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It Ain’t That Deep Either Way: Your February Pop Roundup
Anna Cafolla , February 28th, 2018 09:34

This month, Anna Cafolla reflects on the long and vital influence of Madonna’s Ray Of Light, and celebrates some of her spiritual descendants and pop sistren, including Asbjørn, Rae Morris, Chrystal and Janelle Monáe.

Janelle Monáe

Madonna’s Ray of Light came from a time of particular brilliance, not just for her as an iconic artist, innovating in what was new territory, but for the pop landscape then and now. “Faster than the speeding light she’s flying,” she sings. “And I feel like I just got home.” She turned 40 that year and gave birth to daughter Lourdes - the record is at times all-out joyful, forward-thinking, intensely contemplative. It cut through the charts, which were bloated with Britpop and overly earnest power ballads, with a sound by way of Euro super clubs and spiritual transformation. It’s evocative dance-pop with confronting social and personal commentary that’s still life-affirming to hear today, 20 years later.

Ray Of Light has a daring emotional honesty - one current pop-makers should take note of. At a time when artists are speaking out about important issues, reflecting their textured, nuanced narratives is paramount for capturing the changes occurring in the music industry and beyond. This record also showcased one of Madonna’s most major creative reinventions, pushing a sound that hadn’t yet been executed in the mainstream sphere. Liberation and innovation, in the face of those who expect the opposite, is always going to be inspirational.

Something else that should be inspiring 2018’s artists, if just to give a kick up the ass, is that Robyn has confirmed she’s definitely releasing an album this year. Will we have the next ‘Dancing On My Own’? Is a new Swedish electro-pop tune going to overtake ‘Indestructible’ as my go-to choice when passed the aux cord at an afters? Body Talk was a daring take on future-facing pop, and I’m more than a little psyched to see what the original fembot has in store.

This month’s roundup sees the release of an 80s-powered womanifesto, some early 00s bratty pop all grown up, and the Scandis ruling the roost - as per.

Kim Petras - ‘Heart To Break’

Put yourself back together and find someone new to wreck your life with Kim Petras’ ‘Heart To Break’ in your ears. It’s sweet and slick just like her Charli XCX/Jay Park POP 2 collab ‘Unlock It’, with colourful, all-out 80s poptimism. The fast rising German-born, LA-based singer dropped ‘Heart To Break’ as a Valentine’s Day present, following the recent bratty bop ‘I Don’t Want It At All’, that had a video featuring Paris Hilton as a credit card-baring soul sister. This track is about wearing your heart on your sleeve and shedding any anticipating anxieties about future heartbreak: “Even if it means that I'll never put myself back together… even if I'll end up in shatters, baby it doesn't matter,” she sings. A sparkling jewel in Petras’ bubblegum queen crown - will there be a glum-pop follow-up about being foolish in love? Let’s hope so.

Blossom Caldarone - ‘Fickle Friend’

It’s a major life debacle for any teen girl, separating the wheat from the chaff, the mates for life from the snakes. On her second single, Gloucestershire-native Blossom Caldarone thinks over who her real friends are, assessing the foundations of friendships as she leaves school forever. With a visual as staged and stilted as those fake-as-fuck friends, it’s sharp and fun storytelling that sounds lush with Blossom’s airy harmonies and sunny soprano vocals. Between this and the bittersweet ode to unrequited love ‘Fairytale Lullaby’, the 18-year-old is definitely one to watch for the year ahead.

Beach House - ‘Lemon Glow’

Beach House are the soundtrack to hazy memories from late summers, where fleeting romances bloom and exciting, quixotic projects lie beyond the horizon. ‘Lemon Glow’ is a gorgeous return from them, a fresh take on the refined dream pop of Teen Dream and Thank Your Lucky Stars. Victoria Legrand’s willowy vocals slalom across Alex Scally’s blissfully thick guitar lines and synths that pulsate and spiral, driving a sense of urgency and prickling tension that’s new for the Baltimore duo. Building into metallic crescendos, ‘Lemon Glow’ peaks with throbbing drums, a lovely, familiar dream brought to a quick end. It’s from an as-of-yet untitled seventh album too, so lots of nice Beach House to look forward to just in time for spring.

Daphne & Celeste - ‘BB’

The mere mention of Daphne & Celeste transports me back to school discos, throat hurting from overindulging on Brain Lickerz sour candy and euphorically screeching “U!G!L!Y!” at peers in neon fishnet footless tights. It’s been 18 years since the duo first entered the charts with ‘Ooh Stick You!’ – they briefly came back in 2015 with ‘You & I Alone’, a chiptune track that could have come from PC Music’s GFOTY’s arsenal. Just so we know it’s 2018, there’s references to being basic, HBO and Uniqlo thrown in. ‘BB’ stands for basic busker, slamming the tepid, three chord guitar-playing dudes on the radio (not sure which channel this is though. Planet Rock? Kerrang?). It’s syrupy, Nintendo-powered pop that sets up their forthcoming album, Daphne & Celeste Save the World, as some bold-faced fun.

Chrystal - ‘2 Real’

‘2 Real’ is an energetic, screwface-inducing banger from Bolton newbie Chrystal. It follows on from grimey debut ‘Waves’. John Calvert, known for working with Nao and Bonzai, has provided sleek production on this one – there’s lots of unexpected, textured sounds, like a bouncy car-horn beat. In the vein of attitude-packed pop like contemporaries Mabel and Ray BLK, and assertive sunny R&B by way of TLC, Chrystal dominates with a distinctly Northern, very cool delivery. ‘2 Real’, with its bold beats and fun jazzy mid-section, is about knowing your worth and showing it.

Asbjørn - ‘Nothing2Lose’

Taking inspiration from Prince, Bowie, and Madonna, Danish musician Asbjørn is gearing up to release a new album, BOY PWR. He’s making big-hearted queer pop that parallels the likes of Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko with ‘Nothing2Lose’, a stylish song that reflects Scandi electro pop of Robyn and a lovely sense of vulnerability. The video is stunning, a slickly choreographed routine in a boxing club and close-up cuts of body parts.

US Girls - In A Poem Unlimited

Meghan Remy has picked apart difficult, at times harrowing, topics in her full-of-heart pop. In A Poem Unlimited delves deeper into issues we must confront: deep-seated misogyny, sexual violence, environmental disaster, political oppression. Unbridled rage sweeps across the skin of this record, ears pricked up to the ripples of change the world is forced to contend with. The stories that Remy tells are nuanced, rich, and hearteningly individual: ‘Rage Of Plastics’ explores a woman’s infertility caused by a job at an oil refinery, while the groovy ‘Velvet 4 Sale’ has a thrilling murder-revenge plot. US Girls has always been a sonically expansive project - this record is a fascinating synthesis of psychedelia, Madonna-esque disco, 60s girl band influences and salty-air tinged surf rock. Remy reflects deeply on the horrors women today deal with, and packages these stories as exuberant protest music.

Rae Morris - Someone Out There

This is a burst of fresh air, a huge leap away from the misty, ballad-y drama of Rae Morris’s debut. It’s a ragged breath taken in deep from the highway rushing by a car window, a hushed, goosebumpy whisper floating through the darkness, a full-bodied sigh on the dancefloor. Her vocal arrangement at times is somewhere between Kate Bush and a Debut-era Bjork, and production is urgent and fearlessly experimental, charting her growing romantic relationship with collaborator Fryars across the record.

The album’s central track, ‘Do It’, is a shining, throw-all-inhibitions-into-the-summer-breeze tune. It’s an attitude that pops and fizzes across the bigger bangers like ‘Atletico’ and twinkling ‘Dip My Toe’. ‘Rose Garden’, a song about debilitating panic attacks, bridges the textured storytelling of her earlier work with the pulverising, electronic beats of now. ‘Lower the Tone’ is confident and thrilling, establishing the dreamy but compelling tone Morris is very, very good at as she explores what she can achieve. ‘Dancing with Character’, a synthy, slow number about a widower, is a vivid and satisfying conclusion. Someone Out There is a ballsy level up, especially for someone on a major label, and it’s a move that’s paid off. She sums it up on ‘Reborn’: “These are new beginnings, won’t let the past determine where I go from here.”

Janelle Monáe - ‘Make Me Feel’ and ‘Django Jane’

She’s one of the most criminally underrated musicians of our time, but Janelle is going to smash it this year. Her upcoming third solo album, Dirty Computer, is set to drop late April - the first taste of it are two newly released tunes, ‘Make Me Feel’ and ‘Django Jane’, with accompanying videos. The musician, actor, and activist is just electrifying. ‘Make Me Feel’ builds on the vibrant big beats of the 80s, joyful, sexy guitars that recall her mentor Prince and sensual, evocative lyrics a la Grace Jones. It playfully toys with themes of freedom and queer sexuality. The video, directed by Alan Ferguson, is neon-soaked and packed with incredible Monae looks, as well as Bowie visual references, a San Junipero vibe, and a chainmail mask courtesy of the late great Prince. It also features actress Tessa Thompson, who feeds her a penis-shaped lollipop. Iconic.

‘Django Jane’ is a rebel yell, a powerful assertion of black girl magic. “Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue,” she deadpans. A stunning video, directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning, sees the musician lead and govern a pack of women. Both these tracks highlight the confident, biting pop Monáe has always been capable of.

HALIE - ‘Youth’
Nordic newcomer HALIE provided Scandi bop ‘Echo’ last year, and continues down the path of uplifting, ‘Boom Clap’-beat pop with ‘YOUTH’. The 16-year-old is comparable to rising star Sigrid, with glacial vocals, a huge chorus and a young, defiant message: “We stay high, never go low.” HALIE has also become the first unsigned act booked to play for Skavlan, the biggest talk show in Scandinavia, which should reflect her sparkling future trajectory.