Mainstream pop music, although being catchier, getting radio plays in millions and being far more controversial regarding some of the visuals accompanying the tracks (read: Anaconda by Nicky Minaj) than before, it is one of most passionately disliked genres by a big chunk of demographic of listeners today. Now, why is that? Is it true that the pop music of this decade has traded the poetic edge that a band like The Smiths had, with more satisfying but oversimplified EDM breakdowns?
Take it from a song like Closer by The Chainsmokers. For a song that is a very generic and moderately-written pop ballad, it is structured far more strategically, hitting the right tempos and accurately placing the repetitive switch ups on the track to make it a guaranteed bop. In comparison, a song like Mr. Brightside by The Killers is also a bop, but is a track that has gone up in popularity over the years instead of seeing immediate glory.
Closer definitely became a summer anthem of today but a track like Mr. Brightside became the anthem of our lives. The merger of mainstream electronica and generic pop to form a mega pop phenomenon in the current age of electronic music prompted an “energy over substance” sort of a basis of song making. For a band like Coldplay whose discography includes tracks like Fix You and Yellow , their new single Something like This with The Chainsmokers only further validates the point.
At the fringes of this mega pop phenomenon lies the humble but self-important alt-pop or alternative pop music, which is the umbrella of ambitious singer-songwriters, bands and people with a wholly alternative school of thought with regard to making pop music. Much of alt-pop’s artists are also women. The legacy of the ’90s leading alt-pop ladies such Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Bjork gave rise to artists like Lana Del Rey and Lorde today.
Bjork is to alt-pop, what Radiohead and David Bowie are to the entire world of ever-evolving alternative sounds. The Icelandic art-pop experience known as Bjork developed an eclectic musical blend drawing from a wide range of influences and genres spanning electronic, pop, IDM, classical and other avant-garde styles.
Bjork, who is a student of electronica, preferred to experiment with house and trip-hop rather than taking an alternative rock direction with her albums, and is often credited as one of the first artists to incorporate electronica into mainstream pop. Her music contains a wider emotional palette along with a concoction of alternative sounds. She was one of the few artists from the ’90s who had been mixing dance and pop music which is what became pop music as we know it, today. Before the bastardization of EDM began, electronic-pop was structured more creatively to challenge listeners. Multiple layering of tracks was possible by electronica and you almost seemed to pick up something you missed the second or third time listening to the same track.
Rap and hip-hop reigned supreme most of this year with Mask Off by Future and HUMBLE and DNA from arguably the best album of 2017, ‘DAMN’ by Kendrick Lamar. The return of alt-pop was not highly anticipated, but Lorde had “brand new sounds” in her mind that she had to share with the world on Melodrama, which was released on 16th June 2017.
Album cover for ‘Melodrama’
Melodrama can be described as a concept album which centers on the theme of solitude in the framework of a single house party with the vents and moods that entail it. While Lorde is at this “party”, she looks back upon the becoming and the ending of a romantic relationship with a significant other and how it changed her emotional palpability from searching for ‘Green Lights’ and parties to realizing that there is nothing called ‘Perfect Places’ in the real adult world. Lorde’s breakout album ‘Pure Heroine’ and the single of that album, Royals, put her on the map, but ever since being an angsty teenager, she has grown up and even been in love and experienced heartbreak.
‘Melodrama’ is Lorde’s coming of age album and the most relatable millennial album to be produced in years. The writing on the album is what makes it a dramatic narrative true to its name. Intelligent lyrics like “Don’t know you super well but I think that you might be the same as me” on Homemade Dynamite, “Broadcast the boom boom boom and make them all dance to it” on The Louvre and literally spelling out “Loveless” with her raspy sweet voice on the two part song Hard Feelings/Loveless makes them one of the most memorable moments on the record. The song Liability exposes every 20-something’s insecurities as Lorde looks back upon the breakup that shaped her life and puts her emotional self on display. Along with the writing, the album has top-notch production with interfering electronic vibrations, with grand pianos and trumpets coming together to sound exquisite to the ears. Structured atypically with multitudes of unpredictable but pleasing switch ups and clever vocal deliveries, ‘Melodrama’ is second only to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN’ this season, and marks a return of a perceptive alt-pop intent.
Essential Tracks from ‘Melodrama’: Green Light, Sober, Liability, Hard Feeling/Loveless, Writer in the Dark and Perfect Places.
Album Cover for ‘Lust for Life’
Lana Del Rey also solidified her presence as a leading alternative pop superstar this year with the ‘Lust For Life’ record, which is an ode to her loving and supportive fans. She has been prominent in the pop industry even while staying astray from making amped up pop tunes. Marked by her Hollywood-sadcore music and being dubbed as the modern Morrissey from The Smiths, her music can be described as being reminiscent of the folk-rock music of the 60s and visually romanticizes the golden era of Hollywood. But at the same time, she wraps her personal stories in a cinematic theme of the bygone days to make it her very own narrative, which can be heard on ‘Born to Die’ as well as ‘Ultraviolence’.
The ‘Lust of Life’ album retains her happy-sad expression, but is far more positively affirming than her previous albums. The melancholic introspective recurring theme merges with a commentary about love, lust, and life like none other in the game today. Collaborating with ASAP Rocky and Playboy Carti makes Summer Bummer a bop and Groupie Love a mid-tempo modern masterpiece. As on the title track featuring The Weeknd, she sings that the “Lust for life keeps us alive,” and her wide-eyed and all-smiles portrait on the cover reassures us of a satisfied and a less-hurting Lana Del Rey who remains idiosyncratically poetic on the record.
Essential Tracks from “Lust For Life” – Love, Lust for Life, Summer Bummer, Groupie Love and 13 Beaches.
Here are other leading women in alt-pop or female-led indie pop bands who are thriving on the return of alternative and synth-pop music in the scene today:
Paramore was one of the biggest cult favorite emo-pop-punk bands that ruled the 2000s with MCR and other pop-punk artists of the generation. Hayley Williams’ vocal abilities have always been top notch with Taylor York’s guitar skills. They had so far retained the original Paramore “feel” to their music, which is pop-punk. But 2017 has been strange, and their change in direction in their album ‘After Laughter’ has been one of the most talked about. Employing colorful indie-pop aesthetics with ’80s electro-synth-pop arrangement of the album has been very interesting. Hard Times is their latest big hit, and in no time will you start humming the tune of this track.
02 The XX
This London ambient indie-pop band is still making the poppy melancholic tunes on love and heartbreak like no one else. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s vocals on this track is just as serene as it was on their biggest hits like VCR and Crystallised.
Haim is an American pop-rock band consisting of three multi-instrumentalist sisters, that is reminiscent of ’70s soft-rock band Fleetwood Mac with a modern pop sway. They are known to have contrasting studio and live sounds which are unique in their own ways.
04 Florence + The Machine
Lead singer Florence Welch and co have a dark, robust and romantic style of music similar to Bjork, and employ a wide range of sounds with an artistic quotient coming out on top making them full-fledged art-pop artists reviving English art rock of the ’70s while being indifferent to mainstream pop.
With popular recognition for successful debut album ‘Badlands’ and hits like Colors and New Americana, Halsey still stays true to the alt force with her new album ‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’ with this track.
06 Lykke Li
Lykke Li from Sweden, one of the most popular European artists today, is the closest Bjork-like artist who is self-actualized and aware of music as an art form and its brevity. Listen and you will know.
07 Tove Lo
Another Swedish singer-songwriter who charted worldwide success with her track Habits, which went on to be remixed and re-remixed, and became an unlikely club banger.
Art-pop legend David Bowie’s unexpected death seems to have sparked a revival of art music but also a forward-thinking intent for pop, while reflecting upon its sounds from the ’70s and ’80s. Bowie believed that Lorde was “the future of music,” and rightly so.
Melodrama is a work of an enlightened and self-aware pop star from the future.