Re-evaluating a record only 18 months after its release might seem like a dubious idea, but with La Roux, Ladyhawke & Little Boots all hitting the heights of the chart with considerable success, column inches, and more than a little hype, it already feels like the time is right to say that Lykke Li’s debut Youth Novels is the most underappreciated pop album in recent memory in the UK.
I can already hear the dissent; Lykke Li enjoyed a warm critical reception, found acceptance in the indie hipster scene and established a cult following. But while ‘Little Bit’ managed to hit #20, ‘I’m Good, I’m Gone’ couldn’t even break the top 40 and ‘Breaking it Up’ had even less of an impact, dismissed as mere coquettishness without substance.
Just 18 months on, La Roux and Ladyhawke have generated number 1 singles and heavy radio rotation with their take on synth-pop and 80s electro throwback, while Little Boots has enjoyed a nigh-on hysterical full label backing despite lacking the craft and invention in evidence on Youth Novels; as irrelevant as the charts are in modern music, this is still a travesty.
Don’t misconstrue this as a La Roux put down; ‘Bulletproof’ is an immensely memorable tune, with a chorus that sinks somewhere deep into your psyche (God knows it will be stuck in my head for an unnecessarily long time), but her retro 80s aesthetic means that it is as comfortable on Radio 2’s playlist as it is anywhere else. Ladyhawke’s hit ‘Paris is Burning’ riffed on obvious similarities with Gary Numan, while her debut seemed to swing between 80s kitsch and similarly retrogressive, shiny MOR. Little Boots’s Kylie aspirations are evident on ’Stuck on Repeat’, which falls somewhere between Donna Summer and 90s dance, but with anonymous vocals. Hands is just another lacklustre installment of this rather unwelcome 80s revival that values style (and hype) above substance.
Thus, retro electro-pop records, complete with virtual pastiches of artists such as Human League, Soft Cell, Numan et al, have become synonymous with ‘innovative pop’, which is all in all a rather absurd development. The focus in the media and radio on these retrogressive pop artists and their artificially-constructed moment/scene will surely end the same way as the garage rock revival ushered in by The Strokes, and become completely forgettable in the grand scheme of things within a matter of months.
What we really should have been paying attention to all the while was the genuine, (possibly) timeless pop gem that dropped last year, a record which mixed electro with minimalist pop arrangements and hooks that stick; Youth Novels. In contrast to the popular ethos that more is better, or that revivalism is all, Lykke Li and Bjorn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn & John) found invention in stripping down a pop record to its bare essentials; a minimalist approach to the instrumentation, the majority of verses driven by just bass, percussion, and vocal melody, building to irresistible hooks.
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