Favorite new wave-inspired albums

George Clanton – 100% Electronica, 2015

synth pop / chillwave

RIYL – Brothertiger, Eyeliner, Luxury Elite’s With Love, Esprit Fantasy – virtua.zip

George Clanton’s past making eccentric vaporwave as ESPRIT Fantasy informs his pop songs in interesting ways. He may sing and arrange his songs into verses and choruses now, but vaporwave’s neon shades plaster themselves all over just as they did before. He developed a great ear for that glittery pastel side of eighties synths on the part-composed, part-sampled ESPRIT album virtua.zip, and that stays his strong point here. His tones resemble sea creatures jumping from digitized sea in euphoria; it’s a hugely endearing effect.

George’s vocal style gets overbearing on occasion, but he does bring a lot of energy to these songs. As on Brothertiger’s new EP, it’s refreshing to hear a ‘chillwave’ vocalist this dramatic. Instead of drifting along a shore, he reaches for the stars, bringing this album to metaphysical peaks even at a slower pace (“Wonder Gently”).

By far my favorite is “It Makes The Babies Want To Cry”, where adorable peaks of synth propel his easygoing melodies into pure bliss. The momentum he builds toward the first hit of the chorus makes it so much more exciting.

♥︎ – “It Makes The Babies Want To Cry”, “Never Late Again”, “Keep A Secret”

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Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #1. Kelsey Lu – Blood

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art pop / chamber pop / folktronica / chamber folk

More like this – Kelsey Lu’s “Shades of Blue”, Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us, Kate Havnevik’s “Unlike Me”, Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising

As you could guess from a cellist, keyboardist, guitarist and singer who’s worked with Solange and Blood Orange, Kelsey Lu’s solo debut isn’t easy to box. The quiet cello-and-vocal reserve of her Church EP has evolved to a bolder statement with an upfront personality and a much wider palette, the electronics among the most promising. In Lu’s case, though, the album sounds like the natural culmination of what she’s absorbed over time. She isn’t going eclectic for the sake of it. Even when she goes from warm folk (“Too Much”) to a 7-minute synth-enhanced 10cc cover, she unites every sound through the gentle shivers and hums of her flexible vocals, the warm wooden tremble of her cello and a clear-cut sound design.

Blood enters with a pair of striking cello-accented folk songs, the sinister warning of “Rebel” and the uneasy sleepwalk of “Pushin Against The Wind”. In the first big shift, Lu dives into pop-ballad catharsis with “Due West”, setting her decadent vocals to a blanket of synth chords and a harp so fragile someone could’ve sewn it together. When I think it’s over, a cello pluck enters and cross-fades into what sounds like Grouper making ethereal wave in a cathedral (“Kindred”). Unlike the rest of Blood, Lu sounds truly weightless as she sings like the ghost of an opera singer, possessed yet appeased. Not long after, she kicks into 70s disco with “Poor Fake”, where the big beat+bassline threatens to start a party. And we’re only halfway in by that point.

Blood is the most a new artist has impressed me in months. Her awe-inspiring musical scope combined with such clear passion and creativity to match means there’s enough here for me to process for months, but I’m immensely curious to know what sound she’ll pursue next. Will she do more pop, guitar folk, classical cello, will it follow the steps of this album or will she do a 180? Blood tells me any of these and more could work for her.

♥︎ – “Rebel”, “Pushin’ Against The Wind”, “Due West”, “Kindred I”, “Poor Fake”, “Foreign Car”, “I’m Not In Love”

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #2/3. Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima

indie rock / art rock / neo-psychedelia

More like this Karen O’s “YO! My Saint”, Arctic Monkeys’ “One Point Perspective” + “American Sports”, U.S. Girls’ In A Poem Unlimited

Imagine my shock when Karen O, one of my favorite singers for ten years, drops a 9-minute song-suite with Danger Mouse in November. Despite a new producer, “Lux Prima” sounded like a sci fi film-theme evolution from her ghostly psych-pop torch song from January, “YO! My Saint”, one of my favorite songs of 2018, so the idea of an entire album piqued my curiosity. Hard to guess how it would sound, but this was part of the excitement.

Beyond the expected indie pop/rock element brought by Karen, Lux Prima revolves around a warm, groovy surrealism in a similar fashion to Italian film scores of the 70s. For example: the filtered strings building on Karen’s underwater balladry in “Reveries”, the smooth bass lines and the uneasy synth+guitar melody in “Nox Lumina”. Like those soundtracks, Lux Prima doesn’t stick to 2-3 common formulas, so we have misty dream-folk in “Ministry”, one minute and twangy disco-pop in “Turn The Light” the next minute. Yeah, that one’s… weird.

As a result, Karen sings like she’s trying on new hats. With a voice as adaptable as hers, capable of riling a punk party and wooing everyone to sleep in the same twelve minutes, most songs gives her space to shine. Her wordless wailing on the title track and her wistful hum in “Ministry” come to mind. However, some of DM’s stylings (while often impressive) aren’t the best fit for Karen, dulling her spark. Other times the melodies aren’t as interesting as the lavish arrangement, like with “Drown”, a great song in theory but melodically plain.

The Lux Prima/Nox Lumina suite has me wishing they engaged more with their space themes, but what’s there is compelling. Lux Prima feels like a proper solo debut and a promising step forward. As much as I miss Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I’m glad to know Karen O is still open to experiment in her solo career.

♥︎ – “Ministry”, “Lux Prima”, “Leopard’s Tongue”, “Reveries”, “Nox Lumina”

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #2/3. Ioanna Gika – Thalassa

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art pop / darkwave / synth pop / ethereal wave / chamber pop

More like this Susanne Sundfor’s The Silicone Veil, Goldfrapp, This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears, The Changelings’ “Season of Mist”, Anna Von Hauswolff’s Ceremony

This new Greek artist taps into so many of my favorite things here. Thalassa sweeps over your ears with dramatic strings as Ioanna swoons like a lost 4AD siren-singer, all backed by a gothic synth pulse. A few cliched electro-beats (as on “Messenger”) dull some of the personality in this delicious fusion, but her choruses and melodies are dense enough to keep out of potential dryness. Shout-out to “New Geometry” for her entrancing chant-singing (“Hesitation / I found the answers in your / Hesitation…”) and the crumbling urgency of “Roseate”.

♥︎ – “New Geometry”, “Roseate”, “Out of Focus”, “Swan”, “Ammonite”

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #4. Voyage Futur – Secret Earth

Voyagefutur

new age / electronic / ambient

More like this – X.Y.R.’s Reflections, New Atlantis Volume 1, Emerald Web’s Nocturne, Michel Genest – Crystal Fantasy

Secret Earth has many of my favorite new age hallmarks: rich synth pads smearing everything in a calming gauze, traces of the subtlest and prettiest synth bells, the lack of dubious ‘world music’ themes and getting that serene v.s. mysterious balance I love to hear in the genre.

Like Vangelis and Emerald Web, Voyage Futur proves excellent at creating moody nature portraits, suggesting stately mountains and dreamt-up forests frozen in time. The marimba+synth pad combo on “Eternal Dawn” is most appealing for me as a keyboard/mallet fanatic. Although there’s a few dull moments, Secret Earth is an ultimately rich and immersive experience. Recommended if you’re curious about the recent crop o electronic new age.

♥︎ – “Eternal Dawn”

Deep Cuts

Karen O & Danger Mouse – “Nox Lumina” (Lux Prima, 2019)

The new Karen O/Danger Mouse collaboration takes plenty of interesting directions in it’s duration, but hearing KO on something like “Nox Lumina” is most thrilling of all. It forms a rich bookend for the album with the ambitious opening single “Lux Prima”, it’s counterpart.

Over an eccentric guitar+synth+string blend, she repeats these cryptic lines over and over:

Somewhere in my room

Sometimes I don’t lock the door

Every time I close my eyes

Someone else’s paradise

Turns me into someone new

She sounds calm but unsteady or even possessed as the melody suggests a lurking danger. Suddenly her voice distorts and slows down along the lines of her wordless wailing in “Lux Prima”. As if it wasn’t fit for a surrealist short film already, “Nox Lumina” ends the album with a reprise of “Prima”’s orchestral flourish like the credits are rolling.