A Listener’s Almanac (September 2015)


Armaan Rashid, Editor-in-Chief



Glaswegian synthpop trio CHVRCHES defiantly attacks and destroys the “sophomore slump” with a stunning second release that makes for one of the best albums of the year so far, combining lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s consistently amazing vocal performances with complex, interwoven and unforgettable synth melodies and experimental song structures.

The sparseness and detachment that was sometimes present on their beloved debut album from 2013 is completely gone here; all 11 tracks have a warm emotional current running through them in more ways than one. In doing this, CHVRCHES daringly risked and lost the critical acclaim that propelled their debut to success, as the emotional nakedness stems from a bigger, “poppier” sound which appeals to a mainstream audience — critics’ least favorite artistic choice. Still, what goes unnoticed is CHVRCHES’ newfound skill at creating ultra-catchy, complex, long and constantly changing melodies that truly make the core of their songs untouchable.

“Every Open Eye” is also buoyed by amazing performances from Lauren Mayberry across the board (as well as a stunner from Martin Doherty when he takes over the lead vocal for “High Enough to Carry You Over”), whose emotion and incredible amounts of personality give the album that rarest of qualities: “un-cover-ability.” Mayberry’s vocal presence is so unique and lively that no singer is really able to do these songs justice, even over the same instrumentation.

However, perhaps the album’s key to success is CHVRCHES’ subversion of traditional pop song construction in favor of songs that build in their own way. “Clearest Blue” and “Afterglow” don’t even have proper choruses: the former builds over a barely audible synth melody for two minutes until exploding into a beautiful and cathartic array of synth chords, while the latter slowly closes the album with slowly-building atmosphere. “Down Side of Me” blurs the line between verse and chorus to the point where the song is a fluid, seamless, and emotional journey — much like the album within which it is contained.


Other Notable Releases:

The Weeknd’s “Beauty Behind the Madness”: An album divided — expect melancholic, yet fun pop songs like “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Real Life” on one hand, and The Weeknd’s usual dark, brooding debauchery (“The Hills” and “Acquainted” fall into this vein) on the other.  

Should Have Been a Single: deep cut “In the Night” for nailing The Weeknd’s Michael-Jackson-infused pop dream.

Jess Glynne’s “I Cry When I Laugh”: The “Rather Be” singer’s soulful vocals shine through again on this collection of anthemic, dance-tinged piano ballads. The stupidly catchy melodies will stick in your brain for days even as generic lyrics about love disappear.

Should Have Been a Single: opener “Gave Me Something” for its rapid-fire pianos and Glynne’s beautifully harmonized vocals.

Carly Rae Jepsen’s “E•MO•TION”: Naturally, the album of the summer landed four days before the start of school. Nonetheless, Jepsen’s third studio effort pays homage to the 80s better than 1989 ever did. Expect melodic, obscenely sticky choruses with Jepsen’s mature, strong voice layered throughout the fantastic mix of synthesizers, piano and occasional bass.

Should Have Been a Single: Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij comes in to produce the brilliant “Warm Blood,” an infectious mix of Jepsen’s sultry vocals and life-giving pianos and synths.

Travis Scott’s “Rodeo”:  After a tease last year, Travis Scott finally releases his debut LP loaded with tracks about partying that feel appropriate to play at a funeral. The dark, sparse synths and artificial drum machines are great for a downbeat party song that you’ll forget the next morning.

Should Have Been a Single: “90210 (feat. Kacy Hill)” for infusing the nihilistic hangover with some emotion.

Julia Holter’s “Have You In My Wilderness”: the incredibly inventive and acclaimed pop singer, songwriter and producer’s fourth album is another collection of baroque pop tunes filled with stunning violin, brilliant harmonies and other beautiful instrumentation too eclectic for words. Its attempt at meaning through abstract lyrics doesn’t quite stick the landing, however.

Should Have Been a Single: the extended “Lucette Stranded On the Island” for an insanely played piano which melds with chopped-and-screwed wind chimes in the best way possible.

Ghost’s “Meliora”: A heavy metal record touched by melody and fantastic musicianship, the enigmatic Ghost’s third LP is a welcome return to form, featuring great singing, unforgettable guitar phrases and strangely affecting gospel vocals.

Should Have Been a Single: “He Is,” for its out-of-left-field, yet beautiful acoustic guitar that makes for a fantastic metal-ballad hybrid.

Beach House’s “Depression Cherry”: Beach House’s hazy, layered dream pop filled with warm bass guitar, synths that wrap you in a sonic blanket and Victoria Legrand’s sumptuous singing is becoming formulaic after five albums.  Be wowed if a first listener, indifferent if not.

Should Have Been a Single: So much of Beach House’s output so far plays in a very specific, hazy, melancholic emotional territory, a formula that feels tired by now, especially since the instrumentation here is so much less visceral than before, marked by a sound that feels deeply analog. But the one song that stands out here and from their entire discography, “Levitation,” bucks the trend, giving into a little bit of electricity.

Battles’ “La Di Da Di”: An instrumental opus that WILL force you to get up and dance like a madman. Expect a hyperkinetic, catchy and surprisingly melodious slice of sonic insanity (composed of compressed guitar, machine-like drumming and buzzing keyboards) that is played with drill-sergeant, Terence-Fletcher levels of virtuosity.

Should Have Been a Single: the seemingly inconspicuous “Dot Com,” for building an unforgettable wall of melody that comes crashing down with glorious fervor.

FKA twigs’ “M3LL155X”: Pop music thrown into another dimension. Strong singing, abrasive synths and hooks are memorable for both their experimentation and great melodic songwriting; the EP is more than enough to captivate, sonically and emotionally.

Should Have Been a Single: the captivating “In Time,” featuring FKA twigs’ best instrumental yet: ghostly and spacious synths assaulted by punchy bursts of noise in the chorus, with twigs’ incredibly impassioned vocal performance.

Lana Del Rey’s “Honeymoon”: The polarizing and prolific singer’s third album is an evolution rather than a revolution. Downbeat dirges about forbidden love accompanied by lush, melodramatic strings and spacey synths still compose most of  the track listing. Common complaints of a sleepy, boring delivery from Del Rey herself still hold water, unfortunately.

Should Have Been a Single: “Art Deco,” for some stunning bass piano tones on the chorus which put the listener in sonic heaven, even if for a short time.

Mac Miller’s “GO:OD AM”: the Pittsburgh rapper’s third album (pronounced “good morning”) deals with his recovery from hedonism and substance abuse. The music matches the catharsis, with Miller rapping passionately over incredibly varied beats featuring chopped up vocals, jazzy horns, happy synths,and frequently beautiful piano.

Should Have Been a Single: “Two Matches (feat. Ab-Soul)” for a wonderfully drawn out horn line and a fantastic performance from the always reliable Ab-Soul.

Disclosure’s “Caracal”: Always ready to gain distance from the much-disdained EDM scene, Disclosure is officially making pop music, and this is their manifesto. Melodic, illegally danceable, thoughtful, and emotional pop music. Expect a whole range of deep house synth tones and rhythms you expected, extraordinary melodies and some amazing vocal performances you did not.

Should Have Been a Single: “Superego (feat. Nao),” as an amazing performance from up and coming British R&B singer Nao and a couple unforgettable vocal and synth melodies make for one of the best songs of the year, period.