TOPS is one of those bands whose albums people go into with a checklist prepared. By that, I mean that their influences are, to some people, fairly evident in their aesthetic choices and songwriting style. Leaving aside that that’s a terrible way to listen to music, it also does a disservice to what TOPS are doing on each album. Sure, some aspects of what the band does doing sound familiar to devotees of ‘80s pop, but TOPS bring a modern sensibility to these old sounds, and their songs are so well-crafted that dismissing them as musical cosplayers is incredibly shortsighted. If anything, the story of TOPS as an artistic entity is not one of imitation, but of consistency, and that is even more the case on their latest album I Feel Alive. This is, as a pop album, the most cohesive that TOPS have ever sounded.

On each subsequent album, TOPS have slowly scaled back elements of their sound to place melody over atmosphere; the reverberating vocals and synths of Picture You Staring are more of an exception rather than the rule nowadays, even with the addition of Marta Cikojevic as an additional keyboardist. Instead of washing over the songs, the synths act as accents and accompaniment. As a result, Jane Penny’s vocals are even more of a focal point than they have been, and the result is, funnily enough, an even more alluring album than the band’s previous work. Penny sounds yearning and melancholic on downbeat tracks like “Ballads & Sad Movies,” while peppier songs like the earworm of a title track find her almost overwhelmed with glee. In either case, Penny is a commanding presence on record, and her best moments on I Feel Alive are among the finest recordings the band has ever made.

I Feel Alive doesn’t just scale back the ancillary audio flourishes of the previous albums, though; it’s also the closest that TOPS have come to making a straightforward pop album. For the most part, while TOPS have always had a knack for sweet melodies that work their way into your head, they also have had an experimental streak that pops up on their albums, but that side of their work is rarely indulged here. Opener “Direct Sunlight” shows promise in this regard in how it takes its disco rhythms down some strange turns, and “Take Down”’s mesh of multi-layered vocal tracks shows some of that adventurous spirit. Those are exceptions, however; the rest of the album seems to put immediate pop pleasure at the forefront. Thus, anyone expecting something a little weirder from TOPS may be disappointed with what I Feel Alive has to offer.

The greatest trick that I Feel Alive pulls off, ultimately, is how it disguises the band’s subtle evolution as consistency. The album is just as much of a warm, summery embrace as the band’s previous work, but repeated listens reveal a band looking to subvert some expectations and aim for a kind of songwriting perfection. Whether or not they achieve that perfection is debatable, but I Feel Alive is certainly the sort of well-crafted pop album that many artists strive to make and that TOPS pulls off regularly with aplomb.

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