Alison Moyet, “Solid Wood”

The only real criteria for coverage in my “Obscurity Knocks” series (lesser-known songs by well-known artists) is that the artist has to have been popular, i.e.-having charted in the top 40 at least once.  Although she’s had many hits in the UK, Alison Moyet just squeaks by where the US is concerned (1985’s “Invisible”,# 31). Granted, she’s better known here for her work with synth-pop duo Yaz(oo) (“Only You”, “Situation”, neither of which made the top 40, inexplicably).

Just as it was refreshing to hear Moyet delve back into electronica with last year’s The Minutes, in 1995, it was an unexpected delight to discover her commanding, soulful vocal on a primarily guitar-based track. “Solid Wood” was one of two new songs included on Singles, a superb greatest hits collection (the other was a lush cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” set to a hip-hop beat). Both songs flopped when released as UK singles, “Solid Wood” only reaching # 44 and the Roberta Flack song not charting at all (the album, however, went to # 1).

Anticipating the direction she’d take on her next (and in my opinion, best) album Hometime, “Solid Wood” has all the drama and urgency you’d expect from Moyet, but the arrangement (produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds), heavy on guitars and soulful organ is the warmest-sounding she ever attempted to that point. The lyrics reference a past lover that Moyet purposely let slip through her fingers with a mix of defense (“Who ever I was then / she won’t be back again so let her go”) and acceptance (“I wouldn’t change you if I could”). As usual, it’s the singer who gets this complexity across, expressing joy, wistfulness, sorrow and resolve towards the situation. It concludes with the instrumentation fading away until all we hear is Moyet’s voice stretching out the song’s title–one of the more poignant and affecting moments in her discography.

Top Albums of 2013: # 9, 8, 7

pet shop boys electric

9. Pet Shop Boys, ELECTRIC

Oh, those Pet Shop Boys: a mere year after their worst album (Elysium) comes one of their best—possibly their best since Very (granted, I’ve made this claim before). The flipside to Elysium’s reflective, milquetoast calm, Electric is an all-out banger, their most (non-remix album) dance-oriented effort since Introspective. For two men on the cusp of 60, Neil and Chris sound as alive and inspired as they ever have: “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct” melds quasi-classical interpolations with that ever-dry PSB wit, while “Thursday” is so strong a single you begin to think that maybe, just maybe it could reestablish them in America as the pop stars they briefly were for a heady spell in the 1980s.

Best tracks: “Fluorescent”, “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct”, “Thursday”

Video for “Thursday”:

HAIM-DAYS-ARE-GONE

8. Haim, DAYS ARE GONE

When first hearing their ‘80s-friendly pop on satellite radio a year ago, I thought the name was in tribute to that era’s teen idol Corey; turns out that it’s the surname of the band members who are also sisters, which should be no surprise given their close harmonies and their sense of musical interconnectedness. The year’s most accomplished debut, it plays like a collection of singles, from instant-gratification opener “Falling” to the swaggering, glam-tastic “The Wire” to “If I Could Change Your Mind” and “Don’t Save Me”, both as pert and tart as prime Christine McVie. The lyrics aren’t anything to write home about, but you’ll be humming along (or singing out loudly) too much to really care.

Best tracks: “Don’t Save Me”, “If I Could Change Your Mind”, “The Wire”

Video for “Don’t Save Me”:

Alison-Moyet-the-minutes

7. Alison Moyet, THE MINUTES

Moyet’s best album since Hometime, and that’s all you really need to know, except that it’s also her most heavily electronic effort since Yaz’s You and Me Both from thirty years ago. However, nothing here feels like a throwback except for the very Yaz-like “Filigree” and it’s a good enough song that the considerably peppier “West Coast” mix version at the end is an album highlight. As ever, Moyet can still sing rings around divas half her age; in 2013, it’s nothing less than a thrill to hear that voice enliven and command such tricky settings as the push-and-pull clang of “Changeling” or the exuberant electropop of “Love Reign Supreme”.

Best tracks: “Filigree (West Coast Mix)”, “Love Reign Supreme”, “Right As Rain”

Video for “Filigree (West Coast Mix)”:

Alison Moyet x 2

Given that they only arrive about once every five years or so, a new album from Alison Moyet is a big deal (around here, anyway). Out June 11 in the US (and a month earlier everywhere else), the minutes sounds like an intriguing return to the electronica she began her career with over 30 years ago as one half of the duo Yaz (or Yazoo, if you’re outside the US). The first single, “When I Was Your Girl”, is a torch ballad drenched in drama and a classic Moyet-style soaring chorus. Initially, I preferred the album track “Changeling”, which was available as a free download and is apparently more indicative of the album’s overall sound. I have to admit, though, that the single is growing on me. On both, the 51-year-old Moyet is as elastic and commanding as ever; here’s hoping the rest of the minutes lives up to these two previews.