The 90s was a weird time for music. The whole decade is essentially typified by the alternative genre, and I'll just say that for me, most of what came from alternative was a wash - so purposefully un-melodic and apathetic it made me want to put a gun to my head. The snap-back from those long, painful years was the bright, shiny, pointless pop of Britney, Backstreet Boys, etc.; we clearly got what we deserved.
But this blog post isn't about shitty 90s music. I'm just prefacing to get to where I want to go. By the early 2000s I was hearing songs that gave me hope for music's future. Since then popular music in most genres has returned to melodic form, and even in increasingly sub-subgenres like dream pop and post-dubstep and EDM, writers and producers are still discovering the infinite ways to spin and wield a dope melodic/harmonic progression. Think of La Roux's 'Bulletproof,' Goyte's 'Somebody That I Used To Know' - hell, even Nicki Minaj's 'Superbass' has an earworm.
Which brings me to today, and my happiness at discovering some new musicians to listen to who, in a different decade, would have fallen prey to the times, but here and now are fantastic.
First up is Banks (first name Jillian), discovered in the car stereo of a friend last week. She's got a couple of albums out in the 'alt-pop' genre, which is dominated by 'sultry [women] singers backed by uber-hip electronic beatscapes,' something I happen to very much enjoy, thank you. I especially appreciate her use of interwoven vocal motifs in the absence of acoustic instrumentation, and she consistently sets a wonderfully evocative, moody atmosphere. Although after several methodical previews of both albums via iTunes I only came away purchasing a handful of songs, the point is that she's in the right direction and she's something new to listen to.
(One thing I realized after obsessively listening to those songs was that they were everything I wished so much that Ellie Goulding's third album, Delirium, would be, and in fact, Banks sounds a lot like Halcyon-era Goulding. It makes me sad that Goulding abandoned a perfect sound and structure in favor of 'progress' or 'love' or whatever, and I hope that on her next album she gets back to what works best)
In the reviews for one of Banks' albums someone suggested she pair up with James Blake. So I looked him up and...story time.
Back when Jimmy Fallon was still hosting Late Night, he had James Blake on one evening. The dude sat at a keyboard and sang the weirdest song I have ever heard (if you must know, it was 'The Wilhelm Scream' from his eponymous debut). Now, musically I'm pretty traditionalist anyway, but the performance stuck with me because of how odd he was to me, and in the years since I've thought about it every now and then. I kind of wanted to find out more about him, but couldn't remember his name and didn't feel like googling. I figured, if I find him again, then cool.
In those years Blake has put out two more albums, both rapidly evolving in tonal substance while retaining that bent toward deconstructive alt-soul electronica shoegazing (I made that up, but the science works). While his first album is very experimental, I beg you to check out Overgrown and The Colour in Everything. This guy is doing things that no one else is doing, and it works because he clearly understands the rules of music and how to break them the right way. As a bonus: scorchingly beautiful melody all over the place, in fits and starts, oftentimes loops, all in this cascade of multi-layered sound stitched together like a puzzle. And it's the ingenious harmonic and structural heaviness of each track, each little opus, that keeps you coming back, that cuts through the sonic monotony of ordinary days, that makes you feel like the emotions you've felt in your life until now were just utter pretense. It's truly a joy to have found someone who knows how to play with the pieces and still come away with works of art that transcend.
What slays me is that his personal musical evolution led him here. I don't know, but I think maybe he discovered what he needed to about music, which opened up these new avenues and led him to create the gorgeous futuristic soundscapes coming out of him now. (I checked - he's the sole writer and producer on the bulk of his songs) In a way it's like the old postmodern philosophers, who spent years, even decades ripping apart the Enlightenment and creating an entirely subjective, metanarrative-less universe, only to realize at the end that there was hope and meaning, and they wandered back home.
I think, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew James Blake would come to mean something, that I'd find him, and I think that's cool.
So I'd found two new artists in as many days. I wanted more. I remembered that early last year I'd sampled some of Active Child (aka Pat Grossi), and dismissively called him a poor man's Bon Iver or something, and the only reason I knew about him was (wait for it) Ellie Goulding covered his song 'Hanging On' on Halcyon. (Ahhh.) So I said to myself, let me give him another shot.
So, the only real resemblance he bears to Bon Iver is the smooth falsetto (and I dare say it's better). His songs are HUGE. Ambitious. Heart-rendingly lovely. His version of 'Hanging On' is quality, as it should be, and while I'm still meditating on the iTunes samples, I must say that 'See Thru Eyes' is a triumph. Again, gorgeous melody, fragile lyrics, and this giant 80s throwback sound that puts you right back there, in a dream of a time you can never forget.
He also collaborated with Goulding on a song on one of his EPs, a song titled 'Silhouette.' It's an album-only purchase so I did what any sane person would do and ripped it from youtube. You have been warned: this song is literally too beautiful. I never thought I'd say that, but alas, the time has come. I think there may actually be no limits to Active Child's ability to compose a cosmic-level hook, which should frighten all of us. 'Silhouette' is definitely worth it, but...you've been warned.
That leaves me with two more artists I want to mention. The first is Lo-Fang (aka Matthew Hemerlein), another artist who I feel is doing, in his element, what almost no one else is. His album Blue Film is a solid mix of indie pop and electro-pop; his lyrics are deep and his melodies are effortless. He's not as deconstructing as Blake or as sweeping as Grossi; what sets him apart to me is his incorporation of violin, cello and bass to great effect, lending the entire effort a warm organic touch amongst the sick beats and samples. I am so ready for his next album, but he's like, backpacking in Tibet or something.
The last artist is Lana del Rey, and I'll keep it brief: she too is a songwriter of great depth and beauty, and she made it through the character assassination that couldn't keep her from becoming the star she is. I don't think anyone has tried to capitalize on her 'Hollywood sadcore' sound because they know she is simply too singular. Oddly she's the most mainstream person mentioned here but I think she could survive a foray into Blake-ian territory, and I look forward to the next steps in her own personal evolution.
And with all that said, I leave you with three tracks (only three!!) from all of the above-mentioned that you need in your life.
1. Lovesick (The Alter)
2. Waiting Game (Goddess)
3. Brain (Goddess)
1. Only You (Halcyon)
2. Joy (Halcyon)
3. Dead in the Water (Halcyon)
1. To the Last (Overgrown)
2. Radio Silence (The Colour in Everything)
3. Two Men Down (The Colour in Everything)
1. Hanging On (You Are All I See)
2. See Thru Eyes (You Are All I See)
3. Silhouette (Rapor)
1. Look Away (Blue Film)
2. Blue Film (Blue Film)
3. #88 (Blue Film)
Lana Del Rey
1. Blue Jeans (Born to Die)
2. American (Paradise)
3. Swan Song (Honeymoon)