Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
This year was already off to a pretty good start, musically speaking, but at some point around the beginning of last month things really started popping off. By which I mean we started getting a steady stream of bright, shiny, undeniable capital-P Pop music, the kind of stuff that’s going to become truly indispensable / inescapable come summertime – which, for all intents and purposes is basically already here – and which will likely wind up defining 2018 in our memories forevermore. And I’m digging it! First off, we got Cardi B’s debut album, Invasion of Privacy, which was not just a major cultural event but also way more fun than I would’ve expected, and has been rightly celebrated as such across the board. (Truly, if you haven’t at least heard the made-for-the-summer Latin-pop sizzler “I Like It,” featuring Bad Bunny & J. Balvin, do yourself the favor – also, she’s coming to town in September with Bruno Mars.) Then there was Drake, of course, replacing himself at the top of the charts with “Nice For What” and having more fun than he’s had in ages (maybe ever?), even if at least half of the song’s appeal is down to that Lauryn Hill sample. (He’s also got an album on the way, and a just-announced September Philly date with Migos.)
More importantly though, following a series of truly epic single/video releases – and accompanied by an equally brilliant 45-minute visual companion piece – we got Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, which from where I’m sitting feels like an unmitigated pop masterpiece on a level we haven’t heard in a very long time; the clearest and most focused expression yet of Monae’s audaciously wide-ranging vision and obviously virtuosic talents. I’ve been jamming it non-stop for the last two weeks, and there’s no end of hits in sight. I’m clearly not alone here – the album has a 91 average rating on Metacritic (the second-highest of any 2018 album) – and yet I still feel like it’s being underrated.
But those are just the most obvious, bleedingly-essential bangers. Read on (and follow along on our trusty ol’ Spotify playlist) for a fine-toothed trawl through some of the sharpest recent pop music, of all stripes, shapes and sizes and from all corners of the globe and/or internet. Who’s ready to party?
Confidence Man – “Bubblegum”
Let’s kick things off with a track from what I’m gonna call right now is the Party Album of the Year™, made by this Australian band you’ve never heard of. I realize that’s a potentially bold claim to be making in a year when Andrew WK, high priest of Partying, made a new album (and it’s pretty fun, and also he’s gonna be at Union Transfer next Monday!) Also, as established, Dirty Computer is hands-down the 2018 album to beat, and it’s obviously a total party too – but it’s also so much more than that it’s not really fair. Anyway, whatever: Confident Music for Confident People is – as fellow antipodean funmongers The Avalanches once memorably said – so [goddamn] party you will die. It even has a song that’s literally about going to the Party Of The Year, so that clinches it, right?
But these saucy Aussies are not about being better than anybody else – and they’re not about being cool either – they’re just about being as much fun as humanly possible. And they are FUN, fun like Fatboy Slim, Scissor Sisters, Chromeo, Tiga, Deee-Lite, Fun Beck, the B-52s, Screamadelica, Tom Tom Club… you get the gist. I could go on: the instantly indelible lead-off track (not even a single) “Try Your Luck” reminds me of both Black Leotard Front’s DFA classic “Casual Friday” and David Byrne/X-Press 2’s “Lazy“. This one here reminds me of Annie’s “Chewing Gum,” for obvious and less-obvious reasons, and also of gloriously dumb 1960s organ-riff party-pop by dopey nonentities like The Swingin’ Medallions. (It also, among numerous more typically pleasurable noises, incessantly features that one note you get by blowing on a recorder without covering any of the holes – and it makes that fun too!) But you don’t need all or even any of those reference points to enjoy this… and you don’t need to be particularly confident either, so don’t be deterred. You just need some ears, and maybe some hips. Oh and lips – lips would be good too. *pop!*
Kylie – “A Lifetime to Repair”
And since we’re popping down under, why not check in on… Kylie Ann Minogue, OBE, who’s embodied a nigh unreproachable gold standard for platonically pure dance-pop – not just in Australasia but internationally – for an improbably long time. Her closest and most obvious American counterpart, Madonna, has made plenty of missteps and dubious moves over the past twenty years or so, but the worst you can really say for Kylie’s 21st century output is that her last effort, 2014’s Kiss Me Once, was fairly flat and faceless (and featured no fewer than three songs based around cringeworthy plays on the word “sex.”) Otherwise, every project since her godlike 2001 high-water-mark Fever (a major stepping-stone along my own personal poptimist journey) has, at a minimum, delivered an immediately iconic lead single, and typically a good deal more.
Golden, which arrives a full three decades after her debut LP, readily fits that bill in the form of “Dancing,” which joins Tracey Thorn’s “Dancefloor” as another anthemic 2018 affirmation that there is indeed (night)life after 50. (Well okay, Minogue’s only 49.) The album also has more of a distinct musical identity than most Minogue records, in that it was recorded in Nashville and boasts a bucketload of boot-scootin’ two-steps. It’s not a full-on “Kylie goes kountrie” makeover – the songs (all of which she co-wrote) remain fundamentally dance-pop, with some Music Row seasoning sprinkled in – but the look is less superficial than, say, the cowgirl hat and rhinestones Madonna sported for 2000’s Music (which, incidentally, was more or less my poptimist Great Awakening.) Key theme-park rides include the title track’s absurd/awesome interpolation of the Morricone “howl” from The Good The Bad and The Ugly (yeah I know, that’s western, not country) and the gorgeous mid-tempo glide “Shelby ’68,” whose invocation of a specific vintage Mustang model (which her dad apparently owned) is the album’s Nashvillest lyrical move. But this heartsore hoedown-in-the-dumps might be the album’s most earnestly achy-breaky synthesis, balancing its folksy banjos’n’fingersnaps verses with a fiddle-slathered, stadium-stomp sing-along chorus – triggered by a goofy ear-worm countdown — which ain’t Beyoncé, but it’s cute!
Kali Uchis – “Your Teeth in My Neck”
I’ve been following this hard-to-pin-down VA-via-Colombia alt-pop/R&B songstress for a while now, since somebody turned me on to her slinky 2015 single “Ridin’ Round” – she first graced this column a few months ago via the swaggering Miguel team-up “Caramelo Dur” – although I sadly missed her set opening for Lana Del Rey in January. But I didn’t really know what to expect from her long-percolating debut album, which dropped last month. Isolation turns out to be an expansive, seductive and self-assured statement of purpose, folding funk, dancehall, retro-soul and reggaeton into a stylishly psychedelic, polyglot pop vision broad enough to integrate contributions from Bootsy Collins, Tyler the Creator, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Thundercat and collaborator-king Damon Albarn. Highlights abound, but for sheer pop spark it’s hard to beat this slyly deceptive, slightly Badu-esque jam. It opens in a languid, SoCal-sounding half-time daze – a vibe explored more fully elsewhere on the album – but that’s a fake-out, as the song’s primary, tight, nimbly skipping groove soon reveals. Likewise, the title might suggest a steamy come-on, but it turns out to be more of a metaphor for the vampiric, soul-sucking nature of the music industry (and the world in general.) Uchis’ delivery of the title phrase, however, is neither recriminatory nor particularly sultry, but a rather nonchalant, jazzy warble. Keep on guessing.
Daphne & Celeste – “Taking Notes”
One of the great footnotes in the annals of millennial teen-pop is (was?) the brief and wondrous career of the absurdly outrageous insult-bubblegum novelty duo Daphne and Celeste. Though American, they were much better known in the UK, where they scored a couple of hits (“U.G.L.Y” and “Ooh Stick You!”), released one album (2000’s We Didn’t Say That) and, perhaps most notoriously, were bottled mercilessly at the 2000 Reading festival (a YouTube classic), after which they disappeared from public view and, largely, from memory (save for the cultish veneration of certain online pop nerds.) A mere eighteen years later, they’ve returned with their second album – Daphne and Celeste Save the World – thanks in large measure to the equally outrageous (but much more mild-mannered) British electronic-pop mad-scientist Max Tundra, who wrote and produced the album. (Tundra’s last record, the now decade-old Parallax Error Beheads You, is a solid five-star album in my book, so this is an exciting occasion indeed.)
Thankfully – I think – it sounds a lot more like Tundra than what you might otherwise imagine from a D&C comeback effort; not at all surprisingly, it’s pretty darn weird. There are an array of possible entry points, including lead single “You and I Alone” (the most straightforward pop song here) and the curiously heartfelt piano ballad “Song to A Succulent” (can’t believe I missed this one for my “gardening” mini-theme last month), which is oh-so-Tundra in its references to both biology and filmmaking. But this one’s probably more representative, and suggests an intriguing bridge to the duo’s musical past while also offering a bit of lyrical autobiography. It opens up with a stripped-down grimy beat and patter-rapped rhymes taking shots at music-biz copycats and bootleggers (with a couple of Outkast references I can’t quite catch), before blossoming into glorious, harmonically dense sunshine glitch-pop with a loop-de-looping melodic line explaining how we got to this point: “always knew that we would meet again before the end / D&C – we’re so extrasensory.”
Putochinomaricón – “Tú No Eres Activista”
As you might perhaps glean from his charmingly blunt moniker (essentially, “fucking chink fag”), Chenta Tsai Tseng is a queer, Chinese-born Madrileño with an impish punk spirit and a bent for biting social critique. What you might not guess is that his approach to brightly giddy, meticulously crafted electronic pop is every bit as uncompromising and in-your-face. Already a notable figure in certain corners of the social media-verse, Putochinomaricón’s first proper release, Corazón De Cerdo Con Ginseng Al Vapor (part of Elefant Records’ New Adventures in Pop series) finds him whipping through eight dazzling digi-pop firecrackers in a mere eighteen minutes, weaving together strands of electro-disco, Shibuya-kei, the bubblegum bass hyperpop of PC Music & associates, and a pinch of subverted Latin-balladeer romanticism along with chiptune, dancehall-flecked Biebercore trop-trap, even a neo-new-wave slow-jam that could share a throwback prom montage with Skye Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Warm Blood.” This frenetically hooky head-bobber, chipper as it is, is the record’s angriest-sounding track, containing perhaps its most overt and broadly applicable takedowns (the chorus translates as: “you’re not an activist / you only know how to share / news on your wall / that you didn’t even click”), but it’s hardly the only glittering, gleefully-deployed snarkbomb in Chenta’s arsenal.
Burna Boy – “Streets of Africa”
The next stop on our world tour of cartoonish electro-pop mayhem brings us to Africa, or less generically Lagos, where this Nigerian dancehall/afrobeats prince – whose recent exploits include getting co-opted/ripped off by Drake and collaborating with Jidenna and, er, Fall Out Boy – tells us all about how sunny and cheery and happy-all-day it is to live in his homeland, over what is basically an incessantly-looped ice-cream-truck jingle (although…it’s not quite at this level of obnoxious – wow, had forgotten about that!) Which sounds pretty dodgy, I know – and it’s probably not without its sly sliver of irony – but eh, who cares when it’s this dang delirious. There’s always a place for the kind of purely goofy, ebullient, first-day-of-summer feels this evokes – all the more so now that it’s actually (practically) summer, as opposed to January which is when Burna’s thoroughly enjoyable album/mixtapeOutside first dropped. Featuring this might be doing a slight disservice to the rest of the tape, which is far smoother and less doofy, and includes worthy and infectious features from both rising Brit-rapper J Hus (who apparently got his nickname selling donuts on the playground!) and the long-absent Lily Allen (new album coming soon!), who knows a thing or two about ice-cream-jingle pop herself. By the way, apropos of Burna boasting about being “Fela Kuti with the hos” – it turns out Burna’s grandfather was Fela Kuti’s manager, so I guess he knows what he’s talking about?
Burna Boy plays Underground Arts on Thursday May 31st.
Solly Sebotso – “Rampoka”
A decidedly different vision of the “streets of Africa” – sonically, at least, if not necessarily in attitude – emerges on I’m Not Here To Hunt Rabbits, a fascinating and deeply enjoyable new compilation from Piranha Records which documents a style of guitar-playing that is wholly unique to a small community of players in Botswana. To get a fuller sense of what’s going on, its worth checking out some of theYouTube videos that first brought this music to international attention, recorded and posted by a Dutch aid worker and musician who’s lived in the country since 1979. But you just need to hear a few seconds of “Rampoka,” the compilation’s ably representative lead-off track and first single, to catch the spirit. And, much like the other half-dozen musicians represented on the album, Solly Sebotso only needs four strings – his thumb plucking out bass notes on one; his fingers reaching over top of a horizontal fretboard to tap out brightly resonant chords on the other three – to concoct a deliriously infectious, danceable groove.
Parquet Courts – “Wide Awake”
Parquet Courts are probably not most folks’ notion of a party band, but the title track of their Danger Mouse-abetted new album (seventh? fourth? it’s getting hard to count…) – which comes out this Friday – cooks up an impressively limber, rubbery funk gumbo (with a goofy, New Orleans-shot video to match.) It finds them stepping out of their spiky indie-rock comfort zone to summon the hip-shaking immediacy of punk-funk firebrands like Optimo and A Certain Ratio, and setting aside their more nuanced, cerebral lyrical tendencies to bark out semi-circular elaborations of the title phrase (“mind so woke ‘cause my brain is sharp as a blade!”) which aren’t too hard to interpret as potshots at our contemporary dialectic of “wokeness” (not unlike the Putochinomaricón cut I featured above.) Despite the jaunty, headless jazz-handers on the record’s cover, “Wide Awake” is not particularly indicative of the sound of its eponymous album – most of which does what they more typically do, and does it very well – but it’s a damn fun diversion while it lasts.
Parquet Courts took the stage at World Cafe Live last night as part of the 2018 NonCommvention, and they’ll bring their full, reliably entertaining live show back to Union Transfer on Friday June 8th.
DJ Koze – “Pick Up”
In 2004, Stefan Kozalla dropped a DJ mix entitled All People Is My Friends – a playfully eclectic set, released on Kompakt, that centered around but also strayed liberally beyond the svelte minimal techno for which the label was so widely ballyhooed – and that off-kilter locution could well serve as an unofficial slogan for his output ever since. First, because of the sheer number and diversity of people he’s collaborated with / sampled / woven into his mixes – 2013’s magnificent Amygdala enlisted fellow-travelers like Ada, Caribou, Matthew Dear and Rhye’s Milosh, while his miraculous DJ-Kicks mix a few years back somehow made tracks by Broadcast, abstract-rap oddballs cLOUDDEAD and William Shatner all feel like the work of one artist – and secondly because he makes some of the friendliest music out there, electronic or otherwise: warm, vibrant, light-hearted, laid-back and, well, cozy.
Knock Knock, his brand new album, embodies both of these tendencies to the fullest: its nearly eighty-minute runtime is the aural equivalent of a long, luxuriant soak in a tub well-stocked with curious and colorful bath toys, and its ample guest list brings together José González, Róisín Murphy, Bon Iver, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner and Speech from Arrested Development. But even when he’s not collaborating with anyone in real time, Koze is rarely entirely alone: much as the familiar voice of Marvin Gaye drifted in partway through Amygdala, this album centerpiece swirls around an understated sample of Gladys Knight’s tear-stained “Neither One Of Us.” Knight’s voice forms the slightly blurred focal point for what is essentially a hypnotically minimalist disco edit, endlessly looping a few sprightly seconds from Melba Moore’s 1978 jam “Pick Me Up (I’ll Dance.)” As the track’s wry, fittingly understated video puts it, this scarcity of musical means engenders a “deep feeling of happiness…because…brain already has too much information.” A true pick-me-up, indeed.
Shakarchi and Stranéus – “Path Mountain Square”
Aside from the clearly simpatico Koze, the Stockholm-based Studio Barnhus has been responsible for some of the most colorful, playfully irreverent house music of the past several years, including excellent albums by the label/studio co-founders Axel Boman and Kornél Kovács. Steal Chickens From Men and the Future From God, the fabulously-titled first full-length from the long-running Gothenburg duo of Daniel Stranéus and Faik Shakarchi, follows in that worthy tradition, except that in this case it really only reads as house music about half the time. Elsewhere, the duo dabble around with assorted Caribbean and Middle Eastern rhythms and sounds, among others. Or they concoct their own dreamy, elusive hybrids, as on this cheerfully kinetic, sample-based groove collage, a sort of deconstructed filter-disco fantasia that navigates its way between several disparate conceptions of “swing.” The track’s periodic vocal snippet, bangin’ 808 cowbells and skittering drum loop keep threatening to erupt into full-on hip-house, but they’re held back and counterbalanced by a wash of syrupy, anachronistic orchestration of the sort sometimes favored by The Avalanches and, especially, early Daedelus – both salient reference points here. Crispy!
Daniel Avery – “Slow Fade”
Jon Hopkins – “Everything Connected”
Rival Consoles – “Unfolding”
And for those of you who like your electronic music with a whole lot less personality… it’s been a great month for a particular strain of elegantly moody, muted British designer techno. First off, acid-rave revivalist Daniel Avery made his somewhat-awaited return with a sophomore album, Song For Alpha, that swaps out the bruising, club-friendly bangers for something much more downtempo and dour – the lovely, haze-drenched advance single “Slow Fade” offered a reliable indication of his new direction in both its self-explanatory title and woozy, glacial swirl (there’s a breakbeat in there somewhere, but it’s on the verge of drowning.) The new record puts him in similar territory to fellow 2013 breakout star Jon Hopkins, who also returned, earlier this month, to follow up his spotless, much-admired Immunity with the highly familiar (and, as such, rather inaccurately titled) Singularity: willfully cinematic, cosmically colossal in its evocative reach, and unfailingly bloodless. “Everything Connected,” epic in scope and length – and full of Hopkins’ signature crunchy, mechanistic beats and blipping trance hemiolas – is the record’s bumpin’est cut, serving as both a punctuation mark on its livelier first side and, intermittently, a bridge to the glossy ambient of the back half.
Less hailed but in some ways more intriguing than either of those producers (though definitely in the same wheelhouse), their fellow Londoner Ryan Lee West – a.k.a. Rival Consoles – has made an unlikely but increasingly apt home on the largely modern classical-oriented Erased Tapes imprint. His newest, Persona (apparently inspired by the Bergman film, though I’ll have to take his word for it) covers considerable textural and emotional ground, even in the space of a single cut – like the opener, which comes on a lot more forcefully than you’d expect from a track called “Unfolding.” The juddering, dramatically tense opening motif, while setting up a quivering a pulse that carries us most of the way through, also gives way to moments of delicate, almost Reichian interplay, and we wind up somewhere much brighter and twinklier than where we began.
Simian Mobile Disco featuring Deep Throat Choir – “Hey Sister”
Ordinarily I’d be tempted to lump Simian Mobile Disco in there with that gaggle of hermetic Londonian sound-design technicians – their trajectory over most of the past ten years would certainly warrant it – but their just-released seventh album, Murmurations, represents a striking and welcome curveball in their catalog. It’s been a long way around for these guys from the populist, party-starting electro-house of their 2007 debut and its underwhelming, guest-studded follow-up. Since then, they’ve delved down a rabbit-hole of ever more austere, clinical and inward-facing analog techno – some of it thrilling (see 2010’s cracking Deliciacies), and still highly potent in a live setting (as 2013’s career-spanning Livedocuments well), but increasingly difficult to get all that excited about. The new album, then, marks a considerable break: a vocal-oriented collaboration with the indie-hip all-female Deep Throat Choir, and a full-on concept record, inspired by the towering “cloud formations” of flocks of starlings – a seemingly esoteric premise that actually makes total, beautiful sense. Over a sturdy foundation of SMD’s well-honed beatsmithing, the tapestry of soaring voices and flitting synthesizers interweave in ways that suggest the birds’ dizzyingly complex aerial movements, on both more abstract, expansive compositions and relatively song-like fare like “Hey Sister,” whose lyrics speak to the deep, strange, evolutionary interconnectedness of species-mates, be they avian or human.
Damien Jurado – “Percy Faith”
Let’s shift gears. I’ve been trying with this guy – a prolific, consistently respected Pacific Northwest singer-songwriter-type who’s been at it for twenty years now – for quite some time. I was intrigued by his last few records – a loose, obliquely conceptual and increasingly psychedelic trilogy kicked off by 2012’s Maraqopa – but his just-released new one is the first to truly snag me, and this is the odd little tune that did it. The Horizon Just Laughed – a gently lush and loungy collection that marks Jurado’s first self-produced effort after a long and fruitful collaboration with Richard Swift – is also a concept album of sorts, a sort of history-collapsing epistolary suite with many of its songs positioned as letters and postcards to bygone cultural figures, among them the early 20th-century novelist Thomas Wolfe, various characters and actors from the ‘70s-‘80s sitcom Alice, and both Charles Schultz and Charlie Brown. In the case of this song, Jurado addresses a couple of midcentury easy-listening bandleaders (Percy Faith and Ray Conniff) as well as “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” comedist Allan Sherman – “writing from the future,” he explains, as if attempting to make sense of an unrecognizable present in which “I know everything and yet no one at all.”
Damien Jurado plays Johnny Brenda’s this Sunday, May 20th
The Decemberists – “Sucker’s Prayer”
I’ve fallen into a sort of unofficial every-other-album policy with The Decemberists: I adored 2011’s roots-pop reinvention The King is Dead, but I pretty much gave 2015’s What A Terrible World… a complete miss. So – setting aside last year’s nifty, larkish sideline as Offa Rex – it felt like I was about due to check back in with Meloy and his merrie band, especially in light of their upcoming appearance at the Mann Center. The recently-released I’ll Be Your Girl, as it turns out, is a rather delightful affair that homes in on their finely tuned pop instincts, winnowing away the frills and erudite frippery which made their defining early work so endearing yet can so easily slip into bland caricature. Sure, Colin Meloy will still toss a throwaway Rimbaud / Baudelaire reference into the pre-chorus now and again, just to keep up appearances, but “Sucker’s Prayer” is really all about that big, beautiful feel-bad a cappella refrain: “I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how”. What could be more pop than that? And it’s just the thing for a bunch of earnestly bookish thirty-somethings to sway and sing along to as the sun sets on West Fairmount Park. Call me a sucker, but I’ll suck on this.
The Decemberists will be your Mann…-headlining performers on Thursday June 7th.
Now Hear This