RVW // MAX COOPER - HUMAN
For years Max Cooper treated producing tracks like research, crafting long, self-exploratory techno songs, and iterating through EPs you could blink and miss. It was an attitude befitting his background as a genetic scientist, even if he still felt like one of the most organic producers around. Human, his debut LP, is the result of that desire to explore becoming a desire to empathise. Liberated from the constraints of club production, Cooper’s patience and attention to detail draw out even more emotive rise and fall from his traditional palette of sounds.
The album begins with ‘Woven Ancestry’, a cleansing dawn chorus with the feel of Krieg und Frieden Apparat, and no hint of a beat. His shift in focus has meant that Cooper is happier to craft songs around ambience and uncertainty now. And there’s an unmistakeably human pang to the way his tracks can suddenly, fickly, morph. Penultimate track ‘Potency’, for example, creeps up on its own muted beginning with a wall of stark white noise and droning feedback.
Lots of Human is scatty and changeable like this. ‘Apparitions’ is Jon Hopkins without the tunnel-vision. ‘Automaton’, sampling BRAIDS’ immense ‘Lammicken’, has the ghost of a floor-filler wrung out and layered underneath Raphaelle Standelle-Preston’s crooning (“I can’t stop it”). It’s a fine balance between music for clubs and music for individuals that he walks all too frequently.
Cooper’s ear for subtle crowd-pleasers finds ample work here too. The propulsive rhythms of ‘Numb’ once it reaches full speed, or the jaunty, relatively soft-edged ‘Supine’ can attest that. Both take different, successful, approaches to wriggling into your mind and feet. It’s also a sign of the man’s affinity for the long format that he can place a descent into heavy-hanging melodrama as all-consuming as ‘Seething’ between them. Changes in trajectory like this usually come with the confidence of album experience, but Cooper gets by on sheer talent.
His closeness to Montreal’s BRAIDS, though, is perhaps the most telling yardstick for Human. The tracks here featuring Kathrin deBoer channel Flourish // Perish at its best - emotive vocal lines amplified by their lush electronic habitat. However, strip away the glitchy, computerised backing - unpick the percussion - and all you have left is a lost girl, singing to herself. Strip away the girl instead, and you have a producer unafraid to make music with its heart firmly on its sleeve.
STAFF AOTY13 LIST
Here’s our definitive AOTY list, as ranked by the votes cast by staff. Complicated maths was involved and much blood was shed.
2 FIELD OF REEDS
5 DRONE LOGIC
6 ELECTRIC LADY
7 KRIEG UND FRIENDEN
8 LIGHT UP GOLD
9 ONCE I WAS AN EAGLE
10 TROUBLE WILL FIND ME
11 …LIKE CLOCKWORK
12 HOLY FIRE
13 PEARL MYSTIC
14 SILENCE YOURSELF
16 MELT YOURSELF DOWN
17 FACTORY FLOOR
18 SLOW FOCUS
20 CUT 4 ME
ALBUMS OF THE YEAR // TOP 5
LONG OVERDUE. FOREVER RELEVANT. THE BEST OF 2013.
5 // DANIEL AVERY – DRONE LOGICSincerity fucking sucks. Or, maybe fairer to say is that the kind of sincerity you meet in most contemporary music fucking sucks. There are too many examples of artists who seem to work with the idea that the primacy of their voice and the ‘authentic’/’wholesome’ aesthetic and/or instrumentation that comes alongside…
RVW // ARTHUR BEATRICE - WORKING OUT
In action - if not necessarily in the heavy thoughts which preoccupy them - Arthur Beatrice seem to realise time is on their side. For a group so evidently capable of making great waves, their ascent has been marked by an intense calm, shorn of the nausea-inducing merry-go-round of hype and instead fuelled by the same kind of self-aware consideration displayed on songs like ‘Fairlawn’ and ‘Carter’.
In part this is from the luxury of owning their own time, with previous singles and EPs being released solely via their label Open Assembly Recordings and Working Out being recorded and produced by the quartet at their East London studio. It grants them some freedom from the always on/everything now/has it leaked? era, with the consequence that their aesthetic is a kind of cultivated minimalism, formed by decisions that are only made as and when, and by releases that are all the more valuable for their rarity.
In a more direct sense though, it’s borne from an artistic process summed up by their debut’s title: the tense moment of creativity being given the space and time to steadily unravel, song-writing and interpretation conducted as pass-the-parcel, an egalitarian disentanglement being allowed to run its course.
Conveniently enough, the band’s video for ‘Grand Union’ provides an accessible visual short-hand for this process, as well as their influences, themes, and preoccupations as a whole. For an afternoon four musicians in their early twenties move into a grand townhouse, dog in tow. The house itself is emblematic of the pre-modernist world and romance they’ve discussed in interviews, all sash windows and wood floors. “We are old for our age” as ‘Fairlawn’ goes.
Slowly, empty rooms are filled with furniture (some traditional, some re-purposed, some conspicuously modern), the camera following the group in various configurations as they move through the house. Occasionally these scenes are intercut with ones of the four stood around an open notebook, the focus of their huddle the sketched designs of how the rooms will come together. Each is getting on with their own work, moving with their own particular manner, but all informed by this one central mutual blueprint.
Now the cinematography is made up of shots of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Egon Schiele prints and a steadily filling book-shelf, with William Boyd’s hoax-biography of Nat Tate notably highlighted. Each choice invitingly gestures towards some significant facet of the band. First, there’s the constant tonal balancing act on the album, a manifestation of Woolf’s’ ‘knife’s blade that separates happiness from melancholy’. The lyrics work in juxtaposition and tension (“safety is the most unsettling” ; “feeling comfortable and suffering”), the minor-key dominates, and yet Arthur Beatrice balance this with their knack for a compelling hook and an expertly employed sneaking groove. These moments where layers of subtle nuance eventually explode into grandeur elevate all the album’s finest tracks, with ‘Midland’ and ‘Ornament and Safeguard’ in particular benefitting. It’s this knack, the band’s able experimentation with and employment of the tools of a pop-framework which ensures they’ll appeal to the full gamut of ears that justly ought to be at their disposal.
Then there’s the preoccupation with gender, physically, emotionally and intellectually. It’s there in the key dynamic ofArthur Beatrice as a whole, the gorgeous interplay of Orlando Leopard’s phlegmatic, reserved vocals and Ella Girardot’s delicate but lithe vocals, flitting catalytically between subdued and soaring. Lyrically though, this relationship is even more developed and incisive. Beyond simply the song itself suiting a particular vocalist, the choice of vocalist or register of harmony seems all the more pertinent when drawn against the poetic lyricism. A sense of play is created between the pair, a dialogue formed, ranging in subject matter over societal constructs and pressures (“What I do as a woman I do as a man”; “Keep in mind I’m cold and unkind for doing what I feel”) and relationships (“I’ll never roll away the weight of you, seems too much”; “I see the way we coincide and it’s nothing more than chance”).
Finally there’s an analysis of artistic purpose. The fraternal rhythm-section mount the album cover on the mantelpiece and finally the project is complete. There’s the sparest of moments to see the four at rest, to breathe the room in. Then, like Boyd’s Tate, who supposedly destroyed 99% of his artwork, all is undone: the art taken down, rugs rolled, van loaded and door closed. As a song titled ‘Grand Union’ whose key lyric (“coughing up blood, skin coming off”) is about falling apart comes to its close, in the coming together and coming apart there’s all you need to know.
In the slow but steady build-up to Working Out’s release, Arthur Beatrice have used their time without waste. Crucially, their ambiguity is no smokescreen for vacuity but a canvas for openness, their patience and careful anonymity deployed to afford themselves the capacity to grow at their own pace. The result is a debut record that’s fully-formed and finely-tuned, a triumph of enigmatic, engaging and exceptional outlier pop for the head and heart.
SONGS OF THE YEAR // VAMPIRE WEEKEND – HANNAH HUNT
Often even worse the break-up itself is the realisation of the decline beforehand, of sand slipping through your fingers, moments becoming lost in the rain, memories blowing away in the summer breeze. You look back to when the rot set in and you find it goes back even further than you thought: the weeks become months become years you could have changed. You review incidents that meant nothing at all at the time in a new light, and suddenly find them to be crucial turning points. Whilst the exterior was being kept intact, the inside was steadily eaten away. Then it all caves in.
Ezra Koenig tells a story of road-trips, mistrust, and heart-break that’s carried by a woozy, strange and transportive kind of bliss at the out-set. It’s a trap. Those spare delicate rhythms, atmospheric sound and harmonies drop out all of a sudden and then the dams burst. Drums break through, floods of piano erupt and with them Ezra’s voice breaks, the production making it feel as though he’s singing from somewhere oh so very far away but at the very tippest top of his voice. Then it’s all gone again, fading out as the seeming suddenness is shown to be the final act of inarrestabile decline. Now there’s nothing left at all.
Hannah Hunt might well be the purest, most sophisticated track the band has yet written. They’ve never been more subtle, and yet they’ve never been more purposeful and direct than the emotionally shattering second repeat of the line: “If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer.” It still kills me every time eight months later.
ARBITER OF POP // 1
Running through all of JT’s songs about love and relationships – specifically Cry Me a River, My Love, What Goes Around, and now Mirrors – is a vein of anxiety. Whether his thoughts are messing with his head, or full of all things matrimonial, these songs are riddled with doubt, error of judgement and desperate questions, either borne out in the open from present agony, or the underlying consequence of insecure fingers that have been singed.
“Why did you leave me, all alone?”
“(So don’t give away) My love”
“I guess I was wrong”
“Cause I don’t want to lose you now / I’m looking right at the other half of me”
With much of his life played out in front of lenses – from the Mickey Mouse Club to his latest album cover – a particular reason for these relationship anxieties is apparent to all: romantic loss, all the worse for being played out in public. By having relationships with such famous women Timberlake undoubtedly brings this upon himself, but nonetheless, opening his heart comes with such open consequences that the stakes might well seem all the higher. When your heart causes you to see someone’s face everywhere, a world tour can’t help the situation.
Though these songs are not always strictly confessional, first person pronouns are nonetheless one of the foremost features of his song-writing vernacular (there’s 7 in the above examples alone), and the effect is to entrench this anxiety deeply within Justin himself. How much of his relationship woes have been the result of self-deception or even self-destruction is not our business, but anyone can relate to the fact that carrying a buried wound of any sort means that even in the present, even at a moment of greatest stability, the idea of sudden loss can weigh imminent. We may not know what we’ve got until it’s gone, but we can still toss and turn at night about losing it long before it ever is.
“Coming right back here to you once I figured it out / You were right here all along”
What makes the emotional arc of Mirrors so glorious, is that all of these aspects - the anxiety, the loss, the scars, the fixation on the self - are all present, but treated from a position of self-awareness and happiness – not just reliant on another – but a sense of integral contentment instilled by progress through and life with another.
“So now I say goodbye to the old me, it’s already gone”
At the moment this self-aware realisation fully registers in the song, a sonic switch-up occurs to compound this personal development. The towering, romance bordering on melodrama conjured by the dominant synth riff, the swelling orchestral backing, and Timbaland’s idiosyncratic looping beat-box textures drop out, a dynamic already teased by the solely drum-led, open-lunged, arms in the air breakdown/chorus/BEST BIT, and the atmosphere and pace changes substantially. In their place we now have twinkling keys, a subtle metronomic beat, almost total calm, and one of the most intimate, richest vocal performances of Timberlake’s career. The self-possessed subtext fades and he gives himself over entirely, whilst never having been more entirely himself. All that’s left is the repeated declarative:
“You are, you are, the love of my life”
Mirrors is the emotional and musical highlight of one of the, if not the most, ambitious pop albums of the young century. 8 minutes 5 seconds long and – unlike the 20/20 projectitself - fully justifying of its length, nonetheless perhaps most satisfying of all, is that there’s no time for grand close, only a growing sense of peace as the instrumentation floats into the increasingly minimal. The song ends in an ellipsis free of anxiety, resting in the comfort of ‘to be continued’.
CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE
ARBITER OF POP // 2
JANELLE MONÀE // Q.U.E.E.N.
In her breath-taking performance on Later… earlier this year, our white suited heroine skidded round Holland’s studio with visceral energy, all the while pitching every note to perfection. That forcefulness on stage, combined with the fact Monáe’s responsible for some of the decade’s smoothest, most soulful R&B, might seem a tad contradictory, but the Atlanta-based Electric Lady seems to take dismantling preconceptions, however small and seemingly insignificant, as a personal responsibility, and it’s precisely this which makes her such a great writer of pop music – with Q.U.E.E.N. one of the loftiest peaks in a pristine discography.
Just take the way the track’s opening spring-loaded guitar wobble is controlled and choreographed to perfection as the song evolves, sometimes teasing, sometimes entreating, but rarely losing its purchase on your (frankly overjoyed) earlobes. As layers build Q.U.E.E.N. is never blatant or manipulative, because it relies on its own infectiousness to do the dirty work of finding that part of you, however small or well-disguised it may be, that really wants to dance, before proceeding to feed it with soul and feel-good sound.
Sonically, there are all sorts of virtues here that could whip the ground out from beneath you, especially what with the way Monáe can conjoin throwback R&B with orchestral arrangements and seriously retro-sounding flourishes on the keys, barely pausing to catch her breath. Q.U.E.E.N. is as dynamic as the Electric Lady herself – at once both ecstatic and immaculately presented, switching from expansive string breakdowns and passionate rap to the playful and tongue in cheek – however, what really makes the song so damn special is that, not only is it a further realisation of the Cyndi Mayweather concept that Monáe’s been pursuing since her first EP and a polished bauble of 24 carat pop, but that it’s also the most feminist, pro-individuality, pro-equality pieces of music to have ever got anywhere near 8 million YouTube hits.
At more than a few moments it can feel as though Q.U.E.E.N. is the embodiment of that strut Monáe seems to own so well, which lets you know she’s forever the ruler of her realm. This track is almost a manifesto for everything that Monáe wants to change about the world – whether that be the demonisation of the ‘other’, judgement, infringement upon people’s human rights – and it’s the fact it pulls off this idealism without a hint of self-congratulation that’s so very important. The sound of preaching has never been sweeter.
ARBITER OF POP // 3
KATY PERRY // Roar
2013 was (/is/hopefully always will be) the year in which I’ve never felt more intensely, deeply shitty about myself. Trigger over-share alarm.
My life isn’t hard. I’m fortunate enough to be completely healthy and still not look after myself well enough. I have a core group of people who care about me deeply, who I love deeply back and don’t tell often enough. I’m intensely lucky and intensely dumb-foundedly aware of that fact. Yet still - whether it be my perceived absence of capabilities and potential, the Fort Knox full of flaws, almighty balls-ups and terminal mistakes that lay behind me and probably ahead of me, or the crippling sense of ennui surrounding my place in and impact on the world around me - the last eight months in particular have felt entirely out of my control, bright moments drained of all their colour, my small ship cut adrift from the fleet and taking on water. Rejections, essay all-nighters, a lonely slog through my finals, 17 years of education arriving abruptly at its apparently definitive end, and, most crushingly of all, my heart broken.
It’s now July. My achievements feel immediately worthless. Various escape plans ranging from Snowdon to Tuscany don’t work out beyond immediate distraction.
I’ve missed the boat, have no future and have moved back home.
I hate myself.
I wish I hadn’t done this to myself.
Katy Fucking Perry - full title - should not have been one of the people to come closest to resolving that utter mess of a situation.
It is now August. These keys are brazenly ripped near-wholesale from Sara Bareilles. These lyrics are almost impossibly generic.
I’m falling madly in love with friends I thought I might have lost all over again.
I’m all-too-briefly writing for one my favourite music websites.
I’m in Yorkshire.
I’ve never felt more open.
I’m in Edinburgh.
I’m running out of money.
I’m getting creative again.
I’m passionate and stupid.
I’m starting to like myself.
I realise I have always been myself.
It is now September. This song should not be absobloodypositivifuckinlutely amazing. Those drums have no right to be so huge.
I should not be inwardly and outwardly screaming this and pumping my fist in the shower/whilst walking the dog/at my desk/in the car/in public spaces.
I should not be connecting with someone I’ll never meet, who I’d conceived of as a product, this deeply.
Things are getting better.
It is now December. I read that Scott Hutchinson also loves this song. I read that I should stick to my guns. I read that this song is important.
I’ve never felt more comfortable being this uncool or writing about myself.
My heart still aches daily, but no longer constantly.
I’ve not managed to take any huge strides forward yet.
But I’ve never been more ready and desperate to turn the page, believe in myself and get on with the next stage of my life.
I’ve never listened to Prism. I don’t really want to. Roar is still more than enough. Thanks Katy.