5 - 1
It’s been six years since the last album from the Blow, the electro-pop/philosophical-pop project of Khaela Maricich (now a duo with Melissa Dyne). The passage of time hasn’t greatly altered her musical approach, but it has apparently given her time to further refine and focus it. That’s a theme among the artists in this list—time between albums, but also consistency, or even growth, through that time. The Blow as a title is obviously re-introductory, but rightfully so. The album is the most coherent, fulfilling statement yet from Maricich, whose skill at social analysis and unique outlook on the world is fully on display – over bright dance beats, of course.
Heart of Wire
From the quieter side of pop comes the UK group Lorna, built around the vocal harmonies of husband-and-wife Mark and Sharon Cohen-Rolfe. Heart of Wire, like their previous three albums, has a sense of slow-motion to it, a sense of being out of step with the world around them. At the same time, the music is especially well-timed, the singers and instruments notably in sync. This one is more elaborately arranged than the others, and is extra beautiful and moving for it, mainly because of that quality of careful calibration, of being engineered for emotional effect, especially for those of us predisposed to enjoy patient, pretty music.
Saturday Looks Good to Me
One Kiss Ends It All
Fred Thomas’ group Saturday Looks Good to Me has been around since 1999, but has shifted in lineup and style a few times. Always at the center is Thomas’ classicist approach to songwriting and production, what often gets him referred to as a DIY Phil Spector or a one-man Brill Building. Just as persistent is his ability to write melodies for female singers to inhabit. One Kiss Ends It All, the group’s first album in six years, returns both to the center while keeping the music feeling current in outlook. The songs are about the world around us, the future, even, for human relationships and human communities. It’s a bit apocalyptic, but hopeful, with a bounty of sad but somehow energizing tunes.
Math and Physics Club
Our Hearts Beat Out Loud
On their third album, Math and Physics Club have perfected what has always been their strongest trait: economy. In the lyrics, the tunes, the instruments…they have a way of keeping everything within their melodic pop songs lean, even elemental, and bowling you over with that simplicity. The songs are, unsurprisingly, love songs, but as always that mean many things. Many sweet things are said from one person to another, but they always carry the sense that they’ve been earned, aren’t frivolous, and didn’t come easily. There seems a legion of stories within these songs—of nights, days, and bumps in the road—but the stories aren’t all told. Instead what we’ll get is a catchy melody, sparsely sung, carrying an economically worded, yet emotionally overwhelming sentiment. There’s also an overriding love for pop music here—a memory is inevitably tied to the song that was playing on the radio, which is how we all live, right?
Many of the groups on this list have been around awhile, but the Pastels have them all beat —they formed in Glasgow in 1981, over 30 years ago. It might not be unrelated that Slow Summits carries not the ragtag creativity of their earliest songs, but a more rounded, seasoned sort of tender approach that takes its time and doesn’t unleash all its pop pleasures at once. Over the last decades, they’ve been working on atmosphere as often as songcraft; here the two pursuits come together beautifully, making the album feel like an august culmination of their whole career. There still are spunky bursts of romantic energy, but also wide-eyed, slow-motion looks and listens around. The album has both some of their most immediate, memorable melodies and the prettiest stretches of impeccably arranged music. “Check My Heart” is in my brain as perhaps the iconic single of 2013; the album has pleasures that stretch far beyond it.