Gee, I wonder what Passion Pit’s been up to. Does Passion Pit still exist as such? Their most recent record came out in 2017, and I guess that they’ve suffered from having singer Michael Angelakos’s personal life being made into a focus point. (He came out in 2017.) Also, is this particular brand of dreamy electronic pop still au courant? I mean, as far as I’m concerned, electro-dreampop is the genre of the decade and I will never stop loving it. But also it’s 2019 and maybe it’s something else to crest the wave. (Please don’t let it be overly-earnest singer-songwriters with high-pitched voices.) Anyhow, in 2008, when they released their first EP, Passion Pit was ahead of the wave, and that makes them essential listening.
Passion Pit peaked with this one. They’ll never do anything this great again. When I first heard this, I thought it was both the catchiest and the most annoying thing I’d ever heard. I hoped that the rest of Passion Pit’s work would be similarly weird and edgy. Granted, I love Passion Pit, but none of their other work ever got this weird again. Mostly it’s hooky uptempo dreampop, and great at it. But it doesn’t balance on the line of grating and compelling the way this early experiment does. I’m sure that Michael Angelakos will continue to do interesting and fun things in his career and whatnot. Maybe it’ll be weird and psychedelic, but it’ll probably be more on the pop spectrum.
Probably a lot of you haven’t heard of the indietronica band Passion Pit, or knew that ‘indietronica’ is a even a thing. And if you have, you still probably haven’t been following the personal life of lead singer Michael Angelakos. So you probably didn’t feel mildly disappointed last summer at the news that Angelakos was divorcing the wife he’d pretty much dedicated the band’s third album to. Nor did you silently think ‘ah-ha, this explains everything’ when he came out as gay a few months later. That is in no way a confusing narrative; I see no contradiction in being gay and thanking your lovely now-ex wife for saving your life when you were at your lowest. Let’s have a little slightly belated toast to Michael Angelakos for being a totally modern creative music person who’s not afraid of inventing new genres by mashing up bits of older ones, for being honest and frank about his struggle with bipolar disorder and depression, and for being an openly gay man in an industry that still thrives on marketing retrograde ideals of heteronormative romance. Let’s hear it for a new generation of entertainers who inspire us to talk about things we’d always been told to shove into the proverbial closet.
Part Two. The Songs.
A little extra space for those whose albums didn’t quite make the top cut, or those who didn’t actually release an album. The songs I listened to. A lot. This year.
1. ★ – David Bowie
Nothing casts a longer shadow Blackstar. Released in November, it inspired the kind of fanfare only new stirrings by David Bowie could attract. Of course we didn’t know that it was meant as the artist’s swan song, a parting gift, a characteristically cryptic goodbye. We just thought it was mighty epic. In a season of electrosynth, it’s almost painful and wrong to receive something of this caliber, as a goodbye no less. We’re not worthy.
2. Ex’s & Oh’s – Elle King
The naughtiest, sexiest pop confection. So inescapable and so catchy, you almost didn’t notice how subversive it was. Elle King is one of a new breed of smart young pop stars, armed with the message that empowerment is fun.
3. On the Regular – Shamir
This Las Vegas-based new talent combines a soulful countertenor, a love for candy colored disco beats and a playful humor to create what critics have called ‘bubblegum hip hop’. If anyone is going to write this generation’s I Will Survive, it’s gonna be this kid. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s zooming along nicely.
4. New Americana – Halsey
Yeah, it’s a self-conscious, Balenciaga-referencing, portrait-of-my-generation anthem that wouldn’t exist without Royals. But Halsey has greater ambitions than riding Lorde’s coattails for a minute on the pop charts. Her debut was a concept album about an apocalyptic near future of her own invention. She has things to say.
5. Tongues – Joywave
This has actually been stuck in my head since the fall of 2014, and I was waiting to see if Joywave’s debut album lived up to the delirium. It does. This is the best of today’s electric indie pop wave.
6. The Party Line – Belle & Sebastian
Didn’t Belle and Sebastian used to be known for making sleepy folk music? They’ve been at it long enough to have been a punchline in High Fidelity. But this… This you can dance to. I guess this is a band evolving with the times. Tired of being called twee, they take to electropop.
7. Black Sun – Death Cab For Cutie
Welcome to Ben Gibbard’s big divorce album. It would make a bigger impact if every Death Cab record didn’t sound like a breakup album. The romantic mope is what these guys do best.
8. Lifted Up (1985) – Passion Pit
Passion Pit continues the trend for catchy, New Wave influenced indie pop. There’s been a lot of it lately, mostly of the one hit and out variety, and Passion Pit, with a total of three albums, is looking more and more like a keeper.
9. Leave a Trace – Chvrches
This could be a long lost Cyndi Lauper song, it’s that 80’s. And that’s great. Will Lauren Mayberry grow up to be a similarly iconic figure? Too early to tell, but I’ve been watching Chvrches since their debut a few years ago, and it would be nice if I could continue.
10. 10,000 Emerald Pools – BØRNS
Ok, so maybe Garrett Borns, with his pretentious stage name and sensitive-guy hair, is pure hipster bait. Maybe I’m a sucker for that stuff. Maybe this is a pretty great song.
11. Paranoia – Max Frost
Max Frost is now famous enough to merit his own Wikipedia page, but it’s only a paragraph long. So he’s still got a ways to go before he reaches real fame, but it’s when not if, and when he does, you heard it here first.
12. Painted – MS MR
Just when it seemed like Ms Mr wasn’t going to live up to the promise of Hurricane… This isn’t quite as great, but it’s nice to have them back, and it would be nice to have more fanfare about it.
13. American Oxygen – Rihanna
Rihanna is hardly the first person to use a video montage of iconic images superimposed on an American flag to illustrate a basic political point. We get it, MLK would be aghast at the violence and injustice still being dished out upon a mostly black underclass, and the American Dream is big bust for most of us, etc. (And some viewers might find it objectionable that the singer’s nipples are clearly visible throughout.) But I want to take this as a sign that Rih is beginning to mature into a more serious-minded artist. She has the talent and charisma to become the kind of artist people pay attention to when she has something important to say.
14. Blank Space – Father John Misty
Oh, hey, here’s a novelty song. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll curse the heavens for taking Lou Reed, and you’ll thank Glob that at least we have Father John Misty. Oh, and maybe, just maybe, possibly, Taylor Swift is not entirely a vortex on inanity in human form.
Another new band from the radio. Admittedly, I often download entire (though meagre) discographies of promising bands I discovered through Shazam, then find them indistinguishable. Fake New Wave all sounds the same! To be fair, though, it can take some time for a group only on its first or second record to really establish an interesting identity – and for many, by the time they do, the wave they rode in on has crested and nobody is listening anymore. In the case of Passion Pit, they are on a pretty classic career arc as far as I can tell. Having emerged from the musical breeding ground of Berklee in 2007, their debut album had some memorably eccentric moments, while their second was more firmly commercial and established their indietronica niche. (Indietronica; that’s a legit thing now!) They’re about to release a third LP this month, and I expect it to be more fully polished and ready to sell. I’m also hoping for a higher ratio of catchy singles to bland atmospherics.