NGX: Ten Years of Neon Gold
Released September 28, 2018
It’s safe to say boutique label, Neon Gold, gets music. The New York City-based label founded in 2008 has launched the debut releases and international careers of numerous illustrious, critically acclaimed artists including Broods, Gotye, Marina and the Diamonds, and Charli XCX. While the artists on their roster often tend to cater to “popheads,” experimental music lovers, and gay clubs across the nation, they’re also often credited with the discovery and initial support of numerous artists such as Lana Del Rey, Walk the Moon, and Grouplove. The label also hosts a string of monthly club nights, where they have further proved their foresight into the future of music and hosted the debut shows of now popular artists such as Halsey, Dua Lipa, and Billie Eilish.
Pulling up onto Neon Gold’s website you are greeted by a humble roster of 12 artists, however, just below the roster the label proudly displays their alumni. It’s no wonder artists affiliated with Neon Gold, new, current, and past, have all come together to create the eclectic NGX: Ten Years of Neon Gold, the label’s own retrospective compilation album of rarities, demos, covers, and exclusives.
NGX: Ten Years of Neon Gold is overflowing with talent and futuristic electro sounds, but relies too heavily on already released music. Neon Gold is known for its innovative artists but doesn’t showcase their talents as much it should have. Charli XCX, for example, is well known among her dedicated fan base to have a huge wellspring of unreleased music. Beyond this missed opportunity, the album showcases the cream of their humble crop without beating past hits over the top of listeners heads and instead treating them to new (or at least “rare”), innovative sounds – as Neon Gold has always done best.
1. “I Am Not A Robot (Clock Opera Remix)” – Marina and the Diamonds
Coming hot off the tails of Marina announcing her upcoming fourth studio album and the dropping of “and the Diamonds” from her stage name is the second release of “I Am Not a Robot (Clock Opera Remix).” This time, however, with a proper release. The British indie rock quartet, Clock Opera, first saw their remix’s release in 2010 – one of the rarities NGX promises. As this proves to be one of the only weaker songs on the album, unfortunately, it sets the tone as it is the opening track. I guess in a compilation album of such an eclectic label, one has to accept the give and take.
While the original focuses on the soft vulnerability of the lyrics, emphasized by simple piano chords and clean synth beats at most, this version of the song loses that intimacy in its production. It seems to begin as a build up to what is shaping up to be a powerful bass drop but never delivers. Instead, it builds excitement, with overlaying, crunchier synth beats throughout the chorus, but last-minute draws back to its roots for the second verse, only to repeat the same cycle. The only original lyrics this remix retains are the verses, which even in the original were the strongest parts of the song. The chorus of this song is exclusive vocals for this remix; the seemingly pieced together vocals still capture Marina’s characteristic irregular use of vibrato but come across repetitive. As useful as repetition can be to get a point across, one simply tires of hearing “never pick up, don’t hang up / our love faded, our love faded” over and over for two and a half minutes without adding new instrumentals. Rather than a professional remix, these aspects make it sound as though it is a just Garageband loop. However, I admire a remixer taking a song and putting their interpretation on it. The original was a plea to a man to overcome toxic masculinity and be vulnerable and the remix spins it as commentary on the distance digital and social media can create between two (human) people – both of which continue provide pertinent commentary on today’s world.
2. “Heart Attack (feat. Tove Lo)” – Phoebe Ryan
This song found its birth during Neon Gold’s writing retreat in Nicaragua earlier in 2018, where Phoebe Ryan (critically acclaimed songwriter and electropop artist akin to Ellie Goulding and Lights) and Neon Gold’s very own Tove Lo (sexually empowered, dark pop songstress) met and immediately hit it off. With its smoked filled bubbles of synth beats and the run of the mill (in the best way) pop based claps, the collaboration between the two creates something just short of a pop hit. With a catchy dance hook and glimpses of vulnerability with lyrics such as “I can’t keep just giving my love out, baby,” it would have fit in perfectly with the pop soundscape of late – a surefire hit – had it been sent out to radios. Phoebe Ryan’s bubbly vocals paired with clever, sexually charged lyrics such as “heels over head for you” (that have Tove Lo written all over it) alongside Tove Lo’s grungier vocals, gives the song a very unique duality that could not work more in its favor. As one of the few exclusives on this album, it would have been a much stronger opening track.
3. “Make It Better (2018 Mix)” – The Knocks
“Make It Better” is certainly one of the rarities NGX promises. First released in 2008 (appropriately so for a tenth-year anniversary album), Make It Better never received a proper digital release until now. It was only to be found & bought on the online music site: Bandcamp, yet found popularity after it’s usage in a Corona advertisement.
With its first official digital release, it is remastered and given a “mix facelift” for 2018. The song retains its cheerful sound peppered with a catchy whistle tune as well as its positive, simplistic lyrics like “you can make it better, when you feel alright” that encourage better days. It’s so infectious and warm, that its fall release feels a bit inopportune as opposed to a summer release. For fans of M83, this is sure to hit a sweet spot.
4. “Sleepyhead” – Young & Sick
Neon Gold saw its debut as a label in 2008 with alumnus Passion Pit’s debut single “Sleepyhead,” so it is only fit that frequent Neon Gold collaborator, Young & Sick, puts their own spin on the single for the retrospective album. Young & Sick is an LA-based music and art project; beyond music, they have designed the album artworks for Foster and the People’s Torches and Maroon 5’s Overexposed. The group has only released one eponymous album in 2014, which received universal acclaim.
This cover of “Sleepyhead” sees a departure from the post-punk, psychedelic pop stylings of the original, and more of a shift into a more chill, island-inspired sound, recalling beaches and warm nights. It replaces the slick synthesized sound of the post-verse instrumentals with the sound of a sun covered flute. Lyrically, there is no change – they continue to detail an apparent death, but this time juxtaposed against cheerful island sounds. Young & Sick’s vocals leave the punk gate and enter a much gentler gate. Again, it feels a bit inopportune to release a song so summer inspired in the fall. I just hope listeners can remember to bring this one back out to soundtrack their drive to the beach once the heat returns.
5. “Tribulation (feat VÉRITÉ)” – Matt Maeson
This remix is a much subtler remix compared to its sibling remixes. Here label artist, Matt Maeson’s “Tribulations” from his debut EP, Who Killed Matt Maeson, doesn’t drown the roots-inspired instrumentals in a dub beat or island flutes, but instead gets independent artist VÉRITÉ on the track. It doesn’t lose any of the intimacy or emotional vulnerability conveyed through Maeson’s rockabilly voice and VÉRITÉ’s additional indie vocals and slight lyrical changes add the effect of a call and response between two lovers in a doomed relationship. While this song does not fit with as much musical cohesiveness as the rest of tracks, it certainly doesn’t cause damage. Rather, it creates a true standout, raw, acoustic track amongst electronically propelled bops.
6. “Reasons Not To Die (Demo)” – Ryn Weaver
With Ryn Weaver announcing she had left Interscope records shortly after the release of her debut album The Fool, she has remained unsigned since. As a fan of Ryn since the release of her debut single “Octahate” (co-written by Neon Gold’s Charli XCX), I could not have been more excited about the release of this demo. And with “Reasons Not to Die” being her first release of 3 years within NGX: Ten Years of Neon Gold it begs the question: is she the newest addition to Neon Gold’s family?
Reasons Not To Die sees a departure from Ryn’s usual sweeping pop songs, to a peeled back piano-driven ballad. While Ryn Weaver has always been glaringly honest lyrically (see: New Constellations from The Fool), this song takes the cake as her most vulnerable. This song finds her toasting to those who stick by her and keep her sane without stifling her emotions, even if she sits with nihilism on her lap. She gently whispers about lashing out at others in her depressed states leading to a soft choir-like chorus celebrating her friends, before the bridge sees a restrained, raw version of her usual sweeping vocals begging for “some reasons not to die.” Making this one of the strongest songs on the album, even in its demo form.
7. “Eyes A Mess” – Broods
As Neon Gold moves into a new era, a new decade of releasing quality niche music, it would feel appropriate their newest addition, Broods, who signed with the label in early August of this year, would help lead the way. “Eyes A Mess” is a cover medley of Neon Gold alumnus Gotye’s songs “Eyes Wide Open” from his album Making Mirrors and “Hearts a Mess” from Drawing Blood. It will appear on Broods’s upcoming album, Don’t Feed the Pop Monster, but gets its first official release through NGX: Ten Years of Neon Gold. Not only does the label get to show off its newest talent, but also to proudly show off their alumnus Gotye as well; a perfect combination for a retrospective album.
The cover finds Broods leaving the indie rock and acoustic instrumentals of the originals in favor of a minimalistic, electronic sound. Its punctuated by a persistent up-tempo backbeat as well as atmospheric piano chords and guitar picking. Lead vocalist Georgia Nott’s voice, well, broods over the music in a way that both pays homage to the oft melancholic sound of Gotye and creates an original sound exclusive to Broods.
8. “Don’t Save Me” – Winona Oak
Winona Oak, another recent signee to the Neon Gold family of artists, cemented her signing to Neon Gold at the same writing camp in Nicaragua Tove Lo attended. When recording vocals for a demo, the Swedish artist impressed more than a few people. New to the scene this cover of label alumnus HAIM’s “Don’t Save Me” from debut album Days Are Gone is only her second release following the collaboration, “Beautiful,” between her and electronic music project: What So Not.
A far cry from the up-tempo, indie rock sound of the Haim sisters’ original, this version creates a somber, gentle atmosphere. The beats are minimalistic, with the occasional sparkling loop that creates a magical atmosphere, creating a world around Oak’s voice and the vulnerable lyrics. However, Oak’s distinct vocals (that recall Adele if she worked in the realm of whisper pop) float far above the instrumentals. In contrast to otherwise musically driven songs, the emphasis on vocals in this cover is like a palate cleanser so late in the album’s tracklist.
9. “Need Ur Luv (Japanese Wallpaper Remix)” – Charli XCX
I am, personally, a huge fan of Charli XCX. I’m normally a big fan of slow ballads, but from the punk rock of her sophomore album, Sucker, to the experimental pop of her second mixtape, Pop 2, you’ll be hard pressed to find a song that doesn’t make you want to jump and dance. Ballads have never been something I’d demand from Charli XCX. When I saw one of her more vulnerable songs, Need Ur Luv, was released with a remix, I was hesitant. Need Ur Luv is my personal favorite from Sucker, I could relate to it and I enjoyed the intensity of it. Not to mention it was one of the closest songs I’d get from her to a ballad. When I see “Remix” I immediately assume a fun, wobbly version and I felt that would destroy the sanctity of this song. However, I’ve never been more pleasantly surprised.
Japanese House, an independent artist who releases music primarily on the website Bandcamp, had done this remix back in 2013 (one of those rarities this album showcases), and it’s getting a much wider release with this album. On this remix, we hear Charli’s stripped down and raw vocals – gentle voice cracks while she croons on the bridge and all – over a soothing xylophonic sound punctuated with gentle snaps and claps. This is a departure from her usual auto-tuned voice and energizing instrumentals, instead taking a song with a once powerful stance and exposing its soft underbelly. Japanese House took Charli’s sexy anthem of sticking through hard times in a relationship and revealed the more somber, dark aspects of the song previously lost in its anthemic qualities. This is one of my personal favorites on the album full of vulnerable releases, because of its refreshing take on a song I’ve already found myself in love with, almost like finding something new you love in your significant other one morning 5 years into the relationship.
10. “Closer Than This” – Your Smith
Previously known as Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps, Your Smith is one more recent signee to Neon Gold after, once again, cementing her signing at their regular writing camp in Nicaragua. Five years after the release of her last album with her folksy R&B band, she has found a new sound (and label) in the comfort of soft, indie rock with the release of her Bad Habits EP. This cover of labelmate St. Lucia’s from his debut album When the Night sees a drastic shift from the eighties reminiscent, synth-pop original to a simple acoustic song consisting of just a few chords. However, Your Smith’s voice loses its unique quality that draws many people to her music beneath the almost overbearing layering. The It feels half-baked and stripped of originality compared to the sunshine filled original, making it feel more like a demo than Ryn Weaver’s addition to the album. As a saving grace, this cover allows the lyrics to bubble to the surface and creates a somber quality that the lyrics reflect without getting lost in a glossy, fun production.
11. “Colours (Captain Cuts Remix)” – Grouplove
Frequent Neon Gold collaborator, Captain Cuts, put their own dance spin to Grouplove’s first single. As Neon Gold is noted for their initial support of Grouplove, it would make sense that this appear on their retrospective compilation. The original from their 2011 debut album, Never Trust A Happy Song, is an alt-rock song reminiscent of The Mowgli’s infectious summer jams. This version incorporates more dance beats, pushing the once forefront vocals to the background in favor of heavily produced dubstep wobbles. Coming from the gentler past few songs back into a jumping, club track brings the mood up once again. Promising “it’s the colors you have, no need to be sad, it really ain’t that bad” the penultimate track brings the energy that Neon Gold does so well back just in time for the final few moments of the record.
12. “Sun Goes Down (feat. The Knocks & St. Lucia)” – Icona Pop
While probably considered a rarity for this album, I would probably consider it far from one. “Sun Goes Down” was the opening track of alumnus Icona Pop’s debut, eponymous album which contained the smash hit “I Love It” that boosted both Icona Pop and Charli XCX into the public eye. The song also received a music video, which makes it feel as though it is a filler track. However, this doesn’t stop me from adoring the song.
Taking what was originally an opening track and making it the closer, worked in NGX’s favor and highlighted the diversity of the album as a whole. Beginning with a bass guitar reminiscent synth before Icona Pop’s characteristically darker, crunchier dance music kicks in lets the listener know a bop is incoming. The verses consist of the label’s own St. Lucia’s distorted, dark vocals as he delivers every word quickly. The chorus gives way to Icona Pop’s usual duet, choir-like delivery, alongside The Knocks’s production of brighter, bubbling synths. As a whole, it fosters a sound that recalls strobe lights and dancing in slow motion. “I’ll be waiting for you until the sun goes down, no tidal wave could turn me around” the duo sings on the final track, seemingly promising many more years of Neon Gold releases.
Conclusions: Individually each track can stand alone, fostering their own individual vibe, message, and atmosphere, however, as a whole each song pushes the idea of vulnerability. Each artist rolls over and exposes their underbelly in a display of softness, even if it is seemingly concealed by a fun dance beat. NGX: Ten Years of Neon Gold, demonstrates music is and always will be rooted in emotion and that as long as emotion and the desire to listen to music is around Neon Gold Records, as well as its innovative touch, is here to stay.
Standout tracks: “Reasons Not To Die” – Ryn Weaver, “Tribulations” – Matt Maeson (feat. VÉRITÉ), and “Don’t Save Me” – Winona Oak. Neon Gold has been known for dance music and done it well, but the more stripped back songs on this album can’t be overlooked.