Haim – “Days Are Gone”

Days are GoneAfter a year and a half of singles and heavy blog discussion, Haim’s debut did anything but disappoint. Nearly the strongest pop release of the year which puts all of their strengths and flavours on full display: tight vocal performances, tasteful and lush instrumentals, catchy choruses and a bag of influences ranging from Fleetwood Mac to Destiny’s Child. Every track could have been a single and as a collection “Days Are Gone” does not drop the ball once. The change in sound from their previous more rock-oriented live front may disappoint some followers but the clean, rich pop sheen each song receives here is irresistible. Sophisticated yet instantly accessible, this album deserves to be remembered.  An extremely promising genesis to the career of a band that will hopefully continue to thrive.

Lorde –“ Pure Heroine”

Pure HeroineThe most impressive female solo singer to emerge this year, Lorde’s debut’s refreshingly stark production makes you realise how hard its competitors seem to be trying to even be heard. “Royals” is only one of the many highlights here and even after its over-exposure on the radio it sounds blissful in context here. The consistently minimalist atmosphere becomes surprisingly heavy on repeated listens, making one realise how effective the “less is more” approach can be. Lyrically it’s youthful but it’s easy to forget this with what’s happening around the words. Again, the number of possible hits is staggering with Lorde’s surprisingly mature voice serving as one of the most enticing sounds of 2013. A hugely exciting debut, “Pure Heroine” is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that this was the year of female pop.

Kanye West – “Yeezus”

YeezusKanye’s personality was flaunted so much in 2013.  Between the Kardashians, his various outlandish interviews and clashes with the paparazzi it’s easy to forget what was at the eye of the storm: “Yeezus”. However rushed and messy some of this record seems, it’s thrilling, cathartic and a lot more listenable than some might claim. Resembling a sharper-edged, colder-sounding “808s & Heartbreak”,” Yeezus” is at least the darkest SOUNDING thing he’s ever released. It’s like a digital rainbow: between the steely synths on the earlier tracks, the horn samples on “Blood on the Leaves” and the early-Yeezy soul samples on “Bound 2”, it’s surprisingly varied and in spite of some misguided lyrical direction we’re left with a largely on-point, albeit bizarre, record essential at this point in the man’s career.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu –“Nanda Collection”

Nanda CollectionOne of the most colourful releases from this year, “Nanda Collection” can be at once immediate and baffling. The extremely layered, almost three-dimensional instrumentation is thrilling enough to make up for the lack of power behind Kyary’s voice but that’s not  what she’s about anyway, what with her prime function simply being kawaii. The songs fit her persona and image perfectly, discussing such subjects as ice cream, fashion, aliens, ninjas… you get the idea without even being able to entirely understand the lyrics. The enjoyment here is something both more primal and innocent and once you push past any initial possible alienation there’s nothing left but excitement and happiness. The amount of care put into this album just bounces off it and it’s unbelievably infectious. Oddball of the year for sure.

Lady Gaga -- ARTPOP

ARTPOPIt seems some quiet time was just what Gaga needed following the paper-thin “Born This Way” album: almost every song on “ARTPOP” sounds like it’s been given the room to breathe and develop that most of the tracks on her previous release never had. If you ever thought her music didn’t actually justify her oddball public persona and fashion sense, “ARTPOP” is absolutely what you have been waiting for. One listen of opener “Aura” makes it clear this is the most actually “Gaga” record Ms. Germanotta has released. Dominated by a thick, lively, 80s-style production it excites pretty consistently, featuring absolutely some of the best tracks Gaga’s ever put out. Her stabs at pop culture and her other usual themes actually have weight in both what they’re saying and their musical backing. Certainly her strongest full-length release so far.

Days are GoneHaim are in a minority of artists who also form part of the majority where influences from chart music over the last thirty years can be heard clod-hopping all over their work but who are also pushing forward musically, and sound strikingly different from their current, retro-obsessed contemporaries. The three twenty-something sisters from LA write their own material and play their instruments, they aren’t an electronic act and neither do they aspire to be urban makeover superstars. But there are some fascinating deep and dark synths here and an R’n’B spirit is shadowing almost every song to the point where it does, albeit briefly, finally jump into the driving seat. “Tango in The Night”-era Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Sheryl Crow, The Police and eighties soft rock are the most dominant and easily-spotted influences for the Haim sisters debut though. Time and again you’ll hear these mentioned in reference to the group but importantly at the core of “Days Are Gone”, is a sound that is all theirs.

The first third of the album is home to all four heavily-promoted singles and with the possible exception of the worryingly Shania Twain tendencies of the overly-perky “The Wire” (not forgetting the Eagles “Heartache Tonight” drum intro – Ed), all still sound spring fresh, funky and with plenty of space for instruments and vocals to stretch out and sparkle. “If I Could Change your Mind” has a fidgety, skipping melody line which brings to mind freestyle electro pop from eighties artists like Cover Girls and Lisa Lisa, and the title track, a surprising co-write with UK new-house artist Jessie Ware, has plenty of tension and bustles along with an urgent agenda and rhythm.

It’s on the futuristic R’n’B of the oddly titled “My Song 5” where the band really surprise. If this were the lead single from Beyonce’s near-mythical, possibly forthcoming album or even more excitingly, another attempt at a comeback from Missy Elliott then either would be rightly lauded. Three seconds of dirgy, descending buzz bass and then massive slow pounding drums introduce vocals which mimic Wendy and Lisa doing their Purple Rain residence; dead eyed and dangerous, pitch black promising ‘honey I’m not your honey pie’. A dizzy and delirious middle eight where tight angelic harmonies flip forward and then just disappear and it’s one of the one of the most exciting and weird four minutes you’ll have experienced since the first time you heard “Get Ur Freak On”.

Continuing with the genuinely thrilling and experimental final third of “Days Are Gone” where the sound that we’d already heard from the band is both intensified and stripped away, “Go Slow” is a gorgeous and gently skulking “True Colours” but with all of the sonic fuzz wiped away. “Let Me Go” is the angriest sounding moment here, building from the sixties girl group chants in the dark into a tribal thud and clanking, dubby outro and “Running If you Call my Name” closes the album in a traditional way as a down-tempo mass of drums, guitars and those beautiful harmonies.

“Days Are Gone”, maybe more than anything else, is very welcome at this point in pop culture. Pop music is more female-driven and dominated than ever before; Gaga is eaten by Lana is eaten by Taylor is eaten by Miley. It happens so quickly and all have their place and merit but none sound like Haim. Image, although clearly very much considered, seems less of an issue to the group than the music itself, you can listen to the songs here and you don’t necessarily feel hijacked by a carefully constructed persona and brand as you may do when listening to “Born This Way” or “Video Games” say. This is a charismatic and superior release, real musical talent and love of performing that doesn’t sound cynical or short-sighted. Probably most satisfying of all, you can almost guarantee that this really is only the beginning for Haim and the best is still to come.

Out now.