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Nordic Music Central’s Songs of the Year 2023

So it’s that time of the year again, the demands of choosing NMC’s ‘Singles of the Year’.

This year there are insufficient albums to review separately so I’ve lumped them in together so that this collection is (mainly) of singles but supplemented by occasional EP and full length album tracks, making it Songs of the Year.

It is always hard because to select them some very good songs have to be left out for the sake of creating a shortlist of just 30 (from about 250) and then a top three including a winner – our personal Song of the Year. And of course we can only consider what we’ve reviewed. In this instance we leave out non-Nordic songs (those usually found in the Weekend Intermission section).

We’ve listed them alphabetically except for the top three, which come at the end, along with the #1 song.

Wherever possible we’ve used videos rather than Spotify because we know readers like to see as well as hear the band or artist, or at least to see an image.

Of course the full review of each song can be found in NMC. Tip – use the Search facility (top right of each page), it’s a pretty good one though you might need to click a couple of times before it kicks in.

Remember that our raison d’être is mainly to promote starter and breaking bands and artists so you will find few established names in here.

These are the names you will find:

A Catalogue of the Universe/LADAnmarArttu SilvastAstrid CordesAtom Chris Dahl & Powerband
Birds are BetterBulletproof Poetseee geeHilma NikolaisenIda Wenøe
Josefin WintherKÅRPLaundry HouseLennart GinmanLes Big Byrd
Mall GirlMansfieldMarte EbersonMaylen RustiNicolay Løvvold
PikesRed CellSiri NeelSolblommaStellar Explorer
Summer FryTiergartenSandra KolstadVince ChinaskiWe Ghosts
Das BodyBrimheimJohanna Brun

So here we go.

A Catalogue of the Universe/LAD (Sweden) – Strange Goodbyes (single)

On the surface this is hardly a match made in heaven, between A Catalogue of the Universe (ACOTU), whois the songwriter and from Umeå, about two-thirds of the way up Sweden on the right hand side, on the Gulf of Bothnia, while LAD is the producer. He’s about half her age.

She started an a cappella group and a folk band at school while he is influenced by the likes of Avicii and Kygo. ‘Strange Goodbyes’ is the song that brought them together.

Their backgrounds are chalk and cheese but as it happens it is one of the best songs I’ve heard all year and well worthy of a place in this list.

Of particular note is the quality of ACOTU’s vocal while his production is spot on, the synthesised contribution being restrained when required and ratcheted up when merited.

But what really stands her out from the crowd is her obscure, unconventional vocal phrasing, in which she often transfers the last word of a line into the first of the next one, with a pregnant pause between them.

Anmar (Denmark) – My Voice (single)

Describing herself as a ‘patchwork musician’ who uses multiple tools as if she’s in a playground, Anmar (a contraction of Anne Marie Roel Messerschmidt) sets out to explore the intersections that stretch between electronic music production, song writing and the written composition. She deals often with existential themes that are filtered through collages of home-recorded samples and soft choir scapes.

Now I’ve finished the academic lecture I’ll just say that ‘My Voice’ attracted me for its innovation, intellectualism, and originality. It epitomises what the alternative music scene in the Nordic countries is all about.

Arttu Silvast (Finland) – Contentment (track from the EP Surface)

The ambient specialist Arttu Silvast has no underlying theme lyrically because he doesn’t write any. Both the product and its benefits arise out to his ability to create a tranquil atmosphere through electronic wizardry, like Jean-Michel Jarre on valium, and he is a master of it.

Titularly, the theme of his EP, ‘Surface’, seems to revolve around a scene before and after rain and the contentment he feels afterwards although there is little to hang your hat on in that observation.

In the final track, ‘Contentment’ you could be wandering in the Elysian Fields, searching for the souls of lost heroes. I said at the time, “Hand on heart this is possibly the most beautiful piece of new music I have heard all year.” I’m not changing my mind anytime soon.

Astrid Cordes (Denmark) – Stop dreaming (single/album track)

First off, Astrid Cordes can sing. Her dreamy vocal sucks you in straight away. Then ‘Stop dreaming’’s melody is a memorable one for many reasons.

It really shouldn’t work, mixing a pop ballad with indie rock but it does just that and it gets better still as it develops into a full blown anthem in the last 30 seconds, to a symphony of synthesisers and random guitar chords.

By the end it’s a tour de force that might better be titled ‘Start dreaming.’

Atom Chris Dahl & Powerband (Denmark) – Ingen sikkerhed (No security) (single/track from EP)

I was torn between two or three different tracks from Atom Chris Dahl & Powerband and eventually opted for ‘Ingen sikkerhed’, taken from their third EP, one of “eccentric and gallows humoured lyrics in the native Danish style.”

And they need some humour with ‘sikkerhed’ in the title. What a word that is. It sounds like the sequel to Eraserhead.

It’s inspired by cowpunk (punk/new wave combined with country, folk or blues) and psychobilly (a rock genre that mixes elements of punk rock, rockabilly, and other genres). Let’s just say it rocks.

Chris Dahl says he wrote the song a couple of years ago and that it is written from the point of view of a guy who no longer feels any purpose or connection to what he or his friends are up to, so instead he takes on a childish excitement of watching the whole world collapse.

Well, that’s coming soon, Chris. Join the club.

Birds are Better (Norway) – Super Highway (single/album track)

Birds are Better (Stian Fjelldal),who is about as far removed from Atom Chris Dahl as can be, is one of few who can write what is on the surface a regular pop song with all the required attributes – short, concise, tuneful with a hook – and yet at the same time one that will appeal to those who like to consider songs and their meaning over a pint, while stroking their beard.

Super Highway’ is simply about ‘coming home’; “whether it’s an end or a new beginning”, with all that can mean. And interpretations of homecoming can vary from something as simple as Chris Rea’s ‘Driving home for Christmas’ in which he does what it says on the tin, to Highasakite’s ‘Can I come home’, the plea at the end of their complex concept album ‘Mother’.

The realisation that he can’t even get through to his partner (only to an answering machine) and that everything is going too fast seems to put the lid on the prospect of a happy reconciliation.

And that prospect is offset by a gloriously melodic climax, while the stringy keyboard outro suggests ‘to be continued…’

Bulletproof Poets (Sweden) – The winter fair (single/ track from the EP The Surrounding Space)

Bulletproof Poets is a relatively new (November 2022) Swedish band, for which the lead singer is Helena Montgomery, who is no stranger to NMC.

What fascinates me about this song, ‘The winter fair’ is what sounds like deliberate discord or dissonance in the tune, but it isn’t; they simply grind it out in such an earthy fashion. Then there is the odd metre, time signature changes and variation in pace to contend with. There’s something medieval about it; a cornucopia of delights.

They produce challenging music for the discerning connoisseur and don’t underestimate the skill needed to convert poetry into song lyrics, which is what they do. Across central Sweden it seems to come easy as I can think of several songwriters who do it and this is an excellent example.

eee gee (Denmark) – Promise to pick up the phone (track from the album SHE-REX)

This one almost made the Top 3. If there was a Top 4 this would be #4.

eee gee is Danish, real name Emma Grankvist, and she inhabits, according to press releases, a “wonderfully weird world”. She’s been living in New York for a couple of years, which I suppose makes the point rather well.

She straddles genres, being an aficionada (or aficionado, I’ll leave it to you) of both Joni Mitchell and Banks. Perhaps that has shaped an anti-folk/dark pop style that is evident on much of her work although she has even experimented with disco on the album, with bits of ABBA thrown in.

‘Promise to pick up the phone’ seems to be an admission that the bright lights of the big city have proved to be too much and all it needs is a phone call to get her back home.

It’s a sublime piece of indefinable country/folk/pop that she delivers delightfully, vocally. She can sing soprano or alto, every bit as well as Adele can, every word is crystal clear and she even manages to throw in a pastiche of Sia’s nasal fashion at the end of the first line. And what a tune.

Hilma Nikolaisen (Norway) – This time (single)

The press release that went with this song mentions that it is a “track full of references”. You can say that again. The opening bars are full of Arcade Fire, from the mid-2000s period. Think of ‘(Antichrist Television Blues’) for example. Then as the song progresses Hilma Nikolaisen posits herself as a Norwegian equivalent of Caroline Polachek, backed by The Undertones.

‘This time’ is insistently catchy. She must have a bionic wrist and her guitar titanium strings, the bashing she gives it, the tune enlightened by selective and discrete use of synths and assault by drum machines and underpinned by a driving bass line that she also provides. It wouldn’t have been surprised to read that she played guitar and bass at the same time, and all in time.

She hails from a noisy background of rock and punk projects and that shows through here.

Ida Wenøe (Demark) – With the Wind (single/track from the album Undersea)

The lady with the sweetest voice in Christendom is still plying her trade, well below the radar she should be flying high over.

‘With the Wind’ was the first to be taken from the singer-songwriter’s third studio album ‘Undersea’, back in October.

Apart from her rather special vocal capabilities (I’ve remarked that Ida Wenøe could sing the telephone directory to me all night), so effortless that you can easily overlook the edginess in some of her lyrics, what stands out for me is the almost Gaelic atmosphere she creates and noticeably so here with her instrumental choice of guitar, violin and flute.

Josefin Winther (Norway) – If I were you (title track from album)

Josefin Winther’s album ‘If I were you’ is, she says,a collection of songs that have been created over the past years, which I have taken care of while I have been busy publishing music in Norwegian. It’s been so nice to take the time to let this album take shape as new songs have been added.”

A random collection perhaps, but one that in a way could be interpreted as a ‘concept’ work, or at least the story of a journey, whether that was the intention or not. And one that takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride.

The title track, ‘If I were you’, comes in halfway through and it’s the shortest. But dropping into solemn minor keys it says a lot in its 2 minutes 38 seconds

You do get the feeling that she’s recounting a particularly poignant moment in her life.

Devastatingly simple and unadorned, it’s pure Disney or Pixar. Idina Menzel, eat your heart out.

KÅRP (Sweden) – Zero Heatbeat (single)

Since they are unashamed practitioners of what they call ‘Death Disco’ one is tempted to conclude that someone just flatlined after a night of non-stop Northern Soul and earned a ‘Zero Heartbeat.’

On this single, which is a distraction from their EP trilogy themed on the Apocalypse (Chaos/Silence/The New World), the dynamic duo that is KÅRP chose the unusual subject matter of a school playground snowball fight; in this case the first of the ‘season’ and which, as usual, ends up in total mayhem, with bleeding eyebrows, sore heads and freezing finger tips. New World Disorder you might call it.

“Perhaps children are the most evil of creatures and empathy grows with age?” they enquire. Perhaps.

They never fail to produce a disco banger wrapped around a philosophical adventure and profound lyrics. Having said that, this is as much listenable in your favourite armchair as it is danceable at Berghain, as Anna-Maria Lundberg transports the Apocalypse evocatively and ominously to the recreation ground.

The song was released via a digital 3D virtual reality video which makes for interesting viewing. If for any reason it doesn’t for you here is a Spotify link.

Laundry House (Norway) – Edge to the Sea (single)

I’m always on the lookout for unusual back stories, especially those concerning the formation of a band but I’ve never come across one before that originated out of a weekly musical jam and songwriting session amongst a group of neighbours on the Norwegian coastline at their local community ‘Vaskerie’ or laundry.

That’s what happened to this group who eventually formed Laundry House (what else?) and the members hail from Western and Eastern Norway, Iceland and the USA.

‘Edge to the Sea’ is an ode to andcelebration of the natural beauty of the Norwegian coast while also honouring the strength and resilience of its people. It would make for a good theme tune to the next series of ‘Coast’ on the BBC.

They serve up a sublime piece of soft rock which builds over five and a half relentless minutes of eight verses, no choruses and a couple of half-bridges, out of a ballad into a banging anthem.

Lennart Ginman (Denmark-Finland) – SOS (single/track from the album 360)

‘SOS’ was ABBA’s finest track in my humble opinion but don’t expect any Bjorn and Benny stuff from Lennart Ginman whose domain lies in the cross matching of jazz and electronic music with a cinematic feel while relying on the mantra of the three Ms – movies, melancholy and minimalism.

This is the fourth single from the album, ‘360’, which was released in September and of which he said it “has been created with no ulterior motives, compromise or regard to existing genres.”

What particularly interests me is when a writer sets himself out as a purveyor of cinematic sound; a composer. Many of those who do that obviously are while some aren’t.

The acid test I suppose is how the music would fit into a movie, if it hasn’t purposefully been written for one.

‘SOS’ is quite graphic and it isn’t difficult to imagine how its alternately relaxed/manic sound might be representative of the calm-before-the storm approach of a progressively tension-building sci-fi film like ‘Alien’ or ‘Predator’, or ‘Jaws’.

Or it could equally represent that tension in a war film. ‘The Hurt Locker’ immediately springs to mind.

Or none of these things might occur to you; perhaps something completely different, or nothing at all.

But that’s the point Lennart Ginman is trying to make. He said that his album would be “music for all, but not for everyone.” That’s both pragmatic and ambitious at the same time.

Les Big Byrd (Sweden) – I’m living a saved life now (Single/album track)

As a non-musician these days I’m always keen to improve my understanding of musical terminology and I was reading about chord progression theory and how many pop songs are based around just four chords.

Low and behold, along comes this song, ‘I’m living a saved life now’ from Les Big Bird which builds around the same four chords, enhanced by the application of ostinato (a musical phrase, melody or rhythm that is repeated persistently). In this instance it’s all of them.

It starts off in a similar manner to ‘Tubular Bells’ but picks up the pace and develops the atmosphere far more quickly than Oldfield’s piece and soon takes on the mantle of a Michael Mann-like film score at a runaway pace.

Mall Girl (Norway) – Inzane (single)

Mall Girl isan Oslo-based full power trio (my phrase) which has built a solid and fast-growing reputation amongst the cognoscenti.

They refer to themselves as “art-pop experimentalists” and describe ‘Inzane’ as “making you feel like you’re going insane, on a normal Monday.”

Try to imagine a mélange of half a dozen different styles rolled up into a single dish for your delectation.

In five minutes and 40 seconds ‘Inzane’ encompasses:

The Last Post being played on a hurdy gurdy; something off King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ (with and without a string accompaniment); a Martin Tonne guitar riff straight out of the Pom Poko songbook; a Haley Shea (Sløtface) vocal passage; a full orchestral string section bridge; sloppy dream pop; a ballad; and a yacht rock guitar solo that morphs into something Led Zeppelin might have played.

Not the sort of thing you’re likely to hear while you’re shopping in any mall, from Oslo to Sherman Oaks.

They’ve got a new album, their second, called ‘Pure Love’, which is scheduled to drop on 26th January 2024 via Jansen Records.

Mansfield (Denmark) – Chasing after you (single/ EP track)

Nothing to do with the Nottinghamshire town, Mansfield the band was formed in Copenhagen in 2015 by Christian Stage, who has an interesting peripatetic history having in his youth having lived in Dublin as well as in the North of England where he travelled around performing in bars and at youth clubs and schools.

The band sought to merge contemporary rock with the legendary 1960s Liverpudlian ‘Mersey Sound’, delivering catchy blunt-lyriced songs with plenty of toe-tapping energy.

Also in the influence blend from the 1960s is Motown, along with latter-day Britpop and post-Britpop bands like Oasis and Travis. Quite an eclectic mix.

‘Chasing after you’ is from the EP ‘Come Rain or Shine’ which was written during the pandemic and all the baggage that carried.

Those influences I mentioned earlier hit you straight away, like a pint pot thrown by Liam at our kid, but inside a 1960s pub and the guitar riffs distinctly reflect the earlier era.

In retrospect I reckon this song is keeping the entire 1960s-1990s Manchester scene going better than any local band right now.

Marte Eberson (Norway) – That Day in December (single)

We tracked Marte Eberson for over a year throughout the creation of her recently released album ‘Free’, one which tells the tale of her (successful) battle to find and secure both artistic and personal freedom while commenting often on the side on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune experienced by the Lovers of Oslo.

I thought that one of the tracks on that album would feature here but at the last moment I opted for her 2023 Christmas Song. Marte is a dab hand at those and her take on ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas’ has been on rotation for the last few years.

This year she has released a new one, one of her own songs, and one with a different slant; indeed she refers to it as a December song rather than a Christmas one, taking time out to reflect on the year gone by and lost loves, both romantic and family.

She is a deep-thinking philosopher but for all the depth of ‘That Day in December’’s meaning it could equally have been the last song on ‘Free.’ Lyrically, it harks back to a lost love who is still “stuck in my mind,” whom she “walked away from” and blames herself for, with the simple statement “I’m sorry”. “Don’t let me break your heart again”, she pleads, heart-rendingly.

Like many artists I find Marte often produces her best work when it is just her and a piano as in this instance. It has the melancholic feel of ABBA’s ‘The Day before you came’ to it, except in Marte’s case it’s the day before she never came.

Maylen Rusti (Norway) – Balanse (single)

Maylen Rusti is another Oslo native, from a similar intelligent pop ‘stable’ so to speak as Marte Eberson although she is originally from Bergen.

Having spent several years out of commission from the music business while she recovered from an operation on her vocal chords she could have opted for a quieter re-entry but instead she chose the more dynamic one of three new and testing songs in quick succession.

In ‘Balanse’ the balance in question seems to be a work/life one, weighing the constant, overwhelming demands of ‘content’, tasks and distractions with the need for relaxation and even quiet contemplation and discovering that it is tilted very much in favour of the former over the latter.

She says that at times she just wants to drop everything and shout. Stop the world I want to get off!

As has been the case with Maylen’s previous singles this one is another example of power ballad meets anthem, several times over. Her verses are light and airy as if representing her calmer, stabler moments while the choruses are louder but heavier and more contemplative, while never even approaching depressing.

And she’s thrown into ‘Balanse’ an almighty MOAB of a bridge, which sounds like an entire electronic orchestra and a choir of Maylens just crashed through the studio doors.

Nicolay Løvvold (Norway) – Latika (single)

Nicolay Løvvold says, “I mostly do rock and metal music and I’m really into fusing those genres with classical elements and synths. I’ve been told that a lot of my music harkens back to industrial metal, and for me, music has never been about the fastest, longest and most elaborate guitar-licks possible. I do however appreciate suspense and build-up.”

The best way I can describe ‘Latika’ (a name) is that it’s a little rock opera of its own.

The story is of a man who covets a girl he can’t have. Because of his misguided view on how such things work, he pursues the woman with completely the wrong ideas and it doesn’t end well. Yep, we’ve all been there.

There are some tasty lines in it, if you’ll pardon the pun. ”Latika, bet you taste like erotica/and I’ll attend the feast.”  Then, “If she won’t be mine and mine alone/I’ll have her on my steady throne/until I hear her moan.”

I say old boy, steady on! This is a family blog.

Musically, it’s all over the place, in the nicest way. ‘Latika’ starts off with him warbling like Labi Siffre, perhaps Youssou N’Dour or Papa Wemba, before an almighty guitar chord introduces the metal bit, which lasts for the most of remainder of the six-minute song.

For the final minute it takes on a distinctly prog rock context, with a vocal that could be Ian Anderson or Peter Gabriel in the final throes of one of their frenetic creations.

‘Latika’ won me over completely although I suspect some of the feminist readers might take a little longer! What I don’t know is who plays the instruments. He is a producer so must know a lot of people who aren’t credited. Or perhaps he played them all himself. That would be quite a thing.

PIKES (Sweden) – Yuppie Love (title track from album)

PIKES (Christopher Ling) is influenced by artists such as Peter Gabriel, Frank Zappa and Kate Bush but none of them feature on this track as he delves back into the synth-pop 1980s, home to the Yuppies and all things greed.

It is pure 1980s electro pop from the off with a big tune (I defy you to forget it once it’s implanted in your head), huge powerful synth chords, goose bump key changes, echo-y vocals, a heartfelt guitar bridge that is just so and memorable chorus lyrics.

Oh, and the boy can sing a bit.

It builds to a veritable anthem; a case of Howard Jones (whom he channeled in the previous single we reviewed) meets Heart.

PIKES can get you up and dancing or just snap you out of your end-of-the-day knackered exhaustion.

The real deal. The genuine article. He ticks all the boxes. Dots the ‘i’s and crosses the ‘t’s. Throw in your own idiom for good measure.

Red Cell (Sweden) – We will be birds tonight (single)

Going right back to January for this one.

Birds are popular theme for song writers. Nelly Furtado, Antony & the Johnsons, and Sweden’s own Johanna Brun (see later) to name but a handful who have been inspired by our ornithological friends. Noel Gallagher has high flying ones.

Red Cell’s Stefan Aronsson says ‘We will be birds tonight’ is a song that “pretty much wrote itself a couple of years back”, without detailing the specific circumstances. He adds, “It feels good to finally let go of it.”

Always expect a strong hook with Red Cell and this song is no exception.

The other thing I’ve noted about Red Cell is their ability to hang the hook on a small series of notes. On this occasion they’ve taken minimalism to its limit with just two, which pervade it from beginning to end, supported by a battalion of synth pads by the sound of it and a couple of little subtle key changes that catch the attention.

The final product is both listenable and danceable – a combination not easily achieved.

I’ve said previously that it wasn’t difficult to identify ‘elements’ of a host of 1980s synth pop bands in their work but with this song they shifted much closer to nailing their own unique sound, one which I’m sure will become more recognisable still as time goes on.

Sandra Kolstad (Norway) – Unlearning (single)

Sandra Kolstad has been absent from the music scene for almost five years but she has an excuse, in fact two of them – having a child and writing a debut novel.

Now she returns with a new single, ‘Unlearning’. What does she mean by that? Well, she says that unlearning has to do with “letting go of fear and letting people in” and that it is hard work but doesn’t have to be “a lonely thing.”

Where the song shines is in its musicality. It’s a delightful little piece, the sort of thing a committee of Laurie Anderson, Jenny Hval, Caroline Polachek, Regina Spektor and Lydmor might have come up with, hanging onto a simple but memorable piano/glockenspiel melody line.

It goes off at a tangent towards the end with what sounds like a Middle East-inspired synthesiser, booming percussion and trap beats.

This piece intrigues me. I await more with great anticipation.

A new album, ‘Soft Hard’ will be released later.

Siri Neel (Denmark) – Disappear (single)

Occasionally I get to hear something else; a song with that je ne sais quoi, the one you’re wondering why you haven’t heard it on the radio yet.

Siri Neel describes herself as an independent Danish singer and songwriter, an up and coming artist, and a mother of two who quit her job because she wants to focus all her energy on music and her debut album.

She was in the past nominated for artist of the year by Danish independent labels and was identified as being one of ‘the 100 artists to watch in Europe.’

She has benefitted from living for several years in the UK, in Brighton, where she met UK producer Mark Flannery.

She says she wrote ‘Disappear ‘as a reminder to everyone that we are all capable of being strong and confront our fears – especially in a world of uncertainty.” So the disappearing isn’t being done by her but by her trepidations.

The repeating piano note (and it persists insidiously throughout the song as a single note and a chord) is so similar to the one in Choir of Young Believers’ ‘Hollow Talk’, possibly the best known Danish song in the UK on account of ‘The Bridge’, and instantly evocative. Its persistence is steadfastly suggestive of how fear clings.

Siri Neel is currently working towards her debut album in collaborations with different producers and songwriters based in Denmark, Sweden and the Britain.

Solblomma (Sweden) – Charles’ Wain (Circle VI) (track from the album Tiptoe into Limbo)

Solblomma has been described, quite accurately, as perhaps the quirkiest artist ever to come out of Sweden and while there is a lingering degree of eccentricity about her latest album, the conceptual ‘Tiptoe into Limbo,’ it is also the case that she displays a sense of maturity in it, the sort of maturity that says she knows the bridge between non-conformity and mainstream acceptance is not a wide one.

The album’s 11 compositions combine to tell a mystical tale set around Dante’s Divine Comedy but interwoven with the mundane reality of daily life in the 21st century. The story takes place in Hell, and in this interpretation Solblomma takes Dante’s place as she undertakes a journey through the three kingdoms that are thought to await man after death – Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Paradise) – with the Roman poet Virgil (he of the Aeneid) in tow, through two halls and the nine circles of Hell.

Together they encounter the underworld’s immortal ferryman Charon, cross the River Acheron, and voyage down through the funnel of Hell. They tiptoe into Limbo, meet Kerberos, the multi-headed Hound of Hades, fight with lions, hide in the Charles Wain (Big Dipper) and then…check into a hotel.

The absurdity of these situations is on a par with those of Beckett and Camus.

Musically, this is undoubtedly Solblomma’s most satisfactory album to date.

Great imagination has been deployed in the use of synthesisers. I thought I’d heard most of what they are capable of at one time or another but there are sounds here I hadn’t previously encountered and ditto drum machines, producing here a heavier sound than you normally hear and some pieces that could have been penned by Vangelis or Jean-Michel Jarre.

There is a constant momentum to the album which rarely fluctuates, thus underlining the concept of a journey and the tracks range between soft vocal ones to a lively, poppy, orchestral synths and booming percussion dance track, to laid back groove, to mysterious pieces with complex rhythms, to this fascinating one, ‘Charles’ Wain (Circle VI)’, a softer piano piece to open, set to trap beats, which is more poppy, with a  big melody and with Polly Scattergood-like lyrics to finish it off and complete with her ‘delivery’.

Stella Explorer (Sweden) – Club Atlantis (single/EP track)

I’ve been tracking Stella Explorer since I saw her perform at a showcase festival three years ago and she released two EPs in quick succession in 2022 and 2023. ‘Club Atlantis’ is from the second one, ‘Lost Kingdom’.

What this lady finds it easy to do is to create a melody every time that is just so – it sucks you in without offering a hook that is too strong for the lyrics and thereby detracts from them. She gets the balance just right.

In this case that serene melody is played on what looks like an ancient analogue synthesiser overlaid by an equally antediluvian drum machine, playing a similar beat to the one she used on ‘Kill it before it dies’ from her ‘Dorkay House’ EP.

The end result is a song that doesn’t sound like it’s of this era but it equally hard to place. The 1980s perhaps?

Her vocal is, as ever, lush and soothing, often at odds with the subject matter of the song.

Summer Fry (Denmark) – If I don’t drown first (single)

Once upon a time there was a Danish singer-songwriter called Gurli Octavia. She wrote many heartfelt ballads and the odd banger, and won many fans.

Then she went on a rail trip around Europe and when she returned she had become Summer Fry.

Not so much a conversion on the Road to Damascus as one on the Train to Toulouse.

Summer Fry’s songs were different to those of Gurli’s. Nice, but different.

But then Summer Fry recorded a new song called ‘If I don’t drown first’ and – to everyone’s surprise – she sounded just like Gurli Octavia. It was as if they had become one.

And they all lived happily ever after.

If Summer Fry was setting herself up to be Denmark’s Queen of Sad Pop, this is without doubt the way to go about it, but I hesitate to use such terminology because such songs are typically about being unlucky in love.

This goes deeper. Way deeper.

‘If I don’t drown first’ is, I’m sure, a reprise of the emotions which prompted her to write her debut album, ‘I could be blossoming instead’ album, two years ago, as a form of catharsis.

But in this case the subject matter has shifted, to hang on the self-destructiveness of the (usually female) obsession with physical appearance.

We can only marvel at her ability to encapsulate such powerful emotions in three minutes.

Tiergarten (Norway) – Lulu (single/track from forthcoming album)

I have previously described Tiergarten as Norway’s best kept secret, with two excellent albums behind them, ‘Bluemass’ and ‘Oslo Exit Baby’, the former of which was one of Norway’s top albums when first released.

A new album is in the works and there have been two singles from it so far that I know of, ‘Zeitgeist Squad’ last month and in September this one, ‘Lulu’.

They typically produce an energetic, melodic, electronic synth pop sound and Tiergarten’s music is quite capable of giving you goose bumps, supported by vocals that can be fragile or every bit as powerful as the music.

I was blindsided by the early part of ‘Lulu’ which is funkier than I was expecting and a departure from those all-embracing synth power chords I’ve come to expect but little by little they wheedle their way in, supported by dreamy harmonies and a delightful little flowing keyboard run until, before you know it, full blown electronic warfare has blown out.

Tiergarten prove once again here that they fill a gap in thoughtful, intelligent, melodic electronic music and I’m looking forward to what they can conjure up this time on this forthcoming album.

Vince Chinaski (Denmark) – My Mother’s Lullaby (title track from album)

Vince Chinaski, a “one man band project” as he calls himself,is a deep thinker; call him a philosopher if you will.

A native of Rome (where he was a punk), his peripatetic wanderings have taken him to hedonistic Sin City Berlin, and eventually to Copenhagen and his own personal Little Mermaid.

One of Vince’s influences is what he calls “The late Beatles”. I don’t think he’s referring to John and George specifically, rather to what the Liverpudlians were doing experimentally perhaps on their seventh album, ‘Revolver’, and some of his arrangements are suggestive of that, along with a similarly broad use of instrumentation – across the full ‘My Mother’s Lullaby’  album  – not just here on the title track, including full orchestration.

Then again there are traces of Bowie as well, along with some passages which seem to have an early 70s prog rock bent.

It’s hard to pin down any particular style. Let’s think up a new genre and call it alt-Folk World Music.

‘My mother’s lullaby’ – both track and album, isn’t light listening and I suspect that for quite a few people Vince Chinaski will be an acquired taste. For the cognoscenti (who shall go forth and multiply) it’s an early Christmas present. (I just had to throw in a root Italian word there!)

We Ghosts – Ship goes down (single/track from the album Idle Hands)

The Swedish/British duo that is We Ghosts is probably best known for a song that isn’t their own – their universally admired take on Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’.

‘Ship goes down’ has long been one of their favourite songs and there has been a video for it for a while even though it was not formally released.

I’m always a bit wary about song titles like this, as if they are tempting providence. The Ancient Mariner and his Albatross. Playing Macbeth. Making films about exorcisms. Saying Candyman five times into a mirror. That sort of thing. Don’t sing about ships sinking, it will only bring bad luck.

In reality it has been quite the opposite for the duo, having received considerable airplay while they do believe it was possibly the track that got them signed to their label.

I don’t get why We Ghosts aren’t better known. They incessantly come up with melodic, powerful, high quality sing-a-long ditties, in a variety of styles and often with an underlying air of menace as here. In its own way it carries the same dystopian clout as the likes of Zager & Evans’ ‘In the Year 2525’, REM’s ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it’, and Billy Joel’s ‘We didn’t start the fire’.

And it isn’t in any way depressing or off-putting and that’s partly down to Jenny (JJ) Woodall’s confident, adversity-challenging vocal and equally to the forceful guitar of John Woodall, which owes more than a bit to Joy Division methinks.

And now the top three, in reverse order.

In third place –

Das Body (Norway) – Baby you know I’m a stranger (single)

The ambassadors for East Oslo, Das Body, usually write and perform about difficult but vague environments in which the ‘last exit’ sign is constantly being sought out by the victim. ‘Baby you know I’m a stranger’ is no different. They say they are not really into song lyrics that try to tell a coherent story or a logical argument, merely asking listeners pick up on hints and keywords along the way.

Oh, and they always find a tune.

Led by the enigmatic, larger than life front woman Ellie Linden there is undeniably an air of mystique about Das Body and for my money they are possibly the freshest act to come out of Norway in the last few years.

A new album comes out on 26th January. Be prepared.

In second place –

Brimheim (ft. eee gee) (Faroe Islands/Sweden) – New Woman (single)

“‘New Woman’ is about the pressure of trying to live up to the myth of the perfect woman – a devoted and obedient dog who never complains”, says Brimheim. “Unfortunately, I have been that woman in past relationships. Society’s expectations of women have definitely shaped that ideal, but in the end I only have myself to blame. It’s something I’ve exposed myself to when I valued convenience over authenticity.”

Don’t ever check out a Brimheim song and expect to find anything other than a moral and philosophical treatise, sung to a big tune. And this one features eee gee in a supporting vocal role to boot.

Musically and lyrically she excels with each release.

And her acting expertise should not go unrecognised. She handles a chainsaw better than Leatherface ever did. When they cast the next Texas Chainsaw Massacre film they need look no further than the wild woman for that particular role.

Ever since I heard an early Brimheim song, ‘Call it what you want’, I’ve been convinced she will make a major breakthrough one day.

She releases her second album, ‘RATKING’ in March 2024. That could be the day.

And the winner is:

Johanna Brun (Sweden) – Bird

I’m so caught up with this song that it was almost inevitable that it would end up as #1. The life affirming product of a young teenage girl who challenged herself to overcome debilitating illness and the physical and mental turmoil that it creates through music and which was first written a decade ago, now finally seeing the light of day with the full-blown orchestral backing that this majestically soaring song fully deserves.

And there’s much more to come on an album that will be released next year.

For further details see the review and the recent interview with Johanna Brun.

For now just listen.

And in this case you get a typically dynamic bonus solo performance on a grand piano on video.

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