Time to recap my favorite music from the last 12 months — mostly indie rock/pop with a retro flavor. My top ten in no particular order:
Snail Mail – Lush – Lindsey Jordan was taught guitar by Mary Timony, who led 90s indie rockers Helium. Her first EP, Habit, caught national notice, and got her profiled in Pitchfork while she was still in high school. She was signed to redoubtable indie rock label Matador Records shortly afterwards. The music cognoscenti were clearly ready to anoint this young prodigy the next Liz Phair or Fiona Apple. It’s not always easy to deliver when expectations are high. But Jordan comes through with songs that are emotionally sincere and wise beyond her years. The band and production bring out the best in her material, putting her efficient guitar work up front. Unquestionably indie rock’s rookie of the year.
The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – The 1975 have updated and refined rock/pop for a new generation. They cover plenty of well-traveled rock territory, but with their own retro style. For example, there’s the song about drugs thinly disguised as being about something else (friends, girls, relationships) — e.g. Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down”, The La’s “There She Goes”, Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”. “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is their estimable addition to that canon. “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” is about the consequences of infidelity, to a bouncy pop beat. “Give Yourself A Try” is an emo-esque anthem about being true to yourself, couched in a surprisingly edgy guitar loop. “The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme” comes off as their version of Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier”. Not groundbreaking, but a rewarding listen all the way through.
Semblance – I Love You [EP] – A couple of talented teenagers from the Philly area get together to form an electro-rock band. As the song titles (“Angel”, “Hell” “Ghost”, “Sex”, “Two Hearts”) clearly portend, they do not shy away from “big” topics. The songwriting is authentic and the production is impressive, with deft synth and post-rock touches. I think they have a ton of potential, and I’m looking forward to the full album. In the meantime, I’ve got the EP on repeat.
Chvrches – Love Is Dead – The gleaming synth-pop production is almost too perfect, bordering on the edge of sterile. But Lauren Mayberry’s voice imbues with it passion and heart. And their knack for hooks hasn’t diminished. Chalk up another winner for the Scottish trio.
Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 – Yes, I am aware this came out in 2017. However, I completely missed it until early 2018. And I listened to it so much that I felt it would be unfair to exclude it from the list. It seems like uber-producer Harris knocked this out on a lark, but with a relaxed summertime vibe, it’s a low-key gem. The warm old school beats pair well with the bevy of guest artists. It’s all based in hip-hop, but there’s tons of variety, from warped radio-pop (e.g. “Feels” feat. Katy Perry) to retro-R&B styling (the Amy-Winehouse-esque “Hard To Love” feat. Jessie Reyes) to unexpected Caribbean-flavor (“Skrt On Me” feat. Nicki Minaj). Just a fun and solid listen all the way through. Here’s hoping for a Vol 2.
Beach House – 7 – The most reliable purveyors of modern dream-pop keep adding subtle touches to their signature sound to keep things interesting. Their hypnotic melodies and Victoria LeGrand’s rich, potent vocals are in excellent form. But this time around, they bring in James Barone to provide live drums and a new producer who experiments with a wider range of synth and sound effects without getting gimmicky or annoying. The result is a fresh twist on their winning formula.
Twin Shadow – Caer – His brooding, Prince-meets-Morrissey style and willingness to experiment occasionally leads to unsatisfying results. But when it all clicks, George Lewis, Jr. can produce some transcendent music. On his latest album, the hits far outnumber the misses. “Saturdays” is a lost hit that could sit comfortably next to Bruce Springsteen or Prince on any 1980s radio dial. “Brace” is informed by the tour bus crash that sidelined him for months. “18 Years”, “Littlest Things” and “Obvious People” seem to be about idealized young love and heartbreak. “Sympathy”, “When You’re Wrong”, and “Bombs Away (RLP)” are a bit more dark and gritty. For me, “Little Woman” is the only true misfire, but, as is common with Twin Shadow, I can imagine it being someone else’s favorite.
Timecop1983 –Night Drive – I’ve been enamored with Timecop1983’s chilled-out, synth-wave productions for a while now. On his latest album it’s just more quality material, with some solid vocal collaborators. He’s developed a signature sound — which can seem formulaic, but there’s really nothing else quite like it. If you loved dark 1980s synth-pop and/or the revival kicked off by the Drive soundtrack, this is definitely worth checking out.
The Breeders – All Nerve – Reunions are always a tricky business. Kim Deal spent the better part of the last two decades touring with the re-united Pixies, and working on her own material by re-forming The Breeders. The Pixies were a touring success and the Breeders output was decent, so she had managed pretty well. In 2013, the Breeders’ classic lineup (the Deal sisters, Josephine Wiggs and Jim MacPherson) reunited to tour behind a deluxe 20th anniversary re-issue of the seminal Last Splash. The tour was a success, but this lineup managed to do something most reunions (including Deal’s previous ones) never do. Recapture the original magic in the studio again. All Nerve is more confident and consistent than Last Splash. It sounds like it could have been recorded in the 1990s, a couple years after Last Splash, if Kelley Deal had never gotten busted for drugs. It’s probably too much to expect the singles to fully scale the heights of “Cannonball” or “Divine Hammer”, but “Stay In The Car” rocks hard, “Nervous Mary” is tense and pithy, and “Spacewoman” is both affecting and disturbing. Simply put, if you are a fan of vintage alternative rock, this is top-notch, all-new, must-hear music.
Kali Uchis – Isolation – Isolation pulls off some difficult balancing acts. It’s a whirlwind tour through expertly crafted, smooth pop and R&B stylings, with both modern and vintage touches . Uchis moves effortlessly between English and Spanish. The grooves are old school funky, but with up-to-date R&B production flourishes. There are many collaborations, but the guests only add distinctive touches, they never take over the songs. Contemporary pop rarely gets this good.
Posies – Frosting On The Beater (Deluxe) / Amazing Disgrace (Deluxe)
Pet Shop Boys – Please/Actually/Introspective/Behavior/Very/Bilingual/Nightlife (2018 2-CD reissues)
Guns ‘N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction (2-CD deluxe)
Liz Phair – Girly-Sound To Guyville
The Cars – Shake It Up (Deluxe) / Heartbeat City(Deluxe)