From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk, electronica often has a natural inclination to sound like the music of robots. Precision beats and cold melodies compel movement and ring with huge volume but the genre often fails to synthesize music that sounds flawed, intimate and well, human. Canadian duo Junior Boys’ 2009 album Begone Dull Care is significant in its ability to warp clunky electronic beats into emotional, empathetic songs. Transcending genre, the album simultaneously blends fluid structure with colorful statements on love that swing from sexy to sweetly innocent in a matter of measures. Deep and dynamic, Begone Dull Care is so enjoyable and relatable perhaps because it is so well layered and prone to pleasing changes that make it brazenly addictive. Entrancing love ballads like “Hazel” take washes of perky synth bits, a ferocious beat, and stacked melodies into a climactic duo with romance stained vocals. As the ecstatic energy of one solo dwindles, the ominous sweep intro of the melancholy “Sneak a Picture” transforms the an exuberant mood into the sound of a rainy, dark dance between majors and minors. With careful attention paid to the rich interplay between parts and a penchant for authentic transformations within songs, the Junior Boys gifted 2009 with an insanely catchy collection of tunes that rewrites a human sort of electronica for the year’s lovers and broken hearts.
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Mark Pritchard is an incredible musical chameleon—while the earlier half of this decade saw him making an homage to library records with the mellotron-filled Harmonic 33 project, that little “1”–-also a nod to the Detroit influence—changes the game to hip-hop, techno, and dubstep. Taking cues from J-Dilla and Cybotron, Machines is a reflectively cold, yet subtly satirical take on retro-futurism. Tracks like “Galag-A”, with its classic video game title and decayed faux-Plaid synths, look inward at the mechanical visions of the future from yesteryear. “Falling Away”, with Steve Spacek, puts a human voice to the achingly expressive beats. Machines is an unmitigated triumph and a career high-point; given that Mark Pritchard was one half of Global Communication, the duo responsible for timeless ambient house classic 76:14, that’s saying something.
Mancunian epic rockers Doves often suffer in the indie world’s view for their generic similarities to several derided giants of British stadium rock, but there’s no other lad-rock anywhere that’s quite this dynamic, angular, and haunted. For Kingdow of Rust, Doves shook off the dust from the sonic blueprints for their career-best effort, The Last Broadcast. The final product can sometimes be over-familiar (“The Greatest Denier” and “Spellbound”), but the most evocative moments are undeniably powerful. Opener “Jetstream” is influenced both by Kraftwerk and Vangelis’ Blade Runner score, and expands gloriously on its electronic base. The title track envisions ghostly shapes amidst Manchester’s cooling towers and the Pennine moors. “10:03” begins predictably but soon switches tracks to something more forceful and sinister. The rewarding journey ends with the wonderfully-produced “Lifelines”, their finest ballad since “Caught by the River”. Four albums in, Jimi Goodwin and the Williams brothers continue to restlessly tweak their creative formula, with completely satisfying results.
Born Like This represents DOOM’s return to rap, with the chrome–domed villain at his sharpest, a menacingly streamlined name and rhymes to match. With no topic beyond his grasp—he highlights the increased homogenisation of of hip-hop since his self-imposed exile, but filtered through the darker realities of war, race, religion, and sexuality. The album’s centrepiece is undoubtedly “Cellz”, which opens with Charles Bukowski’s apocalyptic “Dinosauria, We”. This audacious sample reinforces DOOM’s dark lyrical content, as well as drawing parallels to the work of other American poets who dealt with self-examination and dirty realism. “Can it be I stayed away too long?” croons DOOM on “That’s That”, and after a five year hiatus, you might be forgiven for considering it a possibility, but Born Like This swims against the tide. It builds into a complex and layered work, crafted with a deft touch that proves hip-hop’s villain may have matured into its saviour.
It seems to be the nature of the world to chafe at any spot of contentment in your life, and Born on Flag Day captures that sense of being at odds with your surroundings as well as any release this year. It’s a feeling of conflict that exists in every part of the band’s music: the faster songs feel like they’re about to run off the rails, sharp lyrics lurk in the slower songs just waiting for their chance to cut to the bone, and vocalist John Joseph McCauley conveys it all with an acute, nasally rasp. Born on Flag Day is an album with a lot of stories to tell, and its characters—from the regret-filled grandfather of “Song About a Man” to the slacker lovers of “Friday XIII”—offer insight into the bad choices we make, and why we might be making them.