Dido: Still On My Mind – ‘Dinner party music with interesting new flavours’

dido

Stream on Spotify

Score: 7.5/10

Add to library: ‘You Don’t Need A God’, ‘Take You Home’, ‘Friends’

Believe me when I say I did not expect the first 2019 release I would write about to be from bloody Dido.

Still On My Mind isn’t a bad record by any means. It’s actually rather gorgeous. But despite the considerable artistic growth it signals, the singer is forever destined to be an early-noughties punchline.

‘Dido’ is shorthand for the era of British dinner party music. The glossy, post-trip-hop splendour of megahits like ‘Here With Me’ and ‘White Flag’ set the scene for a glut of MOR starlets – from Jem’s wafer-thin folktronica, to Katie Melua pondering over Beijing’s bicycle population, backed by acoustic guitar and (trigger warning) a Chinese bamboo flute.

As a Dido fan, I can admit she excels at precisely two types of songs. There are the vanilla ballads that sent 1999’s No Angel and 2003’s Life for Rent flying off the shelves at Tesco. Then there’s the vanilla house tunes, both solo and with brother Rollo’s dance act Faithless, which in this example are supposed to represent Dido’s adventurous side.

The good news is, for much of her fifth record, Dido commits to a headier, more electronic sound. Don’t get me wrong – what counts as an uptempo on a Dido album is still highly relative. You probably won’t end up pre-seshing to synthy delights like ‘Take You Home’ (with its seductive ‘la la la’ hook) or ‘Mad Love’. We’re still in red-wine-on-the-patio territory here.

What you should appreciate is the confidence Dido and Rollo – together writing and producing the lion’s share of the record – have in this material. ‘Hurricanes’ opens with guitar plucks and a cold wisp of a vocal. So far, so familiar. But it builds in a way that no other Dido track has before, erupting unexpectedly into an intoxicating chillwave climax.

The next track ‘Give You Up’ works well because it does nothing of the sort. It’s the kind of sparse piano ballad Dido diehards will love, complemented by a stunning choir. This time, there’s no payoff, but the fact that I found myself waiting for one at all makes this a good lesson in how to raise (and toy with) a listener’s expectations in the space of two songs.

Musically, there are some nice surprises – from the horn-laden (and just plain horny) experiment ‘Hell After This’, to the Balearic tones bubbling beneath ‘Friends’. Yet the biggest shock of all comes from hearing the gentle, unassuming Dido finally acknowledge her commercial accomplishments: ‘I’ve done a hundred things / You’ve only dreamed’.

No matter how vanilla the songs may objectively be, the staggering success of Dido’s first two albums means her place in the pop history books is guaranteed. For the first time in a long time, Still On My Mind suggests she’s ready to use her platform in an interesting way.

 

40 pop songs from 2018 you need to hear

Rob blog_2018 best songs_large

Click here for the Spotify playlist

40. Years & Years – All For You

Olly Alexander does his diva idols proud on this glow-in-the-dark floorfiller.

Read my Palo Santo review

39. Taylor Swift – Delicate

Bubbling emotions. Dainty vocals. A sprinkle of experimentation. The old Taylor is alive and well.

38. Jesse Saint John – Move

Songwriter to the stars steps into the limelight with this sweat-drenched pop-punk curio.

37. 5 Seconds of Summer – Youngblood

No one was expecting the Australian One Direction to stay relevant in 2018, but this well-deserved hit has a chorus that could wake the dead.

36. Bipolar Sunshine – Pedestal

The Manchester singer’s lazy pronunciation somehow stays one step ahead of the lush cocktail lounge beat.

35. Tove Lo  (featuring Charli XCX, Icona Pop, Elliphant and ALMA) – Bitches (remix)

For fans left blue-balled by the all-too brief album version, this all-star remix was a wet dream come true.

34. Confidence Man – Out the Window

Imagine Deee-lite doing big beat.

33. Cupcakke – Duck Duck Goose

An R-rated grab bag of classic Cupcakke-isms – ‘I thought I came but I peed on the dick’ etc. – and EDM house beats.

32. Rae Sremmurd, Swan Lee & Slim Jxmmi – Powerglide

Who doesn’t want to hear three buzzy hip-hop acts go mano o mano over a churning trap beat? 

31. Planningtorock – Much to Touch

Non-binary electronic musician Jam Rostron knows immersion is key to overcoming one’s prejudices. For all its sass and braggadocio, ‘Much to Touch’ doesn’t berate its antagonists, but instead cordially invites them to get up close and personal.

30. Little Mix – Wasabi

More than a sassy hair-flip to the haters, this inventive number splices slick 00s urban-house pop with snatches of garage rock.

29. Lizzo – Fitness

Nobody is more qualified to coach a sweat-drenched class in female agency than the formidable Lizzo.

28. Jessie Ware – Overtime

The London-born singer returns to her dance roots with this after-hours banger. For Jessie, house is where the heart is.

27. All Saints – After All

All Saints and William Orbit relive their early 00s glory days with this transcendent ballad.

Read my Testament review

26. Yaeji – One More

Sublimely mellow house pop from the Korean-American whizzkid.

25. The 1975 – TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME

‘TOOTIME…’ deftly adapts tropipop rhythms to the band’s indie sound, with Matt Healy reining his booming voice into a reedy purr.

24. Let’s Eat Grandma – Hot Pink

Producer SOPHIE dangles sickly-sweet synthwork like a lure, all before a crunching bassline takes the patriarchy in its jaws.

Read my I’m All Ears review

23. The Carters – Apeshit

A flex of absolute power from two pop titans.

22. SOPHIE – Immaterial

A bizarre burst of electro-catharsis. Trivia: its parent album is up for a 2019 Grammy, making SOPHIE (alongside songwriter Teddy Geiger) the first ever transgender woman ever to be nominated.

tenor

21. Christine and the Queens – Doesn’t Matter

We all love a good sadbanger – ‘Dancing On My Own’ anyone? – but only this French maverick could bring a full-blown existential crisis to the dance floor and still make you bop.

20. Charli XCX (featuring Troye Sivan) – 1999

Anne Marie’s horrible tribute to the year 2002 should have put any artist off getting nostalgic about years their target audience barely remembers. Leave it to Charli XCX – pop’s savviest curator – to celebrate her early bubblegum influences in such an affectionate manner.

19. Post Malone – Better Now

This undeniable pop crossover was the cherry on top of a huge year for the famously dishevelled rapper.

18. Mariah Carey (featuring Ty Dolla Sign) – The Distance

An unexpectedly smooth production from dubstep icon Skrillex, bookended by an infectious cheerleader chat.

17. Denzel Curry (featuring Nyyjerra) – CASH MANIAC

Come for the charismatic boasting – stay for the funky alt hop-hop production.

16. Courtney Barnett – Nameless, Faceless

The alt-rock sensation taunts chauvinist keyboard warriors and paraphrases Margaret Atwood on this scuzzy banger.

15. Amber Mark – All the Work

An intoxicating fusion of bossa nova and house music.

14. Rosalía – Malamente

‘Malamente’ is Catalan for ‘badly’. The sparse new flamenco soundscapes have a delicious ebb and flow, but lyrically, Rosalía’s superstitions loom large.

13. Daphne & Celeste – Alarms

From my Daphne & Celeste Save the World review:

“If you can’t hear an inexplicable beauty in the acid-trance gem ‘Alarms’, then maybe you don’t deserve to be saved.”

12. Kendrick Lamar & SZA – All The Stars

Film soundtracks devoured the charts this year, but knockout performances and a chorus that’s staggering in its simplicity made this the promo single to beat.

11. Kali Uchis – Just A Stranger

The indelible, OutKast-aping hook may belong to The Internet’s Steve Lacy, but Ms. Uchis is our Mistress of Ceremonies, feeling every inch of herself with humour and pageantry.

10. Parliament – I’m Gon Make U Sick ‘O Me

One-part takedown of US pharmaceutical giants, two-parts doctor-patient roleplay. Grandaddy of psychedelic hip-hop George Clinton prescribes a tasty pill that’s hard to swallow.

9. Calvin Harris – One Kiss

I dug 2018 Calvin – a handsome, mustachioed hipster with a lucrative knack for 90s diva house.

8. Cardi B – I Like It

Vain, obnoxious, and shamelessly self-serving. In other words, everything I love about Cardi B.

7. Robyn – Honey

Painstakingly built synthpop that’s a sweet and viscous as its titular substance.

6. Drake – Nice For What

Masterfully sampling Lauryn Hill and legendary bounce artist Big Freedia, ‘Nice For What’ is a rump-shaker from start to finish.

5. Troye Sivan – My My My!

From my Bloom review:

‘It’s like Phil Collins sharing drugs with M83 in the bathroom of a Berlin gay club.’

4. Tirzah – Holding On

Using wheezy, accordion-style synths and bursts of white noise as percussion, the London singer sets her nagging issues with intimacy to an awkwardly danceable beat.

3. Rina Sawayama – Cherry

In her ascent to the upper echelons of pop, Rina is fighting two battles. The politically savvy English-Japanese singer has already baked concerns over the underrepresentation of Asian acts into her music. This year, she bravely used this suitably fragrant electropop ditty to come out as pansexual.

The execution is stunning. Taken on its own, ‘Even though I’m satisfied, I live my life within a lie’ is a maudlin lyric. But you’ll struggle to name a song more liberating either in sound or in message – from the twinkly percussion, to the stomping Y2K beat, to a lead vocal that caresses the track like a beam of sunlight.  

2. Childish Gambino – This Is America

Renaissance man Donald Glover turned his frustrations with police brutality into an unmissable audiovisual event. The track’s trap-afrobeat experiment is uniquely danceable, but it doesn’t dilute the message – the production is foreboding when it wants to be, and joyous when it needs to be.

Yet it’s the words Glover doesn’t say that makes ‘This Is America’ so important. Repeat viewings alone aren’t enough. It’s that special beast that compels you discuss it with a friend, a colleague, or your Saturday night Uber driver, if only to make sense of it all. As Glover himself sings: ‘You go tell somebody…’

1. Ariana Grande – No Tears Left to Cry / thank u, next

Where do I even begin with Ariana Grande’s stranglehold on 2018?

‘No Tears Left to Cry’ had a horrible task. It was the singer’s first release since the tragic terrorist attack at her concert at Manchester Arena last May. The single was obligated to live to up to that emotional gravitas and pay tribute to the 23 victims – while also making commercial sense for a young artist yet to hit their peak.

But with a little help from the Max Martin hit factory, Ariana kicked off a new chapter in her career with daring piece of theatrical dance-pop, as laden with UK garage as it is with heavenly wails. The lyrics are relentlessly optimistic, but sung with a pain that’s yet to fully heal.

‘thank u, next’ shares a similar attitude, but represents a calmer, more patient R&B side to her repertoire. Sadly, it was another single released under tragic circumstances. Rapper Mac Miller, who Ariana split from earlier this year, had passed away in September. But once again, she read the room perfectly and honours him with a reverent lyric.

The other exes lucky enough to be documented don’t exactly escape unscathed, but the song is more an ode to practicing self-care than a revenge anthem. Listeners identified with this chill acceptance of life’s disappointments, and more importantly, the successes that come when you finally learn to love yourself.

Read my Sweetener review

Fright Sound Tape: Your Halloween party playlist

My PostMore than any other night of the year, Halloween is your chance to dance like you’re somebody – or something – else.

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Don’t fuck it up! Turn off the lights, fill up your goblet, and whack on this spooky Spotify playlist of 20 holy Halloween classics – 10 old, 10 new.

1. Echo & The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon (1984)

‘Fate up against your will.

Through the thick and thin.

He will wait until

you give yourself to him’

‘The Killing Moon’ is a great post-punk rock record, period. The chorus above unravels with spontaneous grace, every word coming naturally and serving a purpose. Okay, purpose might be too active a word. The song’s presiding feeling is one of resignation – an acceptance of Fate’s master plan.

At the story’s centre is a romance doomed to end in at least one death. But the plot beats are signposted by gothic symbolism that keep things just on the right side of ghoulish fun. A serious piece of music then, but one that evokes the morbidity of the Halloween season as organically as a bloodied butcher knife.

2. Lady Gaga – Bad Romance (2009)

Catchy monster sounds? Yas! Nightmarish storytelling? Yas! Dance routine? Yaaaaass!

3. Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)

The iconic ‘Thriller’ video opens with a disclaimer that Michael Jacksonin no way endorses a belief in the occult‘. Scoff as we might of the quaintness of the message – perhaps it was necessary. After all, no one in pop culture icon before or since has made the supernatural look more fun.

4. Britney Spears – Freakshow (2007)

Britney has never been afraid to experiment, sprinkling this slut-dropper with menacing dubstep wobbles way back in ‘07.

5. Bobby Boris Pickett – The Monster Mash (1962)

My friends and I sang the entirety of ‘The Monster Mash’ at our school talent show when we were 16 – with absolutely no backing track. That’s how iconic it is.

6. OutKast featuring Kelis – Dracula’s Wedding (2003)

Even when playing vampires sentenced an eternity together, Kelis and André 3000 are a match made in heaven.

7. Grace Jones – I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) (1981)

Fusing a classic Argentine tango with reggae arrangements, this is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a song. But as usual, it’s Miss Grace Jones – singing with suicidal detachment – who brings the spook.

8. Childish Gambino – Boogieman (2016)

Like much of Donald Glover’s “Awaken, My Love!” LP, ‘Boogieman’ uses horror clichés to allude to racial tension in America: ‘But if he’s scared of me / How can we be free?

9. Cerrone – Supernature (1977)

TL;DR ‘Donna Summer does “The Monster Mash”’.

10. Katy Perry – Dark Horse (2014)

Shielded by walls of trap-for-kidz – before the real thing dominated radio – Katy plays the role of sexy sorcerer with aplomb.

11. Warren Zevon – Werewolves of London (1978)

Sharp imagery – ‘Saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand’ – and a howl-along chorus. What’s not to love?

12. Rihanna – Disturbia (2008)

There is a grim irony in this four-on-the-floor headfuck being co-written by Rihanna’s own Big Bad, Chris Brown.

13. Talking Heads – Psycho Killer (1973)

It’s almost unfair that we associate one music’s finest basslines with David Byrne’s paean to the murderous mind. But on an eerie October evening, the pairing emulsifies splendidly.

14. Peaches – Trick or Treat (2009)

A sleazy synthpop romp – with a lesson Michael Myers and his sexually active prey can agree on: ‘Never go to bed without a piece of raw meat.’

15. Rockwell – Somebody’s Watching Me (1984)

Rockwell owes a debt to Michael Jackson’s generous ‘backing vocals’ (he does the unshakeable hook), but the one-hit-wonder’s own paranoid rants are worth the price of entry alone.

16. Shakira – She Wolf (2009)

The lycanthropic ‘ah-woos’ may be fabulously half-hearted, but the Columbian superstar’s sexual liberation is anything but.

17. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On You (1956)

The legendary blues singer claims not to remember recording ‘I Put A Spell On You’. How fitting that he wails like a man possessed.

18. Travis Scott featuring Kendrick Lamar – Goosebumps (2017)

The goosebumps in question are romantic ones, but the horror-movie atmospherics still get under the skin.

19. The Rolling Stones – Sympathy For the Devil (1974)

Going solely by its lively groove, you could almost forget this is a darkly comic celebration of Satan’s role in historical atrocities. A devilish sleight of (red right) hand that makes it perfect for a Halloween party playlist.

20. Kanye West, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj – Monster (2010)

On a career-defining verse, Nicki swaps alter egos with the ferocity of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. But by the end, the Minaj brand is as recognisable as any Halloween costume.

 

Troye Sivan’s ‘Bloom’ needs a splash of colour

bloom

Stream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘My! My! My!’, ‘Bloom’, ‘Plum’, ‘Lucky Strike’

Anyone on the pop blog scene will be au fait with Troye Sivan’s ‘My! My! My!’ – the synthpop spectacular that sounds like Phil Collins sharing drugs with M83 in the bathroom of a Berlin gay club.

Understandably, the poptimist who fell for its whirring groove back in January might have tentative hopes for the Australian singer’s sophomore album to be something on the scale of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, an unapologetically sugary listen with enough five-star press clippings to soften its perilous fall from the charts.

But for better or worse, Bloom never again matches the glittery nerve of its big single (or its fabulous, voguing video).  

Then again, Troye was never obliged to stray far from his 2015 debut Blue Neighbourhood. The uncluttered, Lorde-ish stylings that album embraced have since proved popular with the masses, embedded in the kind of slow-burn hits synonymous with the streaming era. 

Troye plays it safe with ten mid-tempos buffed to a lustrous electropop sheen. Ironically, for all its approved-by-committee glory, there are zero single options here. Yet as a collection, Bloom is a rather fetching vehicle for its star, and at a mere 37 minutes, never outstays its welcome.

Queer lyrical themes aside, there’s not much of a spark to slower songs like ‘The Good Side’ and ‘Seventeen’. The former is John Grant-lite, the latter plugs the holes in its melody with a crap ‘oh oh oh’ line. At the same time, they’re both tenderly written snapshots of a young man’s burgeoning sexuality.

The pop-cynic would argue that the short runtime flatters Troye’s limited range, both as a vocalist and an emoter (not least next to a guesting Ariana Grande on the misleadingly titled ‘Dance to This’). Doe-eyed apathy is his brand, and although his flower is certainly in bloom, you might come away hoping for a splash of colour next season.

 

Ariana Grande’s new album is sweet and sour

ariStream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, ‘God is a Woman’, ‘Breathin’

Sweetener is Ariana Grande’s fourth album, and it’s a bit soured by its over-reliance on Pharrell William’s dry, faux-funk beats. Considering the two hits pulled from the LP – ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ and ‘God is a Woman’ – are both Max Martin cuts, surely the writing was on that wall that something wasn’t quite working?

If Williams’ productions win critical acclaim, it will be from journalists on a tight schedule. His songs are interesting enough for a minute, but Pharrell soon depletes his sachet of tricks. Not that you’d notice if you’re prone to the skip button and have a glut of albums to review by midnight.

Fortunately, I have time on my hands.

The Nicki Minaj-assisted promo single ‘The Light is Coming’ is admirably mental island-tinged pop, full of white-hot percussion and digital grind – until you realise the irate male vocal sample has been looped without any plan or artistic intention. It’s as if Pharrell built a skeletal first draft in the studio, popped out for a coffee, and never came back.

Ariana keeps her end of the bargain on ‘Successful’, toasting to herself and womankind with slinky cool, but her effort is somewhat undone by cheesy groaning keyboards. ‘Borderline’ harkens back to The Neptunes’ early-00s album fillers, and I now understand Kelis’ decision to cease working with them exclusively in 2003.

To Pharrell’s credit, the Piña Colada-flavoured ‘Blazed’ and the dreamy goodness of ‘R.E.M’ are fully realised successes, and prove Ariana’s collaborative instincts weren’t too off-the-mark.

Electro slowies like ‘Better Off’ and ‘Goodnight and Go’ offer pleasing restraint, but the first single ‘No Tears’ still towers over the album. Max Martin has crafted a daring piece of theatrical dance-pop here, as laden with UK garage as it is with heavenly wails.

This is Ariana’s first project since the terrorist attack at her concert at Manchester Arena last May tragically claimed 23 victims. In choosing the first single, Ariana and her team had to strike a delicate balance – uplifting but not glib, respectful but not in mourning. And they’ve passed with flying colours. It’s just a shame the rest of Sweetener doesn’t always hit the same sweet spot.

 

All Saints’ ‘Testament’ is proof they’re here to stay

testament

Stream on Spotify

Score: 10/10

Add to library: The whole damn thing

Maybe it was the ten-year gap between albums. Maybe it was the emotional gravitas Nicole Appleton’s tabloid-devoured divorce lent the songs. For whatever reason, 2016’s Red Flag gave All Saints the reboot they deserved. Testament isn’t blessed with a dramatic backstory, making its categorical brilliance all the more impressive.

This is simply All Saints at their creative peak. Unofficial fifth member K-Gee is back as producer, and ‘Pure Shores’/ ‘Black Coffee’ maestro William Orbit brings two tracks. Swirling electronica, 80s soul-pop, and tripped-out garage are among the many genres tested out, but they’re bound by meticulous percussion, a heavy low-end, and impeccable harmonies.

It helps that Shaznay Lewis is one of Britain’s most underrated pop songwriters. Love is the sole theme, and she paints it in all its forms. ‘Love Lasts Forever’ comforts a child nearing adulthood; ‘Three Four’ is a smutty sex romp; and ‘Don’t Look Over Your Shoulder’ escorts a freshly-dumped ex out of the house. 

The women relive their Orbit-helmed glory years on the transcendent ‘After All’. But ‘Testament In Motion’ points to an exciting future for both band and producer, with blissful balladry dissolving seamlessly into hip-winding electroclash.

Isolated from Red Flag’s PR opportunities, Testament makes All Saints’ raw talent impossible to ignore. In 2018, their boundary-pushing Britpop is even more audacious than it was in the 90s. Who among their peers can claim the same?

 

Years & Years refuse to obscure queerness on ‘Palo Santo’

Palo-Santo-artwork.pngStream on Spotify

Score: 8/10

Add to library: ‘All For You’, ‘Palo Santo’, ‘Up In Flames’

Years & Years introduced their second album with two uninteresting singles and a preposterous concept.

So it’s a relief that Palo Santo is a solid collection of tropical electropop, dripping with sweat, tears and charisma from frontman Olly Alexander.

The title refers to a pansexual metropolis that sprung from Alexander’s imagination, a place where androids rule, and humans are plucked from the streets to writhe around on a stage, using their flesh to provoke genuine emotion in an audience of automatons.

The accompanying short film is the kind of thing a person dreams up after eating a block of cheese and watching Blade Runner. It’s a lofty gimmick, but at least it’s one that articulates the record’s inherent queerness rather than obscures it.

What Palo Santo does successfully is depict the life of a socially mobile, twenty-something gay man in 2018. Across atmospheric ballads and glow-in-the-dark dance tracks, hookups (‘Rendezvous’), heartbreak (‘All For You’) and internalised homophobia (‘Preacher’) are each captured in golden melodies.

Like 2014’s Communion, images of Catholic flagellation appear as thinly-veiled metaphors for anal sex. When written to bouncy, playlistable beats – ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Preacher’ – they make for welcome additions to the band’s canon. First single ‘Sanctify’ exhausts the premise with a plodding tempo that had me checking my watch, but as the opener it’s inoffensive. 

Alexander brings an unapologetically queer perspective that deserves to be heard loud-and-clear. Trailblazing? Absolutely not. But his visibility shouldn’t be taken for granted in the current political climate.

Forget the sci-fi window dressing – by bucking heteronormativity, Palo Santo is a futuristic work in its own right.