Swede + Sour - Top Nordic Albums of 2013
It’s February and it has been month since the clocks rolled into 2014, so we wanted to retrace our favorite albums of the yesteryear. Anyway, who likes to make such important decisions on a whim anyway? The Grammys hold their awards the following year don’t they? Regardless of what the music biz thinks, we sat down put some thought and listened to these albums to exhaustion, then researched and revised the list over and over until we have what we have here. So without further ado, here are our favorite albums:
1) Big Fox - Now (Hybris) - Sweden
Like her previous self-titled debut, Big Fox’s sophomore release “Now” is a record for easy listening - gentle piano pop told through the soft whimpers of vocalist Charlotta Perers’ honest storytelling. However unlike the last, the record trades off the playfulness and skims on the lush string arrangements of its predecessor for bluesier sounds. Though both of the records have their selling points, “Now” with its bolder lyricism and more streamlined sound in many ways feels like the maturation of a more confident artist.
However, it’s not to say there isn’t the coy and playfulness of Big Fox’s sound though. The lead single “Girls”, a track owing to Perers’ shyness and reservations growing up brims up like a cheery elevator chime and “Romantic Movie Love” with its bouncy lo-fi synths feels a lot like something Electric Light Orchestra.
Nevertheless to say pessimistically, Big Fox’s charm lies more in her less upbeat work. Filled with remorse and regret, the tracks on Big Fox’s “Now” move away from the innocent naïveté of the last record. Take the loss of innocence and paranoia through the bluesy swing of “Calm Down” or the gloomy yet atmospheric “Rain” appearing through a shroud of dank synths and sorrowful strings speaking about disillusionment and restraint. The subject matter of the record is indeed dark, but according Charlotta in a way necessary. Her songs which she explains are confessionals of some sort are where she finds solace – a place where there’s nowhere to hide and everything makes sense. It’s a sort of release where on Big Fox’s “Shadows” that Perers’ gradually battles her inner demons, where the solemn piano chords of give way to triumphant horns. Of a similar vein with its subject content and bluesy but uplifting vibe, the standout title track “Now” rolls in deep with drumroll crescendos and blossoming woodwinds with its “now or never” lyrics. Finally there’s the soul-searching “Days Come Go”, a classical pop ballad an absurdly beautiful track brimming with teary string arrangements.
Sonically, “Now” feels like the answer to Cat Power’s “The Greatest” that we’ve never got but much more personal than Chan Marshall’s post-depression effort. The record in many senses is painfully honest so much so that Charlotta adds, “that the words can be so honest that you almost regret them”. There’s this sense of vulnerability that exposes a deeply-flawed Perers’, but one surprisingly relatable for anyone who has ever had a sense of doubt or regrets about what they should have done, would have done and et cetera. While the dreary mood of “Now” may mask the rainbows and butterflies of her record, it’s nevertheless an important record replacing looping pop-hooks for truly meaningful music and of course it’s got that oh-so-famous Swedish melancholy to it too.
Big Fox’s music can be found on Soundcloud and “Now” is available to stream on Spotify.
2. Team Rockit - Anima (Sincerely Yours) - Sweden
Combining elements of dream pop, hardcore rap and rave, Team Rockit’s sophomore record is a seemingly jarring blend. Take that in consideration with their obsession with 90s kitsch like Pogs, Pokémon and Sailormoon, and you’ll be scratching your head wondering how all this makes any sense - but it somehow does. Evidence of this is found all over the record with their overconfident boasts on opening track “Era” and its icy synths elevating the trio to saint-like status and on anime-clip sampling “Luna” where lofty choir-like vocals intersect with chopped-and-screwed trap-game Sailormoon swag. However, probably the best example of Team Rockit’s capability lies in “Stigma”. Over seven –minutes-long and sped up and slowed down with constant tempo changes the track culminates in their holy trinity of their dream pop, rap and rave sensibilities. Joining members Gregorian, Ikaros and Merely sing unison until an exhilarating two-minute outro containing pounding rave synth leads closes the track. The record is uniquely cut, with recently-recruited vocalist Merely splitting the holy gospel of their full-length album into short hymns. One might hear church bells, a flute, some strings and even some sounds emanating from the ocean-deep against Merely’s angelic purr.
Laugh if you might, but supposedly to Team Rockit this is no comical matter. Despite the affiliation with their seemingly childish 1990s obsessions, the band is unabashedly proud. To Team Rockit, the whole idea of the record is that there are no guilty pleasures and only what you like and don’t like. Maybe the flaunting on “Anima” might be a bit excessive but to them it would be weird for them to believe that their record is ironic or insincere. Rather the record is not a blatant violation of Scandinavia’s Jante Law, but instead an uninhibited celebration of self. With their Swedish language vocals on the chorus of track “Gaia” translating loosely to “I Am Not Afraid of the Dark”, Team Rockit isn’t like you should laugh at us because we’re funny, but more like don’t laugh at us because we’re cooler than you.
Team Rockit’s music can be found on Soundcloud and “anima” is available to stream on Spotify.
3. Oh Land - Wishbone (Federal Prism/Tusk or Tooth) - Denmark
If you’ve ever read a thing or two about Nanna Fabricius Øland of Oh Land, there’s hardly an interview or piece that fails to mention her fall from grace as a ballerina and her gradual rise as one of Denmark’s brightest pop starlets. While her dark and experimental debut “Fauna” echoed of pain and insecurity and her self-titled follow-up “Oh Land” trotted along with fun and cutesy radio pop, “Wishbone” her third studio album finds a compromise between the previous two. Moving away from both the scared little girl and polished pop princess mentality, “Wishbone” has spawned a new Oh Land with her blue-green hair, infinite sarcasm and a heavy air of nonchalance – all with a perfectly-crafted smile.
As Nanna suggests, the record in a way is moving away from those pop ideals, especially given her earlier career prospects as a ballerina where being pretty and proper was expected. Given this it wasn’t surprising that Oh Land threw out the grungy electronics of “My Boxer” as the debut single for her album, where a rapping Nanna (yes, she’s actually rapping) spits out a few rhymes about her ideal man “holding her down”, embracing her weirdness, with her being the film and him the subtitles. Like “My Boxer”, a good portion of the record plays with the concept of ideals and Fabricius’ woman-in-charge brand of feminism. The plucky lead single “Renaissance Girls” is a perfect example of this. With its pop ‘n lock broken beat sound to Oh Land’s mocking of what might be an unrealistic expectation of woman, whether it be “having three kids and still remaining a virgin” or “knitting a sweater while I drive in your fast car”.
While Oh Land is always one capable of writing radio-friendly pop hits, for example “Pyromaniac” with its slick guitars, brimming brass and easy-to-sing along chorus, what’s most notable on the record is Nanna’s rather clever, albeit odd sense of humor. Take the Sia Furler collaboration “Green Card” where Oh Land takes the chivalric helm of saving her lover. Majestic horns and Oh Land’s coaxing coos soar through the tongue-in-cheek equivalent of someone stuck in an immigration debacle. However like any realistic female superhero, Oh Land is one with flaws. There’s the macabre sounding “Bird in an Aeroplane” gyrating with its befuddled beats and the R&B bass and finger-snapping beats of “Cherry on Top”, a track that says you simply can’t “have it all”. However probably the most clever of Fabricius’ tracks is “Love You Better”, originally appearing as an apologetic gentle guitar ballad for being an inadequate lover before flipping the context in an “up yours” against one’s condescending ways.
Oh Land’s has gotten a long way from her simple bedroom pop days and performing to empty crowds, but until “Wishbone” there still was that since of insecurity that lingered in Fabricius’ music. Fabricius has always been one to craft her image, and even admitting to hesitating whether or not she would open for Katy Perry because of her fear that Pitchfork wouldn’t touch her because of it. In the end, Pitchfork still to this date has never laid a finger on Oh Land, but as a regardless of that fact “Wishbone” feels so much more confident. The record is a little bit of letting go, not caring and an “up yours” to expectations and what not, and really it shows on this record whether it be her clever anecdotes, her wild experimentation or just her carefully crafted pop hooks. Much of Nanna’s young life has been a struggle, but “Wishbone” is proof that Oh Land no longer deserves our pity and that she can stand on her own feet again. The record is one that is bold but not purposefully weird, catchy but not a case of pop plagiarism. It’s a carefully crafted mix of both sweet and sour and you know as they say, “third time’s the charm”.
Oh Land’s music can be found on Soundcloud and “Wishbone” is available to stream on Spotify.
4) Ivory & Gold - Burst (A:larm) - Denmark
While Ronni Vindahl’s production role in MØ may have taken the forefront of Copenhagen’s soul-pop scene, Vindahl’s lesser-known role as a member in Ivory & Gold, a partnership between him and singer Karen Marie Groth is one that deserves equal merit. Evidence of this lays in the power Groth’s standalone vocals in the jazzy swing of opening track “Airborn” where Karen Marie’s vocals just seem to effortlessly float or perhaps the deeply-grooving melodies of “Skin” where Ronni’s guitar scales shine brightest. Despite the skillful guitar work and electronic manipulation of Vindahl and Karen Marie’s velvety vocals that are if anything painfully evident on the record, it’s the near-perfect production work that makes the record that is “Burst”. Even the track “Hurricane”, perhaps the most melodically simple of all the record’s tracks still brims with its orchestral string ornamentations and punchy basslines despite its repetitive loops and easy-to-follow chorus. The two both complement each other extraordinarily well, never one to nullify each other.
“Burst” is a record that speaks of a dystopian world but not one that is particularly melancholic or downtempo. The record’s first single “Nothingness” echoing of a classic horror movie vibe, is quintessential disco-noir with its icy italo-synth cutting through riveting arpeggios. “Nothingness” may be a song about general hopelessness and despair, but one that is oddly infectious. It seems to be the simple things that allow this record to really perform, take “Taxi” for example. By allowing each other the proper room, one can witness the piercing arpeggio crescendos, heavy bass grooves and silky lounge singer vibes of Karen Marie. Another such example is the slow and solemn track “Cloudburst” where the light synth twinkle skillfully navigates along haunting choral arrangements and Groth’s soulful anguish. What Ivory & Gold have essentially created on “Burst” is a series of equally catchy, hook-heavy tracks that when put side by side seem unusually well-balanced. “Burst” is the result of a well-oiled machine that is Ivory & Gold, almost invulnerable to human error with its diverse yet formulaic approach. The only main complaint is that this wonderful piece of Danish music innovation is not yet available for export.
Some of Ivory & Gold’s work is available on their YouTube page and their album “Burst” is available in Denmark on Spotify.
5) Shine 2009 - Our Nation (Cascine/Expo/Modular) - Finland
When duo Shine 2009 burst onto the scene in 2011, their lead single “So Free” not only featured a grainy VHS video but Paula Abdul on vocals. The beat was catchy with full of bass punches and echoed of a new age vibe, but one thought still lingered on - were they serious? Their name was purposely two years out of date and their choice to resurrect late 80s, early 90s icon Paula Abdul for a relatively obscure Finnish band at the time was a bit confusing and their motives questionable if anything. Anyway fast-forward another two years down the road and Shine 2009, is still pulling the jokes and gags on their sophomore record “Our Nation”. Commenting on their predecessor “Realism” which featured Paula Abdul, vocalist Sami Suova comments their new record is much stronger, as opposed to the jamming and production-first approach of “Realism”. Although the sound on their sophomore is inherently stronger, the light-hearted album is one to be taken with a grain of salt.
For example the band decided to dot the album (both the album and tracks) with Finnish clichés and everyday items. In “Suomen Sydan” their bilingual Finnish-English track which translates to the “heart of Finland” takes lines from promotional slogans from small towns while resonating with bouncy synths and stadium guitar. However, what the band doesn’t want to take from the record is a sense empty of nationalism, rather the band humors the concept of the idea living in a cold and often described as depressing place. Spinning anti-clockwise with its orchestral-hit synths, “Eurozone” humorously talks of “making lots of money” a-là-Pet Shop Boys in the land of the Euro and similarly the loopy rhythms “Me & U” speaks of selling out and faking it until you make it. Shine 2009 even imagined what a potential national anthem would sound like with guitars and kick drums on title track “Our Nation”.
Other such oddballs include “Older” with its upbeat drum and bass feel. In what appears to be a sincere love ballad to an older woman with the lines “age is just a number” is hilariously and suddenly interrupted with the lines, “I just have to ask you please, stay cool, stay cool forever”. Making up for not having Paula Adbul feature on another Shine 2009 spot, the band instead has pulled up less-known but perhaps more-fitting vocalists. Guest vocalist Sarah Sayed adds her sugar-sweet R&B voice to the smooth on “Love, Love, Love” and instrumentalist Mikko Pykäri recruited his wife Iisa for the breathy “Running Around” and on the track “No Thanks” with its heavy bass groove and twinkling piano keys reminiscent of her role as frontwoman of Helsinki band Regina. Overall, Shine 2009’s “Our Nation” comes off brighter than its predecessor “Realism”. The aesthetic is no longer “ironic” or kitschy, but rather satirical and a subtle political commentary. On the other hand, the sound is no longer reminiscent of New Age bands like Enigma or a post-modern Yanni but one than melds the past, present and future. One could say it’s kind of funny how far they’ve come as a band. Zing!
Shine 2009’s music can be found on Soundcloud and “Our Nation” is available to stream on Spotify.
Special Mention - iamamiwhoami - bounty (Cooperative) - Sweden
“Bounty” is not a record that was exactly released in 2013, as if you’ve followed Jonna Lee’s iamamiwhoami, she has been dropping bits of herself here and there online ever since the inception of the project. Therefore it isn’t exactly fair to put a record that has been listened to exhaustingly aside a record that has been released last year, but then it would be unjust not to acknowledge such a game-changing record.
For “bounty”, it’s almost impossible to think of the album as just a record as every song on the track is accompanied with an audio-visual component. Dabbling in themes of nature, Scandinavian folklore and often paper products, the videos are notably absurd and extravagantly weird, which is why iamamiwhoami has been such a source of confusion and bewilderment to the internet community. Combine those elements with a mysterious identity, cryptic yet catchy tracks and there’s a viral phenomenon on your hands.
Some key tracks include the underwater “o” with its bubbling synths and cynical views on love; the tragically beautiful and dystopian fairy-tale that is “n”; the deeply-impacting “t” with its sinister shrills, twisting synths and winding beats and the spellbinding odyssey that is “y” with its stop-and-go melody to striking synthesizer leads. Closing the album is the massive “clump”, its climactic structure with arpeggio buildups leading up to ghostly melodies and a disturbingly beautiful, eerily-euphoric outro.
iamamiwhoami’s work is available on their YouTube page and her album “bounty” is available on Spotify to stream.