They found me in the car park next to Richard III
If no-one else noticed my absence from the blogosphere, it is most certain that I did. Reducing my social media activity to Facebook meandering and rapidfire tweeting has done many things, including the amassing of a great deal of short term gratification and a conversion towards support for Scottish independence, something perhaps best covered in lengthy detail by another post. But it is undoubted that nothing quite offers that satisfaction of writing something of substance for non-academic purposes. Depressingly, a few of a posts here have reached a far greater audience and offered more personal fulfilment than many an essay submission. It is for this reason, even whilst trying to keep head above water in the choppy waters of academia, that I have chosen to return to writing recreationally.
The end of the year offers both healthy and unhealthy opportunities for introspection, and to gaze back across all we have enjoyed and endured over the previous twelve months. It was only in the frosty breezes of the past few days that 2013 revealed itself to be a distinctly vintage year for my own favourite genre of atmospop. The untrained may be unfamiliar with the term, but a brief description of the term would encourage those people to think of pop as a sensory experience. If a pop song lacks the ability to send a shiver down the spine, or move to tears but one person, then it needn’t qualify. The production of these songs tend to operate in echo chambers, every note packed to the hilt with atmosphere and emotion, and in my personal opinion are best listened through headphones with your coat billowing in the draughtiness of a cold cityscape… a setting that my continued residency in the fine city of Edinburgh is more than pleased to offer.
Atmospop has featured at the fringes of much of the year’s chart action. Most readers will likely have noticed the very much welcome return of house to the top 40, offering a alternative model of club anthem that essentially negates any remaining purpose for FloRida’s continuing existence. Many such smashes have been laced with the fabric of atmospop, most notably in the instance of Duke Dumont and A*M*E’s excellent “Need U (100%)”, which comfortably dominated our airwaves through the chill of Spring. This diversity of genres will perhaps be reflected in my discussion more than over before. Infact, while atmospop has been recognisably absent from what might largely be as considered mainstream pop, it has found a blossoming new life this year due to a proliferation throughout the best of alternative pop, hip-hop, indie and electronica.
5. Childish Gambino – 3005
Clearly determined to cause trouble for myself already, some may wish to debate the extent to which Childish Gambino could be said to quality as pop music. While I recognise that Donald Glover is failing to trouble the upper end of the British charts, the sumptuousness of “3005”‘s bridge and chorus are rather too splendid to ignore. 2013 additionally being the year that I finally got around to falling in love with Community and Glover’s character Troy, I am similarly enamoured with this lead single from sophomore LP “Because The Internet.” The track marries Gambino’s signature rapping style with a rich and modern R&B backdrop noticeably reminiscent of Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange.” I genuinely hope, as with Ocean, that Gambino is able to garner more mainstream recognition. In a year where our so many of hitmakers are interesting new characters seemingly propelled from relative anonymity, the mainstream rap genre hasn’t offered us anything more imaginative than the continuity of the astoundingly resilient career of Pitbull, and 2 Chainz offering all of us some kind of global blowjob. While the atmospop content of this number is rather restricted to the harmonious vocals and glorious synths within the chorus, these alone are enough to merit inclusion at the tail end of our countdown.
4. Haim – Falling
I don’t think any act has come close to capturing the essence of my favourite musical banshees of the past as these three sisters from Cali. Although popular, Haim continue to stand out like sore thumbs, although favourably, within the modern pop landscape. An early 2013 release, the formidable “Falling” continues to accumulate significant airplay even on an unrelentingly and self-consciously hypermodern Radio 1, despite only reaching the heights of number 30. Following on from the stellar “Forever” and “Don’t Save Me”, “Falling” delivers a refreshing and understated take on the likes of Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac for our age. The sisters make admirable use of their sublime layered vocals over fast-paced and veiled bombastic production to produce one of the satisfying and enduring releases of this year. Recent effort “The Wire” suggests a change of direction for the band, which I may not favour so highly. However, “Falling” and it’s aforementioned predecessors are enough to secure my lasting approval and the number four spot on this list.
3. CHVRCHES – Recover
It’s rather hard to articulate in words how thrilling it is to be able to get excited about a Scottish band again. While local lads such as Frightened Rabbit have found an audience and vast critical acclaim within the music press, it was unlikely that their stylings would ever capture my imagination. CHVRCHES however, have injected new life into the Scottish music scene by revitalising a genre that was threatening to implode in unto itself. The majority of the band’s rather brilliant first album features pained and breathy vocals over heady thumping synths, a combination of noise likely recorded somewhere for if I ever require immediate resuscitation with familiar, favoured tones. “Recover” has narrowly pipped the marginally more popular “The Mother We Share” into this countdown due to the sheer heartbreak conveyed over the final minute of the track, as the vocals become ever more desperate and the pound of the synths ebbs away leaving an altogether more ethereal sound. CHVRCHES are playing this year’s Concert in Princes Street Gardens, alongside the Pet Shop Boys, just one of the acts to whom they are the effective heirs. Unsurprisingly, this is one line-up that may have tempted me to stand for hours in the biting temperatures of central Edinburgh.
2. Mutya Keisha Siobhan – Flatline
Now, were I counting down the year’s most prominent chart injustices then these girls would be undoubtedly be topping the chart like a bullet. The reunion of the original line-up of the Sugababes created a brief media stir and a lasting buzz among literally tens of pop fans across the UK. It is undoubted that the unification of Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan offered a wealth of promise, with teases such as their turn on a remix of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” only increased the fervour. Unfortunately, as things transpired, an excessively badly managed campaign for “Flatline” meant that even those with investment grew frustrated and a aggressive snub from Radio 1 playlisters was effectively another nail in the coffin with regard to the tune’s prospective chart success, and we now live in doubt that we will ever see another full album from this trio. Not that any of this should take away from the sheer strength of “Flatline.” All of the online hype surrounding the tune was entirely founded in the undoubted quality of the track. Acting as a complete contrast to the stylings of the latter day Sugababes, “Flatline” is an exercise in maturity and class. The band’s voices appear to forget their 10+ year estrangement and blend seamlessly together once again over the sophisticated and elegant production of Dev Hynes. As with CHVRCHES’ “Recover”, the song doesn’t get eye-wettingly delicate until it’s final third, as a choir chant buoyantly and cascade of sound softly rains down as “Flatline” takes it’s final breaths. An unabashed triumph that I sadly can only hope I hear more of the likes of in 2014.
1. Beyoncé – XO
But a month ago, I could not have envisaged the current Queen of Pop swooping in to capture the coveted “best Atmospop track of 2013” title, nor would I have expected it. Even if any of us had been aware that Beyoncé had been planning to drop a laudable new opus, it is unlikely that any of would have expected the musical direction she has chosen as the album’s debut single. What is clear, is that our Bey has most likely been listening to or taking lessons from her own sister. Solange Knowles is already quite the master of the genre, releasing undervalued epics such as the estimable “Losing You” for over a year now. “XO” has clear echoes of Beyoncé’s sister’s material, as well as that of atmospop stalwarts such as Jessie Ware. The song is a grand and truly gorgeous lesson in contented love, with Beyoncé’s velvet voice weaving lyrics over deep piano, buried synths and misleadingly punchy drum hooks. It is unremittingly anthemic, and conjures powerful imagery rivalling the likes of Lana Del Rey’s “National Anthem” and Kelis’s “4th of July.” A late entry but a nonetheless entirely deserving winner, I am looking forward to hearing so much more of this style from the mainstream across the coming year.
I have corroborated a handy Spotify playlist of these five tracks for your listening pleasure, and it is worth noting that the original Atmospop playlist available elsewhere on this blog has been updated to include first-rate efforts released or discovered by myself since the original post.
What is your verdict on the list? Do you believe there are any scandalous omissions? To jog memory, here are a few that narrowly missed out:
Katy B – Crying For No Reason
Another latecomer indeed, but a veritable curveball of an effort from the oft more urban Miss B. This electro-tinged ballad has also taken even her naysayers by surprise.
Lana Del Rey – Young and Beautiful
This effort for the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby allowed Miss Del Rey to bring the goods yet again, although nothing could quite elevate this to the spine-tingling heights of 2012’s atmospop zenith “Ride.”
Sophie Ellis Bextor – Young Blood
A welcome return to the music scene from Ellis-Bextor brought this heartfelt number wound with luscious strings particularly over the end section. The production is of a lower key than I would usually prefer, clearly designed not to alienate the Strictly Come Dancing audience she was trying to court.
Tegan and Sara – I Was A Fool
I know little of this duo’s musical output, but am reliably informed that effectively selling out with latest album Heartthrob has been instrumental in aiding these sisters to produce the best work of their career. “I Was A Fool” is a wonderfully simple piano mid-tempo with a healthy dollop of emotional drama and svelte harmonies.
Please do rush to welcome me back to writing, and critique my selections thoroughly and viciously. Tell me everything!