Lianne La Havas – let’s just call it an RnB-revival

I am not super duper into RnB but that’s probably because few artists are as fresh, amazeballs and exciting as Lianne La Havas. Sure, Beyoncè’s voice kicks ass but truth to be told, her albums tend to have quite a few fillers and album-coherency is BIG for me.

Lianne did everything right with her beautiful „Blood“. There’s lyrics with a punch, a little playfulness with genres and some knockout songs. It might not be as giddy as Janelle Monae’s stuff but seems more like the older, more serious sister who is over the experimental phase. And yes, I do know that Janelle is older and not trying out but ruling the world of pop but come on, this is about describing music, stick with me.

Where was I? Oh yes, „Midnight“ is a miracle and pretty much every song on this album stands strong and proud on its own without losing the context of the album. That’s how it’s done, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Co, please take note (not you Janelle, you do you because you rock the world).

In defense of pop: There’s more art to it

There was a time, in my late teens and early twenties, when I would have claimed that I was an Indie/Alternative-fan, thereby limiting myself (and other’s perception of me) to maybe not the smallest portion of music but to a lot less music than I was actually listening to.

Since then, I realized that I like a lot of music – tons of music in fact. I love Motown and basically everything sung by black artists from the 40s, 50s and 60s. I love Britrock ca. 60s/70s, I love prog, I love some choice Hip Hop artists, I have a few metal bands in my playlist each year, I am quite fond of certain musicals, I do love classic when I have to read long texts at work and I am genuinely, continuously in awe with Kate Bush, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel – the three artists no one can ever touch (or should cover) in my humble opinion.

But I also love pop in all its variety. I love Indiepop, I love Artpop, I love Folkpop and boy, do I love „Oldies“ as we like to address old pop songs from the 80s, 90s, 70s and so on. Personally, nothing in the 80s is too cheesy for me, with the exception of some German artists who were beyond cheesy and simply stunk.

But I also love pop in its Billboard-glory. I always did but I didn’t always love that I did.

But why wouldn’t I love pop music?

I have a boyfriend (much as my mom has a boyfriend like that) who loves everything that is niche. His ambition is to give lesser known artists an audience (of one, sometimes). He thinks that Sophie Hunger is a mainstream artist and thinks that Regina Spektor is way too popular to really get into her music. He wouldn’t even touch Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus with a ten foot pole and boy, the look in his eyes when I declared that Bruno Mars is one hell of an artist…Once he and his mom (both not very much into music but if, more into the „high“ art of it) somehow fascinated listened to me explain why Pink is a superior artist to Celine Dion (it lies in the believability, btw).

He liked, though, how I explained the concept of deconstructed pop with Jenny Hval’s new album as an example. But here’s the problem with disliking pop: if you don’t get pop, every music that is not pop is only half the fun because sure, you can admire it but you don’t know how much different (or alike) it is from the mainstream, the charts and the mobile ringtones. Furthermore, listening to pop is all the more fun if you notice streams of art pop in current chart toppers. No high-brow music fan could ever be as happy as a pop fan who just heard Lorde for the first time or who celebrated that some nerd like Gotye could ever be the culprit of the annual Summerhit hype.

Furthermore, pop like nothing else is a great mirror of society. It’s frustrating sometimes but can also be incredibly hopeful. The fact that female popstars with sass, strength and a serious attitude can own the market right now, shows that despite all the misogyny people want strength and diversity. How long did we suffer through the self-same tame female songwriters or RnB-artists? And suddenly we have Janelle and Lianne and Lorde and FKA Twigs who is nearly anti-pop. Amy Winehouse opened the gate to a yearning we had for quite a while – intimate songwriting by the singer herself. And suddenly, there’s thankfully a whole load of it roaming our radios. 

Bruno Mars – much more than Justin Timberlake – fulfilled the need for a surprisingly self-reflective superstar who actually seemed to have fun on stage (and with his band).

And whether you like Taylor Swift and/or Miley Cyrus (no need to pick a team), they both show that there’s no need to fill a certain role as was done for years (and still is done, let’s not be naive) with tween-stars. Heck, even Carly Rae Jepsen can do tween-pop without feeling like an adult lost in puberty.

And again, how much of a miracle is it that all of this is such a female-centric music business? Sure, the executives, the producers and moneymakers are still mainly male and the sexism in this industry as much as everywhere is nothing to ignore nor to underestimate.

But pop is like a weird, absurd reflection of society and it does seep into the background, the CEO-chairs and the fanbase that there’s more desire by the musicians themselves and that feminist pop is not a genre anymore (think of Alanis or Tori) but rather a state of fact and whoever can’t deal with it, will still make money but probably won’t be able to grow and to evolve with the music scene (or create something new, even though I hardly believe that many head honchos have that ambition).

How much of that do you learn via niche artists? Sure, they can spin some cynical and highly conceptual albums about serious topics. But in the end, pop touches them (and influences them) because it is always the bigger, the overwhelming part of our culture. And as long as it is, the niche can be as daring and exciting as it is and slowly tug at pop’s elbows to give a little back, so pop doesn’t get stale. So don’t hate on it and take it for what it is (with a grain of sexist and racist grain of salt). 

Algiers – This is as hot and dark as it gets

The deep American South is a perfect breeding ground for everything highly spiritual, slightly sinister and possibly indulgent. The Algiers celebrate this in their music, a rich mixture of R’n’R and roots in Gospel (the deep south kind that always sounds as if the wrath of god will come down on you hard). It’s probably due to the fact that the debut only came out this year that the Algiers weren’t played up and down the „True Blood“-universe because there’s hardly anything else that is as heart-pumping excited and religiously-manic than this band.

And as this song (“Blood”) shows, this kind of music works so well because it carries with it the whole history of its genre influences. It therefore packs a lot more than your usual rock-outfit because you hear the rhythm of the slave’s chains and the music that was born out of this despair and cruelty.

Maccabees ‘Marks to Prove it’ – up up to new adventures

„Spit it out“, the fourth song on the fourth album of the Maccabees is the key to the band’s sound and it is truly an astounding piece, especially for a progger-soul like myself.

According to interviews, the Maccabees had amassed an incredible number of songs without any direction where to go. As fans might know, this is not a band to bundle together inconsequential songs just for the sake of it. These guys need a (musical) theme and a goal and it is all the more pleasant that this unusual ditty – which starts like an early Genesis-song and then pushes those proggy elements into the background upon which the usually strong-willed hymnal melodies of the Maccabees can unfold – was the beginning of a clearer picture.

At its core, this band is as youthful and energetic as they were in times of „First Love“ but this album especially untangles ideas and experiments all around. In a way, this is a possible turning point for the typical sound of the band because songs like „Silence“ (with Weeks only heard in the background vocals) or „River Song“ are new and might even tempt new fans to compare them to Arcade Fire (less so) and Elbow (much so).

Maybe, though, Weeks’ one-off-projekt Young Colossus plays a bigger role in the new adventure, as „River Song“ sounds like a continuation of the vocal-experiment that Young Colossus (and its Graphic Novel approach to rites of passage) encaptured.

Maybe the fact that being weird and trying out new, unusual things has created a very devoted fanbase and reached over the target-group of sole Maccabee-fans. And maybe that reaction to this truly unique project helped them realize that there is always a way to reinvent yourself. Then again, even „Given to the Wild“ (with the very perky “Pelican” and even some goth elements in “Unknown“) and before that “Wall of Arms“ had new elements that hinted at progression and evolution (and ambition).

Still, „Marks to prove it“ is especially bold with a jazzy „Slow Sun“ (and that theme continues on „Dawn Chorus“) and if “Given to the Wild” was a somewhat naturalistic, flowing (as hinted with the Goldsworthy artwork) and paternal- and maternalistic theme, “Marks to prove it” sounds like the move to the city, all of its influences and the speed of evolution within. It never sounds unlike the band but they manage to give a first impression that feels unlike and then slowly develops into the gorgeously flowing melodies and layers we know them for. Especially atmosphere plays a big role in this new album and gives Orlando Weeks some breathing room in which the band is the central focus. And we all know (or will get to know) that even though Weeks’ nearly surrealistically angelic voice is a major part of the band’s sound, the whole picture, the chaotic waterfalls of melodies within the slow rivers of tender guitar lines is what makes the band as awe inspiring as they are. 

Wildbirds and Peacedrums – This shouldn’t be Swedish

This Swedish duo does what Swedes do: great music. Unless most Swedish duos, though, they don’t dabble with Electronic Pop but rather work with very earthy percussion instruments and the width of Mariam Wallentin’s voice. Their album „Rhythm“ (2014) draws heavily from Afro-American Blues which results in some fascinating songs because this is – after all – the white middleclass getting inspired (but nevermind my snark, the album is quite a treasure).

Seinabo Sey: ‚Pretend‘ is a Club Sound-Revival

Let’s face it, Seinabo could yodel and it would sound classy, so it’s fantastic that her new single represents a musical genre that was – at its worst – unimaginative and kind of trashy. But Club music can do great things when it’s ambitious and „Pretend“ is exactly that. It’s cool, laid back and simultaneously (lyrically) emotional. Its beat is fantastic and the composition evades the generic and repetitive pitfalls of Club and instead adds something new along the road (which is paved with a genious use of background vocals).

The Womb sounds chill like any womb should feel

Psychedelic music is essentially a nice day in the sun, spent idling around, sitting under a tree and letting the thoughts drift (no need to enhance them with additional…erm…remedies). However, you don’t have to just idly stroll along if you’re a psychedelic band as White Denim continuously and gorgeously demonstrate every damn album.

The Womb are likewise the kind of band whose album (dto.) starts smooth and chill but eventually lifts up into „Batstone“ and feels like that shadow over your face, of someone standing right in front of you, asking you to take a walk or dance or maybe have a grillwurst with. „The Womb“ is not as eclectic and energetic as White Denim at their best but it plays likewise with the expectations that psychedelic music creates – you expect a slow boat ride and then – if you’re lucky – get some (safe) rapids along the way to get the heart pumping and the adrenaline going. Oh, and don’t worry, instead of the crazy waterfall or some murderous forrest-people (tuck away that banjo!) you’ll get a beautifully open lake to keep that smooth sailing.