Monday, January 9, 2012

Top 10 Pop EPs of 2011

Year-end "Best Of..." lists are fun, but they can get monotonous, especially with music journalism - how many times do you really need to see Adele's mopey portrait anyway? Then there are the "Faces to Watch" lists, which can be helpful but usually might as well be called "Lists of Artists I Know About Before You (Neener-Neener)," and how many times do you really need to see Lana Del Rey's mopey portrait anyway? To be fair, I gave a go with the prognostication thing last year, highlighting two artists I was sure would come through with brilliant performances: they were Kelly Rowland and Nicole Scherzinger. That's rough on my credit rating.

Instead, this year I'm covering the best in a field that is typically overlooked in the whole year-end list-making frenzy: pop music EPs. The EP, or extended play, is a kind of mini-album, usually three to eight tracks or so, often used by new and emerging artists to preview their work or minor artists looking to build buzz for upcoming projects. That means that while the ten EPs on this list contain music released in 2011 (which means you can listen and judge for yourself, something I feel is important), most of these artists are looking at further releases over the coming year or so. So it is a preview of faces to watch, of sorts, as well as a year-end Top 10 list. That's efficiency for you. (Hear highlights from these EPs in a Spotify playlist: Top 10 Pop EPs of 2011 – Selections)

10   Corinne Bailey Rae - The Love E.P.

Grammy-nominated soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae rang in the new year with this mellow, light and delightful five-track EP of covers on the theme of love, from Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover" to Bob Marley's "Is This Love?" the latter of which earned her a 2012 Grammy nomination for R&B Performance.

The highlight of the set is the gloriously self-indulgent fifteen-minute live rendition of "Que Sera Sera," which milks every last drop from the iconic Doris Day/Hitchcock/Sly and the Family Stone tune and then keeps on going while the crowd - and the listener - writhes, as with a brilliantly timed joke on The Simpsons, with pleasure, then with boredom, then finally with joy. (Read my review for Cover Me)
The Love E.P. on iTunes

9. Sky Ferreira - As If!

Something of a bloggers' darling (Popjustice is a particularly vocal supporter), Sky Ferreira hasn't done much in the way of actually releasing music, aside from this five-track EP released in early 2011. It's not perfect, and some tracks are better than others, but it is nonetheless a cohesive and generally solid sample of work from an artist of demonstrated skill and talent. The highlight is the Bloodshy and Avant production "Haters Anonymous," a groovy, experimental and sonically intriguing rebuke of the cowardly naysayers who lurk in anonymity throughout cyberspace. The half-sung, half-spoken track manages to make a point without coming across as shrill or defensive, thanks in part to the Swedish duo's smarter-than-thou production and to Ferreira's deadpan, casual delivery.
I'm beautiful, dammit.
As If! demonstrates a clear, comfortable musical style (parts Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, and Sara Bareilles), and Ferreira avoids the uncertain messiness that tends to plague EPs by less musically confident new artists. Though it may not always be my personal cup of tea ("99 Tears" has grown on me immensely), if you like what's on As If! it's pretty safe to bet you'll be pleased by her eventual full-length debut.
As If! on iTunes

8. Brittany McDonald - Spotify EP

Brittany McDonald first arrived several years ago as a country singer with a bit of the tongue-in-cheek humor of Katy Perry, and the brunette-next-door good looks to match. Though her first self-titled EP was entirely listenable crossover country-pop, McDonald eventually found that her heart lay elsewhere, and the solid electro-pop - and decidedly not country - "Beat Stops" served as an unexpected yet unequivocal announcement that from here on out we weren't in Nashville anymore.

Over the year McDonald has added songs to her growing pop cred: Popjustice took note of "Strawberry Shake," selecting it as a Song of the Day and referring to McDonald as "unsigned gold;" and the Perry-esque "Boy Basher" and dubsteppy empowerment anthem "R.E.D. H.O.T." have proven especially popular and have received the lyric video treatment on YouTube. The country EP's lead single "Another Wanna Be" has been pop-ified as well. The eight-track collection is now available on Spotify, including the touchingly honest, hopeful ballad "Notice Me," which is as compelling as "Beat Stops" (the set's best track) is engrossing.
Brittany McDonald on Spotify

7. Beth Ditto - Deconstructions

The Gossip frontwoman's first solo single "I Wrote the Book" was both solid electronic pop tune for an alt-rock gal and a well-executed homage to Madonna at a time when much larger pop stars were running into trouble in that arena. It's easy to surrender to the sheer magnitude of Beth Ditto's four-track EP as to good (or loud), hypnotic techno, and there's plenty of sonic pleasure to soak up that way. Some of the sounds are novel and some of them standard to the electronic/techno genre, if expertly pulled-off, especially on the trance-oriented "Goodnight Good Morning" and "Do You Need Someone," which run six and seven minutes, respectively. However, more conscious listeners will find genuinely compelling textual stuff going on under the dazzling electronica.

What ties it all together, as with the alternative music Gossip put out and the Simian Mobile Disco collaborations wherein Ditto wet her feet with  this kind of electronica, is Ditto's unique voice: nasal and higher-pitched than one might expect from a singer of her considerable physical stature, a seeming contradiction that should be a total turn-off but somehow manages the exact opposite effect.
Deconstructions on iTunes

6. Kay - My Name Is Kay

The spunky, soulful smart chick from Canada named Kay came to my attention when she appeared on Doctor Rosen Rosen's EP GIRLS (Vol. 1) alongside Vertigo Shtick favorites Anjulie and Jessie and the Toy Boys. Included with the free download of GIRLS (Vol. 1) was another Kay track produced by the good Doctor, "M.A.J.O.R." and for me it was enough to vault Kay from one-off pleasantry to object of my sometimes frustratingly unverifiable devotion. All the music on the four-track EP My Name Is Kay has been around for a while, especially the title track, which was a small hit in Canada last year and was also produced by Doctor Rosen Rosen, but it's nice to have it all in one place.

It's not a huge amount to go on as a preview of an eventual Kay LP, but it's fun on its own, and if you're not into Kay (which would be odd) you'll still probably like Tiesto's remix of "M.A.J.O.R." because the DJ, apparently missing the point of the song, tosses her vocals and her empowerment back behind his trademark beats, which are up-tempo but honestly a bit dull. Independent pop behemoth Cherrytree Records seems to have taken Kay under its increasingly influential wing, and if so I look forward to a full-length debut in 2012, and for the well-oiled machine Kay should by then become.
My Name is Kay on iTunes

5 Queen of Hearts - The Arrival

In the wake of the critically acclaimed debut album by British singer Katy B, who made waves by delving into a deeper, dirtier, male-dominated area of electronica than the many other young female pop and dance artists working presently AND making it accessible and fun (if just slightly but effectively too smart for most of us) for both sides of the techno/pop divide comes a new singer, also British, performing under the perhaps outsized but possibly prophetic stage name Queen of Hearts (can you believe no one's used that before?). Teaming up with hot precocious wunderkind like The Sound of Arrows and Dreamtrak, the young newcomer put out a solid debut EP late in the year called The Arrival, which is an accurate if deceptively simple title for a set that sonically has much in common with the Back to the Future trilogy (wait for it). 

Some of The Arrival, indeed (and perhaps unsurprisingly) the strongest portions on the whole, sound so amazing coming out of your speakers that it can take a little while to realize why it's so instantly familiar: it's classic mid-2000s Goldfrapp in fabulous revival, particularly the intoxicating "Shoot the Bullet." Luckily, the singer is gifted with a beautiful voice, higher and lighter than Alison Goldfrapp's but then she's much younger than the latter was when she made Black Cherry. Then there's the jarring, confrontational "Black Star," so deep and grimy it makes Katy B seem like Kylie Minogue (it's a bit much for my taste) but spine-tingling in its futuristic chill. The remainder consists of good to excellent tracks that sound quintessentially 2011, including the moody cover of indie rock band Foals' "Spanish Sahara" and the disco-infused “Where Are You Now?” The closer, "Freestyle," is the most accomplished track in the set even if "Shoot the Bullet" is ultimately the crowd-pleaser. It infuses the past, present and future into one brilliantly new piece and the result is as if schoolchildren at a recital, having displayed their proficiency on “Für Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata,” closed the show with a brilliant performance of “The Rite of Spring.” 
She is brave enough to let you see her peacock.
 The Queen is still finding her visual style, periodically getting it brilliantly right, which is encouraging since the singer's inspired choice of stage name offers a kingdom of potential for compelling fashion/visual art component in this postmodern, performance art-friendly genre. Hopefully we will see fewer bland missed opportunities (like the low-fi music video for "Shoot the Bullet") and more couture weirdness (like the video for "Black Star") and promotional photos with swan headgear and fabulous coiffures. As for the music, I look forward to seeing what comes of this young monarch now that she has decidedly taken over the ethereal female-driven electro throne Alison Goldfrapp prematurely abandoned.
The Arrival on iTunes

4   Jessie and the Toy Boys - Show Me Your Tan Lines

Jessie Malakouti's canny and clever reincarnation as Jessie and the Toy Boys has done a bundle proving her to be a noteworthy and talented pop musician who, thanks to a well-received opening set on the main leg of Britney Spears' Femme Fatale Tour, may finally be getting her day in the sun (again. But that's another story, although like most good things it does involve Britney Spears at one point). This mid-year release featured a set of five solid pop tracks that are "both enjoyable and superior to a number of full albums released by major female pop acts in 2011," or so I said at the time. Three of the five tracks, "Valentine," "Push It" and "We Own the Night" were each released as singles on Valentine's Day, and the act began turning gay heads after a performance at the White Party in Palm Springs and then landed the Spears gig, while one of the songs included in the Femme Fatale set, "Let's Get Naughty," wasn't released until the fall, but even with the previously released material and the conspicuous absence of a popular new tune, Show Me Your Tan Lines holds up to my initial praise. 
Red is such a pretty color.
Its success comes mostly thanks to top-notch production and instrumentation, Malakouti's engaging songwriting and in-your-face delivery, and the brilliant (and criminally underused) "Money Makes the Girl Go Round," which is great enough on its own to have made up for the fact that for a long while I frankly didn't much care for the rest of the EP much, taste-wise. (I've since come around on "Valentine;" I still loathe "Push It," but that's my own problem.) The sense of timing is perfect: in the music, in the incidentals (the two best moments on the track feature the ring of a cash register and the word "bitch," respectively), in the comedic arc of the storytelling (it's a revenge tale/bitchfight, which I initially understood to be between a pair of hookers and I have no desire to learn if I was incorrect), in everything that makes an irresistible pop smash single. Alas, the track was never taken out for a solo run, but it's better to have unused brilliance in the attic than none at all, and I do hope to see the momentum revive for Jessie and the Toy Boys so we can see what this smart, sassy and slightly scary young star-in-the-making comes up with next.
Show Me Your Tan Lines on iTunes 

3 Coco Morier - Coco Morier EP

Britney Spears songwriter Nicole Morier's gritty-glam indie-pop triumph of an EP was one of the biggest and best surprises of the last year. The five tracks prove both intriguingly unusual and instantly seductive, but unlike most indie pop/rock that initially grabs with unfamiliarity, Morier's tunes also demonstrate the savvy craftsmanship of an experienced pop songwriter and therefore flourish with repetition and familiarity like a cunning Britney Spears hit. (Fun fact: Morier also wrote Sky Ferreira's “99 Tears,” on As If!)

Everything that makes Morier's songs for Spears particularly appealing is here in full force: the astral imagery, the Lewis Carroll-esque flights of fancy, the moments of too clever by half lyricism, the hazy vocal filtering, and so on, and while Spears is an excellent conveyor of the whole ouvre, the authenticity of Morier's objectively quirky musical persona earns acceptance quickly enough that we are able to appreciate how the delivery enhances the material, and vice versa. In other words, Coco Morier's EP, like Adele's 21, is one of those beguiling and rare pop releases that doesn't really sound like anything else but somehow still sounds just the way you like it. (Read the full Vertigo Shtick review)
Coco Morier EP on Soundcloud

2 Doctor Rosen Rosen - GIRLS (Vol. 1)

Even as women increase their utter domination of today's popular music scene, there are still some men out there appealing to age-old, built-in sexist skepticism in order to downplay the legitimacy of these women in their success and in musical trends and development as an art form in order to elevate their own contributions, often vastly beyond their true value. That's why it's so refreshing and encouraging to encounter Doctor Rosen Rosen, a young and talented music producer and songwriter with true, demonstrated respect for the female artists with whom he works. His is not merely lip service - it's real and transparent, in the vein of Max Martin, Paul Epworth (Adele), the Neptunes and the production duo Tricky Stewart and the-dream; what's more, he is arguably the first producer since Timbaland to manage to also maintain his own identity as a performing artist as well. The impressive, precociously masterful first volume of the planned four-part concept series, succinctly titled GIRLS, follows in the style of smash hit collaborations of mutual artistic respect from Timbaland and Missy Elliott to Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, Madonna and William Orbit to Gwen Stefani and Pharell Williams.

She liked my home-piece MCA
Since each of the four tracks were written and created with and for each featured vocalist, the EP covers a wide variety of sound and substance, but the lack of stylistic continuity doesn't jar mainly because it's all so uniformly well executed. Jessie and the Toy Boys' "Five o'Clock" is a characteristically biting sendoff to a deadbeat lover (the tonal opposite of T-Pain's hilariously tender tune of the same name), featuring easily the singer's best chorus to date ("Get your shit out of my house,” 3x). The two artists indulge in a shared love of detail and spirit of joyful brattiness: on the bridge after the singer coos "sorry, gotta break your heart" comes a cruelly sarcastic "awwww," which echoes again and again on the high-octane middle eight, a falling glissando beneath the monophonic chant "bye baby boy, bye baby boy boy boy," and continues through the final chorus. It's the musical equivalent of Norman Bates' knife in the shower.

Meg Myers does a splendid spoof of the melodramatic alternative emo-chick ballad on "Poison," with its awkward, soaring chorus and wonderfully tragic lyrics like "I wanna give you my heart so you can beat it up." Anjulie nails the dirty "Sex-Ed," an early-80s Madonna throwback with a self-consciously modern bridge, on which she quips "Boys want girls, but girls need men/ Don't mean I don't like it, you just need a little Sex-Ed" over a bongo beat. Probably the best of a strong set is Kay's scorching club thumper "Hot," wherein the newly sexed-up platinum blonde (promo art shows her blowing a large bubble of pink bubblegum) sizzles so effectively that she can makes lyrics like "I go honey ham on your whole wheat" sound like "just put your lips together and blow."

GIRLS (Vol. 1) is a thrill from start to finish - flawlessly produced, cleverly written, compellingly performed and refreshing in its intelligence and promise for the future of the five young stars and of pop itself. Volume 2, which the Doctor tells me may arrive this month (he's been working on Myers' upcoming debut EP), can't come soon enough.
GIRLS (Vol. 1) Free Download

1  Florrie – Experiments

Florrie's masterful Experiments is far and away the best 2011 release of its format from pop and its adjacent genres. The EP is not a debut release like many of the others on this list; the house drummer for British pop production house Xenomania has been honing her craft a while (in an ideal environment) releasing her first solo songs in early 2010 and the Introduction EP in November. It may not therefore be especially surprising that Florrie's third outing is a paragon, but that doesn't make it any less of a welcome triumph. She's shown sporadic signs of brilliance before - “Call of the Wild,” from Introduction, was rather near perfection – but I'd felt generally apathetic about most of what had come before, so I was more than a little unprepared for Experiments to blow me away. 

The songwriting here is the strongest component. Florrie has made the leap from proficient craftsman to inspired lyricist and storyteller, and from the sound of her blog missives she's still learning more about the art. The first four tracks play like a song cycle – a pop version of the classical suite, which elevates their impact enormously. The opening sonata, “Speed of Light,” tells of the thrilling start of a new romance, its quick pace and swirling orchestrations (and lyrics) evoking the whirlwind joy of early attraction. Then comes the devastating “Experimenting with Rugs,” which jumps to the disillusionment that comes at the end of love, and the structure is less verse-chorus than verse and variation in repetition, appropriating the frustration of the endless loop that can come with bargaining and back-and-forth before things finally end. “What You Doing This For?,” the plodding, wistful adagio, takes a look perhaps from the opposite perspective, with the sad but caring mix of acceptance and hope of someone who is still in love with the one who has left. This piece ends with a couplet that is hauntingly unresolved:
The rivers of time are calling out for your mind
Baby you knew, oh you knew
They're saying “What's mine is yours”
I think we're losing the war
I'm gonna keep on fighting for you.
This leads into the final movement, “I Took a Little Something,” a rondo about coping with missing the one you love. It twirls around dizzyingly over a repeated musical phrase (those who know Phil Collins' “Two Worlds” from Tarzan may find their similarity distracting, as I do) that plays into the amusing ambiguity of the premise “I took a little something to figure you out,” which could refer to a keepsake or a drug, depending on how one feels. It's a fitting final movement to a cathartic symphony of love and loss.

The two outliers, “Begging Me” and “She Always Gets What She Wants,” are fun, playful and quick-moving romps (the whole EP seems to be about movement, implicitly) that show off Florrie's deftness with wordplay as well as her versatility as a singer, able to play sexy, sweet, wistful or wise as needed, sometimes all within the same song. The production of the set is of course rich and engrossing and Florrie manages not to disappear beneath it. Sometimes it's used to create effects of its own: on “Experimenting With Rugs,” Florrie sings the first verse over a standard-sounding synth/percussion backing, then the tempo noticeably slows and the electronic sounds melts away into just acoustics and drums. Then suddenly, as the main thematic phrase begins again, you're hit with a massive tidal wave of sound that feels like smacking into a wall (albeit without the pain). It's very dramatic (although by the third time the trick is repeated, near the end, it does start to seem a bit like an overly enthusiastic child once again going “ta-daaaaa!”). A similar technique is used less pointedly on “Speed of Light” and “I Took a Little Something,” and the entire thing has the veneer of Xenomania polish for which one can never complain.
Experiments on iTunes

Florrie's Experiments was one of the best surprises of 2011, and it well deserves its spot atop this list of ten inventive and exciting EPs, a list that by nature serves as something of a preview of coming attractions in the year ahead. If 2012 has in store additional, full releases from these fascinating artists, we're in for one hell of a year.

You can hear highlights from these EPs on a Spotify playlist: Top 10 Pop EPs of 2011 – Selections

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