move” may be the debut single for L.A.-based singer/songwriter Jesse Saint John, but his history in the music industry goes back a long way, with the distinctive-looking and sounding artist having worked with likes of Britney Spears (“Love Me Down”) and Charli XCX (“Cloud Aura” feat. Brooke Candy), and Sia.
As part of stepping out of the background and into the limelight, the artist has crafted an incredibly infectious, upbeat that Interview Magazine has winningly described this way:
“Saint John’s debut single ‘Move’, released recently, is an adrenaline rush of a song with shades of The Ting Tings, Uffie, and The All-American Rejects. It’s bombastic, hedonistic, whimsical and totally sure of itself, a blast of flavorful pop-rock ear candy that makes me wish I was of legal age in 2005, so I could’ve experienced these sounds on the dance floor with a can of Sparks in my hand.”
That’s quite an accolade for a song that came with some pretty cool, decade-specific inspiration.
“When I was approaching writing for myself, I found myself inspired by a lot of ’90s cinema, quirky, dangerous, wild films — like Go and Doom Generation. It felt energetically driven and somewhat icy and desolate, but still so fun.” (Billboard)
It’s all that and more, an driving piece of engaging pop redolent with all kinds of emotions and insight that is the perfect introductory calling for this pleasingly one-of-a-kind artist.
“Now or Never Now” by Metric
There is such a rich, powerful vivacity to the music of Canadian rock band Metric, made up of Emily Haines (lead vocals, synthesizers, guitar, tambourine, harmonica, piano), James Shaw (guitar, synthesizers, theremin, backing vocals), Joshua Winstead (bass, synthesizers, backing vocals) and Joules Scott-Key (drums, percussion).
Every song, including recent single “Now or Never”, resonates with emotional honesty, melodies of substance and beauty and the arrestingly-affecting vocals of Haines who has one of those distinctive voices that catches your attention every time.
I like the way We Are: The Guard describes the song, capturing everything that’s good about it, and indeed about the way this wholly-original band does:
“… the latest single to be unveiled from the Toronto band’s forthcoming album Art of Doubt is nothing short of steeped in arena-sized grandiosity, with lush synths and guitars sprawling beneath the signature world-weary ruminations of lead singer Emily Haines. TL/DR: It’s epic.”
The key word here is “epic” and of course that nails the sound of Metric; but more than a sense of arresting grandiosity, the band pours all the emotions you could ask for, a penetrating insight into the human condition and melodies that won’t take no for an answer into music that dominates your ears, heart and soul in the very best of ways.
- I have just picked 20 songs but The Guardian? They went for 100 and you can check them out there.