My grown up music wheelhouse is the folk, Americana, and even country of lyrical crooners and brooders. But pop music is my DNA. Synthesizers are in my blood, and big, dramatic vocal hooks are in my bones. Blame it on the top 40 radio countdowns I devoted my weeknights to in junior high.
Here are three albums from 2018 that brought out the aspiring pop star in me.
Death Cab for Cutie fans will resist a “pop” label, but the band is on a major label and gets played on commercial radio. Also (and this didn’t really register for me until I saw them live last month), their gig is shot through with the distortion and despair of mid 80’s new wave that dominated pop radio in the early 80’s. There’s New Order in there, for sure.
Thank You for Today (Atlantic) marks the second consecutive Death Cab album that I’ve flipped for after ignoring their first nine. I think their sound has solidified (or something). Kintsugi was full of heavy guitar riffs, and the vocal distortion was dialed back, and I loved it–all of it. Thank You . . .relies quite heavily on distortion, by contrast, and is more synth-heavy. But the songs are all expertly crafted, lyrically insightful, and deeply enjoyable with repeated listens. “Gold Rush” and “You Moved Away” are the ones I love the most. “60 & Punk” is exactly how to close an album.
Chvrches are Scottish, which puts them even more squarely in the center of my musical panoply. Del Amitri, Frightened Rabbit, The Proclaimers: the Scots do poetic, melodic, angst better than anyone. And while Chvrches, an electronic duo, don’t naturally fit with their guitar strumming countrymen on any kind of list, what they do tickles the same spot, at least for me.
Love Is Dead (Glassnote) is Chvrches third major studio album. It does what its predecessors did, so much so that it took me months to really get around to it. What I mean is that listening to and loving a Chvrches album doesn’t feel like discovery. It’s the leftover pizza you’re saving in the fridge as you experiment with that risotto recipe in the cookbook you got for Christmas. You know it’s going to be satisfying, so you can wait for it.
If you like layered synthesizers and sweeping choruses, Love Is Dead is for you. Start with the refrain-fueled “Never Say Die” and then move to “Graves,” which will make you wonder what you’re doing with your life (“You can look away/while they’re dancing on our graves/but I will stop at nothing”).
In 2014 I fell hard for TV En Francais, a pop rock album by a duo from Claremont, CA (where I was living) called We Are Scientists. They made another album in 2016, but my life was too garbled up with a move to spend any time with it. So when they started releasing singles from a new album in 2018, I made sure to add them to my library. Then the album was released in late April.
I remember taking the scenic route to work that morning to enjoy the early summer Chicago sun and spin all 31 minutes of Megaplex (100% Records). Song after song got added to my “2018 Radio” playlist–songs I want to keep. These soaring choruses and lead guitar riffs, these synthesizers and . . . wait for it . . . claptracks! It starts with the lead track, “One In, One Out,” and marches straight through “Notes In A Bottle” (the guitar solo on that song is 10 bars of Def Leppard-worthy goodness) all the way “Properties of Perception” at the end. When it’s over you naturally start it all over again.
Alright, there’s one more of these music of the year posts to go. It only has one album on it, the one that stood out, out, out for me as the biggest musical revelation of the year. Look for that on Monday.