Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave pushes the boundaries of audacious art-rock, the year’s first outright stunner
When I first heard Alt-J’s genre-slaughtering blend of dubstep, alternative pop and infectious art-rock, I didn’t believe my ears. I searched for these songs in as many iterations as possible, reaching for what made them so damned explosive. Clearly there’s a reason the album An Awesome Wave is a front-runner for England’s prestigious Mercury Prize — these college students turned alt-music saviors don’t care about the lines they’re about to obliterate. They’re simply out to make music that makes you feel something.
The album plays best as a whole, letting the art-rock through-line electrify the circuit. Still, for such a high-concept piece of experimentation, An Awesome Wave brims full of staggeringly infectious melodies. “Fitzpleasure” on its own serves as their ultimate example, almost Jethro Tull-ish in its ability to morph through countless genres and mini-songs in the course of a four minute pop jam. It also benefits from the dirtiest lyric ever to sneak its way into an otherwise radio-worthy hook. This is Dark Side of the Moon meets Hot Chip, and the mad juxtapositions stack the deck. You cannot listen to this and not want to move! It’s an unimpeachable imperative.
Music fans willing to subvert their expectations and delve into an album which is as much pop as artful, daring genre exploration will find much to savor about Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave. By decimating the line between art-rock and the mainstream, the band creates new horizons for every listener who confesses to give a shit about music as a creative art-form. Google around every corner, layers upon layers make this the year’s most surprising outright stunner.
Year of the Album — #071
The Darcys – “The Darcys” (2011, Arts & Crafts)
This isn’t sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs music, but the melodies of these songs are perfectly matched to the intended mood, and the resulting mix is an inspiring blend of polished pop and more avant garde experimentation.
This is definitely a discovery I would not have made had I not been writing for PopMatters, as this album came through one of their connections. But I must say, despite the fact that the band has to date done little to build a name for itself here in the States, the Darcys have stumbled on a sound which is likely to make them household names if they can get their blend of pop and experimentation into our collective headphones. You can read the full review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #002
Plain White T’s – “The Wonders of the Younger”
Hollywood Records (2010)
Similar Albums: Fall Out Boy – “Folie a Deux” (Island, 2008)
Vandeveer – “Grace & Speed” (Gypsy Eyes Records, 2007)
Plain White T’s latest album may be the weirdest, most interesting and innovative pop album of 2010 that no one seems to be talking about. These guys refuse to rest on their laurels after their huge hits “Hey There, Delilah” and “1, 2, 3, 4,” instead choosing to go the route of Fall Out Boy’s Folie a Deux, only minus the overwhelming sense of pretentiousness which permeated that album. Where Fall Out Boy failed – in actually sounding like they were having some fun with their experimentation – Plain White T’s, and lead isnger Tom Higgenson in particular, seem to be loving every minute of this idiosyncratic album.
And fans will too, if they’re willing to listen to the album a few times to let the odder songs fully sink in. There’s nothing on here that gets repetitive, and there are more winning songs than you’re going to be able to absorb all at once. “Boomerang” sounds like the closest thing to a straightforward single: “You tell me to go and beg me to stay, I keep coming back like a boomerang … round and round and round and back again!” It’s infectious and will take over your mind like the plague.
But rather than sit back and say “hey, we’ve got the single!” the band jumps forward leaps and bounds on “Welcome to Mystery,” which hearkens back to the odd-ball folk stylings of Vandeveer, whose album Grace & Speed is another you’re likely to have missed out on. The song opens with acoustic guitars and grand Beatlesque harmonies, adds some synth and then slams home with crunching guitars that lead into the hook-filled chorus. “This is a town with no history,” Higgenson sings, “welcome to mystery,” before delving into a ridiculously awesome fantasy sequence in the second verse. “Blue treetops and velvet skies, here ready to blow your mind. This is a place where your mind can escape all the problems of today and go far far away” Indeed.
But why stop there? They follow that up with “Rhythm of Love,” the best song Jack Johnson didn’t write, which actually manages to be low key, smooth and – above all – fun, without being cloying. It’s also mindbendingly catchy, and by that point on the album the whole thing’s in full-tilt awesome territory. “Map of the World” adds creepy bell chimes to a hand-clap drum track and harmonized vocals before jumping into a full-speed synth-pop experience. “Am I a dot on the map of the world?” Higgenson asks. “When I imagine the whole universe, where do I fit in?” Fitting, considering their young audience will be studying this album note by note wondering both how it fits into what they’ve heard before from the band and where they’re going to be heading in the future. Where do Plain White T’s fit into the pop landscape?
Even at this point we’re only halfway through the album, and the remainder manages to continuously up the artistic and creative ante while mainting momentum and avoiding what would seem like an inevitable dip in quality by the end. Pop albums that encourage you to listen straight through for full appreciation of the sound are rare, which makes this one all the more worthy of praise.
Judging by the rest of this brilliant album, a leap forward creatively for a band many had written off as two-hit wonders, they will fit in just fine. Higgenson is setting the band up to be pop outlaws in the sense that they’re willing to experiment stylistically rather than leaping from trend to trend, and The Wonders of the Younger will win over many potential fans who distrusted the band’s credibility after “Hey There, Delilah” turned them into teenage sex objects. If you’re a fan of pop music that pushes the envelope without being overly pretentious or self-aware, this is the album you owe it to yourself to give a listen or two. Or ten. Why not? There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure if it’s this energizing to listen to.