With Fortuna POP!’s farewell shows now all over, the party never stops with Gareth Ware’s celebratory album guide. Like crate digging – done for you.
Various Artists – Be True To Your School
It’s poor form to start on a cop-out, granted, but it’s a worthwhile one. Earning its keep from the fantastically entertaining liner notes alone (you suspect Sean Price has a writing career yet) this 25-track rocket ride through the label’s first 49 releases beautifully showcases what would become its trademark ability to tread a line between the effervescently enthusiastic (see, Fallen Angel’s ‘Taking Pictures’, FPOP!’s first release) and beautifully reflective (i.e. The Butterflies Of Love’s ‘Rob A Bank).
The Lucksmiths – Where Were We?
While the label released four brilliant standalone albums (Why That Doesn’t Surprise Me, Naturaliste, Warmer Corners and First Frost, all of which are worth spending money on and time with) it’s perhaps this – essentially a rag-tag of ’99-’01 rarities – that offers an introductory window into their ability to document their surroundings, offcuts or not. With a deft eye for detail and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary they offer sun-drenched yearning, not dissimilar to The Clientele’s but with better weather, and a vivid depiction of Australian suburbia.
Butterflies Of Love – Famous Problems
One of the label’s first signings – and its first international act – have been able to tread gentle beauty, subtle theatre and sprightly pop songs with aplomb. On Famous Problems, they again show off all three (‘Sunshine’, ‘Take Action’ and ‘Act Deranged’ respectively) with an overall sense of grace and accomplishment that suggests that in a fair world they’d be far, far more revered and appreciated than they are.
Sodastream – Reservations
It’s rare to find a band with a double bassist as a key member, less so to find it coming out of Perth, but Sodastream – frequently referenced by Price as the unluckiest band he ever worked with – were always ones to go their own way. Shortlisted for their homeland’s national music prize, Reservations arguably finds them at their most reflective (A Minor Revival made a decent fist of sounding like an Antipodean B&S), with a focus on Karl Smith’s unique with imagery amid the stark arrangements.
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
If FPOP! has been akin to the Pulp of record labels – years of graft followed by a burst of overdue recognition – then this would have been its Different Class. Bright and refreshing and packed with irresistible pop tunes that could turn the drabbest days into a neverending summer, it was a pop supernova that piqued the critics’ interest and beamed Kip Berman’s vision more widely than anyone could have expected. It also, by extension, torpedoed Sean Price’s initial plan to stop at 100 releases…
Comet Gain – Howl Of The Lonely Crowd
Longtime indie heroes Comet Gain have always had a knack to perform a combination of blazing garage rock, spoken word monologues and effortlessly stylish balladeering. On this Ryan Jarman-produced offering they thrillingly put the focus very much on the first of those three, while still allowing the other two sides to the band to blossom also. Its more reflective/pastoral follow-up, Paperback Ghosts, only underlined the depths of the band’s songwriting abilities.
Allo Darlin’ – Europe
If the first Allo Darlin’ album was the sound of a band, being in love with being in a band, then its successor was the sound of a band adjusting to having an audience. A rumination on place and belonging framed by uncertainty both in the wider world and Elizabeth Morris’ life. It saw her whipsmart songwriting pair up with some of the band’s most technicolour instrumentation, with dazzling results.
Darren Hayman – The Violence
Easily one of Britain’s most prolific songwriters, Hayman has long managed to write themed albums that have been far bigger than the core subjects they claim to centre around. The Violence marked the end of his Essex triology after the Harlow-centric Pram Town and lawless Home Counties countryside of Essex Arms and focussed on 16th century witch trials. In doing so, he also created a body of work that delicately and movingly reflected on mortality, togetherness and all manner of other aspects of the human condition.
Tender Trap – Ten Songs About Girls
Ever since her first forays as a musician during the birth of C86, Amelia Fletcher has maintained a talent for pairing social commentary – especially those surrounding gender equality – with fantastic pop songs. On Ten Songs About Girls she rebuilds that winning formula around some of her punchiest, catchiest songs that take swipes at everything from useless lovers to the music business.
Crystal Stilts – In Love With Oblivion
FPOP! has, over the years, been mentioned in the same breath as uncharitable – and inaccurate – descriptors such as ‘twee-pop’ and variations thereof. This 2012 Crystal Stilts release only emphasises how wide of the mark those descriptions were. Oozing with seductive, subversive cool that’s straight out of early 70s New York it’s a record that houses stacks of great tunes garnished with a drizzle of fuzzpop magic.
Shrag – Canines
When going about making what the band themselves have admitted was subconsciously their final album, Shrag threw the kitchen sink at it. Recruiting both the studio and producer behind longtime heroes’ Life Without Buildings’ Any Other City they delivered one final instalment of arresting agitpop brilliance, helmed as ever by the always-energetic Helen King. In ‘Jane With Dumbbells’, with album’s closer, they left with arguably one of the most perfect swansongs possible.
Martha – Courting Strong
Probably possessing the highest doctorates:band members ratio in rock music, Martha are undoubtedly bright. They only confirmed as much on their début, which like an aural sour Skittle took the bittersweet core reminiscences of their teenage years and wrapped it in the sugary shell of pop-punk hits. Socially astute, they managed to tackle less favourable aspects of the world en route – check out their dig at the gender expectations placed on the young in ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
Flowers – Do What You Want, It’s What You Should Do
It’s rare to come across a guitar band that seems truly unique, and yet even the quickest listen to Flowers proves they’re really something special. Their influences are easy to spot – at times they sound like a fleshed-out Young Marble Giants; Rachel Kennedy’s otherworldly vocals are often compared to Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser – but brought together they create something that’s both entirely the band’s own and is far bigger than the sum of its parts.
Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister
For a band that formed during anger management sessions, it’s apt that Joanna Gruesome’s début feels like an intense half-hour session of the band kicking out against the world with all of their collective might. Joining Martha and The Spook School in their outspokenly progressive outlook, being socially aware – with a heady mix of fury and hooks – never sounded so appealing, or as thrillingly feral. Follow-up Peanut Butter would go on to take that same foundation, and trim it down to a 20-minute, succinct mission statement.
Withered Hand – New Gods
Dan Willson’s emotionally raw songwriting has always resonated with people – a performance at Indietracks at 2011 saw people literally running to the merch tent afterwards to get a copy of then-latest release Good News. For its follow-up his lyrical formula stayed the same but was backed up by bigger production, more ambitious songwriting and a killer pair of upbeat standouts in ‘King Of Hollywood’ and Skins-featured ‘Heart Heart’.
Tigercats – Mysteries
It was hard not to be charmed by Tigercats’ first album, Isle Of Dogs. A knockaround, defiantly exuberant set of songs, it was a record that opened the door to then produce the polished, ambitious follow-up of the more mature-sounding Mysteries. Intricate, ambitious and expertly put together – Tigercats have never been a band to stand still – it retained the same charm that had put them on peoples’ radars to begin with but added an extra level of sheen and songwriting that gives away something new with every listen.
Evans The Death – Expect Delays
Named after a Dylan Thomas character and with a début single that referenced terrifying Cold War BBC drama Threads, Evans The Death were never likely to be your normal band. Still only in their early twenties for the release of their second record, Expect Delays saw them deliver a raw, searing depiction of being a young person trying to make ends meet in the austerity-driven world of Cameron’s Britain. The fact they did it via a record that still sounds so vital is testament to their underlying talent.
Simon Love – It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time
As former head honcho of timewarp tearaways The Loves, Simon Love proved long ago he knew his way round long-lost 60s gems (their 3 albums for FPOP! – Technicolour, Three and …Love You are all worth seeking out). Deftly swapping styles for 70s MOR, his début album sounded like Harry Nilsson regurgitating a profanisaurus as he unpacked damaged relationships and the baggage left behind over darkly funny – if not exactly radio-friendly – hits that sound both contemporary and from another era.
The Spook School – Try To Be Hopeful
Occasionally bands come along that help further a cause to a wider audience. The Spook School have done just that for issues surrounding gender identity and sexual politics, writing songs and creating environments where which act as educational messages as much as they are artistic statements. Writing more overtly on those topics for their second album, they did so movingly, invigoratingly, and with an underlying sense of fun. It can’t have been easy to do so, which makes it all the more impressive that they managed to make it appear so.
Pete Astor – Spilt Milk
Having earned his songwriting stripes several times over during his 30-year career, you could be forgiven for thinking Pete Astor has precious little left to prove – but we should be thankful that he still feels he does if last year’s album is anything to by. A wistful reflection on ageing and continued relevance in the world, a deceptive Velvet Underground-esque simplicity masks the undoubted continued talent of one of the country’s most underrated musicians.