13 January 2017

Ten Teenage Albums

This list is in no particular order. These are 10 albums from which I was inseparable in my middle and high school years. They shaped my taste in music and I still love them to this day.

  • Scritti Politti - Cupid & Psyche '85

  • This was my introduction to synthpop and it's still my favorite synthpop album of all time, as well as my favorite album of the entire 1980s. It is absolute perfection.

    Best song: "Perfect Way"

  • The Breakfast Club - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

  • I first saw The Breakfast Club when I was 12 or 13 and I was entranced not by the famous title theme, but by Karla Devito's "We Are Not Alone," which plays during the penultimate scene in which the five have lowered all their barriers and let out all the emotions that have arisen by dancing around the library. It's about as perfect as a powerpop song can get. The rest of the album is high-quality synthpop and some solid instrumentals.

    Best song: Karla Devito - "We Are Not Alone"

  • Bangles - Different Light

  • It was the first cassette ALBUM I ever owned (the first cassette I ever owned was the cassingle of Corona's brilliant "The Rhythm Of The Night", which I thank largely for making me the fabulous person I am today). It also happens to contain my favorite song of all time, the universally loved "Walk Like An Egyptian," written by a guy who just thought people looked funny trying to keep their balance on a ferry as it drifted across a turbulent river. The rest of album is packed with singable, danceable jangle pop rock.

    Best song: "Walk Like An Egyptian"

  • Rick Astley - Whenever You Need Somebody

  • Long before Rick was a meme, he was just a happy little '80s weirdo that lived in my knockoff cassette walkman. This is one of the tapes I used to play while I threw down Super Nintendo games with the sound off. I have no idea why I preferred Rick's soulful voice and K-Mart drum machines over the sounds of the X-Men and Scorpion and Sub-Zero, but I did. There's something magical about kicking a bad guy's ass to "Whenever You Need Somebody."

    Best song: - "Together Forever"

  • VH1's The Big '80s

  • This is one of the first tapes my parents bought me when it was apparent that '80s music was becoming my thing. I was obsessed with all the retro shows on VH1 and any radio station that was playing the hits of that decade, but having this tape finally let me listen to some of these tracks on my time and feel what it felt like to own and collect music.

    Best song: Nena - "99 Red Balloons"

  • Janet Jackson - Design Of A Decade

  • Technically a greatest hits compilation, but it undoubtedly cemented Janet as one of my all-time favorite artists. My dad bought this for me when my 14-year-old self asked for her then-new album All For You. Good thing he did, because I got acquainted with some of her lesser-known (to me) singles and discovered the dancepop revolution that was her first few albums.

    Best song: "The Pleasure Principle"

  • Gold & Platinum Vol. 2

  • Probably the earliest-acquired item on this list, and technically it was my dad's before it was mine, but this is one of the earliest albums I ever remember intently playing myself and being into. Some of these songs are nowhere to be found on classic playlists and radio now, and funny enough those were the ones I listened to least. Even 8-year-old me knew what that Cyndi Lauper song was about.

    Best song: Cyndi Lauper - "She Bop"

  • The Goonies - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

  • Still my favorite soundtrack of all time. It just oozes mid-'80s pop. The work I put into tracking down a copy of this is what led to my discovery of eBay, and when I finally landed my cassette of it, it was the first time I experienced the feeling of holding a rarity and adding it to my collection. "Holy crap," I remember thinking, "I finally get to hear the song from the famous octopus scene!"

    Best song: Goon Squad - "Eight Arms To Hold You

  • Beverly Hills Cop - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

  • Another one that was an early cassette in my collection when I started digging into more offbeat '80s stuff. There are a few recognizable names on the track list, but about half of it is lesser-known artists that happened to be on MCA Records and got to record a cut for this album in an effort at name recognition. I made "Axel F" the (un)official closing music of our morning announcements at Meyzeek Middle School, played each day over the end credits from a CD jukebox and with the track skipped up to 33 seconds in. This was a favorite to play in the mornings while I got ready for school. My friend Campbell taught a group of us this coordinated dance once in the parking lot after school, and after we ran through it a few times, I turned on "Neutron Dance" and it became the official soundtrack for our future parking lot performances.

    Best song: Harold Faltermeyer - "Axel F"

  • Once Bitten - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

  • The first ACTUAL (not just perceived) rarity that I added to my collection. After seeing this movie around age 15 or 16, I knew I needed this soundtrack in all it's crunchy '80s goodness, but cursory searches indicated that it was quite rare and expensive. Fate smiled on me not long after that one day when I was with my mom in the now-closed Unique Thrift Store in Louisville's Portland neighborhood, and I found it among the cassettes for the price of one whole dollar. The image you see next to this text is a scan of that exact copy, which I of course still have.

    Best song: 3-Speed - "Once Bitten"

29 December 2016

top 50 of 2016 | 10-1

10. Nina Nesbitt - "Chewing Gum"

Raging synths and big walls of drums fuel this powerhouse production, a track that somehow manages to exude confidence and self-deprecation at once. She's warning someone that she is a mess, and also that they don't mean shit to her. Really makes you think twice about the line "I'm just chewing gum," doesn't it?

9. Lady Gaga - "Perfect Illusion"

Though released with significantly less pageantry than past first-of-a-new-album-era singles, the impact of this track on Gaga's Little Monster fanbase was undeniable. She's on top of her songwriting game as she's ever been.

8. Troye Sivan - "Youth"

It's a very cool thing to watch someone find the right platform to express themselves. I remember looking up his performance of this track on The Tonight Show and seeing a comment that said "I remember when Troye wouldn't leave his room lol." That's the amazing thing about the era in which we live; many people have watched this guy go from a shy boy making YouTube videos for no one but himself to an internationally touring pop singer. The whole album is great, but this first single is just so perfectly Troye that it was hard not to pick it for the list.

7. Tegan & Sara - "U-Turn"

I saw Tegan & Sara live a couple months ago, and midway through their set, the other members of their band left the stage so that they could begrudgingly perform a few songs from their older albums. "I don't know about you guys," Sara said before they began this portion, "But our old stuff didn't make me want to dance." Truly creative artists evolve, and the resulting relationships it creates with both their fans and their art are interesting to watch, especially as an outsider. I'm just here to dance, ladies. Keep it up.

6. Absinth3 ft. Chelsea Owen - "Trust Is A Curious Word"

If you had played this song for me with no explanation or context, I'd have assumed it was an album cut from some one-named, one-album dancepop wonder from 1988 that I'd somehow missed in all my years of digging through record store bins and scouring Discogs, YouTube, and various retro message boards. That's how carefully 16-year-old Absinth3 has studied this aesthetic and perfected his ability to create faithfully in its image. Perfect use of a syncopated rhythm and marimba-like synth voices. (Full disclosure: He was cool enough to produce and publish a version of one of his songs with a vocal track that I wrote and performed and we're now friends and you should check it out too, but this song would have made the list even if he hadn't been so nice.)

5. Highasakite - "Deep Sea Diver"

They're like a really eccentric modern version of a-ha, kind of. This song makes me feel like I'm riding a jetski over increasingly tall waves, crashing down further each time but not caring because I'm having so much fun. Unfortunately, the studio version of the track is nowhere to be found on YouTube for quick listening, but you can listen to it on Spotify or roughly the first minute of it in this "behind the scenes" clip of a music video that I guess no longer exists.

4. FM-84 ft. Timecop1983 & Josh Dally - "Let's Talk"

Originally released last year by Timecop1983 ft. Josh Dally on their Reflections album, FM-84's mix of this track (which is included on his brilliant album Atlas) took it to the place that it really needed to be. The vocals are so incredibly powerful, and juxtaposed against this tall snare drum they create a tidalwave of sound that crashes right down on you.

3. Rihanna - "Kiss It Better"

I knew three tracks into Rihanna's 2016 release Anti that I'd just heard one of the years most brilliant songs. It starts with a bossa nova beat from what sounds like the drum machine that came with a 1970s home organ and very soon crashes into a sexy modern pop slow jam. The drums are rather minimal, but they flawlessly tie together razzy synth bass riffs and distorted electric guitar motifs. This is my favorite song she's done since "Umbrella," and kind of feels like a half-speed callback to another of my favorites, "Shut Up And Drive."

2. DownVega - "Give You My Love"

This track became my walking theme this year. Any time I had to march somewhere, especially with any kind of confidence or determination, it played in my head. This makes absolutely no sense in regard to the song's lyrical content, but the driving drum track is a hell of a march time keeper. I just really love this front to back, from its rhythmic opening to its very synthy ending.

1. Abra - "Crybaby"

Absolute dancepop perfection. Atlanta's Abra created this sleek, sexy jam about gaslighting that changes gears enough times to keep it from ever feeling its nearly six-minute duration. It recalls the 1990 sound of Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson, but avoids the clichés of something that is trying intentionally to sound retro. Her soft - yet at times, almost wailed - delivery gives the song an appropriate tone of vulnerability, switching to a more confident, leering sneer in the bridge as the lyrics shift in tone too. It's a shame people seem to be sleeping on her; this would sell out arenas.

28 December 2016

top 50 of 2016 | 20-11

20. Mitch Murder - "Call Waiting"

The intersection I've been waiting for between two of my favorite nascent genres: synthwave and vaporwave. Sweden's Mitch Murder found (what is to me) their crosspoint, and it is this song. It works as well for a montage as it does putting on makeup as it does over an educational video of how fruit roll-ups are made. It is everything warm and comforting.

19. Sunflower Bean - "Easier Said"

There isn't much rock music that's doing it for me these days, but every now and then something like this comes along and perfectly scratches the itch. The layered vocals are so beautiful, and that guitar is just deliciously '90s alt-rock.

18. D.R.A.M. ft. Lil Yachty - "Broccoli"

Is there any more appropriate way to describe how so many of us are feeling these days than "beyond all that fuck shit"? I'm willing to look the other way on so many other terrible lyrics (such as rhyming "slogan" with "Hulk Hogan") because it's just too goofy not to love. I can't not love a mindless party jam, and that's exactly what this is. The recorder motif might as well be straight out of EarthBound.

17. Carly Rae Jepsen - "First Time"

With the release of last year's Emotion, Jepsen solidified her spot as the queen of modern mall-pop. (Malls aren't much of a thing anymore though; Amazon-pop just doesn't have the same ring.) This year, Carly (in true mall-popper fashion) gave us an album of b-sides (!), headed by this brilliant saccharine romp.

16. Mike Posner - "I Took A Pill In Ibiza (SeeB Remix)"

Genuine vulnerability is hard to pull off when you're a famous person, especially if you haven't earned it through some sort of publicity crisis. Posner hasn't had one of those, but he comes across in this track like a friend you haven't seen in a few years who's sitting on your couch and telling you what he's been going through and why he hasn't been around. It moved me because I can't recall the last time I saw this kind of humanity lain on the table so voluntarily and so thoughtfully.

15. Daya - "Sit Still Look Pretty"

The "I'm (not) gonna be a good girl" song is not a new thing, but previously it's been generally presented as a way to please a man, usually a boyfriend or a dad. Not Daya though, she's not here for anyone but herself, and I like that girls of this generation are growing up hearing what she's saying. Killer production

14. Oshwa - "Ultraflourescent"

I go absolutely gaga for that warm 1988 garage rock / 2005 indie rock distorted guitar sound. Chicago's Oshwa nails this ode to loving everything about yourself with a quiet, confident coolness that's impossible not to smile at.

13. Adele - "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)"

Though her very devoted fanbase seems to feel differently, to me, this is the most interesting single Adele has ever released. The snappy production is uncharacteristically sleek, despite the percussion coming from little more than a drum machine's kick and what sounds like a fist pounding on an acoustic guitar, with some claps peppered into the choruses and bridge. It relies on this push-pull mixing rather than her powerful voice to drive the song; the fact that she sings with noticeable restraint shows that she knows this and truly has the mind of a producer.

12. FM-84 ft. Ollie Wride - "Running In The Night"

This is such a flawless pop song on so many levels. The hook is instantly singable, the drums make it a toe-tapper throughout, and the vocal performance is spot on. Check out this random YouTuber's addition of a guitar track -- good stuff.

11. Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla $ign - "Work From Home"

It would be hard to argue anything else as the Top 40 jam of the year. I don't know anyone who didn't immediately dance and/or sing along when this came on at the bars. Seriously though, what the hell is that weird toddler whine / dog squeak thing we start hearing in the second verse?

26 December 2016

top 50 of 2016 | 30-21

30. Midnight To Monaco - "One In A Million"

LA's Midnight to Monaco describes themselves on their Facebook page as "taking '50s doo wop harmony into the future," which is not a description I'd have come up with to describe them, but it certainly works. Who'd have thought "futuristic greaser" could be a coherent aesthetic?

29. Metronomy ft. Robyn - "Hang Me Out To Dry"

What an odd little song this is. A jangly, syncopated hook sung by one of the most recognizable and respected voices in modern dance music, bookended repeatedly by soft, glowing, murmured verses that occasionally pace into the same ferocity of the chorus. Robyn is such a powerful force, and her talents are put to very interesting use here.

28. ROOM8 ft. Christina - "Better Than Music"

Just a few years ago, all a song had to do to garner comparisons to '80s music is have a drum machine or a synth motif, regardless of the spirit with which this devices were used. Recent years have seen the rise of artists who actually get '80s pop music, love it unironically, and are producing tracks with modern equipment that capture the spirit of late-'80s dance-pop albums. ROOM8 absolutely is one of those artists, and although this track doesn't have the dancefloor fire of 2014's brilliant "Visions Of You," it is a glorious pop song. (Further up this list will appear one more song that I think captures this same spirit only slightly better than this track. Tease tease!)

27. Eric Prydz ft. Rob Swine - "Breathe"

When Eric Prydz released 2004's "Call On Me," he quite literally changed the course of retro dance music. He finally released a proper album this year, and this gorgeous downtempo banger was my favorite.

26. Bastille - "Good Grief"

I lost one of my best friends a few weeks ago. This list was already completed by the time he died, but I found it fortuitous that I'd included this great song about the confusion that comes with grieving. There are more emotions to the process than anger and sadness, and this song really explores them well.

25. Ricky Montgomery - "Don't Know How"

Everybody has felt the scourge of unrequited attraction. I love the way Montgomery chooses to present his feelings, as a multitude of ways in which he might feel important to this person, almost as a way to get back at them for the feelings he's had to suffer through on his own. It's nice to hear a song like this that doesn't feel too Nice Guy™. The video is probably my favorite of the year.

24. Shura - "What's It Gonna Be?"

The underground hit "Touch" overshadowed this follow-up single from British singer Shura's debut album, which is a shame, because it's just a beautiful song.

23. Bruno Mars - "Versace On The Floor"

I'm not a Bruno Mars fan. I find his persona irritating and his music mostly very, very basic. The production on this song is such a damn perfect slap of nostalgia, even if it shows the limitations of his voice (which results in some seriously cringy moments).

22. Sia - "The Greatest"

If one could pin Sia's songwriting abilities to a specific "knack," it would be turning tragedy into art. She wrote this in the wake of the tragic Pulse nightclub shooting, and it respectfully and meaningfully captures the feelings many of us dealt with in its wake.

21. Lindstrøm - "Closing Shot"

Pure post-disco fun.

24 December 2016

top 50 of 2016 | 40-31

40. Ariana Grande - "Side To Side"

Top 40 didn't do much for me this year. Most of it seemed unusually uninspired and formulaic, and this is coming from someone with a deep, deep love for pop music. This track, however, stood out. Grande is uncharacteristically restrained, which fits the chill nature of the track. And there is pretty much no song that isn't improved by a Nicki Minaj verse.

39. Moby & The Void Pacific Choir - "Hey Hey"

I'll be totally honest; this is the first Moby album I've ever listened to, and boy was it a pleasant experience. I don't know enough about his career to know why he decided to essentially assemble a band and release an album with them (all while in the same calendar year releasing a free album of gorgeous ambient tracks), but it seems like a tribute to early new wave. I'm here for it.

38. Lost Years - "The Connection"

Lost Years was the artist who got me into the (still sort-of nascent?) synthwave genre a few years back when he released his brilliant sophomore album Amplifier. I still think he does it better than pretty much anyone else in the game (I say that knowing full well that there are two synthwave artists higher than he on this list), and his third album Venom was proof of that. This track was my fav from that release. It's a midnight chase through a neon city in pursuit of Carmen Sandiego.

37. CL - "Hello Bitches"

I'm honestly not sure why KPop hasn't fully crossed over in the United States. I really thought Psy's breakthrough a few years ago would be the final breaking down of the barrier, but it wasn't. This one had that same chance. CL is part of South Korea's (arguably) best-known pop group, 2NE1, but has consistently released solo material for the last few years. She's a solid enough rapper that even if you don't speak the language in which she's flowing, you have to nod your head. Bitches.

36. Jessy Lanza - "VV Violence"

I'm a sucker for a singer who can control their high register. This track combines sweet, high vocals, vintage drum machine sounds, and lyrics about confronting someone who's too cowardly to talk shit to your face. Gotta love it.

35. Lady Gaga - "A-YO"

Whether you were into it or not, I think every Gaga fan would agree that Joanne was not the album anyone was expecting for her 5th release. This is one of the album's best, a line-dance-pop hootenany that is somehow still perfectly in Gaga's sultry style.

34. Shura - "Touch"

A deceptively complex production consisting of a drum machine clap, warm synth pads, and a beeping little motif, all tied together with breathy, whispered vocals. It's as sexy as it is beautiful.

33. Kanye West - "Fade"

Probably the most talked-about music video of the year served as the in-your-face delivery of West's ode to the classic Chicago house sound. It's Flashdance meets Cats, starring Teyana Taylor!

32. The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk - "Starboy"

You can put this collab on the list of "stuff you didn't know you wanted to happen until after it happens." It's odd for Daft Punk to take a backseat like they do on this track, but it works. It's hard not to imagine that The Weeknd was more than a little self-referential when writing the lyrics, but you have to appreciate that level of self-awareness. Few celebrities have that kind of control over their own egos.

31. Volbeat - "Seal The Deal"

I happened across this rock-o-rama on a "New Music Friday" playlist back at the beginning of summer and immediately started headbanging along with it. How the hell can you not? This is everything I love about a great rock song. The lead singer's hyper-affected delivery really - if you'll pardon the expression - seals the deal.

23 December 2016

top 50 of 2016 | 50-41

50. Wet - "These Days"

The world finally got to hear Wet's debut LP back in January, and it was worth the wait. There were a handful of songs that those of us who've seen them live over the last few years recognized, alongside some beautiful new surprises. This track closes the album and finds lead singer Kelly Zutrau in the highest highs of her register, calling into the night after a departed lover.

49. Khia - "Santa Baby"

We were long overdue for a new Christmas classic. It didn't seem to capture much attention on release, but I hope that just means it's going through the usual path of American pop Christmas tunes that end up becoming standards by going unnoticed for a few years first.

48. M.I.A. - "Go Off"

M.I.A. is nothing if not consistent. She's delivered what is indubitably a signature sound for over a decade now. This little slow burner from her latest (and supposedly final) release has a super cool music video to accompany it of a bunch of shit blowing up being filmed from a helicopter. Doesn't really get more M.I.A. than that.

47. Era Istrefi - "Bonbon"

Probably the most fascinating pure club tune of the year. Superficially, it blends in with plenty of other unmemorable club tracks you'd hear on the floors today, but there are intricacies in the production that make it stand out. In particular I love the razzy synth bass line.

46. Ninja Sex Party - "Cool Patrol"

An ode to being aggressively uncool told by a bunch of folks who are undoubtedly walking that walk.

45. Dodie - "Sick Of Losing Soulmates"

I love this one because of the tacit admission that it's possible to feel a soulmate connection more than once in your life. Usually, songs that deal with the topic of begging a lover to return put the entire universe on that person, but Dodie admits that she's felt this way before about others and that frankly it's getting exhausting.

44. Years & Years ft. Tove Lo - "Desire"

A song about the benefits of hooking up, because love hurts, or something? Honestly the lyrics seem a bit disjointed to me, but the production and his voice are just so solid. Great stuff.

43. Raylo - "Winner"

The song from the greatest commercial of all time finally gets a proper release. A perfect track to get you hype as hell.

42. Jean-Michel Jarre - "Oxygène Pt. 20"

Part 1 of the Oxygène series was released back in 1976, with Part 2 following in 1997. Now here with are with the next movement of the piece. The idea of creating one long piece across three albums and 40 years is simply stunning, and man does Jarre nail it. Electronic music was born in France in the 40s and 50s, and it's pretty safe to say that Jarre drew from those early "musique concrète" pieces and was an early pioneer of what we now call "ambient" music. This is the final cut on the album, and it's a perfect example of his ability to take the listener on a ride with his vivid soundscapes.

41. Computer Magic - "Been Waiting"

Her husky voice, those puffy snares, that little popcorn motif -- this is just everything that's great about modern synthpop.

07 November 2016

top 100 of the '00s | 56. stefy - "chelsea"

From the Eurythmics-esque opening synth hook that punches hard to the saccharine flow of Stefy Rae Eustace's voice in the verses to the fabulously hooky chorus, this is flawless modern synthpop through and through.

The album as a whole has a California/Orange County tinge that seemed to permeate a lot of media during this time. Maybe it's because The OC was popular, or because California has always been cool, but I think it's largely something else: This album came out in fall 2006, when social media was nascent enough to not yet be the pop culture pipeline that it became. Americans still looked largely to traditional media for what was cool, and traditional (entertainment) media has always been centered around New York and California.

I think this album acts almost as a final glimpse into that "what's cool" window.

This song in particular is simply incredible. Her voice is perfect for it, and you'll be singing it the rest of the day after one listen.