Album Of The Year 2020: Perfume Genius- “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately”

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately-Perfume Genius

I really liked the previous Perfume Genius album “No Shape.” So much so that it made it onto my shortlist for albums of the year, but it just didn’t resonate with me as much as the other 5 records I ultimately chose in 2017. On his latest album, “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately,” Michael Alden Hadreas and producer Blake Mills have continued to develop the techniques from “No Shape” to make a record that will go down as a modern classic.

From first listen, this album stood out as something special. The vocals are always the centerpiece of the record. They’re both lyrically and melodically captivating, becoming the major hooks for the tracks on repeat listens.

The vocals treatment is massively varied throughout the album; from subtle traditional reverb to blown out distortion, regardless, they sit above the instrumental sections, still feeling part of them.

Their ability to make such varied processing of vocals still sound uniform throughout the record continues with the instrumentation.

There is a mix traditional rock and classical instrumentation, peppered with occasional synthesis, and it all vibrates with a glow of pure class. It’s a well produced album in the traditional sense. Instruments are well recorded and always reflect their desired qualities for each section. It denotes the team behind the record being all at the top of their game and applying their expert techniques to every minute.

But this quality also hides the experimental nature in the record, especially in its use of the stereo field, which create lush vistas for the listener that I’d usually expect to hear on field recordings rather than music. The stereo width immerses the listener in the record to create a dreamscape of perspective, where instruments float around in their positions and the vocals envelop you. Because the application of stereo is used in this way throughout the album, it never feels out of place to the listener. It allows it to feel stylistically far more traditional than it actually is.

If I was going to summarize what makes the record so great, its pretty much the obvious. Well constructed songs with memorable lyrics, and melodies executed and enhanced by top class production. This brings the message to the listener as clearly, and with as much emotionally resonance, as possible.

A collection of great songs on an album that shows them in their best light is never going to be a bad one. In this instance it is the best of the year.

Albums of 2020: Oneohtrix Point Never- Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

Album Magic Oneohtrix Point Never by Oneohtrix Point Never

Out of all the albums on my end of year list, this is the one I had to wrestle with the most. I never struggled with the album or its accessibility but it made me think long and hard about my albums of the year list and why I choose the records that go on it.

For almost as long as this blog, I have been a fan of Oneohtrix Point Never and have probably written about his music more than any other act. Two of his albums have already made it into my album of the year lists. Out of all the acts that I have talked about on my blog, his work is the stuff I return to the most throughout.

When making my album of the year list, I take a couple of things into account, which have in the past hindered records. Firstly, have I already said what I needed to say about them in another post, Secondly, is the album doing anything new that the artist’s previous work hasn’t done before. This album for me fails at both of these mini-rules I made up for myself. This is why I have struggled with putting it on my albums of the year list, even thought it is the record I have listened to the most this year.

Eventually, the elements I was wrestling with moved to the back of my thought process the more times I listened to the record, and eventually I knew it had to be on this list.

Up until this point, the OPN sound has been both massively defined and amorphous. His sound design and production is so individualistic it verges on the iconic, but since his album “Returnal,” he has always applied it to very different styles of music.

Throughout the past decade of his non-soundtrack albums, we have seen OPN apply his filter to, Rock, R&B and a large mix of electronic genre. He plays with the listeners memories of these genre; a technique that goes back even further to his massively influential “Eccojams pt.1” which looped small sections of mostly 80’s popular music to create washes of undefined nostalgia for the listener of a certain age. A fake dream of an idea, of what music was/is and what it can, can’t and maybe shouldn’t be.

In the past, that was the most interesting part of his work. Hearing how he took the feelings and soundscapes of music you are already attached to and shifted them into his world. On “Magic Oneohtrix Point Never” he goes one step more meta, using the music he’s made up to now as the progenitor for this album.

We’re treated to an audio ouroboros of his back catalog. The album shifts and uses techniques from previous records to create a collection of tracks that will be rewarding to long time listeners of his work, and a “technical greatest hits” for people who are new to his style.

It’s all here. The electronic ambiance of his earlier “Rifts” work, the aggressive pop sensibility of “Returnal,” the vocal sampling of “Replica”, the romantic digital sounds of “R plus Seven”, the vocal synth design of “Garden Of Delete,” and the R&B tinges of “Age Of.” All entwined to make a record that still manages to sound like a complete work, no matter how odd and disjointed the elements can be.

In every review of OPN, I always finish with a bewildered excitement around what he could possibly make next. What genre would he blend into the musical paste of his style. But this time I have a separate feeling. He could just stop. “Magic Oneohtrix Point Never” distills all of the work and techniques he has applied for just over a decade into one complete package. It could easily be a swansong to the work and a perfect sendoff.

However it could also be the beginning of something completely new. Maybe he will change the production style itself on a future record? I am always left with questions at the end of an OPN record however this is a type of question I have never asked before and that is the main reason I had to put it in my album of the year list.

“Magic Oneohtrix Point Never” does something I would have never expected. It holds a mirror up to the previous work, giving you a reflection of your own sentimentality towards the back catalog, and yet it still manages to surprise and leave you with even more questions as to how, why and when will this enigmatic approach stop creating amazing music that dumbfounds expectations.

Albums of 2020: U.S. Girls- Heavy Light

Heavy Light By U.S. Girls

“Heavy Light” continues an incredible track record for Meghan Remy, who under the name U.S. Girls has produced a collection of absolutely stellar experimental pop records.

The level of consistency across Meghan’s work is impressive, especially when you consider the genre her music sits in. Experimental pop can, by its very nature, play fast and loose with the form, and in doing so (even for the greats of the genre) it can easily result in misses. Yet “Heavy Light” never loses its pop sensibilities, even when the more experimental elements come into play.

The album opens with a couple of great instantly loveable tracks. “4 American Dollars,” with its hints of disco, and “Overtime,” with its driving percussion, provide some high energy and harken back to the 70’s; a golden age of the genre. Although the music and vocal delivery is exceptionally catchy, the lyrical content certainly reflects the darker times of 2020.

This continues through the album, underpinned by a collection of interview responses to questions that make up the tracks “Advice to Teenage Self,” “The Most Hurtful Thing,” and “The Color of Your Childhood Bedroom.” In this raw form, they show an open vulnerability that can be concealed under the musical accompaniments on the rest of the record.

If you take away the question response tracks, you are left with an album that on the surface sounds (and is structured like) a classic pop record. Its blend of different styles is perfectly paced, moving tempo and energy throughout. This is then elevated by the context the lyrics put them in.

Not one track on this album deals with the emotional simplicities of lust/love that you would hear in more traditional pop. Instead, it weighs up complex, difficult narratives and nuanced characters under the guise of more accessible music. Songs of struggle and suffocation are polished competently with a veneer of quality production and memorable melodies, but it is how they play off each other that makes the record such a great one.

Meghan Remy has demonstrated again her exceptional abilities as a singer, writer and producer. Her high standards could make it easy to overlook “Heavy Light,” but I urge you not to. Although released in early March, it remains one of the best records from 2020.

Albums of 2020: The Soft Pink Truth- Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase

Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase by The Soft Pink Truth

Without a doubt the biggest musical surprise for me this year was this album. I came to it knowing absolutely nothing about it or the people behind it and was absolutely blown away.

After doing some research, I found out that the project was spearheaded by Drew Danial; part of the wonderfully experimental electronic band Matmos who’s ability to create great music from almost anything I have always found inspiring.

However, Matmos has always been a band that I have found more cerebral than emotionally resonant. Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase manages to strike a balance between the two.

The instrumentation is far more traditional but the focus is always on the instruments textural nature. This use of more traditional instrumentation allows you as a listener to latch onto the sounds, playing on our historical memories of music throughout our lives, and yet taking them in compositional directions that are fresh and exiting. The melodies are often hard to grasp – verging on the ambient – and yet the emotional weight they carry is at times profound.

The album flows between tracks with such ease that, when listening to it as a whole, its hard to differentiate between tracks. Instead, you notice the change in mood as the album progresses through darker more sinister sections to uplifting and almost angelic moments of sheer audible bliss.

You are sent on this bold voyage of musical and emotional discovery at a brisk pace that never lingers for too long on a motif, melody or musical idea, putting you as the listener in a flow state reminiscent for me of the work of Neu! but with a greater depth and distance covered. It remains fresh and inspiring throughout, constantly shifting, developing and collapsing into new and exciting territories.

Out of all the albums this year, this is the one I wish I had created myself. It shows a mastery of a completely alternative approach to music production, and yet creates something that still connects with the listener on a fundamental way that makes it easy to forget its experimental nature. I have loved every second of the musical journey it takes you on. It is a journey I look forward to experiencing many times in the future.

For any fans of albums as a complete piece of work, “Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase” should not be missed.

Albums of 2020: Moses Sumney- Græ

“Græ” was a record I came to with little knowledge of, other than some favorable reviews. From first listen I was stunned by its scope; a twenty track double album that flutters between genre and instrumentation effortlessly due to some incredibly talented and bold production.

I was perplexed by the albums aesthetics but after some research I realised I shouldn’t be. The albums credits feature some of the people at very cutting edge of music over the past decade. Acts who’s own work I have adored. Daniel Lopitan (Oneohtrix Point Never), Ian Chang (Son Lux), Shabaka Hutchings (The Comet is Coming), James Blake, Thundercat, and the list goes on. They all manage to put their unique styles on individual tracks of the album, as a whole proving in this instance that too many cooks can make an exemplary broth, a full tasting menu, and win a Michelin star.

With all this input it would be easy to think the album would be sporadic and yet, throughout all its changes in genre and influences, it still manages to hold together as a complete work. Jazz, Folk, Alternative Rock, neo-classical and experimental electronic genres all weave with each other, creating an adventurous but unified listening experience.

It’s a testament to Moses Sumney’s vocal ability, which manages to unify the production further, weaving between styles that could easily derail a performance. Its quite a feat when tracks on an album that are so complex when analysed sound effortless when in general listening.

The only weak point on the album falls on the listener. If not given the correct amount of attention, the album can be easily missed as a modern classic.

During the finalising process for my albums of the year, I shortlist a collection of possible contenders and put them on a playlist for further analysis. When the music wasn’t my full attention e.g. when driving to work or playing in the background when cooking, Græ can conceal its qualities and complexity. But if you shine the light of your full attention on the record, it reveals a kaleidoscope of audible treats that continue to impress throughout its entire play through.