Sinéad O'Connor: Sean-Nos Nua

Ari Levenfeld

SinÉad O'connor

Sean-Nos Nua

Label: Vanguard
US Release Date: 2002-10-08
UK Release Date: 2002-10-07

Sinead O'Connor has always done what she wanted to. For anyone in the music industry who's made more than one album, that's quite an accomplishment. Her debut CD The Lion and the Cobra is as shockingly good now as when it was released in 1987. Sinéad covered a lot of ground on that first album, ranging from the far reach of injustice in the world to a selection of fiercely passionate love songs. While many singer-songwriters reserve use their first record as a chance to show off the pipes, and perhaps their ability to craft a pop song, O'Connor laid down nine tracks worth of the world's dirty laundry. Some of it was difficult to take, but she was just too good for us not to listen. Her follow up, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, included the song that put her on the map: "Nothing Compares 2 U". MTV tossed the video for this desperate love song into the heavy rotation hopper, and she confronted the world face-to-face through her voice.

With all that has been written about the power of Sinéad O'Connor's voice, I won't waste any more adjectives here. For those that know how she sings, let it be known that she has lost nothing with her new album Sean Nos-Nua. In fact, it's obvious that while the power and passion are still there, Sinéad has matured as a person, and her voice has taken nicely to the aging process. If you've never heard her sing before, this album is as good as any to start. While it doesn't include anything that could remotely be called pop, or radio friendly, it will provide just as adequate an introduction to O'Connor's range as any of her works.

Of course, Sinéad has always worn her defiance on her sleeve, and on top of her head. When she first burst onto the scene, many reporters asked about her shaved head. She responded that when she recorded her first album, the label wanted to doll her up and make her into a sex symbol like Sheila E. She responded by cutting all of her hair off. From the beginning this was part of O'Connor's appeal.

But a series of defiant protests against political and religious tyranny that soon followed her initial success left a bad taste by many fans mouths. She was branded a troublemaker. After refusing to allow the "Star Spangled Banner" to play before her concert in a New Jersey arena, the American media painted her as a sort of Irish musical terrorist. Frank Sinatra actually threatened to beat her up over the incident. While I'm sure this left O'Connor satisfied that her message had been broadcast loud and clear, it also resulted in a blacklisting of her name. This was partially due to her own doing too -- she refused to participate in the music industry's Grammy Awards -- but mostly because there was no barrier between her heart and tongue.

The albums that followed O'Connor's impressive first two were tepidly received by the critics, and failed to sell many records. As this has always been the barometer of artistic success in the music industry, Sinéad O'Connor soon began to fade from the public eye.

As O'Connor moves on in her career, she seems more content to make exactly the records that she desires, and less inclined to have a hit. In fact, the allure of success hasn't really struck her since 1992 when she released Am I Not Your Girl?, the follow up to the amazingly successful I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. Am I Not Your Girl? featured a series of standards written by non-rock and rollers like Andrew Lloyd Weber. The title of the album itself seemed to taunt its listener, suggesting how easily one love song can be replaced with another. Fans didn't get the joke.

O'Connor simplifies even further on Sean-Nos Nua. The album, whose title means "In the True Old Style", is a collection of 13 Irish folk songs that she either learned as a child, or discovered in recent years. As O'Connor points out in the liner notes, many of the songs are similar in that they deal with the enduring pain of unconditional love. It is her belief that "pain can be turned into something positive and beautiful" through song. She's also stated several times that this is the album she's been dying to make all of her life. So it's no wonder that she wanted to do it right. She recruits Irish folk luminaries Donal Lunny, Christy Moore and Sharon Shannon to play along with her siren voice on each track.

The pacing of Sean-Nos Nua is magnificent. There's such a range of sad songs here, an improper arrangement would have made it difficult to listen to all the way through. But O'Connor, who produced the album, did a wonderful job of weaving the melodies together, so that listening to Sean-Nos Nua, you might imagine yourself on a cool green Irish hillside leaning on a mossy rock wall.

The album opens with "Peggy Gordon", a seemingly simple song of lost love. In the notes that O'Connor provides, she states that while "Peggy Gordon" was commonly sung by men pining for the love past years, it was first revealed to her by a woman who was lamenting the loss of her female lover. O'Connor goes on to say that she was struck by the use of the song as an expression of homosexual love, which in her native Ireland is not allowed a voice. She treats the tune like a lullaby, gently unfolding the precious lyrics, which reverberate next to Donal Lunny's tender guitar work. O'Connor allows a brief respite with the bittersweet "Her Mantle So Green" which proceeds "Peggy Gordon". Like many of the songs on Sean-Nos Nua, there is a melodic narrative to follow. Here, a man returns home in disguise after the war, to test his love's fidelity. The lilting voice and crisp production allows O'Connor's voice to sparkle along, as if she was the first to ever sing the tune.

Much of the album mimics this pattern. Fading melancholy followed by a more upbeat number. All this, and O'Connor still allows herself to provide a little history lesson on Ireland's stormy past. The desperate plea of "Lord Franklin" reveals the nineteenth century story of explorer Sir John Franklin, who set out to discover a passage through the Arctic Ocean. When his ship failed to return, his wife spent the rest of her life chartering search parties for her lost love. Or "Paddy's Lament", which details the plight of Irishmen who set out for America to find a better life, only to be conscripted into the Civil War upon setting foot on the docks. O'Connor does not just sing for herself, or even her homeland. She sings for the entire history of her people. In doing so, she reveals that this might not be such a simple collection of Irish folk tunes after all.

Sean-Nos Nua promises no return to Sinéad O'Connor's early work. However, for those infatuated with her magical voice, this album of work doesn't disappoint. The classic songs of her country provide the perfect showcase for what even O'Connor's greatest critics can't deny: her ability to sing. Maybe if she had been allowed to make this album from the beginning, she could have saved Frank Sinatra a lot of ruffled feathers.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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