Glass Animals
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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Top 25 Songs of 2020

This year more than any year before it, music was an integral component of my happiness. Having spent most of this year working alone in my own home, I maintained an almost constant need for music to warm the silence.

While I often clung to old favorites – Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton, and Shania Twain – like musical comfort food, many artists began to produce resonant new material soon after the initial shock of a global pandemic had worn away.

Some songs released this year faced an uncomfortable reality alongside us; Others dipped us into not an escapist fantasy, but rather a reminder of mere normality. These are the track that meant the most to me – for both of those reasons and more – this year.


Yes, sometimes Lana Del Rey makes it so difficult to be a fan. Between the “question for the culture” micro-aggressions debacle and the beaded mask that provided quite literally no protection at a mass gathering in a Barnes & Noble, she’s had a bumpy year. But damn it, even when she makes her single cover with iPhone, the music somehow still holds its quality.


Millennials have reached the scary point in our lives when our favorite childhood pop culture cornerstones have become trendy reference pages for new artists. In an unexpected shift, English quartet Pale Waves enters this chat: The band’s “Change” guns for post-grunge with a pop lick.


Frankly, it feels like at least four years ago since Grimes released Miss Anthropocene – and it feels even stranger to remember that Grimes released a traditionally entrancing song like “Delete Forever.” Dragged across the bare guitar strum, her voice is used as a sample loop – the only true sign that it’s a Grimes track – on a song that stands in the aftermath of drug-fueled destruction.


It’s a bittersweet time to think about the club and concert venues: They’re places we shouldn’t be for our own protection, even if some seem to believe they’re immune to airborne viruses. Kylie Minogue channels our desire for normality here, drilling messages of unity into a dance record that was largely pieced together mid-pandemic in a home studio. “We’re a million miles apart in a thousand ways,” she sings on “Say Something,” a spectacularly dynamic cut that builds upon a deep, gurgling synth run to spark magic.


Get the hell out of Billie Eilish’s way. After working her way into the American mainstream and sweeping the top four awards of the night at this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, Eilish makes it clear she won’t be stopping there – and she doesn’t want any clout chasers riding the waves. “Therefore I Am” is a badass stomper, with her disinterested vocal approach brining a cool, subtle edge.


They may have started as teen pop-rockers, but Aly & AJ are clearly meant to be a synthpop duo. “Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor” is a tour de force in dance music: A crowded chant stomps over a synth twinkle. “We don’t stop until mascara’s on the dance floor. We say, ‘No!’ Joan of Arc is on the dance floor,” they shout. And when this song plays, we’ll also be on the dance floor when it’s safe to do so.


“Circle the Drain,” the best moment from Soccer Mommy’s sophomore major label release, hypnotizes so strongly with its circling melody and tight percussion that it’s easy to disassociate it from its imagery of Sophie Allison’s determination swirling down that drain.

18. "3AM" • HALSEY

Manic is a fine record, but nothing is worth a revisit quite like “3am.” This little ball of horny desperation owns an aggressive chaos that would make Ashlee Simpson and Avril Lavigne envious in their heydays. As the song carries itself with the strength of a freight train, the energy of her mad scrolling through a list of potential suitors is nearly palpable: “Would you please pick up the fucking phone?” she yells – surely with us all in unison.


While most of Charli XCX’s newest record captures feelings from quarantine with immediacy, “Claws” is flat-out infectious regardless of context. Her gulped repetition concretes that, well, she likes everything about her live-in turned lock-down boyfriend. And the simple melody through which that fact is conveyed will be lodged in your head for hours after one listen.


An exemplary show of arms in pop songwriting, “Die 4 Ur Love” builds and bursts in all the right places. While its instrumentation conveys an apocalypse looming in the near distance, Tei Shi carries her incredible melody with an undying urgency: “If I can’t have you, what’s the point of all this? I’m broken in two, apocalypse,” she sings. (Yeah, sure, it may seem even better this year in particular, given apocalyptic imagery can feel so on-the-nose recently...)


A record like Petals for Armor depends on a gradual build between its tracks for part of its synergistic impact, so it’s hard to pluck a true highlight from the crowd. “Over Yet,” however, is a warm, breezy track, easy to spin detached from its counterparts and packed with enough energy to inspire an at-home workout video – not an attribute that would have been expected of a Hayley Williams song a decade ago, but it’s a whole new world out here.


The Chicks’ first single in over a decade makes it clear who the original gaslighter was – "Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat, and boy, that’s exactly why you ain’t coming home," Maines stings on their comeback record's strongest track – but within the signature harmonies of the chorus, a certain commander-in-chief certainly comes to mind. It feels incredibly fitting for a band whose career is defined by a political statement – and incredibly easy to listen to the track on repeat.


It should be criminal that The 1975 placed one of the best songs in their catalog on their worst album by far. Notes on a Conditional Form drags to an unbearable dirge almost immediately, making it even easier for “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” to assert itself as the only clear highlight. Magnified in reverb on the pornographic pop-rock fever dream, Healy shouts about sex appeal over the band’s brightest groove and overshadows the other tracks’ indifference.


Of course a Carly Rae Jepsen B-side would make the top 20 cut in a ranking of its respective year’s best songs. “Summer Love” all but confirms that Jepsen heard that fantastic mash-up of Tame Impala and "I Really Like You." The sizzle of Jepsen’s actual psychedelic track is just as fulfilling as her voice meets tinny keys and a sick bass riff.


After a drip-feed of uncharacteristic singles with a rotating cast of Generation Z rappers, Ellie Goulding released an unexpected crowning jewel to her catalog. Contrasting deep, gurgling bass with a skyrocketing chorus that interpolates Dua Lipa’s “Be the One,” Goulding’s “Power” speaks to the hollow nature of dating in the era of technology and digital attention-seeking.


“Rain on Me” is an absolute triumph of a warehouse rave banger. I try to refrain from referring to things as “fierce,” an overused word to describe things any little movement a woman makes. Gaga’s declaration of “Rain on me,” though, is nothing if not fierce: It triggers a robotic spasm so infectious that it’s almost insulting that the song comes to a close at just the three-minute mark.


“XS” is an incredibly fresh take on turn-of-the-millennium rhythm and blues with sarcastic maximalist lyrics: “Gimme just a little bit more, little bit of excess. Oh me, oh my!” she sings in a disjointed, unpredictable melody. As Rina Sawayama refuses to choose between goth rock and hyped up pop music, the song is both aggressive and disruptive – but more importantly, it’s downright exhilarating.


Last year, MUNA declared that they would save the world with a fantastic record. Little did they know how badly we would all need rescued in 2020. Though a collaboration with The Knocks, “Bodies” fits the MUNA palette – it’s saturated and reflective, but it still pops off. Lead vocalist Katie Gavin rolls through her syllables in signature delivery as she longs for a house party – or at this rate, any sign of normality.


Steady trap-indebted beats chop up a hazy low-fi synth blanket, turning an unhealthy emotional attachment into a magnetic track on “Heat Waves.” “Sometimes all I think about is you, late nights in the middle of June,” Dave Bayley sings, stretching the last words of his stanzas thin and warbled. While it’s really a lonely thought, the song is so damn groovy that it’s sometimes easier to get swept away in the sound than to sit back and think about Bayley’s underlying feelings. Maybe that’s what makes it a brilliant song.


Neon synthesizers and urgent bass light up "Physical," an espresso shot to the libido: "C’mon, let’s get physical!" Dua Lipa roars with such command that Olivia Newton-John barely whimpered the phrase in comparison. This one was the ultimate banger of Future Nostalgia that was buried between the success of “Don’t Start Now” and “Break My Heart” in America, but it slaps much harder than the latter. Keep on dancing – when listening to this one, you really don’t have a choice.


The new old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now, because the new new Taylor Swift has just arrived. “Cardigan” – and the rest of Folklore, for that matter – features some of Taylor Swift’s most elegant songwriting and delicate vocal delivery in years. Her craft lends itself nicely to an acoustic folk aesthetic, though “Cardigan” throws in subtle glimmers and a sharp drumbeat for good measure. Subtle harmonies and devastating lyrics of a young affair make the record one of Swift’s essential additions to her discography.


“Evil is a relay sport where the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch,” Fiona Apple chants over the deep, tribal drumbeat of “Relay.” She wrote the phrase at age 15 and shelved it until this year, when she tied it into a spiraling rage over idealism: “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure.” Its verse outbursts are the obligatory explosion of the emotion that is subdued in the primary chant, which wraps itself around the brain and sticks with the listener for hours afterwards.


While every lead single from a Miley Cyrus record somehow feels like the most essential addition to her discography, “Midnight Sky” feels like a monumental achievement The song is everything a Miley Cyrus song should be: Rebellious, sticky as hell, and soaring with the spirit of ‘80s rock legends. Interpolating “Edge of Seventeen,” it charges like a glam rock freight train as she unleashes a rebel yell: “See my lips on her mouth. Everybody’s talking now, baby – ooh, you know it’s true.”


When the fairytale overture on Jessie Ware’s “Spotlight” stalls out, a saturated bass line and hand claps emerge from the shadows to support vocal harmonies that are swollen with sensuality. The five-and-a-half minute epic welcomes listeners into What’s Your Pleasure?, Ware’s sweaty, throbbing nightclub record. And while the rest of the record is just as infectious, there’s something particularly intriguing about this cut – perhaps its in vocal delivery or the solid chord progression, or maybe it’s that thick bass line – that almost always demands a double-listen before carrying onto the rest of the tracks.


To select the one “best” song from a record as incredible as Women In Music Pt. III feels like a disservice to the record. “The Steps” seems like the first obvious answer, but maybe something like “Gasoline” is just the perfect slow burn for the spot. No, no – “Up from a Dream” might be it. Ultimately, I landed on “Don’t Wanna,” perhaps a safe pick from the record for some. But with repeated listens, the track becomes only more fulfilling; the track gradually adds elements atop the woozy guitar line until the song hits a cracking point midway. From there, the Haim women’s persistence in love is matched with an unstoppable force of instrumentation.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Review: Dreamland • Glass Animals

The COVID-19 crisis has provided us no choice but to change the way we write, produce, promote, and listen to music. Since the viral disease proved serious enough for the world to shutter its doors on non-life supporting functions and typical human interaction as winter neared its end, no art has been analyzed without the lens of self-isolation. The concept of a "quarantine record" has become a cliché for albums released while we can enjoy them only alone, from the comfort of our makeshift work-from-home stations. Charli XCX led the charge to document the do-it-yourself hobbyist approach to her newest record, and Taylor Swift recently revolutionized the concept when capturing the emotions that are left to bang between the walls of our empty homes.

Dua Lipa and Fiona Apple were among the first to have found the narratives around their newest records re-framed into quarantine's terms; Lipa's otherwise club-ready sophomore release was lauded for allowing its listeners a personal getaway from silence, while Apple's already elusive lifestyle and introspective songwriting lent themselves seamlessly to the new normal in 2020. And with their third record, English pop outfit Glass Animals join these ranks. After having its pre-release tour canceled due to mass gathering concerns and its release pushed back to prevent adding digital noise at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests, Dreamland has been redefined by its time period despite bearing compelling signs of growth and a personal narrative detached from global conversation points.

On the band’s 2016 sophomore release, How to Be a Human Being, Bayley translated his first years as a touring artist through characters based on those he met and questioned along the way – a method that charged fictional characters with the responsibility to speak on his own experiences. Though Bayley tends to write his tunes in second-person on Dreamland – singing directly to his subject, as if we aren’t here to spectate –  he provides a bystander’s uncomfortable perspective on – and relief from – a lifetime’s worth of trauma, not just a six-month residency in abnormality. With its titular track, Bayley introduces the record as his own rejuvenation, hinting at lasting memories that will be explored in later tracks with vivid intensity: "That first friend you had, that worst thing you said, that perfect moment, that last tear you shed, all you've done in bed, all on Memorex," he lists off from the contents that float within Dreamland.

Bayley credits this record’s self-confrontational approach to an accident that halted the band in 2018, when a truck hit drummer Joe Seaward while he was riding a bicycle. And although the incident, which caused life-threatening brain injuries and required extensive rehabilitation for Seaward, is never directly referenced in song on Dreamland, the event triggered a retrospective on moments in which Bayley felt just as vulnerable. Suspending the few seconds of dead air that occurs between breaking bad news and the response it elicits into a four-minute pressure cooker, "It's All So Incredibly Loud" might best capture discomfort. Its unorthodox structure swells under the suspense but never pops. It's also an interesting take to hear him crawl through tragedy on “Domestic Bliss,” his voice creaking to match his uncertainty when he witnessed habitual domestic abuse at a childhood friend’s home: “Why do you smile when he cries? Why do you cry when he wins?”

The band's debut record, Zaba, was heralded for its mystique and humid ambiance, which both eroded from their work over time but have been replaced with sharper musicality and frankness without losses in the band's finesse. Even within the gloomy jungles of Zaba resided indications that Glass Animals would morph into what is heard on Dreamland. The band's deep percussive nature, for example, remains their modus operandi, but their rumbling foundation's edges are better defined with sharp beat samples. Hip-hop sensibility lends itself perfectly to Bayley's strongholds in repetition and rhythm, while the band's lyrics and favor for low-fi synthesizers – in particular, check out the whiny horror flick synths and spacey samples on "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," a dark ode to a friend who tried to commit a school shooting – keeps the record from falling into anonymous streaming fodder.

The band's pivot is perhaps most evident on "Hot Sugar," a mutant slow jam that simmers just below boiling point, or "Toyko Drifting," a chest-puffing warehouse banger drenched in vocal alterations and equipped with the album's most assertive production. But nearly every song on Dreamland is instantly stickier than expected due to effective implementation of ticking hi-hats and pounding beats over faux-vintage synthesizers and simple hooks. "Tangerine" guns for an eight-bit video game aesthetic, employing a killer vocal line and textured plucked synth more effectively than even Drake’s "Hotline Bling" – a close cousin to this one’s instrumentation. Standout track "Heat Waves," meanwhile, embodies its name only in its studio form, in which a sturdy beat chops up deep wobbly synths. In stripped form, the song is rooted in fragility rather than magnetic appeal – and perhaps that's the point.

Dreamland may journey into the abstract much less than the band’s previous records, but its balance between straightforwardness and poetic imagery is something to be admired. The record scrapbooks repressed memories and splices in some stray thoughts – admittedly, we all have drifting thoughts of "big dicks and big 'ol titties on the sly" from time to time, don't we? – while gluing them over the band’s sharpest melodies and most gratifying instrumental visions yet. Not if, but when 2020 in the fine arts can be viewed through rose-toned reminiscence a few years (or maybe a few decades) from now, Dreamland could be misfiled as an oasis from quarantine. Though it is just that in some ways, what's more memorable is what we learn about Dave Bayley through his processing of the people who molded him well before 2020 – and he just happened to put it all to some pretty rad music, too.

Dreamland is available now under Wolf Tone Records.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

50 Favorite Songs of 2016 (Part Four)

20. "Life Itself" by Glass Animals

Glass Animals brought driving junglebeat back strong with "Life Itself." A commentary from the standpoint of a loner on the fringes of society, the track chronicles a struggle to adapt to the standards of the civil world and the desire to overcome it; the apathy of its verses and the urgency of its choruses reveal a harsh contrast, suggesting an inner dissonance between continuing life uninspired or breaking free of self-imposed barriers to a better life.

19. "Fever" by Carly Rae Jepsen

After delivering the holy grail that is E•MO•TION to us common men last year, the immortal pop legend CRJ decided to keep the party going this year with E•MO•TION: Side B, a collection of tracks that didn't make the original album's cut. From it, we were blessed with eight great tracks, including the neon-lit "Fever." The Jespenator really delivered here, folks. She progresses from heartbroken fragility in the track's verses to rise-above acceptance in the killer refrain. (I will note, though, that "The One" put up quite the fight to take this spot from "Fever." I blame humanity's only hope Carly Rae Jepsen for that dilemma. After all, she is in the business of crafting too many perfect tracks.)

18. "Still Falling for You" by Ellie Goulding

All hail the soundtrack queen. After she told fans she was going on a brief hiatus upon the conclusion of her Delirium World Tour, Ellie Goulding proved once again that she an unstoppable music-producing machine. Crafted by the same team as her "Love Me Like You Do," Goulding's contribution to the Bridget Jones's Baby soundtrack isn't as outwardly explosive or frankly romantic as the worldwide smash; it chronicles the much lighter and brighter side of love, especially a long-term love that has been rekindled or strengthened.

17. "Wish That You Were Here" by Florence + the Machine

Like Ellie Goulding, Florence + the Machine is a gift that never stops giving. This year, Welch gave to us her full long-form music video, The Odyssey, three tracks for the soundtrack of Final Fantasy XV, and "Wish That You Were Here" for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. While the lush masterpiece that is "Too Much is Never Enough" put up a good fight to take this spot on my list, this track snatched it. The chorus jumps off the minimalist, somber verses and into light but driving production with an upfront plea: "I never minded being on my own, then something broke in me, and I wanted to go home, to be where you are."

16. "Not Above Love" by AlunaGeorge

AlunaGeorge's I Remember makes some striking steps forward for the duo. Once the quirky cousins of mainstream pop, Aluna Francis and George Reed debuted in the nosebleeds of the electronic dance arena. This year, they proved themselves to be a versatile pairing as they broadened their own horizons. On "Not Above Love," Francis widens the appeal of her voice from her typical high-pitched bounce to a smoother, soulful radiance, and with the help of Rock Mafia, Reed stretches his abilities past pure electronica.

15. "BoRdErZ" by Zayn

Allow me to be blunt: this track is the musical personification of making love. It begs for more than physical intimacy; through it, Zayn pleads for the destruction of all barriers, physical and emotional, in pursuit of becoming as close as possible to his partner as possible while getting hot and bothered – an intimate sentiment that is hard to come by in today's mainstream pop landscape. Oh, and those vocal runs are as smooth as a flowing stream and that sneering bass can rattle teeth out of your mouth at the right volume.

14. "Move Me" by Wet

A lot of the material from Wet's Don't You – namely standouts like "Deadwater" and "Weak" – could have made a surprise appearance on this list, but technically, a lot of its tracks were released last year or the year prior. "Move Me," however, is a fresh cut from the album that is quintessential Wet. Kelly Zutrau pleads in her ever-so-fragile voice over a simple guitar loop until a swaying bass kicks in and sweeps listeners away – and by the time the track closes on subdued synth sparkles, listeners are left hypnotized. (It's important to make mention that there was another close competition for this spot: The trio's newest single, "The Middle," was neck-and-neck with "Move Me.")

13. "Go Off" by M.I.A.

Let's be real here: M.I.A.'s AIM was not as controversial or as upfront as last year's "Borders" suggested it was going to be. That doesn't mean, though, that she didn't deliver. "Go Off" is swan song of sorts – masked as a Skrillex and Blaqstarr-cosigned banger. Between the supercharged drops, she questions her legacy and the impact of her decade of broadcasting politically charged, controversial ideals via rap music.

12. "Work from Home" by Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign

Many are quick to discredit successful Top 40 tracks on year-end 'best of' lists, but this one most definitely deserves its spot here. Part Rugrats theme song and part sexy club bop, "Work From Home" sparks a desire in me to become a hypersexual construction worker with killer dance moves... you know, if I had the body for it. While it does jump on the abuse of the word "work," it's too hot not to sing along to every single time.

11. "The Greatest" by Sia

Right on the heels of the success of "Cheap Thrills," Sia delivered another prepackaged party – one that's even better than her sole number one hit. A makeshift tribute to the LGBT+ community in the wake of the Orlando gay nightclub shooting, "The Greatest" is a pounding tropical house track that buries its grief with optimism and a superb melody line. And yes, yes, I get it: tropical house is allegedly on its way out. But I don't want to hear about how dated this thing is going to sound, because it's a bona fide banger no matter how you split it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

How to Be a Human Being | Glass Animals

Acting as a scrapbook of perspectives from different fictional characters that frontman Dave Bayley created while touring his band's debut album, Glass Animals' How to Be a Human Being is a whirlwind of a concept album that ties together each story with a thick forest of jungle beat and an eclectic palette of electronic jolts. In their respective appearances, each character sketch possesses Bayley; their physical manifestations leave only his voice behind to deliver their messages.

A collection of 10 distinct vignettes seems far stretched and poses a threat of overzealous creativity in theory, but it's ingenious when waxed with Glass Animals' brand of left-field lyricism and zany yet accessible production. Once some familiar beats and synths grab the typical synthpop listener's attention, common ground can be found between that listener and each character through dissection of their unorthodox life stories.

Over the driving beat of standout track "Life Itself," we learn that Bayley takes the form of a strange young man living on the fringes of society; on the eight-bit "Season 2 Episode 3," a stoner without aspiration; and within the madhouse of demented chords of "The Other Side of Paradise," a"hoop phenomenon" in the making. All of these characters act not as pieces of a whole cast, but rather as alienated neighbors who are entangled in the burdens of their own lives. Listeners, then, take the place of a god-like figure, peeking into the psyche of each community member – and it's a fascinating vantage point.

How to Be a Human Being is available now under Harvest Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall