Kanye West was already the king of rap and hip hop, but on 808s & Heartbreak he made his first attempt at world domination. Dispensing with chipmunk soul, horn heavy samples and wildly layered tracks, West stripped down to primitive drums and cold, isolating electronic noise, further alienating things by singing through auto-tune. When he premiered Love Lockdown, with its taiko drumming and sparse sonic landscape, then paired it with a his first full ventures into high art presentation, it vaulted him into the all-conquering stratosphere that he has inhabited ever since.
The moment Joe Mount stepped out with a crew was the moment he properly announced himself to the musical world. Having previously released an album’s worth of instrumental, indie electronic on his own, Heartbreaker threw open the doors on the cold, alluring pop sound he’d be known for and never looked back. Cruel and catchy, it’s a style that is now inseparable from the man behind it, one that heralds the arrival of one of the most unique and important voices in British music today.
While Fat White Family marked their sonic sea change with Whitest Boy on the Beach, the true sign that something very different was brewing came with the surprise release of their Christmas song The Drones. Although it does audibly predict several songs on the band’s second album Songs For Our Mothers, including Hits Hits Hits and When Shipman Decides, the text is the far more intriguing development. Fat White Family are inextricably linked with politics, but their music had, in a way, remained largely apolitical. Or rather, it was political in form but not directly in content. Lias Saoudi and Saul Adamczewski had predominantly focused on the abject in their performances, their production and their lyrics as a form of political protest. But here, for the first time but not the last, the band are highly specific. In a song that recalls the great protest pieces of Phil Ochs, the group call out George Osborne and Margaret Thatcher by name, as well as the unending remote wars being waged in the Middle East. And the band doesn’t couch these lyrics in noise or chaos. Instead, they’re front and center in a soft, beautiful lullaby. It’s a song that requires patience, but the payoff is worth it. After delivering a mournful rebuke of abusers of power, the band come to a painful, but somehow hopeful conclusion:
When the war is over/And the drones are safe and warm/On this special night/On this special night/I will die
On their first album, Peace had an identity crisis. They showed promise, for sure, but it seemed like they didn’t quite know who they wanted to be. That all changed with World Pleasure, the massive release off their sophomore album. The band said they blew the whole album’s budget on the song and it shows. It’s also 100% worth it. It’s a blistering Madchester groove that goes on for ages, but never overstays its welcome. With shades of Fool’s Gold, it’s no surprise that the band chose it as the outro to their heavily psychedelic album. It all begins with slinky, slithering guitars before some solidly funky bass takes center stage. Lead singer Harry Koisser has found a new confidence too, with playful, peacocking lyrics:
Please don’t send me off to war/That’s not what my body’s for Maybe I was not born brave/Maybe I was born Good Lookin’
It doesn’t matter how many times I’v heard this song, the timing and delivery of that lyric will always make me smile. World Pleasure may be highly derivative, but damned if it isn’t fun. It’s the sound of a band having a great time and finding their identity. It’s also one of the best tunes to dance to in decades.
If the last thing you expected from pseudo-fascist, Danish post-punk brats Iceage to do for their third album was go all country, welcome to the club. The band successfully left their old selves in the dust and blazed a stellar trail onward with Plowing Into The Field Of Love. Their first single from the album, The Lord’s Favorite, was a left field shocker in the best possible way. The cowpunk stunner opens with a rockabilly rattle before plunging into a ramshackle chaos that shouldn’t work at all but somehow does brilliantly. It also sees lead singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt doing his best Nick Cave impression, brooding and demanding as he declares he is God’s favorite. Yet he’s also vulnerable, opening with the lines: You’re probably the only one, yet it’s hard to admit, that can save me/And I never like to ask for a helping hand, but I do now. The writing here is lightyears above the band’s previous albums, poetic and honest in surprising ways, vivid in its detail. Just look at how he describes his savior after a shambolic night out: Her cheap, sweat-smother makeup makes her face/look as if dissolving yet full of grace. Rønnenfelt credits being more comfortable writing in English, but he’s clearly grown in other ways. It’s the type of song that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, utterly enthralling and surprising. By the time Rønnenfelt declares, “I think I am the only one breathing on this planet tonight,” you know exactly what he means. That’s how alive the song makes you feel.
Before churning out three albums worth of critically respected indie pop, The Maccabees were known for saccharine-sweet songs like Toothpaste Kisses which, in retrospect, are almost unlistenable. It’s not to say that there’s no place in the world for such songs, but once you know what the band is capable of, it’s tough to endorse their earliest material. Everything changed when they released No Kind Words, the first single off sophomore LP Wall of Arms. It’s spare and mysterious, showing off a considerably moodier side of frontman Orlando Weeks. Opening with crisp, lonely drums before adding a needling bass and detached vocals, it’s clear The Maccabees have something different in store. What results is an accusatory second person narrative that has more in common with late-era Foals or Arcade Fire than contemporaries Mumford & Sons. It quickly transforms into an angular, post-punk delight that upended expectations for the group. While the band didn’t completely abandon its sweet side on subsequent albums, the work that came after the tonal breakthrough of No Kinds Words was uniformly more complex and considered than the ad campaign ready pop pieces of its first release.
After posting yesterday’s cover, it occurred to me, much to my surprise, that I have not yet written about The Horrors. They are one of the relatively few bands that have managed to forge a completely new path for themselves after being pigeonholed at the beginning of their career, much like Radiohead managed with The Bends. And as with most artists who make such a transition, the moment at which they won over the hearts and minds of critics is easy to pinpoint. The band’s debut album, Strange House, was a cartoonish goth-punk affair that leaned heavily on Edward Gorey, Screaming Lord Sutch and Joe Meek (even after three respectable albums, it’s hard to find a band picture that isn’t a tad laughable). It was entertaining, but seemingly left them nowhere to go. Enter Sea Within A Sea. The band smartly released the sprawling track in anticipation of their album Primary Colors, setting a wholly new tone and winning the awe of just about everyone that heard it. The swirling, psychedelic-inspired track earned every second of its almost eight minute runtime. It’s a methodical build that featured Faris Badwan’s newly dreamy, distant vocal stylings and a smartly managed cacophony of fresh sounds. Elegiac without being mopey, the strobing tune rises and falls and grows again until settling into a crystalline momentum that takes it through the end. The band pushes without rushing, forcing the listener’s patience, but never trying it. The confidence they have found is especially impressive, allowing them to craft a luminous and endlessly compelling track that set the tone for the rest of their careers.
The Horrors are another group that have long made their admiration for Alan Vega known. They seem to have modeled not only their music after his work, but also the creative trajectory of their career in some ways. They released an official cover of Shadazz, but it’s the live version of Ghost Rider that they used to perform as an encore that fat better captured Vega’s spirit.
MGMT have long made known their love of Alan Vega. They featured Suicide’s Cheree on their stellar LateNightTales collection and it’s easy to see the influence of both his sound and his spirit in their records. Following his death they released a convincing and heartfelt cover of his Goodbye Darling, from Saturn Strip.
Alan Vega was nearing 60 by the time he released Cubist Blues with perennial underachiever Alex Chilton and Ben Vaughn. After years of honing his pop sensibilities, the album sees Vega return to the sprawling work of his early records. Fly Away is a jazzy, stream of consciousness, often spoken word piece that is interested in exploring its own crevices. While it’s become somewhat of a cliché for artists to venture into more free form explorations of music in the later stages of their career, for Vega it is actually a return to his explosive, confrontational days in Suicide. Ideas are stretched to their limit, redrawn and re-examined. Vega remains fully engaged too (despite the heavy sprechstimme), unlike many artists for whom “loose” ends up meaning “lazy.” There’s still menace and meaning in the work. It still feels vital. That is perhaps the one thing that you could say about all of Vega’s music, no matter the style or era: it was always supremely alive.