1. Body Talk – Robyn
“I’ve got some news for you/Fembots have feelings too.” So opens Robyn’s third album of 2010, a compilation of 10 of the best tracks from the two Body Talk mini-albums, alongside five new songs. The lyric sums up Robyn perfectly: a mainstream pop star with attitude, unafraid to promote her sexuality on her own terms.
While guitar bands are praised for daring to use synths in their music, Robyn trades rhymes with Snoop Dogg on the frantic U Should Know Better, makes bass-heavy doom-pop with Röyksopp in None of Dem and, with Dancing On My Own, creates one of the best pop singles of the last 20 years.
But Body Talk isn’t just sleek, forward-thinking electro-pop. It’s also imbued with emotion and soul. Musically, the pace rarely slackens, whereas lyrically Body Talk conerns relationship breakups and/or defiance in the face of heartache. These are songs to dance to with tears streaming down your cheeks. It’s not, however, an album mired by a sense of victimhood, with Robyn both perpetrator and casualty; the Max Martin-produced Time Machine is a lengthy apology to a jilted ex, Love Kills a lengthy warning.
There’s an economy on Body Talk that makes the emotional punch all the more powerful. Dancing On My Own doesn’t waste a second, its metronomic beat the epitome of minimalism, while Hang With Me aims to capture the essence of a relationship in a single line: “I know what’s on your mind, there will be time for that too, if you hang with me.”
Rather than spending ages in the studio, Robyn recorded Body Talk in short bursts, sending tracks to her label as and when they were finished. Commercially, it’s an experimental approach that has yet to fully pay off – only Body Talk Part 2 charted in the UK top 40 – but creatively it’s a testament to the fact that pop music still has the ability to surprise. As Robyn says: “The whole industry knows not to fuck with me.”
Originally appeared in The Guardian’s round-up of 2010’s best albums
Best Track: ‘Dancing On My Own’
2. Teen Dream – Beach House
Whilst the whole dream-pop/chillwave/slo-mo-sepia-tinged genre found itself a whole heap of new stars, the mum and dad of the genre quietly released their third album. From its very first notes – the laconic guitar figure that heralds Zebra – Teen Dream is an album that immediately creates its own mood, pulling you in and keeping you close for its forty-eight minute duration. Whilst their first two albums used a similar template – mid-paced, dreamy, built around Victoria Legrand’s swoonsome vocals – Teen Dream sees them utilise melody much more successfully. Songs no longer meander pleasantly, but strive for a destination. For all its refinement, it’s not quite the dinner party soundtrack some would have you believe. ‘Norway’ features an oddly wonky synth line that would have Rory checking his Bose soundsytem wasn’t broken, the mix is strangely top-heavy and the whole thing is suffused with a weary, almost unbearable heaviness. From the fog it’s Legrand’s voice that pierces through, usually sounding fit to burst whilst Alex Scally creates musical backdrops built around guitar, drums and a pandora’s box of keyboard sounds. An album to enjoy all year round.
Best track: ‘Zebra’
3. The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) – Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe is not like other pop stars. The ArchAndroid, her debut album, is an 18-track, 70-minute conceptual opus, split into two suites, each one separated by ludicrously extravagant Overtures. To say it’s ambitious feels like damning with faint praise; its sheer musical scope – from the James Brown funk of Tightrope to the English pastoral folk of Oh, Maker – is spellbinding. So, the excellent Cold War is new wave with lashings of sci-fi, Locked Inside takes in Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, while Come Alive (War of the Roses) finds the 24-year-old screaming herself hoarse over squealing guitars. Influences are treated as stepping stones rather than laboured over, with only Make the Bus (a collaboration with Of Montreal) shifting the focus away from the star. The album ends with the eight-minute, string-drenched BaBopBye Ya, a song that teeters on the brink of ridiculousness yet, as with the album as a whole, somehow reins itself in with great aplomb. Behold, pop music has found its latest superstar.
Review originally appeared in The Guardian’s Film & Music section
Best track: ‘Tightrope’
4. I Speak Because I Can – Laura Marling
Much had been made about how Laura Marling’s second album showed her vast maturity and whilst it’s true that it’s short on LOLZ or any songs featuring an unnecessary verse from Pitbull, all this inference about songs centred around knitting and incontinence put us off somewhat. I Speak Because I Can is, however, an album of great vitality, each song harnessing a strange sense of restrained urgency (if such a thing can even exist and it probably can’t). Songs like ‘Rambling Man’ and ‘Alpha Shallows’ sound like they’re aching to breach the restraints Marling places upon them but sound better for the fact that they can’t. Lyrically, it’s an album that reveals itself more and more with each listen, Marling telling stories from the perspective of various character and yet somehow inhabiting them all. At the core of it all is her voice, poised but with a hint of weariness on ‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)’ or swollen with spite as on ‘Hope In The Air’. It closes with the title track, a one-tack recording that hinges on the lyric “never rode my bike down to the sea / never quite figured out what I had believed”. It’s sung in such a way that you believe that the non-riding of a bike actually encapsulates a myriad of repressed feelings, of missed opportunities of not taking risks and it’s this ability to turn the mundane into something more that makes Marling so special.
Best track: ‘Rambling Man’
5. Congratulations – MGMT
Congratulations, the follow-up to the hugely successful Oracular Spectacular, was, in many ways hampered by the band themselves. Not in terms of the music – which wasn’t anywhere close to the commercial suicide that many had hyped it be – but in terms of all the guff that went along with it. The band decided against releasing any singles, immediately recalling Radiohead’s similar stance with 2000’s Kid A album. Whilst the Oxford comedians suggested it was because there simply weren’t any singles on the album, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser just seemed to not want to play the game. There was a lot of po-faced boo-hooing about never wanting to be successful in the first place and that they’d all rather work in a sewer or in Toys R Us, and yet all this can’t take away from the record itself. Produced by Sonic Boom, Congratulations is a brilliantly odd collection of songs that meander joyfully, taking in odd homages to Brian Eno and the Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy along the way. There’s much to enjoy not least because no matter how hard they try they can’t help but make hummable melodies. ‘It’s Working’, ‘Flash Delirium’ and ‘Brian Eno’ all rattle along in a psychedelic daze whilst the lilting ‘Someone’s Missing’ and the closing ‘Congratulations’ are suffused with a kind of sweetly melancholic inertia. The centrepiece is the 12 minute long ‘Siberian Breaks’, which is a wonderfully pretentious as the title suggests. Bloody-minded but often brilliant, Congratulations was the ‘difficult second album’ it was more than OK to love.
Best track: ‘It’s Working’