My top ten is specifically tailored to undermine what little indie cred I have through my preference for music churned out through the cold machinery of commercial pop.
Purity Ring – Begin Again
Devoted fans can be an illogical, finicky bunch. When Purity Ring finally decided to burst back onto the scene with Push Pull, the Taylor Swift comparisons came in thick and fast. But this is still Purity Ring at its very core. There’s still the fondness for the weird and occult, but with clearer melodies, a punchier, more focused production work, and an EDM-inspired chorus – albeit one that makes you feel like you’re raving alone in an empty warehouse.
Brandon Flowers – Can’t Deny My Love
To be perfectly honest, I was mostly drawn to song due to Ariel Rechtshaid’s uniformly great production work. While the throwback to the 80s has mostly centred upon restrained synth instrumentation, Flowers and Rechtshaid go all out with the cheese, integrating nearly every hallmark of kitschy pop spectacle – moody synth pads? Check. Funky bass slapping and electric guitars? Check. Tears for Fears-inspired tribal percussion? Check. It’s all perfectly suited for Flowers’ very own brand of histrionics that he developed during his time with the Killers.
Blood Orange – Sandra’s Smile
Blood Orange seems to be holding back a little on his first solo track in years, but its nevertheless an enticing reminder of just why this guy is so revered. We may have gotten something a tad more full bodied with the work he did on Carly Rae Jepsen’s All That, but this is nevertheless excellent, soulful R&B, with a typically great vocal hook.
The Weeknd – Can’t Feel My Face
I hate to be the hundredth person to make the MJ comparisons, but for the majority of people the King of Pop is undoubtedly the best frame of reference. Ominous synthesisers swiftly give way to something unexpectedly traditional sounding – yet funky, stylish, and irresistibly catchy. Its sheer ubiquity renders it as one of the biggest pop hits of the year.
Passion Pit – Lifted Up (1985)
Michael Angelakos’ well-documented struggles with bipolar disorder have always given his music an extra layer of substance, with his soul-scouring lyrics serving as a grim contrast to the aggressively cheery and upbeat arrangements that have come to define the band’s sound. But far from being an act of irony, it’s rather a statement of a man who stubbornly devotes himself to chasing the light. With Lifted Up, it sounds like he’s actually found it.
Rae Morris – Under the Shadows
Another underrated singer-songwriter that skirted by under the radar, Under the Shadows is a dark and dramatic ode to staying strong and fighting your demons. While the message might not be anything groundbreaking, the production is suitably intense and cathartic. Music to put on when you plan on getting your hands dirty for the purposes of self-betterment.
Grimes – Flesh Without Blood
Grimes made her triumphant return in 2015 with a track that discarded the introspective electro textures of Vision for something more upbeat, more pop punk; heralding a brand new era. She was revitalised, drug-free, and to the chagrin of many, actually content with life. It was hard for some to believe, but it turned out Claire Boucher’s ultimate musical ambitions were not for willful obscurity, but to make something unabashedly mainstream. Bring on the comparisons to Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift. Tell her she’s sold out. But hey, when it’s done this well, what’s the problem?
CHVRCHES – Clearest Blue
CHVRCHES, on the other hand, went into their second record with zero interest in upending everything that their fans originally adored them for. I’ve always viewed CHVRCHES as the truest successors to Depeche Mode to have emerged in a long time – namely in their ability to combine fragile sentiments with radio-friendly melodies and stadium-ready arrangements. And Clearest Blue is a confident distillation of that, with Lauren Mayberry’s tender, vulnerable, yet defiantly optimistic lyrics shimmering brightly over one of their most danceable beats to date. For anxious wallflowers everywhere, CHVRCHES is your band, and Clearest Blue is everything they stand for in a punchy three minutes and fifty-three seconds of moody-yet-uplifting synthpop transcendence.
Carly Rae Jepsen – Run Away with Me
Carly Rae Jepsen might not have the shrewdness of her peers in Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift, but what she does still have is her sincerity, as well as some truly watertight songwriting – even if her latest record may have been assembled by a veritable army of producers and outside songwriters. Yet given that genesis, it accomplishes the unlikely task of evoking something genuinely sweet and nostalgic, with the flavour of the best 80s pop – when you could still enjoy a great pop song without thinking that you were secretly in on some ironic anti-consumerist joke. Run Away With Me is at once exuberant and yearning, like an all-consuming teenage crush. And it’s topped off with the right amount of big pop polish to show you why this music is still worth giving a chance.
Susanne Sundfør – Fade Away
Susanne Sundfør, despite her incredible talent, has always fallen a bit under the radar. Aside from a blip as a guest vocalist on M83’s tremendous Oblivion theme, she was just sort of hanging around with scarce fanfare. Ten Love Songs, unfortunately, did not quite land her the breakthrough that she deserved, but proves to be an even sweeter gift to anyone who gave it their time of day. Fade Away hearkens back to the glory days of 1970s and 1980s pop music, when it was populated by immensely gifted songstresses that sang wistful yet incisively self-aware anthems about love and relationships, done with infectious orchestral flair. This is the sort of pop music designed to stand the test of time.
Over and out, Darren