Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2014 9 "Are You What You Want to Be?", "Ask Yourself", "Best Friend"

1) Are You What You Want to Be?; 2) Ask Yourself; 3) Coming of Age; 4) Nevermind; 5) Pseudologia Fantastica; 6) The Angelic Welcome of Mr. Jones; 7) Best Friend; 8) A Beginner's Guide to Destroying the Moon; 9) Goats in Trees; 10) The Truth; 11) Fire Escape

Imposter syndrome wrapped in larger than life pop songs, when no one expected it.

I don't revere "Pumped Up Kicks" as much as many others do but I'm comfortable enough with it that I think its place in the 2010s commercial indie canon is well deserved. It could also never have been anything but a one hit wonder for Foster the People. Not only because the general public's attitude towards artists of this ilk in the 2010s was very much use-it-and-lose-it, hooking onto a random single from a field where ultimately most artists still tried to focus on albums and who perhaps never were in a position to be able to even follow up the freak hit's success to begin with (how many of these crossover acts actually had more than one real hit?). It was also likely to do with how Torches wasn't going to yield that many further rewards to begin with, bearing the sound of a songwriter trying to write another "Pumped Up Kicks" nine more times and not coming close, if you allow a little generalisation. But that song was a big hit and naturally the album was a success because of it, and eventually the time came to record another one and with it more potential hit songs. I don't think Mark Foster believed for a second he could ever pull it off.

The prevalent theme of Supermodel is the fear of losing everything you've worked for, and above all losing track of who you really are. It's full of questions on whether you truly are the person you could or even should be, whether the life you've wrapped around yourself is really the one you want to live and if you can ever feel content about it, whether you can live your life without trying to look back too much on your past decisions regardless of the collateral damage you've caused along the way - and that's just the first three songs. Supermodel is ridden with anxiety as its narrators question everything about everything, full of desperation to cling onto the things you do have and the constant fear that all of that will one day leave you. It's imposter syndrome as a concept album. It could just as well be simply writing exercises, but Mark Foster sounds exhausted and so ready for a good gut-spill throughout the record that I'm willing to believe there's a good amount of truth in there too. This is the big follow-up album to a genuine hit record by a songwriter who - for all intents and purposes based on his texts - is completely mortified of the prospect of failing the expectations, being considered a fraud or a dumb luck fluke for his past achievements and isn't sure if he even deserves to be in this position to begin with. So to beat his demons, he confronts them and writes an album about them. Supermodel isn't a happy record and its wounds feel raw rather than the kind of relatable melancholy much of Foster the People's peers dabble in. It is at times a surprisingly hard-hitting album as it waves its existential questions around, and primarily because of how sincerely Foster seems to be asking them rather than the lyrics themselves (which, to be fair, are pretty good and often very smart in their turns of phrase).

How those emotions are framed is another thing, and it's actually a little maddening just how invisible Supermodel has become in the wider discourse when as an album it goes a considerable length to be anything but. If Torches could be considered rather one-dimensional in its sound, Supermodel is a clear attempt to avoid that criticism once and for all; a friend of mine once said the album sounded like Foster the People trying to mirror every single one of their peers all at once. It's an occasion where "caleidoscopic" sounds like a genuinely befitting descriptor, where so many different sounds and colours explode all around the songs; hints of psychedelia, nu-disco, earnest singer/songwriter "indie" and stadium pop are peppered throughout in equal measures until they form into a singular, multicoloured bouquet of fireworks. Supermodel considers that big emotions require big musical notions, and so each song moves with giant motions, layered with elements and ideas and reaching for the heavens with every gasp. Even the barebones acoustic palate cleansers - "Goats in Trees" and the acceptingly disquieted closer "Fire Escape" - sound engulfing in their attempted intimacy.

In short, Supermodel dares to dream larger than life - and that's why it's so great. That opening run of songs as mentioned above not only confront the listener with the album's running themes head-on but also revel in how wide Foster and his bandmates have cast their net this time. The world-travelling opener "Are You Who You Want to Be?" was the first thing I heard back from this album back in the day, buried in a surprisingly influential year-end mix a friend had made, and it was hard to believe it was the "Pumped Up Kicks" guys: the tropicalia percussion, rhythmically erratic vocal flows and the pogoing chorus that suddenly bursts to life make for a wild, exciting and unexpected ride that never gets old. The album's centrepiece statement is "Ask Yourself", an existential pop masterpiece that runs abandon with the energy of a stadium anthem while in lyrics and performance it panickingly tries to find the nearest corner to crawl in a fetal position in. It's the album's thesis and ideas rolled into one song. The 80s-influenced floor-filler "Coming of Age" is the most upbeat and liberated the album finds itself in, all yacht rock synths and handclap-worthy melodic beats, and still carries that big vulnerable heart with it. All three are among the best pop songs of the 2010s, and each one is firing entirely different guns yet hitting the same targets. It's commendable how every song on Supermodel not just takes the listener to a brand new journey but how well it pulls it off, the album restlessly trying on new skins like it's paranoid that the moment it stands still it loses focus. With that urgency comes inspiration and that constant surprise becomes one of the record's key strengths, all the while the overall production aesthetics still manage to tie these separate together from one another. It's an album that sounds like it's both unravelling and which retains pitch-perfect control of itself at any time, and that's a really difficult combination to pull off well.

The other thing aspect that jumps out is that it's not afraid to properly lean into its pop inspirations either big time. "Pumped Up Kicks" was an incredibly catchy pop hit dressed up in humble ramshackle fittings, and for the sequel Foster the People have allowed themselves to embrace the power of massive melodic hooks without having to hold back. The songs on Supermodel are ambitious and unashamedly universal and they make the classic mix of downbeat lyrics mixed with upbeat music sound like something fresh and noteworthy again. The sharpness runs through even the more outlying cuts, i.e. the psychedelic flourishes of "Pseudologia Fantastica" (where those MGMT comparisons finally have some ground) and the crunchy, almost shoegaze-y textural walls of "A Beginner's Guide to Destroying the Moon", both which hint at an entirely different album and even a band but which still hold the same widescreen melodies. The choir and horn-propelled firecracker "Best Friend" runs back and forth with the energy of Sonic the Hedgehog having a panic attack while its bass lays down the meanest groove of the album and the song having an overall feel of someone sticking a number of choruses together and pretending they're verses et cetera, and even the heartwrenching epic "The Truth" sweeps grand motions right from the emotional core of the record, hand raised into the sky and beckoning everyone who hears it do so in resonant unison. Grand gestures crash into skyscraping melodies and spine-seizing rhythms.

I rarely find myself going on such hyperbole mode, especially from an album by an artist I otherwise don't really have time for: I've made my opinion on Torches clear enough and anything following Supermodel has sounded like the works of a band who have found themselves at complete loss of direction and unable to get their bearings back. But the results speak for themselves. This was an album I didn't expect much from and yet found something more from it than I could have ever anticipated. Supermodel is one of the best pop albums of its decade and at least half of it is well secured in the pantheon of the decade's key tracks, and as a cohesive piece of work it's both became a source of shared joy with likeminded people as well as a record that has hit a little too personally at times as the arrows it's fired have suddenly breached my defenses. It's such a vibrant yet emotional record that it's absolutely wild to me it's never mentioned by anyone ever. This is Foster the People's actual legacy, not their one hit

Physically: Jewel case with a lyrics booklet - each song gets its own, very vividly illustrated page which is very cool.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2017 6 "Kultani mun", "Anna rakas raju hetki", "Ota kii"

1) Kultani mun; 2) Tahdon sinut; 3) Vastaa jo, please; 4) Nasta pimu; 5) Sadepisaroita; 6) Sinä olet hän; 7) Anna rakas raju hetki; 8) Ota kii; 9) Tyydytys; 10) Me emme laske viiteen

A brief introduction to Finnish 80s synth-disco fever. In the form of a covers record.

The late 2010s/early 2020s have seen a renewed interest in Finland on how our nation experienced and interpreted the 1980s and the synthesizers that came with it, both in form of a clear inspiration in new acts as well as through various selector compilations reintroducing the known and more importantly the now-unknown acts for modern audiences. Like so many countries Finland too was seduced by the new possibilities provided by the shiny technology of the era, and the various continental European sub-scenes (particularly italo disco and anything that was happening in Germany) acted as a firmer influence than what was happening in the Anglosphere. When those influences met up with the grand Finnish schlager tradition or our other charmingly awkward cultural peculiarities - including the language that at best was a clumsy match in this new environment - they lended the familiar electronic sounds a distinct feel: an imprint of our own that has now started to be re-appreciated as newer generations have embraced it rather than be embarrassed by it.

The adult contemporary singer Ville Leinonen was a frontrunner in this regard with 2017's Hei taas, the sequel to his 2007 album Hei!. The first Hei! found Leinonen digging through the 70s Finnish schlager songbook, covering a selection of carefully chosen songs with a faithful and loving touch. Hei taas does the same but this time the scope is aimed at the 1980s and the uneasy companionship that disco and synth pop made with traditional Finnish easy listening music. Five of the songs are Finn-originals, the other five are based on translated versions of international hits which success-seeking artists and producers converted into a more linguistically palatable form: most notably Modern Talking's "You're My Heart, You're My Soul" ("Ota kii") and Irene Cara's "Fame" ("Me emme laske viiteen"). Leinonen keeps his versions loyal to the originals: the sounds and arrangements aren't 100% 1-to-1 but for most parts they're as close as you can get and the production sticks to the 80s aesthetic throughout and imitates the original synthwork as much as possible in tone (and most importantly the songs retain all those wonderful arpeggio fills that seems to be a signature move of this decade). Nine out of ten songs were originally sung by women and it's made very obvious in a very eighties-esquely stereotyped way, and Leinonen retains those original lyrics while keeping a straight face: there's definitely a clash between the lyrics and the performance here that's absolutely intentional and in itself a gimmick for some of these songs, most obviously "Sadepisaroita", originally sung by the then-12 year old Jonna Tervomaa and coming across nearly surreal when sung by a grown man.

The song selection is in general really well put together and bears the feel of an archival passion project where Leinonen has avoided any obvious big hits and instead he's chosen personal favourites and lost gems that time has forgotten. Some of these are real treasures and unearthing them for people who weren't there originally to discover now is a real cultural boon. "Kultani mun" (as made famous by Berit) is a dramatic 80s torchsong that's absolutely on par with any international classic, the aforementioned "Sadepisaroita" is lovely bubblegum sweetness, "Anna rakas raju hetki" (Nisa Soraya) has become a Finnish camp cult favourite and struts with confidence, and "You're My Heart, You're My Soul" is an absolute evergreen smash no matter what language it's in and thus "Ota kii", which doesn't dare to stray away from the original beyond the vocals, gets full points by default. Bringing them to the spotlight is a chance to give them the respect they deserve, especially non-translated songs - Finland could be toe to toe with the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) of the decade and before Hei taas and the various archival releases that have followed over the years, it wasn't something I really had realised. There's just one issue here, in this selection of various crate-digging catches - and that's Leinonen himself.

The thing is, Hei taas can't escape from sounding like a karaoke album.You can tell Leinonen is genuinely into this music, but it's also obvious that he's operating well outside his musical comfort zone and there's no way you can turn him into a convincing disco diva with his dry, almost timid vocals. His singing takes some time getting used to and even after you do get used to them, it just becomes more apparent that Leinonen himself doesn't actually add anything to these songs. If you play those original versions side-by-side as a comparison, you start to wish this was a compilation, a mixtape someone made to showcase some old favourites. The best of the best of the songs still shine bright even with Leinonen in the lead, but with many of the others you get this feeling like you've loaded up a track in a playlist and accidentally added a license-dodging "as made famous by..." version instead. Hei taas looks and talks the part, but doesn't walk it. Plus while the tracklist is mostly fine, when the album does take a dip it absolutely plummets. Funny enough, the most offending numbers are the onest that feature the most creative freedom in contrast to the originals: "Sinä olet hän" (another Berit cut) is destroyed by Leinonen's creative decision to turn the chorus into a monotonous churn with distracting backing vocals, and "Nasta pimu" (Kake Randelin) wasn't particularly good to begin with but the mindnumbing repetitiveness of it and the endless key changes and tempo increases that are piled up on its plain bones (which the song mistakens to be something actually interesting) turn it actually obnoxious. Even though Leinonen performing along a karaoke VHS for the rest of the album isn't ideal, it feels positive given what seems to happen when he finally doesn't.

I have a slight soft spot for Hei taas because it was what first piqued my interest to dig deeper into the Finnish synthesizer histories, but as it is sometimes the more you start listening to the originals the more the recreations begin to lose their shine. I practically feel bad for criticising Leinonen like I have - no one records an album like this unless they really love the source material - but it's him that has effectively converted this into a niche release and a collection curio rather than something genuinely unique and exciting. There's a great compilation inside these covers and the liner notes, which include brief biographies of the original artists and recordings as well as a general history of the period being paid tribute to, just further emphasise that. But that collection becoming a covers album simply leaves me conflicted.

Physically: Standard jewel case, with a rather interesting booklet as described above.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2017 8 "Green Light", "The Louvre", "Supercut"

1) Green Light; 2) Sober; 3) Homemade Dynamite; 4) The Louvre; 5) Liability; 6) Hard Feelings/Loveless; 7) Sober II (Melodrama); 8) Writer in the Dark; 9) Supercut; 10) Liability (Reprise); 11) Perfect Places

A landmark that clearly aspires to be a landmark - and fair play, it works.

Melodrama is billed as a break-up album and it has all the theatre and big emotion we expect from such as things as consumers, but it's self-aware about it: it knows the role it should play and performs it with gusto. If it hasn't clicked with the listener that Melodrama is playing up its concept and having fun with it by the time "Writer in the Dark" appears - a song where Lorde explicitly warns her ex about the dangers of ending a relationship with a songwriter who'll immortalise them in a song - then it's not because Lorde hasn't been dropping enough hints along the way, including the wink and nudge of the title. It's no wonder that this has become such a revered record in the modern pop scene - it gleefully gives its audience exactly what they want when they hear the plot summary of a big pop artist making an epic personal tale of a record about their relationship woes.

The other thing Melodrama does is take great strides in reinventing Lorde. Pure Heroine was skeletal and cold: aspects that made it stand out so much to begin with and which then left ripples in pop for years to come. Trying to repeat the same approach would have been stale on arrival and in order to break free from its shadow, Lorde's opted for the complete opposite approach with Melodrama. It's laced with a detailed and layered sound, moving forward with a sense of grandeur and a higher energy - there's bigger choruses, more intricate arrangements and of course greater drama. Lorde herself is far more approachable and open to engage with the listener as well, leaving the detached teenager of her debut behind. Now she's bellowing notes and riding the music, being playful with her vocal hooks in full knowledge they'll be instantly adopted by the fans (see: the finger gun *chk-chk* in "Perfect Places". She even leaves a little space for warmth and even subtle humour in her songs: "they'll hang us in the Louvre / Down the back but who cares, still the Louvre" comes to mind the most, but there's many other moments across the album where her half-conversational, half-thesaurus-skimming style has matured and often strikes with smart lines that leave you doing a double take afterwards. Melodrama is well and truly a song cycle about her split with her ex and the life before and after, but Lorde avoids the usual clichés and frameworks for such stories, and it's for the benefit of the overall narrative. Heck, the plot twist of "Liability"'s first verse is still such a power move, keeping in mind 2010's pop's obsession with try-hard same-sex tantalisation; on "Liability" Lorde playfully subverts it yet somehow the "reveal" at the end of the verse strikes an emotional chord that you didn't necessarily expect going in and it paints the rest of the song in a different colour.

Melodrama has the air of Lorde deliberately aiming to make a grand statement of an album, like she spent time listening to similar magnum opus records in pop history and then took notes and drafted a list of items for herself to tick one after another when planning out Melodrama. It's almost too perfect from a design perspective (you even have all these reprises and vague sequel songs that signal serious art at play), but what makes it resonant above all is that Lorde has loaded the record up with really sublime songs that stand up to the lofty expectations. That's another huge difference from Pure Heroine, which held its nose up in teenage sneer about being a pop album and the results were accordingly muted. Here, Lorde sounds like she's actually enjoying her career choice. "Green Light" may have never become a genuine hit but it sure as hell sounds like a worldwide smash that we may as well retcon it into one, continuing to radiate with excitement like it was still fresh and going forward in a mad rush of hook-laden fervour - it's the best pop single of 2017 and proudly opens the album, signalling the change in attitude. There's plenty more of its caliber, too: "Supercut" and "Perfect Places" offer the same anthemic joie-de-vivre, "Homemade Dynamite" and "Sober" have a suave swagger that sounds like a grown-up version of Pure Heroine and "Hard Feelings/Loveless" and "Liability" form a gracefully touching heart in the centre. "The Louvre" is probably going to hold the title of Lorde's career highlight for a very long time, slowly and beautifully building up with grace and beauty until it finally unfolds, not with an explosion but with a gentle reveal like walking into the light after days in the dark: the Twin Peaks guitars leading the song to an ethereally dreamy instrumental outro.

What seals the deal is how the production and Lorde herself pull the songs together. Jack Antonoff's lush production gives the songs sonic depth and strength and layers to geek over - this is arguably his greatest production job out of his countless collaborations in the surrounding years, and likely the reason why so many want to work with him in the first place. Lorde's own steadfast performance now also lives up to the voice-of-the-generation reputation that some were trying to crown her with after Pure Heroine, with her sounding more engaged and confident behind the wheel and sounding every bit as mysterious and powerful as the aura she projects. Everything works almost immaculately, with only shades of flaws scattered around: the reprise of "Liability" and "Sober II" threaten to fall between the cracks but the strength in production and performance brush off the weaknesses elsewhere. There's a reason that Melodrama's reputation has lived on and formed a legacy of its own and it's how immediately impressive and undeniable in its presence it is - like it never had any choice but to become a lifeline for some listeners and still an immediately memorable highlight for others. It remains to be seen whether she'll ever actually live up to it again; - the discourse around Solar Power around its release arguably twisted Melodrama from a discography milestone into a weight on her shoulders that she's forced to carry forevermore - but it proudly stands on its own two feet as one of the key pop records of the decade.

Physically: Jewel case with a thick booklet featuring artwork, photos, lyrics and a dedication note from Lorde.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2018 8 "Emerald Rush", "Feel First Life", "Luminous Beings"

1) Singularity; 2) Emerald Rush; 3) Neon Pattern Drum; 4) Everything Connected; 5) Feel First Life; 6) C O S M; 7) Echo Dissolve; 8) Luminous Beings; 9) Recovery

A makebelieve soundtrack for deep space exploration.

I bought Singularity in the wake of No Man's Sky. The game had seen its release a whole two years earlier, it has absolutely nothing to do with Jon Hopkins or this album and to be honest I've never played it myself because I don't care for endless craft-a-thons. But my partner did play it and I watched them sink hours into the game, and I do also love deep sci-fi and the concept of exploring unknown worlds - and above all I loved the soundtrack that 65daysofstatic had created for that game. The instrumental score captured so vividly and beautifully the striking, imagination-rich atmosphere of visiting alien landscapes and charting the marvels of the unknown, and though I never touched the game directly I was obsessed with the soundtrack and the endless images it conjured in my mind, based both on what I had seen from the game as well as similar media. I was eventually left craving more of where that soundtrack came from, something else that could capture the vast fascination of infinite space and its mysteries. The first time I heard excerpts from Singularity, I knew I had found it.

Musically Singularity and the No Man's Sky soundtrack are in most parts different beasts altogether. While both are atmospheric and electronic, 65daysofstatic come from a post-rock background and it shows in the dynamics of their score; meanwhile Hopkins is a full-time electronic producer, most famous for his brushes with ambient (and his Coldplay collaborations). What both works of music have in common however are their bold and dense soundscapes, so evocative of the science fiction realms that they intentionally tap into for inspiration (the celestial artwork for Singularity can't be a coincidence). The shimmering synths and propulsive percussions of Singularity would be at home in any self-respectic spacecraft, playing behind as you gaze through the window of your spaceship and watch the cosmos unfold. It sounds immense and above all immersive, towering over the listener through the speakers and laying out a sonic landscape ahead to giddily get lost within. The songs are frequently lengthy, culminating in a couple of grandstanding centrepieces stretching over ten minutes, and typically they sound like they should be soundtracking something - and it's likely that while you listen to it, combinations of scenery and memories from all kinds of appropriate media will race in your head. While the backbone of the songs is often in the colossal, high-BPM beats that keep them moving, Singularity is not really a dance album: its overall arrangements are within Hopkins' ambient realm, with glacial pianos, textural synth patterns and stargazing lead melodies taking the centre stage. The oft-contrasting drums keep it moving and alive though, adding a sense of urgency to what would perhaps otherwise be something that would pause the world to a still. Sometimes that contradiction is fantastic, sometimes it's maybe not needed, but I can at least understand what Hopkins was trying to whenever those enormous drum hits appear.

At its best Singularity is transportative. Particularly so in its second half, which forms a sequence of widescreen atmospheric heaven that carries me in my mind to brand new sights light years away from this modern mundanity. The haunting "Feel First Life" and its choirs, the escalating shimmer of "C O S M" and the ethereal minimalism of "Echo Dissolve" are peak nomansskycore, and the escalating run of resonant gorgeousness is capped by the album's grand 12-minute showcase "Luminous Beings" which flickers with trascendental grace and worry-free airlessness for as long as it pleases and you don't mind at all. It's music that is designed to take you away somewhere else entirely when it pours through your headphones, filling the air with a genuine sense of awe at its very best moments. It's a very bottom-loaded album though and whilst the first half is by no means a slog - and the appropriately name "Emerald Rush" in particular is the album's runaway hit and the perfect lead-in to grab the listener's attention - it does at times feel like a very long buid-up to where the album really starts hitting those sweet spots. You can really feel the 60-minute+ length of this sometimes, and the more time I spend with this the more I just want to hop into the evocative space of the second half.

I'd still recommend this in a heartbeat to any other likeminded spacefarers. During its high points Singularity captures that one hyper-specific yet vague thematic notion of sci-fi horizons so alluringly that you could be mistaken for thinking it's a real genre umbrella, and there's few works which creatively mine that concept so well.

Physically: Gatefold sleeve. The CD is stored in an inner slip which also has the credits printed on.

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