The BBC “Sound of…” poll is an annual attempt by leading UK tastemakers to find the pulse of the upcoming year in music. Chart toppers have included everyone from Adele to 50 Cent, with artists like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, and Santigold rounding out the top ten lists. However, the list may be a self-fulfilling prophesy, and the individual rankiangs leave a bit to be desired; 2009 clearly belongs to Lady Gaga (#6), while Little Boots (#1) didn’t even release her album stateside.
Even with those caveats, the poll is generally a good tool for discovering artists on the edge of a breakthrough, like Sound of 2010 runner-up Marina and the Diamonds, who is set to release her debut record The Family Jewels on February 22.
Marina and the Diamonds is the stage name of Marina Diamandis, a half-Greek, half-Welsh chanteuse with a deep, rich voice and a unique take on pop songwriting (unlike Florence and the Machine, the Diamonds are not her backing band, but her fans). After bouncing around universities and teaching herself piano, she ended up in London to pursue a musical career. In 2007, she released her self-recorded demos, Mermaid vs. Sailor, and was eventually signed to 679 Records, home to electropop stars Little Boots and Annie.
The Family Jewels is a stunning debut, with thirteen shining examples of piano-driven songwriting. Marina is quirky and theatrical, bringing a mature, cerebral edge to what is basically a pop record (only one song clocks in over the four minute mark). Stylistically, she’s equally adept with singer-songwriter ballads (“Numb”) and new-wave throwbacks (“Shampain”). Her compositions are aided by dense production that begs for live performance without trampling over catchy melodies and hooks.
After releasing brooding, down-tempo songs like “Obsessions” and “I Am Not a Robot” as singles, Marina got the message about what works in 2010 pop music. “Hollywood,” the first proper single off the record, balances both of her sensibilities, building from dark synths and strings to a shimmering chorus that belies the tone of the lyrics: “Hollywood infected your brain / You wanted kissing in the rain / Oh oh, I’ve been living in a movie scene / Puking American dreams / Oh oh, I’m obsessed with the mess that’s America.” The cynicism doesn’t stop there: “you look just like Shakira, no no, you’re Catherine Zeta, actually, my name is Marina,” nails the industry need to classify and pigeonhole.
Marina’s ability to juxtapose musical and lyrical content is also apparent on “Oh No,” a danceable jaunt with lyrics that paint the picture of a reluctant pop star: “Don’t want cash / don’t want card / want it fast want it hard / don’t need money / don’t need fame / I just want to make a change.” Propelled by an insistent kick drum and bassline combo, the song bounces along as Marina tears down what we expect from a 23-year old pop starlet.
Every year brings another crop of female singer-songwriters; the road to Fame is paved with would-be Next Big Things. So what makes Marina and the Diamonds any different? With dance pop dominated by Gaga (and flavor of the week Ke$ha), pop music as a whole is in dire need of a songstress who can pull together the disparate strands of piano-based music to craft something new, like a quilt made of Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, and Siouxie Sioux. With Marina and the Diamonds, those Brits may be on to something.