2011 is a special year in many ways for me. Utterly fantastic music was to be heard at every turn, whether it be a Facebook or Twitter link, a video, a concert… we were just a few clicks away from something amazing. I’ve met and made contact with some of the genuinely nicest people who are either performers, writers, songwriters, producers … and are always music fans. For someone like me who has sometimes odd music tastes and often wants to stand up on my seat and root for the underdog, it’s reassuring to know that there are so many of us out there in the world.
In anticipation of my year end Best Songs list – which will be a Top 75 Songs for the first time since around 1992 – I’m going to rave on about 20 performers (and one compilation project) who made 2011 a watershed year, particularly for pop music online (he says after listening to the radio and finding so little of interest on it). So this post is a little longer than usual… they are in no particular order, except for the last five 🙂
The Irish trio toured around the world and then seemed to do it again, sideways, finally landing a show in my city. Their Science And Faith album proved to be a consistent soft rock entry, spawning long-lasting hits like “For The First Time” and “Nothing”. It’s a record that you can put on at any time and know that you will get something different back in each play every time. The band in concert has an earnest, contagious energy which will serve them well in their rock career.
If I hadn’t heard the magical and eerie “Night Air”, well represented by a beautifully-shot video, Jamie Woon’s Mirrorwriting would not have been one of my most played albums of the first quarter of the year. Englander Jamie has one of those deep musical souls, highly evident in gripping R&B/Blues-influenced songs like “Tmrw”, “Street”, “Waterfront” and “Shoulda”. I can’t wait to see where his next album will take him, and us.
The Midway State
The Toronto-based quartet had me a bit puzzled with their sophomore release Paris Or India, but it’s really an album that grows on you with time. First you must get over the hurdle that it’s quite different, and much more produced, than their 2008 debut Holes. But the songs do resonate, particularly “Fire!”, “All Anew”, “Hartley Salter’s Kite”, and “St. Paul And The Wolf”. The band proved how much they’ve grown touring back and forth across Canada and are now a formidably tight unit in concert. Keep them on your radar!
What’s one to do after leaving your major record label of 6 years? Why, you tour the hell out of North America in support of the album that you couldn’t agree upon, that’s what! So Indiana’s Jon McLaughlin released Forever If Ever on his own, as if to reacquaint us with an increasingly lost image – the singer/songwriter/piano man. I mean, a full blown piano solo in the album’s best song, “Promising Promises”, really? The record is mainly soft rock, but also rocks out on “What I Want” and “These Crazy Times”. And Jon proved himself to be a compelling presence in concert, prepared to bang out that keyboard until it falls apart.
I was fortunate enough to win last minute tickets to see Adam Cohen’s show in Toronto in October. And I was treated to a low key, enthusiastic small event to showcase his first English solo album, Like A Man, since 1998, after recording one in French in 2004 and of course having some success with his rock band Low Millions. So Adam has now embraced some of father Leonard’s style and grace on the album. But these are Adam’s songs which tell interesting tales of love, lust, and beauty, as well as a coming of age of sorts. At 39, Adam has decided to continue with a pop music career after nearly talking himself out of it. And so out of that we have Like A Man, one of the best albums of 2011.
This New York City trio is among a select few who seem to be reinventing the late night dance music of their city. There’s no better example than their See The Light album, full of dark and sensual rhythms carried by the sultry-plus voice of Nomi Ruiz. “Fun Girl”, “White Horse” and especially the knockout duet with Antony Hegarty on “Prisoner Of Love” will serve as benchmarks in this sub-genre which will continue to grow.
It almost seems like a no-brainer. But with the success of contemporary dance in our pop culture spectrum now, thanks in large part to TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, no one had thought about putting a contemporary spin on traditional ballroom dances until now. Dance choreographer extraordinaire Melanie La Patin executive-produced this fun and diverse compilation, with all songs written and produced by one group of incredible individuals, so it comes off as a dedicated and attractive affair to suit your every dance mood. And the performers who participated? A who’s who of Internet pop from across the globe – Simon Curtis, Kyle Brylin, Gravitonas, Elouise, Lee Latchford Evans, Romy Low, Neo, plus stunning newcomers like Jerry Reid, Joshua Desjardins, and Jeronimo. Putting together such a compilation in these times must have taken massive effort but the results are exceptional, so check it out if you haven’t.
Bright Light Bright Light
Rod Thomas creates sad and romantic electropop with a big heart. And while we haven’t yet seen a full album release, this London-based Welsh singer/producer/DJ continued to dazzle us in 2011 with the heartbreak of “Disco Moment”, “How To Make A Heart”, and a unique interpretation of the “Twin Peaks” theme (originally sung by Julee Cruise) “Falling”. And then there are his numerous dance mixes, often courtesy of his nightclubbing event “Another Night”. Bright Light Bright Light is on my must-listen list.
Adam Tyler, Kyle Brylin, and Nick Hagelin
All of these fine young men didn’t strike me with their first few songs. But 2011 has shown that all are coming into their own, with endless possibilities ahead. All are very prolific, whether engaging us with their own originals/collaborations, or with well-chosen cover versions.
Adam released his debut album Shattered Ice, toured most of the U.S., and also visited England, Sweden and Japan. The well-received electronic album included pre-released single “I Won’t Let You Go”, plus club bangers such as “Like A Drug”, “Pull The Trigger”, and the anthemic “Music Freak”, but also showed Adam’s softer side as well, which truly highlights his voice, very apparent in his non-album free download covers of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” or Adele’s “Turning Tables”.
It seemed that every month saw a new Kyle Brylin release. And I’d be the first to back off a bunch of songs that sound like they were being thrown against a wall to see what stuck. But there is enormous quality to multi-instrumentalist Kyle’s versatile performances, most of which were available as free downloads. The year started with the interesting “Committed”, and quickly got turned upside its head with a visceral version of Rihanna’s “S&M”. “Everything I’m Missing” was hypnotic, his best song yet. He gave us a tongue-in-cheek side with “I’m A Man (Not A Piece of Meat)” from the Ballroom Remixed compilation. More aggressive electronica followed in the form of songs like “Make It So” and “Never Love A DJ”, countered by sweet pop like “Bay” and the joyful “My Fizzy Pop”. The year wrapped up with precursors to an album with the many remixes of “Revenge” along with the The System EP. OK I’m officially out of breath.
For the first while, all I could associate singer/songwriter/guitarist Nick Hagelin with were dancing pandas (from his video of “ICU”). So when the acoustic cover versions of “The Story Of Us”, “Sometimes I Cry”, and “Marry You” all surfaced, along with a beaut of an R&B/Pop EP called Take Off, then I knew Nick would be here to stay, with much to look forward to next year. Take Off is available for free download and features the sultry “Metaphor” and wistful title track.
September brought me back to an always pleasant experience – my fifth Erasure concert (I saw them first back in 1986!) – but this year’s event focused on both their greatest hits and music from their album Tomorrow’s World, produced by their opening act, Frankmusik. The album itself stands as unique among all of the Erasure albums because it updated the duo’s sound, which attracted many new listeners, more than evident in the audience at the concert. And the concert showed that Andy Bell and Vince Clarke are still very fine performers indeed – and just count all of those hits they played.
The L.A. based singer/songwriter released the first album of 2011 online for free, and in a year of such high profile women singers, Ro Danishei held her own with End Of The Rainbow. It’s a collection of songs that would best resemble what a de-layered Kesha might sound like, but with much more focus on deeper lyrical content and solid production (courtesy of Jeff “Jadion” Wells) than image or novelty. Her duets with Simon Curtis on the blistering “Michelle” and the child of Ace Of Base that is “Wicked Baby”, as well as solo efforts like “Baby Doll”, “Drunk Txt”, and “Blackout” put Ro Danishei on her own platform, waiting to be heard more in 2012.
Despite naysayers, Born This Way as an album (but more particularly as a song) is a triumph. Every generation has its excesses, whether they be by Elton John, David Bowie, or Madonna. Lady GaGa has her own invention of excess, but with all of her talent, and her ability to get right down to a fan’s level, she still comes across as a multi-layered and unique person. And there’s no denying the variety in Born This Way, from the humorous “Government Hooker” and “Scheiɮe”, through to the more dramatic “Marry The Night” and “Judas”, and the anthemic “Hair” and “The Edge Of Glory”.
21 is the most stunningly beautiful best-selling album of many recent years. Who would have thought a year ago that the New Artist Grammy winner from 2009 had created a record with songs that will serve as bellwether performances for years to come. The honest emotion in “Rolling In The Deep”, “Someone Like You”, and “Set Fire To The Rain” transcended the year, and will continue into 2012. 21 is certainly a dream come true, a vocal tour-de-force with stunning arrangements.
Secret Codes and Battleships is Darren’s first album since the magnificence that is 2007’s This Delicate Thing We’ve Made. It’s a softer and very personal affair, full of emotion and positive energy. “Talk Talk Talk” was the danceable introduction to the album, followed by the intense “Bloodstained Heart” and feverish “Black Out The Sun”. There’s no shortage of fine songs, with “Don’t Give Up” and “Roses” continuing to show the quality and beauty that Darren and his team put into their music. What’s best though about this record – Darren’s finest vocals throughout. Can’t wait for the North American concert dates.
Here now are the five quintessential performers in 2011 who require your attention in 2012 and beyond!
England’s “Little Belter” certainly captured my attention last year with her knockout Stardust EP, which showcased her powerful voice on “Pretender”. This year we saw Elouise take up a residency at Madame JoJo’s in London for several sequined-dress laden Little Belter shows, including “Santa’s Little Belter” at year’s end, which promoted her same-name EP of a trio of Christmas songs, including the lost disco gem “Dear Santa (Bring Me A Man This Christmas)”. She also released another three song EP Stardust Melodies (as with the others, lovingly produced by Steve Anderson), featuring a warm and spot-on cover of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All”. Plus she dared to cover “Born This Way” while Lady GaGa’s Grammy performance was still fresh in our minds (releasing it as a free download), as well as a sexy and sultry version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”. Then we found her contemporized on the Ballroom Remixed compilation with “The Lover’s Rumba”. It was a great year for Elouise, and it will only get better from here. A tour of England first; the rest of the world awaits!
Chris Glover and his band were everywhere in 2011. The year started off with the single “Golden Train”, which Penguin Prison then mashed up with Michael Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night”. Then came the Prince-worthy “Multi-Millionaire” and an older single “Fair Warning”, in numerous different remixes. Chris also entertained us with various remixes and mixtapes throughout the year, until the self-titled Penguin Prison album dropped, first in England, and then in North America in October. The album was more than worth the wait, with the crunchy and ribald “Don’t Fuck With My Money” scoring the lead-off track role. But there’s more to Penguin Prison than making an outstanding fusion of dance past and present, as “Desert Cold” and “In The Way” will inform you upon listening. Despite their relentless touring throughout 2011, I hope to see a Penguin Prison show again in 2012.
Our Boy Robot from last year’s 8bit Heart free download release threw his hat into the official release game with R∆ pretty much taking over my Twitter timeline for the month of June. He also performed a few shows throughout the year, including the Superfraiche showcase in New York City which I saw in April. R∆ is a hard-hitting and emotionally heart-felt triumph which is not always an easy listen. In fact it’s better to be broken up into several parts.
The song that stands apart from the rest in R∆ is second single “Flesh”, Simon’s most unique offering to date that wraps you up and doesn’t let you go, with its impressive vocals, all of its sexy and sensual imagery, and whirlwind production from Jeff “Jadion” Wells. Then we have the anthems – first single “Superhero”, concert fave “Laser Guns Up”, love letter to the fans “Get In Line”. Then smouldering dance/pop courtesy of “Soul 4 Sale”, “Don’t Dance”, and “Enemy”. Lastly, the intensely raw songs like “How To Start A War”, “I Hate U”, “Pit of Vipers”, and “Joshua” – I for one would not want to be the subject of any of these songs for fear of having to crawl under a rock somewhere.
Despite its flaws, R∆ proves that Simon Curtis can take his music to the next level and beyond… I’m gonna have to be extremely patient waiting to see what’s in store next.
Frankmusik left me breathless in 2011 after what seemed to be a simple start with the release of the infectious “The Fear Inside” at the top of the year. But then the rollercoaster effect started, with the online free release of fine songs that didn’t end up on his September album release Do It In The A.M. One of those songs is “Hurt You Again”, one of my favourite ballads of the year with a tender vocal which we hadn’t yet heard from talented Vince Turner.
In the midst of it all, Frankmusik produced Erasure’s album Tomorrow’s World, from which he also gave us a raw cover of the band’s single “When I Start (To Break It All Down)”, and then opened up for them on their North America and England tours. And in the midst of all that, songs from Do It In The A.M. were leaked months in advance of the album’s release, prompting Frankmusik to release several more songs for free download, including a song about London’s summer riots “Living In The Mayhem”.
But back to the album – flat out and edgy dance pop, featuring collaborations with Far East Movement, Natalia Kills, and Colette Carr, all Cherrytree labelmates. The music from the record shaped my playlists for late Summer and Fall, with the swinging title track, the jaunty “No I.D.” (with a fantastic “Grease” inspired video), and dance floor fillers like “Wrecking Ball”, “Ludicrous”, “We Collide”, and “Struck By Lightning”.
Frankmusik now occasionally broadcasts on uStream from his studio and says he’ll be releasing his next album for free online. But I’m sure this busy fellow will have more up his sleeve and should not be underestimated in this strange world of pop music.
I’m so glad I keep an open mind about music or else I may not have returned to listen to Eric Saade’s records this year. His previous releases, huge hits in the Scandinavian countries, didn’t connect with me.
And then this year’s Melodifestivalen contest happened in Sweden, with Eric’s “Popular” one of the contenders. Like with Mans Zelmerlow in 2009, the show extracted a stunning live performance by Eric. I was converted and “Popular” is the defining song for me of 2011, followed in the summer by a full album, Saade Volume One. This isn’t just Swedish electropop, it sets the standard for the way contemporary electropop should be. Eric and his fine team of songwriters and producers covered the entire pop spectrum, from the caring and personal “Me and My Radio”, “Stupid with You” and “Timeless”, through to his own anthem for his fans “Made of Pop”, and the brilliantly bizarre “Killed By A Cop”.
In November, Volume One was followed fearlessly by Volume Two, an even harder hitting, forceful collection of grittier arpeggio-laden electropop, led by a stunning first single featuring Dev, “Hotter Than Fire”. But there are comparable songs within such as “Fingerprints”, “Love Is Calling”, “Explosive Love”, and “Crashed On The Dancefloor”. Put Eric on a double bill tour with Swedish legend Robyn in 2012 along with a few other noteable performers and we will have Electropop Heaven.
Not only does Eric Saade create electropop done so right that makes you feel so good, but he leads the way in which a male performer can rightly find his place in such a female performer-driven business these days. If there’s any guy who should break into the worldwide pop marketplace in the next few years, it’s Eric Saade. With Volumes One and Two, he’s created the template. So other male pop performers, your challenge is here: The Glove Is Now On.