Florence + The Machine Ceremonials
Music Math: Kate Bush + Peter Gabriel + Annie Lennox + David Bowie
Best Tracks: “Only If for a Night,” “Shake It Out,” “What the Water Gave Me,” “Breaking Down,” “No Light, No Light,” “All This and Heaven Too”
Representative Lyrics: “Regrets collect like old friends / here to relieve your darkest moments / I can see no way, I can see no way / And all of the ghouls come out to play”
Notes: Florence + The Machine have done something really significant with this album: they have distilled down the last 30 years of British pop music into a single cohesive disc. The songs have the operatic intensity of Kate Bush, the R&B/soul influence of Annie Lennox, the outerspaceness of David Bowie, and the accessible experimentation of Peter Gabriel, among many other audible influences. The lyrics, of course, are a bit on the maudlin/obtuse end (“What the Water Gave Me” is ostensibly from the perspective of Virginia Woolf just prior to her suicide), but the music is pure anthem. From the opening track’s cascade of tinkling piano and harp, the songs build and build, layering instruments, vocals, and harmonies until they erupt into joyous, defiant, or mournful choruses.
Beau’s Critique: “This album makes me want to commit suicide.”
Foster the People, Torches
Music Math: David Bowie + A-ha
Best Tracks: “Helena Beat,” “Pumped Up Kicks,” “Call It What You Want,” “Houdini”
Representative Lyrics: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / you better run, better run / outrun my gun / All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / you better run, better run / faster than my bullet”
Notes: You’ve probably only heard the one song radio played constantly, but the rest of this album is worth a listen. The songs have diverse sounds and arrangements, pulling in just about every instrument and the kitchen sink, mixing up rock beats with dance beats with R&B beats. Each song is an infectious pop miracle, so be prepared to hum them obsessively if you dare to listen. Bonus points to including a really long sample from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess at the start of “Warrant.”
Oh Land, Oh Land
Music Math: (Björk – dadaism) + (Olivia Newton John – 1970s)
Best Tracks: “Perfection,” “Break the Chain,” “Sun of a Gun,” “Lean,” “Wolf & I,” “White Nights”
Representative Lyrics: “He said, ‘Sorry but you’ll never gonna dance again’ / But my feet just keep me moving / trying to break the chain”
Notes: The year’s best art-pop album, Oh Land’s debut owes a clear debt to the trail blazed by her Scandinavian foremother Björk but doesn’t stray far from the sunny harmonies and major chords of traditional pop music. What buoys it all is her elfin voice, both reed-thin and velvety at the same time.
Music Math: ((Amy Winehouse + Duffy) – drama – disappointment) + heartache
Best Tracks: “Rolling in the Deep,” “Rumour Has It,” “Turning Tables,” “Someone Like You”
Representative Lyrics: “Bless your soul you got your head in the clouds / she made a fool out of you and she’s bringing you down”
Notes: It’s easy to see why this album tops most of the end of the year lists–it’s bold, fearless, honest, and most of all perfectly written and sung. The songs on 21 capture what Marianne Moore said about art: that it is most universal when it is most subjective. By pouring her own experience into this album, Adele creating something everyone can identify with–and her voice, so beautiful, carries the rest.
Panic! At the Disco, Vices & Virtues
Music Math: (Panic at the Disco – pretension) + !
Best Tracks: “Hurricane,” “Memories,” “Trade Mistakes,” “Ready to Go,” “Always,” “The Calendar”
Representative Lyrics: “It was always you falling for me / now there’s always time calling for me / I’m a light blinking at the end of the road / blink back to let me know”
Notes: After losing half its members (including the primary songwriter & lyricist) a few years ago, I wasn’t sure Panic would be able to recover. But they not only put out a good album, they put out an album better than their others. This collection captures the electro-rock spirit of the first half of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out while incorporating more straightforward pop into their arrangements. We saw them live this year and, though Brandon Urie was sick and almost lost his voice during the performance, they were still amazeballs.
Robyn, Body Talk
Music Math: 1990s Robyn + 20 years
Best Tracks: “Dancing On My Own,” “Indestructible,” “Hang with Me,” “Call Your Girlfriend,” “Get Myself Together”
Representative Lyrics: “My momma called me last night; she said when nothing else fits, pick up the pieces and move on / I see the flashing red lights, just can’t make sense of the bits / it’s like my mind is gone”
Notes: A friend of mine encouraged me to pick this up and the end of last year and it became a year-long favorite. Although it doesn’t seem like it should be difficult to make good dance music, it’s actually pretty rare to find classy dance music, which is basically what this is. There’s a maturity and depth to the lyrics rarely found in this genre, but also a playfulness and willingness to experiment and push boundaries, cross genres, and take risks.