One of the absolute best albums of the year is Rose Elinor Dougall's Stelullar. Released January this year, the long-awaited follow-up to her excellent 2010 solo debut, Without Why, has exceeded even my rather high expectations.
This is a contemporary take on pop that is just exquisitely executed. Influences across many decades and styles are expertly synthesised and distilled into something earnest, fresh, modern and personal. You can hear The Smiths and other indie eighties, classic sixties songwriting, punk and its artier cousins, eighties synth pop, Britpop, as well as more recent influences from the world of today's avant-pop. I know music reviews can often be an annoying shopping list of improbable references, but I genuinely do hear all those! It's to Dougall's credit that these don't compete or sound unnaturally glued together, and that they aren't there for the sake of showing off what's in her record collection. The different pieces blend beautifully and always serve the songwriting and the essence of the song. The tracks are complex enough to offer up new delights on repeated listens, but not overly worked at the expense of what makes a good pop song so appealing: memorable melodies, addictive hooks and emotional immediacy.
Some standouts here are 'Colour of Water', 'Closer' and 'Space To Be', but it's one of those albums that has so many equally great tracks, my favourite changes constantly. Another highlight is the title track, with its sci-fi-ish feel and lyrics that could be reassuring self-talk or aimed at lifting someone up who is feeling lost. 'Inspirational' songs in this vein can often be gag-worthy, but Dougall avoids this by rooting it in a sense of real empathy and awareness of what people are going through in these increasingly difficult, weird times, and with her thoughtful, inventive use of language and symbolism.
The CD and digital versions of Stellular differ from the vinyl release in that they include two extra tracks originally from 2013's Future Vanishes EP. These are slotted into the album, rather than added as bonus tracks at the end, so you do end up with a slightly different listenng experience with each version. I prefer the pared-down vinyl version because I already know and love the Future Vanishes EP, but interestingly, both versions work well. The LP also comes with a digital download of the extended version, so you get the best of both worlds.